I grew up in an SBC church and the abuse breaks my heart, but it doesn’t surprise me…
Updated: May 24, 2022
I imagine that far too many Christians look at what’s come to light regarding the systemic sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention and think, “That’s terrible, but it’s not happening in my church” or “It wouldn’t happen like that in my church.”
But how would you know if it was happening in your church?
And what are you doing to make sure it doesn't?
Despite the fact that I mostly have wonderful and loving memories of growing up in church, it’s nonetheless hard for me to harbor anything but disdain for organized religion now. I not only grew up in an SBC, but from 1989-1994 I attended one of the churches mentioned in the report. One of the pastors mentioned by name in the report baptized me when I was 8 years-old. His son was in my Sunday school class. I know these names. I know these people. I know this culture.
As that church began to grow into a "megachurch," we left it for another much smaller Baptist church, which I attended until I graduated high school in 2001. My parents eventually left that church a few years after it started to become deeply entrenched in the SBC and double downed on regressive conservative politics. I’m so thankful my parents – whose faith I deeply admire – are not complacent in the regressive politics that have become all but synonymous with white evangelicals.
What I can tell you from my experiences growing up in an SBC is that the systemic abuse and silencing of victims isn’t a surprise. Not. At. All.
And it’s not going to stop.
I say this, not because I ever bore witness to sexual abuse (I didn’t!), but because organized Christian religion provides the perfect recipe for unchecked power. And unchecked power is abuse.
If churches want to stop and prevent sexual abuse they must change the very nature of their indoctrination (and admit that what they teach is in fact indoctrination!) because the formula is quite simple and foolproof.
Based on Baptist theology:
A quick note: I know there are “good” churches out there. I have friends and family whom I love and respect dearly who attend these “good” churches (and friends and family who attend churches I would definitely not consider good ).
But “good” churches are still culpable because the theology and indoctrination creates the circumstances for potential abuse.
I don’t claim to speak for all churches or Christian beliefs, but I can share some of the things my "good" SBC church and my "good" non-denominational Christian school taught me and how these teachings can lead to indoctrination and systemic abuse. These are such a small handful of my stories (not about abuse!), but they illustrate the dangers of indoctrination and I hope provide some insight into how this continues to happen. Nothing I'm saying is new or groundbreaking, but it's my attempt at making sense of it for myself.
Baptist Teaching #1: God Ordains Leaders Based on Anatomy
I grew up in a church that refused to let women serve as pastors because we had the wrong genitalia. It really was as simple as that.
I watched a respected woman minister in the church - who had the same credentials as the men - continually be denied a pastoral role because she had a vagina. She could be the minister to women, but she couldn’t be a pastor because pastors shepherd men too. And that job requires a penis.
But this leadership structure extended beyond the church and into the home.
I had a bible teacher at my Christian school tell us that as women, it was the greatest honor to be “protected” by our male spouses. But this protection was only possible if we submitted to our husbands and to their God-given right to their own authority.
Further, we were told it was a blessing to be in the submissive (obedient!) role, so that we wouldn’t be “burdened” with the responsibility of making big decisions in our marriage. Literally, we were told to “leave it to the men, that’s the way God intended.”
Add to this the explicit message that we have uncontrollable sinful natures (a.k.a. you can’t trust your intuition because your nature is inherently sinful), well! how special it must be then to be a woman. As the “weaker vessel,” our autonomy, agency, and discretion can’t be trusted, but we shouldn't worry, because God will give us a man to protect us (and a Supreme Court!).
Really, when you think about it, my bible teacher continued, men are the ones who really got the raw end of the deal: they have to be responsible for themselves AND you. When you frame it like that, it really does sound like a lot of responsibility. So she told us that as girls we should be grateful it’s not our responsibility to bear. However, as women, we were also taught to do everything in our power to support and honor our husband so that he will be equipped to do what’s best for us. If we don’t honor him (and submit!), then his failure could ultimately lead him to sin. His sin will hurt us, because we failed to honor him.
I’M. NOT. EXAGGERATING. This was the explicit messages about marriage I was taught at school. My future hypothetical husband is responsible for me because I’m a weaker spouse who can’t be trusted, but, my sin or failure to submit to him can cause him to sin and then my sin means I am responsible for both of us. I was taught I should thank such a loving God (who created me as inferior?!?) for this arrangement that blesses me with a (superior) man who can keep me protected from my own sinful nature.
