Thursday, August 9, 2012

My Thoughts on the Sexualization of the Church (and Other Problems)

Dear friends, 

We sat in a living room, about twenty men and women in our home group "Bible" study, and I squirmed. This was a first for me. Apparently it was a tradition in our church for the married couples to talk about sex every February in honor of Valentine's Day. The icebreaker this time: "Other than the bedroom, where do you like to do it?"  Huh? Is this conversation for mixed company? Years later, a friend told me about neighbors they had invited to our home group that evening. Who. Never. Came. Back. To. The. Church. Good for them. I endured at least two or three more of these evenings in various permutations over the eight years we were members of that church. I boycotted a few too, and toward the end our time there I think they were being discontinued, at least in our group. 

One of those evenings left me in tears. Seriously. I had already asked the new group leader to reconsider this kind of discussion, or at least to split up the men and women in separate rooms. He promised to keep it discreet. Sure, we didn't talk about "where we would do it" or anything graphic at all. But still, due to the sensitive and private nature of the discussion, I fled the room fairly early on and bawled my eyes out in the bathroom. I didn't come out until nearly everyone had left and I could wipe my tears and eat a few chocolate chip cookies in peace. Why did the discussion trigger me like that? I don't know fully, but the inklings I have are not ones I'd want to discuss on-line. (For the record I do not have any sexual "issues" -- not that it matters. I just don't want you to read anything into this post that's not there.) On the bright side, I did write a poem out of that traumatic home group experience though: Do Cry.

There were other cringe-worthy sex-related discussions in that church, some in home groups, some in women's meetings, some in other settings. Like all of the (IMHO invasive, suspicious, accusatory) questions you can ask your husband to keep him from straying with the cute chick across the church aisle. Ugh. I know they were trying to stem the tide of adultery in the church, but that was over the top. At least for me. We left two years ago and I know I left a piece of my heart behind because I love the people there even if the atmosphere was driving me crazy. But that is just part of my more complicated story there and anyway my story is just a small part of what I wanted to write today.

I write because I am concerned about the increasing sexualization of the church -- AND -- the increase of sexual abuse and troubled marriages within the church. I type with much trepidation. Frankly, I don't like to think about this subject in depth, much less write about it. But I know God gave me a voice to speak up and speak out and maybe it will make a difference for someone.  Now is the time.

So. Sex and the church. I know, I know. Churches face declining membership, and some of them are looking for ways to boost attendance. Sex sells. Piques interest. Fills the pews. (Yeah, with babies, too.) But in my opinion, sex talk doesn't belong in the pulpit, except in the most discreet of ways.

That said, what are several ways that church leaders can serve their congregations related to sexuality?

Take a long hard look at how sex and modesty are talked about in the church community. Don't sensationalize sex. And don't let someone who doesn't know what they are talking about get up and spout off about it in a public meeting. Let's stick to the spirit of what the Bible says. If a couple has specific sexual problems, they can find a good therapist, or one or both of them can seek out advice from a trusted friend of the same gender. Or they can read a decent Christian book about the subject.

Two pastors who I think have done it wrong:
  • Mark Driscoll, the Seattle pastor who routinely discusses sex from the pulpit in crass and graphic terms, who reportedly has prophetic (cough, pornographic) visions of the sexual misconducts of his congregants, and who has, in my opinion, horrible attitudes toward the female gender -- see my article linked below. 
  • Ed Young, Jr., who camped out with this wife on a huge bed on the roof of his church last year to promote their book about sex, titled, unsurprisingly, Sexperiment. Yeah, they really did call their publicity stunt a "Bed In"! They were going to stay up there for 24 hours, but called it off a bit early because of too much exposure. From the sun, not the media, that is. See Pastors with Sexpertise
It is also a new fad to liken the intimacy of our relationship with God to sexual intercourse, such as in the troubling blog post, Sex in the Shadowlands, by Mary Kassian of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Retha wrote a good response here: Gospel Sex?

On a related topic, watch how you talk about the topic of modesty. It is certainly an issue that can be discussed discretely among both genders separately, but it needs to be done right. Over-emphasis on a woman's responsibility to dress modestly objectifies and depersonalizes her, glosses over a man's responsibility for self-control by blaming the woman, and can cause a whole lot of uptight and neurotic harm for both genders.  See my recent article with links: Between the Burqa and the Bikini: A Call to Moderate Modesty.

Be sensitively aware of those in the church who have deep wounds from either sexual abuse or their own poor sexual choices. Most pastors do not have the professional expertise to deal with the more serious cases. Set your ecclesiastical pride aside and be prepared to refer your members to a qualified Christian therapist rather than trying to serve them "in house." If necessary, offer to pay for their counseling. Also, don't present sexual sin as something that is unforgivable or that makes you a second class citizen. Sexual purity is a good thing and we should guard it, but that's not what determines our worth. Christ redeems, renews, and washes us clean. People mess up big time, even Christian people, but should shame be what drives them away from the church?   Mercy triumphs over judgment. The same goes for people who are dealing with same sex attraction. You may not agree with the lifestyle, but the people behind it (some of them hurting deeply already) should find compassionate understanding and wisdom in the church.

