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Why IFB Churches Are Breeding Grounds for Sexual Predators

sexual predators

MAX is currently streaming a four-part documentary titled Let Us Prey: A Ministry of Scandals. Let Us Prey focuses on allegations of sexual abuse in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Over 6,000 churches claim the IFB moniker, yet most Americans have never heard of the IFB church movement.

While this post is specifically about IFB churches, it could also be applied to Southern Baptist churches and other independent Evangelical congregations. Tens of millions of Americans are members of and affiliated with churches that may have denominational names but are independent governmentally. Control of their churches rests with their pastors and adult members, not a denomination or other outside authority. There are no checks and balances to keep abuse and misconduct in check. As a result, sexual misconduct by pastors, youth leaders, evangelists, missionaries, deacons, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, choir directors, Christian school administrators and teachers, daycare workers, and church volunteers is common, far more than just a few bad apples in a barrel of otherwise good apples. If Let Us Prey does anything, it shines a bright light on the secrets and coverups that plague the IFB church movement. Years ago, 20/20 reported on sexual abuse in the IFB church movement. Other news reports, documentaries, books, podcasts, and articles have revealed that the IFB church movement has a big problem with sexual predators; so-called men of God who prey on children, teens, and vulnerable, impressionable adults. Adulterous affairs between preachers and church members are common too.

Why are IFB churches breeding grounds for sexual predators? The reasons are many, but let me give you a few.

IFB churches are governmentally independent. Most are pastored by one man. While IFB churches might have deacon boards and elders, typically the pastor is the CEO and has the final say on virtually everything. This means that there are few, if any, checks and balances on the pastor’s power and authority.

The pastor is considered a “man of God”; someone who is uniquely called by God to be a pastor — an irrevocable calling. How does a man “know” he is called by God to be a pastor? He “feels” it. He just knows in his heart of hearts that God wants him to be a pastor. How dare anyone suggest otherwise. This, of course, thanks to strict, rigid hierarchal structures, leads to authoritarianism — especially in churches where a pastor has been there for a long time.

Congregants are taught from the womb that they are to trust, respect, and obey their pastors. Challenging or standing against the so-called man of God is verboten. His words are final. Conditioning and indoctrinating church members to think this way about their pastors leads them to blindly trust their shepherds. How could it be otherwise? Is it any surprise, then, that sexual predators find that IFB churches are hunting grounds teeming with vulnerable, innocent potential victims?

While an increasing number of IFB preachers are prosecuted for sex crimes, way too many of them escape prosecution (or even detection). Why? Most IFB churches investigate sex crime allegations in-house. In other words, instead of immediately going to law enforcement or child protective services, alleged victims are encouraged (expected) to keep their allegations in the church (as commanded in Matthew 18). The most important thing to the church is protecting their “testimony.” If this means covering up sex crimes, so be it. It is not uncommon for victims of clergy sexual predation to be ignored, marginalized, or revictimized by being blamed for the pastor’s “weakness.” Teens, in particular, are often shipped off to IFB group homes or “ministries.” Out of sight, out of mind, the thinking goes.

Women and sexually aware teen girls are viewed as temptresses; people who prey on the sexual weaknesses of men and teen boys — including pastors and other church leaders. While male-on-male sex crimes are perpetrated by IFB preachers, the overwhelming majority of sex crimes committed by these men are against girls and women. Sadly, many victims never report the crimes against them. They know that they will be blamed or disbelieved. I have received countless emails and messages from IFB church members who, upon reading a Black Collar Crime post about their pastor, refuse to believe that he could ever do such a thing; that the accusing girl/woman is to blame for coming on to or seducing their pastor. They cannot or will not believe that their pastor could ever get a boner looking at another woman, let alone sexually assault them.

