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Christian Abuse Survivor Advocates, We Need to Talk About Rachel Held Evans
My kids and I recently rediscovered the old Disney classic movie Hook. The movie begins with the middle-aged workaholic Peter Pan who is so deeply preoccupied with his all-consuming legal work that he has virtually no time or energy left to invest in his relationships with his wife and children. He spends the entirety of his daughter’s school play distracted by a call from work. He misses every one of his son’s baseball games. He’s never around to offer encouragement or guidance, let alone good, old-fashioned fun.
Peter’s absenteeism take the biggest toll on his adolescent son Jack who, now more than ever, is desperate for guidance as he makes the transition from a boy into a man. Jack is hardly quiet about his frustrations with his father. He repeatedly complains and lashes out, but his cries always seem to fall on deaf ears. Peter can’t be bothered to prioritize his son’s heart. It’s actually really sad.
In the story, Captain Hook ultimately kidnaps Peter’s kids and brings them to Neverland as an act of revenge against Peter. He quickly identifies the dad-shaped wound in Jack’s heart and realizes that the ultimate revenge would be to gain the allegiance of Peter’s kids for himself. So Hook offers Jack all the things his father never did: time, attention, encouragement. He even teaches all the pirates to play baseball so that they can host a game where Jack can be the star. Jack is receptive to the attention. He’s been starving for it for years.
Pretty soon the trick begins to work; Jack begins to slowly transfer his loyalty from his father over to Captain Hook. And everyone watching the film immediately understands why. When you’re starving for food and someone offers you a banquet, you’re probably not going to decline. You’re going to resent the one who deprived you in the first place, and you’re going to praise the one who cared enough about your well-being to offer you sustenance. It’s human nature. We need to know that we matter. We care for those who care for us.
Friends, this may be a silly Disney movie analogy, but this is exactly what’s happening in large sectors of the church, and it’s especially true when it comes to popular abuse survivor advocates, who spend decades making pleas for help that fall on largely deaf ears until they ultimately conclude that no one really cares about their hearts.
I really, really don’t want to be writing this article, but I genuinely believe that someone needs to say the things I’m about to say.
Being a women’s advocate in the church is even more fraught that my Hook illustration, where the injury is rooted in passive neglect as opposed to active, intentional assault. In many ways, being a women’s advocate in the church is like being a cop in Detroit; it’s a choice to be perpetually in the line of fire, especially at the hands of the very people you’re trying to help. You’ve got to have really thick skin and the capacity to stomach a whole lot of hostility and unfair treatment. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Just ask the people doing the work. Ask Julie Roys or Sheila Wray Gregoire. Ask Rachel Denhollander or Aimee Byrd. They’ll tell you; it’s often thankless work, and a choice to enter this particular fray is a choice to get kicked in the teeth eight ways till Sunday with the knowledge you’ll be roundly rebuked for having the audacity to bleed when you are.
There is a vicious and idolatrous commitment to denial in many areas of the church, and it is quickly driving countless numbers of God’s daughters out of the pews and straight into the arms of ideologies that promise to bind the wounds that everyone else would rather ignore.
It’s not hard for me to understand the mass exodus. I’ve experienced this wounding myself. I don’t know how many times I’ve been called a Jezebel for insisting on accountability for abuse survivors in the church, but it’s a very large number. Women who do this work are treated like dirt. It’s one of the reasons I speak out against “Christian” patriarchy so often.
But here’s the problem: When we flee from the clutches of one patriarchal lie, we need to be sure we aren’t running full speed into the embrace of an even crueler master. But that’s exactly what’s happening in much of the church abuse survivor advocacy world. They’ve traded Peter Pan for Captain Hook, and it’s not going to end well if they don’t stop doing it.
And I know this is going to cost me for saying it, but God help me, someone has to: At the tip of this particular spear is the teaching of women like the late Rachel Held Evans, much of whose content was fully blasphemous and, at the core, every bit as patriarchal as anything she denounced.
Earlier this month, I saw Sheila Wray Gregoire (whose work I LOVE and recommend ALL the time) praise Evans as a “prophet,” and I wanted to bash my head against a wall. I’m not even kidding. I know no one is perfect, but in the span of one tweet, she basically gift wrapped a winning lottery ticket for the theobros, who are just itching for a legitimate reason to distrust the rest of her immeasurably important work. She gave it to them on a silver platter, and it’s a crying shame.
