Updated: Apr 4
Returning to my days as a missionary kid (MK) in New Tribes Mission (NTM) (now renamed Ethnos 360), I’ve thought a lot and even reconnected with other women with whom I was raised. It’s well established that memories are imperfect, so I like to connect with others to ask about their experiences and memories from our time at Escuela Hogar Misionero (EHM), the NTM compound in Panama where I was raised. Based on news reports and the investigation made into our boarding school, I knew that sexual abuse was a major problem within NTM Panama. Therefore, it was especially important to chat with other female MKs to find out what they remembered about what we were taught and specific experiences they had.
Not all of us suffered sexual abuse such as rape, fondling, and unwanted sexual contact, but we ALL were significantly impacted by harmful and skewed teachings on sexuality and proper behavior for males and females. In fact, in my discussions with female EHM MKs, I learned more about how these perverted teachings have caused immeasurable pain, poor decisions, low self-esteem, and difficulty living as healthy women. We don’t have exact statistics but know anecdotally that many of my female contemporary MKs had disastrous first marriages and have been divorced. In our reflections on how/why we ended up in these types of damaging marriages, we were able to identify certain teachings we were raised with that made us feel compelled to act in certain ways, and particularly to live with abusive treatment, long after we left NTM. We were not equipped with ideas on healthy sexuality or even how to seek help in sexually, physically, verbally, emotionally, or spiritually abusive situations…namely because we were raised in that abuse.
Speaking for myself, I knew certain teachings and behaviors I was raised with were abusive, but there were many more that I took for Gospel truth and didn’t realize I could reject, and yes, even on a Biblical basis. The teachings with which we were raised are not uncommon amongst Evangelicals worldwide, but certainly were accentuated by living on a compound with little opportunity to leave or be exposed to any other views. Some teachings were straight up wrong and destructive. Others had enough truth in them to seem credible at the time, but my faith journey has shown me how many ideas were perverted.
My own story is not unlike other young women's stories who have been raised in a "Christian Bubble." This is a highly monitored, judgmental and, in many ways, a highly unrealistic "safety" bubble that more often than not results in girls having no confidence, being unsure of who they are sexually or what sexuality even means in a healthy normal way. Many find themselves trapped in unhealthy relationships and feeling like they cannot have an opinion, a voice, a will, or an independent spirit.
Here is a sampling of the ideas and teachings on sexuality that particularly impacted missionary females within NTM/Ethnos 360.
The heart of Christianity revolves arounds sexual purity.
We were taught that sexual sin is the height of evil for a Christian, well maybe ranking just under murder. An inordinate amount of teaching and focus was on the danger of promiscuity and sex outside of marriage. This teaching takes such a spotlight, that it by far outweighed what Jesus taught was the heart of the Christian faith in both the Old and New Testaments. There is ample scriptural evidence that this teaching is fallacious. Neither Orthodox nor Catholic Christians teach this. Here are just 2 examples demonstrating that sexual purity was never taught as the heart of the Christian faith.
Matthew 22:36-40 NASB
Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and [a]foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets
Micah 6:8 NASB He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love [a]kindness, And to walk [b]humbly with your God.
One MK shared with me how her father walked her down the aisle to marry a man he knew beat her so that she would not give birth to a baby out of wedlock. The message we received was loud and clear; sexual sin is the worst sin…worse than beating a woman, worse than abusing children in your care, worse than crushing dreams and spirit, and worse than driving children away from God through anger and meanness.
NTM would completely deny that they taught this. Yet, how do you explain generations of young women raised in NTM boarding schools who left with this belief? It was obviously widely believed and taught.
If a woman experiences unwanted sexual advances, it was her fault for being immodest, encouraging those advances, and ultimately her responsibility to keep them from happening.
This teaching places the responsibility for sexual encounters squarely on the shoulders of women and absconds males for their behavior towards women. While there may be more equal “culpability” in the United States, this definitely was NOT the case in sheltered environments such as at EHM or in other fundamentalist and cultish environments. As I’ve written previously, this was often manifested in an absurd fixation and enforcement of the EHM dress code for females. Males rarely faced scrutiny for their dress. Yet, my experiences of being pulled aside, made to kneel and check the length of my dresses, skirts, and shorts was not uncommon. It was humiliating and created an environment of uncertainty and fear for females
Several of the other anecdotes shared with me by MKs included one being taught that she talked too much, was boisterous, and thus would be a whore. Some were taught that there was a point beyond which a male is not in control and cannot stop his advances on a woman; so, it’s the woman’s job to ensure he doesn’t get aroused to the point of losing control.
