Clergy Sexual Abuse

Courageous Humility: God’s Call to the Church in Response to the #metoo #churchtoo Movements

A Sermon by Micah Pritchett

Micah Pritchett

Micah Pritchett

Opening Welcome to Worship

We are taking on a difficult subject this morning. The #metoo movement has shown a bright, bright light on our culture’s acceptance of demeaning and sometimes violent treatment of women. Institutions have been rocked. Careers ended. Horrific truths revealed.

As the #metoo movement has captured the attention of the nation, there has been a parallel movement expressed in the hashtag #churchtoo. This isn’t just an issue for women in Hollywood and the media. It also happens in churches, far more often than we want to know. No institution, no group is exempt from this evil.

This morning I want us to struggle together with what this moment in time is revealing to us about our institutions and culture, and even our churches. And how we might not just stand on the sidelines in horror, but what in this moment God may be asking of us as people of faith.

I am very aware that for many, if not most, of the women in this room, and some men as well, this is not just a story on the news or a blog post on the internet. This is your story as well. You have experience harassment and even assault.  I know thinking about and talking about this can be painful.

My hope, my belief, my prayer, is that by shining a light on this darkness and talking about it openly that God’s power and grace can bring healing and transformation, for individuals, and for institutions and even the church and all of society. Today we will try to shine a bit of God’s light into this darkness.

Recommended Hymn:  When Sorrow Floods the Troubled Heart No. 544 in Celebrating Grace Hymnal

Sermon: II Samuel 11:1-5 & Psalm 10

As we think today about the #metoo and #churchtoo movement, I’m reminded of an old adage in preaching that says, “The preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  I’m going to try to do that this morning.

So let’s begin with the Bible.

The story of David and Bathsheba speaks to this moment in a profound way. Both in what the story reveals to us, and what its history of misinterpretation reveals about us.  My understanding of this story was transformed by an article, Bathsheba’s Story: Surviving Abuse and Loss, by Drs. Diana and David Garland.  Diana, who has since died, was a social work professor and the namesake of the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. David is a New Testament professor and former Dean of Truett Seminary. He also twice served as Interim President of Baylor University. Together they unpack this story in light of both what the text actually says and what we know about how abuse occurs and power is exploited.

If you ask the average person who knows a little about the Bible and is familiar with the story of David and Bathsheba: what is this story about? They will describe it as an affair and perhaps even speak of Bathsheba as the temptress who in a moment of weakness led poor King David astray.

That is actually a complete distortion of this story. This is no affair. This is an assault. Bathsheba is no temptress, David, who the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart, is a perpetrator.

Bathsheba is bathing. A routine, private thing we all do. She was engaged in the ritual bathing that the Law of God commanded all women to do following menstruation. This is not just an act of hygiene, but for her also a religious act.

She’s probably using a plastered bath that is dug into the ground in one of the inner courtyards of her home. She is not lounging on her roof in a bubble bath hoping to seduce poor king David. It’s David who is violating her privacy and religious observance with his lustful gaze.

He sees her and he desires her. He doesn’t know who she is so he inquires about her. Then he sends messengers, not one but several, to get her. They arrive unexpected at her door. A summons to meet the king. King David, God’s chosen servant, who has united the tribes and rules with justice and honor.

He has sent for her.  She can’t refuse.  She has no reason to refuse.  Her first thought has to be, “Why would the king call for me?”  Her husband is one of David’s elite fighting men and he is off at war.  There’s only one reason that the King would call for her.  Her husband must be dead.  Imagine the fear that had to be in her heart as she was quickly escorted alone from her home to the palace.

The story is silent on the exact details, but we can imagine she wasn’t taken to the royal throne room to meet with David publicly in sight of his royal advisors. But she was escorted to his private chambers and left alone with the king. She is trapped.

Did David forcefully take her or subtly manipulate her into his bed? Either way, let’s be clear – this is rape. This is no affair because there is no possibility for consent.  He is the KING and her husband’s commander. He has brought her into a compromising situation from which she cannot escape.

If she cries out are we to expect the King’s bodyguards to come and save her?  If she accuses who will believe her over the righteous King?

She is abused and then discarded.  Sent home embarrassed, confused, ashamed . . . and pregnant. This is just the beginning for her. Eventually God acts through the prophet Nathan to bring David’s evil out into the light of day and to provide some small measure of justice for her. But her life is forever altered.

It’s a story of a man using his position of unchecked power to objectify and victimize a woman to fulfill his own lustful desires with total disregard of its impact on her. An ancient story from the Bible that could have been written today. So now let’s turn our attention from the Bible in one hand to the newspaper in the other.

The #metoo movement began with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who for years had preyed on women in Hollywood. This was no secret. It was known but people turned a blind eye to it. But then a switch seems to have gotten flipped, and as a society we opened our eyes and said, “No more.”

The idea around the hashtag #metoo was that if every woman who has experienced sexual harassment or assault would write “me too” in their social media status then we as a society would finally have to see how pervasive this is.

As I mentioned earlier, in the wake of the #metoo movement, the #churchtoo movement sprung up, as women of faith began to tell their stories of mistreatment and abuse from within the church.

Popular Christian author and speaker Beth Moore made a powerful statement on her blog describing the kinds of demeaning treatment she has had to endure. Being ignored or talked down to. Dismissed. Demeaning jokes.

