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#ChurchToo exposes sexual abuse in the church

For years Emily Joy sat in the back of her home church, unable to tell the truth about what kind of man her pastor was. Now, she’s free to be honest

The #ChurchToo movement was spurred on by the #MeToo movement and started by activist and writer Hannah Paasch and spoken word poet Emily Joy. Joy was groomed and raped by her youth pastor at the age of 16 and felt shamed by the culture of the megachurch she grew up in. She never shared her story with anyone in her church. After attending Moody Bible College and feeling the shame follow her, Joy finally gained the courage to confide in Paasch, whom  met at Moody, the secret she had been hiding, according to The Huffington Post.

On Nov. 20, 2017, Paasch posted a tweet offering the hashtag #ChurchToo and asking women who had experienced sexual abuse within the church to come forward with their stories. Within 48 hours, people around the world were using the hashtag to recount stori es of pain and abuse they had experienced within the church.

Soon thereafter, the hashtag #SilenceisNotSpiritual followed, and women who are considered prominent in the church—including Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Emily McFarlan Miller and Serene Jones—and 150 other women, published a statement challenging churches to stand by women who had experienced abuse in the church.

The root of abuse that happens within the church, according to Paasch and Joy, is often linked to the purity culture that permeates evangelical churches, the “theology of abstinence that singles out women and slut shames everyone who engages in any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Purity culture is the religious antecedent to rape culture, as it lays the bulk of the responsibility for maintaining the sexual purity of both genders on women’s attire and behavior,” Paasch said.

Pastor of Community Christian Fellowship in Siloam Springs Pat Callahan said there “has definitely been a culture that is implied that somehow, when women are taken advantage of, abused, all that level of being sexually harassed…I think that sometimes, especially in conservative, evangelical churches, it’s like ‘well, if you wouldn’t have done this or dressed a certain way, allowed it to go this far,’ rather than say ‘that’s wrong in every case, that’s wrong.’ More so if that person who took advantage of them was in a position of authority.”

Tim Estes, Pastor at New Life Church in Siloam Springs said he does not think the purity culture has influenced sexual abuse in the church, “It isn’t a gender specific issue. For me, when I speak about purity, I try to do so in a general terminology to the whole congregation. In terms of clothing, I do think sometimes there is more attention paid to women. Part of the reason is women are more sexually stimulated by emotions and by touch and where men are creatures of sight. Maybe by default, pastors tend to slam that message more toward women. As for me, I try to make purity a general thing.”

Mary Nicklas, former member of Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles, which is known for sexual abuse issues within their congregation, disagrees with Estes.

“I think from such a young age, that’s hammered into you. You’re little girls, little kids. Growing into a developing women’s body is hard enough. Just because you exist in this body, you are causing men to sin. It’s causing them to lust and it’s your fault. Putting all that shame attached to something that you really don’t have a lot of control over. Then you’re paranoid,” Nicklas said.  “Also, that kind of teaching continues to say that women’s bodies are only these sexual objects. The church very much separates personhood from sexuality. I think sometimes it’s just a copout. All humans are sexual. At some point, there’s an over focus on that being why guys should be let off the hook. It’s not this complete cause and effect. If you follow these things, if you dress like this, you will be safe. When something happens, you feel like, what must I have done. It’s just not true.”

Nicklas, however, said that sexual assault within the church runs much deeper than merely the purity culture. “So much of it just stems from inequality in the church. It’s this huge circle of issues that people have tried to ignore. We have to fix the whole thing.”

Jason Lanker, professor of Biblical studies at John Brown University, said that the purity culture in the church is only half of the issue, “I don’t think the problem with purity culture is preaching to women to be modest, it’s that it preaches wrongfully that you can’t be impure and still be loved and cherished by God, whether by your own actions or by the actions of others. This teaches people that when sin and brokenness enter the church we need to hide it, rather than engage it.”

Stories of women who have experienced abuse in the church continue surfacing every day. In the past week alone, three well-known, mega-church pastors who have received positive attention in the past have resigned their duties within their respective churches due to sexual assault allegations against them. Andy Savage, former pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, resigned on March 20 after the woman he abused 20 years ago told her story to the New York Times.

Additionally, Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago Illinois’ Pastor Bill Hybels resigned on March 22, though he claims the sexual allegations against him are not the reason for his resignation, according to Religion News. Hybels has been accused of kissing women on his staff and inviting them into his hotel rooms on church related trips.

Also, according to USA Today, “Frank S. Page, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, has resigned from his top role in the largest Protestant denomination in America because of a ‘morally inappropriate’ relationship.”

If #ChurchToo is anything like the #MeToo movement, this is only the beginning.

Paasch is pleased to see the movement gain steam so rapidly, and said her hope for the movement is to give survivors a “platform not only where survivors can out their abusers — yes, names and all — but also where Christians, ex-evangelicals and agnostics alike can ask one another: How can we do better? What would a theology of consent and autonomy look like? How would we build a world in which that sort of church was not the exception?” according to Huffington Post.

Moving forward, “The church should take an absolute hard stand against abuse. They should champion victims and make sure we are embracing them and taking care of them,” Callahan said, “I’ve got a good friend who went to JBU, she was molested for fifteen years by a family friend who is one of the elders in her church. It happens, it’s lousy, and the church should absolutely stand against it. There’s just no room for that.”

Estes said, “In the day that we live, we have to be very attentive to our culture. This is a huge situation in our culture, as you can see. The #MeToo movement has spawned and given voice to a lot of people who have been abused. Shame is what keeps people quiet. If they can know that the church is going to do the right thing and has protocols in place and there has been a breach in this that it will be handled appropriately and not swept under the rug or save the face of ‘Elder Joe’ while this quite anonymous person has come forward with this.”

Estes said he does fear, however, “the other side of the coin, I am a little concerned in the MeToo and ChurchToo movement that it has grown so quickly, but also, in America, you are innocent until proven guilty. This has become such an inferno in our culture, someone is automatically assumed guilty. This guy is brought down immediately because it is validated without due process. We can’t just assume that because someone says ‘me too’ or ‘church too’ that it’s automatic. It’s harmful to churches. While absolutely it needs to be taken seriously, we also have to be careful to handle it correctly so we don’t ruin churches’ reputations or careers or those who may be innocent.”

“The church has to be willing to listen, actively listen. I think the church is so defensive and so guarded to anything they feel like could threaten them, especially our male section of the church. I think some younger guys are a little more open and are starting to see some issues and inequality and things that are not ok. I think that’s honestly what it’s going to take to stand up to these old patterns of thinking,” Nickals said. “They have to accept that, maybe they don’t agree, but they are going to have to accept that this is how other people feel. This is other people’s reality. This is other people’s experiences and how it has affected other people’s lives. Even if that doesn’t make sense to certain people in the church, we all have to have the humility to listen to one another and realize that we don’t all have the same story.”