“A temptation to eliminate:” Purity culture and other complementarian discourse in white male violence against women

Robert Aaron Long, a white man, aged 21, has been charged with murder over the killing of eight people at massage parlours in Atlanta, Georgia. Among the victims were six Asian women, prompting discussion about the intersectionality of Long’s alleged crimes, the ways these horrific acts of terrorism reveal how Asian and other minority women in the United States are vulnerable not only to sexism but also racism and other forms of prejudice.

But there is a further significant contributing factor in Long’s alleged crimes, one that unfortunately can act as a fulcrum of racism and sexism: religion.

In one online social media profile, Long described himself as, “Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life” (CNN). Other media reports soon confirmed the relevance of Christianity to Long’s profile, reporting that he is an actively involved member of Crabapple Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia (Vice), a commuter suburb of Atlanta.

Leaders at Crabapple First Baptist have expressed grief about Long’s alleged hate crimes, and Newsweek reported that “There is no evidence to suggest that the church was involved in any way with Long’s decision to allegedly carry out the killings. In a statement, elders of the church expressed grief over the violence.”

However, Long’s explanation for his murderous violence, as reported by Captain Jay Baker, point to a more complex picture about the role that the church’s teaching likely played in their white male member’s alleged acts of terrorism.

“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” said Capt Jay Baker, adding that Mr Long was caught with a 9mm handgun and did not resist arrest.

BBC News (emphasis mine)

By quickly resorting to a portrayal of his victims as “a temptation,” Long reveals his fluency in the language of purity culture, what Professor of Religious Studies Julie Ingersoll sums up as this:

the belief that “a woman’s entire purpose is to appeal to a godly young man whom she can serve as a wife in whatever work God has called him to do. The woman’s sexual purity is what is of most value to the man.”

Purity culture is closely linked to another belief system with conservative Christian evangelicalism: complementarianism. Though complementarianism is certainly a spectrum, broadly speaking it is the belief that the Bible teaches that while women should be active in the life and mission of the church, ordination is limited to men, and likewise men take primary responsibility for leadership in the home. Complementarianism is increasingly difficult to distinguish from full-blown patriarchy, though some would say a distinguishing feature is patriarchy’s tenet that male leadership extends to all aspects of society, a step too far for most complementarians.

But more than just pointing to his fluency in these belief systems, Long’s words also suggest that victim-blaming and dehumanisation of women are ways of talking that will justify his actions and perhaps even garner him sympathy. He is talking to his community.

“Liberating and limiting:” The language of Long’s local church

To help situate Long’s stated motive in its community context, I transcribed one of Crabapple Baptist Church’s recent sermons, entitled “The Local Church: Men & Women” (full transcription), preached by Pastor Jerry Dockery on 20 September, 2020. Of course, there is no way for me to know if Long attended this service, though some have reported that by this time, Long had left a rehab clinic he admitted himself to earlier in 2020, for treatment for sex addiction. However, the sermon is a valuable window into the kinds of language about men and women that Long was exposed to as he grew up and reached adulthood. And as sermons, as a form of discourse, are a powerful source of authority in the conservative Christian community, we need to give them close attention.

The text for Long’s pastor’s sermon is 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Pastor Dockery prepares the congregation by emphasizing the “controversial” nature of the text, that it requires Christians to resist disobedience and hard-heartedness towards God and temptation to cultural conformity. Ultimately, Dockery says,

There are important words here for men. There are important words here for women. And there are important words about the distinctions between men and women. And so we’re going to unpack those together.

What follows is in many ways a typical complementarian message, containing all the usual contradictions that the listener is left to reconcile, what Dockery aptly summarises as “liberating and limiting.” First, the liberation. In lines 67-69, Dockery recites the complementarian affirmation of equality that always seems to precede a set of messages altogether less satisfying, less affirming.

Men and women are equal as image-bearers of God’s glory, of God’s greatness. We are created in his image. Men and women are equal in grace. It’s the blood of Christ that saves all of us. There’s no hierarchy here in that regard.

