What Does Justice Look Like for the Toxic Teachings in the Church?

by | Jun 28, 2024 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 26 comments

Definition of justice when it comes to evangelical toxic teachings on sex and marriage

Can there be justice for how the church has hurt people around marriage & sex?

I was thinking about that question yesterday after episode 239 of the Bare Marriage podcast dropped, looking at the phenomenon of deconstruction. Specifically I was thinking about the segment where Keith and I were talking about justice–how we miss the fact that our faith communities should be places where justice is pursued.

So what would justice look like when it comes to how evangelical institutions have handled marriage and sex?

Last fall I read Truth and Repair by Judith Herman.

She literally wrote the book on PTSD (she was one of the first to really explain the phenomenon a few decades ago), and now she’s writing about what repair looks like. What she found, in talking to victims, is that our traditional notions of justice don’t really bring healing or repair. We focus on punishing the perpetrator, but not on restoring or helping the victim.

Sending someone to prison may have a moral win, and it may be comforting in the sense that you know that they can’t hurt anyone else, but it doesn’t necessarily help the victim, because the perpetrator wasn’t the only one who caused the trauma.

It was also the whole community who failed to believe you; who backed the perpetrator; who maligned you; who minimized the harm; who made you jump through hoops to be heard.

And what victims often want is just acknowledgment of their pain. When the offender doesn’t give that–when they just get “punished” but there is no true apology or acknowledgment–then it’s harder to heal.

So Herman spends a lot of her book revisioning what justice may look like in our communities, but also in the criminal justice system.

Now, obviously we’re not talking about prison or the criminal justice system.

But her insights are still important: It is not really punishment alone, or even primarily, that those who have been hurt yearn for.

  • It is to be vindicated and understood;
  • It is to have the community, including all the perpetrator’s allies, apologize and voice the full weight of what was done to you.
  • It’s to have a public acknowledgment and grief that what was done to you was wrong.

So many of us are deconstructing part of our faith, whether it’s just about marriage and sex teachings, or it’s about gender, or it’s about wider issues of how the church handles authoritarianism, emotions, power, or more.

And much of this deconstruction has been because our pain has not been acknowledged. The church has hurt us, and the church doesn’t care.

In that journey, what does justice look like?

The community needs to acknowledge our pain, care, and try to make it right.

The community needs to understand that its teachings enabled marital rape and abuse; stole women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure; led to sexual pain disorders; prompted women to ignore red flags in dating relationships and marry abusers; normalized the objectification and dehumanization of women, and so much more.

And the community needs to apologize and change course and make it right.

But again–what does that look like?

The main problem here is “who is community”?

It’s great when our friends or parents or spouses change course, and that is healing–especially parents, if they were the ones who taught this stuff, even if inadvertently.

But most of us want more. We want the people who were responsible for making these teachings mainstream to own it. So let’s start:

1. We want churches to change course and apologize

For so many people, this would be the #1 thing. To have your own faith community make things right would be so, so healing. And to have that church community then invest money into a fund so people could get licensed counseling would be such an important step towards restitution.

And not just churches, but denominations and seminaries, too. The seminaries that have taught the same harmful stuff should send out materials to re-educate alumni and say, “we got it wrong.”

I’m thinking about how to do a big campaign that churches can join to go through a period of lament–let’s keep talking about this, because maybe we can make it happen next year.

Our Great Sex Rescue Toolkit can start healing conversations

If you’re wanting those around you, or in your church, to understand the damage done, that’s what we created our toolkit for! It has onesheet handouts on the harm done by all the different teachings we’ve measured, with quick stats, examples of the harmful teachings, and what to say instead.

Plus it’s got tips on how to navigate these conversations, and more.

We’ve priced it as Pay What You Can. So you can pay as little as $3, or you can pay whatever you want to support our work! Check it out here. 

 

For me personally, my hurt wasn’t from a particular church as much as it was from books and ministries, which leads to:

2. We want authors to apologize, own the issue, and make amends

This likely means taking books out of print, and donating money to women’s shelters or licensed counseling groups that are helping people heal from the teachings. This means publicly admitting they were wrong, and being as vocal on social media apologizing as they were trying to spread the harmful stuff in the first place.

3. We want publishers to take books out of print.

When we know that books like Love & Respect enable abuse and cause harm; when we know that the messages in Every Man’s Battle enable sexual entitlement and objectification and can make it actually harder to quit porn–at some point publishers need to own their share of the responsibility for these messages.

Even if the publishers publish healthy books as well, there needs to be a commitment to stop publishing books that cause harm.