IFB churches have a warped understanding of sin and forgiveness. According to their understanding of forgiveness, no sin, including rape and sexual assault, is beyond the blood of Jesus; that any sin confessed to Jesus will be forgiven and the penitent’s slate wiped clean as if the act never happened. (1John 1:9) While an offending preacher might be expelled from the church for sexual misconduct, there’s nothing that keeps him from pastoring elsewhere or starting a new IFB church. David Hyles, an IFB preacher who committed numerous sex crimes, is still in the ministry today. Why? No one can tell him that he can’t. He’s been forgiven by God for raping church teenagers and bedding numerous adult church members, so why shouldn’t Hyles still be in the ministry? If God forgives you, so should everyone else — including the people you sexually assaulted.

I am sure this post will evoke outrage in the IFB church movement. How dare I paint with such a broad brush. However, the sheer number of allegations, crimes, arrests, and prosecutions suggests that the IFB church movement is rotten at its core. Not every church, of course, but enough churches that it makes me wonder why ANY church would want to self-identify as IFB. The same can be said for SBC churches and other independent Evangelical congregations. The problem is structural and theological. I can’t imagine many IFB churches being willing to change their theology, practice, or governance. Locked in by their belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, IFB churches often find it impossible to change. So they continue the multigenerational dysfunction and scandal, harming countless people in the process.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Not just IFB. Snooping around the Internet, I have found websites and support groups for those leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    They have a severe sexual abuse problem too. All churches have it, and they all deny it. But, IFB thinks it can be the moral compass for the nation. Just look at Moms For Liberty.

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    Ted M. Gossard

    So sad. I can’t understand why forgiveness and therefore wiping the slate clean as you put it means that there isn’t a process of discernment as to whether or not and just when a pastor might be reinstated, and again, if ever. In some cases, like the one you mention above, certainly never.
    I strongly believe that the insistence that man is over woman, that man is to be head, and woman subservient, and then make that plural for both, that too lends itself to sexual misconduct. Instead, they’re to be equals, submissive to each other. Bible accounts are simply adapted to the culture of their time, like slaves and masters. With the seed in Jesus’s teaching to ditch the idea of so-called complementarianism all together.
    I think you touch on it here, but also making the pastor such a big deal in the church is itself fraught with problems. She or he should be just a part of the whole, yes important in their place, but everyone else important as well.
    Thanks for pointing these things out, Bruce. You’ve seen a lot firsthand. This indeed needs to be brought out into the open.

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    AP News ran an article a couple of days ago on sexual abuse in LDS (Mormon) churches. Patriarchal authoritarian structures without any oversight are breeding grounds for abuse.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Any hierarchical institution that privileges an individual or group of people, whether or not by intention , on the basis of innate characteristics or imputed or self-proclaimed authority, is a breeding ground for sexual exploitation. That includes any religious institution, no matter how “inclusive “ it claims to be.

    I have experienced what I have described first-, second- and third-hand. As a Roman Catholic altar boy, I was sexually abused by a priest. Later, as a Evangelical Christian, I suspected sexual harassment and exploitation but denied my instincts in the name of “serving God;” decades later, a friend in the church confirmed at least one of my suspicions: She told me a deacon raped her. Later still, when I taught in an Orthodox yeshiva, one of my pupils tearfully expressed his wish to die because a rabbi was sexually abusing him —and other rabbis and adults in his life were enabling it.

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    This is so true. There needs to be oversight from an independent entity outside the church when it comes to sex crimes in the church, especially minors. For financial accountability, there are outside organizations that will audit churches offerings so the congregation knows where their money is going or not going. Why isn’t there audits for sexual abuse in the church? Power and control.
    I was groomed and fondled by a guidance counselor in the 7th grade in a public school. I told my parents. The police were called immediately. The principal believed me. The police believed me. I knew he was touching other girls at the school but no one was willing to testify against him. So he never went to jail. My word against.his. thankfully I went to another school the following year. I know that if the same scenario happened in a church or Christian school, that the outcome would have been me being called a temptress by the school.

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