Reckoning with the Protestant Abuse Apocalypse

I presented a paper at the 2023 annual meeting of the Canadian Theological Society.


Reckoning with the Protestant abuse apocalypse: re-imagining church without moral externalism, missional exceptionalism, and disembodied logocentrism

“But this was 1979.” In her 2015 article, Rachel Waltner Goossen gives the year as one reason why seminary president Marlin Miller did not call the police when his star professor John Howard Yoder gave Miller a catalogue of his sexual experiments. Although Goossen then details Miller’s culpability in protecting Yoder, her words suggest readers may hope that religious institutions today are more proactive in addressing sexual misconduct. Any such hopes were dashed by 2022 revelations that leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention spent fifteen years collecting, burying, and denying over seven hundred allegations of abuse perpetuated against church members and their children.

Past research has argued for clericalism, patriarchy, and close-knit communities as common factors in the abuse crisis.  In this paper, I use examples from public abuse cases to suggest three additional candidates for structural factors that predispose churches to mishandle allegations. First is moral externalism, a theory of moral motivation which among Christians manifests as a confidence that having the right doctrines will – with allowances for occasional mild “sins” – result in good behaviour. Second is missional exceptionalism, a stress on a Christian organization’s particular calling to evangelism, justice, and/or orthodoxy as necessitating a refusal to engage so-called “critics.” Third is disembodied logo-centrism, a dualistic intellectual prioritization of the tools of theology, law, and/or policy over the bodily experience and narratives of survivors. I conclude by exploring some scriptural and historical grounds to re-imagine church practices less susceptible to these factors.