Your Church: A healing community for sexual strugglers
By Barney Swihart, M.A., M. Div.
I deal with lives that have been devastated by sexual sin every day. Just the other day, I talked with a young man facing the painful exposure of having sexually fallen. This man was distraught and repentant. He shared with me his lifelong struggle of being raised in a solid, fundamentalist church, and yet feeling like there was no one he felt safe talking to.
He went on to speak of the years of loneliness he felt struggling with his schizophrenic-like existence in his church. On one hand, he was an active member of the church. On the other hand, he struggled with the guilt and shame of his secret double life, struggling with pornography, and occasionally acting out sexually.
Few sins carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. They are dealing with something that touches the very core of how they feel about themselves. People who struggle with sexual sin are not just struggling with out of control desires, but also with issues that deeply connect to their sexual identity and self-esteem. The guilt and shame that are associated with these issues are enormous. The result is the pressure to “hide” in their churches out of fear of being exposed.
I once spoke to a men’s church group about the issues of sexual sin and temptation. After I finished speaking, I opened the meeting up for a time of discussion. I was amazed by the men’s uncomfortable shifting in their seats, and the silence of the group. As I looked upon these men, many sat with heads lowered as if to avoid any eye contact. It was as if everyone was terrified to enter into the discussion for fear of being identified.
Many of us would like to think that serious struggles with sexual sin are problems that occur mainly outside the church. However, it has been my experience that whatever sin you see outside the church can, sadly, be found in the lives of those within the church. It is interesting to note that the apostle Paul, in his letters to various churches, was not embarrassed to acknowledge and address issues of sexual sin in the church (e.g. I Corinthians 5-6).
All of us are aware of well-known church leaders who have fallen sexually. However, there are alarming indicators that serious sexual struggles are not limited to a few fallen leaders. This is a growing problem in the church today, and this reality certainly has been borne out in my experience. Every week I spend time with pastors, missionaries, and well-respected church leaders who come to me seeking help to deal with the bondage of sexual sin in their own lives. As I talk with other pastors and counselors, I also hear feedback about their own concern about the growing numbers of Christians coming to them for help.
In addition, recent church surveys report some alarming statistics. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth did a survey on “How Common is Pastoral Indiscretion?” The results were shocking. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents confessed to having been involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in their church. Another survey of 300 pastors by Leadership magazine indicated that 23% admitted to having been sexually involved with someone other than their spouse. Some large hotel chains report that their largest revenues for adult TV channels have occurred during Christian conventions.
My worry is that if this high rate of moral failure exists with Christian leaders, what is going on in the lives of the “average,” respectable looking men and women sitting in our church pews? My concern is that if struggles with sexual sin are this serious in the lives of men and women in our churches, then what is to be the church’s response to this? Can we say that our churches are safe places for the sexual struggler to open up about their sin, so as to seek spiritual help and restoration?
The reality is that the whole issue of sexual sin in the church is an emotionally charged issue. It is a problem that engenders much fear and prejudice. Many in the church would put sexual sin at the top of their list of “worst sins.” This contributes in part to the deep sense of shameful stigma that sexual strugglers feel in their church. But the fact is that such a perspective is not biblical and is a denial of the grace of the gospel.
In I Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul lists the sins of greed and gossip in the same list with the “sexually immoral” and “homosexual offenders.” The truth is, sin is sin. When we sin, we sin against a holy God and expose our deep need for Christ’s forgiveness. Of course, some sins have greater consequences than others (I Corinthians 6:18). The real issue is that, in God’s eyes, all sins are the same and must be confessed openly to Christ for forgiveness. All sin, whether it is greed, gossip, or homosexuality, equally needs the grace of God.
The danger in viewing sexual sin in a harsher light than gossip, or greed, is that the sexual struggler feels a pressure to hide and keep his sin in the closet. It is no wonder then that so many sexual strugglers choose to avoid confession and carry their painful conflict alone. This in turn leads so often to a person living in two worlds, one existing in the fellowship of believers, and the other being the secret dark world of their sin. It is in this kind of isolation that the bondage of sexual sin entrenches itself. Sexual bondage thrives in the darkness of denial and deception that is fostered by such isolation. As long as there is hiding, there is little hope for freedom.
Another concern that sexual strugglers have in coming out and asking for help is the fear that simplistic solutions will be offered. Many a sexual struggler has shared with me the illustration of having finally opened up about his problem with someone from the church, only to hear the moralistic response, “Just turn to God and repent.” This unsympathetic response amounts to being heard as, “Just shape up and act the way God wants you to act.”