Women are to submit to their husbands in all ways including in the bedroom.
While some assert that Biblical teaching on submission is married to men loving their wives as they love themselves, the inordinate focus on teaching this passage in NTM was on women doing whatever their husbands demanded, whether it was healthy or good. It placed women in a subservient role, not as partners in a relationship in which there is give and take and in which both partners are honored and loved by each other. The result is that women were portrayed as intellectually and spiritually inferior to men. Unlike in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions that revere Mary the mother of God, as the first disciple and example of Christ-like behavior, women in EHM definitely were on a lower status than men. (I’ve since learned that in some countries, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches allow domestic violence because they do not separate between the culture and faith such as in the Middle East, as has been reported to me by Coptic Orthodox and women from various countries.).Clearly, abuse of women is not relegated to any single Christian denomination or geographic region, and people of faith need to do much more to protect and prevent this abuse.
Gender inequality was evident in the fact that not a single woman was on the NTM Executive Committee at headquarters in Sandford, FL, much less on any single NTM field or even in administration in boarding schools. Women were to care for children, teach, support their husbands in tribal ministry, and do what they were told. Their opinions were not valued or sought after in any leadership positions. We were taught that this model of all male leadership was Biblical and based in teachings on the role of men as church leaders:
“1 Timothy 2:11-12 says: Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” Therefore, so long as the ministry assigned to the woman would not cause her to become a teacher of men or have any authority over men in the church, she would be eligible for such a ministry.
The majority of Christian churches have denied priesthood and spiritual leadership roles to women from Orthodox, Catholic, to Protestant churches unless it is in a ministry specifically focused on women, children, or humanitarian outreach. Regardless of your views on this teaching, the interesting result is the application of the church teaching to mission agencies such as within NTM. The fact that NTM prohibited women from these leadership roles is telling that they perceived themselves as spiritual authorities and ran the agency as a church, despite efforts to portray themselves as an organization. This is the type of behavior that leads many of us raised in NTM to identify it as a cult or at minimum a cult-like environment with absolute control exerted by primarily white, male leadership who utilized spiritual teachings to keep everyone under their control.
Women do not need to seek higher education because their role is in the home supporting their husband and raising children.
Education was not highly regarded by NTM. Very few men had education outside of high school diplomas aside from the NTM Bible School and missionary training. Since men were the leaders in all areas, you can imagine how much less women were encouraged to seek higher education.
As discussed earlier, most EHM MKs were pushed towards attending NTM Bible Schools and going back into the mission agency. It was acceptable for some men to get specialized training such as learning to be pilots as they were needed on the missionary fields. But there were very few positions requiring any education outside NTM. An MK from a different NTM field shared with me how he got a college degree before entering NTM’s training and was told specifically by an NTM leader that he hoped this individual’s education “would not be a problem.” The idea that educated missionaries would be more problematic demonstrates how education was considered a threat, rather than the asset it should have been.
My contention with this teaching is that women were not viewed as capable or encouraged to pursue dreams or education that would enable them to serve, even as missionaries. Life outside of NTM was discouraged. Even if an MK was planning to return to NTM, one would think that skills such as nursing, education, literacy, agriculture, development, and many others would be encouraged. Yet, this was not the case for those planning to return to NTM, or for those of us leaving NTM.
Within the Evangelical worldview, a false dichotomy on feminism is often presented. We’re told you are either a crazy, liberal feminist, or a good submissive, Christian wife who doesn’t believe in “those modern teachings on women’s empowerment.”