Sounds good, right? Dockery even goes on to state that the complementarity the Bible teaches is “not an excuse for attitudes of superiority and abuse” (line 80-81). Rather, says Dockery, Paul shattered cultural prejudice against women, proclaiming, “Let a woman learn” (line 247). “God is not against women,” he goes on to say (line 250). We hear the comforting stories of Jesus’s tenderness towards the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus’s choice to appear first to women after his resurrection (line 274). The liberation is in full swing at this point.

But having reassured his congregation, Dockery quickly moves from liberation to limitation, the other side of the complementarian coin. That place where it really starts to sting. He’s already prepared us for this in his warning against disobedience and cultural compliance at the start of the sermon. Now he pulls out the big guns, now common within the complementarian movement: reference to Jesus’s eternal submission to God the Father. Equal yet subordinate. Just like women.

One of the best examples of how this relationship of submitting to one another works is that in the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. They are all equal. They are fully God. They each bear the full perfections and identity of who God is and yet the Son has submitted himself to the Father. Not making him any less equal. In fact, Philippians Paul wrote there and said that he didn’t consider it something worthwhile to grasp, to hold on to being in that position, where he’s unwilling to be submissive. But submitted himself to the Father’s wishes and plans. And the Spirit does the same thing unto the Father and the Son. And so we see that same kind of relationship illustrated in the home and in the church.

lines 83-90

It gets worse, as Dockery talks about the cost of failing to submit to “God’s design.” If you come to God with any corruption or sin, any of the “world’s stains and baggage cluttering up our lives,” God will not hear you, Dockery says. He will not accept you.

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

What is the solution? Not Jesus Christ, it seems. “Purify your hearts,” Dockery commands. Though his sermon is not focused directly on purity culture, Dockery’s emphasis on individual responsibility for moral purity, on the necessity of fulfilling this individual responsibility in order to be acceptable before God, is a core aspect of purity culture discourse. And the specific means to purity? Men are to be leaders, and women are to follow.

He’s encouraging the men because they have the responsibility for giving leadership to the worship. They are charged as the spiritual leaders, both at home and in the church, as it gathers for worship. Now I know our culture, our society bristles at this. But this is because of the influence of man-made, man-generated ideas and opinions.

lines 49-53

Later, Dockery reinforces the guilt and shame his congregants should feel if they fail in their mission to be pure in embodying “God’s design.”

You may think you got away with it this Sunday. Well you know I was in there and boy God was working on my heart, but I got in my car and got away, couldn’t do it, didn’t catch me. Oh he’s hot on your trail. What you don’t know is the word of God has been planted on your heart and in your mind and it’s gonna haunt you, haunt you, haunt you until the day you die and you stand before God and then it’ll be a full blown screen in front of everybody. And you better know it. It’s coming. You can’t hide from it.

lines 371-377 (emphasis mine)

Wow, look at this language. What a one-two-three punch Dockery lands here. The triple threat of God’s haunting pursuit. The promise that all your failures to live up to God’s design will appear on the widescreen for all to gape at, to judge. Those are some stakes.

Having emphasized equality, having situated authority and submission within the nature of God, having introduced the apocalyptic consequences of failure to be pure according to God’s design, Dockery brings in other familiar lines from the complementarian playbook: emphasis on female appearance and female rebellion.

Expounding on verses 8-10 of the sermon text, Dockery makes it clear that both men and women are to take care in their outward appearance and the condition of their hearts as they come to Sunday worship. However, this nod to equality is undermined by sexist tropes mingled again with purity culture. Here, Dockery makes probably his most shocking statement in the sermon, explicitly invoking a core tenet of purity culture, the guilt and shame that women must endure for the ways their bodies tempt and otherwise harm men, even those men who assault them.

… to come to church attired in such an ostentatious way was at best a distraction from honouring God and at worst an attempt to seduce the men of the church.

line 181-182

Comments like these provide quite a layer of meaning to Robert Aaron Long’s violence against women, his reference to his victims as a “temptation to eliminate.” The message from the pulpit is clear. Men, watch out for women “flaunting their status, their stature” (line 165). While Dockery warns men against “elbowing each other for top dog,” (line 174), the link between physical appeareance and impurity is reserved for women only.

