Rachael Denhollander recently released an opinion piece in the Washington Post in response to the unfortunate events in Atlanta, Georgia which left six woman dead. The alleged murderer, Robert Aaron Long, is a 21 year old man whose membership in a local conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church has attracted national attention. Of course it isn’t just his church affiliation which has garnered the attention of sexual abuse victim advocates such as Denhollander, but the teachings of his church which holds to a belief of sexual abstinence outside of marriage. This wasn’t an unsolicited targeting of his church’s beliefs, Robert Long specifically indicated to police that his motive was to “eliminate temptation” presumably sexual temptation.
Denhollander suggests in her article that such teachings can lead people to take extreme measures in fighting the temptations of sexual sin that they even go as far as to cause bodily harm to others out of our false belief that guilt belongs to someone outside of themselves. Yet the contention put forth by Denhollander in the article is not simply to condemn this extreme view, but rather to make the audacious claim that all theologically conservative churches or groups, primarily those in the SBC denomination, are teaching a view which will produce more men like Robert Aaron Long. In doing so, Denhollander creates a disingenuous narrative which places a target on the backs of the millions of Christian men who love, respect and adore women as fellow image bearers of God.
It is clear the motivation of this article is not to carefully examine the details of the situation which occurred in Atlanta, but to discredit those who hold a theological position which aligns with a historically complementarian position regarding the role of women in the church. Such a view has never condoned the abuse of women, but rather focuses on using a historical, grammatical methods to examine the Bible to determine God’s design for the church with regard to women serving as pastors, elders, teachers or leaders. No mainstream conservative denominations, theological positions or authors who support the restriction of church leadership and pastoral ministry to men only, endorses the abuse or harassment of women. To the average subscriber of the Washington Post, this would not be the impression one would take away from reading the article, but of course that is the point.
Rachael Denhollander is correct in describing the SBC as “embroiled in controversy” but instead of accurately separating issues of sexual abuse from the ongoing controversy over the role of women in the church, she intentionally conflates the two by indicating Beth Moore’s recent departure from the denomination was primarily due to inaction by the SBC on abuse. If the intent of the SBC was to sweep issues of sexual abuse under the rug or neglect to address it, they are doing a horrible job at it. During the two day 2019 Annual SBC Meeting, Rachael Denhollander, Beth Moore and several other women were given the spotlight at several main session events and breakout sessions to specifically address the issue of sexual abuse. Denhollander herself was an advisor to the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group commissioned by SBC President J.D. Greear to study and address concerns after several women came forward with accusations of sexual abuse against SBC members. A comprehensive “Caring Well” report was released in 2019, followed by a national conference hosted by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) which featured both Rachael Denhollander and Beth Moore as key speakers to address the issues of sexual abuse. Additionally, each SBC entity adopted policies requiring sexual abuse awareness training of all staff and also of students attending SBC seminaries.
Any claim that Beth Moore departed the SBC primarily on the basis of a failure by the denomination to address the issue of sexual abuse is extremely disingenuous coming from an individual who has been given a prominent voice and influence on this and many other matters. She consistently speaks highly of her relationship with key leaders in the SBC on social media and at events where she is paid to speak, thus indicating she has the ability to significantly influence change. Of course it is easy to latch onto this issue as being a primary reason for departure due to the highly emotional nature of the topic that most don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole. If you question motives at all, even with circumstantial evidence, you will be labeled as someone attempting to discredit sexual abuse victims.
Nonetheless, Beth Moore is certainly free to depart for whatever reasons she deems necessary, but it is insincere to exclude the ongoing debate over the role of women in the church from the controversy. The criticism against Beth Moore’s theological positions and her decision to accept requests to preach at churches is nothing new to most people in the SBC. You don’t need to spend any time on social media platforms to recognize this as a contentious issue in the SBC. Denhollander is well aware of this debate and conflating this with the issue of abuse seeks to further inject division within the denomination.