4. We want organizations to apologize, change course, or even fold up shop altogether.

Focus on the Family, the biblical counseling organizations, the American ASsociation of Christian Counselors (who has platformed many of these authors), FamilyLIfe–basically any organization that has spread these messages and helped promote the harmful authors–I would absolutely love to hear a heartfelt apology.

I would love to see websites scrubbed of harmful things. I would love to see the organization hire licensed counselors and people trained in trauma, healthy sexuality, and healthy marriage dynamics to replace the huge swath of people who have been teaching unhealthy things.

These things will not all happen, of course.

And I understand that true justice will not come on this side of heaven. I know that it is not until many of these people see Jesus face to face that they will humble themselves and admit what they did was wrong.

And so I ask myself, “is there something that would make it okay? Some small bit?”

And I find myself saying yes.

Here’s why.

Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Roman empire. He came to change people, one at a time. He didn’t focus on huge organizations; he focused on people.

And while I believe that we need to change huge organizations and systems, for me personally I still experience great healing and hope from individual interactions; from individual people’s stories; from community.

That’s something else Herman talks about; how even if the main ones responsible for the trauma don’t make it right, when others see and acknowledge and speak it out loud, it is still healing.

And so I treasure the emails that I get of people telling me how they have changed their teaching, changed their beliefs, and changed their relationships. And I treasure the emails from pastors who have tried their best to make things right.

I’d like to share some of those with you in the upcoming weeks in hopes that you find them healing, too. I’m taking off next week since most of my readers will be on holiday (it’s a long weekend in Canada, and then the United States celebrates July 4). There will be a podcast, but other than that no blog posts.

But then I’d like to revisit what has been healing for me, and also ask the question:

What would be healing for you? Do any of the things on the list I gave resonate with you? Are there others that you would like to add? Or what would help you? What looks like justice to you? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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26 Comments

  1. Jane King

    I am not sure where I read it but, someone suggested watching Mr Rogers Neighborhood videos as a balm for our weary souls. I have done it a few times and it feels sort of like meditation. Oh if we could all live in Mr Rogers Neighborhood.

    Reply
    • Nessie

      I would love to see a course set up for the people that have done harm to fully immerse themselves in the trenches with women who have been hurt such as internships at battered women’s shelters, etc. Unfortunately, unless these people have truly repented, it would be too unsafe to put them working with many of those women. These women need to not be re-traumatized!

      I’d love to see the toxic pastors/authors paired with healthy ones (like a mentorship) so I knew there would be some accountability and opportunity to witness the healthier way.

      I would find it healing for the pastor who most abused scripture in my life to approach each person he damaged (or thinks he may have damaged), give an apology, and state how he intends to put into practice his repentance, then offer a way to check on his progress, such as on a blog, etc.

      “…publicly admitting they were wrong, and being as vocal on social media apologizing as they were trying to spread the harmful stuff in the first place.” I think that is so important- an equal measure (or more!) put in to heal as was done to harm!

      And I agree with Jane King- Mr. Rogers can be so healing and calming! Almost all the positive characteristics I possess came from watching that show and learning how to treat people.

      Reply
      • Kristy

        I love your idea of a mentorship. That struck a chord with me. And while we’re at it (dreaming impossible, or at least at the moment improbable, dreams), how about dreaming a step further and imagining a world in which these toxic pastors, counsellors, and speakers were not allowed to speak or counsel except under direct supervision until they had proven that they had changed and could now be trusted.

        And I also grew up on and still love Mister Rogers. I was not surprised to learn that he was a Christian, and indeed an ordained Presbyterian minister. For me, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood is still the gold standard by which I judge all children’s television shows and I still enjoy watching those shows.

        Reply
  2. CMT

    “our traditional notions of justice don’t really bring healing or repair. We focus on punishing the perpetrator, but not on restoring or helping the victim”

    This rings really true to me. When we talk about “justice for _____” or victims getting “closure” when a criminal is punished, we are usually focusing on what happens to the perpetrator. It’s as though once the wrongdoer is punished, we feel we have done our duty by the victim and can move on. This is baked into our western legal systems, if you think about it. There are legal mechanisms to impose penalties on people who commit crimes, but if victims or families want support or restitution they usually have to sue somebody civilly (or start a go fund me).

    No wonder western Christians don’t get restorative justice. Our culture just doesn’t think that way.

    Reply
  3. Andrea

    I was never a fan of Focus on the Family (seriously, since I read one of Dobson’s stupid books as a teenager), but I had no idea that the American Association of Christian Counselors was bad until I found out on this blog or maybe on the Facebook page that they rejected your paper on marital rape. That broke my heart.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      They have some great people there. But they also platform toxic teachers and don’t fix it. And some of the credentialing they do for biblical counselors is problematic. They don’t seem committed to actually teaching what is healthy, but rather focus on big names.

