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How Complementarianism Fueled a Culture of Abuse in the Church for Jennifer Lyell

“The church needs a way of understanding sin and violence that enables God’s grace without giving abusers back their power, their access and their good regard,” she said.

Lyell still attends a Southern Baptist church, in large part because of the friendship and support she has received from her pastor and his wife. But her feelings toward the denomination’s beliefs about gender roles have shifted. The convention’s statement of faith says women and men are equal in God’s sight but have different roles in the church and the home.

Today, she feels that belief, known as complementarianism, has created an unhealthy culture. Any criticism of complementarianism is seen as “a sort of gateway drug into theological liberalism.”

“I think a culture that believes that its righteousness is dependent on preserving and protecting the strictest form of complementarianism is a culture that sees women as a threat, sees women as a risk, sees women as more likely to sin,” she said. “And there were aspects of it certainly that I think is something that an abuser can use.”

Abuse advocate and attorney Rachael Denhollander said that Lyell’s story reflects a bigger problem with a complementarian culture that defends male leaders but views women leaders — and survivors of abuse — as “expendable.”

Denhollander, who has represented Lyell, pointed out that it took months for Baptist Press to retracte that article. And that retraction happened only after Denhollander had publicly criticized the SBC’s treatment of Lyell during a major conference on abuse in the fall of 2019. She said Lyell had repeatedly asked for the article to be corrected but her requests were denied and a number of Baptist leaders knew the story was wrong but failed to stand up for Lyell.

“Jen came forward at incredible personal cost to herself, to defend those who had no voice,” Denhollander said. “And these men couldn’t even lift a finger when she was defamed and crushed and destroyed.”

Denhollander, an abuse survivor whose testimony led to the conviction of former national gymnastics doctor and serial abuser Larry Nassar, said evangelical theology had created a kind of “porn culture” in churches. “Women are seen first and foremost as sexual objects, means to an end,” she said, adding women are seen as temptresses, trying to bring a good man down and getting married is seen as a way of helping men deal with their lust.

After Denhollander’s criticism, Baptist Press issued a statement, saying it had “failed to convey that the heart of Lyell’s story was about sexual abuse by a trusted minister in a position of power at a Southern Baptist seminary.”

“Lyell came to us with an allegation of abuse and should have been cared for throughout the entire process. Instead, for many this incident may have contributed to a perception that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a safe place for sexual abuse survivors to disclose,” the statement read.

Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist ethicist and president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the power dynamics involved in abuse have often been misunderstood in evangelical circles. Pastoral misconduct is seen as a moral failing rather than an abuse of power.

“When a pastor or leader is involved in a sexual scandal, the language of ‘affair’ is used, even when it’s a predatory use of spiritual power,” he said. “And for so long, people have been unable to understand those categories.”

Moore said he and his wife are friends of Lyell and he described her as “one of the strongest, most courageous and brilliant leaders I know.” He hopes she will eventually return to a leadership role in the church.

“Her story has already helped countless other people around the country, in ways that she may not even know about. I think her efforts to call attention to this horrible aspect of abuse are needed.”

Lyell said she no longer trusts the convention, feeling like key leaders betrayed the faith she put in them. It took months for Baptist Press to retract the article and address errors in it — and that only happened after the former BP staff had been replaced and the article had been criticized by abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander.

Lyell urged denominational leaders as well as pastors to recognize the responsibility they have to protect survivors from more harm when they come forward.

“Christian leaders need to remember that they are called to be shepherds in the model of the Good Shepherd,” she said, “protecting the sheep even if the wolves include their fellow leaders.”

This article originally appeared on ReligionNews.com.

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Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications and websites. Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.