Pentecostal Studies Face the #MeToo Movement


In: Pneuma
Linda M. Ambrose Laurentian University Canada Sudbury

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Kimberly Alexander Pentecostal Theological Seminary USA Cleveland

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In 1944 Recy Taylor, a pentecostal woman, was walking home from a service at the Rock Hill Holiness Church in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men. She was twenty-four years old. None of the six men was ever charged. Though the rape was extensively covered in the African American press, few people in the pentecostal community of scholars, even the historians, had ever heard her name until she died in December 2017 and her obituary was published in the New York Times. A few weeks after that obituary appeared, Oprah Winfrey significantly raised the profile of this pentecostal sister when she told Recy’s story during her Golden Globe acceptance speech in January 2018. Her story was recovered by historian Danielle L. McGuire in her 2011 book1 and is documented in a film, “The Rape of Recy Taylor.”2 The tale is horrific, tragic, and maddening in its lack of justice. But as the #metoo and #churchtoo revelations have made known, what happened to Recy is an all too common reality.

Gymnast Rachael Denhollander, a victim of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse at the age of fifteen and the first to come forward, gives a sad indictment of the church when she states, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”3

A third set of headlines revealed that victims of domestic violence are apparently not safe in reporting their abuse to the church either, even when the physical abuse is glaringly obvious. Recent reports have surfaced of one prominent pastor and leader counseling a battered woman to return home and pray quietly for her husband. The abuse continued and the perpetrator was welcomed into the congregation. These revelations, and others, prompted thousands of Southern Baptist women to draft a letter calling for Paige Patterson’s removal from his role as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The denomination’s handling of that departure, in which a generous remuneration package was initially offered to Patterson, dominated social media discussions as well as national news in the United States for weeks afterward.4

The church is not a safe place for victims of sexual abuse, and not only because of a lack of help offered to survivors. Recent news of allegations of assault and serial abuse perpetrated by prominent evangelical leaders, and especially the reports of how those allegations have been, in many cases, dismissed and the victims discredited, point to this disturbing fact: the church may be unsafe because of the power differential at work. Since the pulpit in America is dominated by men, and in most cases authority and power is vested in that office, men have power over women (and the vulnerable) in their congregations. It is a matter of “he said, she said,” except that he is a professional speaker and persuader who, in many cases, controls most of the outcomes in the church. The Willow Creek Church’s response to multiple allegations against its senior pastor and founder, Bill Hybels, is a textbook case.5 New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, who had formerly been a regular attender and speaker at Willow Creek, outlined the problem in several blog posts. On August 6, 2018, after the New York Times broke the story of one of the victims, Pat Baronoski, McKnight summarized the way these allegations were handled by Hybels and then the church’s leaders: “The grooming, the praising, the indulging, the turning-against, the gaslighting, and then throwing them under the bus are characteristic of these stories. The women told the truth. The former pastor called them all liars. Willow’s leaders supported the narrative of liars. That story is no longer credible.” Succinctly, he states, “The leaders—Heather Larson, the elders, etc.—sustained the narrative and maligned the women.”6 As historian Mary Beard has reminded us, “the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them … from the centres of power” are “deeply embedded in Western culture,”7 including Christian institutions, it seems.

Pentecostal churches and schools are not immune to this reality. Yet, to date, no formal resolution or statement has been offered on the part of leadership in pentecostal denominations or institutions. In light of these highly publicized revelations and the deafening silence on the part of pentecostal church leadership about these issues, a call was made for a session at the 2018 meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Scholars that would address the the rising #metoo, #timesup, and #churchtoo movements. Through social media we communicated the plans to host a #pentecostalsisterstoo session, adopting the case of Recy Taylor as the face of the problem.

