An Open Wound

Another week of revelations about abuse and cover-up in the Church. Pope Francis visits Ireland last week and the topic on everyone’s lips was unfortunately sexual abuse. Everyone who admired Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which has influenced thinking about effective church growth for a generation of evangelicals, has been stunned by allegations of sexual harassment

I try to be deliberate and positive in my blogs because there is so much vitriol online. However, it makes me angry and very sad that Christian leaders – overwhelmingly men – are willing to compromise the character of God whom they say they serve, to satisfy their own desires for power and then lie to protect their jobs, their colleagues or their power.

The stories are so frequent and so widespread – an investigation into sex abuse by the Church in Australia said that 7% of all Australian RC priests were involved in sex abuse in the last 60 years – that the worldwide church should be contrite, and sorrowful, and determined to change poisonous practices.

But there are still excuses and still a tendency by male pastors and some of their followers (both male and female) to blame the victims. It happens across denominations and across nations.

Here are some ‘excuses’ we might hear that need to be exposed as lies.

EXCUSE: The victims are too pretty, too needy or too easy to seduce and therefore somehow it is not the man’s fault.

I have heard this argument from a number of men. Women who come to pastors for counsel or prayer may be needy and vulnerable but ‘pastoral’ care means discerning wise action and taking steps as a shepherd and leader to be both caring and careful.

Men, especially leaders in the church should be strong enough to walk away or call for female back-up if they feel tempted. It’s a good reason for having male and female leadership of all ages so that there can be accountability and support.

EXCUSE: Women and children who have suffered abuse should stay quiet to protect the church from scandal.

A number of women who have come forward about historical abuse have said they felt explicit or implicit pressure to be silent about what happened.

In the case of Willow Creek, Hybel’s assistant, who has accused her former pastor of fondling, inappropriate touching and more, says she felt enormous loyalty to the church ad the leadership and did not want to wreck reputations. (The church leadership initially backed Hybels when he denied allegations but has since apologised for its initial inaction.)

Since when is it the role of a victim to protect the powerful? It is the job of those with authority in the Church to protect their flock and anyone who has been exploited by a church leader or in a Christian institution.

If there has been criminal activity, the police should be involved. The Church cannot think it can quietly push aside serious allegations of any sort – financial, sexual or violent misconduct.

Churches, especially those with powerful and charismatic leaders, need to examine their governance and accountability.

EXCUSE: Women should quietly forgive – their submissive attitude will lead the perpetrator back to God.

This argument is especially used when the abuse is within marriage. If there is no sign of repentance, no genuine change, can a woman stay in a destructive situation that threatens her wellbeing and that of her children?

If it was your daughter being abused, would you ever say, “You just need to submit more, forgive more?” In some cultures there may seem to be no way out, but the Church exists to transform cultural practices to reflect more of God’s values.

That means releasing men to be loving and servant hearted and releasing women to be the same.

EXCUSE: Some women are dangerous – they have a ‘Jezebel spirit’.

Women are not always innocent and some do tell lies about abuse or deliberately try to provoke a man. Their wrong behaviour should be called out just as much as bad behaviour by men. Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman – the wife of King Ahab who encouraged the worship of Baal and clashed with Elijah and Elisha. She was cruel and unjust.

She was definitely a bad woman.

But is there a Jezebel spirit? Surely a number of Judah and Israel’s kings were just as cruel, vicious and ungodly. Why do we hear so much about Jezebel’s evil?

Maybe because Bible commentators (overwhelmingly male) want to believe in the purity and goodness of women and anyone outside that model must be totally evil, evil that is very often seen in sexual terms. Whereas Biblical men are allowed to be imperfect – indeed we celebrate the humanity of heroes like King David, Abraham and Peter, the church (and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day) is less forgiving of weakness in women.

Recently in the US, a pastor who admitted to his church that he had strayed as a youth pastor twenty years before, was given a standing ovation for being open and honest.  I understand the need to forgive but his action was criminal (the girl was only 17) and it seems there has been no justice for her (she was told to stay quiet by two pastors at the church).

So I plead for women to speak out about abuse, and for male leaders to champion truth and justice rather than shuffling their feet or thinking that the whole issue has got a bit out of control (another excuse!)

Pray for wisdom and humility for church leaders who must respond to abuse allegations. We do not want people to be wrongly accused but we do not want victims to be ignored.

