Patriarchy, Power, and Sexual Abuse among Christians

March 7, 2014

A special compilation of links you’ll want to know about.

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Amanda Marcotte writes that “the message in the Christian right is clear: Men’s choices, especially men’s sexual choices, are the responsibility of women. So if a man chooses to rape you, it’s understood not as him asserting dominance over you, but as the man taking the liberties you must have extended to him.”  She says that “reaction from Christian conservatives to sexual assault —blame the victim and make it about sex, not violence —is surprisingly common.”  You can read Marcotte’s post here. Then be sure to check out the related links and commentary below.

Marcotte’s point  is not surprising in view of what patriarchy teaches about male supremacy and the right to dominate, as over against female subordination and the duty to submit.  This patriarchal ideology is no doubt behind many of the recent sexual abuse allegations involving prominent religious leaders and institutions (and the way such allegations are handled).  Here are some examples from just the last few months:

Bill GothardThe Religion News Service has reported details of accusations of sexual harassment and assault  that have resulted in Gothard’s being placed on administrative leave from the ministries he founded and has led since the mid-1960s.  For more information about this, see the website, Recovering Grace, developed by a group of Gothard’s  former followers. It’s described as “an online organization devoted to helping people whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI).”  The website goes on to explain that” Recovering Grace provides a unique perspective in that it was founded and is operated entirely by adults who were raised as children in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute.”

Bob Jones University has come under scrutiny for its handling of students who have been sexually abused, many before attending BJU but who, after coming to the university, sought help through its counseling services. The university hired an outside organization to investigate the way sexual abuse counseling was being handled. But then it fired the investigative organization. Then it rehired it.  All of these changes have caused many to wonder what may lie behind what has been happening at Bob Jones.  Referring to these actions and other troubling stories, an article in the international news and culture magazine, Vice, popular among young adults, is headlined, “Sexual Abuse Has Become a Huge Problem  for America’s Bible Colleges.”

Patrick Henry College is another Christian fundamentalist school that is having to deal with negative publicity surrounding its handling of sexual assault cases.  This article from The New Republic discusses it in detail, highlighting situations of female students “who say they reported sexual assault or harassment to the administration [but] also left feeling that school officials blamed them instead of holding the accused male students accountable. The administration, they say, seemed much more concerned with protecting Patrick Henry’s pristine public image.”

The continuing effects of the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandals were shown on PBS’s Frontline. While we’re on the subject of public image, If you missed PBS’s recent “Secrets of the Vatican,” it’s well worth blocking off some time to watch it online.  Even though we’ve all read a great deal about these scandals, this program will stun you in its revelations of how far certain powerful members of the church hierarchy have gone to protect the church’s reputation and finances, while showing little concern about  the damage done to the sexual abuse victims and the pain they endured.  One story that especially brought me to tears was the story of a woman named Monica Barrett who told of being raped by a priest at age 8 and how much she has suffered throughout her life. You can read the transcript of her story here, or watch it on video as part of the program.

Doug Phillips and his Vision Forum ministry.  In November, Julie Ingersoll wrote some insightful pieces about the Doug Phillips affair that shocked many Christians in the fundamentalist home schooling movement and resulted in the closing of the Vision Forum ministry.  Here is Ingersoll’s overview,  showing how the scandal is connected to the patriarchal beliefs, attitudes, and teachings that lay the groundwork for such behavior.  In an earlier post about the scandal, Ingersoll made this observation about Phillips: ““It appears that while as he has been fighting homosexuality and feminism as threats to marriage, he has actually been the threat.”

New Attention to the late John Howard Yoder’s sexual predatory behavior.  Although Yoder’s harassment  behavior and sexual abuse of women have long been known by many (and admitted by Yoder himself), it has recently become a topic for new discussions about whether or not knowing this about him should affect our attitudes toward his writings.  See Sarah Wenger Shenk’s article in Sojourner’s.  Also read about the decision of the publisher of Yoder’s theological works, Herald Press, to include a disclaimer in all future editions of his books.  Another article you may find of interest was written by Andy Alexis-Baker and published on the Jesus Radicals website.


posted by Letha Dawson Scanzoni


Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. Thanks, Letha, for bringing all this information together. Here at Cedar Crest, people who know I am a graduate of Bob Jones U., keep asking me if the coverage seems accurate and I assure them that it is accurate as far as it goes but things are worse than the media feel free to describe. However, it is better that abuse is now being spoken about. When I was at BJU I would not have dared to tell anyone about my abuse as a child–I knew it wold somehow be my fault.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Virginia. Your point is so true. I know you grew up suffering under this extreme “blame-the-female” fundamentalism, so such scandals as these (and the attitudes that bring them about) are not at all surprising to you! I’m glad for how you have spoken out over the years, helping others in spite of your own pain.

    After my post went online today, showing numerous recent examples of how patriarchal attitudes can so easily foster all sorts of abuse, including sexual abuse, I thought of another example I wish I had used in my original compilation of links —the example of Jack Schaap, former pastor of a megachurch in Indiana. It makes the point so well. Some of you may remember my link of the day from June 1, 2012, when I referred to a brief excerpt from a YouTube video, showing the bullying attitude of Schaap as he boasted of male headship, saying he was glad he was a man and that no woman could teach him anything about theology, that he would only listen to what a woman had to say if she spoke something she had learned from her pastor, and so on. Schaap claimed that what he said was God’s truth and that it didn’t matter what anyone else tried to tell him. You can watch the video again here:

    And then, after watching the video, think how difficult it would be for a young woman, growing up under such teachings about male dominance and female submissiveness, to try to muster the courage to resist the advances of such a man or speak up about him to someone else in an effort to find help.

    Read what one teenage girl had to say in this article:

    Also see this report:

    No need to say more!

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