On Friday, March 9, 2018, following the evening plenary session, SPS members and conference attendees, female and male, gathered (at 9:10 pm!) at the Cross Chapel at Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee to discuss how pentecostal scholars might begin to address the #metoo movement. Although it was at the end of a very long day, 101 people attended the session. Not surprisingly, one by one, women (and a few men) rose to share their stories of being abused in their homes, in their churches, and in pentecostal educational institutions and, too often, of not being heard or believed by pastors or their church families. Other women ministers shared painful stories of discrimination in the church. Cheryl Bridges Johns and Kimberly Ervin Alexander carefully facilitated the time of lament but also guided the group through constructive engagement as they collectively strategized about necessary responses and resources. The gathering called for the drafting of a formal statement, including a call for repentance, to be signed by SPS members and distributed to the larger pentecostal scholarly and ecclesial community.

At the same time, the need for more scholarly research was recognized, and this guest-edited issue of Pneuma comes in answer to that call. This issue of Pneuma is an interdisciplinary collection of articles that address the issues related to the #metoo, #churchtoo, and #pentecostalsisterstoo campaigns. The core themes are: 1) sexual harassment and abuse; 2) power and agency in stories and spiritual practices; and 3) the faulty theologies and patriarchal readings of biblical texts that give way to church cultures and systems that create and perpetuate these abuses. Because this is not a simple problem, it is appropriate to approach the topic from multiple angles. In this issue we offer a rich sample of interdisciplinary scholarship representing some of that complexity.

As a biblical studies scholar, Jacqueline Grey leads us through a paper that reframes the story of David and Bathsheba. While Bathsheba has been variously presented as a temptress and adulterer, and David a hapless victim of this hypersexual woman, the facts of the story and the context in which their child was conceived are in fact, a tale of power. And it is David who wields that power, not Bathsheba. Grey suggests that Pentecostals can learn from this example because after David’s misuse of power was exposed, he responded with genuine repentance.

The second piece we offer is another story of rape, but a twentieth-century one. This comes out of the very public scandal of television evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1980s. The recent scholarship of John Wigger has documented this spectacle in his book,8 but only recently has the story of sexual assault been told from the perspective of the young woman who was raped by Jim Bakker and his associates. John Wigger interviewed Jessica Hahn after he had completed the work for his book, and he presents a short essay here that captures the essence of the #metoo and #churchtoo movements. Hahn was abused by the powerful Bakker in a series of events that parallel the more famous episode of White House intern Monica Lewinski, or the recent revelations by victims of Harvey Weinstein. Wigger’s essay in this collection challenges Pentecostals to reexamine Hahn’s story as a necessary step to responding to the #metoo movement, beginning with the conviction that women should be heard and believed.

What all stories of abuse have in common, from Bathsheba with King David to the most recent victims of abuse by church leaders, is the reckless misuse of power by men in positions of authority. Power takes many forms. In Hollywood, Weinstein targeted women who were at the mercy of a powerful man who could grant or withhold career breaks. While the business is different, the church is an institution with its own subculture of power.

In the second group of articles, we consider some of the ways in which power and agency function in pentecostal church circles. There is power in the way pentecostal stories are told, and shaping the narrative about how founders and leaders are presented is key. On the principle of “giving honor where honor is due,” pentecostal historians have been reticent to document or discuss the morality of some key founding figures. The earliest example in American Pentecostalism dates back to Azusa Street. Andrea Johnson takes up the case of Charles Parham and his alleged homosexual activity. Johnson explores how history has been used to disparage or to protect the reputations of leaders, with strategies ranging from silence to euphemistic reports about alleged sexual misconduct. Her article points readers to consider the contexts in which changing historiographies emerge. Challenging those accepted versions by understanding the context in which they were created is key to unpacking the ways in which pentecostal history has been written and pentecostal identities have been formed. The power of how narratives are constructed is critical in creating shared understandings of the past. Historiography and hagiography are sometimes invoked to create and protect the reputations of the movement’s founding fathers.

A second crucial consideration about power is race and how much agency women of color exercise. We are pleased to include here the research of Dara Delgado, winner of the 2018 SPS Young Scholars’ “Best Student Paper” Award, as an example of the complexities that surround power when black women in holiness churches exercise agency in response to their own spirituality. Particular modes of dress among Black Holiness women, which appear to an outsider as a form of oppression of women, were, in fact, one example of how such women as Ida Bell Robinson acted prophetically to express their spirituality. For Robinson and others like her, plain dress was a tool for desexualizing their own bodies so that their prophetic voices could be heard. Freed from the objectification of dressing to please men, these Holiness women could concentrate instead on the messages they heard from God. What an outsider might misread as women bowing to patriarchal power in their mode of dress was, in fact, a subversive means of expressing their own empowerment from the Spirit of God.

