The Problem with Spiritual “Authority”

Image found at Artist unknown.

Trigger warning for victims of sexual assault and abuse.

The other day, I published a post on what spiritual authority really means and how the evangelical church has abused the term. It seems rather timely that, shortly afterward, a huge uproar would arise over Christianity Today‘s decision to publish the story of a youth minister who sexually exploited one of the girls in his youth group. Of course, the ex-youth pastor doesn’t call it statutory rape or exploitation; rather it was a “extra-marital relationship” where both had “fallen into sin.” Many Christian bloggers, myself included, are calling for the story to be taken down.

Thankfully, that former youth pastor is in prison and, hopefully, his victim is receiving help. But if you want to know why sexual abuse is so prevalent in the Church, or why things like rape and pedophilia can be labeled “consensual extra-marital affairs,” or why it’s so darn difficult for victims to come forward and receive justice, the misuse of “spiritual authority” is a big reason.

To illustrate, I’m going to tell you my own story.

Many years ago, my father pastored a church in a small, southern coastal town. He was friends with the church’s former pastor, who was older and more successful in ministry. Every couple of years, a missionary friend of this pastor would visit the church to talk about his work in Latin America and solicit support. His name was Joe. At the time, Joe was probably in his late 50s, maybe early 60s. When he came, he stayed in the church’s missionary’s quarters and ate dinner with us at night. Once or twice, Joe brought three teenage Latina girls with him, claiming they were family friends in the area of Latin America where he ministered. The girls spoke no English.

For some reason, I was never comfortable around Joe. He was always laughing and telling interesting stories, but I struggled to get within 10 feet of him. I couldn’t figure out why, but the way he smiled and spoke to me made my skin crawl. Whenever he was in our house, I tried to avoid him as much as possible.

Then on one particular visit, when I was 11 years old, my mom and dad left me and Joe alone in the house for a few minutes. My dad claimed he had to check the locks on the church doors; my mom had to fetch something. Joe and I were sitting on separate couches watching TV. Almost as soon as the door slammed shut behind my parents, Joe called me over to him. Now, I had always been taught to obey my elders, especially those in spiritual authority: pastors, Sunday School teachers…missionaries. So I went over to him.

As soon as I was in front of him, Joe scooped me up into a bear hug and pinned me against his body with an iron grip. Then he started asking me questions: “Did you miss me? Have you been thinking about me?” The whole time he’s talking, he is stroking my breast through my shirt. I was mortified. My back and neck ached from trying to arch away from him, and I could barely breathe. The only reason I knew what was happening to me at the time is because I had already been molested, by someone else, three years earlier.

I would have done anything to escape, but Joe was several times bigger and stronger than I was. I finally realized that the only way out was to answer his filthy questions. I stammered out enough in the affirmative to appease him, then returned to my seat on the other side of the living room. The whole exchange didn’t take more than a couple of minutes. My parents returned about 3 minutes afterward.

The thought of seeing or touching Joe again was literally unbearable. Everything about him disgusted me to the point of vomit. So I wrote my parents a letter, telling them what Joe had done. They came and talked to me, and I confirmed the whole story. I also told them that I was concerned for the three girls who had traveled with Joe the year before. All three of them stayed with him in the missionary’s quarters, which only had two double beds. Once, I had knocked on the door to collect used towels, and Joe was in the adjoining bathroom shower. When the door opened, I only saw two girls in the room. If he had done this to me, what was he doing to them?

My parents promised they would try to get Joe to leave as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I could hide out in my room whenever he was over. They spent their tax return fixing Joe’s broken-down truck so he could leave. My dad confronted him before he left. I don’t know what was said between them.

A year later, after my dad had resigned the church, my dad’s pastor friend called him up to say that Joe was back in town and needing a place to stay for a few days. He asked if our family would be willing to put him up. My dad refused. When his friend pressed him for a reason (knowing that we had the room), my dad explained what Joe had done to me. The pastor was FURIOUS…not at Joe, but at me and my dad. “How dare you accuse a man of God of such terrible things!” he said. “I’ve known Joe for years. He would never do something like that! April is obviously lying.”

