Abusive Churches & Gender Inequality, Allied Partnerships, Church & Gender Inequality, Dr. Tara M. Tuttle, PhD, Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), Human Sexuality, Sex & Gender Equality, The Holy Spirit & Equality

Allied Partnership Blog: Time’s Up on Church Silence About Sexual Violence

Last week, I read online that the heroic Rachael Denhollander, first of Larry Nassar’s victims to take her story to police and the press, suffered the loss of her church as a consequence of going public with her story. Her church, which should have been a place of refuge and support, failed her. I don’t know exactly what she means by that. I don’t know the shameful details of what transpired, but I can imagine.
I grew up in evangelical churches. For years, we were in pews every Sunday morning and evening, Tuesday evenings for AWANAS (an evangelical youth program), Wednesday nights for bible study, and the occasional Friday night for revivals. My family didn’t keep that rigorous schedule forever, but most of our lives, we attended at least one service a week. As my beliefs and location changed over the years, I left evangelical churches and attended a variety of Protestant and Catholic ones. Over four decades of life, I’ve been to hundreds of services in dozens and dozens of churches of numerous denominations in multiple states.
Number of sermons I’ve heard on sexual assault or abuse: zero
Number of sermons I’ve heard on domestic violence: zero

But I’ve been served communion many times by men whose wives came to church with black eyes. As a teenager, I heard several pre-communion devotions from young men who harassed, coerced, and assaulted girls in the congregation. At least one girl told of being groped and forcibly kissed at church, but nothing was done. The perpetrator was later asked to speak during Sunday morning services again and again while that girl, no girl or woman ever was.

In Rachael Denhollander’s statement to the court, she repeatedly asks the question “What is a little girl worth?”. Too many churches are answering that question with ‘nothing.’
I know progressive religious communities exist that do address these crimes, but I also know that the churches which avoid these topics outnumber them.

Pastors, preachers, and priests: scripture condemns your inaction as you witness injustice and suffering. Your silence is not only cowardice but complicity.

Your silence has contributed to the number of #metoo’s we’ve witnessed this year.

Your silence enables the Larry Nassars of your congregations to harm the young people there.

Your silence contributes to violence against women and girls, against victims of all genders, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Scripture repeatedly instructs believers to advocate for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the imprisoned, and the oppressed. Women and girls of color, individuals with disabilities, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ youth are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. Your silence about what they face signals a refusal to help them. Your silence tells them the church does not care. Your silence tells victims they should keep silent, too.

Yet ample scriptures are tailor-made for these sermons that remain un-preached…

Why neglect the stories of Dinah, Susannah, Tamar, Hagar (yes, Hagar)?

Maybe you feel ill-equipped for a tough subject. Try anyway.

Maybe you are afraid of men’s responses. Be brave.

Maybe it’s precisely that their stories expose the oppression perpetuated by the hierarchies to which you cling, hierarchies you may claim are God’s design. Relinquish them. Bigotry is undoubtedly a sin.

The same week the Honorable Rosemarie Aquilina edified the country with her powerful lesson illustrating what happens when you give women the mic, John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, argued female seminary professors should be banned from teaching!

The same week Aquilina demonstrated the radical healing power of female leadership and public testimony, Missouri GOP candidate Courtland Sykes slammed women like her and informed potential voters he strives to confine his own fiancé and daughters to submission in the home!

What is a little girl worth?

Again and again, men like these claim in the name of God that the answer is “Less.”

Men like these, argue women and girls should be less visible, less powerful.

By letting every single victim speak, Aquilina insisted the answer to Denhollander’s question is “SO. MUCH. MORE!”

So much more than the assessments of their worth made by Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, and every other institution that fails victims of sexual violence and promotes gender inequity.

Before I was horrified by the Nassar abuse scandal, I was horrified by evangelical support for male legislators accused of assaulting women, of candidates who went so far as to brag about it.

Horrified, but not entirely shocked. So many churches like the ones of my youth have never, in decades of existence and in literally thousands of Sundays, uttered a single word of disapproval of violence against women and girls. Mistreating them has never been a “deal-breaker” in many congregations…

  • As long as known abusers serve communion and lead congregations,
  • as long as they are elevated as deacons and elders and celebrated as preachers and teachers,
  • as long as men of faith vouch for other men known to have harassed and abused women,
  • as long as a perverted understanding of forgiveness is used to justify keeping abusers in positions of authority where they can continue to injure,
  • as long as perpetrators are protected by silence,
  • as long as congregations teach that the speech of women lacks authority and credibility,
  • as long as religious communities insist girls and women have no right to claim a divine calling or even offer their wisdom to their peers,
  • as long as churches promote the idea that the worth of girls and women is defined by sexual purity,
  • as long as women are featured only in sermons on self-sacrifice but never leadership or valor despite biblical examples like Deborah and Esther,
  • as long as the silence of women and girls shapes the way the church is run,
  • as long as these are the values and practices, religious communities are not just passive in the wake of rampant mistreatment of girls and women but active contributors to their harm.

Every single one of these factors breeds violence and facilitates abuse.

Every single church across the country should hear a message this Sunday addressing the pattern of violence exposed by the 150+ brave survivors; it is an absolute scandal that the majority of those in pews this or any Sunday never will.

Because the words of women and girls often remain ignored, -particularly when offered as spiritual testimony or the testimony of abuse- Rachael Denhollander’s powerful impact statement—an incredible treatise on the sacredness of girls and of justice, forgiveness, and grace—will go unheard there as well. It will circulate online and on air but not in churches, even though it is a more powerful sermon than any in religious leadership will likely ever speak, than any congregants will likely ever hear…

And after services, as they arrive home and flick on the news while they change out of their church clothes and prepare lunch, they’ll see Nassar on TV and ask how he could abuse so many for so long…
Turn your bibles to Matthew 7:5. Members of the clergy, remove the beam. Time’s up for you, too.

-Tara M. Tuttle, PhD

Dr Tara Tuttle

Dr. Tara M. Tuttle teaches Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. Her research examines the effects of religious belief on expressions of female sexuality in contemporary American popular culture and the ways in which members of contested groups use scriptural rhetoric to challenge oppressive practices.

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