The last two articles take up the question of how we interpret Scripture because Pentecostals, like other Christian traditions, consider themselves to be “people of the Book.” Yet for Pentecostals, reading and interpreting Scripture is a deeply pneumatological undertaking: a Pentecostal expects that the Spirit will reveal and inform their approach to sacred texts. The work of biblical studies scholar Melissa Archer and theologian Ken Archer takes up the question of how gender relations within the church are informed by one’s reading of Scripture. The current debate that rages among evangelical Christians in North America is the contest between two views: complementarianism and egalitarianism. This debate informs virtually every other aspect of church culture, including the power structures that flow from that stance, and the ways in which ministry, family life, and community are performed. Spoiler alert: The Archers are committed egalitarians, and their scholarship helps us sort out the complexities of how scriptural interpretation frames the churches’ responses to the #metoo and #churchtoo movements.

Liz Krueger’s article further demonstrates the ways in which views and cultures are shaped by the reading of biblical texts. Krueger considers the two archetypal women of Christianity—Eve and Mary—to suggest that if the exaggerated symbolic importance attached to these two women could be peeled back, the result would be a more woman-centered and useful rendering of biblical texts concerning women. Krueger builds a case for considering women outside of their relationships with men, as people who are know-ers, be-ers, and name-ers. That is, she proposes that it would be useful to consider women, starting with Eve and Mary, as individuals who are capable of knowing God, being in relationship with God, and proclaiming God’s truth in direct and unmediated ways. Krueger steps away from debating with patriarchal readings of Scripture to approach the texts in ways that respect the historical context and reality of women’s lives in their own times. What she proposes is a model that will prove useful, not just as a hermeneutical tool for understanding Scripture to formulate theology, but also as an anthropology that puts women’s unmediated relationships to God at the center. She offers what she calls a “hopeful theological anthropology,” and we find her model compelling.

This issue consists of articles that address the #metoo movement from a variety of angles, and yet there is a great deal of work that remains to be done. There is no article in this collection from the field of practical theology, nor from experts in trauma studies dealing with sexual assault victims. We are convinced that counseling professionals could also add substantively to the conversation. Pentecostal denominations must draw upon their own pragmatism to develop policies and protocols for dealing with issues of abuse, alleged and real. Denominations outside pentecostal circles have already created such policies and procedures that provide clear direction for both preventing and responding to sexual misconduct among clergy, staff, and lay volunteers.9 We are not aware of any pentecostal group that has done this kind of work and arrived at similar workable solutions.

Sadly, over the course of the six months in which we worked on the editing of this journal, our editorial has required updating several times because of new revelations about abuse in churches. And not just in churches. The very week we were concluding our initial editorial work, international headlines were filled with news about allegations of sexual misconduct by United States Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. American politicians and the public were divided about how to respond to the credible testimony of accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology, who recounted the abuse and resulting trauma she experienced during her high school years. With the Senate Judiciary hearing televised internationally, the episode reinforced the complexities that attend these issues and the bravery of women who choose to share their stories, hoping to be heard and believed. But still, pentecostal leaders and churches remain silent, perhaps in denial, perhaps wringing their hands, not knowing where to begin. With this issue of Pneuma we invite readers to ponder what might constitute a pentecostal response to #metoo #churchtoo, and #pentecostalsisterstoo. In light of scholarship on Pentecostalism from the fields of biblical studies, practical theology, and history, what is the Spirit saying to the churches?


Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage, 2011).



“My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,”


See a summary of the events leading up to Patterson’s dismissal here,


See, for example, the way the Bill Hybels allegations were handled by the Willow Creek Community Church board,

6, accessed August 6, 2018.


Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), xi.


John Wigger, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).


See for example: The United Church of Canada, Sexual Misconduct and Response Policy and Procedures,

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