Pray for the Church to be truly repentant. The Pope talked in Dublin this weekend of ongoing abuse being an “open wound”. He went on, “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”

 

 

My Facebook life

My Facebook life is not me, it’s a better version of me. Even though I try not to post only about sunsets, talented children and victorious Bible verses, it is inevitable that my life on Facebook has fewer cracks and less boredom than my real life.

So I come to my recent family holiday – we all went skiing and I was sooo keen for the family to be close and happy in the snow. Maybe I was bound to be disappointed by the ordinary awkwardness that happens when adult children and partners get together in a small chalet, with a couple of young grandchildren thrown in.

4b2aa8c1-6e2d-4500-8358-4705716c1235In the end I posted only one image on Facebook – my daughter and son, who are elegant and accomplished skiers, in the sunny brightness of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. It summed up my love for them I guess, and all my memories of our early skiing trips in Australia on the cheap, in borrowed clothes on dodgy cross-country skis. That is where we learned to enjoy the cold, clean whiteness in rather wet conditions, with freezing hands, on home-made runs through the gum trees.

The photo of them as adults so poised on the slopes, is also a reminder for me of friends we skied with, of winter puddings, building igloos and snowball fights. Of the sublime quietness of skiing away from noisy resorts.

On Instagram, I concentrated on the snow, the sunshine and the natural grandeur – it was easy to see God in the beauty of the Alps.

Do I risk making my online life seem sunny and positive all the time?

Last year, a study found that platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have a negative effect because they can exacerbate young people’s body image worries, and worsen sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Of course, we cannot just blame social media for these things but there is no doubt that constant access to unrealistically beautiful and positive images makes our own lives seem mundane and therefore inadequate.

It’s ironic that ‘social’ media, designed to connect us and “make the world more open” can actually make us feel alone.

But remember that Facebook quickly became a tool to judge fellow Harvard students especially girls.

The other extreme on social media, once we pass teenage years, is to make our online lives appear messy and unorganised – the slummy mummy approach. This is funny and comforting for a while but not totally satisfying as we know that the writers are NOT as useless as they proclaim. Their life of mess is as curated as Tracy Emin’s famous artwork, “My Bed”.

And of course, image driven social media is not good at conveying our intellectual lives. It basks in sound bites and platitudes, not considered opinion. People ‘like’ or hate too easily without even reading the full article or considering the complexities of life.

Several people I follow on Twitter and Facebook face regular vilification because their ‘friends’ are simply too lazy to read posts to the end or seem incapable of understanding nuance or humour. (Thanks Michael Frost, Ben Thurley, Bev Murrill and Lee Grady for continuing to be polite in the face of all that!)

It seems to me that most of us live somewhere in the middle of the good, the bad and the ugly. We all need to be more conscious that the holiday images, the parties and the smiling faces are not 24/7 life; they are curated.

Last year I posted a lot about the women I work with, about causes I think are important and about justice, as well as family. Those posts are my attempts to be more real and to have a Facebook life that is not just fifty shades of happy.

I may appear more justice oriented (and socially conscious) than I actually am (!) but I am trying to faithfully capture the images, ideas and people who are in my life, not just the celebration moments.

So for the sake of truth, let me tell you my skiing holiday was lovely but not without tensions and the odd argument. We drank prosecco not champagne, and I am still just an intermediate skier. It was not the Waltons* but it was not Home Alone either.

It was ordinary, wonderful life.

 

 

 

*you have to be a child of the 70s for that to make sense

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Miss-reading the Bible

We sometimes think that Christians are better than the general population – we don’t swear, watch porn, abuse our loved ones or have affairs.

Sadly the data and research shows that people who identify as Christians are just as likely to indulge in all those things[1].

Behind closed doors, there is abuse. And unfortunately, some Christian teaching about submission and the headship of men in marriage, is interpreted to give permission for abuse.

I have heard from women in the church who accept that it’s OK for a man to hit his wife ‘a little’. I have heard a number of preachers hint that a wife is not being submissive enough if her husband is violent or has affairs.

I have seen wives encouraged to be forgiving of their husband’s affairs to save the marriage. And I have heard of women being counselled to stay with violent or drunken husbands so they can pray and ‘love’ their men into better behaviour

Behind these views are a couple of disturbing thoughts:

  1. that the Bible is used to endorse the dominance of men in marriage (maybe because it is mainly men who teach in churches)
  2. that Christian leaders are not very good at dealing honestly with abuse (maybe because it men who generally lead churches).

Studies show that gender inequality contributes to an environment where men seek to control women, and that can lead to abuse.

So how could some Christian teaching contribute to abuse? There are 2 aspects here – marriage relationships and women as leaders and teachers in the church – but the scriptures get conflated into a general argument about equality.

