Churches, Abuse, and the Danger of Male “Headship”

Recent events among Southern Baptists rekindled a long-standing debate about women, men, and the role of pastor. But a more critical discussion of sexual abuse and unchecked authority of male leaders is equally critical—and long overdue.

Following my piece addressing women in leadership, a former church member raised an issue that needs to be discussed: “In the household roles, men are the spiritual leaders. Not more important, just different roles.”

Knowing this person as I do, the comment comes with the best of intentions and a sincere willingness to understand. Likely it references concepts from Ephesians 5 (among others) that I do not interpret quite as she does. Still, “spiritual leaders” offers a lot of room to decide how that term is to be applied.

This is my ninth attempt to write an adequate answer to this issue that explains my understanding of Scripture. But it is also critical to highlight why reserving spiritual leadership form men only is dangerous and damaging. One way to do so is to look at the sad and infuriating case of Josh Duggar.

With draft #10, I will attempt to make it to the finish line.

Families often fall into “traditional” roles for husbands and wives, including issues of spiritual leadership. My fiercely independent mother and professing egalitarian father looked about as traditional as any couple you could find. The difference was that my father never mandated this arrangement or called it a “biblical” model for men and women.

He also did not pride himself on being the “spiritual leader” of the house. And he never tried to parlay that role into the idea of God-ordained male “headship” or authority.

Herein lies the problem. Spiritual leadership as described in certain Bible passages can be very good, although I continue to advocate that both men AND women can take that role.

However, this concept morphed into the monster of absolute authority for men in all aspects of family and church. Rather than a model of humble leadership that Christ offers, churches and denominations declare absolute authority and “headship” for men, mandate by God and defended at all costs.

Churches, denominations, male pastors, and theologians deny this. They say that the Bible mandates very “traditional” male and female roles that are different, but equally important. They forget that “separate but equal” does not work. Once that mandate moves from spiritual guidance to absolute authority, then someone inevitably become less than in God’s economy.

Not surprisingly, that someone ends up being women and even children—with extremely dire consequences. We can draw a straight line from the concept of male authority through the rash of sexual abuse cases and cover-ups that occur within systems advocating a fully “complementarian” position.

The rash of cases that engulfs the Southern Baptist Convention and the reactions of male leaders supports this theory. It is clear in the culture of abuse at Liberty University. Authority and headship must be maintained at all costs, especially if a revered pastor or spiritual leader’s reputation is at stake. 

This leads us to the current case study of Josh Duggar.

The Duggar family aligns itself with multiple movements that declare male authority and headship as an absolute, including Quiverfull, Bill Gothard’s ministries, and a Southern Baptist church Josh attends. Leaders in these organizations promote men as the final—and only—authority for church and family.

Consider the years of silence from Duggar’s sisters. Did they have any sense that their voices mattered? Did accepting their place of submission (taught as a biblical position) lead them to believe they just had to take this? If the male is the absolute, unquestioned power in the home, how could they feel comfortable in challenging the behavior of their older male sibling?

Josh Duggar’s circle of protectors went to extraordinary lengths to help him escape accountability for his actions—both then and now. His mother and pastor, SBC Executive Committee member Ronnie Floyd, passed it off as a youthful mistake. As if “Boys will be boys” is an acceptable defense.

Duggar’s wife Anna had to babysit him after this first offense came to light. Josh deceived her by downloading child pornography, described by one FBI agent as among “the top five worst I’ve ever had to examine.” Now, he is out on bail with supervised visitation. So Anna is babysitting her husband again—while pregnant with their seventh child.

A friend of the family stepped up to take Josh into their home. The wife, who teaches piano to children, accepted this. Why? “My husband made this decision and I must follow his rule.”

My friend who asked the original question likely had none of this in mind. Knowing her and her husband, they are truly seeking a spiritual leadership that models the life of Christ.

However, when we ignore women and risk children to maintain male authority, we are well beyond the Scriptures. When we ignore the cries of the physically, spiritually, and sexually abused to protect the brand, we are far afield of the Cross and the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Before last week’s Southern Baptist Convention, several Baptists wrote articles about SBC leaders and their response to Saddleback Church’s ordination of three women as ministers. Dr. Laura Levens, a professor at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, suggested that the outrage from SBC leaders such as Albert Mohler and Owen Strachan provided a solid “smoke screen” to cloud out discussion of multiple issues facing the Convention, including (but not limited to) the issue of predatory sexual abuse in churches.

Dr. Levens is absolutely correct. What is even more upsetting is the failure of Christians to acknowledge the irony. The very policy and polity they use to distract from abuse is the very thing that leads to sexual abuse cover-ups and denial. If women are not worthy of doing ministry, then how can their word be trusted against the Christ-ordained authority of men?

When “spiritual leadership” devolves towards male hierarchy and absolute authority, the church ventures into a huge bear trap, with teeth that will tear people apart. Those labeled as “inferior” in God’s hierarchy—particularly women and children—are most likely to feel the teeth clamp around them.

I seriously doubt that Paul ever had in mind the kind of authoritative position that men in some houses, churches, and denominations claim for themselves. No person or organization is above God’s accountability—and full accountability in God cannot exist unless voices all God’s creation is equally credible.

God certainly wants men to be spiritual leaders. But this does not mean women are in any way forbidden from spiritual leadership. And God certainly did not intend to create mand as spiritual dictators.

We cannot stand with God’s children—all of them—if we view half of his creation as inferior to the other half. Until we are willing to hear all voices and see all people as worthy, we will not have spiritual leaders, male or otherwise.

