On Wednesday, influential author Rachel Held Evans argued that “patriarchy” and “evangelical exceptionalism” prevent evangelical Christians from clamping down on sexual assault in the way they should. Held Evans is leading an “evangelical” movement to bring the #MeToo reckoning into the church, but she said she is “pessimistic” about its success. She brought up three very tenuous situations to prove her point.
“This week: 1 James Dobson encouraged Christians to fast & pray for the protection [of] a serial sex abuser (Trump). 2 When a mega-church pastor’s criminal sexual assault was exposed, he received a standing ovation from his congregation. 3 One of Roy Moore’s victims’ house burned down,” Held Evans tweeted, beginning a long thread on the issue.
This week: 1 James Dobson encouraged Christians to fast & pray for the protection a serial sex abuser (Trump). 2 When a mega-church pastor's criminal sexual assault was exposed, he received a standing ovation from his congregation. 3 One of Roy Moore's victims' house burned down.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018
She argued that these events showed the “deadly combination of patriarchy & (as discussed recently) evangelical exceptionalism,” in preventing conservative Christians from embracing the movement against sexual assault.
Held Evans defined “evangelical exceptionalism” as the mindset that “‘the world’ or ‘the culture’ [is] filled with darkness & sin, teeming with people who are ‘lost,’ and evangelicalism & evangelicals to be the sole bearers of light, the counter-cultural path to salvation.” This author declared position — which finds support in the Bible — anathema. (Jesus said He was the only way to the Father, and that means Christianity is the path to salvation. Held Evans seems to deny this.)
Tellingly, she also pointed to a church’s opposition to LGBT identity as evidence of “prejudice.”
Leaving these points aside, it is important to ask whether or not the three events Held Evans noted actually show patriarchy or violence against women in the evangelical community.
First, Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, called on Christians to pray and fast for the safety of President Donald Trump. He issued this call after a meeting where he prayed with Trump in the White House, lamenting that many people “hate” Trump and want him impeached.
In his remarks, Dobson said he felt “sorry” for Trump. “Not only is he the leader of the free world, of course, but so many people obviously hate him. … He faces the combined opposition from the mainstream media, from members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans, not all of them, but many of them—the entertainment industry, [and] the special interest groups who seem determined to bring him down,” he said.
Dobson admitted that “Mr. Trump makes mistakes and brings some of this opposition on himself,” but he insisted, “I think this country will be in serious trouble if they’re successful in impeaching this man.”
The Focus on the Family founder did not mention the sexual assault accusations against Trump, but he did admit that the president had made “mistakes.” He called on Christians to pray for Trump’s safety, not to vote for his re-election or to support him.
The Bible clearly states that Christians should pray for their leaders — “for kings and all those in authority” (I Timothy 2:1-3). Dobson’s call echoed this verse, and did not excuse Trump’s alleged previous sexual behavior. It was not an endorsement of sexual assault by any stretch of the imagination.
Secondly, Held Evans referenced the case of Memphis, Tenn. megachurch pastor Andy Savage. Jules Woodson accused Savage of sexually assaulting her when she was 17, and Savage admitted to doing so. When he spoke before his congregation on Sunday, the attendees applauded.
This case seems disastrous at first blush. Christians actually clapped when a man admitted he had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl. The video shows a different story, however.
Savage worked as a youth pastor at Woodland Parkway Baptist Church in Texas, and Woodson was a member of his flock. The youth pastor abused his position and asked Woodson to perform sex acts with him. He repented later that evening, and immediately apologized to her.
“I resigned from ministry and moved back to Memphis,” Savage said in his speech on Sunday. “It was wrong and I accepted responsibility for my actions. I sincerely ask for forgiveness from her and pray for God’s continued healing.” The pastor said he “never sought to cover this up,” and revealed this sin to his wife before marrying her and to his employer before becoming a pastor in Memphis.
He tried to send a message to Woodson. “Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain deeply committed to cooperate with you for forgiveness and healing.” He concluded by saying, “God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin.”
This heartfelt confession — and the declaration of God’s great forgiveness — got the congregation’s applause. Woodson said it was not enough, but the congregation was not clapping for Savage’s sexual assault — they were clapping for his confession, insufficient as it may have been.
On Monday afternoon, the Christian publishing company Bethany House canceled the July publication of Savage’s forthcoming book, “The Ridiculously Good Marriage.” Also that day, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis reported that Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas had placed staff member Larry Cotton — who was the associate pastor where Savage worked at the time of the alleged assault — on leave.
Christians do not deny that Savage abused his authority in a heinous way, and the congregation did not applaud his assault, but rather his confession.
Thirdly, Held Evans noted the tragic fire that destroyed the Alabama home of Tina Johnson, a woman who had accused former Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual assault. The case is being investigated as an arson, but authorities have not confirmed the source of the fire. A person of interest has been interviewed, but authorities did not link the potential arson to the sexual assault claims.
Silicon Valley tech executive Katie Jacobs Stanton created a GoFundMe drive last Friday, and the drive has raised $191,000 — almost double its goal of $100,000 — as of Thursday.
The fire is tragic, and it may indeed have been motivated by anger at Johnson’s accusations against Moore. Even if the fire was arson and the arsonist were an evangelical Christian, that would not prove that evangelicals believe in carrying out such disgusting acts against people.
Rather, Jesus clearly called His disciples to pray even for their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), and to do good to those who harm them. Even the pastor who did host Roy Moore at his church after the sexual assault allegations broke was hesitant to do so, and he insisted that Moore refrain from politics during that speech.
Indeed, there is evidence that evangelicals in Alabama did not turn out to vote for Roy Moore, suggesting that the alleged assaulter was “a bridge too far” for them.
Rachel Held Evans has painted with far too broad a brush in all three of these situations. None of them suggest that evangelical Christians consider sexual assault acceptable.
There is room for a nuanced debate over particular evangelical Christian doctrines that might prevent giving women an equal seat at the table, however. Debates over women leading the church, or debates about the meaning of the biblical doctrine of male “headship” in marriage are important, and need to be had.
Held Evans is not the person to lead those debates. LGBT identity issues are completely separate from this arena, and the Bible is much clearer about homosexual activity and the goodness of God-given biological sex than it is about whether or not women can be pastors.
For those willing to begin the true discussion, the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood represents one side, and the book Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught About Men and Women in the Church represents the other.
Rather than humbly discuss these issues from a position of biblical faith, Held Evans dismisses the evangelical movement for being insufficiently Leftist. If anyone is to convince evangelical Christians to broaden their understanding of women’s place in the church, this kind of argument is not the way to do so.