There is a strand of Christian teaching about marriage (endorsed by a number of respected evangelical leaders) that emphasises the submission of wives and the headship of husbands. This is often linked to rules that say women cannot teach or lead in church.

These are indeed words from the Bible, but we all should know we should test ideas by comparing them to other verses and the teaching of the whole Bible. And we should acknowledge the culture in which Paul was writing. That makes complete sense and does not denigrate the power and authority of God’s Word.

In fact, in all sorts of other verses we see cultural context. Otherwise we would still call for women to wear head coverings, we would follow Paul’s advice and remain single, we would all speak in tongues and we would share all our possessions in radical community. Funny how we see SOME verses as having eternal truth and others, not so much.

I don’t have space to deal with the key verses used to justify male authority in marriage and female subservience. But there are many places you can go to catch the main arguments cogently explained.

For starters, we can look at Jesus’ radical attitudes of acceptance towards women and the role of women as leaders and prophets and in the early church.

Watch:

VIDEO: Pastor and theologian Steve Latham discusses key verses in Paul’s letters

VIDEO: Julia Baird and Anglican priest Michael Jensen discuss domestic violence and the Church.(ABC News)

VIDEO: Various Christian pastors discuss submission

Please read:

blogger Marg Mowczko who writes intelligently and knowledgably about the theology of Christian egalitariansim

Lee Grady’s Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, which is a great book from an American pastor.[2]

The danger is that if men and women are taught, or somehow assimilate, ideas that male leadership is God’s truth – that women cannot be elders or pastors – it does not take much of a step to see men as superior in all relationships with women.

And one or two more steps along that path allows us to see women as subservient and not equipped to lead. Women (ie mums) are praised for many wonderful skills in homemaking and motherhood and are encouraged to complement their husbands, but they do not have a claim to equality when it comes to making decisions, to guiding others or leading men.

Everyday mainstream churches stress ‘happy’ marriages at the expense of caring for single mums, widows, divorcees and families at risk. It’s also worrying that single women seem to have no place in such a worldview.

Another result of seeing women as weaker, is that men blame girls and women for being sexually provocative, for causing men to stumble. In other words, women get blamed if they speak up and blamed if they simply stand next to a man!

Churches should be safe, loving and truthful places for everyone but in too many church traditions, women are still counselled to stay with an abusive husband to see if their submission can win their husband around.

Nicky Lock[3], an Anglican counsellor and academic from Charles Sturt University in Australia has seen the results of ‘mis-teaching’ in her work on domestic violence cases over the last 25 years.

She told the ABC that the use of headship theology is commonly used to justify abuse.

“Anecdotally, teaching of headship has been seen to be contributing to the problem of domestic violence, both in encouraging abusive male partners, and preventing female partners from challenging abusive behaviours, or leaving an abusive relationship.”

So do men and women have different roles? I know a lot of women who are happy having a supportive and caring role in their family. Their role enables their husband to take on all sorts of other responsibilities at work, in the church. But that does not fit all women or all men. And the submission and sacrifice must be equal otherwise it is too easy to exploit the goodwill of women and to ignore their needs. If women are not encouraged to speak out at church, do they forget how to articulate their insights and longings? Do they lose confidence in their God-given giftings?

And what about most of the women I know, women with ideas, women with a life beyond the domestic who want to be recognised as leaders, teachers and inspirers. I am blessed to have a husband who enables and encourages me to be all that I can be in God (and I want to do the same for him).

So if you’re reading this, what can you do? What should we do to encourage healthy views of men and women’s in the church and in marriage?

Talk about the issues and their seriousness – in the church – don’t allow people to dismiss you as extreme or “a raving feminist”. Be respectful!

Know what the Bible really says about relationships between men and women. Don’t just accept ‘truths’ we have been taught in the past.

Use the videos I have made to get discussion started. They are short, easy to understand and have clear ideas. There are 8 different topics covered. They also have great questions to explore.

Find them all here

 

 

[1] BUT please note that abuse is worse among men on the edge of faith.

American research provides one important insight: men who attend church less often or who are the periphery of church are more likely to abuse their wives. Regular church attenders are less likely to commit acts of intimate partner violence.

[2] Grady has been speaking about equality in many cultural contexts across the globe for over a generation. He also leads many conferences for men.

[3] Nicky is a friend of mine who has counselled on issues of heathy relationships with intelligence, balance and humour for many years. She is an expert who should be lauded by all of us, especially Christians.