Too often, the well-meaning but misguided persons who offer this advice are Christians who have not wrestled with the depth of their own sin and the complexities of the bondage of serious sexual sin. These people tend to understand the bondage of serious sexual sin as simply “yielding to the flesh” and think that the cure is exhortation and rebuke.
Occasionally this type of approach may seem to work. But in the long haul, it fails to address the depth and deceitfulness of the human heart that empowers ongoing bondage. In addition, this kind of self-righteous approach ignores and puts salt into the struggler’s deep wounds. This in turn often drives him or her away from God and the supportive fellowship of their churches, rather than toward the redemptive mercy and love of God and his people.
One of the sad consequences of this is that many sexual strugglers have had to turn to secular recovery groups for help. Many have felt there was little else available that offered a “safe place” to honestly deal with their struggles. The truth is that many sexual strugglers report to me that they experienced more love and compassion in their secular recovery groups than in the fellowship of their church.
No doubt such recovery groups have helped some Christians. However, my burden is to see the church become a redemptive and safe place where men and women can honestly deal with their sexual sin. Given the fact that the roots of sexual bondage are profoundly spiritual and moral in nature, it is crucial that the church see its opportunity to become a refuge where the healing balm of God’s truth and grace can be offered. I believe this is why so many men and women have sought out the ministry of Harvest. They come to Harvest because they see it as a safe place where they can begin to honestly face their sexual bondages in the light of God’s truth.
Because the root issues of sexual bondage are spiritual in nature, the church must also avoid becoming simplistic, moralistic, or uncompassionate in its approach to the problem. As Christians, we must acknowledge that there are deep and complex issues of the human heart with which we must grapple. Sexual bondage is never about simple lust or external behavior. It is in response to the deep wounds of life that sexual strugglers develop self-protective, relational walls to insulate themselves from further hurt. However, the sad irony is that the very walls they have cultivated to “protect” themselves now have become the “prison” that keeps them in bondage. There are both deep hurts and deeply rooted sin patterns of deceitful thinking and responding that must be exposed and lovingly confronted.
The church as a redemptive community
In responding to the challenge and need of ministering to individuals struggling with sexual sin, I would suggest that there are three important areas to consider. These are all suggestions that will encourage the church to become a place where people will feel encouraged to honestly open up their lives for help within the context of the local church.
1. Cultivate an atmosphere of grace
The church must cultivate an atmosphere of grace through its teaching, preaching, and body life. This is a crucial dimension for the church to become an effective, redemptive community to the sexually broken. What I mean by this is that a church must clearly communicate through its ministry the truth of God’s grace. It is the message of grace that invites every one of us to see ourselves as sinners who deeply need forgiveness. Whether our sins are gossip, greed, or homosexuality, all of us stand in deep need of God’s ongoing work of grace in our lives. The truth is that the sin issues which plague the heart of a man or woman struggling with serious sexual sin are the same sin issues with which any one of us struggle. At the core of all our sinful struggles are hearts that battle with pride, demandingness, and unbelief.
In my own life, I have recently struggled with the battle of being overweight. In dealing with this problem, I have come to see the sinful energy behind my overeating is no different from the energy behind my own past struggles with sexual addiction. The challenge for me has been not to minimize the sinfulness of my late-night “excursions” into the refrigerator as being less sinful than past indulgences into pornography.
As every one of us allows God’s truth to humble us with this perspective we will have a new, growing compassion for the sexual struggler. No longer will there be any room for a pharisaical attitude that says, “I thank God I am not like those other perverted people who struggle with sexual sin” (Luke 18:11). It is interesting to note that Jesus saved his harshest rebukes for self-righteous Pharisees (Cf. Matthew 15:1-9, 23:1-36; Luke 11:37-52). The message of grace humbles the heart and invites everyone in the church to see themselves as needy beggars who are trying to show each other where to find the ongoing “Bread of life” that Jesus offers.
In a practical way, I believe cultivating this kind of atmosphere begins with the consistent and clear preaching of grace from the pulpit. It will be the teaching and preaching on Sunday that will foster an atmosphere of grace in the ministry of a congregation. However, I also believe attention needs to be paid to what is being encouraged in the small group structure of a church. It is important that the body life of a church reflect the graciousness and acceptance of the gospel.
2. Make a commitment to confidentiality
Another necessary element to encouraging the church to become a redemptive community is the need to maintain careful commitment to confidentiality. As stated before, there are few sins which carry more guilt and shame than sexual sin. The subsequent fears of exposure and rejection are what keep many sexual strugglers from opening up to people in their churches to get help.