As a good Christian girl, I wanted to please God. I found my faith personally meaningful and rewarding. So I had no reason not to believe that submission was for my benefit. It didn't feel insidious, because it was packaged and sold in a way that good Christian girls can buy into *insert something about patriarchal hegemony here*
If the church teaches both men and women that God doesn’t trust a woman’s discretion, if the church teaches both men and women that God tells a man not to trust his wife’s discretion, then it’s not hard to understand how girls learn at a very young age not to trust our own discretion.
If this is the case, then it's not hard to imagine how a powerful church leader can convince a girl that, “no that wasn’t abuse, you just misunderstood my intent.”
Ample evidence demonstrates that religious abusers use their positions of power to groom victims into “consenting” to abuse because it’s “God’s way.”
Indoctrination is the first step to grooming because it tells girls it’s for our own protection to be “good Christians” and to obey the men whom God has charged with our protection.
Baptist Teaching #2: Sex Makes You Dirty and Undesirable
I was explicitly and repeatedly told that I was responsible for ALL boys and men, not just my future hypothetical husband. If I wore a 2-piece swimsuit, if I sat on a boy’s lap, if my prom dress didn't have straps, if my boobs brushed up against his chest when I hugged him, if my shorts weren’t fingertip length, if a teacher measured my skirt in front of the entire hallway and found it shorter than the width of a dollar bill, if I ever flirted with a boy in a suggestive manner then I was going to turn him on. And it was my job as a teen girl to never turn a boy on.
I was taught that men are sexual creatures and it’s my responsibility not to lead them into temptation. I found this particularly difficult because I had huge breasts in high school (so large, I later had a reduction). I learned to see my body as inherently “tempting” just for existing (and the "good" church boys had no qualms about openly sexualizing my boobs through "playful" teasing and groping).
At one particular church retreat in high school, I remember they separated the boys and girls for gender-specific lessons. My Sunday school teacher told me and the other girls that boys don’t know when to stop sexually, so it’s our job to “put on the brakes” since we have more self-control (and apparently we don’t have any sexual desires of our own; but that’s a topic for another essay). As girls, we needed to be the cool-headed ones. We needed to avoid temptations. We needed to set the boundaries. Be mindful of what we wear, how we move, how we talk, where we touch, and what we do because boys are just so much more sexual than we are. They can’t help it! We can! (my high school boyfriend later told me they talked about masturbation in their group; something that was never (!!!) discussed in girl groups, but also another topic for another essay).
The message was clear: girls are responsible for our own sexuality and boys’ sexuality. This was reinforced more times than I care to recount.
What a strange paradox: as teen girls we’re taught that we're responsible for protecting boys from temptation, but as wives we’re taught that we're the ones needing a man’s protection from our own sinful nature. Our sexuality goes from being seen as his temptation to his gift with two simple words.
So, when a girl is abused in the church, there’s a good chance she’s internalized the message that she’s responsible for not “putting the brakes on” or for “leading him into temptation.” And when powerful male leaders who have been ordained by God then blame, silence, or shame a victim of sexual abuse, well, she’s already been primed to responsibilize herself for his decision.
Not only was I taught that I was responsible for male desire, but I was taught that sex would make me undesirable.
A bible teacher at my school once passed around an unwrapped peppermint to the entire class – each of us putting our hands on it before passing it to the next student. When she asked who in the class wanted to eat it, obviously none of us volunteered. She told us that’s how our future spouses would view us if we had sex before marriage. Dirty, tainted, undesirable. We were taught that our virginity was a gift we would give our future spouses (a sweet minty candy to be savored someday). Keep the wrapper on or you’ll taint your body.
It sounds ridiculous, making dirty candy the analogy for my body, but I loved this teacher. I respected her. We had a strong relationship that had developed over many years. Her lesson vibed with what I'd been taught about sex and sexuality. I genuinely believed that premarital sex would mean that my body would be "damaged goods" for my hypothetical future spouse (who, little did I know at the time, was in this same class but it’d be another 9 years before we shared our tainted candies with each other).
The church teaches us at a young age that our bodies don't fully belong to us, they belong to our future marriage. In no uncertain terms, we were taught that sex before marriage was a sin, it made you dirty and undesirable, and it could lead to an unhappy marriage (to this day, I sometimes hear a voice whispering to me telling me that any discord in my marriage might be tied to my sex life before marriage. What a destructive lie!).
Sex in any context other than heterosexual marriage was considered taboo and shameful. But, forgivable in particular contexts and for certain people; I knew lots of divorced people at church, I heard rumors of adultery and all these people could be forgiven. In fact, they could be pastors (assuming they had the requisite genitalia of course). But, same sex relationships were the ultimate sin; I never met an openly queer person at any church growing up. And my Christian school once fired a choir director who was rumored to be gay.
