Yet more things Jesus isn't doing with his time
For years, two men at Christianity Today abused and harassed female employees. And absolutely nothing was done about it till recently.
Recently, Daniel Silliman broke a story that’s been long in the making: the well-esteemed evangelical magazine Christianity Today suffers from endemic, entrenched sexism. Worse, several of its top leaders have allegedly made a practice of harassing and objectifying female staffers. I’m not even half surprised by any of these revelations. For years now, I’ve noted unsettling trends in this publication. Once again, then, we learn to our detriment that evangelicals cannot have authoritarianism and institutional sexism without it breeding scandals and abuse.
(A grateful h/t to Christa Brown, who could likely write a novel about her own difficulty in getting Christianity Today to care about covering evangelical sex abuse scandals.)
SitRep: backdrop to the Christianity Today scandal
Christianity Today is as close to an evangelical institution as any might ever get. Billy Graham founded it in the 1950s. From his own essay on the topic, we learn that from the very beginning he intended the magazine to be a conservative evangelical response to the long-running liberal Christian magazine, Christian Century.
Ever since then, the magazine has tried to make itself the flagship destination of evangelicals.
I see the magazine as generally right-leaning, though it doesn’t buy into the very worst conspiracy theories that evangelicals have embraced in recent years. Most notably, the magazine’s top names have sharply criticized both Donald Trump and the flocks’ unwavering loyalty to him.
But don’t imagine they’re much better than those they criticize. They maintain the same culture wars that their in-tribe outgroup adores. They revel in the exact same -isms dressed up as divine mandates.
For years now, I’ve suspected that any authoritarian Christian endeavor (be it a business, a so-called “ministry,” or whatever else) conceals endemic abuse of members by leaders. Unfortunately, my suspicions have proven correct yet again.
This time, the scandal erupts from the hallowed halls of Christianity Today.
What happened this time
In his March 15 article, Daniel Silliman details many years of entrenched sexism and sexual harassment experienced by women working for Christianity Today. Primarily, this abuse centers around two of the top leaders of the magazine:
- Mark Galli, the magazine’s editor-in-chief until retiring in 2019
- Olatokunbo Olawoye, their advertising director until 2017, when he got caught in a federal sting operation trying to pay for sex from a 17-year-old girl
The harassment includes unwanted touching and groping, unsolicited comments about women’s bodies and attractiveness, personal conversations they didn’t like or want, and hints about sexual interest in affairs. As well, women faced the usual sexism that we expect out of culture-warrior evangelicals. They got talked over by men, heard that their male colleagues considered them less intelligent due to their sex, and were treated as sex objects to be ogled.
Many, many women reported this behavior to their HR department. In addition, male staffers reported it as well. For some wild wacky reason, though, somehow neither man faced any serious repercussions for their behavior.
For their own part, the HR people didn’t document these allegations. That didn’t stop Galli and Olawoye from retaliating anyway. In at least one case, Galli mistakenly assumed that one of his victims had reported him to HR. He retaliated against her in many ways afterward. She hadn’t done it, though. Rather, one of her male colleagues had.
A quiet tidal wave of abuse breaks loose
For years, nothing changed. Then, in 2019, Timothy Dalrymple got hired as the President and CEO of Christianity Today. Just a few months after that, he found himself verbally reprimanding Mark Galli for unwanted touching.
The very next day, no fooling, it was the very next day, Mark Galli put his arm around a female colleague and rested his hand on her butt for a while.
The woman in this case wrote a formal complaint to HR. Daniel Silliman reports that Dalrymple was alarmed enough by this situation that he began to investigate options for “suspending or firing” Galli.
Then, while this exploration took place, Galli shook a female colleague by the shoulders.
These reports finally resulted in a written reprimand. It was the very first that Galli had ever received at Christianity Today. In fact, it was also the first time any formal record of allegations had ever appeared in his HR file.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence at all that Galli retired just two months later. But he still found the energy to grope and ogle a female employee a couple of years later.
That’s when that employee and several other women at Christianity Today demanded an investigation. They wanted to know why Galli had been able to operate like this for so long without fear of checks or repercussions.
Guidepost mostly clears Christianity Today
To perform that investigation, Christianity Today hired Guidepost Solutions. We’ve seen that name a lot lately, haven’t we? Notably, they exonerated J.D. Greear of wrongdoing in hiring Bryan Loritts for his megachurch. (While working as a pastor, Loritts had covered up the sex abuse of his brother-in-law, Rick Trotter, who he’d hired as a minister.) These days, Guidepost is working for the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse committee. They plan to release their full report in early June this year.
This time around, Guidepost investigated how Galli’s behavior had been tolerated and quietly covered up for years.
On March 13, Guidepost concluded that while there was no “wider pattern or culture of systemic harassment,” CT could do better.
“CT’s flawed institutional response to harassment allegations could have been influenced, in part, by unconscious sexism,” the report said. Leaders at the ministry “at times tried to minimize or rationalize” sexual harassment, treating it as nothing more than the behavior of “an older male who was out of touch with current workplace mores” instead of recognizing it as “inappropriate by any standards, for any person.”Christianity Today
In addition, they recommended that the magazine adopt a number of common-sense HR practices. These include ensuring confidentiality for those needing to make a complaint. Interestingly, Guidepost also criticized the endemic sexism they found at Christianity Today. But a number of people in the article said it was about par for the course at evangelical organizations.
Sexism runs very deep in this ministry
A couple of years ago, I ran across this November 2000 puff piece from Christianity Today. It describes a minister working for Willow Creek Community Church. At the time, this church enjoyed superstar status in evangelicalism. It launched a number of big-name careers, including those of Bill Hybels (its leader) and Lee Strobel (author of The Case for Christ).
