How Sovereign Grace Ministries deals with ACTUAL sexual sin

Major trigger warning for sexual abuse of children.

I don’t find “sin” to be a terribly useful moral or ethical concept. In fundamentalist religions especially, it’s a highly arbitrary and variable concept that has very little to do with actual right or wrong. In the fundamentalist communities I grew up in, people were far more concerned with whether something counted as sin or not than they were with whether it caused harm or pain to others. And since the definition of “sin” was based on ill-informed and tendentious readings of documents produced thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural context, that led to some pretty fucked up priorities when it came to judging between right and wrong.

People gave themselves a pass for all sorts of nasty, damaging behavior while completely eviscerating others for behavior that harms no one. So disowning one’s child for being gay, leaving them homeless and without a way to provide for themselves – that’s not a sin. A consensual relationship between two people of the same gender, though, really pisses God off. Premarital sex? Definitely a sin. Sexually coercing your wife (e.g., by telling her that she can never turn you down when you want sex)? God is totally cool with that. “Sin” basically means whatever they say it means. Ironically, it turns out that, despite all their bleating about how cultural liberalism means “anything goes,” fundamentalists are the real moral relativists.

I was reminded of this as I read the latest horrific story of sexual abuse, victim blaming, and cover ups at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church (trigger warning; also be warned that there’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia in the comments at SGMS, and it is not a safe space). Earlier this week, The Friendly Atheist posted about SGM’s Beloved Leader, CJ Mahaney, and one of his signature (read: stale and recycled) sermons on female “modesty.” See, CJ wants us gals to know that our bodies are dangerous to men, so dangerous that men who want to avoid the “sin” of lust can barely stand to look at us when we’re dressed “immodestly”:

Campus is a loaded minefield. There are girls everywhere… I either have to be actively engaging my mind and my spirit to, quoting scripture, listening to worship music, or simply looking at the sidewalk to make it through unscathed. Many days it takes all four to be safe.

The thing that women do not seem to fully grasp is that the temptation towards lust does not stop for us as men. It is continual. It is aggressive. It does all it can to lead men down to death. And [women] have a choice to help or deter its goal….

Sometimes, when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again, maybe she does. To be honest, I don’t know the truth. The truth of why she chooses to dress the way she does. The way she chooses to walk, the way she chooses to act. I don’t know because I’ve never sat down with a girl and asked her why [probably because you can't look at a girl, much less speak to her, without your brain exploding? Just a thought]. All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it [read: avoid her] at all costs.

Got that, ladies? Our dirty girlbodies are bait for the dudes. Leading them down to death. Because we “make” them think about sex when we dress “immodestly,” and thinking about sex is an awful, no good sin. So dressing “immodestly” must be an awful, no good sin, too. Pretty strict standards there. So, if simply being sexually attracted to someone who isn’t one’s spouse is such an awful sin, and having consensual sex with that person is, too, doesn’t that make coerced sexual contact extra sinful? Shouldn’t that be something the church “wars” against like it does against lust and immodesty? Especially when the safety and well-being of children is at stake?

I guess that makes a little too much sense. Apparently when a child is sexually abused in an SGM church, they and their family need to have their sin addressed by the pastors. In SGM-land, the worst sinners aren’t abusers, but survivors and families who dare to speak out about their abuse, or call for legal or church accountability. The abuser, not the survivor or their family, is the one who receives protection and care from the church leadership. Survivors are harassed with calls to forgive- which in SGM means pretending the abuse never happened, not pressing charges, enabling pastoral cover-ups, even when the abuser continues to have access to children, and instantaneously getting over the trauma of abuse (or at least shutting up about it – seeking closure or trauma counseling or even just talking to your pastors about it shows an “unforgiving” heart). Absent such “forgiveness,”  survivors and their families are treated as rebellious church members to be silenced and weeded out.

Wallace and happymom’s story of sexual abuse two of their children suffered, and the ordeal they and their whole family endured at their SGM church is heartwrenching and beyond appalling:

During 12 years as members of the Fairfax church, two of our children were sexually molested by two different people who attended the church….[At Fairfax ]The perpetrator of a sex crime and his family are brought under the care of a pastor.   This would involve counseling, accountability sessions and possible minor restrictions regarding movement in the church during services. People “at risk” are not notified. The victim and victim’s family however are usually confronted with opposition from leadership by minimizing and/or invalidating particular aspects of the victim’s story.

In 1998, we discover our child (child-A) had been molested by a young man attending the Fairfax church.  We did not press charges and regretted this later on.  The father of the young man was initially uncooperative in dealing with the situation until Steve Shank stepped in to handle it…Shank addressed our sin and asked the young man to apologize.

