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As Long as Patriarchy Reigns, Church Sexual Abuse Will Persist

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church hold little in common. In fact, only in recent years have they even come close to recognizing each other’s legitimacy.

They do hold two things in common, however. First, they both believe Scripture forbids women from holding the position or performing any of the functions of pastor or priest. This specifically includes preaching and administering the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.

Second, they are both struggling with clergy sex abuse crises.

I believe the two are related. Until they both change their convictions about a male-only clergy – and there is a good biblical basis for doing so – they will never get a handle on sexual abuse.

Central to any nonconsensual sex or sexual harassment is an imbalance of power. Many women (especially teenagers and all children) who are smaller and physically weaker than men are most vulnerable.

But power isn’t just a matter of physical size or strength. The authority given persons in certain roles gives them power as well.

A boss over a subordinate, a teacher over a student, and, yes, a member of the clergy over a vulnerable member of the congregation or community. They all have power to abuse even if they are not physically imposing.

A struggling actor needs a part; a producer has the authority to decide to give it to them. A subordinate must accompany a supervisor on an overnight business trip.

These situations happen all the time without incident. But what happens when the wrong person is given that kind power? What happens when they sense a high degree of vulnerability in someone else?

That becomes an opportunity for manipulation and abuse that the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements revealed to be more common than most of us would like to think.

When you combine a man’s physical power with positional authority, the danger is ramped up.

But when you combine both of those elements with the spiritual authority of God’s calling and imprimatur, abuse is, if not inevitable, at least predictable.

A male-only clergy invites abuse and harassment. Of course, women clergy can be abusive. However, women, all women, know what it’s like to feel vulnerable.

For example, the women in my life have told me they are always aware of their surroundings when approaching their parked car, even in daylight.

I’m 6-foot-2 and a fairly lean 195 pounds. I am rarely concerned, much less afraid, to be alone in a parking lot, even at night in an enclosed parking garage. I rarely feel vulnerable.

In insisting that a male-only clergy is ordained by God and enshrined in Scripture, both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church have institutionalized a gross imbalance of power, which makes the most vulnerable members of their communities susceptible to abuse and harassment.

They have used that power to cover up the resulting crimes, which increases both the power of the abusers and the vulnerability of the actual victims and potential victims as well.

And it’s all so unnecessary. Many people, myself included, have tackled the Scriptures used to protect a male-only clergy and have demonstrated that other ways exist of interpreting them, which are in keeping with the overall sweep and trajectory of the biblical narrative.

Only a wooden adherence to an overly literal and completely flat reading of Scripture (Southern Baptists) or to a patriarchal ecclesial tradition instituted by men (Roman Catholics) keeps them from embracing something that would make them less vulnerable to clergy sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

At their annual meeting last week, Southern Baptists struggled openly and sometimes tearfully with the problem of sexual abuse in their churches. Good for them.

I also believe Pope Francis genuinely wants to address this issue in the Roman Catholic Church.

But until both are willing to rid themselves of their outdated – and dangerous – adherence to patriarchy, this problem will continue to haunt them.

Larry Eubanks

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.