I can tell horror story upon horror story of situations where individuals finally opened up with someone in their church, only to find the news of their problem painfully being spread to others within the fellowship without their permission. One such man reported sharing his struggles about homosexual feelings with a church deacon he had come to trust. Shortly thereafter, he was removed as a Sunday school teacher, without church leadership coming to him to discuss the nature of his struggle. The result was a painful sense of betrayal and rejection by God’s people, just for taking off a mask and becoming honest.
Other situations I have seen involve sexual strugglers experiencing the pain and embarrassment of finding out that they have been the topic of church gossip in the church. It only takes one such painful experience of broken confidentiality to shut a sexual struggler down from ever opening up in the church again. Those who gossip and slander reveal their own sinfulness and demonstrate they are not fit to be involved in such a delicate ministry of restoration.
In working with individuals who struggle with sexual sin, it is imperative that serious attention be given to the subject of confidentiality. One must imagine how devastating a violation of trust must feel in order to appreciate the vulnerable position of the sexual struggler.
In a practical way, there are a couple of key principles to keep in mind to guard confidentiality. First, is the importance of keeping the circle as small as possible. The more people who know, the greater the chance of some sort of breach of confidentiality. Disclosure should only be given on a need-to know” basis. Secondly, the simple rule of thumb to follow about who needs to know is only those individuals who are part of the problem (e.g. individuals who have been directly affected by the person’s sin) or those who are part of the solution (e.g. the pastors, elders, or accountability partners who are directly involved with the person).
3. Practice loving confrontation and accountability
A final important area to consider is the need for the church to provide a context for loving confrontation and accountability for individuals struggling with sexual sin. One of the greatest needs a sexual struggler has is the need to develop new relationships. The struggle with sexual sin is characterized by withdrawal, hiding, and isolation. However, this approach to relationships only leaves the person extremely vulnerable to pursue sinful avenues to relieve their emptiness and loneliness. It is also all too easy to fall prey, time and time again, to the “old, deceitful” way of thinking that keeps them trapped in the bondage of their sexual sin.
What are needed are relationships and other contexts where the individual can honestly share their lives and open up about their struggles. This includes relationships where someone not only listens and loves unconditionally, but also confronts in a loving manner. We all need others “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) because ultimately it is in “knowing and living out the truth of God that we are set free” (John 8:32).
However, the relationships that the sexual struggler experiences in the church must be those that reflect the gracious heart of God. Those who are involved with helping or discipling the sexually broken must be willing to love them through the power of Christ’s love, surprising them with what they do not deserve, and offering them a taste of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and joy. It is in offering them a loving relationship that is not deserved, that they begin the process of being restored to the Lord and others.
Remember the story of the immoral woman weeping and anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7? Here is a picture of a woman’s heart being so captured by the glory and tenderness of Jesus’ mercy, that the shackles of her shame and guilt are dispelled to free her to boldly embrace him. When Christ’s love is given to those held in the bondage of sexual sin, it brings forth the power to astound them and dissipate the power of sexual sin over their lives. The trust of the entire story is this woman’s new freedom came out of the profound experience of forgiveness and mercy she tasted from Jesus’ interaction with her.
In a practical way, cultivating loving, confrontative relationships can be done in the context of pastoral counseling, one-on-one discipling, mentoring relationships, and small accountability groups. Consideration must also be made to utilize resources outside the church to further support and help the sexual struggler. This might include referring to a local Christian counselor and any Christian support groups. This is the role that Harvest has attempted to offer to local churches. Harvest had been a sort of spiritual MASH unit, seeking to help and restore sexual strugglers so that they might be able to effectively “mainstream” back into their churches. Harvest has done this by offering support groups for sexual addiction, homosexuality, and individual counseling.
I must say that I cannot overemphasize the importance of the church in the process of restoration of sexual strugglers’ lives. In my seven years of experience of working with sexual addicts and homosexual strugglers, I have never seen anyone fully experience freedom and restoration without being strongly connected to the life and fellowship of a solid Christian community.
It is my burden to see the church of Jesus Christ grow in its vision and effectiveness in reaching out to the sexually broken men and women who struggle secretly and silently in our churches. I long for the church to become a more redemptive place that reflects the graciousness of God. It will not be by pressure of Pharisaical exhortation that sexual strugglers will be invited to open up their lives and be restored. This kind of restoration and freedom will only take place in the context of a ministry that invites sinners to have their hearts captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel.
Dr. Dan Allender captures this truth powerfully with this concluding quotation:
“Paul says that deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of freedom from God’s wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire to love (Luke 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and privilege to encounter.” (Dan Allender, “Lust, Can We Overcome Its Power?” Discipleship Journal, No. 64, p. 28)
May God give us grace for his church to increasingly reflect the glory of his grace as it reaches out to sexually broken men and women!