CW: child abuse, sexual abuse, religious trauma
When people in White Evangelical Christian communities talk about their pastors and leaders, it is in glowing terms. We love to talk about their faithfulness, wisdom, skill, and humility. We speak of how they “shepherd” and we like to call ourselves the “sheep.”
What we don’t love is hearing about how our favorite, beloved Christian failed someone else. We don’t like hearing about how they did something unsavory or evil. Heaven forbid they cover for someone else who did those things! Clearly, they did nothing wrong! They’re just standing up for Christian unity, or forgiveness.
John MacArthur has been a popular recent topic both within and outside Christian circles for his and his teams actions at Grace Community Church (GCC). The response of many White Evangelicals has been to defend him against many credible accusations of covering and enabling abuse which span over 40 years. To read the stories of abuse and the subsequent cover-up is to sit with survivors of terrible harm. Beloved people who have endured years of being told to stay with their abusers, their pleas for justice ignored, and their faith communities abandon them.
The practices that have been reported go far beyond just GCC. Survivors of abuse and religious trauma have been telling us for a very long time that their leaders have said the same things. They come from many walks of life, different Christian denominations and traditions. I’m here to tell you that I am a survivor, too.
My childhood was a difficult one, and that’s putting it lightly. The 1990’s were completely tumultuous for my family. We moved twice, changed homeschool groups more than that, and changed churches 6 or 7 different times. Community around us was constantly changing, our friend groups weaving in and out of each other. It was a blessing that I knew a few people consistently as a young child.
The truest constant was the abuse that I and my siblings suffered at the hands of my parents, and which my mother shouldered under my father. Before I was born, my parents involved us in Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Some of my earliest memories of moral enforcement and loss I would later learn are of the Satanic Panic.
We were beaten with hands, sticks, spoons, belts; when our parents didn’t know who did something “wrong,” they would beat us in a group until one of us “confessed.” We were exposed to sexual concepts early and often, mostly through our father; I won’t speak for my siblings, but for me he directly sexually abused me.
Our parents controlled our comings and goings, who we knew, and how we learned… in all aspects. Living in our house was false imprisonment. This isn’t hyperbole. They sometimes would go so far as limiting when we could go to the bathroom.
The other constant was going to church. When I was born and for many years we were Plymouth Brethren, then Baptist; for 8 years, we moved among Mennonite and Charity Church communities, eventually going back to Plymouth Brethren. I cannot remember a single week where we didn’t at least try to go to a meeting.
Our parents felt committed to those communities. They found people and leadership who could counsel them, guide their decisions, and encourage them. There were other adults with whom we children could talk, and usually Sunday school. It was not the fault of Christian leaders that my parents chose to abuse me and my siblings, or that my father abused my mother.
However, every single Christian leader shared with them a tool or practice that my parents used to abuse us. Everything, from IBLP, burning “Satanic” materials like Star Wars, the perfect tool to use for spanking, to controlling where we could go and when even in our own home, came from some guidance of a pastor, some book given freely by a leader. Then, when one of us children would go to another adult, one of two things would happen.
The most common response I would hear went something like this, “Unity is more important than justice; your parents must be sorry for what they’ve done. Go back to them, they love you, and they’re responsible for you.” Almost always, whether or not they said that, those adults would go straight to our parents with our “betrayal.” Often, my parents would then go to counseling with a pastor or leader.
Perhaps you’re reading this and you think, “well, of course, and then police were alerted or child services was called.” Perhaps that’s why we changed churches so many times. Perhaps someone in leadership with a conscience tried to do something.
The problem is that enabling abuse isn’t limited to covering up abuse. Trusted mentors, counselors, pastors, and leaders can enable abuse with simple, bad advice. By assuming that they know what they’re talking about, they can hand an abuser the exact resource that justifies the abuse. This isn’t just about covering for abusers (which Christians in my past absolutely did), it’s about giving abusers the tools they need to succeed.
So when you’re reading about John MacArthur and GCC, don’t just think about the people who finally had a conscience and spoke up. Consider that those same people enabled the abuse by supporting abusers with counsel, mentorship, books, and other types of aid. Consider that the stories you are being told are about a serious, evil flaw in White Evangelical Christian culture to put their Christianity above every other institution which could truly help survivors of abuse.
When you read these stories, you are seeing Christian Supremacy in action. You are seeing leaders who played God, thinking that they were helping. But the fact is that they enabled the abuse you are seeing.
I beg you to hear the survivors at GCC, in the Southern Baptist Convention, in Amish and Mennonite communities, in the Anglican church, everywhere. Understand that their abuse is not some exception in those places; it’s a product of Christian leaders enabling it. Help them in their search for justice. Support them by advocating for investigations by state and legal authorities, donating money to advocacy groups, and most of all by believing.
Please help us end abuse in our culture.
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