Reevaluate what you think and say about gender and authority in families. I believe that many times sexual issues in a marriage are not caused by technique or by past history, but by poor communication and expectations related to "traditional" gender roles. And I think one of the main culprits in this is teaching in the church that can be construed to promote male dominance in the name of leadership. For example, take a husband who demands submission or acts aggressively toward his family instead of truly leading and protecting with humility and gentleness. His wife may be able to perform outwardly to try and pacify her husband -- and he might not even know the difference -- but heart level intimacy will be nearly impossible. Power struggles do not play well in the bedroom at any level. At the extreme, marital rape and BDSM behaviors are completely unacceptable. Even at the relatively minimal level, pervasive gender-based disrespect, domineering attempts at control, and verbal humiliation are also completely unacceptable.  

Churches, please teach equal partnership and mutual submission! 

If you know of a case of domestic violence or intimidation in your congregation, you need to stand by that dear woman and not just tell her to go back to her husband while merely praying for him and trying harder to submit sweetly! Give her courage, confront her abuser if it is safe to do so, follow up long-term and help her continue to stand firm, and as necessary, help her and the children get out of there! If you have to educate yourself about domestic violence ahead of time, do it, because you can't afford to be caught unprepared.

Read about domestic violence on this Watch the Shepherd blog series: Domestic Violence.

     Read these links on other sites:
Put an end to pedophilia by church attenders.  Three ways: 1. Keep children safe in nurseries, Sunday Schools and camp settings. There are ways to do this, including setting up strict procedures for who has access to children and making sure children are never alone with one adult. Read here: Child Sexual Abuse Prevention for Faith Communities2. Notify members when anyone with a history of pedophilia or sexual predation starts attending the church. Yes, we should minister to them (perhaps off-site?), while making sure they continue with professional therapy. BUT! We should not ever compromise the safety of the children. AND! 3. If you learn of a case of child molestation in your congregation, whether it was in a church function or in a family or other setting, you must (must! must!) alert proper government authorities and cooperate fully! You are not qualified to deal with this within the church. It needs a proper criminal investigation AND professional counseling for the victim. Your top priority is the safety and healing of the victim, not the reputation of the alleged perpetrator. And if you are really all that concerned about your reputation, keep in mind that in this digital age, if you screw up a child molestation case, your church will be forever tarnished when it finally comes to light. Deal with it right, and you'll stand a chance at real respect in the community. Prevent it from happening in the first place, and you will all be better off. I won't even start linking to all of the news stories on child molestation among church communities because I'd seriously be here all day, but here are two blog articles from The Wartburg Watch that have plenty of embedded links:

Implement zero tolerance for sexual compromise by leaders, especially the abuse of pastoral "authority" in counseling situations.  Again, strict procedures will be a big help here, such as in the area of practical safeguards in counseling settings and youth ministry. Pastoral indiscretions need to be brought into the light, not shoved under the rug, and are grounds for immediate dismissal with no promise of reinstatement. Jack Schaap, an Independent Fundamental Baptist megachurch pastor in Indiana, was fired last week because of his alleged (and admitted) affair with a 16 year old girl who had come to him for counseling about sexual abuse.  See: IFB Megapastor Jack Schaap Fired for ‘Improper Relationship’ with a Teen and Ousted Pastor Jack Schaap’s Misogynistic FlapI'm glad his church is taking swift and decisive action on this case, because it and the associated Hyles-Anderson College have decades of serious sexual scandal among leadership, as do many other IFB churches.  These Schaap links could just as well belong in two of the previous categories: pedophilia and gender teaching. The guy is seriously whacked. He vehemently stated it will be a cold day in hell before he gets his theology from a woman. Yet the Sunday before his ouster, he had preached a fiery sermon about teen promiscuity and admonished parents to send their adolescent girls to him for counseling. So much for his sound theology, at least as he practices it. It would be a cold day in hell before I ever let one of my girls near him. (Note in March 2013: Jack Schaap was just sentenced to 12 years in prison.  Not nearly long enough!)  

If you think I am exaggerating the problems of sexual abuse in religious organizations, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I just don't have time to dig up all of the other links about sexual scandals that I have read in the past year alone. Think Tony Alamo, or some of the "Christian" reform homes for wayward girls, or the Catholic priest molesting altar boy cover-up scandals or the missionary boarding schools or even Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. Yeah. It's out there. It's ugly. If you have been sexually abused by a pastor or other spiritual leader, please visit the Tamar's Voice web site.

[Note: After I wrote this post, I wrote another called Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence.  Please read!]

Wow. Deep breath.

That just took it out of me.

Dear sweet sisters, write me if you want to talk. I'm here. 

Dear sweet Jesus, have mercy on us all.

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13

"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:9-11

Grace and peace,

Virginia Knowles

P.S. For those of you who don't click links, the poem:

"Do Cry"by Virginia Knowles

Do cry
There is no shame
When teardrops fall as healing rain
Our Comforter who sees and knows
Collects them all in his bottle.
Do they mingle there with ancient tears of long ago?
Or far-flung ones around the globe?
I do not know, nor do I always know why I cry
Just that there is a deep welling up inside
Or perhaps a thorn prick of conscience
Or an oozing scrape of disappointment
Or a dagger thrust of insult
Or even the gashing grief of death
As blood flows, so do tears
But they are wiped away
By One who also binds up wounds.

