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Theological Malpractice Stands Culpable in Sexual Abuse

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Editor’s note: The following is a slightly revised version of a presentation titled “Theological Malpractice Stands Culpable in Sexual Abuse” that Randall made at the 2019 Christians for Biblical Equality International Conference in Houston on Aug. 4.

The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published a report recently detailing 20 years of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

The story uncovered 700 victims and identified 218 perpetrators connected to the SBC that either were convicted or pled guilty to sex crimes. The news shocked readers around the world.

However, we must be honest about one thing: The victims were not shocked. They knew, more than anyone, the reality of a faith community committed to theological patriarchy, pragmatic conformity and the protection of male leaders.

When I was serving as a pastor in Fort Worth, Texas, during the 1990s, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke a story about a large church pastor in northeast Tarrant County who faced charges of abuse filed by six female parishioners. The women came to the pastor seeking counseling for marital problems. In turn, the pastor used his authority to convince these women that the best way for them to find intimacy was to have sex with him.

If this is not shocking enough, it came to light that church leaders had been covering up the pastor’s behavior for years. Leaders were even making payments to the women to keep silent about the pastor’s abuse. After the story was published, the church finally fired the pastor and settled out of court with the women. They even had to liquidate part of their property to afford the settlement.

Stories such as these have become all too frequent in the church. While the Southern Baptist Convention has been highlighted recently, the reality is that any denomination or tradition can fall prey to this type of evil. Also, it does not matter whether the denomination or tradition is theologically conservative, moderate or liberal. There is one thread that seems to emerge through each though: a belief and practice, sometimes overt and other times covert, of theological patriarchalism.

Theological patriarchalism suggests, through belief and practice, that males are more suited for leadership than their female counterparts. In addition, again through both theory and practice, women are considered subordinate to men in the home and church. And many go to great lengths to baptize their belief and practice with shoddy biblical arguments.

I keep using the phrase “in belief and practice.” Why? In most cases where a patriarchal theological belief exists, the practice of female subordination follows. However, even if patriarchal beliefs do not exist, there are examples when theological praxes do not correlate with stated beliefs. In other words, there are instances where churches, denominations and institutions do not practice what they preach. Theological patriarchalism may not be a stated belief, but it’s revealed in the absence of women in leadership roles and pulpits.

In each case, I contend that both overt and covert theological patriarchalism stand culpable when sexual abuse is hidden from the public and turned on the victims. When patriarchal theology is allowed to prevail over protecting the victims of abuse, then I contend perpetrators are guilty of theological malpractice.

Theological convictions and practices based upon a patriarchal and misogynous interpretation of the Christian Scriptures potentially create environments conducive for sexual abuse to emerge, thrive and hide. This type of harmful conviction and praxis must be identified and categorized, similar to the way other professional fields recognize such behavior.

Therefore, any theological conviction and practice that harbors abusers and vilifies victims should be truthfully regarded for what it is: theological malpractice.

Other professions, such as the medical and legal fields, have definitions for malpractice in their specific areas of expertise.

The American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys provides a definition for medical malpractice: “Medical malpractice occurs when a hospital, doctor or other health care professional, through a negligent act or omission, causes an injury to a patient. The negligence might be the result of errors in diagnosis, treatment, aftercare or health management.”

The legal field has its own definition as well. One source delineates legal malpractice this way, “Legal malpractice happens when an attorney handles a case inappropriately due to negligence or with intent to harm and causes damages to a client.”

Therefore, with such highly esteemed professions offering definitions for malpractice in their areas of expertise, why not provide an explanation of theological malpractice for churches, denominations and institutions that harbor abusers and neglect the victims they are charged with protecting?

Historically, attempts to hold churches, denominations and institutions accountable has fallen by the wayside to a feeble and perverted claim of religious liberty and church-state separation. Many people holding to patriarchal doctrines claim their convictions and practices are based on closely held religious beliefs. While this might be technically true, there comes a point when the concept of “conflicting rights” persists.

