Sex and the Church — Misuse of power to keep women in their place


Simply put, sexual harassment means to bother or intimidate someone in a gender-specific or sexual way. Sexual misconduct is a chargeable offense for both United Methodist clergy and laity. It comprises a continuum of behaviors: from sexual harassment to coerce someone with less power to have sex, to sexual violence, to systems that shield alleged offenders from accountability.

Since 1992 The United Methodist Church has instituted policies that make it illegal for ministerial leaders to engage in sexual misconduct and harassment. The call for concrete action came after years of activism by women who identified the direct link between the denomination’s failure to affirm female leaders and the objectification of them as sexually submissive.

Nearly 20 years later, and more than 50 years after the denomination extended full clergy rights to women, sexual harassment and exploitation are still a significant problem.

A 2005 survey of U.S. United Methodists found that more than half of laywomen and one-third of laymen were aware of or had been directly affected by sexual harassment in a church setting. Of those, 50.4% of laywoman and 75% of clergywomen reported having been harassed in a church setting, such as a parish, seminary or church agency.

85% are adult females

Anyone can be sexually abused and harassed. More than 85% of reported victim/survivors in the church, however, are adult females.

Clergy who engage in sexual relationships with parishioners cannot then serve them as objective counselors, spiritual shepherds or compassionate listeners. When clergy blur the line between pastor and paramour, they create a dual relationship that undercuts their ability to be in ministry.

The fact that most misconduct occurs at the hands of male clergy with women parishioners further speaks to the church’s corporate unwillingness to deal with our mixed feelings about sexuality. It affirms our comfort with the notion of God-given dominance of men, including sexual dominance, as acceptable and “natural.”

Why target women?

Why are women most often targeted? Many reasons exist, most of them directly traceable to institutional sexism and our societal heritage of patriarchy. Since the days of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, our religious and social structures have objectified women, defining them as property, as bargaining tools, as incubators for heirs, and sexual possessions.

In times of war, women have historically been raped as a way to humiliate “their men” in opposing armies. The practice of slavery around the world to this day has included the inherent right of the slave holders to punish, threaten, violate and inflict psychological warfare on captives through sexual violence.

Belief in male dominance as ordained by God has had a historic and dramatically negative impact on our Christian understanding of sexual relationships, the “purpose” of sexual intercourse and intimacy, and our expression of sexuality. Contemporary Christians are heirs to a belief system that has promoted women’s submission to their husbands, and that sexual behavior is a duty women must do to please their husbands.

In fact, too many people of faith view mutuality and concern with women’s pleasure in sexual relations with a male as suspect. Homosexual relationships are considered unnatural and ungodly, in large part because of the absence of the “correct,” male-dominant/female submissive dynamic.

Sexual violence by men against women has often been seen as synonymous with expressions of authentic masculinity and ultimate manhood. The multi-billion-dollar pornography industry mirrors our society’s obsession with the definition of sexuality as that in which men force, coerce and dominate women. This is particularly evident in the widespread addiction of men to “gonzo porn” that depicts women being demeaned, beaten and brutally violated.

Early church views

The early church views of sexuality and women still echo in marriage beds and in church and civil law in contemporary society, according to the Rev. Miguel de la Torre, a professor at Iliff School of Theology. “Women in biblical and early church times were sexual slaves, sexual property and vessels for procreation only,” he said.

At a January United Methodist summit on sexual ethics, de la Torre challenged the denomination to engage in a new sexual ethic based on a liberationist model. In it, our behaviors and policies regarding healthy sexuality versus sexual abuse would be defined by those marginalized and objectified in our society.

Sexual ethics must pay close attention to power relationships, according to de la Torre. He said we must determine who benefits from the current system.

“If women and children are more likely to be victims and more likely to be silenced when they protest abusive treatment,” de la Torre said, “while men who are wealthy, educated and blessed by the church benefit from our policies, that tells us something is wrong.”

De la Torre said that abuse in sexual relationships typically reflects a person’s social, moral and political beliefs and practices. “The type of relationship I have in my bedchamber with my wife reflects the relationships I create in the overall society,” he explained. “A penchant for dominance, violence and domestication in my bed probably means that’s how I treat people in other aspects of my life.”

