Evangelical churches can become 'seedbeds for rape culture,' seminary professor says

Sandra Glahn, interim chair of the Dallas Theological Seminary's department of media arts and worship, speaks at the Evangelical Press Associations 2019 Christian Media Convention in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Sandra Glahn, interim chair of the Dallas Theological Seminary's department of media arts and worship, speaks at the Evangelical Press Associations 2019 Christian Media Convention in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. | The Christian Post

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Evangelical churches can be “seedbeds for rape culture” by failing to call out misogynist and radical conservative views as well as engaging in forms of victim shaming, a Dallas Theological Seminary professor has warned.

Sandra Glahn, the interim chair of DTS’ Media Arts and Worship Department, was the sole presenter during a recent breakout session titled “Justice Through Media in a #MeToo #ChurchToo World” at the Evangelical Press Association’s Christian Media Convention earlier this month.

Glahn, who's an EPA board member and author of over 35 books, started off the discussion by detailing the history of the #MeToo movement. She noted that the movement actually began about a decade ago with African American activist Tarana Burke raising awareness about how women of color were not being heard in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

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It really wasn’t until the sexual harassment and assault accusations came out against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in the fall of 2017 that the hashtag #MeToo began to steamroll online and create an even larger social awareness of how women were being mistreated.

“Over the course of the next year, the hashtag was used 19 million times,” Glahn said.

“I know personally 26 people who didn't use the hashtag. So that's just the tip of the iceberg. But the big thing that became super apparent, as this all was going down, was that evangelicals began to see more clearly that the perpetrators were not just Catholics and priests as more and more people start talking about their [experiences in] youth groups and their churches.”

What began to happen, she said, is that more people started seeing that evangelical leaders themselves were complicit in these sexual abuse crimes.

Survivors came forward with their stories of abuse inside the church. As well, allegations of sex abuse made against prominent megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels.

The prevalence of sex abuse inside evangelical churches was made even clearer with the release of an extensive Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News investigation discovering at least 700 victims of alleged sexual abuse by 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers since 1998.

“What has been so challenging with #ChurchToo is that in addition to the abuse of #MeToo, to bring in a spiritual element of power, you have the dynamics of power, where you have a powerful youth pastor, a powerful pastor, a powerful elder with a less powerful person,” she explained. “You have the dynamics of spiritual betrayal. You go to a place where you're expecting these … to be the most godly people.”

“These are supposed to be the safe people, you're vulnerable with them,” she added. “And then you find out that they are the predators. And there's this sense, the dynamics of feeling that God is complicit in that: ‘I came to church to worship you. I came to attend youth group. I came to serve here and we didn't protect me.’”

Glahn added that #ChurchToo incidents mostly don’t involve some male perpetrator accidentally crossing a line.

“That is the first thing we need to talk about,” she said. “I've seen a lot of Christians whose response to [accusations] has been: ‘People are overreacting, It was just a little hug ... and they're making a bigger deal of this than it should be.’”

What happens is that churches can become “seedbeds for rape culture,” she asserted. While evangelicals today have largely tended to warn against radical liberalism and radical feminism, she said, many are “not guarding against radical conservatism and misogyny with this sort of phariseeism and victim shaming.”

“So a dictionary definition of rape culture: it's a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse. In these contexts, victim blaming people for sexual assault abuse is often promoted or accepted,” she said.

“So this is a context where you might see [someone say] while the youth pastor was with one of his kids, ‘Well, what was she wearing? Was she alone with him? Was she going after him?’ That is rape culture, where you are not looking at the dynamics of power and you are blaming it on the victim.”

While some might be prone to not believe accusations against their spiritual leaders, Glahn says churchgoers should be “inclined” to treat the accusations of sexual assault against church leaders with the utmost seriousness when they are made.

Glahn explained that a kneejerk reaction from churchgoers might be to think that the accuser is lying.

But the professor cited data showing that accusers lie in fewer than 10 percent of rape and sexual assault cases. A 2009 study authored partly by a University of Massachusetts professor finds that about 92 to 98 percent of sexual assault accusations where the perpetrator is a not a stranger are real.

“It's much more likely that the people who come forward alleging abuse have actually been sexually harassed,” Glahn said. “It's much more likely what's happening than they are falsely accusing anyone.”

According to Glahn, the way stories of the Bible have been taught in some churches have also “made vixens of the innocent.” Glahn is the editor of the 2017 book, Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible.

She pointed to how King David’s relationship with the married Bathsheba have often been presented through the lens of an “affair.”

“By saying that Bathsheba did X, Y and Z, which is not the point of view of the author and not the point of view of the story. Again, we're saying ‘What was she wearing? What was she doing?’” Glahn said. “I've heard messages where she was [said to be] at the palace seducing him.”

Glahn added that what people should take away from the Bathsheeba story is the notion that David, a man raised up by God, was also susceptible to abusing his power for sinful purposes.

“And let that be a warning to us all,” she added.

Glahn also pointed to the New Testament story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Think about the story of the woman at the well [and] how often since the Protestant Reformation has she been treated sort of as a vixen, who was a serial monogamous cheating on her husband every time, who kept walking into court and divorcing her husband for another man,” Glahn detailed.

“But if you think of the Easter story and women in the court of law, what do you think are the odds that a woman is walking into a court of law and dumping her husband and marrying somebody else? That is not happening in the ancient Near-East.”

Glahn said it is much more likely that the woman at the well had been widowed or that her husband divorced her.

“And she's not a young, beautiful, 22-year-old,” she added. “She's probably 50 [and] missing a few teeth, and she's looking for the Messiah.”

While people from the 21st century might view the fact that the woman was living with another man as her “shacking up with some guy,” in an ancient Palestinian society where women depend on men to eat and live, the woman at the well was likely a concubine, Glahn explained.

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