How Complementarianism Fueled a Culture of Abuse in the Church for Jennifer Lyell

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Jennifer Lyell was trying to do the right thing.

In the spring of 2019, Lyell, then a well-respected leader in Christian publishing, decided to publicly disclose that she was a survivor of sexual abuse.

She did so after learning her abuser, a former Southern Baptist seminary professor, author and missionary, had recently returned to ministry. Lyell feared he would once again have the opportunity to abuse others and wanted to stop that from happening.

So she wrote up a statement detailing the abuse and shared it with a reporter from a Christian news organization. Then things went terribly wrong.

Instead of reporting she had been abused, Nashville-based Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell, then a vice president at Lifeway Christian Resources, had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.

The fallout was quick and devastating. Lyell was labeled on social media as an “adulteress” rather than an abuse survivor, with users leaving scores of vile comments about her on Lifeway’s Facebook page and the Baptist Press website. Pastors and churches called for her to be fired. She lost her reputation, her job and even her health in the process.

The article was eventually retracted, but the damage was done.
Lyell told Religion News Service she wished she had never gone public. Instead of receiving support and compassion, she found herself trying to convince critics she was not responsible for the abuse she had experienced at the hands of the former professor.

“It takes years and years to recover from trauma, and no one should be in the position of having to explain it to the whole public while they’re still trying to do that,” she said.

Lyell’s experience reveals the difficulty survivors often face when they try to speak up about their experiences. While churches say they want to care for survivors of abuse, those survivors are often viewed with suspicion, having to prove they are worthy of compassion and respect. And Christian theology about sin and about the roles of men and women often makes it difficult for survivors who come forward.