What the Church Can and Should Bring to the #MeToo Movement
If you think #MeToo is another transitory wave of social media outrage, think again. Harvey Weinstein’s out and the #MeToo Oscars are over, but the movement doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. This worldwide phenomenon has created a palpable culture shift as countless survivors of sexual violence and harassment have come forward to share their stories and give voice to hurting women. A collective voice that can no longer be ignored, swept under the rug, or paid off. And as a conservative Christian female, I rejoice in this! I see it both as a common grace from God and a unique opportunity for the church.
A MEANS OF COMMON GRACE
Like any movement, #MeToo is imperfect, but that shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating it as an expression of God’s common grace. He restrains evil and pours out graciousness on all people, enabling even those outside of Christ to do good, carry out justice, and promote human flourishing. It’s not salvific, but it is good.
Here are some evidences of God’s common grace in #MeToo:
1. #MeToo is dragging wickedness into the light.
Wickedness hates the light, even common-grace light. Look to Larry Nassar and his 150+ victims to see a personification of the way evil flourishes in the dark. Imagine how sunlight burst into that Michigan courtroom as one girl after another exposed his wickedness. My pastor remarked, “Sunlight has a very powerful disinfectant nature to it.” It exposes the abuser, making it that much harder for him to operate, and initiates healing for the abused. If I ever have a little girl, I want her to live in a world where she can become a gymnast, lawyer, or CEO without living in fear of sexual abuse or feeling pressured to give sexual favors to keep her place in society. If #MeToo is making that more possible, then let’s rejoice.
2. #MeToo is forcing a conversation everyone would rather not have.
The Internet has changed the game. If HR won’t take me seriously, then I can go to Twitter where my voice will be heard. Everywhere we look, survivors are sharing their stories of abuse and calling for accountability. We can’t ignore the conversation anymore. Men are talking to women, trying to understand their experiences. Men are talking to other men, asking uncomfortable questions (e.g., Am I doing or saying anything that makes women feel vulnerable and unsafe?). Women are talking to other women, sharing in their trauma together. Many are reassessing the sexual revolution, questioning how to define freedom in a way that doesn’t lead to the dehumanizing and objectifying of our gender. The point is, we’re talking. And that’s a good thing.
3. #MeToo is teaching women that abuse and harassment is real and wrong.
It has removed the cloak of guilt and shame that has long encumbered abuse survivors. They are now empowered to fight back. Praise God! Women should speak up without fear of being a burden or being labeled as a drama queen. Historically, sexual harassment has been the “norm,” so we rationalize sexist comments at work or the overly touchy elder at church or even the touch of an abuser. God forbid we make anyone uncomfortable. However, #MeToo is exposing that women’s daily lives can range from uncomfortable to unsafe simply because of our gender.
Don’t believe me? Yesterday I left my house for one hour and encountered a man in a semi-isolated spot who told me “if women don’t watch out, white men are going to start fighting back against #MeToo” and we should “fear the force with which their wave would hit us.” Then I was cornered at a crosswalk by a man who yelled sexual obscenities at me, saying, “I’m sorry but I have to because, God, you’re so (bleeping) hot.” (I was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and loose jeans.) I felt uncomfortable and unsafe, yet unsure of how to respond without calling more attention to myself. I grew up thinking you just smiled and laughed that stuff off. But now I rejoice in a new era where that speech and behavior are unacceptable and where women are taught to stop inappropriate comments or “playful” touches and say, “Stop right now. This is making me uncomfortable.” This is common grace at work.
Great things are happening through #MeToo. Christians can and should celebrate. But again, like any movement, it has its problems, inconsistencies, and doesn’t offer us pure good. There’s much to be desired in terms of adequate justice, healing, restoration, and reconciliation. I wonder: when all the hubbub dies down, what will happen to these traumatized survivors? What will happen to the high-school girl who’s been raped under the banner of “consent”? Or the young professional forced to give oral sex to keep her job? Survivors like these still have to deal with the fallout of abuse; they have to learn to live from a place of healing, not brokenness.
The world doesn’t have the tools to offer that kind of redemption. But thankfully, the church does.
THE CHURCH HAS ANSWERS THE CULTURE NEEDS
At the time of this writing, #MeToo has given a voice to 17.7 million sexual assault survivors since 1998. But what now? There are millions of women who need more than a voice. They need hope, healing, and restoration. In other words, they need the church.
Note, however, the surprising fact that polity matters. Not all church structures are built to protect the vulnerable and abused. In hierarchical structures, it’s all too easy for the church to become the place of abuse and the protector of abusers. One thinks of the frequent sexual allegations brought against the Catholic Church.
I’ve also found this to be true of independent, elder-ruled churches where there’s no safeguard in place to keep it from becoming a boys’ club. That’s why there has to be some protective mechanism built into every church’s policy that allows for complaints to arise and female voices to be heard. I’m convinced that male elder-led congregationalism is one answer to this. But I digress.
Assuming we’re talking about a healthy church with good structures and policies in place, what does the church have to bring to #MeToo?
