Truth-Telling, Sexual Harassment, and the Challenge of Building an Institutional Culture that Honors God

When I turned in my last blog post (“Telling the Truth about Ourselves”) to our Carroll blog editors, I had no idea how its content and importance were about to be accentuated by current events. As best I can recall, I turned in the manuscript one day before Christianity Today began reporting on the scandal within its organization. 

The ministry published an editorial by its chief executive officer, Timothy Dalrymple, a news story by news editor Daniel Silliman, and the full text of an investigative report by Guidepost Solutions. Taken together, these publications described a pattern of sexual harassment which stretched back over at least a decade, and they described an institutional response which was, to be generous, less than adequate. The reporting was augmented by a blog hosted by Mike Cosper, in which he interviewed Dalrymple and Andrea Palpant Dilley (a member of the editorial staff who pushed for the investigation). 

Confession of Inner Conflict

To their credit, those who have spoken on behalf of Christianity Today have emphasized the importance of being honest about what happened, and, in that spirit, I want to be upfront about my own sense of inner conflict on issues related to gender and work culture. 

On the one hand, I worry our focus on institutions and systems obscures the need for individual moral agents whose virtue persists even in the absence of policies and structures to prevent harassment. I also worry our society’s construal of what counts as harassment makes it all but impossible for accused persons to assert and defend their innocence.

On the other hand, I have long worked to highlight the dignity and contributions of women, not only in the secular workplace but also in the church. That does not mean I have always avoided language or actions demeaning to women. If there is one thing Christianity Today’s reporting has shown, it is that men can be remarkably tone-deaf about how their conduct impacts the women around them. But I have tried to redress the inequalities I have found and to practically demonstrate respect for the women God has brought into my life. And I have lost professional opportunities within my denomination in doing so.

More importantly, the two women who have been closest to me during my adult life have both been sexually harassed. It happened in different ways, but both women felt  sadness and anger as a result of what they experienced which I cannot put into words. And, in one case, I lament that I was not as proactive in offering support as I should have been.

Knowing Better 

Frankly, I should have known better. One of my undergraduate degrees was in business administration, and, even in the 1990s, business departments and schools were talking about sexual (and other forms of) harassment. Christianity Today should have known better, too. They had access to human resources specialists, legal scholars, and expert therapeutic practitioners my small college could not afford. Moreover, the company is located in a more progressive part of the country. The ministry’s leaders were rubbing elbows with people who saw the world very differently than they did, people who could help them see what conservative Christians often do not. 

So, why didn’t Christianity Today seem to know better? Why didn’t the flagship journalistic institution of evangelicalism do better? Why didn’t I do better?

Though I will make an observation or two about the specifics Christianity Today has reported about itself, my focus will be on my own failures and on those I have observed more generally in the church and culture. I think it is really hard to accept the testimony of someone whose experiences are different than your own, and this difficulty intensifies when the person sharing the experience is construed as a social or ideological competitor. Admitting the validity of this person’s experience makes us feel as if some part of our own identity is under threat.

On a related note, it is often difficult for people, regardless of gender or ideology, to accept that someone’s experience of an individual or institution could be fundamentally different than their own. Let me illustrate what I mean with a personal example. When I was in seminary, I had more than one woman report to me they had been harassed by men on campus. It was not that I doubted the veracity of these women; I knew them to be far more ethical than most of the men I knew, including myself. But the things the women reported were so cruel I had a hard time imagining any man I knew could say them. It took time and maturity for me to realize my experience of a person (or institution) was not the sum total of that person’s (or institution’s) interactions with the world.

On a somewhat different note, the atmosphere surrounding the topic of sex at Christianity Today seemed remarkably cavalier. Granted, evangelical Christians have sometimes earned a reputation for being prudish about sex, but it is worth asking why men were ever talking about sexual topics in that workplace. No professional environment should ever resemble a locker room, but that is especially true of a Christian ministry.

That having been said, sexual harassment is fundamentally not about sex. It is about power. This fact is amply demonstrated by the behavior journalists and investigators discovered at Christianity Today. Powerful men asserted their right to touch women in their workplace in whatever way the powerful man thought was appropriate. And I shudder as I ask myself the following question. Are the touches that I offer really expressions of affection and affirmation? Or, are they really exercises in power? And frankly, these questions are not just relevant to my professional life. They are relevant for my—and your—interactions with family, friends, and strangers alike.

Moving in a Different Direction

The mention of power in relation to gender makes some evangelicals nervous. It brings to mind all of the ideological issues which divide the fragile coalition. But coming to terms with the relationship between power and sexual harassment is also our only hope of finding our way out of this mess.

Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, rightly observes that justice is a thoroughly biblical concern, and he rightly defines justice in terms of how we use power. We do not have to agree with one another about whether gender distinctions reinforce power differences. We don’t even have to agree with one another about whether gender-linked power differences are appropriate. We can begin to address the problems within the institutions we lead by simply acknowledging we all have power and we must all use that power to promote the welfare of those around us.

Ultimately, however, we are going to have to wrestle with some of the controversial issues related to gender and power. We are going to have to ask questions about how our implicit theologies enable personal and institutional sin, and we must come to terms with our tendency as humans (and perhaps, especially as men) to exploit power differentials for our own ends.

Thomas Aquinas talked about the dangers of wealth, power, pleasure, and honor. As I reflect upon my own journey through evangelicalism, it occurs to me the churches I grew up around talked a lot about pleasure. Occasionally, they would talk about wealth, and, even more rarely, they would talk about honor (though without using that term). But they never talked about power. And I think this was a significant lacuna in my discipleship. I hope future generations do not suffer the consequences of a similar gap in their training as disciples.

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