Earlier this week, Leadership Journal, an imprint of Christianity Today, ran an essay written by an anonymous former youth pastor who is now serving a prison sentence for statutory rape. The problem: the writer never acknowledges the fact that his “affair” was actually rape, he wrote the piece as a self-indulgent morality tale about the dangers of what Christians call “falling into sin,” and he demonstrated zero self-awareness of his role as a sexual predator.
The even bigger problem: After an outcry from readers and a #TakeDownThatPost campaign on Twitter, the editorial staff at Leadership Journal issued an apology in name only. In reality, it was a defense of their decision to publish the piece, and the strange editorial decision to alter a few words to make it more palatable to the reader. Those edits actually made the piece even more offensive and problematic.
Importantly, most of the outcry about this has been led from within the American Christian church. This is not an instance of a non-theist combing the internet for offensive things Christians have said or done and then pointing at it from the outside. On the contrary, this is a situation where the sort of people who regularly read things like Christianity Today and Leadership Journal read the post and immediately called for its removal. That makes it all the more confusing why both magazines have refused to take responsibility for the mistake that was publishing the article, because it’s not as if they can claim that this is an unfounded attack from an outside party. This loud, important criticism is coming from a segment of American Christianity that is constantly getting louder and more important: moderate-to-progressive Christians who are attempting to right the Church’s long history of wrongs toward women. This includes, but is not limited to, liberal feminist Christians like me.
So why did this happen? I’ve seen excellent commentary about why it’s a problem, and what both publishers should do in response, but I’d like to explore the reasons this happened. This is my take, and it will include some generalizations that might make some of my fellow Christians bristle. There’s no reason to go all “Not All Churches!” on this post, but I do believe these reasons are significant problems within the church at large.
1) Leadership Journal‘s editorial staff is entirely male.
This means they likely aren’t in tune to something most women would have immediately noticed about the anonymous youth pastor’s essay: that it is a story about rape, not a story about pastoral temptation. If the #YesAllWomen hashtag has taught us anything, it’s that men simply do not realize the sexually violent world that women inhabit every day. Of course these editors didn’t realize the essay was a problem: they’ve likely never been preyed upon by a spiritual advisor. When they say that they read the piece and didn’t perceive it as being about rape, they’re being honest. This is a major blind spot that could be remedied by making women a part of the conversation, and giving them editorial authority.
2) In many (most?) churches, women (especially teenage girls) are still perceived as temptresses.
It is incredibly common for the language that Christians use to describe modesty, lust, and sexual sin to place the blame for such sin on women’s shoulders. Even when Christian men and pastors talk up the need to take responsibility for their sexual sins (like the author of this piece seems to think he’s doing), there is still a cultural language of women “helping their brothers not to sin,” and the importance of not being a “stumbling block.” I wrote about this idea for Persephone Magazine a couple of years ago, but many others have tackled it, too.
3) The author of this piece does not take responsibility for his actions because he has not internalized the fact that he is a rapist.
An anecdote: I once helped a student write an essay about the semester he spent sexually harassing one of his high school teachers via text message. It was a good essay, but only because the student had internalized the fact that he had, in fact, sexually harassed his teacher. He didn’t have to carefully insert language he felt was obligatory to prove that he knew he had sexually harassed her, because he really did know. He knew it, and he felt guilty about it, and he didn’t know how to make it right. His essay was about that guilt. It wasn’t self-indulgent, poor-widdle-me writing disguised as a “don’t do what I did” warning. It was, “This is what I did, and this is why I feel terrible about it,” with a tiny bit of, “Nothing really good can come of what I did, but at least maybe if I talk about it, I can help other people from doing the same thing.” That’s the approach that the anonymous youth pastor should have taken, but he can’t, because he hasn’t internalized his guilt yet. He feels guilty for getting caught, and he feels bad because his life is screwed up now, but he does not recognize the perpetrator/victim relationship at play. Until he does, he won’t be capable of writing a piece that speaks anything other than excuses and blame.
These are three contributing reasons to Leadership Journal’s massive failure here. At this point, they shouldn’t take down the post, but should instead issue a real apology and then run a series of posts exploring the following:
- Why male pastors sexually abuse their congregants and what can be done to stop it.
- What male pastors who have sexually abused congregants (especially minors) can do to make reparations for their sin.
- Why teenage girls are NOT responsible for the sins of the men in their lives, and why all pastors need to combat any language that implies that they are.
They’ve dug their heels in on this, defending their actions instead of having the journalistic integrity to own their mistake. I get it: a variety of cultural and personal reasons allowed them to publish this without realizing what they were doing. Instead of doubling down, they should own that mistake and talk about why it happened. This is a journal who has published good stuff in the past and will publish good stuff in the future. Do they really want to damage their credibility by defending the words of a non-repentant rapist?