Some Thoughts on Women and Church Leadership

Last week a Christianity Today blog called, hilariously, Leadership Journal, published a hair-raising confessional by a child predator who’d written the piece from behind bars. The structure of the article was probably the worst thing about it, although you’re spoilt for choice in the “worst” category: he described what he called “an extra-marital relationship” with “a friend” who turned out to be, you guessed it, one of his students, someone he’d known since she was in middle school. He was in his thirties.

“The ‘friendship’ continued to develop,” the author, who is eligible for parole in 2015, wrote. “Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, there was little­ to ­no willpower left. We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of ‘one more time’ proved too strong. Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity. Then, to destruction.”

Eventually, after several days of angry pressure from the social justice Twitter crowd, the piece was taken down and the site’s editors posted an apology that would ring a lot truer if it had come a lot sooner.

Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” widely considered one of the best-written novels in English, is narrated by a predator and contains a confession worth considering: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” And so you can: Note the repeated use of “we,” the passive voice when the author (name withheld, naturally) talks about his “constantly escalating” proximity to this child. Note the comparison the author makes between himself and King David. Note the characterization of statutory rape—and he must know it’s rape, because he’s in prison on two felony counts—as “infidelity.” He blames his wife elsewhere in the article, though if you look at it only briefly, he appears to merely be put-upon and henpecked. Look at this tangle of thorns.

I wish I could stop here, but I don’t feel like I can. Last week, Kevin William Reed, a 35-year-old youth minister, was arrested on one count of sexual battery for allegedly molesting a 17-year-old in the church kitchen and on rides in his car to and from church. Reed used to be the mayor of Camden, Ohio starting a term in 2011 that was marked by accusations of fraud, embezzlement and theft. But for some reason, Higher Heights Church in Camden decided he was worthy of a second chance—not as a child of God, not as a fellow fallen brother in Christ, but as a leader. I came up with this case by searching for the phrase “youth pastor indicted” on Google News. The same week a cardinal in St. Louis went so far as to say that he wasn’t sure raping children was a crime (it is).

Feminism does not have a strong enough foothold in the church, and without it, men do not understand the way rape polices women’s lives. The experiences of women, sexual minorities and people of color (particularly Asian Christians, who have close ties with majority-white churches and are frequently the victims of surprising racism) are parallel to, not in communion with, those of the straight white men who occupy, without meaningful exception, every single place of leadership in the evangelical church. Not a couple but several women of my personal acquaintance have been abused within the walls of a church, and this is in large part because men do not understand what threats to women look like.

Men say things to each other and themselves like, “I’ve heard Bill’s testimony about chasing tail in college; nobody who likes tits that much could be into little kids;” sometimes they talk about children who are “old enough.” It’s a culture that dismisses pedophiles as creepy perverts and in truth, many of these dudes probably aren’t into little kids. They’re into kids who are maturing physically, not because they have some kind of deviant attraction to sexually immature people, but because they’re complete psychos who feel entitled to whatever arouses them. Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor and blogger for Religion News Service, quotes a child protection expert in a recent post who said, “it’s not the guy sitting alone at the party that we should be most concerned about, it’s the one hosting the party,” and he’s right. People who crave attention, people who love giving orders, people who exude charisma: these are the absolute last people who should be in positions of leadership anywhere, least of all the body of Christ.

A close friend who recently graduated from a prestigious seminary confided in me that he’d encountered, with awful frequency, incidents of infidelity and plain old cruelty and narcissism among his fellow students, and (a family man himself), he no longer wanted to go into the ministry where a culture of tolerance and generosity toward that kind of sin was nurtured and encouraged. Meanwhile, any notion that homosexual Christians are our brothers and sisters is rejected out of hand—less, I think, because of some kind of fundamental objection to homosexuality, than because of its affront to masculinity.

There just aren’t enough women leading the church, especially not when the majority of parishioners are female. Evangelical culture still privileges men, and worse, specific kinds of men over others. It worships charisma. It cheers on big bags of shit like Mark Driscoll when they talk smack about gay people. It turns a blind eye to gossip and stigmatizes single mothers to such a degree that abortion becomes the only reasonable alternative to shame for many young women. And it offers wicked men opportunity after opportunity, not to be forgiven, but to hurt their fellow Christians, sometimes by causing them to stumble, and sometimes by brutally and remorselessly assaulting their sisters in Christ, because it puts them in positions of authority.

I guess I’m writing this to say to the women I know in the evangelical church, please step up. If you are organized and thoughtful and know how to talk to people and don’t much enjoy public debate or office politics, I’m sorry to report that you are the ideal candidate for church leadership. If you are already in church leadership, may every blessing be on you and your family and may God raise up a hundred others like you. Let us know how to support you. Men, support them. If you see someone in authority who does not appear to have much of a working conscience when it comes to his personal life or his dealings with other people, shout him down. Do it with love in your heart, but by all means do it. Misogyny is a wicked trap for everyone, not just women, and the people it gives a voice and a platform are the people whom Christ himself said would be better off with a millstone tied around their necks and cast into the sea.