On Sunday, May 22, a third-party investigation of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention released a nearly 300-page report detailing the cover-up of hundreds of abuse accusations and an overall failure of leaders in the SBC to make any meaningful attempts to deal with abusers in their midst. The report reveals that “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its policy regarding church autonomy—even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
According to Russell Moore, a former leader in the SBC, “Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.” Survivor Jules Woodson said, “This is going to need to be a cultural change.”
But does the SBC stand any chance at recovering from this horrific revelation when the underlying theology requiring women to be under submission to men is unchanged? The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 in Section XVIII reveals a complementarian ideology:
“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”
Or, as Chrissy Stroop put it more succinctly, the idea “that God created men and women to fulfill distinct and ‘complementary’ roles, and that women’s role is submissive.”
Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, writes, “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power.” If patriarchy, and therefore complementarianism, is about power, then this ideology sets up a power dynamic that creates an environment for abusers to thrive and victims to be disbelieved and further harmed.
Patriarchy and abuse
For those of us who grew up in and have now left patriarchal or complementarian communities, it’s no surprise that a denomination like the SBC would have systemic problems with abuse. We’ve experienced this over and over, and yet many in the church continue to argue that abusers are only a few bad apples, as if the institution itself doesn’t create the conditions for abuse to exist.
One example of a patriarchal church community that’s been entangled with allegations of abuse for decades is Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, led by patriarchal theologian and pastor Doug Wilson. Vice has reported instances of inappropriate handling of abuse in the Christ Church community, including the case of Natalie Greenfield, a fourteen-year-old girl sexually abused by Jamin Wight, a student at a Christ Church ministry training program.
Instead of working to protect the victim and prevent further abuse,
“In 2005, when Greenfield reported the abuse to police, Wilson asked the investigating officer to give leniency to Wight. Wilson cast their sexual interactions as the result of a parent-arranged courtship—something Greenfield maintains is untrue—but, according to emails gathered in an extensive analysis of Wilson by researcher Rachel Shubin, the judge seemed to accept Wilson’s narrative and rejected a more stringent plea agreement under charges of sexual abuse of a child.”
A church plant of Christ Church later financially supported Wight as a missionary, but “in 2013, Wight was charged with attempted strangulation of his wife and later found guilty of domestic battery.” This is just one story of many coming out of this community.
Christian patriarchy is often presented by its proponents as a viewpoint that protects women. In his book Her Hand in Marriage, Wilson writes,
“Women inescapably need godly masculine protection against ungodly masculine harassment; women who refuse protection from their fathers and husbands must seek it from the police. But women who genuinely insist on ‘no masculine protection’ are really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape.”
Not only are Wilson’s ideas about rape extremely problematic, but he has it exactly backwards: an environment in which women have no power and no voice is an environment in which they’re more vulnerable to abuse, not less.
Eve in Exile: Documentary or propaganda?
It’s troubling that patriarchalists like Doug Wilson remain in power, that patriarchal ideology continues to contribute to systemic church abuse, and that many still fail to recognize the root of the problem. Anyone invested in creating safe religious communities should be concerned that proponents of complementarianism and patriarchy are actively working to spread this ideology.
I recently watched Eve in Exile: The Restoration of Femininity, the so-called documentary produced by Canon+ and New Saint Andrews College (affiliated with Christ Church) released earlier this month. While the message of the film isn’t surprising to me, what I do find surprising is how few people are talking about it and its damaging agenda.
The trailer opens with a montage of 1950s-era clips of solitary women performing homemaking tasks: baking a pie, scrubbing the floor, cooking over a stovetop. Rebekah Merkle, author of the book on which the film is based, declares in the voiceover: “Many Christian women feel like, great, I just have to do stupid stuff. That is just to fundamentally not trust God.”
Instead, Merkle contrasts this negative view of homemaking as menial labor with something ostensibly wholesome in her interpretation of how women should think and behave to align with God’s commands. We see clips of women with babies and women cooking, yes, but now we have a new addition: women using power tools and women as teachers in a classroom. So women aren’t confined to the kitchen alone—they’re called by God to be productive in many ways.
But we learn soon enough that, according to Merkle, women must always have their focus on their home, their husbands, their children, and their community in order to embrace true femininity. While this might sound wholesome, the underlying message is that a woman’s individuality and autonomy is unimportant compared to her commanded role in life.
The film is clear that it’s presenting an anti-feminist viewpoint, proposing that feminism is empty and that women of the world are miserable because they aren’t fulfilling their true calling to be homemakers first. Merkle goes even further to say,
“If we destroy the concept of femininity, there’s no such thing as what God expects of women or what it means to be truly feminine. If we take all that away and say, ‘no, you can be whatever you want to be,’ then you have not actually made it possible to be an excellent woman, you have destroyed the concept of an excellent woman.”