      Reply
  4. Wild Honey

    What could justice and healing look like?

    I spent most of my adult life in complementarian churches. In some, the sexism was so obvious that even my (at that time) complementarian husband picked up on it. I finally told him I was done with complementarian churches, not just for my sake but for the sake of our two daughters, who were getting old enough to start picking up on things.

    Last year, I visited a “new to us” church on a Sunday where the various ministries happened to be giving annual updates. The senior pastor, a man, announced that the leadership team had recently read “A Church Called Tov” together and realized the need to not just reach out to the marginalized, but to put the marginalized in positions of influence.

    Though the church has been around for decades and is egalitarian on paper, it had never had a woman pastor. And so, to right this wrong and to affirm the pastoral giftings they saw in the woman children’s director, they called her to the position of associate pastor. From what I’ve gathered since, a not-insignificant number of people pushed back and ended up leaving, but the church has weathered the exodus. (My husband and I stuck around, and this place has felt more like “home” than I’ve felt in a long time.)

    This, in my opinion, is what justice and healing could look like. Individuals and institutions doing the right thing, even when it is hard.

    Reply
    • CMT

      That does sound encouraging. Good for the leadership of that church. I hope they keep it up.

      It’s sad though, that changing a woman’s title to reflect the job she was already doing in the church was a bridge too far for a substantial number of people. It was ok for her to do pastoral work as long as she wasn’t CALLED a pastor? What was that thing about do not bear false witness, again?

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s so lovely! My goodness, I teared up. I love hearing stories like this!

      Reply
  5. Emmy

    Your post made me think of the Good Samaritan. We all know the story: a man gets attacked by a bench of robbers and is left on the wayside to bleed to death.

    Who would have been the first one that would have been responsible to help him and make it right? The robbers, of course. They did attack the man and they did the damage. Had they been good and decent robbers, they would have said: Oh my, what have we done! Someone get some band-aid some help really quick before this man dies.

    That would have been the ideal solution, but in our real world, not a very likely one. There are hardly any decent robbers, just like there are no decent abusers, who stop and do their civic duties after they realize what they have done. Abusers do not realize what they have done, and if they do, they do not care.

    The moral of the story so far: no use trying to convince an abuser! It just won’t happen.

    The next in line to help the victim would have been the priest, and after him, the Levite, but we all know the story: they didn’t. Just in the same way, the Church often walks by, and if they try to help, they often do it inefficiently or even in a harmful way, like lecturing the victim about the importance of forgiveness.

    The moral of the story: don’t waste time expecting help from people who do not care. Nothing you say or do can give them a kind and caring heart. They need to long for one themselves.

    The real help often comes from ordinary people who even are not that exemplary or pious all the time. They simple see someone bleeding and they say: “Gosh, what has happened here, this was an armed robbery! Let’s get some real help double quick and stop the bleeding, before the victim dies. Life first. Safety first. Even if it costs us effort, time, money or even our reputation”.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is so helpful, Emmy! Thank you.

      Reply
  6. JG

    I’m not sure what justice looks like to me. I think repentance and restitution for the harm done would go a long way, but I’m not holding my breath.

    The abusive pastors seem to have the attitude that they are more sorry that they were caught and exposed than actually showing genuine repentance. I guess that I am somewhat cynical after seeing too many pastors destroy the victims of abuse instead of supporting and helping them.

    Reply
  7. Lisa Johns

    It would be healing for me simply to have the church acknowledge and validate the pain. All I have seen so far is that I’m erased.

    Reply
  8. Taylor

    I resonated alot, regarding community owning up. And yes, so much of my pain has to do with the community not acknowledging my pain, and how they contributed.

    *for enabling my former husband to hide his affairs and porn issues from me in the name of “grace” and “confidentiality.”

    *for people’s protection of my former husband put me in danger of sexually transmitted diseases–including HIV–that I didn’t know I needed to protect myself from

    *for how the community gaslighted me into believing that my former husband was dealing with his issues and growing, when he was actually getting worse

    *for how there was never an acknowledgement or apology to me for the damage they helped enable

    *for abandoning me and my children after my former husband “came out” and wanted a divorce

    *for communicating that they were justified in their choices to enable his deception

    *for communication that they were sorry about how I felt about being betrayed–not that they were sorry for their part in assisting the betrayal

    My wounds were ignored and silenced, and the community got to move forward in their self-deception about how healing and helpful their organization was.

    I’m left holding the bag of the consequences of other people’s sin.