We will only have power brokers imposing their will. And the sheep will continue to feel the teeth of their traps.

The Selective Defense of “Cast the First Stone”

Views here are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent any views, official or otherwise, of my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. If you don’t like what is said, contact me, not anyone else!

I have watched “19 Kids and Counting” exactly one time. And then, it was still “18 Kids and Counting.” I never in my life thought that I would stop a blog about the finale of Mad Men to write about the Duggar family.

I cannot speak intelligently about them, outside of what I have read/seen/heard. But it does not take much information to be disturbed by the recent events related to Josh Duggar.

Josh stepped down from his position at the Family Research Council due to a confession that he sexually abused young girls during his teenage years. This prompted a wide-spread reaction, with some racing to their laptops to point out the Duggars’ indiscretions.

Then, out came the evangelical bloggers and politicians to offer a defense. And a certain segment of evangelical Christianity proved once again that it will defend its superstars at all costs and cover the trail of damages they leave behind.

First, several rushed to point out that Duggar’s offense was no worse than Lena Dunham’s confession. There is some significant debate on what Dunham’s words and actions actually mean, but there is a much greater issue at hand. Lena Dunham does not hold herself up as a paragon of ultra-conservative Christian virtue and values. Josh Duggar and his family do. Attention-getting, shock-seeking Dunham and the professed values of the Duggars and the Family Research Council are neither comparable nor compatible. It should come as no surprise that reactions to them are distinct.

Equally ridiculous is the notion from one commentator that teenage sexual activity is comparable to criminal sexual conduct or molestation. Again, this is an apple-to-oranges comparison that has nothing to do with Duggar or his family’s management of the allegations. Worse yet, this naively absurd notion gives credence to accusations that Christians just don’t “get it” when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Then, these bloggers tried to use the Gold Standard of Christian Defenses:  The media is out to get these good people because of their faith.

Sorry, not interested. The family has used the media to its advantage for years to promote itself and its values, and benefitted by earning millions of dollars on their television show. You can’t revel in the attention one minute, then whine and cry about it when it goes against you. In fairness, the Duggars are not doing the whining—Matt Walsh is.

Finally, the bloggers went to the old “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mantra for their primary line of defense. Certainly this is a valid passage here, and in many other situations. Christians use it all the time—when it’s convenient for them.

It would be comical, were it not so sad, that we pull that verse out of a holster to fire back in defense of one of “our kind.” But when it’s one of “those people,” we keep it buttoned up, maybe even pretending the verse doesn’t exist. And it’s very conveniently ignored, along with many other verses, if we have a chance to derail our enemies.

Walsh proves to be a master at this in his blog on the Duggars. He comes hard with the Cast the First Stone Defense, all while he is loading up his slingshot. Therein lies the problem.

We cannot selectively apply John 8:7 to Josh Duggar if we are not going to follow through with such grace towards others. We cannot scream for equity in judgment against one who is being stoned by hurling rocks at another whom we deem more worthy of blame. Changing the target does not make a stoning any more Christ-like.

If we are going to draw on this one verse, we also have to look at the entirety of the passage, John 8:2-11. We see that Jesus does not attack anyone or light into a fiery sermon about the evils of any of the parties involved. Nor does He berate a woman who has clearly broken a commandment, one that He upholds in several instances. He simply asks some questions that cause everyone to look deep inside their own heart and determine how they need to be better. We could all stand a good dose of this medicine.

Let us also recognize that Jesus did not offer grace and forgiveness because this woman is appropriately remorseful. While we can infer that she is, it is not clearly stated. Jesus calls on us to love and forgive even those who do not ask in what we deem to be the “right way,” including those counted as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is not to excuse the actions of Josh Duggar and the Duggar family for the myriad of problematic ways that they handled this situation. If the timeline is accurate, then I would estimate that they badly mishandled this, and glossing over that as Matt Walsh does, along with others, is disingenuous.

(In fact, changing that might have rendered this entire issue moot. I hope that we can all draw lessons on how to approach abuse situations in the future, based on these mistakes).

It also does not mean that we brush aside the issues that contributed to cause this uproar:  Handling abuse “in house” by churches and families, shunning psychology and therapy, defending evangelical heros at all costs, and focusing on the accused more than on victims. (Elizabeth Esther offers a much more candid treatment of these issues here).

These things must change if we are truly going to follow Jesus’ teachings in John 8. He is teaching us to look honestly at ourselves, examine our own sins, and seek ways to go and sin no more. This starts when stop seeking out other targets for our rocks and look intently to the Christ who cleanses our own hearts.

I actually agree wholeheartedly with some of Walsh’s points on this issue. We do need the unimaginable grace of Jesus Christ, all of us. We are all sinners, far from perfect, and in need of the power of the Cross to overcome even our most hidden sins.

But we do that by dealing directly with our own sins, rather than attempting to justify ourselves by shouting “He started it!” and turning the stones on someone else. We start this process by claiming our baggage and carrying our own rocks rather than tossing them at others. And by the grace of Christ, we can leave it all at the foot of the Cross.

I hope that those demanding an end to the stoning of Josh Duggar will remember John 8:7 when referring to others. I hope they will remember it when considering the thousands of other teenage offenders who are in prison for offense that are no more egregious than this. I hope they will recall this when thinking of all those who are poor, sick, in prison or standing outside of the walls of Christianity.

I hope they will offer the same graciousness they request on behalf of the Duggars to those who are not “their kind” of people. May we all do likewise. And may we learn to stop defending the indefensible and instead confront it with the grace of Christ, both in others and certainly in ourselves.