Objectively looking at American society, one can see that the majority of women have rejected the outer end of the spectrum views of “feminism.” I include myself in the category which I believe represents the majority of American women. We don’t believe in an ideology in which we are only victims of patriarchy and that pits us against “the evil men who seek to oppress us at home and in the workplace.” Most of us know men of that vein, yet many others who are loving, hard-working husbands, fathers, lovers, and friends. We don’t want to diminish the role of men or be in an antagonistic relationship with them. We DO want to be treated with respect. We don’t want to deal with unwanted sexual advances or harassment at home or in the workplace. We don’t want to be considered intellectually or spiritually inferior due to our gender. We want to be respected in the work environment and not have our contributions stolen by male colleagues, and to have equal opportunity for advancement. We want to have healthy, mature relationships with the men in our lives that are not defined exclusively in terms of gender. Many women do not have a choice and must work to help provide for their families. It is wrong for Christians to look down on these women as being less spiritual because they are working instead of staying home with their kids, homeschooling, and caring for their husband. It’s also wrong for Christians to denigrate those who could stay home and choose to work. It’s also wrong to denigrate those who choose to be stay- at - home Moms and play a critical role in the development of their children and manage their households. Often these women help other women with their childcare and in innumerable ways (such as my friends in UT), volunteer in the community, at church, and do many important activities. Neither men or women always get to live the life of their choice, but they should be supported by their community and co- parishioners in whatever capacity they function and not made to feel as if they are “less than” due to those circumstances or choices. After all, what we do for a living is not the heart of Christianity.
The external behavior of women in supporting Christian leaders and their husbands is more important than the realities in their lives.
This is a tough one to explain as it can take many forms. Essentially, as Christian women, particularly as the wives and children in missionary families in NTM, what’s most important when talking to those missionaries are trying to convert, or to churches and individual supporters in the US, is to project a sense of spiritual and familial well-being. Who would donate to a missionary family undergoing serious marital problems, depressed, disrespectful, or theologically questioning children, or outspoken wives and daughters?
Every 5th year, NTM missionary families took a furlough year in their home country. For most of us on the Panama field, it was in the US. We’d spend the summers traveling all around the country visiting supporters and churches to share about our work in Panama and to keep or increase the financial support on which we subsisted. Most of our families were living on extremely limited resources, well under the poverty line, so our performance on these trips was paramount. In my case, we had to perform at churches which was mortifying and still makes me cringe. We had to sing in Spanish and play our instruments in churches in front of strangers, being the good little missionary kids, willing to serve. This mentality (musicality, or lack thereof, aside) was universal for MKs throughout NTM.
For women, this life of pretending took on more sinister activities that were rarely discussed in public. Yet, the idea of needing to internalize and put on a façade was ingested by all of us.
As I discussed in my own situation, I discovered on my honeymoon that my husband was not going to treat me with kindness and respect. I proceeded to pretend for most of the next 8 years because I felt it was my spiritual duty to act as if all was well with us spiritually and relationally. When I tried to raise these issues with my husband, I was told that I was not being submissive or that I was a disappointment sexually. He would grab at my breasts, bottom, and crotch while I was cooking, or he was passing by. I hated these crude gestures and was told I was a prude and frigid for not appreciating them. The behavior continued in the bedroom with abuse including physically painful and uncomfortable experiences despite my requests for the acts and treatment to stop. My wishes were not respected. I was just denigrated even more for being “sexually repressed.” In one instance, I was awoken in the morning, completely exhausted and pressed for sex. I declined, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. When he finished, he complained that it was like having sex with a corpse. In retrospect, I’m angry that I ever permitted this abusive behavior. Why did I? I thought it was my spiritual obligation and that I had no choice in the matter.
I started to wonder if other female EHM MK’s had similar experiences. I started an online group that quickly exploded into many female MK’s sharing snippets of their experiences. One concept that several noted was an expectation that they give their husbands sex whenever he wanted it because it was his prerogative, regardless of their feelings or physical well-being. It was clearly a damaging teaching and practice in those marriages.
I’m sure NTM would deny ever teaching that women had to accept this treatment. Yet, I’ve discovered that the worldview and teachings in which we were raised, led many of us female MK’s to believe this was our only option and actually our duty. I’ve heard from numerous female MK’s about being in abusive marriages and the years it took them to recognize they were allowed to say “no” to the abuse and leave the relationship. The idea of sexual purity being the heart of Christianity is again seen in this behavior as others, including myself, feared to escape abusive situations knowing we’d be deemed unchristian, unspiritual, whores, etc.
The overall situation for female EHM MK’s was one of feeling that we were of little value, and that the value we did have, rested in our sexual purity. The reduction of a human life to sexual purity is a grievous teaching, contradicted many times in Biblical teaching and by the human experience. People are more than what they have done sexually. They are capable of incredible sacrifice, service, love, hope, encouragement, friendship, and everything else it means to be human; not some trash to be discarded because they have failed a moral standard held by those around them.