In case you haven’t heard, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal recently published “From Youth Minister to Felon,” an article that has caused a considerable kerfuffle in the Evangelical world. Written by a former youth pastor who is now serving a prison sentence for statutory rape, the article according to Leadership Journal editors was to educate the church on the prevalent problem of sexual misconduct. That they misjudged how this article may or may not be received speaks volumes about how little they understand the depth of the problem.
To their credit, Editor Marshall Shelley and President and CEO Harold B. Smith offered an apology for publishing the article and it was removed from their website. Since then the Leadership Journal has published another post this time written by a woman who was sexually abused as a young girl. Her voice brings to light the ongoing consequences of abuse hopefully enabling predators and church members responsible for the care of children and youth to understand the gravity of the sexual predator problem.
One of the criticisms of the Leadership Journal in light of this incident is its lack of women on staff. Many have suggested that if women were part of their editorial team, the possibility of publishing such an offensive article by a sexual predator would be greatly reduced because women bring another voice into the conversation, one that has been affected by oppressive structures, many of them within the church. In many cases, it is difficult for people in power to understand the extensiveness of that power, especially when it is abused and used as a tool against another person.
For this reason, I am glad for the conversation that is now occurring on many websites as a response to the Leadership Journal’s irresponsible initial post. Such a recognition of the power imbalance created by all organizations when only one voice—that of the privileged male—is in the decision-making role is an important step forward to changing the reality of misogyny that lies so fundamentally at the root of many Christian organizations and churches.
But I don’t think real change can occur by adding a female voice here or a woman there. Cultures and viewpoints need to shift and that will not happen as long as those in power read their Bibles as endorsements of that power.
When the Leadership editors admitted to their failure to distinguish between implied consent and disproportionate power, I was reminded of what I was taught about the biblical story of Bathsheba and King David.
As a child and throughout my experiences in youth groups, I was always taught that David and Bathsheba had an affair, one that most likely occurred because Bathsheba enticed David by bathing where she could be seen. She invited his subsequent actions. The application for us, we were instructed, was that women should be very careful about what they wear; always cautious that their clothing indicates how they want to be treated. It was clear: women needed to avoid being another Bathsheba. David, on the other hand, was a man after God’s own heart; he only acted on impulse because Bathsheba made him do it. So, the males in our youth group were told to avoid looking at women, but in the end, the implied message was that they, like David, were essentially helpless because, well, they were men.
But if we had been invited to think deeply and contextually about the sexual act between Bathsheba and David, we would have had seen it not as an affair but as a rape. The power between these two individuals was disproportionate. David was king; Bathsheba a mere subject. To refuse the king anything he wanted was simply not very likely. In fact, Samuel had warned the Israelites generations earlier that if they had a king, the king would abuse his power; he would take what he wanted because he could. Bathsheba had no other legitimate choice.
But I’m not naïve. When I suggest this to my students, they reject this possibility without a second thought subscribing instead to the narrative that Bathsheba tempted David by bathing on the rooftop. Never mind the insight of historians who tells us that in that period, kings went to battle with their men. For David to be home gazing at rooftops rather than with his men is battle means that he was the one out of place. He should not have been there; should not have abused his power.
Nevertheless, to suggest that David raped Bathsheba is, well, pretty much blasphemy. But without such critical examination—of our sacred documents and our faith communities—we will fail to change the structural systems that undergird such sin.
It seems to me the Leadership Journal simply offers the latest in a long line of oppression as a result of limited perspectives. Maybe this is our invitation to listen more intently to the oppressed people in our Bibles (Bathsheba, Tamar, Vashti, and Esther, and a host of others). Perhaps we can begin to realize that God’s dream includes liberation for all people and this doesn’t happen when only half of the human family is given a voice.