When tolerance is not OK

In most democracies we proudly proclaim that we are tolerant societies – willing to see the other’s point of view, wanting to reach out to those who are different, not judging.

But tolerance can end up meaning that nothing is sinful – we never say, “this is wrong”.

I’m reminded of the dangers of tolerance by a small paragraph in a story about a champion cyclist, Thomas Dekker, who chose to take decisions that ended with him being branded a drugs cheat.

One of the early steps of dangerous tolerance was taken by his mum and dad who were told by Dekker’s team trainer that doping was necessary if their son, then aged 21, was to be a champion.

Dekker recounts that his mother pressed her lips tightly together but only said, “I hope this turns out OK.” She was willing to support her son’s choice if it meant he would win.

Four years later, Dekker was caught and suspended for two years. He returned to cycling but was never more than a decent professional rider.

Tolerance of illegal behaviour led to a ruined reputation. I wonder whether his mum and dad regret their acquiescence.

What else do we ‘tolerate’ in the cause of short-term or selfish gain?

Guided by nothing but opinion polls and pub philosophy, we fail to talk about morality and virtue, or to think of them at all. We laud our own brand of diversity, tolerance and non-judgementalism but fall into a trap of having no standard of timeless Truth.

Increasingly, in a media of half-truths and rushed, careless reporting, we tolerate what we agree with and hate everything else. We have a certain set of topics that immediately allow us to judge others while hypocritically seeing our own views as fair and open-minded.

I see this all the time around issues of gender equality. The conservatives see gender equality as laughable or extreme – feminists are man haters who push abortion rights and they pay homage to women as equal but different. Meanwhile the left see themselves as champions of equality and all about the rights of women to make their own decisions; those who disagree are dangerously out of touch.

Our ‘tolerance’ ironically only extends to those within our own tribe. I’m pretty sure Thomas Dekker’s parents would have hated the idea of cheating in sport as a general principle, but were willing to tolerate it in the case of their own son.

When we talk about gender, we are willing to tolerate huge inconsistencies. Those who support abortion on demand can never ‘tolerate’ the idea that abortion is not the ideal solution to unwanted pregnancy and that we could have a debate about the lie of sexual freedom and the need for man and women to take responsibility. And people who staunchly oppose abortion on demand can’t bear the idea that all sorts of girls have unwanted pregnancies and that we need a bigger discussion about sexual freedom and responsibility.

So I’m not sure I want to live in a society that misuses tolerance – I want to live in a society where we can debate ideas honestly and where we can accept difference but also be respected for holding firmly to beliefs about right and wrong.

I want to have zero tolerance for self-righteousness, for hatred and arrogance (from the left or the right). And I think the Bible is a good place to start to find those truths.

A spoonful of reason

Common sense is not so common – Voltaire

We need a spoonful of common sense and a large dose of wisdom in 2017 after the year that brought us post-truth.

But it’s not looking hopeful. Some nonsensical (or worryingly dangerous) events that have caught my eye this year (and it’s only week 2!):

Glasgow University has warned theology students studying ‘Creation to Apocalypse: Introduction to the Bible (Level 1)’ that a lecture on Jesus and cinema sometimes ‘contains graphic scenes of the crucifixion’. The university says it has a duty of care but I wonder whether they have warning signs outside university bars?

The New Year’s Honours in the UK included many wonderful awards for those who have served the community and delighted the nation with their achievements. But Dominic Johnson, associate treasurer of the Conservative Party earned a CBE, maybe because he gave David Cameron and his family a home to stay in when the PM left Downing Street after the Brexit result.

Easter eggs have already been seen on shelves in Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s, 100 days before Easter!

Judges in Israel have been harassed and threatened for their ruling that an Israeli soldier is guilty of manslaughter for killing a suspected Palestinian terrorist who had already been subdued. These threats come from a part of the community that feels it is OK for Israel to act in any way it wants if it suspects terrorism. And this aggressive jingoism is not just happening in Israel.

Nigel Farage has been given a new job as host of his own radio show, so he can sprout his views in the time honoured tradition of shock jocks in the USA and Australia. I had thought the UK was too sensible to allow free rein to a man who thinks Trump is going to be a great president and who criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for being too gloomy for pointing out social injustice.

People who confronted Jesus (the powerful, the religious, the crowds) often weighed in with half-truths or controversy hoping to catch out this man they could not understand. By turns, Jesus was wise, gentle, debate-ready, scathing or silent in his responses.

May we all be wise in how we respond to the half-truths and hysteria in the media or at the office. And I pray for common sense.