As the church and culture weigh the rights for religious beliefs and practices, the church and culture must also consider the rights of those victimized by heinous behavior. As one of my former mentors liked to point out, “My right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”

Developing and implementing a standard definition for theological malpractice will be challenging to achieve. For instance, where is the mark that pushes personal convictions over the line? What beliefs and practices would be considered so out of the norm that the term “malpractice” would be assigned to it? And finally, the most problematic of all, who gets to decide what is “theological malpractice” and what is not?

Let me pause for a moment to be perfectly clear: Criminal and civil courts will decide the guilt and innocence of individuals, churches, denominations and institutions concerning sexual abuse and liability in sexual abuse cases. However, I am suggesting that persons and organizations that perpetuate a rigid patriarchal and misogynist theology that causes harms to victims stand guilty of theological malpractice. They distort biblical truth to gain and keep power.

For the sake of sexual abuse victims and the global Christian witness, the church must attempt to hold accountable perpetrators and those that neglect to protect victims. Therefore, a working definition of “theological malpractice” becomes necessary for the sake of Christian victims harmed by such misguided interpretations and practices.

Critics of this attempt will argue that such a definition could never be achieved concerning a diversity of opinion. For example, some fear that convictions such as complementarianism and male authoritarianism will be under attack under the guise of theological malpractice.

My response to such critics would be something like the following, “While I fervently disagree with the interpretations and applications of complementarianism and male authoritarianism, I do respect individual conscience and their right to hold such beliefs with respect to religious liberty. However, beliefs become culpable when they are used to harbor sexual abusers and place the reputation of the clergy and church above the rights of victims.

“Beliefs that place more value on the institution of the church over the humanity of victims misses the central teaching of the gospel. In other words, when loving God and neighbor falls by the wayside to the preservation of institutional and professional reputations, then that, by definition, is theological malpractice.”

Theological malpractice reaches critical mass when belief and practice lead to physical, mental and emotional damage to another human. Granted, the term “damage” can be debated, but the definition exists within other professions.

Cornell Law offers the following definitions of damages within the more general term, “Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured party for loss or injury. Punitive damages are awarded to punish a wrongdoer.”

In cases where churches, denominations and institutions are found guilty in violating the rights of victims, a similar definition of “damage” can be applied. Victims of sexual abuse certainly have a claim that they were damaged by the perpetrator and those that failed to protect them.

With all of this to consider, I propose the following definition for theological malpractice in the context of sexual abuse: “Theological malpractice is the perversion of the gospel based upon a flawed hermeneutical philosophy built upon patriarchalism and misogyny that protects the reputations of clergy, churches, denominations and institutions and debases the rights of victims, causing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual damage.”

With the problem stated and a working definition narrowed, we now move to practical and pragmatic actions. The church needs a better methodology for theological reflection. For the first several centuries, theological reflection was conducted by learned males and communicated to everyone else. This led to a hierarchical methodology with male influences that fell prey to corruption and greed.

After the Reformation, males were still primarily in charge of theological reflection and communication, but a door was opened to the commoner. Through the radical reformers, men and women were now reading the Bible for themselves and drawing conclusions. However, there still needed to be a process to read, interpret and apply the Scriptures. The battle cry of the Reformation, “sola scriptura,” was brilliant but it fell short in any attempt to understand the literary, historical and cultural nuances of the Bible.

The historical-critical method of reading, interpreting and applying Scripture filled the gap left behind by “sola scriptura.” The historical-critical method believed that readers of Scripture would honestly look at the text objectively, stripping away any bias to discover the true meaning of the passage. The thought was that if readers could look at the text objectively, analyzing its literary, historical and cultural markers, then the truth could be achieved.

It was a brilliant idea and helped in many ways, but it forgot to take something into account. No matter who we are – whether we are conservative or liberal, whether we are Protestant or Catholic – we truly cannot shed ourselves to read, interpret and apply the Scriptures objectively. We all have biases based upon our experiences, histories and social makeup. There is just no way to get around it.

