Salvation as Freedom from Sexual Abuse and Oppression

Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, are in the midst of the exposure of pervasive sexual abuse and scandal. While sexual abuse is a problem in the culture as a whole, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham says, abuse occurs as much or more in the church as outside of it. Tchividjian, whose organization (GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) addresses the issue of sex crimes in churches, says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals that of the Catholic Church, so that churches as a whole are in the midst of an epidemic. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. A study by Abel and Harlow revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. Considering that, “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” according to Tchividjian, and the fact that those churches promoting women’s subordination to men create what has been described as a “rape culture,” the troubling statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.

A joint investigation by two Texas papers resulted in a report revealing that over 200 Southern Baptist pastors, youth pastors and deacons were convicted or took plea deals for sex crimes over the past 20 years — creating over 700 survivors. Considering the vast majority of rapes in the United States never lead to a felony conviction, these numbers suggest astronomical levels of violence. Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct, and when they do are often dismissed. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson, described a young man’s lewd comments toward a teenage girl as “biblical” and said the proper response to abuse within marriage “depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”

 Beth Moore, a Southern Baptist speaker and author, reports years of misogynistic treatment.[1] Her descriptions of abuse sound verbatim like my wife’s treatment by an administrator at a Bible College where we were employed: “I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of.” Her encounter with “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women,” she says, was one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life.” Faith, one of the smartest people I have ever known (and not because she married me), experienced being continually shut down in meetings, yelled at in private, and otherwise being ignored. Moore says, “I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged.” In one especially grievous encounter, a theologian she admired and looked forward to meeting immediately reduced her to an object. “The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than (he named another woman speaker).’” She concludes, “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”

 “Evil” may be the correct word, at least in our experience and the experience of countless others. Abuse of women, in comparison to the “important” work of Christian leaders, is often not considered worthy of preventive action. Tchividjian, who as a prosecutor dealt with thousands of accusations against churches says, “It was just amazing how many church leaders and church members had no problem coming to court and testifying on behalf of the character of the defendant, and how few came in defense of the victim” (a 9 out of 10 ratio, he says). Though the abuse my wife suffered was legally actionable, her complaints were sidelined as, like that of thousands of women, her abuse was deemed acceptable by “Christian” standards. As Tchividjian describes it, “The powerful and the influential, the perpetrators, those are the ones that we embrace.” Instead of imitating Jesus, always taking the side of the wounded and marginalized, illegitimate “Christian” authority is deployed to abuse.

While the issue of “complementarianism”versus “egalitarianism” touches upon the problem, I fear that what may be missed in reducing it to “gender roles” is the holistic nature of both the problem and solution.  Biblical salvation is directed toward defeating sin and a primary result of sin is oppressive alienation between men and women and oppressive notions of authority.  One of the curses of the Fall, part of what it means to have forfeited the image of God, is that man shall oppressively rule over women and women will masochistically succumb to this rule: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). What is demonstrated in the early chapters of Genesis is that this alienation extends to God, creation, and even to alienation within the self. While we can categorize these various forms of alienation, they are all constitutive parts of the same problem, experienced as oppression: toilsome oppression in work, murderous relations with others, and shameful/oppressive self-awareness, and ultimately institutionalized religious oppression in idolatry (resulting in human sacrifice).  The ultimate sacrilege occurring in churches today is the sacrifice of women and children, the outworking of the Fall characteristic of Moloch worship, in the name of Christ.  

Authentic Christian salvation cures this oppressive curse, specifically as it relates to gender. The wedding feast of the lamb, Israel and the Church as bride, the depiction of the oneness of marriage fulfilled in Christ and the Church, or the resolution of male/female alienation, depicts final reconciliation. Gender problems are at the center of the human problem and salvation is depicted, in this key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh.” Egalitarianism versus complementarianism, in isolation, does not capture the fact that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from a right understanding of God and how gender reflects the divine image and how this has been lost. The failure of the image and its restoration, or the human predicament and its resolution, certainly pertains to the role of women in Church leadership and the relations between husband and wife, but these latter issues are only the end point of the narrative sweep of Scripture.

Gender, along with class and ethnicity (male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile (Gal. 3:28)), functions through binary opposites creating a meaning foundational to the identity of a closed cosmos and economy. Maleness, freedom, and Jewishness are the privileged basis lending meaning to femaleness, slavery, and Gentileness, in a mode in which power is gained through dominating the other. Authority is that which can penetrate, oppress, and exclude, creating the privileged identity – the authority. The ultimate sexual act, the final ethnic determination, the height of economic privilege, entails extreme violence. In this sense, death is always the coin of the realm circulated in an economy Paul will dub the “law of sin and death”; the operating principle of this world.

Christ followers are freed from the law of sin and death through a reconstituted ethnicity (no Jew nor Gentile), an alternative socio-economic order (no slave nor free), and through a reworked orientation to gender (no male or female – directly and pointedly referring to Genesis), by being joined to Christ, though it is only the latter category which will have an enduring ontological meaning.  Ephesians (5:31-32) pictures salvation as the fulfillment of the original promise of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Image bearing capacities are brought to completion in a dissolution, not of male and female per se, but of oppositional difference. The power of the law working in and through degrees of separation is undone through the “one flesh” relationship in Christ.

Continued abuse, oppression, and mistreatment of women in church and in the name of Christ indicates misapprehension of the narrative force of Christianity – a complete obscuring of the point of salvation.


[1] https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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