Christianity and Incest

IncestThere are numerous patterns of behaviour that occur under the umbrella of religious abuse, and one of the most disturbing is incest within Christian families. By incest I am here referring to the sexual exploitation of girls by members of their own family. The study I am basing my comments on is a Dutch one and appeared in a book which first appeared in 1985 and was translated into English in 1992. I have no idea as to whether the figures quoted in the book about the incidence of incest would apply to this country. But a survey in Holland reported that 15.6 % of women reported sexual molestation within the family before the age of 16. The figure for boys is much lower which is why the published study focuses on the female experience. Altogether a total of 34% of women in Holland experiences sexual abuse in or beyond the family before they reach 17. This statistic fits with figures produced by Marie Fortune for the USA where one in three girls is sexually abused in some way before the age of 18.

These statistics are horrifying in themselves but they take on a still darker tone when we discover that ‘many’ survivors of incest had been made, ‘through their religious upbringing, easy prey to sexual abuse in the (extended) family’. The study does not make clear how many survivors of incest overall come from such religious backgrounds but it is clearly a significant proportion. This blog piece does not claim that religious incest is in any way common but the fact that it occurs at all is something to be addressed, as the Dutch study has done. Any overlap between Christian beliefs and incestuous abuse should not even exist. Because it does, it is important for us to explore. The possibility that religious teachings can be and are, from time to time, used to batter and dis-empower the weak and defenceless – in this case girl children – must be looked at.

Readers of this blog will already know that I have little time for the ideas of complementarianism, which is an idea among certain conservative Christian groups that forbids women to take a position of leadership in the church. This is based on some words attributed to Paul about the need for women to submit to men and to remain silent in church. This idea is also held to be implied in the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is held to be somehow more responsible for the evil that that comes through the event of the Fall. These highly selective readings of Scripture are used to prop up a patriarchal understanding of Christianity, which keeps women firmly in their place and subject in obedience to their menfolk.

The issue for this post is not whether or not women should exercise power, but whether the culture of the church also creates an environment where men feel free to dominate and control their women in any way they choose. In some cases this culture of control can lead to rape or sexual abuse. Kathryn, the Bible school student at Peniel Church Brentwood, identified the way that certain abusive teachings by Michael Reid created an environment where young unmarried women were looked down, humiliated and treated with contempt. In such a setting, the sexual humiliation of these women might even be understood to be a perk owed to the powerful dominant males of the church. At least one of them, we now know, did in fact act out this fantasy in the appalling crime of rape.

One issue that is raised by the Dutch study on the occurrence of incest in Christian families is the place of bible teaching in the minds of both abusers and abused. From the interviews with the victims, it is clear that within some Christian families some kind of perverse justification for the activity is felt to be found in scripture. The first message that many young girls in a conservative Christian culture will hear is the story of the disobedience of Eve. As we have seen, this sends a powerful message about her own need to obey. The girl should be subordinate to the will of the father, no doubt following the example of her already subservient mother. To follow a ‘biblical’ model, girls also have to be self-effacing, silent and certainly never aggressive or assertive in the ways that boys can be. The mother of the family will also be teaching her female offspring how to placate the father and endure whatever anger and tantrums he may wish to indulge in as ‘head’ of the family. Any deviation from this path of forgiving obedient compliance is seen to be inviting sin. Sin leads to the terrors of hell.

The teaching of passive compliance as the ideal of biblical womanhood is complemented by some strange notions of the role of sexuality. Women in many conservative circles, are sometimes seen not to have sexual needs but nevertheless they are quickly blamed for arousing sexuality in men. They are, consciously or unconsciously, the temptresses and seducers. I myself have heard a woman blamed for the misbehaviour of a Baptist pastor who used his influence to coerce her into an abusive sexual relationship. When sexual misbehaviour occurs in the family, the other members, if they cannot blame the woman for what has happened, may be very quick in demanding that the Christian has to forgive. This is required even when the rapist or abuser has not asked for forgiveness. The main teaching which may have been internalised by a young girl in a conservative family will be the importance of passivity before those to whom she owes obedience. A father, an elder brother or an uncle will always find a way of justifying their abusive behaviour, if that is their wish. It is hard to fight off a sexual aggressor when you have been conditioned always to see them as your divinely sanctioned betters. The failure of mothers to protect their female offspring in these patriarchal families is tragic. They appear to have internalised through decades of practising ‘biblical’ passivity not to question the decisions of the dominant men in the family. Also the child will find it extremely hard to see themselves in the role of a wronged victim. All the teachings that they have absorbed in a conservative setting about the importance of chastity and obedience will make the experience hard to interpret. If incest takes place, there will be no clear understanding of the significance of what has been done to her except the feelings of intense shame and painful confusion. In all likelihood she will be convinced that she is in some way responsible for what has taken place. In some way, she may feel, God has allowed this terrible thing to happen. It must be his will and, if something sinful has taken place, then the girl will feel that she has to take some of the responsibility. The trauma of the event may even be understood as God punishing her for some unspecified sin.

A lot more could be added to this brief reflection about the experience of incest in a Christian family. It is an appalling crime but perhaps far commoner than we would want to believe. We have seen that churches can, by distorted teachings on women, sexuality and forgiveness, contribute not only to the possibility of this crime happening, but also they can obstruct the process of recovery. Any church teaching which places the woman in the role of temptress, subject to male authority in church and in the home will indirectly foster an environment receptive to incest and rape. Of course we know that such teachings officially provide no justification whatever for the evil of incest, but, it is clear from the research, men will do in fact twist scriptural ideas to suit their nefarious purposes. Also a superficial teaching on forgiveness will add to the trauma of guilt and pain suffered by an abused child. The Church much be extremely careful in the way it presents it teachings about the role of women. Perhaps Kathryn would wish to comment on this post about the teachings at Peniel that, according to the reports, degraded and humiliated women. Christian misogyny is indeed an evil and needs to be named and banished from all our churches.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

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