By posing this all-or-nothing approach to gender and using cherry-picked Bible verses to justify it, Merkle sets up viewers to accept her worldview without understanding the context from which this ideology originates.
So who is Rebekah Merkle, and why is she the expert on how women should live? Unsurprisingly, Merkle is the daughter of Doug Wilson and the wife of Ben Merkle, the president of New Saint Andrews College. And while in my own feminist viewpoint, I would rather list her credentials (which, according to eveinexile.com, include designing fabrics, teaching high school, and editing curricula for Canon Press), if we’re to play by the patriarchal rules, it’s clear she’s credentialed by her relationship with her father and her husband, both powerful men in the Christ Church community. And if we’re to take her at her word, the film is the fruit of her calling to glorify her husband.
So it’s not surprising that Merkle would write a book and help create a corresponding documentary that seems to be more of an opinion piece on Christian womanhood or a video you’d watch in a women’s Bible study than a film documenting an anti-feminist movement. In fact, the language on the film’s website clearly points to a didactic motive rather than an observation of society:
“This documentary follows author Rebekah Merkle as she discusses the role of Christian women in today’s world, the pitfalls and distractions we should avoid, and how we should approach rebuilding the ruins of the West.”
This framing of what, in my opinion, is indoctrination posing as documentary is troubling as it is deceiving, but it’s unfortunately not an original concept, as other high-control groups have produced similar films for their followers.
Before Eve in Exile, there was The Return of the Daughters
But first, let me back up. I grew up in a family heavily influenced by Doug Wilson’s teaching. We subscribed to his magazine Credenda/Agenda, listened to his audio tapes on long drives to and from church, used Canon Press’s catalog to write our Christmas lists. This is why I’m not surprised that Wilson’s daughter would write a book like Eve in Exile. It’s also why I have a great mistrust for any production to come out of Moscow, Idaho—because I know how toxic Doug Wilson’s teachings can be.
Steeped in Wilson’s harsh patriarchy, my family fell quickly into another ditch when the new fundamentalist kid on the block, Doug Phillips, started selling his gender-typed toys and books in his ministry/company Vision Forum in the 1990s. Vision Forum sold homeschooling families like mine on the ideal family: little girls playing tea party and dolls, little boys building forts, mothers quietly cooking and cleaning and hosting gatherings, while fathers made up the rules and stood front-and-center as protectors/kings of the house.
One Vision Forum product I’ll never forget is the documentary The Return of the Daughters, hosted by sisters Anna and Elizabeth Botkin. This film “documents” stay-at-home daughters—women who stay home under submission to their fathers after reaching age 18, until they marry an approved man via biblical courtship.
I recently rewatched this film after a 15-year hiatus because I wanted to show my husband what my life used to be like. In that sense, I can see this film, almost accidentally, as a documentary, because it reveals what young women like me were subjected to in the Christian patriarchy movement.
But on the other hand, The Return of the Daughters is nothing more than indoctrination and propaganda. Instead of seeing women choosing an alternative lifestyle, I see sheltered girls who aren’t allowed to be independent, who must always obey their fathers or else risk ostracization, who cannot truly consent to stay at home because in reality they have no other option. I see a movement with male teachers who perpetuated and enabled abuse of all kinds.
I don’t see a liberation away from feminism and toward femininity that the film purported to offer—instead I see misogyny and the devastation that patriarchy wreaks on women, because I’ve lived it. Others have lived it. Years after the film was released, one of the daughters interviewed in the film eventually reported sexual abuse at the hands of Doug Phillips himself.
Taking the idealism of The Return of the Daughters one step further, Eve in Exile presents a slightly more modern take on old-fashioned patriarchy. Women don’t just sit at home and play tea party: they’re productive, fruitful, intelligent. They’re allowed to go to college (though, I would wager, they’re likely restricted to conservative Christian schools like New Saint Andrews). Women have purpose within this patriarchal framework—at least that’s the presentation. But those of us who’ve lived through Christian patriarchy can attest that this is not how it plays out in reality.
So when I see Eve in Exile as the next best thing for women in Christian fundamentalist circles, I’m concerned that Rebekah Merkle, instead of promoting a revolutionary return to original womanhood, is actually perpetuating the lies of patriarchy: that women were created to glorify men. And I can’t help but think of the next generation of survivors who will learn to speak for themselves, who will push through the abuse that the patriarchs cover them with, who will break free, finally.
The SBC report wasn’t surprising to me, not just because I’ve listened to and believed the survivors’ stories for years as they’ve sought justice, but also because the unapologetically patriarchal framework of SBC beliefs inevitably leads to abuse. It happens time and time again, and in order for the system to truly change and become an environment that prevents abuse, it must first deal with the beliefs that result in harm to women.