There’s Just One Problem With Upcoming Evangelical Summit on Sexual Violence

Since Paige Patterson was fired in May, following accusations that he instructed women to stay with abusive husbands and failed to report rape that happened at the seminary where he was president, parts of the evangelical world have experienced a reckoning of sorts. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement that highlighted and organized against sexual harassers and abusers in the entertainment industry, ex-evangelical organizers Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy broke open a culture of silence in churches with the hashtag #ChurchToo.

In response, a “one-day evangelical conversation” will take place at the Billy Graham Center on the campus of the private, conservative Wheaton College. The GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Violence is being marketed as a conference to “Equip the Church to Address Sexual Violence and Harassment.” Many big names in the evangelical world—Beth Moore, Max Lucado, Ed Stetzer, and Eugene Cho—are signed on to speak, though according to a somewhat cryptic note on the conference website: “Some additional speakers are not listed, some by their request.” 

Following a social media outcry over the lack of counselors or experts on sexual abuse, the conference organizers hastily added a professor in the counseling department, Tammy Schultz. While Schultz is an experienced counselor, her available work appears to be in the area of prostitution and human trafficking. This late addition appears to be an attempt to remedy problems within the summit itself—problems that are unlikely to be resolved, in part because the only counselor listed comes from a conservative, evangelical environment that almost guarantees that she already aligns with evangelical theology and views.

This isn’t a minor oversight. The lack of experts on sexual violence and recovery is worrying. Evangelicalism is already an insular movement, which, as detailed in the New York Times, tends toward the rejection of outside expertise and science as anti-biblical. While rape and sexual violence trauma work isn’t a science, it is a subject in which expertise is a critical component to those eager to offer a proper pastoral response. That response will be lacking in this one-day attempt to recover the reputation of a church plagued by scandal and harmful theologies.

In focusing on a pastoral response, the GC2 Summit risks replicating many of the same issues of insularity that created the need for #ChurchToo in the first place. For example, the evangelical church traditionally condemns any sexual activity outside of marriage, and those interested in sexual activity are often told they have broken desires for sex. But trauma experts agree that when a young person demonstrates age-inappropriate sexual behavior they may be attempting to process trauma from childhood sexual abuse. Since any sexual activity before marriage is considered inappropriate, the lack of engagement with experts here risks repeating the very same errors the summit is attempting to correct.

What’s even more troubling is that the refusal to include outside experts means that basic theological principles are likely to go unchallenged. Evangelicals largely exist in a purity culture that often fails to teach about consent since sexual activity of any kind is verboten. This creates an atmosphere that naturally lends itself to questions about a person’s sexual proclivities and activities when an assault happens, especially if that assault was preceded by activity that might be considered sinful (e.g., making out on a first date that turns into assault).

These evangelical pastors, gathering at an evangelical college, are simply not equipped to do the work of overturning decades of theology and culture that have created silence around rape, abuse, and harassment. Without experts who understand the theology and its role in silencing rape victims, and a willingness to listen to those experts, the church will continue to lack the tools necessary to overhaul its approaches and responses to sexual assault.

Emily Joy, co-creator of the #ChurchToo hashtag that’s being used without permission to promote this summit, commented to Religion Dispatches that “until they understand that their theological commitments form the bedrock of sexual abuse in churches in America, this whole thing will be nothing but a circus.”

The theological basis for evangelical ethics around sexuality and sexual behavior are the selfsame beliefs that led Paige Patterson to tell women to stay with abusive husbands and to attempt to resolve rape cases in-house. Any “summit” that seeks to change how the church responds to sexual assault must first and foremost contend with the theology that created the culture of silence and negativity in the first place. Unfortunately, this summit appears to be constructed to just repeat the same old mistakes.