Sexual abuse won’t stop unless the church puts women in power


Bill Gothard.

Doug Phillips.

Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Bob Jones University.

Josh Duggar.

The Village Church.

Oh, and lest we think this is purely an evangelical phenomenon—or that fundamentalists are the only ones who minimize abuse, marginalize women, and harbor their abusers—John Howard Yoder.

There is no single, magic answer to the epidemic of abuse in the church, both Protestant and Catholic. But increasingly, I’m convinced of one thing: the abuse won’t end as long as men are the sole arbiters of power.

When a woman has to go before an all-male elder board for permission to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict, that’s a recipe for perpetuating abuse.

Sure, they might apologize later for “not communicating clearly” or for being too “heavy-handed.” But if they don’t confront the root problem—men claiming sole power by divine right—then it’s just going to happen again. And again and again. Any theology that insists on a God-ordained “male priority” (yes, that’s the term they use) is complicit in the cycle of abuse.


If you exclude women from leadership, who holds the men accountable when they abuse their power? Other men, just like them? A God who, to them, is essentially masculine—just like them? I don’t think so.

All-male leadership fosters an environment where men act with impunity.

This shouldn’t be hard to grasp, especially for evangelicals. Those who believe in human depravity should have no trouble imagining what happens when one group claims a monopoly on power—or worse, when they claim their right to do so was given by God himself.

Yet many Christians refuse to consider the one thing that could actually help stop abuse: giving women an equal share of power.

Of course, it’s easy to point the finger at those who wear the term “patriarchy” as if it were a badge of honor. The truth is, many of us who reject patriarchy haven’t done much better. We may accept the notion of gender equality in principle. But if the composition of our leadership is any indicator, we haven’t fully embraced it in practice. (Case in point: though the Episcopal Church has been ordaining women for almost 40 years, the active priesthood is still two-thirds male.)

It’s time for a radical overhaul to church culture and governance. A theoretical commitment to equality won’t do anymore. Token gestures—like putting a woman or two on the elder board—won’t cut it, either.

It’s time for women to have a truly equal share in the leadership of our churches. That means it’s time for some of us to relinquish our unearned privilege, to let go of our monopoly on power. It’s time for some of us to step aside. It’s time to practice what we preach.

When women share equally in the leadership of our churches, it will be harder for men to get away with trivializing and ignoring—and therefore perpetuating—abuse.

That day can’t come soon enough.

Image: The Pulpit by Bs0u10e0 on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

63 thoughts on “Sexual abuse won’t stop unless the church puts women in power

  1. “the root problem—men claiming sole power by divine right” – that hits it on the head, Ben. As long as there is this sense men must rule, so that that even the worst man is better than the best woman, these problems will plague the Church.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Feel free, with or without attribution. After all, your post is what led me to say it in the first place, you word instigator you.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Tim Fall has pointed this out in his own blog, but it bears repeating that a common practice to make patriarchy more palatable and less tyrannical sounding is to slap the “servant leadership” label on it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s a good point. I think that’s partly why I opted to call it what it is—power—rather than use a euphemism like “servant leadership.” Any institution with any sort of governance structure involves power. The best way to prevent any one group from abusing that power is to make sure it is shared among as broad and diverse a group as possible, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ben, you make some very interesting points. Definitely thought-provoking. I am curious, though, about where the Bible teaches on equality, specifically gender equality?


    1. The creation narratives, especially the first one (Genesis 1) present male and female as equal, in my view. It’s the introduction of sin in Genesis 3 that brings inequality to the relationship between the two. According to Paul in Galatians, this sin-wrought inequality is obliterated by Christ (“there is no longer male and female…”).

      In other words, the story begins with equality, and the trajectory of redemption is toward equality again. Dividing categories (slave vs. free, Jew vs. Gentile, male vs. female) are rendered obsolete along the way.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love that you reference the original intent of the Genesis narrative here. I once heard someone state that what happened in the Fall was not actually the sin of eating the fruit, but the part where Adam betrayed Eve. In fact, the entire cycle of abuse is instigated upon Eve whereby she is seduced by a presumably male snake, betrayed by her male partner, and punished (sexually) by a presumably male god.

        I also think that imaging God in the male leads to a sense that whatever men do is “like God,” and therefore makes us more likely to excuse men’s behavior (or allow them back to preach and lead again, as the case with Driscoll.)