    It would’ve been healing of the people responsible for filling the bag would take it back, empty it, hear me as I tell them about each of the contents, acknowledge them, apologize publicly, vindicate me, and ask what they can do to help repair at least some of the damage.

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      That is terrible, and I am so sorry you were placed in such an awful position. My I suggest that publicity might be appropriate here? Others need to know that this is a place to be avoided in the name of safety.

      Reply
      • Taylor

        I have to be careful about what I say publicly, at least what I say that has specific names included. Because it would be public outing of my ex-husband, which could threaten child custody, if the court thinks I’m creating hostility against him.

        But thank you for empathizing. I really appreciate it.

        Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m so, so sorry! That’s just tragic. That’s so wrong. I hope you can find a group of people who will really love you!

      Reply
  9. Taylor

    Another issue. Sometimes there’s focus on punishing the perpetrator, without real justice for the victim. But more often I see a hyper focus on ministering to the perpetrator and getting them out of sin and moving them to a place of testimony for God, and the victim is totally ignored.

    Either way, through punishment or “restoration,” the perpetrator gets the focus, and the victim becomes invisible. Where’s the healing, victory, overcoming, new life for the victim? Why is only the perpetrator supported into these things? The only way the victim gets these qualities is under the umbrella of healing the perpetrator. And that isn’t right.

    Reply
  10. Erin

    In cases like mine, where no physical harm took place, I think looking for justice is pointless.

    Either because the people who handed us damaging teaching sincerely thought ( and still think) that they were doing the right thing. They will never admit they were wrong — they don’t see that they have anything to make aends for. And those who weren’t sincere used the teaching as a way to hide from themselves, to salve their own fears and insecurities and feed their desire for importance. They will never try to make amends either, because then who they are would collapse.

    Either way, waiting for justice in some cases only holds us back. Better to accept that it will never happen in this life and focus on personal growth and relearning better beliefs.

    (Does not apply when someone has suffered abuse/had a crime committed against them, obviously. )

    Reply
  11. Nathan

    >> more often I see a hyper focus on ministering to the perpetrator and getting them out of sin and moving them to a place of testimony for God, and the victim is totally ignored.

    I’ve also seen this. And if the victim ever is given attention, it’s usually a demand that they forgive the perpetrator to the point where they have to act like it never happened, with no consequences or accountability at all.

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      I didn’t even have to go to church to get that — it came from my family of origin. But it was more than backed up by the church.

      Reply
    • Taylor

      Yep. And the only glory and visibility victims get is from the light being shone on the glorified abuser who’s saying they’ve repented.

      The victim becomes pictured as the accessory to, or even the antagonist, that drives the drama direction of the “repenter’s” testimony. They don’t get to be a real person or have their own story–they have to be secondary to the “former” abuser.

      When Jesus talked about going after the lost sheep, and heaven rejoicing more over a sinner who repents than ninety-nine that didn’t need to repent, I really don’t think He meant for us to picture One repentant abuser and Ninety-Nine people who were abused. I think He meant for us to picture repentant tax collector/prostitute/etc vs a bunch of pharisees/saducees.

      Reply
  12. Nathan

    I think this has been said before, but I’ll say it again. From what I’ve seen, when something like this happens, the abuser stands up and goes on and on about how “I’ve sinned against the Lord, and broken God’s commandment and I repent straying from His path”, and so on. They act as if God was the only person hurt by their actions. Barely a word about there’s a PERSON who is hurt, broken and traumatized, yet all but ignored by the community.

    Also, of course, one other priority when abuse happens to is protect the image of the church and their leaders.

    Reply
  13. Nathan

    And I’ll agree with Taylor. I doubt that Jesus meant “put more effort into the sinner than 99 abused victims”. I’m pretty sure He meant put more effort into the sinner than 99 people who didn’t do anything bad but also weren’t abused.

    Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked can easily be extended to “heal the broken”

    Reply
  14. RM

    Thank you for writing this post! I’m slowly deconstructing the harmful purity culture I learned as a teenager from Focus on the Family publications and other things I learned from my family. They struggle to see why I have a problem, but my parents are coming around. I’m rather enraged about it all, actually, so seeing you list constructive ways that wrongdoers can make amends is helpful for me. As other commenters have said, this is quite alien to our culture, so I have to also teach people how to treat me while learning myself how to heal. Up to now, the most I had really thought about it was wanting to figurately burn down FoF’s empire, but this post is a good start to redirect my anger to something more constructive and more likely to have results

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m glad you found it helpful! When I go to the Focus on the Family headquarters (which is HUGE) and I realize how much money is going into propping that up that could be feeding the hungry I get so sad.

      Reply

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