'From The Beginning:' Addressing the Roots of Sexual Violence in the Church

Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio /

Young pastor with Bible silhouette, Africa Studio /

Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.

"From the beginning …" began my pastor, rising slowly from his armchair. With his next words, he broke my world apart. From the beginning, he had been attracted to me as a woman. From the beginning, his interest in me had been personal. He told me the reasons why, and then he said these words: "If we were both single, and if I weren't your pastor, we'd be going out to dinner." He paused a long beat. “And we’d see where it went from there." 

Were my pastor's words an act of sexual violence?

When we hear the words "sexual violence," we may envision a forcible rape or a sexual act with a person incapable of consent. Many of us would consider unwanted groping or uninvited embraces to be acts of sexual violence. Some of us would include "consensual" sex between persons of different rank, because we understand that power disparity makes meaningful consent impossible. But what about the manipulative behavior that gives rise to the delusion of consent? Was my pastor's not-quite-a-proposition an act of sexual violence? Could a lingering handshake, a compliment on spiritual gifts, or an offer of pastoral support be acts of sexual violence? Most of us would say no. And most of us would be missing the boat.

Mumford and Sons: A Festival of Devotion

Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward /

Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward /

Mumford and Sons opened with a little introit called "Sigh No More" then a call to worship, "Roll Away Your Stone" and so we did. Understated and, dare I say it, reverent. Polished and yet still "honest" (this is a hipster liturgy, after all), the boys did a great job offering their work to us. They spoke with the audience. Marcus jumped off stage to give a beer to a woman celebrating her 21st birthday and then led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Welcome to a living room that seats 8,500.

The band played most of their published stuff, took a bow, and walked off stage. The encore set is what took it home for me. The stepped away from their usual set-up, unplugged their instruments, stood around a condenser mic and then sang. They dragged us back into devotion. Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" followed by "Sister" sung a cappella did me in. A benediction? Perhaps I'm reaching. 

They closed the night with "The Cave" which had people jumping and singing along. You can find a set list here.

After the concert, my Facebook feed lit up with "it was just like church" or "that was church" by several people including some ordained church types in attendance last night. The Vineyard background has not been wasted, not by any stretch. It has been given a new venue, a new form, a venue where the truth can be sung in quiet tones, where no name is taken in vain or otherwise, where wild passion is replaced with festal devotion.

The Death of a Church and the Rise of Something New

Small rural church, JeniFoto /

Small rural church, JeniFoto /

I have spent much time blogging out of frustration with the church, gnashing my teeth over the church’s shortcomings. Some have called this negativity. Some have asked me to be more specific about what I want the church to do. I could not do this before. First, I needed to pinpoint my frustrations and disassemble my previous understanding of church. Out of the rubble of my own disillusionment a vision of something new is beginning to emerge. It is time to share this vision however blurry it may be.

This something new looks like congregations so committed to following Jesus by loving all of God's children that they will pour over their current budget and activities to see what can be altered to make room for greater service to the poor and the outcast. Such churches might come to the conclusion it is unconscionable to pay for the upkeep of a building for the sake of its use a few times a week.  

This is a tension-filled topic. As Bergthal made public their intent to disassemble and ultimately tear down their building, many could not understand. For some, there is such a deep attachment to our church building, we would rather it be turned into a house or a barn or just anything as long as it can be saved. I have read the upcoming generation is not as sentimental when it comes to material things. I think this is a good and necessary movement but is sure to bring some tension. Finally, we must realize the church is not about buildings, but about people.

The Revolution is Upon Us

Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Revolution vector. Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a “massive transition,” as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.

Around 500 A.D., “barbarians” sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization’s great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.

Around 1000 A.D. came the “Great Schism,” when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Around 1500 A.D. came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome’s domination of European life. That split, too, endures.

Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it’s difficult to speak of a single “Christian movement.”

What If 'Sex Week' Came to First Baptist Church?

Sex education illustration, Rob Byron /

Sex education illustration, Rob Byron /

On April 5-12, the University of Tennessee hosted “Sex Week,” organized by the student organization Sexual Empowerment and Awareness in Tennessee. The week’s activities, ranging from discussions on virginity to workshops on oral sex and a search for a golden condom, sparked the concern of easily provoked and immensely quotable State Rep. Stacey Campfield (he of “Don’t Say Gay” bill fame).

With apologies to Campfield’s ever-vigilant protection of Christian sensibilities, the real problem here is not that mandatory student fees are being used to promote sexual education and awareness. The problem is that our tithes aren’t.

Imagine with me, if you will, what would happen if “Sex Week” came to First Baptist Church . . .

If local congregations joined together to dedicate a week to the promotion and exploration of Christian ethics expressed through sexuality, gender, and embodiment, what might the offerings look like? Perhaps these would be a good start.