These men are relentless in their insistence that egalitarianism (or women in any kind of leadership) are a gateway to LGBTQ apostasy. (This is, of course, a particularly stupid claim, one that conveniently ignores the lengthy track record of the charismatic church and its ability to simultaneously maintain orthodoxy AND honor women’s voices, but I digress.) The point here is that it’s already hard enough for our voices to be heard in these spheres, so I’m not eager to make it any easier for us to be dismissed than it already is.
Let me explain a little more fully why I think this matters so much. Rachel Held Evans was popular for many of the very same reasons her arch nemeses like Doug Wilson are popular: What she got right, she got very, very right, and she communicated it in a way that created a broad umbrella of pseudo-safety for her loyalists. Like Wilson, she was a powerful combination of brilliance and articulation. Her words penetrated straight through to the heart of a matter in a way that made people sigh, “Yes! That’s what I’ve seen, too. There’s truth behind this curtain. Let me hitch my star to this wagon.” And like Wilson, she was verbally vicious, a trait that seems to get a free pass in most camps as long as it’s directed at the people and ideas the loyalists consider enemies.
Here’s what she got right. She was brave. She forced us to wrestle with things no one else in mainstream church circles wanted us to touch with a 10 foot pole, issues that demanded more compassion and attention than many are willing to give. She became an advocate for the unheard and the unlovely. She made us work. She made us roll up our sleeves and think. That’s really important. She was spot-on in her analysis of some of the rot in the Christian camp. She saw it clearly. It grieved her. It should grieve all of us. We need to repent of it.
But what she got wrong led people straight off a cliff. Some of the ideas she came to embrace and preach were false, and they gave people false assurance of salvation. There are certain things that God makes clear are incompatible with the faith. Romans 1 lists a lot of them. It literally says that those who practice these things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
That’s pretty serious.
It’s heretical. It’s exactly what Satan did to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Jesus said, “Come to me and let me transform you from the inside out.”
Rachel said, “Come to Jesus, and you don’t need to change a thing.”
That’s really dangerous. It literally leads people to hell. But Rachel didn’t believe in hell. According to her, a good God would never send people there.
There’s a word for the choice to substitute your will for God’s truth. It’s “blasphemy.” We have no business playing nice with it. It destroys peoples’ souls.
Rachel was an expert in packaging her rebellion as “doubt,” and she marketed it to vulnerable people who are desperate to validate their sin and idolize their wounds rather than surrender them to the one who could heal them. This is especially true in her approach to all things LGBTQ. She promised that God would sanctify what He clearly condemns. This isn’t grey area. It’s life and death territory, and she sided with death.
Let’s just take the isolated topic of transgenderism. Those of us who have been on the frontlines if this battle know that this ideology DESTROYS the people it sinks its hooks into. It makes them miserable because it is a complete rebellion against God’s design for their lives and bodies.
I get angry when I think of how many young girls with gender dysphoria turned to her to guide them to Jesus only to be told that Jesus was totally cool with their delusion and self-hatred.
They needed the freedom made possible through repentance and surrender. Rachel didn’t lead them there. She did the opposite. She left them in their misery, insisting their delusion was God’s idea. Her version of Jesus was a superstar friend, but He was never Lord. She placed her feelings in the throne reserved for King Jesus.
You cannot expect anyone to take you seriously when you present yourself as a women’s advocate if you are actively endorsing a movement that encourages girls’ self-harm as relentlessly as the trans movement does. And you cannot expect anyone to take you seriously as a Christian if you are actively framing heresy as prophecy.
This is where Rachel lost her way, in my opinion. And it’s hard to walk the tightrope of truth and love. None of us does it perfectly.
But if Jesus says the ONLY path to heaven is surrender to His lordship, and you’re out there saying all roads lead to heaven, you’re trafficking in heresy. If Jesus says, “This sin will kill you,” and you say, “God blesses this sin,” then the liar is you.
Rachel is who many female faith leaders are tempted to become after constant rejection and dismissal from male peers. Her life had purpose, and so should her death. We can honor it by choosing to dig deeper than we might otherwise dig on the issues that mattered most to her and by choosing more compassion, more listening, and more wound binding.
But we cannot care more about FEELING loving than BEING loving. Love must be anchored to truth, or it’s not loving at all. Holy Spirit, redeem our itching, idolatrous ears.