She recalled her excitement about meeting a theologian that she had long respected and read virtually every book he had written. She was looking forward to sharing a meal with him and talking theology. But the instant she met him he looked her up and down, smiled approvingly, and said, “You look better than _blank_” giving the name of another female Bible teacher. To him she was not a colleague in ministry, or even a sister in Christ, but an object.

For years she endured these kinds of sexist actions and attitudes choosing to believe as wrong as they were that they were rooted in a sincere interpretation of scripture. But then she writes,

“In early October 2016… I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.”

These kinds of sexist attitudes and behaviors seem to be the natural product of a theology that demeans women as less than men in the pulpit, in the church and in the home. But less we’re tempted to throw stones, we have to recognize the sin in our own groups. No group is immune. No church is immune – fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, liberal. All are susceptible.

It’s occurred within our own denomination.  Last year there was a meeting between Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders and several clergy women who had left ministry positions within moderate Baptist life because of their experiences of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse. The survivors said they wanted to see Baptist organizations and churches put policies in place to ensure that other women are not victimized as they were.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that that meeting occurred at a time when the two top leaders of CBF were both women. Suzi Paynter was then the executive coordinator, which is the top paid staff position. Shauw Chinn Capps was then the CBF moderator, the elected leader of the governing board. She was then a social worker and the chief executive officer of New Horizons in Beaufort, South Carolina, a children’s advocacy, domestic violence, and rape crisis center.

Those survivors had desired to have their voices and concerns heard by denominational leaders for some time, but that did not happen until there were women in the places of authority to be able to say, “Yes, we want to listen and we will respond.”

Part of the necessary changes that we have to see in churches and in society is for men to not be the only gatekeepers of institutional authority, and the ones in the position to decide if a woman has really been abused and whether or not her voice should be heard.

This is a difficult and disturbing time. There are nights when we have to turn off the evening network news because it is not appropriate for our children to hear. All of this is difficult to hear and absorb. It’s disturbing and hard to figure out how to respond. What am I to do? Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and are tempted to just tune it out. Some choose to dismiss it. Saying, “It’s a witch hunt. It’s not really that bad.”

But as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to find some way to stand with the weak and vulnerable against oppressive and abusive individuals and institutions. So how do we do that? Is there some response that we can make that in some small way may help move things along in a new and better direction.  Let me offer two suggestions.

First, in all of these cases there is a significant issue of the abuse of power. Power is not a bad thing. Power is the ability to influence others and get things done. We invest leaders, teams, boards, organizations, and institutions with power in order to accomplish things. Power is not the problem. The problem is when individuals gain power that puts them beyond systems of accountability and checks on that power.

Meryl Strep said in her Golden Globe acceptance speech, “I want to thank my agent and God… Harvey Weinstein.” Equating Harvey Weinstein with God should be a red flag that maybe this person has too much power. Too often women have been powerless to stop violations of their person and their body. That has to change. With power there has to be accountability.

So let me suggest if you are in a position of power or in a position where your role is to be a check on a position of power, we need ask ourselves: Are there appropriate policies and procedures in place to prevent abuses of power or if abuses occur to hold that person accountable? If that is in place, is it being followed? If those things aren’t in place, can we be proactive in advocating that they be put in place before a problem occurs?

I’m going to ask our Personnel Ministry Team to review our Personnel Policies to make sure we have the appropriate policies in place.

All of these incidents that we have heard so much about are connected to an abuse of power that was allowed to occur unchecked and that has to change. That’s one thing we can do.

Second, we have to learn how to respond to accusations. We have seen the scandal play out in the Catholic Church. For years now there have been those who have said it’s coming to the Protestant church. It’s coming to evangelicals. And now it is here and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

So when we begin to hear stories of misconduct and abuse within our own communities, how will we respond? There are going to be stories we do not want to hear. But hear them we must. And how we receive and respond to these stories can be for those victims either part of their healing process or part of a process of revictimization.

Former gymnast Rachel Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of the sexual assault that he perpetrated against hundreds of young girls. She was also the last survivor to speak at his sentencing trial.

Within her statement Denhollander, a Christian, mentioned how her advocacy for sexual assault victims cost her her church. Later in an interview with Christianity Today she said, “It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. . . . There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”

This shouldn’t be. The church should be a place of compassion and truth and light and justice and healing.

But it’s so hard. We need to be honest about how hard it can be to do the right thing.  It requires us to be brave and strong, and committed to truth and justice. The stories bring shame upon us. It is hard to hear that a trusted leader, maybe a leader who like King David we consider to be a man after God’s own heart, can also be a predator.

That’s hard so our first response is often to deny, or we blame the victim. Or we counsel forgiveness. Forgiveness can be an important part of the healing process for a victim, but forgiveness is not something that can be mandated from the outside, especially not as a way to brush abuse aside. “Forgive and forget and move on so we don’t have to deal with it.” No, first truth must be told and justice sought.

The church has to receive the stories of abuse that are brought forward with a courageous humility. Humble enough to listen. Courageous enough to act.

This is a time that asks of us humility and courage. Wisdom, honesty, compassion, and a commitment to justice. I hope and pray that we will be equal to the task to which God is now calling us.

May this not just be a passing fad, but a transformational moment in which God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness, of equality and protection of the vulnerable, comes more fully to our world. I pray that we will be courageous enough and humble enough to be part of what God is doing in this difficult moment.

Micah Pritchett is pastor of North Broad Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia. He preached this sermon on June 10, 2018. Micah serves on the Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force, a joint work of Baptist Women in Ministry and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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