Do cry
But not from indulgent self-pity
Or twisting others to comply
Cry to wash the soul
Turn the heart with fresh resolve
A firmness born from tenderness
Cry for justice, mercy
Mourn for suffering that is not your own
To hear the groans and seek to console
With the comfort you yourself have received
There is a blessing in brokenness
Do cry: then go on in love and joy and peace.

More here: Do Cry 


  1. Very well put, Virginia. You have treated this topic honestly but sensitively--just as it should be done in church settings. We bring a vulnerability about our feelings to church so communication should be tailored to that. We could certainly use more direct, accurate information on sexuality in my church. Unfortunately, the indirect reinforcement of male dominance is slow to face.

    I once had the urge to flee the chapel. A lay member, retired FBI, took it upon himself to read an op-ed piece from a major newspaper criticizing Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction during Super Bowl halftime. The crassness of a hard-edged journalist was so out-of-place during worship service and, more crucial, sent a hateful, shaming message about women's bodies. Certainly nothing Jesus would do.

    Speaking you-probably-wouldn't-present-this-in-church, the following movie follows sexual development from the perspective of boys in a 1960s Catholic school (inaccurate info abounds!) I only recommend this because the priest's chastity lecture struck a nerve with me--a lot like the maturation talk the principal gave us in 6th grade. A while back I found the scene in one piece on Youtube but it's spread over the end of Part 5 and beginning of Part 6 here. To miss some objectionable language, advance Part 5 to 7:00 minutes in.

    Part 5
    (the first dance with the girls' school begins 7:00 minutes into part 5)

    Part 6

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Dan. I'll try to watch the video clips later. I can't remember if told you that besides the incident I mentioned in this article, my poem "Do Cry" was also inspired by your essay "Crying Shame." :-) It's good to be your cousin and friend!

    1. Thank you, found cousin! Yes, I remember you sent "Do Cry" with an explanation--but, of course, I understand better now your personal context. I am honored once again.

  3. I stand up and applaud you!

    Lots of good and wise advice Virginia, thank you.

    . .

    As a single man in my thirties I worked with pre-schoolers in the church nursery. I really loved those kids, and they loved me back. We learned and experienced a lot together. Most of their parents knew me and trusted me with their children’s lives. On more than one occasion the other nursery adult would disappear for awhile when I was with the children. I remember strongly emphasizing to the women who headed up the nursery to never let that happen again. Never leave me, never leave an adult alone with children. Especially a man, goodness, the stigma male care givers still have in this society. Not that the children needed protection from me, but I needed protection from ever the appearance of an impropriety.

    Btw, Tim and Kathy Keller give three outstanding talks on Sex, Singleness and Marriage.

    (( i plan to repost this at ja'blog ))

    1. Thank you, Monax. I recognize your screen name as a commenter on Julie Anne's blog! It's good to hear your perspective.

  4. WOW! Good Stuff Virginia!

    What you said needs to be heard!

    I was reading about a recent lawsuit decision about a women that go fired due to employer being to attracted to her, and his wife was threatened. Considering what I read about the case - she should have left before any of the rest happened. He would have made anyone uncomfortable, and I don't understand how she couldn't have been.

    He was the lawsuit, but sadly I do believe his wife was the loser in that case. I prayed that got some help, because their focus was all wrong. She wasn't the biggest threat - his attitude was. She will always have to worry about him if they don't address it. Sadly - this viewpoint that I felt in those news articles needs to be addressed. The woman fired seems to be the sole target within the Christian Realm. LOL! Sorry if that was a bit off topic!

  5. Virginia,
    Thank you for this insightful and illuminating article. I feel your heartfelt intentions and the confusion that comes across with the mix messages that is given out from the pulpit and in real life. It's funny, I have always believed that the pupil and real life is one of the same. That God would not want us to compromise ourselves to "play" the role of pastor, elder, consel, and/or advocate without a transcending consistency. Not to say those in leadership need to be sinless, but they do need to be "real" person. I mean real, approachable, humble, honesty with their feels, and most importantly safe. Isn't that what Jesus was?

    Unfortunately, we are copying the media frenzy pop culture one hit wonders, mixed with our evangelical obsession with sex, and it sets in motion these very immature "stupid" get togethers of sexual discovery. I for one get embarrassed by the infantile approach of how we approach sex. Even more so, when a pastor deems a authority and displays his wife (as if she really condones this behavior) to position His perspective as the right one. Using God to built up your personal brand is so in fashion today. For me I'm sick of these God Brands, that use our Jesus as a product than the savior who came here on earth for us. Keep up the good work that God has moved you to do.

    1. Ivan, I just now saw this comment! Thanks for writing! I agree with you!

  6. Virginia, just letting you know that I'm am linking to this post on my blog. It will appear tomorrow. I also believe that the sex police have over sexualized the church and portions of the Bible. I'm glad Driscoll is no longer taken seriously. But I'm sorry that some of his doctrine still is.