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Ah, the church. It can be a beautiful and supportive community, a terrible mess, and everything in between. If you have been following the news in Dallas (or if you read a lot of Christian blogs), you probably have heard about the recent controversy at the Village Church. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read the full story here.)

To summarize briefly, a married couple (Jordan Root & Karen Hinkley) from the Village Church were serving as missionaries overseas. While on the mission field, Jordan admitted to almost ten years of child pornography use. After being sent home, a conflict began between Karen and the leadership of the Village Church. She wanted to have her marriage annulled. They wanted her to go through a process of reconciliation, and placed her under church discipline for pursuing the annulment in spite of their direction otherwise. She wanted to separate her finances from her husband. They said no, because it seemed too much like a step toward divorce. She withdrew her membership from the church. They said no, and told her that members who were under church discipline were prohibited from resigning their membership.

Recently the head pastor of the Village, Matt Chandler, met with Karen Hinkley to apologize for how they treated her. I’m glad he did that, and I think it’s a good first step. However, I think it is important to consider whether there might be structural issues in the Village Church that led to what happened. If structural issues are present, an interpersonal solution (e.g., apology) is probably not sufficient. If we want churches to be a safe place for women, it’s important to take a look at how churches are organized and whether the leadership structures are working.

Here are three intersecting structural issues I noticed in the Village Church controversy (The ABC’s):

  1. Authority. Some churches place a big priority on having authority over their members. This might include having members sign a contract, agreeing to a specific set of beliefs, values, and behaviors. In some churches, there are consequences or a discipline process for violation of the contract. The focus on authority was present throughout the Village Church controversy. The elders of the church believed they had the authority to direct Karen in regard to her marriage and finances, even telling her she could not leave the church. In these situations, the decisions of the church leadership are meant to be binding. It’s not technically a legal contract, but it can feel close to it.
  2. Biblicism. In addition to a focus on authority, some churches ascribe to an understanding of the Bible known as Biblicism. In his book ‘The Bible Made Impossible,’ sociologist Christian Smith defines Biblicism as a “theory about the Bible that emphasizes its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” Biblicism combines with authority to create a sort of ‘super-authority’ among church leadership. Not only is the authority of church leadership important in its own right, but they are considered the experts at interpreting the Bible. Because the Bible is viewed as the ultimate authority for how individuals should live their lives, there is little room for discussion or negotiation once decisions are made.
  3. Complementarianism. Complementarianism is a theological view that prescribes separate roles for men and women. In general, this view assigns primary leadership roles to men and support roles to women. Thus, men are the primary decision makers in church life as well as in marriage. Complementarianism intersects with authority and Biblicism in interesting ways. First, advocates of the complementarian perspective use the Bible to support their views. For some, complementarianism is taught in the Bible as the way God designed male-female relationships to be, so there is little room for discussion or negotiation on this issue. Also, the authority structure in many churches consists primarily of men. For example, all the elders of the Village Church are male.

I think these structural issues can create a tough situation for women in the church. In many churches, Biblicism provides a foundation for a rigid authority structure and promotes complementarian gender roles between men and women. There isn’t much room for discussion or negotiation. Women are asked to submit to male authority both in the church and at home. But what if the male authority is wrong? What if the male authority is abusive? Psychological research has shown that more traditional attitudes about gender roles are related to higher levels of rape myth acceptance and domestic violence myth acceptance, so this isn’t a minor issue. Perhaps structural changes to the ABC’s are needed for the church to be a safe place for women.

Discussion: What is your reaction to the controversy at the Village Church? What do you think of ABC’s, especially how they relate to women in the church?

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