Also, even if we could get at the naked truth of the ancient writers, we would then have to figure out how that truth plays within our culture. Under that method, we have to decide if the biblical authors were citing universal or cultural truth. Universal truth is truth that never changes, such as Jesus as Lord. Cultural truth was truth during that era that may not have the same ramification in the modern age. In other words, we stopped stoning disobedient children.

In the context of biblical egalitarianism, those espousing absolute male authority and complementarianism in the church and home interpret and apply specific passages as a universal truth. Also, they tend to interpret those passages through their preconceived ideologies to justify their preconceived conclusions. They also conveniently neglect other passages in the Bible that would contradict their findings.

On the other hand, when egalitarians come across complicated passages, such as Paul’s admonishment of women teaching men in Ephesus (1 Timothy 2:12), they seek to understand those texts in their historical and cultural context with the awareness of modern application. They also measure complicated texts against the totality of the Bible with special attention given to the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

Regarding the recent revelations of sexual abuse among patriarchal authoritarians, it might be wise for those denominations and churches to examine their hermeneutical methodologies and practices. They need to ask an honest question of themselves, “Did our interpretations and applications of Scripture prohibiting shared leadership and mutual equality among men and women contribute to the abuse and cover-ups of abuse?”

If they genuinely and honestly want to assess every aspect of the growing crisis of sexual abuse in these churches, denominations and institutions, then they need to begin with their theology. They just might be surprised by what they discover.

In May 2018, former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Dr. Paige Patterson was removed from his position after charges of sexism arose. Initially, Patterson was offered a very lucrative retirement package. It was later rescinded after more allegations against him came to light.

Patterson had a history of preaching a complementarian and patriarchal message for decades. He also had a history of sharing misogynistic stories, such as the time he described a young man who was “biblical” for describing a girl as “built.”

These remarks never got Patterson into trouble with those charged with oversight. However, when allegations emerged of him encouraging a female rape victim not to report her rapist, seminary trustees could no longer look the other away.

My question for those charged with Patterson’s oversight is: Did they feel any culpability at all? Did their patriarchal convictions give license to Patterson to say inappropriate things and engage in improper behavior? Could this rape victim have been helped if it were not for culture built upon these ideas?

For me, this is the very essence of theological malpractice. This notion leads to the liability of those espousing such beliefs. A direct line can be drawn from those beliefs to the damage inflicted on abuse victims.

Let me offer the following conclusions.

The church needs to continue working toward a definition of theological malpractice when innocent victims are harmed. The church can no longer afford to hide behind veiled claims of autonomy when women and children are being victimized. The day of separating belief and practice must end. It is no longer acceptable to say beliefs are harmless unless they lead to inappropriate behavior. Misguided and misplaced beliefs lead to harm, either directly or indirectly.

Patriarchal environments can enable sexual abuse through male-dominated authority. Not every person or environment holding complementarian and patriarchal beliefs is an abuser or condones abuse, but almost every abuser holds these beliefs. The church must seriously consider how its theological convictions and practices toward women contribute to abusive behavior and cover-ups. There are far too many victims not to look at the connection seriously.

Theological convictions formed through patriarchal power, rather than the totality of biblical truth, garner the potential for abusive behavior and silence in covering it up. The church needs to examine its current hermeneutical practices. When they are found flawed, then they must be corrected. The church cannot continue allowing persons of power and privilege to make all the rules. The church is comprised of all of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, all of them need to have a voice in how to read, interpret and apply the Bible when it comes to women in the church and home.

Finally, there is hope on the horizon. The revelation of the abuse within the church has sparked a full forward assault on sexual abuse. Organizations like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Women in Ministry have published materials educating churches on the pitfalls they can avoid and the issues they need to be paying attention to locally. They are demonstrating for churches the proper way to make certain abuse does not happen in the church and how to accurately report it when it does come to their attention. These are good signs that some churches are taking this seriously and that they genuinely want to root out abusers and those that protect them.

Let me end with a quote from the late Rachel Held Evans from her book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”: “If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an outdated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not ‘What does it say?’, but ‘What am I looking for?’ I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, ‘Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.”

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.