Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Toxic Teachings on Parenting, Gender, and Sexuality": Roots of Abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries Churches (with Parallels to Catholic Story)

I highly recommend T.F. Charlton's essay right now at Religion Dispatches, re: the culture of abuse being exposed by lawsuits filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). Charlton grew up in an SGM church. She describes the group as "a U.S.-based church-planting network (they say 'family') of predominantly white, suburban, reformed evangelical congregations." This church-planting network sprang from Covenant Life Church (CLC) of Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is named in the lawsuits filed against SGM. 

As Charlton notes, Lou Engle, the influential dominionist pastor who founded The Call and who has been in the thick of the movement to export American-style homophobia to Africa, got his start with CLC. Charlton also maintains that it's no accident that SGM and CLC have ended up facing lawsuits alleging that this movement has fostered a serious culture of abuse of women and children: as she maintains, that culture of abuse is "the result of the group’s toxic teachings on parenting, gender, and sexuality."

Charlton notes that briefs filed by plaintiffs in the suits against SGM and CLC "describe a church culture where pastors’ sympathies routinely lay with male perpetrators of sexual abuse, particulary married fathers, who were allowed continued access to victims and other children in the church." Women plaintiffs allege that they have been bullied and ostracized when they have tried to make their abuse known, and have been told that their obligation is not in any way to undermine the "leadership" position of their husbands in their families. One woman who discovered that her husband was sexually abusing their 10-year-old daughter was informed by church officials that this happened because she was not meeting her husband's sexual needs, and she was encouraged to enhance their sexual relationship to prevent his molestation of their daughter.

All of this is rooted, Charlton maintains, in a "perfect storm of doctrine." As she observes,

It’s no accident that so many allegations of serious abuse have arisen across SGM’s churches. The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.  

Charlton cites E.J. Graff, who maintains that purity cultures which envisage women's bodies as primarily for procreation and male pleasure also generate rape cultures: rape culture is the obverse side of purity culture, which by its very nature sexualizes the female body in order to subject it to male control. The demand within SGM doctrine that children submit absolutely to parents and wives to husbands also issues in a culture of abuse, in which both women and children are enjoined to endure even violent expressions of male control as God's will.

As Charlton concludes, there are parallels between the story of sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic church and the story emerging out of SGM-CLC, with its hyper-Calvinist theology. The latter story has been somewhat harder to tell because the less centralized nature of many Protestant churches makes it harder to obtain reliable data about the scope of abuse within Protestant churches.

In both cases, what seems clear to me is this, though: theologies that provide men unmerited and unchecked power over women and children, and which teach heterosexual (or heterosexual-posturing) men to view themselves as superior to homosexual ones, lay a foundation for abuse. It is the nature of power to abuse, when it has no checks on it and when it rests on assumptions about its unmerited superiority. The abuse stories in any cultures or any communities of faith won't stop being told until these assumptions about the right of heterosexual men to dominate, control, and punish everyone they consider "beneath" them are critically engaged everywhere in the world.

As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently noted (and see here), there's a lot of angry conservative religion bubbling everywhere in the world today, and this anger is very specifically male anger. It's anger at the strides that women have made towards equality around the world in the past century. And it's strongly evident in the Catholic church because the Catholic church is intensely male-dominated.

Not much will change--at a fundamental level--with the selection of a new pope until that fact about how the Catholic church does business, in its official capacity, is radically changed. And that means that not much will change with the abuse situation in the Catholic church until that fact is radically changed.

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