On Thursday leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention released a 205-page list with the names of pastors and others affiliated with the SBC and different Baptist denominations who have been accused of sexual abuse for decades. The release follows an explosive investigative report into alleged sexual misconduct by Southern Baptist Convention clergy members.
This moment of reckoning would not have been possible without women speaking truth to power, belying the theological understanding that they are meant to be submissive to men in positions of authority in the church and home.
Women speaking publicly about the harm done to them show that without substantive transformation in how evangelical Christians understand and approach gender and sexuality, men in positions of church leadership are bound to continue systemic abuses.
By publicly calling out pastors who they say have sexually abused them, women are challenging men in ministry seeking to cull sympathy and retain authority. In a now widely circulated video from a service at the New Life Christian Church and World Outreach in Warsaw, Indiana, last Sunday, we saw an example of this on full display.
Shortly after Pastor John Lowe II pleaded for his congregation to seek “the saving knowledge of Christ,” he said he had “a confession.” He wanted to “follow a biblical process of confession, repentance and forgiveness,” which would lead up to him finally admitting that he had committed adultery. He stressed that it was 20 years ago and was with one person, and as a way to hammer home that he was doing the upstanding thing, he said he would not “use the Bible to defend, protect and deflect my past sin.” He continued, “I have no defense. I committed the adultery. To say it plainly, I didn’t make a mistake. … I need to say that, and you deserve to hear it.”
He asked the congregation for forgiveness and announced that he was stepping aside from ministry responsibilities and submitting to recommendations from the church board. As Lowe placed the microphone down and stepped offstage, he received a standing ovation.
But he had left out key details. And as the applause continued, a woman and her husband stepped up to the pulpit to fill in what these details were. The clapping died down as the woman began: “I lived in a prison of lies and shame. Lying to protect the Lowe family … having suicidal thoughts, not realizing what had been truly done to me … I would still be in a prison if my brother … had not approached me just two weeks ago with what he had seen as a teenager that bothered him all these years. His pastor, in bed, with his younger sister, a T-shirt and underwear on. People knew but were too afraid to come forward, and they have now. The lies and the manipulation have to stop.”
She then addressed Lowe directly, who was standing nearby at a front pew. “I was a prisoner, and you kept me in your prison. I’m a prisoner no longer. I was just 16 when you took my virginity on your office floor,” she said. “You did things to my teenage body that had never and should never have been done. … You are not the victim here.”
Indeed, he is not — though he tried to make himself look as if he was.
After the woman left the stage with her husband, a man shouted, “If you did it, you have to admit it.” Lowe responded, “She was 16, it was wrong. ... That’s just the way it is. ... All I can do is ask you to forgive me. I’m doing the biblical process. ... I’m stepping side.”
His response was flippant at best. Why had he left out critical details in his public confession to begin with? If Lowe was going through the “biblical process,” wouldn’t that entail him being fully honest?
Had the true victim not come forward and publicly told the truth — all of it — there’s no telling how this would’ve been swept under the rug. The next day, New Life Christian Church released a statement saying Lowe had resigned.
While the video highlights how women are leading the charge to change churches from within, a woman crying out toward its end, “We love you pastor,” shows that change is still an uphill battle. The video also shows many congregants forming a prayer circle with Lowe before the camera cuts away. Let’s hope that this survivor, brave enough to speak out against patriarchal violence, will not be demonized.
We’ve seen how victims of sexual abuse within the church have been maligned before. It is unlikely that the 2022 third-party investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, which follows a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, would have been conducted without the efforts of survivors like Christa Brown, who protested the inaction of the Southern Baptist Convention for nearly 20 years. Brown told Southern Baptist leaders that she was abused by a youth pastor, who continued to serve in multiple Southern Baptist churches. She was vilified for insisting on reform. The 2022 report states, ”Survivors — those persons who actually suffered at the hands of SBC clergy or SBC church staff or volunteers — who spoke out the most … were denigrated as ‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’” According to the report, an internal email even equated the focus on sexual abuse with the work of the devil.
Women speaking publicly about the harm done to them shows that without substantive transformation in how evangelical Christians understand and approach gender and sexuality, men in positions of church leadership are bound to continue systemic abuses that have been tolerated, excused and hidden for far too long. Survivors of sexual abuse have had to fight through trauma to be publicly heard. Their courage deserves recognition, and their bravery deserves change. Hopefully, the truth will lead evangelical churches to meaningful action.