        Thank you for advocating for women and for women in leadership. As someone who also writes about Abuse in Sacred Spaces, I am thankful for others who raise their voices and especially thankful when men do so, because women need men to help and women need men to share that leadership. Thank you.
        Theresa Moxley

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love what you have written here. Thanks 🙂

    FWIW, I believe that the concept of christians (whether male or female) having power and authority over others plays into the equation, too. Jesus said we are not to ‘lord it over’ each other. He also said that we are not to take ‘titles’ for ourselves. I suspect that when we recognise each other as brothers and sisters (peers and equals), and realise that every one of us is gifted (in various ways) so that we can simply serve, we might find ourselves less burdened by this nightmare of abuse… and more effective at bringing the Kingdom into reality in our everyday lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. Power too often equals control and coercion, and those two things are antithetical to love, IMO. We not only need more women in positions of authority; we need to radically rethink our notion of power and authority. (Though I think doing the first could help with the second.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Biblically speaking, sorry to mention that, clearly women are not to be in a position of authority. The presupposition that because they are not in positions of equal power causing peripheral issues is simply a statement that has little thought. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression,” (1 Tim. 2:12-14 NASB)
    The problem is that the men in power are abusing it, or not behaving like Christian men!


      1. Deborah (Judges 4, 5) was an Old Testament Judge–not a New Testament elder. Priscilla (Rom. 16:3, 4), a fellow worker in Christ, is not said to be an elder/pastor. Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) is a servant (diakonos) of the church–not an elder/pastor. Note that Jesus came not to be served but to serve (diakonos) (Mark 10:45) Junia (Rom. 16:7) may have been a female apostle (not one of the 12) though this is debated. Still, even if she were, apostles are not for today; and an apostle is not a pastor/elder. Junia may have also been male?


      2. Wow, you’re really splitting hairs. All these women were leaders and/or teachers of some kind. That’s the point. Deborah was a judge so powerful that Barak was afraid to fight Sisera without her. Priscilla played an active role—possibly the lead role—in teaching/discipling Apollos. You neglected to mention that Phoebe is also described as a patron (prostatis), which suggests she was responsible for caring for/overseeing others. And yes, Junia was both a woman and an apostle. The only way to argue otherwise is to reinvent the rules of Greek to suit your theological presuppositions.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ben, your article is about women needing to be in higher authority in the church, am I wrong? I need to see biblical evidence, as that’s the kind of guy I am. Deborah was a judge in the Old Testament. Citing Deborah doesn’t address the New Testament issue of the elders being male, and authority, the teachers, and the husbands of one wife.
        If the early church did have deaconesses, how were the offices defined? Were they in places of authority and were they teaching? If women held office, how were they husbands of one wife? Or, as the Scriptures show, were they servants of the church–helping to take care of the needs of God’s people? Your egalitarian position is full of holes. You say they were “leaders and teachers of some kind” Where in scripture can you show me that they had authority in the church?


      4. I’ve already provided examples of women in the New Testament serving in positions of authority. Ignore the evidence all you want.


      5. Sorry Ben but you have not, not in the sense of women having authority in the church, Not one scripture! I guess ignoring Paul is part of the liberal “feel good” church of today?

        “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression,” (1 Tim. 2:12-14)

        Looking further at Paul’s teachings, we see that the bishop/overseer is to be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), who manages his household well, and has a good reputation (1 Tim. 3:4-5, 7). Deacons must be “men of dignity” (1 Tim. 3:8). Paul then speaks of women in verse 11 and their obligation to receive instruction. Then in verse 12, Paul says “Let deacons be husbands of one wife . . . ” Again, in Titus 1:5-7, Paul says, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward . . . ” Notice that Paul interchanges the word ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’.

        In each case, the one who is an elder, deacon, bishop, or overseer is instructed to be male!

        Ben I think you mean well, however you are wrong on this. And I will not argue with a brother any further. Please take off your PC glasses!

        God Bless!


      6. You are repeated the same arguments that have been thoroughly addressed in a thousand places. You can pretend that your way of reading these texts is the only way, but it’s not.


