A Radical Reformation in the Making? - by Mary Clark Moschella

Mary Clark Moschella

For years, many of us half-knew of sexual abuses going on in Hollywood, workplaces, neighborhoods, academia, or communities of faith, but we mostly ignored them. The #MeToo reckoning has broken through layers of our collective denial. Thoughtful, sentient persons can no longer pretend not to know. The victims of such abuses cannot now be so easily disregarded, demeaned, or discredited. In cases of he said/she said, she might get a hearing, at least. The public outcry has nudged cultural norms forward slightly, in the direction of a more just sexual ethics.

Communities of faith have the opportunity to respond – and to lead. Instead of imitating the slow pace of cultural change by belatedly offering minor reparations to individuals who have been harmed, churches will, I hope, take this moment to do a deeper kind of reckoning.

We can start by listening to the victims’ stories, and trying to understand how such abuse has gone on so long, even within houses of worship. We can repent of the harm we have caused, wittingly or unwittingly, by what we have done or what we have failed to do to protect the vulnerable. Examine our theologies and traditions in order to see how we have colluded with the culture in denying the full humanity of women, children, trans persons, and other victims of abuse. Analyze the subtle forces of sexism, racism, classism, and other dynamics that intersect to support sexual violence and allow us to look away from such suffering. Only by confronting social power imbalances, and turning toward God’s goodness, mercy, and love, can we claim the moral authority to lead, rather than follow, this recent encouraging cultural change.

Grave Errors

Two recent events illustrate the challenge of power asymmetries embedded in the theology and institutional life of churches. The first example concerns the Roman Catholic Church and the second the Southern Baptist Convention. In June, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid of Orsono, Chile, as well as those of two other bishops in Chile. This was a remarkable turnaround for a pope who only months earlier had defended Barros and accused his victims of calumny, asserting there was no evidence to support their claims of abuse. Fortunately, Francis had the wisdom to ask the Vatican to investigate further. When he was presented with a 2,300-page report based on 64 interviews in Chile, he began to understand his mistake.

For a pope to admit and apologize for his “grave errors” is astonishing. Here Francis models the kind of repentance needed in this moment in history. His words and actions are bound to have a striking impact across Catholic life. Nevertheless, a sincere reckoning with the causes of sexual abuse also must address the imbalances of power that make such damaging misconduct around children and other parishioners possible, if not likely: the tradition of a celibate male priesthood that is imbued with divine authority and ontological weight, the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry that reinforces notions of male superiority and proximity to God, and the theological rejection of diverse sexualities and gender identities that does intrinsic harm to people created in the image and likeness of God. The recent harrowing Pennsylvania grand jury report about widespread abuse by priests will further test this pope’s leadership around this historic moral catastrophe.

The second recent event involves the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the wave of sexual misconduct allegations it has faced this year. A high-profile case involved Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, who was fired in May after reports that he counseled women to return to their abusive spouses and pray, and also discouraged women students from reporting that they had been raped. Patterson was a leader of the conservative “biblicist party” that triumphed over the more moderate “autonomist party” in the bitter SBC schism years ago (1979-2000).1 At the SBC annual meeting in June 2018, protestors carried signs saying “Stop the Abuse.” The convention passed a resolution acknowledging that “we deplore, apologize, and ask for forgiveness for failures to protect the abused, failures that have occurred in evangelical churches and ministries, including such failures within our own denomination” … and “we call on pastors and ministry leaders to foster safe environments in which abused persons may both recognize the reprehensible nature of their abuse and reveal such abuse to pastors and ministry leaders in safety and expectation of being believed and protected.”2

Theological Abuse

This public repentance of sexist wrongdoing represents a start. However, it does not go far enough. It does not address the roots of sexist and abusive behavior, which are theological as well as cultural.

It is time for churches across the spectrum, including the evangelical-minded SBC, to reconsider their support of complementarian theology. Complementarity is the idea that God made men and women as equals, but in a specific order of au-thority, with men preceding women. Therefore, “as Christ leads the church, a man should love and lead his wife and family.”3 Women cannot lead men, but husbands should be loving as they lead their wives. The consequences of this asymmetry of power in marriages and families are clear. One party has the upper hand. When women disagree with or disobey their husbands, they can be made to feel guilty, unchristian. When they go to their pastors and report abuse, and are asked, “What did you do to provoke him?” or are told to go home and cook his favorite dinner and pray for him, they are being set up for further harm. There is nothing loving, and nothing Christ-like, in this advice.

Complementarity is used to exclude women from ordained ministry in chaplaincy positions and in thousands of congregations. This blatant rejection of women’s vocations means their insights and gifts for ministry are stymied if not lost. It defies logic that many Christian leaders who now decry abuse still want to preserve the notion of complementarity, somehow putting a softer spin on the inequality it entails. At best, this could be described as “healing the wound lightly,” a phrase that comes from the prophet Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).

A Gospel Rebuke

A deep kind of healing requires a reevaluation of complementarity. Consider how faulty is the logic of the interpretation of scripture used to support this way of asserting men’s superiority over women. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible pointed out many years ago that in the second creation story (Gen. 2-3), “the Yahwist account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination.”4 More important, scripture and theology ought not be used as weapons to reinforce social hierarchies of any kind. Jesus proclaimed the reversal of the hierarchies he encountered, announcing that “the last will be first” (Matt 20:16). He taught us to love God and neighbor as ourselves, not to grasp for power over each other.

I don’t mean to demonize particular communions of faith. As it happens, in the course of my life I have been a part of both church bodies I cite here. I grew up with the wonder and mystery of the Catholic Mass, and even though as a girl I was not allowed to serve at the altar, the Church still served me, by bringing me to a life of faith. My affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention (ironically enough, the church that ordained me) was briefer, but also full of meaning. For 35 years now, I’ve beenordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC). It is my love for the churches that makes me believe that we can do better.

As we confront the persistence of sexual violence both within and outside our institutions of faith, we must challenge the underlying asymmetries of power that allow such abuse to continue. Crucial to this is recognizing the full humanity of women, persons of color, immigrants, LGBTQIA persons, children, persons with dis/abilities, poor persons, prisoners, and other marginalized groups. Strong curricula on sexuality are available, such as “Our Whole Lives,” that explain what it means to engage in just and loving sexual relationships.5 We must learn to accord respect to all people as full moral agents who can make decisions about their bodies and, related to this, work to ensure equal access to reproductive rights and health care.

In the #MeToo era, when even the pope is apologizing to victims and an evangelical patriarch faces punishment, it’s time for Christians to come to Jesus on these issues. The resources for a radical reformation are at hand in scripture and tradition. Along with our co-religionists, we can choose to ensure that our religious institutions protect the vulnerable and lead the culture into fuller understandings of justice and life-giving human relationships. The goodness and love of God beckon us to move forward with courage and strength.

Mary Clark Moschella is Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at YDS and the author of Caring for Joy: Narrative, Theology, and Practice (Brill, 2016). She is the co-editor of a new book, with Susan Willhauck, Qualitative Research in Theological Education: Pedagogy in Practice (SCM Press, 2018).


1 For a thorough and innovative account of the schism, see Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention (University of Tennessee Press, 2016).

2 See www.sbc.net/resolutions/year/2018.

3 Campbell-Reed, p. 32.

4 Phyllis Trible, “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,” Andover Newton Quarterly, 13 (1973), pp. 251-2. For fuller treatment of the story, see Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1978).

5 “Our Whole Lives” is a lifetime sexuality education program that is used (in slightly different variations) by the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association. See these websites for more details: www.ucc.org/justice_sexualityeducation_our-whole-lives; and https://www.uua.org/re/owl.