Seeking Forward-Looking Justice for #ChurchToo


Ten months into the viral #MeToo movement, participants have made major gains in raising public awareness about sexual harassment and sexual assault generally as well as inroads within several major industries—most notably Hollywood. While each industry has its own structure and culture that can impede dislodging sexists and sexism, journalists and scholars have started to document those limitations ranging in settings as diverse as the automobile industry, finance, academia, and country radio. This post suggests that for reasons of both law and norms, advocates may face additional and distinctive hurdles in implementing #MeToo inspired reforms in churches. Both society and the state are used to and often legally required to give churches a wide berth in self-governance, so impetus for change must come, at least partially, from within the churches themselves. This post seeks to highlight both the similarities and the differences of the emerging #ChurchToo movement from the larger #MeToo movement in hopes of emphasizing the importance of identifying context-specific reforms.

First, the similarities. Like the #MeToo movement on which #ChurchToo is modeled, women launched the online hashtag #ChurchToo to foster awareness and community around the issue of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment, particularly within evangelical churches. Just as the deep investigative dives of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times and Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker into specific allegations helped bring particular individuals, industries, and institutions into the #MeToo spotlight, traditional news outlets are now doing the same with #ChurchToo allegations. Congregants have outed men at the very tops of megachurches as violators of the law and of their positions, including pastor Bill Hybels at Willow Creek church, pastor Andy Savage of High Point Church, as well as Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, and Paige Patterson of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. All of them have either resigned or had their positions stripped from them. These scandals also revealed that many knew and enabled the misdeeds and/or cover-ups of these high-profile individuals. Many adherents are now thinking about how to move beyond individual takedowns and adapt the lessons of #MeToo to their churches.

But for evangelical churches, the distinctive culture and religious teachings can inhibit women and men from coming forth in the first place and others within the church from seeing the accusers as free from wrongdoing. Rather than reinforce law’s emphasis on consent, some churches emphasize women’s responsibility for men’s sinning instead. Thus, rather than mirroring the larger #MeToo conversation about what constitutes consent or whether consent should be changed legally or normatively to include enthusiastic consent, the #ChurchToo conversation has a very different starting point. In particular, it must decide how to address purity culture, a belief system that requires women to “be subservient to men, to be meek, modest and self-sacrificing, and it ties a woman’s value within her community to her virginity and ability to bear children.” In turn, this purity culture is often an outgrowth of complementarianism, a philosophy that declares even as men and women are of equal worth before God, they have separate but equal complementary roles. Some have interpreted this philosophy to limit women’s role in leading and reforming the church. So even if some women have internalized the message of #MeToo and are willing to speak out, purity culture and the philosophy of complementarianism affect how churches and their members might view their narratives.

Relatedly, churches and the Christian reconciliation services they employ may aggressively counsel victims and congregations to forgive repenting offenders. This repentance may restore a violator’s relationship with God and perhaps with the congregation as well, but it neither demands amends to victims nor the violator’s removal from positions of authority over others. Whether or not repentance is an accurate scriptural vision of religious accountability, it leaves victims without direct apologies or other redress and fails to encourage sufficient precautions to prevent recurrences. For example, the recent Episcopalian liturgical day of listening has stories of survivors introduced while others pray over and meditate on the stories in silence. Involved bishops will be asked to repent as will participants who were silent observers, but it is unclear what if any disciplinary measures might follow.

For those dissatisfied with the responses generated within churches, they may seek legal redress but those efforts also labor under additional burdens because of religion’s distinctive treatment in our Constitution and across many statutes. For instance, those pastors seeking to bring claims may find courts unwilling to allow such suits to proceed because of Title VII’s ministerial exception, which “bars an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her.” But the Court “expresses no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits” and a circuit split currently exists on the question of whether this exception applies to sexual harassment suits brought against houses of worship. Even suits brought under Title IX, in which religious educational institutions have agreed to certain limitations on their freedom of action in exchange for federal funding, may encounter greater difficulties than such suits brought against secular educational institutions. Take, for example, Janay Garrick’s Title IX lawsuit against Moody Bible Institute, in which she alleges discrimination and retaliation for “helping female students file Title IX complaints about the pastoral ministry program” and counseling “lesbian and transgender students and collect[ing] the testimonies of female students who reported sexual assaults and harassment.” Commenters are skeptical that a court will aggressively apply anti-discrimination provisions in this setting, as they have traditionally granted religious institutions wide latitude. This means #ChurchToo advocates will often have to find a way to encourage discipline and redress from inside the church rather than from an external source like the courts. Given the challenges outlined above, it will require a creative and sensitive approach to church doctrine and philosophy.

While most of these distinctive features seem likely to hamper reform efforts, evangelical churches also have some that point in the direction of reform. Unlike Hollywood or Wall Street or Academia, churches are supposed to be and see themselves as moral torchbearers. They seek to act as moral leaders within their communities. Both the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church have pledged to forge a new path on this issue.

As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, #MeToo is a potential moment of transition, or as churches might articulate it, a moment of Kairos. Institutions, society, and individuals may decide to reshape their understanding of and response to the widespread mistreatment of women in and outside the workplace as well as to the sexual harassment, coercion, and abuse of people more generally. But like other transitional moments, the trajectory is uncertain. No one yet knows whether change will be significant or long lasting. Even with the hurdles identified above, some signs suggest many within the evangelical community are taking the movement seriously. The movement has sparked significant discussion in Christian publications, with some early evidence of structural reform emerging. For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement of action including the appointment of a study group on sexual harassment and abuse within the church as well as a public apology to an individual whose assault it knew of and did not report. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted reforms to its complaint procedures and adopted strong anti-retaliation language. Like with the larger #MeToo movement, the real question is what happens in the aftermath of the removal of a few high-profile individuals. Are churches willing and able to craft systemic reform measures that account for their unique cultural and institutional demands?

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