The puff piece concerned Hybels’ mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian. In their 2000 article, Christianity Today called him “the theologian behind Willow Creek.” So they make mention of Bilezikian’s opinion of feminism:
“I am not a feminist,” Bilezikian says. “Feminism is about power, and I am about servanthood.”Christianity Today
Aww, that’s sweet, one can almost hear Christian readers saying. Then, in a subsection called “Egalitarian gallant,” the magazine describes Bilezikian’s creepy behavior at Willow Creek:
Walking the halls of Willow Creek with Bilezikian is like walking through a shopping mall with a movie star. People stare, and he can’t complete a sentence without someone waving and calling, “Hey, Dr. B.!” Women of 83 and girls of 6 rush up to him, knowing he will kiss their hand and compliment their ravishing beauty. [. . .]
“Women at Willow Creek fall in love with him all the time,” [teaching pastor John] Ortberg says. “He has legions of female followers. He manages to be thoroughly egalitarian and thoroughly French at the same time.”Christianity Today
Then, in 2018, a huge sex scandal brought Hybels down. And in 2020, evangelicals discovered that Bilezikian himself was guilty of long-term sex abuse. Also in 2020, they learned that John Ortberg himself had covered up his own son’s pedophilia for years.
But back in 2000, Christianity Today didn’t see a single red flag waving here.
By the way, Mark Galli began working for Christianity Today about 30 years ago.
Why these scandals keep happening
The problem here is much bigger than just a couple guys at Christianity Today. It’s endemic to evangelical groups of all kinds. And it keeps happening because these groups are authoritarian in nature.
Authoritarian leaders tend to select their underlings based on loyalty and obedience, not skills and managerial competency. It’s very easy to gain the trust of such a leader, too, since performing the group’s ideals is usually easy. Once in power, a bad-faith actor gains access to a vast field of potential victims. That’s because one key feature of authoritarian groups is that they strip power and voices from one demographic, then hand unilateral power over that demographic to a small number of people with very little oversight. And they can’t effectively block bad-faith people from entering leadership positions.
Thus, authoritarian leaders operate with little to no accountability. They have the power to retaliate viciously against whistleblowers and critics, which prevents any potential repercussions they might face for abusing the powerless in their groups. In Christian groups, abuse victims might even believe they deserve their victimization, and they certainly won’t often feel safe reporting it.
At all times, Christian authoritarian groups behave very protectively of their group’s image, reputation, and credibility–what Christians call their witness in Christianese. Even abuse victims might put the group’s witness above their own safety.
And where it leads
All of these factors combine to ensure one thing:
Abuse not only happens in these groups, but it is to be expected. Abuse is a natural consequence of an authoritarian structure. There’s never been a way for Christians to have authoritarian groups without abuse.
The very best evangelical leaders tend to manage to do in these cases is plead utter ignorance of all the sex abuse that went on right under their very noses (as Al Mohler did a while ago)–and hope the flocks buy it. Christianity Today has tried to do better in hiring Guidepost Solutions. They’ve released the full report (downloadable here), as well as run Daniel Silliman’s article about the scandal.
It’s interesting that Dalrymple himself wrote about what happened in all these instances of abuse and harassment:
First, our ministry succumbed to the temptation to explain away inappropriate conduct as misunderstandings—misunderstandings between men and women, or misunderstandings between members of different generations who have different expectations for appropriate workplace behavior. In other words, as Guidepost expressed so well, we overemphasized the intent of the perpetrator and underemphasized the impact on the recipient. [. . .]
Rather than saying, “He doesn’t really mean anything by it,” we should have heard, “But it means pain and humiliation for her.” We should have responded more forcefully earlier to protect our colleagues and to communicate that such behavior will lead swiftly to termination.Timothy Dalrymple for Christianity Today
But they didn’t do any of that, did they?
Somehow, they totally missed the right response every time–till the very end.
Christianity Today is just a bunch of people in an authoritarian system, at heart
Jesus sure didn’t tell Timothy Dalrymple or any other non-harassers at Christianity Today to stop the two men who were making so many women feel abused and objectified. Jesus didn’t help them intuit what was really going on there. Nor did he tell them how to correctly handle these situations.
Instead, for years men there just went with what felt right. For abusers, that meant abusing the powerless women they saw as safe to harass. For everyone else, it meant stepping very carefully around those abusers and trying–in vain–to subtly work changes in their behavior or set up stopgap methods to put barriers between abusers and victims. (This took the form of telling women to “wear a scarf” to prevent ogling, arranging fake meetings to get them out of uncomfortable conversations and physical contact, etc.)
I’m not even surprised that Mark Galli apparently upped his abuse right after getting his first real taste of repercussions for his behavior in 2019. Authoritarian leaders despise any oversight or accountability laid on them. They’ll act out the worst after someone tries to rein them in, and they’ll flounce out if they can’t get their way. We saw Mark Driscoll walk away from Mars Hill rather than face oversight from his church elders after his own abusive behavior came to light. Similarly, Ronnie Floyd just flounced out of his cushy job with the Southern Baptist Convention. And Mark Galli retired right after facing his first written reprimand at Christianity Today.
Man alive, it’s gonna be great when evangelical pew-warmers realize that the problem here isn’t bad apples or pushing the wrong doctrines. Rather authoritarian structure itself creates space for evangelical abuse scandals. And no gods seem interested in stopping any of it.
So it’s up to people to do the job.