#MeToo in The Church

Unless you live off the power grid, you’re probably aware that a prominent Hollywood producer has been dethroned by a snowballing number of sexual assault allegations in recent weeks, with another massive round of allegations against a major director following close behind. Chances are, you’re also aware of the thousands upon thousands of #MeToo posts circulating on social media attempting to bring the staggering, common, and generally overlooked problems of sexual harassment and assault to the forefront of people’s consciousness.  This particular movement, if we can call it that yet, strikes me differently than past female-driven hashtags (recall #Ineedfeminismbecause and #Imwithher) because it is simple and it is personal; it states a fact rather than taking a stance.  #MeToo is an invitation to step into another person’s shoes, to glimpse the world through her eyes and consider that she knows something about the bleakness of the world that we cannot understand.

I’m going to add my own voice to the flood of #MeToo’s, not because I want sympathy or shows of support, but because I hope that by stepping into my shoes for a moment, you may be compelled to shift from empathy to an altered stance, and from a stance to action.

I was fifteen the first time I was sexually harassed. A guy in one of my classes asked me to have sex with him during our lunch period.  When I think back on that event, the vileness of his proposition still makes me queasy.  I was harassed again by someone else a few months later, and that time it got physical.  I exited the situation quickly, and told myself I had imagined it.  In the 20/20 hindsight of adulthood, I know I did not.

I am beyond thankful that these two encounters were the worst it ever was, and I know from countless conversations with friends that I am in the minority here. I was never assaulted or raped, and most of my brushes with harassment since then–while they still disgust me–have not made me fearful in the way that these first two incidents did.

Most of the audience I expect to read this is tracking with me so far, because they–you–know that the world is a dark place full of teenage boys and grown men with lecherous minds. Society, without question, objectifies women and reduces us to mere body parts that exist for male gratification, and rampant sexual harassment and assault are the natural fruit of said objectification. We have the porn industry, advertising, and yes, Hollywood, to thank for this.

But it may come as a surprise–to some, anyway–to know that both of the times I was sexually harassed in high school were by Christian boys, and both incidents happened when we were surrounded by other Christians.  And this, reader, is by no means unusual.  These were my first experiences of harassment from Christians, but they were certainly not the last. And beyond my own experiences, I have friends who have been harassed, assaulted, and even raped by men that they–we–went to church with. These are not my stories to tell, but they are many, and are so many that I am convinced that this happens regularly in most churches, if not all of them.

It is no secret that Christian men battle pornography addictions at comparable rates to the rest of society (as do a growing number of Christian women).  Lust undoubtedly plays a part in harassment and assault, and lots of churches have ministries specifically geared toward helping men walk in freedom from pornography addiction.  Addiction is crippling, and I have a lot of compassion for those in its grip.

But sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are not just about sexual desire; they are about power, too. To be honest, I don’t think that the 17-year-old that propositioned me actually wanted to have sex with me; the number one thing I took away from his tone, body language, and the words he chose was that he wanted me to fear him.  He wanted power over me.

And I’m going to suggest something that will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers:  mainstream Evangelical theology and its outworking often lend themselves to this kind of power.  As I see it, there are two aspects to this, and I’m going to start with the interpersonal one: as long as we understand submission in Ephesians 5 as being linked to power/control/authority, churches will never be completely safe for Christian women.

I’m not going to get into how I understand all of Ephesians 5 right now because this post is already long-winded, and I still have more to talk about.  But suffice to say that if men view women fundamentally as people to be controlled, if they believe that God encourages them to assume positions of power over women, it is easy to see how what women want, need, and are entitled to as children of God can become subordinated to the impulses and desires of men. It is an almost imperceptibly small step from “men run the show” to abuse and silencing the abused.

I’m not saying that men and women are the same, or that the Bible doesn’t promote some kind of gender roles within marriage. But I do think that when we legitimize men assuming power over women, women lose. We lose dignity, value, and most importantly, we lose safety.  And men lose, too, because when women become fearful, subdued, hollow shells of who we were created to be, men will be hollow shells as well.  In a world untainted by sin, Adam still needed Eve to do what God made him to do.  We were created for interdependence, not domination and subordination.

The second aspect of Evangelical theology I see contributing to a domination/subordination culture is in our ecclesiology.  Shifting from the interpersonal to the corporate/communal ways most Evangelical churches operate, my observation is this: when church leadership teams are exclusively men–or include only a token female–the church is creating an atmosphere ripe for the exploitation of women.

Let me be clear: although I am egalitarian when it comes to church life, it is not my mission to turn any of you reading this into egalitarians.  My concern here is that women are safe, valued, and respected in their churches and in the company of the men who claim to be their Christian brothers.  And I strongly suspect that when men who are crippled by addiction and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy walk into a church and see only men on the stage, only men making decisions, only men speaking with authority, they subconsciously begin to feel like this might be the place for them to take back the power they think they’ve lost.  When boys growing up in church see only men on stage, they value the minds and hearts of women less.  And when women see this, we know that male needs and viewpoints are of primary importance in this community; we know we are decorative, at best.  Regardless of what the man from behind the pulpit says about men and women being created equally in the image of God, if image-bearing women remain without positions of influence in the church body, what is said from behind the pulpit is mere lip service.  Based on what is plainly visible, male imago Dei > female imago Dei.

For those of you complementarians, I’m not saying you have to let women preach.  But men, if you are not actively seeking out the wisdom, guidance, and constructive criticism of at least some of the women in your church, and if you are not doing so visibly, your church is probably not a safe place for women.  The women in your church need to see women in prominent positions so that they know this is a place where women are respected and valued, and the men in your church need to see women in prominent positions for the exact same reasons.

Furthermore, our churches need women in prominent positions because their voices are necessary for building Christ-like communities. Men, you do not instinctively know what we need to be safe. You need to be told.  You need to be told that the way you talk about lust and modesty and romance often makes us less safe and adds to our silence.  You need to be told that most of us do not feel comfortable telling our pastor that his friend felt us up when he had too much to drink, or that he won’t stop texting us or “randomly” bumping into us when we’ve turned him down repeatedly.  You need women to help shape your communication style, relationships, and the church community itself so that your church can be a place for women to thrive as image bearers of the living God. Men, you need our voices in order for the Kingdom of God to be established in your churches, and we need you to know that you need us.  If the apostle Paul needed women in his ministry, so do you.

I have spent my entire life in church.  Until I was in college, I attended nominally egalitarian churches, churches whose theology, in theory, causes them to champion women.  But a theological position is not enough.  A stance is not enough.  Action is required.  Our relationships and our churches have to change if #MeToo is ever going to stop being the norm in Christian communities.