Even more shameful than sex before marriage was gay sex. Think about that in light of the abuse report and who was being abused by whom. There must be feelings of shame upon shame upon shame for the boy victims of male church leaders’ abuse.
Baptist Teaching #3: Forgiveness Is More Important than Accountability
Lastly in this formula we were taught scriptures and platitudes like “only God can judge” and “we are commanded to forgive” and “no one deserves grace, but God gives it to us anyway” and “let he without sin throw the first stone” and “love the sinner, hate the sin,” all of which may be rooted in (decontextualized and oversimplified) theology. But these messages can easily be weaponized; they tow a thin line that’s far too easy to cross from love to justification.
In the church, I've seen forgiveness conflated with accountability in incredibly dangerous ways. “Forgive your trespassers as Christ has forgiven you” can easily turn into “He repented, so obedience to God means forgiving your abuser.”
This isn’t hypothetical. I had a friend in my 20's who was in an abusive marriage with a man who frequently cheated. When she went to marriage counseling at her church to try to get help (because divorce was so scorned upon!), the pastor explicitly told her that her husband was sorry and therefore it was her duty as his Christian wife to forgive him. She was reminded that God appointed this man as her protector and that she must submit to him now that he had repented. The mental and theological gymnastics of this attitude is astounding to me.
Finally, not so deeply buried within this same framework, we were taught that as believers we must do everything in our power not to hurt the reputation of the body of Christ. We weren’t supposed to pretend we were perfect, in fact, just the opposite. We were taught that everyone has a sinful nature, no one is deserving of God’s mercy, and we all need a savior (the most basic definition of Christianity).
However, as Christians we were taught to be good representatives of the faith and the church. We had to be careful not to give a non-believer a reason to fall. Hypocrisy could turn off a non-believer (and we don't want to be responsible for someone else's damnation!). We were taught to live a lifestyle that was above reproach, while at the same time, acknowledging “nobody is perfect.” But those imperfections were viewed on a sliding scale of wrongfulness.
Sins of sexual abuse, homosexuality, sexual impurity, abortion, lust – these are the kinds of sins that could hurt not only the reputation of the church, but the body of Christ as a whole. Therefore, these matters should be addressed privately, and once repentance had occurred, forgiveness was our responsibility. It was our obedience to God. Then the matter would be “as far as the east is from the west.”
Outcome of Baptist Indoctrination: Rampant Sexual Abuse & Silencing of Victims
Connect the dots and you’ll find a recipe ripe for abusive power that sweeps sin and abusive people under the pew. That is, until they crawl out and head to the next church and do the same thing again to new victims.
Rampant abuse is kept quiet in the name of protecting the “body of Christ,” even at the expense of protecting the actual bodies of the young people sitting in the pews.
The church celebrates the prodigal son, a.k.a. the cheating pastor who openly asks forgiveness from his flock. The church teaches that men are the stewards of the faith. Therefore, the church forgives and protects men.
The church teaches that women are man’s “helpmate” and must be contained to our appropriate and submissive roles.
The church celebrates and praises and reveres humble, meek, quiet, and obedient women and children (How many times did I have to study Proverbs 31 to learn how to be a humble and submissive future wife?). Therefore, the church uses biblical concepts to coerce women into “choosing” the “blessing” of submission.
I believe these teachings and beliefs in their purest form are rooted in a limited understanding of love; I don’t see Christianity inherently as the problem. And I'm grateful for my parents who instilled in me and my sister the confidence and permission to question authority and truth.
But organized religion – and the indoctrination that organized religion necessitates - has perverted and weaponized these teachings. And, as we are finally starting to see, the abuse is institutional, protected, and systemic.
As a girl in the church, I wanted to be the beautiful, humble, submissive, honorable, revered woman and someday wife. We were promised a good Christian husband, a happy fulfilled marriage, eternal salvation, a welcoming community, a beautiful and intimate sex life. I wanted to be loved, adored, and protected. They made it look so appealing!
But, I was also an outspoken burgeoning queer feminist who struggled to reconcile who I understood myself to be with a church who outright condemned these parts of me. It’s something I’m still processing and grieving two decades later.
Until churches are ready to abandon the patriarchal messages around power and sex, then they will continue to be institutions ripe for abuse. They will continue to silence, shame, blame, and stonewall victims. Sadly, I have little hope that this will be a reckoning.
The Church (and SBC in particular) is all too practiced at weaponizing theology, scripture, sex, and forgiveness and it's far too economically and politically successful in its indoctrination practices.
It breaks my freaking heart.