Sexual assault almost always constitutes an abuse of some form of power. Typically it is men that assault women, leveraging physical strength and social power to do so. Often status, celebrity and/or a hierarchical power differential is used by the abuser to coerce the victim. Bosses harass employees; movie stars force themselves upon non-famous colleagues; high school football stars rape less powerful classmates; fathers, uncles and grandfathers molest children; priests take advantage of alter boys; and pastors sexually abuse women in the church.
Power gives people an opportunity to act as predators because it reduces the risk of consequences from what would otherwise be social suicide. No one can rape the president without being exposed and punished, but the president may believe he can rape someone without consequence because his power can be leveraged to keep silence victims, dismiss allegations, and punish accusers. Tragically, powerful people believe they can get away with it because in fact they often can. Power truly insulates a person from the vulnerability and risk that most people face. This is true of political power, physical power, social and communal power, and especially spiritual or religious power.
In fact, religious power presents perhaps the greatest possible opportunity for sexual predators. Why? Male religious authorities hold the same physical power as other men, the same communal power as a CEO or patriarch, the same celebrity power as a famous actor, and also the spiritual power of one who stands as a representative of God and God’s authority. It is quite difficult to stand up to one’s lecherous boss or abusive father, but it actually feels wrong to stand up to someone presented as “God’s anointed”. In other words, to resist sexual abuse from someone with cultural or institutional power feels like going to war with the system, but resisting a pastor or youth group leader often feels like battling God.
This means that those with religious power have the greatest opportunity to prey upon those they have power over. Put differently, pastors, priests and other spiritual authorities face a greater temptation to abuse power than any others in society, which means that members of church congregations are actually one of the most institutionally vulnerable groups of people. This has proven true in recent American history with the rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood and now with the weekly exposure of abuse by evangelical pastors in the #churchtoo movement. Lest anyone fail to see a priest molesting a choir boy or a youth pastor assaulting a 16-year old girl as primarily an abuse of power, the widespread commitment to cover up these abuses in both the Catholic and protestant world has revealed the depth of this problem.
The ability to leverage one’s personal power and institutional backing to cover up abuse is precisely what enables people to engage in abuse. The reality is that the church has held to a structure and self-conception that has only fostered this sad possibility. As, Rachel Denhollander, the recent champion for assault victims in and out of the church states, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim.”
I suggest that this is because the Western church has assumed an anti-Christian view of power, which has manifested in a hierarchical church that grooms congregations to side with the powerful at the expense of victims.To begin to cure the wounds plaguing the church, we must learn to acknowledge power and the related risks of abuse, listen to Christ’s commands for Christians to relinquish this power, and tear down the hierarchical structure of the church accordingly.
Jesus clearly and explicitly prohibited his disciples from using social power the way that everyone else does (Mk. 10:36-45 and parallels). Instead, Christians were to relinquish all social power in order to become slaves to all, like children at the bottom of the social ladder (Matt. 18:2-5, 20:27). To Jesus, social power didn’t present an opportunity but a risk. Therefore, he also unambiguously prohibited the establishment of social hierarchy wherein certain individuals are treated as authorities over the rest (Matt. 23:8-12). Rather, Christ’s family was to be construed as a counter-cultural egalitarian family of siblings (Matt. 23:8, 1 Tim. 5:1, Philem. 16,), co-heirs (Rom. 8:17), and fellow servants (Col. 1:7, 4:7, Rev. 19:10). Paul and the apostles prove their faithfulness to this fundamental Christian ethic when they quote Jesus’ command (1 Cor. 9:18, 1 Pet. 5:1-6) and apply it to the early church by fully nullifying all hierarchical status markers (Rom. 10:12, 1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11).
Sadly, the church has supported its temptation to reinforce power and hierarchy with strained interpretations of New Testament passages related to so-called church “offices”, gender relations, and the ethic of mutual submission. This has functioned to preserve male privilege and dominance in the church. This has led the church in the modern secular West to be perceived, with decent accuracy, as a last bastion of antiquated authoritarian ideology. I believe this fact, along with the thousands of women and children who have been victimized in the church, would grieve Jesus and the apostles bitterly.
To Paul, the primary ethical imperative to Christians in positions of power was to relinquish both the power itself and the position of social status that granted the power in the first place. Slave masters like Philemon were to reconceive themselves as lowly servants themselves, and therefore reimagine their slaves as equal siblings (Philem. 15-16, Col. 4:1). To refuse to do so would prove one ineffective in the faith (Philem. 6). Similarly, men were to give up their power over women and allow them their own authority in the community (1 Cor. 11:10, Eph. 5:25-28, Col. 3:19). The same ethic applies with even more force to anyone in a position of authority in the church (1 Tim. 3:1-12, Tit. 1:6-9, Pet. 5:1-6). Indeed such people are under a higher standard to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught,” (Tit. 1:9), which would have clearly included the fundamental Christian ethic relating to power and hierarchy (Rom. 2:21, Jas. 3:1).
Therefore, the primary Christian solution to the issue of sexual assault in and out of the church is for those in positions of power over others to relinquish it. While this behavior will prove especially difficult for those accustomed to power – white, upper-class men in positions of institutional authority – it is required of Christians. Anyone who refuses to adhere to such a radical ethic may or may not be allowed inclusion in the church community, but is certainly disqualified from leadership. Practically then, every Christian must participate in the solution by both personally following Christ by relinquishing power but also corporately holding churches and church leaders to this ethical standard. To participate without resistance in a church that propagates worldly ways of power is to be complicit in the perpetuation of sexual assault. Put differently, every Christian is called to be a prophetic witness to the world by living out a subversive refusal of power and also a prophetic witness to the church by speaking truth to those in power. For any given to such power themselves such as pastors or elders, Christian ethics call for a personal self-sacrifice of one’s own power, sometimes even at great cost, as well as the communal dismantling of the institutional power itself.
To close with an example, Pope Francis has displayed a surprisingly profound sense of personal Christian piety by regularly refusing the power and glamour afforded to him as pope. However, a fully Christian witness to the papal institution would also involve the full dismantling of the structure that gives a pope such power in the first place. In other words, what Jesus has been asking of us for two millennia is that both popes would become slaves instead and that this form of discipleship would manifest so widely that in the end all were conceived as servant-popes, and therefore there are no popes at all but only fellow servants of one another. Only in such a flattened community will power itself lose its power and will the church cease to be one of the most common proponents of sexual assault.