"Not just a few bad apples"...
Content warning: This guest blog post contains discussion of church abuse.
In a guest post for our blog, Olivia Jackson argues that allegations of abusive behaviour in churches are not just a case of a few bad apples - they're symptoms of a systemic problem.
As one set of allegations of church abuse follows another, from all corners of the globe, I find myself sad but unsurprised. I surveyed 400 people and interviewed 140 about their experiences of loving and (usually) leaving evangelical churches, and I heard one story after another of controlling, manipulative or outright abusive behaviour. The old excuse of ‘just a few bad apples’ no longer rings true: the problem of abuse within evangelical culture is systemic, and those churches which do not default to this seem to be the few good apples. At a surface level, there may be nothing wrong with the rhetoric of love and community and passion for God, often led by men with a gift for enthusing a crowd, but too many have taken Christian language and theology and appropriated them as a cover for coercion, grooming, shaming and gaslighting. Too many of those leaders have lacked the accountability they insist their congregants have. Too many have believed their own PR and never considered the harm done.
On the surface of many evangelical institutions there’s a laid-back, egalitarian appearance, with approachable leaders in fashionable clothes preaching in a casual manner. There’s nothing wrong with this ‘flat’ structure in theory, but the reality is that there are inevitably power dynamics between leaders and congregants, and where these are unacknowledged, abuses of power are deniable. In more hierarchical churches, leaders are to be ‘honoured’ (that term is explicitly used), which in practice means unquestionable and largely unaccountable.
Both structures revolve around charismatic, inspirational figures who too often become evangelical celebrities. Anyone speaking up against abuse is told not to speak against ‘the Lord’s anointed’ or may have their concerns minimised or be told that they are undermining the work God is doing through the perpetrator. An insistence on (coerced) ‘forgiveness’, with a threat of divine judgement for unforgiveness, can have the effect of silencing those hurt while allowing perpetrators to avoid the consequences of their actions.
If the abuse is sexual, it can be excused by the message that ‘men can’t control themselves sexually’ and that those who ‘cause them to stumble’ are really to blame (whilst women who ‘sin sexually’ are compared to used objects like chewed gum). In other cases, the thought that abuse may have occurred is simply unimaginable, and other factors are blamed as the cause of any fallout. Kirsten (USA) told me, ‘I had nightmares as a child because I was sexually abused by the music minister, and nobody knew that. They assumed my nightmares were demons, so they put me in the middle of the room – I’m five years old – they stood around me and prayed out demons.’
Superiors turn a blind eye as long as these quasi-celebrities keep bringing the numbers – human and financial – in. Those numbers, that growth model, is an important part of the culture. Former church employees told me about having to meet a quota of attracting new church members. Amanda (USA) is a pastor who recounted, ‘This is really what they said to me: “You’re here to keep the front door open and the back door closed.” What are we doing? Are we connecting people to God? Or are we connecting them to the church? And who is benefiting?’ In the Netherlands, Vivian found the same thing as a congregant: ‘Growth was the goal, and everything had to be about attracting new people. There was a lot less attention on the people already inside who did have questions and doubts.’
I asked survey participants how important faith was or had been to them. Typical responses were, ‘My faith dictated everything about the way I lived: the clothing I wore, the people I associated with, the media I consumed, the language I did or didn’t use,’ and, ‘Huge impact on the way I understood myself, my body, the role I should play, the way I should act and interact with others. The faith I was embedded in influenced everything.’ This was the norm for most of us: our faith and our faith community were our world, and outside influences were explicitly discouraged or crowded out by a packed schedule of attendance at church-related activities.
The culture and leaders of that world had very clear rules for every area of our lives, in particular the finer details of what constituted sin. The culture breeds the theology, which in turn perpetuates the culture: a strong emphasis on our sinfulness, brokenness and worthlessness without Jesus led to shame and low self-esteem, and thus less likelihood of raising objections or disagreement. Answers to inappropriately intimate questions could be demanded by leaders at any time, strengthening the power dynamic and potential for manipulation. Confidentiality was not guaranteed, and many of us remember our most vulnerable confessions being passed on ‘for prayer’, our shame reinforcing the rules.
Elisabeth (UK) and I were amongst many who experienced times of required public confession, often focused on perceived sexual sin – which included fancying someone. Elisabeth said, ‘Everyone was aged 18 to 25. Looking back, it’s like coercive control, very vulnerable people. People had to stand at the front and name people that they slept with and basically try to conjure up things that they were sorry for.’
A number of times, including while working in missions, I was discouraged from studying theology lest it make me question my faith! This low level of theological depth was widespread and only decreased our ability to think critically. Combine this with high levels of emotionalism and a simultaneous, contradictory message that we are not to trust our own instincts or feelings, and when our boundaries were violated in some way, we repressed our objections and said nothing. Jemma (UK) mentioned the big Christian festivals she attended as a teen:
My friend had particularly traumatic experiences with people trying to exorcize demons from her and her mental health condition being interpreted as satanic practice going on in her body. Her story is not at all uncommon among the thousands of young people that attended those camps, whether it was kids suffering from mental health issues or people with physical disabilities being prayed for, for healing, and the terrible theological message that gives.
It doesn’t seem like in any way those organizations who run them have been held to account over the trauma that they have clearly caused. We feel quite angry that there have been no repercussions, and I’m sure they followed the official safeguarding rules or whatever, but having a bunch of teenagers in a big tent where you’re telling them they’ve got demons in them just doesn’t really seem like it.
I write most of this in the past tense, because for me and most of those I interviewed this is past experience, even if the insidious effects linger. But for far too many people, particularly young people, this is very much in the present. Some churches or leaders will be hit by abuse allegations, but many will not, because it is not about individuals: it is about a culture.
Olivia Jackson spent nearly 20 years working for mission agencies in the UK and overseas, and then as a human rights consultant with a focus on the use of violence against women, all of which fed into her own faith deconstruction.