  6. Ben, you’ve done well to shake my thoughts. This whole TVC foolishness has opened my eyes to something I may have given intellectual assent to but have never *really* acknowledged…if Christianity is a male thing (a ‘Ring-a-Ding Kid’ boys club as I’ve called it), then what’s the point for women? If the only REAL benefit is ‘going to heaven when you die’, how does one benefit from being Christian while still alive? Christianity is supposed to be different. How many female Pastors abuse their congregates? It seems to be an exclusively male thing. Lastly, if Christianity doesn’t change this ugly aspect, we will be no better than Talmudic Judaism and Islam who although claim to be monotheistic, for all intents and purposes, deify the male above all of God’s creation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow…your last statement is sobering and right on the money.

      While there are cases of women sexually abusing others, the vast majority of abuse—something like 90%—is committed by men. Seems to me that when any one group claims a monopoly on power, it’s a recipe for abuse. And we men have had a monopoly on power for a LONG time…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful article regarding the power status of the evangelical church, however, I think its naive regarding the causes of abuse and abusers to think that a power shift would stop abuse. Certainly fewer woman abuse then men, but that stat is fast on the rise. As a pastor and trained counselor who has spent over 25 counseling abuse survivors, I have seen a fair share of women abusers – including the pastor who was caught having sex on the communion table with one of her congregants – or the babysitters club who pimped out the children in their care. Abuse is a serious issue requiring much care and we should be aware that, while less prevalent than male abusers, females also abuse. Simply replacing the power structure will help some, and certainly end the bias towards blaming the victim, but is not a blanket solution to end abuse.


    1. When a denomination elects/appoints women to its highest offices, it experiences other changes as well; that is – in addition to an attitude adjustment about victims “enabling” their abusers. Women are regarded with more respect, and expectations for women are elevated. I will never go back to a church that reserves some positions/offices for men, nor will I attend a church that excludes women from being ordained. Now that I do attend a church with women in leadership positions, I’m not sure why I ever went to a church that had a patriarchal framework for leadership.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point, Karen. If a woman has to have her story of abuse adjudicated by a panel of elders or church leaders (which is often part of the problem—church leaders not taking abuse seriously enough to engage the proper authorities), an all-male panel is more likely to dismiss or trivialize her story…or believe some nonsense about her “enabling” her abuser. Part of the need, as I see it, is for a strong female voice to say, “No, really. We need to deal with this.”

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Esther, I’m not arguing that simply putting women in charge will bring an end to the cycle of abuse. As I write near the beginning of my post, “There is no single, magic answer to the epidemic of abuse in the church.” What I’m arguing is that we can’t hope to end the cycle without empowering women. In other words, to me it’s an essential step, but not the only one.

      The original title of my post was probably not as clear as it should have been on this point. So I just changed it from “until the church puts women in power” to “unless the church puts women in power.”


  8. Hear, hear, I certainly want to shout this from the rooftops! Wait, I have been! OK, not literally, but this is indeed a root problem with the church that MUST stop. It’s no wonder so many people of our generation have given up on what they see as something that sucks life out of people and life instead of being the platform for the Source of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree with allowing women to be participate in church leadership. Having women in leadership will “decrease the frequency of sexual abuses to some extend”. But I am not convinced that putting women in leadership will “stop” sexual abuse. There are less female abusers than male abusers because fewer women have the power or status/position to do so. Power and pride corrupt people, males or females. Of course we want to have “Deborah” in today’s church. And yet, we also want to avoid having “Jezebel”.


  10. I just don’t get it. I am 54 years old, my whole life has been experienced in the “Equal Rights” erra. I have been told over and over again that my gender is a violent, abusive, sexual predator, how we are as a gender who controls and manipulates. We’re dishonest and will lie to protect someone of our own gender. Everytime I turn on the news males are portrayed as some unstoppable evil. Even in most custody cases mom gets the kids. If the father gets custody, it only after he proves her unfit. Do you think for a moment, that we become what we are taught? Do you think, if we taught our young boys what it truly ment to be a husband according to the Bible the problem wouldn’t start to be solved. Do you think if Christians followed ALL the verses regarding the instructions of husbands and wives this horrible situation wouldn’t improve. I will agree there are words and terms in there that are more than just a little hard to swallow, yet in the end, if it’s followed, its how God instructed us to find equal. This continual tearing one gender down to build another up isn’t it! In essence, the venue you have chosen is no different then the one you are fighting. Here’s one more thing I might add, go visit a female dominated church, see how many men will even seek to be a leader, then go back, read about husbands and wives, and ask yourself, Why is it written this way! What you find might just surprise you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So… it’s women’s fault that some men are abusive because they insist on talking about the fact that some men are abusive?

