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Repenting Noetic Sin
Be warned, some of this material is difficult and painful to hear. We’ll get to the method of our Good Shepherd at the end, and feel free to skip there first if you want some light before entering the dark, as we will be traipsing through some mucky roads of, well, dare I say it? Misogyny.
No creature has immediate, unfiltered access to reality. That ability belongs to God alone. Because we humans are limited in our knowing abilities, accurate knowledge always requires an inspection of presuppositions, the lenses through which we view and come to know. Christian apologetics recognizes this, and so seeks to communicate not just the truths of Scripture but also addresses faulty presuppositions which prevent people from giving God’s revelation a fair hearing. As we will see, Scripture itself critiques our cognitive errors and deconstructs them in order to properly build us up in our faith and practice.
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As in matters of worldview, this deconstruction is also needed in matters of abuse, a reality that has become painfully clear to me in talking with Christian leaders about abuse allegations. There are many presuppositions we could review, but to better illustrate this dynamic I will limit myself to just one.
I once heard a pastor say, with reference to sexual assault allegations against a church leader, “When women don’t get what they want, they escalate their allegations.” Meaning, women are likely to make stuff up when their already outlandish claims aren’t believed and acted upon. In defense of this presupposition he named two instances from his near two decades of ministry. Just two. But those were generalized into a general truth about women. I’m pretty sure that is the textbook definition of “prejudice”. How did he arrive at that generalization from just two cases? Probably because he was already predisposed to see women that way. In other words, those experiences didn’t create a presupposition; he saw what he saw because the presupposition was already there. Christians will not respond rightly to abuse while such errant prejudices exist. Sadly, they have quite a history.
The saying “Ladies lie” was expressed by New York magistrate Morris Ploscowe in 1972. According to an article in the New York Times after his death in 1975,
“In 1972, discussing legislation on rape, he observed that the victim's word was sufficient for a prosecutor to make out a prima facie case, enough to take to a jury, on assault, robbery, fraud and other crimes, but it was not enough for the crime of rape, because, he said, ‘ladies lie.’”
The similarities between that statement from 50 years ago and the statements heard today are eerily similar. But let’s go further back in time and see how prevalent this idea is.
In the mid-17th century, British Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale wrote that rape is
“an accusation easily to be made, and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, though ever so innocent.”1
Hale’s writings were published poshumously in 1735 and adopted by US Courts. Judges were to give a “cautionary instruction” something to this effect:
“A charge such as that made against the defendant in this case is one which is easily made and once made difficult to defend against even if you think that person is innocent. Therefore, the law requires that you examine the testimony of the female person named in the Information with caution.”2
Why this “cautionary instruction”? An analysis of rape laws was published in 1978 by the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The report states,
“Except for the crime of perjury, the common law has never required corroborative evidence to support a criminal conviction...However, some courts have departed from the common law tradition and established special corroboration rules for rape. These requirements are based on the fear that conviction of an innocent defendant for rape is somewhat likely despite traditional safeguards. As a result of this fear, a few states have required that a person cannot be convicted of rape on the unsupported testimony of the alleged victim.”3
While the stated concern might be due process and legitimate rights of the accused, additional concerns stem from how women are viewed. The 1978 report gives a disturbing quote by American law professor John Henry Wigmore:
“Modern psychiatrists have amply studied the behavior of errant young girls and women coming before the court in all sorts of cases. Their psychic complexes are multifarious, distorted partly by inherent defects, partly by bad social environment, partly by temporary psychological or emotional conditions. One form taken by these complexes is that of contriving false charges of sexual offenses by men. The unchaste (let us call it) mentality finds incidental but direct expression in the narration of imaginary sex incidents of which the narrator is the heroine or the victim. On the surface the narration is straightforward and convincing. The real victim, however, too often in such cases is the innocent man; for the respect and sympathy naturally felt by any tribunal for a wronged female helps to give easy credit to such a plausible tale.”4
The report footnote further states,
“It should be noted that the literature upon which this sweeping statement was based consisted of five case studies from a 1915 textbook and of letters and monographs from four psychiatrists, all dated before 1933, the original year of publication of Wigmore's treatise.”
In other words, on the basis of bad psychology and a few questionable case studies (definitely not “amply” studied as claimed), it is safe to presume that women are just prone to make stuff up when it comes to sex. That statement from Wigmore was made in 1933, almost 300 years after Lord Hale. And now, almost 90 years after Wigmore, unbiblical attitudes toward women and victims persist. Attorney Veronique Valliere testifies to the prevalence of biased attitudes:
“Time and time again, I encounter groups in public or law enforcement who cite that 50% of claims of abuse are false, even though the research (again) consistently demonstrates that fabricated allegations are by far the minority of claims of abuse - between 2-8%”.5
Of course, these references to biased attitudes do not pertain to the church. But it’s not difficult to find examples within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many Bible commentators throughout history have dwelled on the fact that Eve was the first to succumb to Satan’s lies. So Chrysostom in his 9th homily on 1 Timothy:
The woman taught once, and ruined all. On this account therefore [Paul] says, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively.