A key mistake

United Methodist and other faith groups continue to make a key mistake. This is the tendency to hyper-focus on the “sexual” nature of misconduct. They fail to concentrate on the abuse-of-power issues and the church’s corporate complicity in misconduct as an extension of institutional sexism.

Since founding the church in the first century, theologians have turned away from early Judaic teachings that equated sexual relationships, at their best, as mirrors of our joyous relationships with God. Instead, early Christian church “fathers,” drew a dichotomy between the goodness of the spirit and the “sins of the flesh.”

In this dichotomy, men were equated with spiritual things, while women symbolized sinful, carnal things. Women were blamed when men engaged in “impure” relationships, meaning sexual ones, even if it were men who sexually abused or violated women.

Even today, women are still assumed to be “asking for it” if they wear short skirts or lipstick, or went out with a man who later abuses them. In the church, they are assumed to be “asking for it” by meeting with a male pastor for counseling and responding with gratitude by hugging when he seems to offer compassion.

Women who charge men with rape and sexual abuse are often subjected to intense scrutiny by church and civil legal authorities. They scrutinize the women’s mode of dress, past sexual relationships, mental health or reputations.

And women judged as “too sexual” are often assumed to have used deception to trick men into sexual acts, then cry rape or misconduct to discredit the male involved.

Dismissed and discounted

“The church is poised to believe that women lie, that women are sexually provocative, that ‘no’ really means ‘yes,’” asserted the Rev. Traci West, professor of ethics at Drew University School of Theology. “So a woman who says ‘no’ to sexual violence is dismissed and discounted.”

Moreover, sexual abuse and harassment in patriarchal systems may reflect efforts to subjugate women who step out of their place. “In previously all-male workplaces, a woman who’s simply attempting to do her job may be considered uppity,” writes Ellen Cassedy and Ellen Bravo in The 9 to 5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment. “The harassment [from wanted sexualized innuendo to unethical, exploitive sexual contact] is designed to make the woman feel out of place, if not to pressure her out of the job.”

Do no harm

De la Torre, however, contends that a new, egalitarian sexual ethic by Christians must consider the experiences of women, people of color, children, people who have been used as sex slaves, those who have survived sexual abuse, and persons who are homosexual or bisexual. He said the church is challenged to view healthy sexual relationships as those in which mutuality, power sharing, and meaningful consent are present. He asserted, therefore, that any sexual relationship in which abuse of power is present is misuse and misconduct.

“We as the church, and especially as clergy in the church, are called to do no harm,” stressed de la Torre. “So I cannot engage in a sexual act with anyone I have power over: not my student, not my parishioner, not a child.”

De la Torre said that whatever creates an imbalance of power means sex with them is doing harm. “And they cannot have life abundantly if I do them harm,” he said.

Bishops, boards of ordained ministries, lay leaders, trustees and other administrators in the church are called to act. They need to develop prevention education and intervention policies and procedures to help all members understand the intersection between patriarchy and sexism that may lead to sexual misconduct.

Not just women’s issues

Churchwide law and practice should state that ministerial leaders who abuse will not be shielded, excused or protected. Abusers will not be assured ministerial appointments unless they admit their guilt, make amends to victim/survivors and their congregations, get mental health support if applicable — not all abusers are “sick” — and undergo rigorous supervision. Furthermore, this must all occur before they are even considered for re-appointment.

Addressing sexual abuse and sexism are not women’s issues only. They are challenges to credibility and authenticity of the whole Body of Christ. Silence by men of good will can add to the church’s lack of accountability and action.

“Even if there are men who do not abuse women, silence allows the violation to continue and brings men to believe it is all right and normal to abuse women,” writes Liza Lamis in an article on sexual abuse of women by Christian clergy in Asian culture.

The contemporary church has made progress in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct after it happens. It still has not spoken, acted and taught discipleship and the transformational call of Jesus Christ in a holistic way that challenges social constructs and moral systems of patriarchy and sexism. Rejection of female clergy by the church still implies that women are inferior and ill-equipped to be full partners in the Christian community.

When Christians assert that the man is the head of the household and that heterosexual relationships are the only legitimate and God-given ones, we imply that women are to submit to the headship of men, not just in the home but also in every human social, political, and cultural construct. We label men who do not engage in dominance of women as unnatural and unmanly.