My dad assured him I was not. Instead of believing him, the pastor chose to end their friendship. I was best friends with his youngest daughter – had played with her for years.

I found out later that I wasn’t the only one Joe had assaulted. Many of my friends, including at least two of the pastor’s four daughters, all had stories about how Joe had tried to corner them, touch them, even lay on top of them when their parents were out of the room. But I was the only one who had told on him. They didn’t dare speak against “a man of God” who was loved by those in leadership. Like me, they would have been accused of lying…and severely punished.

What’s really sad is that my story is typical. This sort of thing happens all the time. It happened with Bill Gothard. It happened with Doug Philips. It happens at big churches and small churches all around the country. It happens at Christian colleges. The only reason you don’t hear about it more often is because of a doctrine that discourages and even punishes victims for speaking out. According to the doctrine, people who are deemed to be spiritual authorities can only be held accountable by God. They can be trusted. Victims can’t. They’re just in rebellion against their leaders.

This is why Jesus commanded the disciples to not lord their position as preachers over others. The Pharisees had already proven that you can’t have hierarchy without corruption:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

And if I were in leadership, I’d rethink that whole idea of being accountable only to God:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

Hint: that means that a swim with a millstone necklace is preferable to whatever form of justice God will mete out to those who have exploited His children.

8 responses to “The Problem with Spiritual “Authority”

  1. Poor little girls…when I was 11 a man whose children I babysat came home-leaving his wife and mother at the restaurant!-“because he forgot his wallet” but it was really to have a touch at the babysitter…
    Like you my parents believed me; my mother gave it to him between the eyes once (he found out I was there w the kids during the day and I panicked and called home; Mama hot footed it down there and was waiting when he arrived. It’s a sickness. At 11 I didn’t even have breast buds, I was as much like a boy as anything else!
    My mama worried about his daughters…I sometimes do too, and his poor wife; I loved his wife, she taught me to play the guitar. I had to tell her…
    They moved not too much later.

    There was an interesting rant I stumbled upon fitting “purity balls” into this snapshot from hell somehow. It was disturbing, to say the least.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story!
    May it be yet another contribution that opens up people’s eyes to the potential abuses of leadership possible in our churches. The truth will set us free as Jesus taught, but we have to be able to accept the sad and awful truths in this world in order to live in that freedom.
    Unfortunately, the truth in your story about Joe being a predator was actively ignored for too long at a very high cost. May this story prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

  3. April, just read Pointing Out Sin. Was sorry comments were disabled, as I wanted to tell you I agreed with you 100%. Too often we forget our charge to love and tell of our Lord’s saving grace.

    Your story above struck a chord as well; I read the Christianity Today story and was appalled. Thank you for always being open and honest, and for writing in love. You have a heart for Christ, and it always comes through.

    • Thanks so much, Susan. I didn’t know comments were disabled on my other post, so I turned them on. I always value my readers’ input.

  4. I do not know if it would be safe for you and others to do this, but it seems to me that the time has long past for a list of names of “men” who have done such deeds be published.

    The “protest-ant” church, especially the “evangelical” one, has basically been given a pass on this problem, while the Roman Catholic church has been hammered.

    You may need legal counsel before proceeding, but only names and places of people involved will finally grant people, women and men who were once happy children, the opportunity for them to report their stories.

    God bless your ministry.

  5. April: I don’t know what to say, so I’m posting this comment to show support, belief in you, and my unspeakable outrage at not only this particular story but the entire issue of molestation and abuse within religious circles.

    P. S. I read somewhere that Bill Gothard excused his molestation by saying that he did not do it with evil intent, so therefore it wasn’t wrong. Essentially: “I don’t think what I’m doing is a sin, so it’s not a sin.” So wrong.

  6. P. P. S. I don’t know how effective this will turn out to be as my children are still small, but I teach my children not to obey anyone without asking me first. Under no circumstances are they to obey strangers or other children. I screen other adults for months before letting my children go under their authority. And I tell them never to do anything they don’t want to do. I’d rather they be disobedient than submissive, outspoken than silent, and critical than respectful. It’s the natural outcome of having witnessed, heard of, and experienced abuse.