We forgave him; however, with minor restrictions imposed by the staff, he continued to intimidate our child during Sunday services to the point where our child was fearful of going to church.  The pastors involved had little to say concerning this as it didn’t appear to be a priority for them.

In October 2007, we discover child-B had been molested.  The molestation had occurred 5 years earlier…[After they pressed charges] The detective told us later on that Fairfax had been “uncooperative” in the investigation…. a fact they later denied…

The trial took place in March 2008.  Prior to the trial, not knowing how the young man would plead, we asked pastor DH to come with pastor SW ready to give testimony on our child’s behalf if needed.  Pastor DH made it known to us they were not coming to the courthouse.  I explained to him if the young man pleaded not guilty, our child would then have to get up in front of the court and reveal the entire ordeal along with answering questions from the attorneys.  It didn’t matter, they still weren’t coming.  His response to us was, “I have my church’s reputation to consider.”….[the pastors ultimately showed up after the threat of a subpoena].

The Fairfax pastors – including an uncle of the abused child! – lied and obstructed this family’s attempts to get justice and closure for their child at every turn. The family was ‘invited’ to leave the church. Later attempts to get some kind of accountability were met with halfhearted apologies and subsequent statements that the family was “sinfully craving answers.”

All that SGM requires of abusers is that they “repent” – which is about as meaningful as the notion of “sin” in this culture. Repentance can be performed quite convincingly – in fact, being able to persuasively fake contrition is a common characteristic of serial abusers. In exchange for “repentance,” abusers get the church bullying survivors on their behalf, giving free access to more potential victims, minimizing abuse, keeping vulnerable families in the dark, lying and obstructing justice for them.

My wife asked pastor MM why they do not warn people at risk when a known sex felon is in their church. His response was, “that perpetrator could grow up and sue us for defamation of character.”  So in pastor MM’s mind, the possibility of being sued sometime in the future takes precedence over protecting children from known sex offenders.

There you have it. SGM claims to care about “sexual sin,” but when push comes to shove, they’re too busy policing women’s wardrobes and telling couples how to have sex to be bothered with actually protecting their flock from sex offenders. And they can only deal with the hassle of caring for children and families so long as kids don’t get abused by a church member. They have more important sins to address than sexual molestation – like people who don’t get over being abused quickly enough for the pastors’ tastes, and people who are mysteriously bothered by having to be around their abusers every Sunday.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in an SGM church – in fact, it’s not even the first time it’s happened at SG Fairfax. Nor are these (to put it very mildly) misplaced priorities unique to SGM. They’re direct products of warped and widespread theologies of sin that privilege arbitrary, so-called divine expectations over the actual effects of those expectations on real human beings. They’re priorities that are fueling a cycle of epidemic abuse, abuse-enabling, victim-blaming in countless churches:

When my mother can say “I can only vote on what God tells me is right, and I can’t support gay marriage” and say to me, “It doesn’t matter what your brother did, you have to forgive him or else your risking your relationship with God”  where is God’s justice? Why does he care so much about the actions of consenting adults, but hates victims? Why is it easier to be a rapist than to love another human being, why is your God’s love for me dependent on my forgiveness, but your love for him unconditional? Where is justice in that? (somaticstrength, Dear Christians: Your God needs to get his priorities straight)

So I’m tired of hearing about sin. If your god can stomach sheltering abusers and abusing survivors, but not a woman in a halter top, your concept of sin is utterly meaningless, and your god is seriously fucked up. You can keep him.

7 Comments

  1. I was talking with my mother last night and I asked her to think about all the people that have gotten married that grew up with me…and how many women in our church, if they came forward and said they were being abused, would be believed? She couldn’t think of one. At a church that she thinks is great and God-honoring, there is no space for any victim to be believed.

    The faith of men is believed more than women, at least it is here. Since a “man of God” is considered a rarity, any men committed to church and the Christian faith is seen as genuine. Question that, and it’s on you.

    My mother has disregarded all my wishes about not seeing my brother anymore. She ignored it, and now pretends like none of it ever happened. My brother is completely redeemed in her eyes. Never mind that it was after he got out of prison that he threatened me with a mallet, and that he continually tries to emotionally manipulate me now that he knows I don’t want anything to do with him but also knows that there’s only so much confrontation I can take because my mother will always take his side.