Our theological exploration should be considered in light of Jesus’ challenge to systemic injustice. We should not just focus on individual sins. We are called to counter oppression.

To be authentic, credible witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to embody a whole Christian social ethic, West reminds us that Christians must approach our study of Scripture “in a way that reflects the gospel stories about how Jesus challenged specific social practices and attitudes in his racial, social and spiritual engagement of people.”

What to do

So, what is needed to prevent abuse and improve justice-making in the aftermath of sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse in The United Methodist Church?

  • “Gender” must be included as a protected category in ¶4 in The United Methodist Church Constitution (The 2008 Book of Discipline). Proponents of this insertion — most notably the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women — have advocated for at least 20 years to make this change. The commission plans to try again at the 2012 General Conference, our denomination’s highest policy-making body that meets every four years.
    Opponents have said church law implies gender inclusiveness. The dearth of women clergy, the outright refusal to ordain women in many areas, and the continuing institutional sexism and sexual misconduct say otherwise.
  • Bishops, district superintendents and candidates for ordination should only be elected, appointed or accepted if they state their support for full equality and participation of women. They should pledge throughout their ministry to challenge and work to undo sexism, racism and other biases.
  • The denomination must institute a system of unequivocal education, preaching and worship, and intervention with laity at the congregational level about the equal worth of females and males in the eyes of God and in the ideal of following Jesus Christ.
  • Each United Methodist annual conference must develop more rigorous screening of candidates for ordained and licensed ministry. This is to weed out potential role-model clergy leaders who are explicitly sexist, misogynistic, and dysfunctionally patriarchal and triumphal in their understanding of man as “naturally” dominant.
  • The worldwide church must require in all its judicatories a consistent, culturally specific system of theological and ethical education, policies and adjudication to prevent, effectively intervene in, and affect justice-making for and reparations to victim/survivors of misconduct.
  • Laity and clergy in ministerial leadership must be held accountable for misconduct and abuse they perpetrate. This includes paying reparations to victim/survivors. The current system, in which United Methodist bishops and cabinet members err on the side of protecting and shielding clergy from expulsion and reparations to victim/survivors, is not working.
    Ordination, licensing and employment by the church are not rights. They are privileges afforded to women and men called and set apart by God for service in God’s name with God’s people. For clergy to exploit and misuse parishioners, clients and employees under their care must become a barrier that cannot be crossed.
  • Persons victimized by ministerial leaders should play a key role as advisers and reviewers in the development of United Methodist processes to prevent and ensure justice after sexual abuse.
  • Men who are well-meaning and supportive of women and who are living lives against patriarchy must do their own work, engaging and challenging other men to speak out against sexual dominance and violence. Clergy and lay men in leadership must follow the example of the General Commission on United Methodist Men and acknowledge their complicity in institutional sexism.
    In following the example of Jesus Christ, men must live Christian justice in their homes as well as in the streets.

Beyond sexism and patriarchy

The Gospel and the continuing revelation of Jesus Christ are clear: Women and men are called equally to be full partners in doing God’s work in this world. To represent the Christ, The United Methodist Church must stay true to Galatians 3:28 that declares us “one in Christ Jesus.”

The United Methodist Church will not be an authentic, reliable Body of Christ until we declare unequivocally that discrimination, abuse and marginalization of women and girls are antithetical to the Gospel.

We are products of our family and cultural values, our patriarchal-theological heritage, our flawed biblical understanding, and our human shortcomings. These are all colored by our prejudices, limitations, narrow frames of reference, and socio-political locations. These may be reasonsfor the pervasiveness of institutional sexism, but they are not excuses.

God’s continuing revelation in Christ, the gift of the corporate faith community, and the privilege of discipleship call us to new understandings and new relationships.

U.S. Methodists once supported the institution of slavery. God’s revelation and anointed voices of the oppressed transformed us.

Our ancestors included human sacrifice as a requirement of worshiping God. Jesus’ death paid the debt for our sins, and the resurrection instilled in us the ideal of valuing all life.

The church has inherited patriarchal systems that would silence and marginalize women in language, leadership and consideration. God’s justice and transformation will not be stopped, though. Women will continue to be called and claimed as partners in ministry and proclamation.

The challenge for all who claim to follow the Risen Christ is to overcome that which would limit us in favor of following the God who made us, male and female, in the Divine image.