      You’re right about one thing: you really don’t get it.


    2. Sarah it is forbidden in the bible for there to be woman pastors. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression,” (1 Tim. 2:12-14) NASB Some people go with how they “feel”, well maybe they should get a good sharpie and cross out those scriptures? A Christian man will not abuse his wife or any other woman for that matter. Stay with scripture and not feelings like most on this post are indicating.
      God Bless


      1. I hate to burst your bubble, but there are more interpretations of the biblical text than the one you keep wanting to cram down peoples throats.


      2. You can interpret my interpretation as “hubris”, however it is still “plain scripture”! If you don’t want to believe the words in the bible I think you need to take this to the Lord and pray on it. BTW your hostility has me a bit concerned. Liberalism in the church is rampant. You still have not provided me with scripture supporting women in church authority. Until you do I cannot take you seriously.
        God Bles!


      3. I am not going to argue with you anymore. This is between you and God while you “cram” liberalism down everyone’s throats. This is between you and God.


    3. Amen John,
      It is unbiblical for women to hold authority over men. A Christian man will not abuse a woman. Another side to this is that there are many cases of women abusing the man, so I find this article not only one-sided but also a perfect case of egalitarian liberalism.
      God Bless!


  11. This is very interesting. Right now I am torn between two churches due to family reasons- one, a Methodist church with an awesome female Rev. The other is a primitive baptist church with an awesome but somewhat scary male pastor. They both tell me such different opinions of their ideas of women’s leadership, but I realized that scripture can hint on both. I think, if a woman can tell the word of God with passion and power, and follow his word, then why does it matter? I love all pastors, priests, and reverends. Woo!


  12. I feel as though this argument doesn’t hold water if we apply it in other ways. For example, instead of talking about female abuse, let’s frame the question about child abuse. In that case, the analogical argument would go something like, “child abuse will only subside if we allow children an equal chance to be in charge rather than just adults.”

    Obviously it’s not a great analogy, but the idea that a group can only achieve proper protection against abuse via being given the right to priesthood is tenuous.


  13. Maybe we should stick to GOD’s PLAN. Not only can HE tie your shoe, he made it.

    I “Speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” in Titus 2.

    3 The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;
    4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
    5 To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.
    6 Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded.

    Have you taken time looked around you lately? I see this critical job and miserable failure. Is this like moving those that cannot do, well less find, their job to another job; just because they cannot do what they were hired for to start with?

    We currently have 12% women Pastors now. I see the child abuse rates are up to 40% caused or allowed by the mother, 25,000 more females entering the jail system, 680,000 more men physically abused and assaulted with a weapon than and by women and a total failure in societal family. Your point would be?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I came across this the other day which might be useful 🙂

    “No one just “reads the Bible plainly”. Everyone relies on scholars and textual critics who translate a 2 to 3,000 year old culture and language into the modern English language. Know also that translating a text (especially an ancient one!) is never objective, it is interpretive. Just like today, there are many cultural nuances to words, including multiple definitions and usages of words. There is slang, hyperbole, literary genre, and cultural context which we simply are clueless about and are very hard to convey to 21st century Americans. There are words and concepts which literally have no English equivalent. The task of translation is not objective, it is highly interpretive…

    Then people go and say “the Bible clearly says.” No, many times it is their predisposed opinion of the English translation of the Bible that clearly says.”


  15. Shouldn’t we improve women’s track record on raising kids on their own first:
    63% of youth suicides are raised by single mothers (Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census)
    90% of all homeless and runaway children are from single mother homes
    85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes (Source: Center for Disease Control)
    80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from single mother homes (Source: Criminal Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26, 1978.)
    71% of all high school dropouts come from single mother homes (Source: National Principals Association Report on the State of High Schools.)
    75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from single mother homes (Source: Rainbows for all God`s Children.)
    70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from single mother homes (Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Special Report, Sept 1988)
    85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a single mother home (Source: Fulton Co. Georgia jail populations, Texas Dept. of Corrections 1992)


  16. the real problem is simply this: NO ACCOUNTABILITY!

    I don’t care if you have all women, men or mixed. When a governing committee/group/whatever has final say than anything can happen.

    There needs to be accountability to any group.


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