At the Evangelical #MeToo Summit, Christians Grappled With Just How Deep the Church’s Sexual Misconduct Problems Go

A hand holding a #MeToo card in a church with stained-glass windows.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by kavunchik/iStock/Getty Images Plus and jaouad.K/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Within weeks of the ignition of the #MeToo movement last fall, activists with ties to evangelicalism began pointing out that abuse in Christian contexts often has its own awful dimensions. Church leaders—typically men—are generally assumed to have God-given authority, for example. Scripture and theology can be used as weapons to perpetuate silence and shame. And institutions pressure whistleblowers and victims to muffle potential scandals in the name of protecting God’s work. The activists called their movement #ChurchToo.

At an event on Thursday, #ChurchToo was embraced on a prominent stage by a series of influential evangelical leaders, though the hashtag’s founders were not among them. The occasion was a one-day summit at evangelical Wheaton College on how church leaders can respond to sexual harassment, assault, and violence. The magazine Christianity Today called it “the largest inter-denominational response to sex abuse since #MeToo took off last fall.”

“Too many in our churches feel silenced or ignored,” said Laurie Nichols, the director of communications for the college’s Billy Graham Center and a co-organizer of the event. Organizers said they made an effort to prioritize the voices of survivors of abuse on their speaker list, which included many Bible teachers and pastors, along with a handful of experts in trauma recovery and psychology. More than half the speakers were women, and about a third were people of color. Nichols, who identifies as a survivor herself, said that more than half the speakers were survivors, though not all discussed their experience from the podium. She said about 700 people attended the event in person, and thousands tuned in via livestream, including dozens of groups like universities and denominational headquarters.

The past year has seen the downfall of multiple well-known men within mainstream evangelicalism. In March, Memphis pastor Andy Savage resigned after admitting to a “sexual incident” with a high school student in his care in the ’90s. In April, respected megachurch pastor Bill Hybels stepped down after multiple former employees came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and misconduct. (The church’s elder board and the two pastors set to succeed him in leadership also eventually resigned.) Over the summer, longtime Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson was ousted from his position at a seminary in part over his mishandling of domestic abuse as a pastor. And the revelations show no sign of slowing down. Just last week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a bombshell investigation cataloguing hundreds of accusations against 168 leaders in the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement.

These are all scandals that emerged from within the church. But many speakers at the Wheaton summit focused on how to make the church a safe haven from the perils of the outside world, rather than on rooting out harm coming from its own ranks. Beth Moore, a Bible teacher who has become a prominent voice on misogyny and abuse within Christian circles, described her childhood church as a harbor that contrasted with her “unsafe” home. Still, she said, “I have often wondered what a difference it might have made if that safe harbor had not only been a place to hide but a place to heal. What if I’d heard my pastor or my teachers or any of my leaders address what I was going through, call it what it was, say that I wasn’t to blame and not to be ashamed? … What if I’d known I wasn’t alone? What if I’d known there was help?”

Some of the speakers attracted criticism before the summit began. Christine Caine, the founder of an anti–sex trafficking organization, spoke about the perils of choosing to “ignore certain stories because the narrative makes us uncomfortable.” Caine is a staple of the Christian conference scene, with longtime ties to the global church brand Hillsong. But Caine’s critics point out that she has never spoken up about Hillsong founder Brian Houston’s alleged failure to report his own father’s history of abusing young boys. “It’s disheartening to see a conference bring in a person like her, who isn’t willing to speak up about abuse in her own camp,” Ashley Easter, a victim advocate who has been critical of the summit, told me.

Critics like Easter say that evangelicals cannot begin to confront abuse in their midst without asking larger structural and theological questions. Can sexual justice coexist with “complementarian” theology, which holds that men are uniquely suited to leadership in homes and churches (and which is espoused by some if not most of the speakers at Thursday’s summit)? How do conservative sexual ethics, which reserve sex for heterosexual marriage, contribute to shame that fosters abuse?

“Unfortunately, [evangelicals] are coming to this fight with both hands tied behind by their backs by their own theology,” said Emily Joy, a poet who co-founded the #ChurchToo movement last year. She said she was not invited to participate in Thursday’s event. Instead, she and others critiqued the conference online over the course of the day. “We’re saying evangelical theology is part of the problem here,” she said. “It feels to us that they want to fix the problem using the ingredients of the problem.”

One issue is that a conference that only welcomes evangelicals to the stage is excluding the voices of those who have been wounded by evangelicalism so badly that they have left it. Still, there were signs on Thursday that conversations are changing within some evangelical circles. Several speakers identified abuse as a systemic problem rather than primarily a matter of individual sin. Others emphasized the importance of placing women in leadership roles. Kelly Rosati, a child advocate and former lawyer, spoke in part about mandatory reporting laws, proclaiming that “where we the church has failed, the law has stepped in, and that’s a very good thing.” (Rosati also identified herself as a survivor publicly for the first time at the opening of her talk.) Others spoke about toxic leadership dynamics, and the danger of enabling abusers in power. Nancy Beach, one of the women who made allegations against pastor Bill Hybels, said that while it may be tempting to retreat to a “comfort zone” where the sexes are separated as much as possible, “any overcorrection along those lines would be a huge mistake.”

During the last session of the day, best-selling author and Texas pastor Max Lucado shared his own story of abuse—as a young boy by someone he called a “community leader”—for the first time in public. He spoke about how conversations over the last year have led him to think about his own failures to listen and to comprehend. “Now is the time for across-the-coffee-table conversations that begin with the words, ‘Help me to understand what it’s like to be a female in this day and age,’ ” he said. “ ‘Help me to understand what it’s like to never go on a jog without carrying a canister of Mace. … Help me to understand what it’s like to always be outnumbered in the boardroom. Help me to understand what it’s like to be hugged chest to chest, unable to break free. Help me to understand what it’s like to fear filing a workplace complaint because my supervisors are all male. … Help me to understand.’ ”