Questions for discussion

  1. When was the last time you heard a sermon or participated in a church school discussion on sexuality? What messages do you remember about the roles of women and men?
  2. Do you know what The United Methodist Church says about human sexuality and sexual relationships? What are some beliefs of the denomination? How do they inform or conflict with your own?
  3. What guidance do you need or want from the church regarding gender roles? Sexuality? Sex education?
  4. Have you ever heard the term “clergy/ministerial sexual misconduct?” Who are the most likely victims of sexual abuse by clergy? Do you believe there is a difference between “an affair” between a clergy person and a parishioner and “sexual misconduct”?
This article was written by: M. Garlinda Burton – chief executive of the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women. She is communications chairperson, co-chairperson of children and youth ministries and a trustee at Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Please view and read the complete series “Sex and the Church” at the website of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church
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3 thoughts on “Sex and the Church — Misuse of power to keep women in their place

  1. Thank you for pointing out the gross sins within Christendom in this area. Yet, your entire argument is disingenuous since you fail to mention the root institutional religious cause of dominance and submission. The Lord Jesus never created any ranking hierarchies or class divisions in His community. The only vertical relationship is to be with each individual believer and the Lord. All other relationships are to be horizontal, as all real Christians are brothers and sisters, and children of the Lord.

    The worst historical offender has been the clergy-laity divison, which is set up to be the very thing this article rails against. It is the very epitome of a dominance-submission set up. Please note this passage from my book, Real Christianity:

    “All of this took place because certain people didn’t particularly care for associating with commoners. And by the fourth century, the new unreal church was growing ever more saturated with initiates whose ignorance and fear was used against them. Deceived by Christian rulers, they were forced to submit to a new religion they did not understand and became a growing disadvantaged mass. The fullness of time had surreptitiously arrived for the Christian elite to divide and conquer.
    They had decided that Christian community should be recast into classes—the first class being composed of the controllers—the second class being composed of everyone else. As always, the upper class had the rule, the money, the blue-ribbon educations, position, power, and small numbers. The newly labeled lower class had only two things, and both failed to satisfy. The first thing was a majority. The second thing was the blessing of being allowed to live vicariously through the gifted and talented thoroughbreds of the first class.
    For the most part, these neglected souls remained in their place of exclusion and developed a powerful virtue of humility. Later generations of these people began to perceive their second-class status as inescapable, and therefore accepted it, patterned their lives by it, and grew contented within it. By the Middle Ages, the Christian upper class as a whole had grown much more stealthy and clandestine, gained access to greater monetary sources, and amassed more political power than it had probably ever imagined. Eventually, these classes developed titles. You know them today as the clergy and the laity.
    One must note that this split did not take place within the Lord’s Qahal. Jesus never created rank among His children.”

    • As always, your comment is well thought out and very relevant to the post, so I must say ~ thank you so much!

      I do want to be clear that this post was NOT written by myself but an article from a series posted by various authors through the United Methodist Church. This particular article was written by M. Garlinda Burton – chief executive of the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women. I want to be sure it is clear so I do not appear to be taking any personal credit for someone else’s work.

      With all that said, I agree with you that we (all believers) are equally called to the royal priesthood and in that sense there are no authentic hierarchies in Christ’s kingdom. Yet, it can be argued that Christ created a separation of sorts. Ephesians 4:11 comes to mind for this example ~ “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,”

      • Thanks for your reply. I know we are getting into some white water here, and I appreciate your willingness to grab a kayak. Regarding the Ephesians reference, I certainly agree. Some have made a doctrine out of this passage, and have even made these five places of service exclusive. Yet, 1 Corinthians 12 mentions several more places of service, while only mentioning three from Ephesians. The truth, of course, is that EVERYONE is called to some form of ministry. Therefore, each believer has a calling of some sort, and some have the one’s mentioned in these two accounts. So, with everyone a minister, there is still no clergy or laity.

        I want to make it clear, though, that I have no disrespect whatsoever for any real minister of the Lord, and I know some of these fall into the professional clergy category. Yet, there are many in the clergy ranks who are not legitimate ministers called by the Lord. As time goes on, we will get better at this. Thanks again for the post and your reply. Neither one of us wants anything to detract from the glory and authority of our blessed Lord Jesus.

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