Reasoning from Eve’s gullibility, Jewish commentators placed restrictions on women’s ability to give legal testimony:
In Pirge de Rabbi Eliezer (PRE)…a compilation edited in the Muslim period [16th century]…one of the curses inflicted on women after Eve's sin was their being deemed unfit to give testimony. Ari Shvat suggests that Eve's sin was the result of her giving in to the serpents evil persuasion, and since women are easily persuaded and not used to standing their ground like men, they are disqualified from giving testimony…In his interpretation of PRE, Rabbi Eliyahu Etamari explains that since Eve introduced Adam to evil, which includes giving false testimony, it is fitting that she should not give testimony.6
But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. Nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.
The problem of witness motive, as seen above regarding servants, arises frequently in historical discussions of admissible legal testimony. Ilan Fuchs notes this Mishnaic commentary from the 1st-3rd centuries AD:
Said Rabbi Yochanan B. Broka: "a woman or a minor is trustworthy when they say ‘from here this swarm of bees came.’” To which case is this referring to? When they testified immediately, but if they leave and then return, they are not trustworthy because they [might have said so] due to seduction or from fear.7
In other words, women are allowed to provide factual reports only when it just happened. However, if time passes, because women are weaker they cannot be trusted to be honest.
Women are gullible. Women are not to be trusted. Ladies lie.
(At this point, an emotional response from my male readers along the lines of Psalm 97:10—“O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”—and Romans 12:9—“Abhor what is evil”—would be most appropriate. Or in 21st century vernacular, WTF?!)
Sadly, tragically, we can find references to such attitudes within the church in recent years. On May 31, 2021 Russell Moore wrote to J.D. Greer, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to express serious concerns about high level denominational leadership covering up sexual abuse (now exposed by the Guidepost Investigation). Relevant to the question of views of women, Moore wrote the following:
You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of “Potiphar’s wife” and other spurious biblical analogies. The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew —or the outside world could report. And, as you know, this comes on the heels of a track-record of the Executive Committee staff and others referring to victims as “crazy” and, at least in one case, as worse than the sexual predators themselves.
Can you hear the similarity there between what Baptist leaders have said in the 21st century and what John Henry Wigmore said in 1933? These men said victims are “crazy”. Wigmore said as much, but hid it behind esoteric prose: “Their psychic complexes are multifarious, distorted partly by inherent defects, partly by bad social environment, partly by temporary psychological or emotional conditions”. If that is how men view women, it is no surprise that the default presupposition is “ladies lie”. Elisabeth van Houts makes a similar observation about canon law in the Middle Ages:
The question of women's capacity for stating the truth in the first place was an area of great debate in the Middle Ages. The [Canonists] collectively doubted that women were capable of telling the truth…[and] were unanimous that women lacked strength, physical and moral, and therefore were unfit for more central roles in human affairs. Women's inferiority resulted from their biological constitution. They were said to be variable and changeable because of the delicacy of their physical constitution and, for the same reason, soft-hearted and yielding. How could women be believed if men saw them in such negative light?8
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Because the notion that “ladies lie” is a presupposition, a deeply held, unquestioned assumption (and a sinful one at that), merely quoting up-to-date statistics about valid vs. false allegations will not be enough. The sinful mind must be put to death.
When Jesus taught his disciples about the nature of spiritual authority, he did not only give them positive instruction. He also deconstructed their faulty presuppositions:
 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.  For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)
See what Jesus does here? It’s the classic “not this, but this” method. On other occasions Jesus limited himself to positive instruction, e.g. Luke 9:46-48:
 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.  But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side  and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
But Jesus knows his follows need both constructive and deconstructive education. He knew his disciples had presuppositions about power and greatness from their surrounding culture. He calls attention to that directly and says, “This is wrong. Don’t think like this. Don’t act like this.”
That is how we deal with faulty presuppositions about abuse. Yes, we need to learn truths from Scripture and from quality social science and pyschology. But we also need to point out our errors and confess where we have been wrong. We need to see the history of our ideas and be willing to surrender our cognitive faults. We need to repent of our noetic sin. Only then will we be ready to ingraft truth according to God’s Word.
Quote from Diane Langberg
We are using familiar theological words and concepts in ways that sanction or minimize abuse and crush human beings. We assume we hold the correct position. Instead, we need to examine our individual and collective histories, our use of words, and our biases and prejudices that we have baptized with theological language.
Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women, by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Eric M. Schumacher.
Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals Do Gender and Practice Power, by Lisa Weaver Swartz.has been reviewing this book which exposes gender bias, or “genderblindness”, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary. Sadly, while women suffer the cost of genderblindness, men are the ones who are blind to this reality.
What friends do you have who are willing to question your presuppositions and to whom you are willing to be questioned? And for my male readers, when was the last time you read a book, listened to a podcast, or watched a message by a woman? Have you paid attention to whether and how you read/listen differently to men vs. women?
Merril D. Smith, Ed., Encyclopedia of Rape, p. 94.
Forcible Rape: An Analysis of Legal Issues, p. 28, accessed at https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/43520NCJRS.pdf.
Ibid, p. 30.
Ibid, p. 29.
Understanding Victims of Interpersonal Violence: A Guide for Investigators and Prosecutors.
Fuchs, Ilan. “Women’s Testimony in Jewish Law: A Historical Survey.” Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 82–83, 2012, p. 129.
Fuchs, “Women’s Testimony”, p. 126.
van Houts, Elisabeth. “Gender and Authority of Oral Witnesses in Europe (800-1300).” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 9, 1999, pp. 212-213.