A few days ago, I met with a group of therapists and church leaders to discuss a thorny issue: sexual dysfunction and addiction in church leadership and congregational life.
There has probably not been an era (or a culture) since Canaanite times in which such a wide spectrum of sexual experience is so readily available to so many. Ancient cultures were often promiscuous. However, sexual energy in them was channeled through such agencies as temple prostitution. Incest and rape were often unreported and thus unrecognized by society.
The Old Testament is clear that prostitution existed among the Jewish people. In fact, many of the heroes of faith visited prostitutes. If the women were not temple workers, in which case the sexual experience would have religious significance; it appears that Jewish culture viewed these indiscretions as misdemeanors.
My point here is this: during their brief and brutal lives, ancient peoples found outlets for sexual expression within the structures provided and approved by their culture.
In the New Testament, believers also lived in a world in which sexual experience was readily available for most people. The city of Corinth, for example, was famous for its promiscuity. However, Christ and the apostles taught clearly that sexual purity was foundational to holy living. Believers were invited into a struggle, in which learning how to govern sexual life was vitally important.
Christians were not transformed into angels, nor could they revert to prepubescent life. Somehow, they had to learn to be mature sexual adults who both acknowledged sexual desire and governed it.
They did this in cities like Corinth. In that respect then, there is some parallel between our Christian experience in a sexualized culture and that of the first century believers. However, there is a big difference as well.
Believers in ancient times had to cross real hurtles in order to participate in the kinds of sexual experiences offered by their cultures. They could rarely be anonymous -- or even discrete -- in the villages where they had lived their entire lives. Sexual indiscretions were not private. They could not be. Crossing a sexual line meant the loss of Christian community and open shame.
As Christianity replaced paganism, Europe became increasingly guarded about sexuality. The display of nudity and sexuality, so prominent in pagan art and writing, became forbidden and even criminalized. This was the way things were from late antiquity to modern times.
To a great extent, this was true even for our grandparents.
If granddad wanted to see nudity or have sex with someone other than his wife, he had to go far away or to a part of the city where no one knew him. If he wanted pornographic material, he had to buy it from people and in places that society judged as criminal. Good people didn’t visit such people or go to such places. We can assume that granddad sometimes thought about what a prostitute would be like. If he were a Christian however, he would quickly dismiss the thought and pray for forgiveness. The price was too high. He just didn’t go there.
With all due respect to granddad, he didn’t have access to a computer. He didn’t see billboards, magazines, and television advertisements promoting sexually explicit messages. Granddad had his own private sexual struggles, surely. But they nearly always remained there: in the privacy of his own heart.
Privacy and anonymity is what makes our experience with sexuality so different from any other age and culture.
Would granddad always refused to see a naked body had he been able to do so in private and without being known? Was his degree of holiness that much higher than ours?
I really doubt it!
The average age that an American child first views pornography is eleven.
The fastest growing porn market in America is young adult women.
Women, as it turns out, are as susceptible to private and anonymous sexual temptation as men. Removing the fear of pregnancy and of being socially ostracized has revealed that they too are also fallen creatures!
We are not acknowledging these things.
Believers are suffering from the church’s silence but church leaders hardly know what to do.
Our congregations are full of gender and sexual-preference confusion – in the pews and in the pulpits.
Liberal churches deal with these issues by rewriting the Bible.
Conservative churches deal with them by not dealing with them. Or, by getting angry at the people who struggle.
The clergy and other church leaders are as likely to act out (or to cover up) their sexual issues as anyone else. The real problem is the silence, denial and avoidance surrounding our people’s sexual pain and misconduct. We are passing through an epidemic that few people seem willing to address. Our churches tend to pour their passion into church business, workaholism and concerns about national and local political matters. They go on crusades against societal ills. They get involved all sorts of things that seem noble and grand. In the meantime, the levels of sexual pain in our congregations, staff and clergy continue to rise.
A large percentage of the people we see on any given Sunday morning are dealing with some sort of sexual struggle. They want to serve God and be faithful to Him. But they don’t know what to do with their temptations, hunger for intimacy, sexual dysfunction in their marriage, addiction, or sexual emptiness that eats away at their thoughts and emotions.
The people who lead us are not different in this regard than the ones in the pews. Many church leaders are also lonely, isolated, confused about their role in this emerging culture, sad about what may be missing in t heir private lives, trying not to fall into the pit that seem to surround them every time they leave the sanctuary.
One wonders if we will ever have the courage to care for one another by addressing one of our greatest sources of pain: the struggle between the way we ought to be and the way we actually are.