The case of Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice’s assault on his fiancé in February of this year underscores a major problem in the NFL and our culture in general – women are still being abused and many institutions (mostly those led by men) cover it up or deny its importance. They do this by being “tone deaf” to the deeper issues involved in this problem. I suggested yesterday that the NFL represents a larger problem in our society, a problem that extends into the leadership of our churches. Let me explain.
The Baltimore Ravens consider Ray Rice an important leader on their team and to their organization. Their response to this assault has been to address the whole nightmare as a public relations problem. They had Janay Rice sit beside her husband in front of a Ravens backdrop for a press conference after his arrest. This strikes me as major “damage control.” They were attempting, suggested Phil Taylor in the August 4 issue of Sports Illustrated, “to repair their star running back’s image.” This press conference even included an apology from Janay! She referred to “my role that night” in deflecting the intense negativity focused upon her husband. The problem with this approach is obvious to anyone who has dealt with the abuse of women. She may have spoken in ways that angered her man that evening but she bears no responsibility for the beating she took. He had the power to not hurt her and he alone acted in a way that is despicable and abusive beyond words. She should not have to admit anything, much less be placed at his side in a public press conference held by a football team.
It has been reported that Janay Rice met with commissioner Roger Goodell to plead for lenience for her husband. If this intervention had anything to do with Goodell’s decision about Ray Rice it only underscores his complete failure to understand the nature of this problem. Anyone who knows anything about domestic violence understands that victims often defend their abusers for a variety of reasons. A major one is fear! Janay Rice’s standing by her man should be understood in this broader context and thus it should not factor into what her husband did or how he should have been punished. Period, end of story.
Yesterday I made the point that the church needs to learn from the Ray Rice story and the bad response of the NFL in assessing punishment for such actions. What did I have in mind?
- Male leaders abuse women in church contexts more often than many know or will admit. Some of this is sexual but a lot of it is emotional and spiritual. Some of this is not overt but it demeans and deeply harms.
- Male leaders are often protected in these instances of abuse. This is especially true if the male leader is a “super-star.” Females who raise questions about star leaders are often shunned and undermined by other leaders, who are mostly male.
- The systems many church structures have in place for dealing with these issues are often weak and out of touch. If you do not believe this then start “listening” to your sisters more carefully. In fact, if you care enough about this concern gather a group of sisters and let them describe what they have experienced under male leadership. I dare you men to do it.
- As I have read and listened to major stories about male leaders unfold in recent years I have become increasingly aware of how much sexual and emotional power men still exert over women inside the church. I fully realize that women sometimes falsely accuse male leaders and that this must be considered. But I also know that women are often treated as “emotional” and “untrustworthy” in reporting any form of abuse. The exception, in this case, does not prove to be the rule.
- Male leaders desperately need female insights if they are to lead well. While I prefer that my leadership team include women I respect churches that disagree with this position if they truly show respect for women and address abuse properly. I can also respect complimentarian leaders if they truly “listen” to their sisters deeply. I simply do not see enough of this deep listening in strongly conservative complimentarian church settings.
- The social media underscores this issue as much as anything I’ve see in our time. Read the remarks of some Christian men and you will be astounded if you understand the problem. It is stunning to me what men (and some women) will say about maleness and how we need to reassert it in our culture. I wonder if they’ve read the Gospels carefully and considered how Jesus treated women. His tenderness and social intimacy are striking if the Gospel texts are read carefully in their proper context. One gets the sense that his regard and respect for women were courageous beyond words!
Any system of leadership – male or female, complimentarian or egalitarian – that fosters the abuse of women in any way should be rejected. This issue is not ultimately about your view of women in church office. It is about how to treat women with the dignity and protection that honors both Christ and his Word. Will the church become prophetic and courageous or continue to cover-up the sins of its star male leaders? I pray it will challenge the culture by word and deed. There may be no more evidence of our lack of Christ’s love for more than half of those in our churches than in what we see in the way that men treat women. I am thankful for the gains women have made socially and economically. It is time that the church respect these changes and that we act in accord with the life and example of our Lord Jesus Christ!