    When I leave, I lose all ties to everyone. Family, friends; gone, because they’re the good Christians, and I’m the weird one who something was always wrong with because I couldn’t conform to their standards of being a doormat. Heck, even now with my mother claiming that God has completely healed her of the abuse, she still tells me how half of what my brother did to me could have been prevented if I hadn’t provoked him. Because the Christian response to abuse is to do nothing, (or do some creepy, “yes, please hit me again, I’ll still forgive you”) and my instinctive response when threatened is to lash out. Lack of forgiveness, lack of reconciliation, and leaving are ultimately the worse sins a person can do – more than anything my family has done. And it seems simplistic, but the reason behind that is mostly this – I’m the daughter and I’m the sister. It’s my responsibility to forgive, regardless. That’s my role. What’s best for me doesn’t matter – the faith of my brothers – which, by anybody’s standards, is nonexistent – is still stronger and more believed than mine. They go to church, that makes them okay. God’s just working on them. I don’t go to church – something’s wrong with me.

    I started rambling and kind of lost my point…basically, a woman’s sense of self is considered secondary, so rape and abuse aren’t as big of an issue. I asked my mother last night how exactly a Christian family explains abusive men to their daughters when by their own standards they condone it. “If he starts dictating your every move, that’s a warning sign….you need to obey everything he says.” They would contradict themselves.

    Okay, I really can’t figure out my point now. Sorry for rambling all this personal stuff.

    • I’m really sorry. It’s horrible that you have to deal with such constant abuse-enabling and shaming, plus having to be around your brother so much.

      The common thread in all of that is that the victim is always at fault, it’s always the victim’s responsibility to do and be better, and the victim is the only one who ever has anything – really, everything – to lose. The perpetrators get away scot free most of the time. They can mumble some apologetic words (or say nothing at all) and play the part of the good Christian and everyone will act as if nothing happened. The burden is entirely on you to keep up that act – if you complain, if you’re hurting visibly, people can’t maintain the pretense. So they blame the victim, who stands to lose everything – church, faith, family, support system, any sense of safety or self-worth they might have had before.

      I mean, it’s not like the rest of American culture deals with rape and sexual assault much better. Rape culture is everywhere. But to me it seems like the ideas behind rape culture are coded and implicit in the “secular” world. You can sort of push on them by making them explicit; some people will be able to see how awful they are when laid out clearly. But you can’t really do that in fundamentalism because what’s implicit in secular rape culture is explicit in church rape culture. The victim always bears some measure of fault because they’re just as sinful as the perpetrator. They always have to consider the welfare of the perp above their own because that’s Christ-like. They have to forgive and forget – keep quiet, don’t make a fuss, don’t be too traumatized by it or dwell on it for too long. They are taught to feel ashamed because they’re no longer sexually “pure.” It’s all the stuff of rape culture – blaming yourself, enabling the abuser, secrecy and shame – turned into explicit doctrine. It’s terrifying :(

  2. Grace, I’m so sorry.

    I very rarely talk about this but abuse was also one of my reasons for deconverting (among many others). When I tried to tell fellow Christians what happened to me they jumped to lines like “it must have been a misunderstanding” or “you probably led him on.”

    I was already blaming myself. This was the last thing I needed.

    My faith stumbled along for a few more years but looking back this had far more of an impact on how I thought about God and religion than I realized at the time. I still don’t understand how explaining away the actions of the perpetrator is ever more important than believing the victim. :(

    • I’m so sorry you’ve gone through this, Lydia. Church cultures are even more full of victim-blaming and making excuses for abuse than “secular” culture. It’s repulsive. My personal experiences are with emotional abuse, but I know what you mean about those experiences shaping how you think of God more than you realize. A lot of the baggage I’m working through is realizing that I saw God as a bigger version of my abusers.

      • I wonder why that is? Jesus spent much of his ministry defending those who had no one else to help them. It doesn’t make sense that the church would do the opposite.

        • Well, honestly, I think a big part of the issue is that they don’t really believe what the Bible says. It’s not that their faith isn’t sincere, but rather that it’s selective. They read the Bible through a predetermined ideology that they’re unwilling to admit they have. Of course everyone reads with an interpretive/ideological framework in mind – but theirs is really regressive and reactionary. They fear women and female autonomy, so they read the Bible in a way that limits autonomy and enables violence against women. They fear sexuality, so they read the Bible in a way that suppresses it and makes anyone involved in any kind of sexual contact (willing or coerced) into someone dirty. I don’t think what they believe really has much to do with what Jesus said at all. It has a lot more to do with conservative Anglo-American hangups :/

          • AnalogKitten says:

            Grace, I am new to the blog and find it incredibly useful and well-written. This discussion interests me very much and if you see this comment, I would very much like to ask, where do you think this impulse to suppress starts?

            I agree completely that some people approach the Bible with bad intentions already present, I’m just wondering what do you think causes that? In my experience people who wish to suppress others are drawn toward the worst in any society or culture, whereas people who care about others seem drawn to the best aspects. I don’t know if I put this very well, but I’d be so interested in your ideas.