“I’ve never heard the story of Hagar like that before!” The woman caught me in the narrow hallway. I was walking from the workshop following my lecture, trying to make my way to lunch. Her sleeve fluttered as she reached out to shake my hand. “It makes me want to reread [the Bible] again to see what else I’ve missed. Thank you.”
She wasn’t alone, either. Around twenty people caught me to say something similar—how my introduction to the reading of Hagar’s story in Genesis 16:1-13 (by Rev. Wil Gafney, a womanist biblical scholar who holds the Right Rev. Sam B. Hulsey endowed chair in the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School) was new and transformational. It helped them see how much their own evangelical traditions obscured the reality of women in the Bible.
Instead of seeing Hagar as a mistake–as Abram and Sarai’s personal sin, as a warning for believers not to try and usurp God’s predetermined plan, as an allegory for those predestined not to inherit God’s blessings, or even as a predictor of violence in the Middle East, all common representations of Hagar’s story in evangelical theology—I had drawn from Gafney’s Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne to remind my audience that Hagar was an enslaved child, raped by a significantly older man, and severely mistreated by a woman who was also a victim of sexual violence. Abram “pimped Sarai out,” in Gafney’s words, and should be remembered as a “survivor of sexual violence and domestic abuse,” (32-35). We needed to acknowledge that Abram was complicit in the sexual abuse of both Sarai and Hagar.
The response I received from audience members like this woman should have encouraged me. It should have encouraged me how readily folk accepted my presentation of Hagar as a victim given justice from God in response to the injustice of a patriarchal system that dehumanized her for sexual labor. It should have encouraged me that so many were processing the cost of their own theology for women.
But it didn’t.
At least it didn’t encourage me as much as I thought it would. As much as I thought it should. I think the reason it didn’t encourage me was because I know the cost for women has already been too high.
For more than five decades, evangelical theology has been teaching an increasingly restrictive gender hierarchy, arguing that God ordained male headship and female submission. This theology, repackaged as complementarianism in the late 1980s, even became the primary understanding of biblical teachings about women and men for denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention (which currently claims to represent almost fifteen million people) as well as conservative evangelical churches more broadly.
Just take, for example, what Tommy Nelson, the long-time and well-known (in evangelical circles, at least) pastor of Denton Bible Church in North Texas, confessed to his congregation just last May (2022): that a former youth pastor had sexually abused fourteen girls, eleven of whom had been in Denton Bible’s youth group. Even more horrific was the revelation that the church had not only ignored multiple warning signs but had recommended the youth pastor to another church, where his abuse allegedly continued. Nelson’s church also failed to report the sexual assaults that began as early as 1997 despite having “credible accounts” that the allegations were true. One of the assault victims has recently spoken out, accusing the church of minimizing the sexual assaults, neglecting the victims, and participating in “systemic injustice” toward women (see interview with Julie Roys).
Denton Bible Church, like so much of the evangelical world, preaches complementarianism.
Should it surprise us, then, that their recent story about sexual violence toward women and children is like so many other stories that we have heard from the evangelical world? As I wrote in my recent book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, we can no longer deny a link between the conservative gender theologies taught by evangelicals like Bill Gothard and Sovereign Grace Ministries (or even Denton Bible) and the allegations of sexual abuse made against them (206-207). We can’t ignore the voices of the more than 700 women, spanning two decades, victimized by men in Southern Baptist churches.
Denton Bible Church is part of a pattern, becoming clearer and clearer, between a theology that centers male power and sexual violence against women. A pattern of men misusing their leadership to silence women, enforcing their authority with a rigid interpretation of scripture that (I would argue) is growing less and less sustainable among reputable scholars, and becoming so indifferent to female victims in their churches that Denton Bible Church didn’t even bother reporting the sexual assault of a teenage girl to the police.
I think Kristin Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin College and author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, has summarized the cost of evangelical theology for women well. Conservative evangelicals, she wrote, preach “a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity—of patriarchy and submission, sex and power. It was a vision that promised protection for women but left women without defense, one that worshiped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making,” (294).
I remember a provocative question once asked of me in a conversation I had with theologian Lucy Peppiatt, the Principal of Westminster Theological Center in Gloucestershire, England, and the author of Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts. “You have to consider,” she said, “where does your theology lead?”
As I was reading the news stories about Denton Bible Church, I thought about her question to me. Where does evangelical theology lead? Does it lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, as St. Paul explains in Galatians 5:22 are the fruits of a transformed life? Or does it lead to anger, fear, hate, and violence?
I fear the evidence from too many evangelicals—who neglect to see Hagar and Sarai as victims of sexual violence and who even resist readings of Bathsheba as raped by David—suggests the latter destination rather than the former. Afterall, if people believe that God ordained women as less than men, it shouldn’t surprise us to see them treating women as less than men.
It shouldn’t surprise us. But it should still horrify us.