While the focus of Denhollander is not only the SBC, but “conservative theological circles” her sphere of influence also extends to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is the only other mainstream conservative denomination in the U.S. which holds similar views. Similar to the SBC, the PCA has historically shared in the complementarian role of women in the church; restricting the office and functions of pastor to men. Denhollander knows this, since in November 2019, she joined the PCA’s study committee on sexual assault and domestic abuse as an advisory member. Needless to say, she has been a paid consultant and advisor for the same theologically conservative institutions and churches she is now targeting as the source behind this deadly incident in Atlanta. Instead of creating awareness and offering a warning to those who may take the teachings of these denominations or churches to extreme conclusions, she has derided their beliefs as completely unwarranted or biblical.
If theologically conservative, complementarian views lead to increased violence against women, it must be true that theologically liberal, egalitarian views promote respect and love towards women. One can easily turn to the Church by the Glades for an example of how this statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Over the past few years, this church has consistently replicated highly sexualized pop culture themes to promote their church such as “Victorious Secret” (in lieu of Victoria Secret), Game of Thrones and even the infusion of sexualized dancing at their Sunday morning services. This serves as just one example among many within theologically liberal circles which promotes the sexual infatuation of our current pop culture environment.
Sexual promiscuity is rampant in our society and it has been intentionally stripped of any sense of stigma which at some point served as a means of discouraging behavior once considered in the U.S. to be improper and immoral. Denhollander attempts to pin this exclusively on the church when in fact her statement “women have often been viewed first and foremost through the lens of their sexuality” could easily be said of the entire American culture. The “belief system that sees women as sexual objectives” is not one shared by the conservative theological groups she references, but it is one which is accepted within our culture. There might be people within the church, even leaders, whose behavior appears to accept this premise, but it is not a part of any “belief system” adopted by these churches. It is however, perfectly acceptable within our culture to adopt this belief system; a point proven at nearly every Super Bowl half-time show and in other forms of entertainment.
Unlike the rest of the world, the theologically conservative churches Denhollander references, actually do teach that all people are made in the image of God and thus worthy of respect. Yet, instead of targeting the sexual immorality or infatuation with death in our culture, Denhollander targets institutions which explicitly encourage love, respect and honor to be bestowed on all people, men and women alike. Instead of encouraging greater accountability at an individual level or increased adherence to a biblical approach on church discipline or the increased need for marital fidelity, she places theologically conservative churches on a hit list. While liberal churches are encouraging women to physically alter their bodies to change their sexual orientation, Denhollander is promoting the need to abandon conservative churches. With sexual abuse being reported at much higher levels among the LGBTQ+ community (as a percentage) than among heterosexuals, are we really suggesting that liberal churches will have a better track record of preventing abuse?
Sexual abuse is a serious crime and sin which despises and rejects the truth that all men and women are created in the image of God. The victims of abuse often speak of the life-long physical and emotional harm they must endure as a result. Every individual, corporation and institution, to include the church, must take it seriously by implementing necessary prevention systems and encouraging victims to report abuse to their local law enforcement. The details surrounding a particular incident of sexual abuse are never exactly the same. There may be patterns which can be used to identify signs of abuse occurring or on the path of potentially being committed, but the specifics are always different. It is not the job of the church or any institution to investigate abuse, since that responsibility resides with law enforcement officers specifically trained in this particular area.
If we are going to be honest in our evaluation, we need to admit the reality that sexual abuse occurs at an alarming rate, not just in the church, but in every part of our culture. The emphasis on death and violence also contributes to the moral decay, often with movies and televisions connecting sexual abuse and violence; just look at the popularity of Game of Thrones. If proven true, the alleged crimes of Robert Aaron Long should be condemned on the basis of taking the life of fellow image bearers of God. At the same time, we would be foolish to reject any idea that the only worldview which has any hope of addressing the core problem at the root of sexual abuse and violence is the one offered by Christianity. Only by reconciling the sinful nature of the heart are we able to successfully address these issues and the local church is an integral part of that solution. The church is not the problem, people with sinful hearts is; and the only solution is through the continuous renewing of our minds to become like Christ.
Caring Well Conference: https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/caring-well-sbc-must-fight-for-victims/
Sexual abuse among LGBTQ+: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community