1. The church has the gospel.
The good news that God the Son came to earth to enter into our suffering, to go to the cross and die for our sins and take away our shame, and then to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven where he will pour out the Spirit and intercede on our behalf (1 Cor. 15:3–4; Heb. 4:14–16)—this good news is the only message powerful enough to save, cleanse, and restore a woman who has experienced assault.
Survivors of sexual abuse often tell me the first thing they want to do after being attacked is to take a shower. Some even develop compulsive cleansing habits where they scrub their skin raw in an ever-elusive attempt to feel “clean.” These women need to hear that God can save them through the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5) and that the blood of Jesus has the power to “cleanse us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7), including those sins committed against them.
2. The church has a biblical bias.
#MeToo has exposed Hollywood’s bias toward the rich and powerful. I don’t foresee that changing. The world has always exalted the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and poor. But the church worships a God who has made it his personal agenda to defend the vulnerable. He takes special interest in the plight of the orphan, the widow, the alien, the oppressed, and the abused (Deut. 10:17–18), executing justice on their behalf and bringing the wicked to ruin (Ps. 146:7–9).
In our age of moral outrage, it’s important to remember that that no one is more outraged over this evil than God. The church displays the heart of our defender God by assuming this bias toward broken women. We don’t show partiality as we mete out justice, but we do recognize the power structures in place that perpetuate injustice. In response, we choose to move toward the oppressed and vulnerable, creating safe spaces in which they can share their story and be heard, loved, and cared for.
3. The church has member care.
This assumes your church has membership in place intended to care and account for your flock. Many survivors who make it out often find themselves without a home, financial stability, or a job. How do they move forward to rebuild their lives?
The church can often offer temporary housing, benevolent financing, connections to a new job, meals for working single mothers, practical help around the house, counseling, friendship, protection—the list goes on and on. Members can walk alongside broken women, listen to their stories, affirm their pain, and speak truth into their lives. I’ve often joined women for therapy sessions just so they feel more comfortable. Elders are there to step in if a situation gets turbulent, or if there’s sexual abuse within marriage, something #MeToo hasn’t even begun to address. One church I know did exactly this. They moved the wife and children into an elder’s home and put the husband under discipline while they walked through the healing process, including first steps like counseling and care.
4. The church has corrective and formative discipline.
America was hypnotized as Judge Rosemari Aquilina sentenced Larry Nassar to life in prison with these words: “I just signed your death warrant.” Why? Because we long for justice.
And yet, many cases of genuine abuse never rise to the level of civil or criminal action, leaving the survivor to feel like there’s no justice. In church discipline, however, we have the unique opportunity to carry out a form of justice in the lives of our members.
But I want to be clear: church discipline is never a replacement for the legal process. Pastors should always encourage victims to actively engage with the appropriate legal and governmental authorities. We need to be clear as to where the church’s authority begins and ends, and where the government’s authority begins and ends.
That said, corrective discipline addresses the abuse, corrects the abuser, and has a restorative function for the abused. It validates her pain and tells her that the church is a safe place for her. It also sends a strong message to the abuser—or potential abuser—that this is not a safe place for him or her to operate. Elders must trust God as they deal with credible allegations, regardless of the institutional cost. Protecting the vulnerable is paramount.
Moreover, we use formative discipline to create a safe culture. It puts practices and policies in place (e.g., two people in nursery at all times, or doing personal counseling in rooms with windows or a door open). These practical choices preemptively safeguard women and children. Good discipline always provides protection; it never gives license to further abuse—ever.
5. The church has a theology of imago Dei.
Sexual abuse and harassment seeks to objectify and dehumanize. It treats humans like animals. The fact that #MeToo is exposing such systemic evil in our culture says that somewhere along the way society accepted the ideology that women were less than human; somewhere along the way, we became objects for men to use.
The church rejects this evil based on the truth that both men and women are image-bearers of God, equal in dignity, value, and worth (Gen. 1:27). In the church, women are esteemed as those whom Christ died for, equal recipients of God’s saving grace and co-heirs in Christ alongside our male brothers. We should therefore cultivate a high view of women, making provision for their giftings and personalities in all the ways the Bible encourages. And yet, we also esteem women made in God’s image by celebrating the differences between males and females, refusing to flatten gender distinctions and roles because we know this will only lead to more confusion, more dehumanizing, and more pain. Even as we celebrate our culture’s rejection of sexual harassment, we remain counter-cultural by embodying God’s vision for human flourishing that insists on the goodness of humans created as male and female.
As supporters and advocates grapple with what’s next for #MeToo, can you imagine the transformation that could take place in our culture as the church holds out these resources?
Of course, many churches won’t have all of the resources yet, but we can work toward these aspirations. But every true church has the gospel to tenderly apply to broken women. Oh, how I envision broken women of all ages, ethnicities, and races streaming into the church to take hold of the hope and healing that can be theirs in Christ Jesus our Lord. The moment is ripe. A new day is dawning, and the way we conduct our church life has the power to be a paradigm-shifting witness to the watching world.