Dockery amplifies and emphasizes the centrality of women’s bodies and attributes in God’s design in his later illustrations. Women’s uniqueness is in their ability to have babies, he says. And they have a “special ability to nurture” (lines 411-417). As for men? People go to men “when they need something fixed or a hard decision has to be made” (417-419). Dockery and the congregation laugh together as he relates times when his wife was working nights as a nurse, and he had “to be mom.” “It was not pretty.”

And this takes us to the final point central to Dockery’s sermon, central to complementarian doctrine and to purity culture: the war between the sexes. Or, more specifically, the woman’s rebellion.

What is this sermon text primarily about? According to Dockery, all divisiness, all anger, all frustration, all exist because Adam abdicated his leadership and Eve assumed that role wrongfully. “Not being obedient to God’s design” (line 408). And the most obvious manifestation of this throughout the ages? That old conservative enemy: feminism.

Radical feminism has engulfed our culture like a tsunami. Particularly in the last generation. It’s been happening for the past couple of hundred years but it has exploded in recent years. We hear all the time we are now striving for gender neutrality for gender fluidity. You name it. You know, it’s just gender whatever you want. And I would say to you that this is a blatant, a blatant, I’m gonna say it one more time. A blatant guidance, direction, strategy of Satan to oppose and usurp the authority of God and God’s plan and purpose for us and himself. And when we cater to it, casually, indifferently, carelessly, we’re propagating what Satan wants to accomplish.

lines 207-214

Dockery’s condemnation of feminism allows him now to undermine his earlier statements about the evil nature of male violence against women. Of course one should not abuse or oppress women in any way, he has already said reassuringly. But also, you can’t trust feminists’ definitions of abuse, he qualifies. As allies of Satan, they cannot be trusted. Their readings of the Bible are only “caricatures of Christianity.” Their claims are “intellectually dishonest (229-239). It seems feminists are barely even human in Dockery’s narrative, aggregated and contained within the threatening metaphor of a tsunami, engulfing, exploding, destroying all that is good and holy.

The strategies at work here are powerful, prejudicial misogyny. In his repeated statements that all must submit to God’s word, in his later powerful positioning of himself as an authority (351-364), in his emphasis on male leadership, Pastor Dockery has cemented male dominance, male action, male decision making, male perspectives and authority, even when it comes to definitions of violence against women.

The subtle softening of this spiky message he plies his congregation with – the repeated references to equality, to women as God’s image-bearers, to unity – all are but manipulations, grooming the women in his congregation to recognise and submit to their place. And empowering male congregants like Robert Aaron Long to exercise dominance over women. More than this, filling young men like Long with a sense of urgency, of high stakes, of the need to eliminate any temptation to stray from God’s design or from purity, without which, according to Dockery, no man can approach God.

Robert Aaron Long’s alleged murder of six Asian women must be investigated and discussed within its full context. In my view, purity culture and complementarian doctrine are significant aspects of this Christian man’s identity and in his acts of violence. These are evident in his early statements of motive and illuminated by this recent sermon at a church that was clearly formative in Long’s life.

Considering the messages of male entitlement intrinsic to contexts like these, it should come as no surprise to us when we hear about stories of young white men like Robert Aaron Long abusing and murdering women. I grew up down the street from Crabapple Baptist Church. I understand all too well the impossibility of surviving communties like these unscathed, even as a white woman. But how much worse for minority women? As Zhaoyin Feng reported, for the BBC,

“It’s scary to be an Asian-American woman anywhere in the US,” an Asian woman told me. She said it was finally time for her to speak up, after being told by her parents to stay silent about racism she experienced while growing up.

It remains to be seen what other sources of religious guidance might reveal about the role of sexism as well as racism in Robert Aaron Long’s violence against mostly Asian women. As a scholar of religious language, as someone keenly interested in fighting oppression, I will certainly carry on looking for such sermons and naming such discourses.

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