In my last post, I talked about what 1 Corinthians 7:4 does not say. I argued that the passage does not, in any way, support sex on demand in marriage. Today, I’d like to consider what it does say. The picture of sex in marriage that these verses present is radically countercultural in our world. In these verses, both the husband and the wife are called to give to the other spouse sexually, with intentional, purposeful deliberateness. The picture is not one of stimulus-response, passion-driven, sex-drive satisfaction.
To use classical categories, sex is described as an expression of agape love, not eros love. Agape is the intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial love with which God loves us, and with which we are then called to love each other. Eros is the passion of sexual desire. Sex in marriage may obviously entail eros, but it is to be primarily led by agape.
In our culture, eros is revered, even worshiped, as the highest experience, the key to human flourishing, the foundation and requisite of any life-partner relationship, even in marriage. Our culture expects the passion of erotic attraction to be the initiating and sustaining dynamic of any such relationship—so much so that we might say that eros itself is the goal, and relationships only exist or continue inasmuch as they serve eros.
But think of how destructive this eros-led view is to a marriage: A couple plunges into marriage, sure that they have found (or have been found by!) true love. But when the daily, mundane, and unpleasant work of living with another sinful being comes to the fore, the erotic attraction to each other fades or disappears altogether. They’ve lost “that lovin’ feeling.” Sex ends. The relationship requires increasingly harder work, even as their motivation to do that hard work disappears. Of course, this happens because the foundation of the relationship was romantic eros. And the problem is not just the fact that spontaneous romantic erotic arousal fades for the married couple. Equally destructive is the fact that the capacity for arousal does not disappear—it just leaves this relationship. Eros is fickle, elusive, and spontaneous, with a spontaneity that is just as likely to attach itself to someone outside of the marriage. Or, frustrated by its elusiveness, a husband or wife can harness it to their imaginations via pornography or romance novels. Many marriages don’t survive this.
But wait. Perhaps you have heard this often. Christians usually advise that the marriage relationship be based on more than sexual attraction. But 1 Corinthians 7 says something much less common; it extends this principle to sexuality itself. In other words, you may have heard that a marriage relationship should not be led by sexual arousal. In these verses, God tells us that sex should not be led by sexual arousal, at least not primarily! The picture that the apostle Paul paints is not of two people waiting for the rush of romantic attraction to come upon them. Our culture worships moments like this. Such a synchronous alignment of erotic attraction is deemed proof you have found the “real thing.” But, in reality, this is only a firm basis for something as temporary and fleeting as a one-time hookup, nothing more. No, these verses teach us that not only marriage in the broader sense, but also the sexual expression of that marriage, is to be founded in, shaped by, motivated by, and sustained by intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial agape love.
Perhaps you can imagine some of the implications of this radical perspective on sex and marriage. I will mention a few.
If you are married:
- Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. If husband and wife are motivated to move toward the other sexually on the basis of an intentional commitment to give to the other sacrificially, sex will not be limited to those rare moments when the erotic stars align. Isn’t it obvious that a couple applying Paul’s instruction will have sex more often? The irony is that this will result in much more eros in a marriage, not less; however, it will not be the driving force, but a fruit of agape.
- There is hope for your marriage, despite your personal history of eros. Many married people have lengthy, personal histories of being led by eros. Not only have they learned to be slaves of spontaneous erotic attraction, but that attraction has habitually been attached to something other than their spouse, like other individuals (i.e., old flames) or pornographic images. The memory and power of these habits of eros have no respect for your marriage vows. If you continue to be led by eros, these old habits will constantly intrude and compete quite effectively against your spouse for your loyalty. But if you make even your sexuality subject to your agape love for your spouse, the two of you will build new habits of eros on a foundation that your old memories can’t touch. Having renounced their power to control you, these old, erotic masters will increasingly lose their ability to draw you away from your spouse.
If you are single:
- Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. The world and your own flesh are trying to seduce you into patterns of slavery to erotic attraction that will leave you empty, broken, discarded, and hopeless. Now is the time to learn to receive God’s agape love and give it to others. This love is your eternal inheritance; it, not eros, is the key to human flourishing. Practice treating it as such. And if, in the future, God brings you into marriage, the eros you enjoy will depend upon the agape love in that marriage. Be wary of how pornography, the media, and peers seek to train you otherwise.
Take heart that Christ came to redeem all aspects of sexuality, including your beliefs about sexual attraction and love.
You can also watch the video, “What About the Sexless Marriage?,” which corresponds to this blog.
27 Aug 2020
Let’s suppose…the husband is truly repentant and growing, but he also feels like his wife’s coldness to him is making it more difficult. Is 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 relevant for him?
To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Married? by R. Nicholas Black and God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery by David White. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
You can also read the blog, “The Whims of Erotic Attraction and 1 Corinthians 7,” which corresponds to this video.
23 Jul 2020
Let’s meet this issue head on: Sexual abuse is possible within marriage. Wherever physically or emotionally coercive behavior infects a married couple’s sexual relationship, it is abusive. Any such behavior needs to be confronted with a call to repentance.
Some will contend, “But doesn’t the Bible say that a husband has authority over his wife’s body? Doesn’t that give him the right to sex on demand and in the way he prescribes?” 1 Corinthians 7:4 does say, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” Husbands sometimes invoke this passage to defend themselves or to complain against their wives. Do they have a legitimate point? Most of us instinctively say “no,” but how do we defend that? Here are three ways to explain that this passage does not justify sex on demand, even in marriage.
The issue in this passage is not “sex on demand” but “forced celibacy.”
It is important to note the question that this passage answers. Paul begins, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” Whether this is a Corinthian statement or his own, Paul begins this discussion by acknowledging that there is some moral value to voluntary celibacy. But Paul then proceeds to argue not only for marriage as a check against immorality but also to warn against “depriving one another” in marriage. Apparently, the matter to which Paul is responding involved valuing celibacy to such an extent that not only were men being encouraged to refrain from marrying, but even those who were married were encouraged to eschew sex altogether. In other words, the presenting issue is husbands thinking swearing off sex with their wives would be a spiritual virtue. They thought they would win religious points by giving up sex in their marriages.
So this is not a question of “sex on demand” but a question of “forced celibacy.” This is about a husband unilaterally deciding that there will be no sex in “his” marriage—and thinking that in doing so he increases his righteousness. Paul corrects this by pointing out that this is a violation of the wife’s rights. Consigning a woman to a sexless marriage was a serious sin, with implications much bigger than deprivation of pleasure; it would condemn her to barrenness (see the story of Onan and Tamar in Genesis 38:6–10 for an example of what God thinks about this). 1 Corinthians 7:11 provides evidence that some likely carried this celibacy virtue to the next logical extent: Divorcing one’s wife would be best—perhaps with the “kind” motive of freeing her to have children with some less righteous bloke. But that is not Paul’s solution. Rather, he explains that sex in marriage is a duty and a right; forced celibacy is wrong.
However, saying, “You should not force celibacy on your spouse,” is not the same as, “You must give sex to your spouse on demand.” Many times, circumstances or differences in mood or desire result in one spouse saying, “Not now, dear.” Such circumstances are not what this passage is talking about; they do not even come close to approaching the forced celibacy suggested here. It is incorrect to use this passage to deny someone the right to say, “No.”
Responding to a one-sided question from the man’s argument, Paul’s answer is pointedly mutual.
I find it ironic that the presenting issue in this passage involves men supposing it virtuous to deprive their wives of sex, while it is more common nowadays to hear men invoking this passage to complain of being deprived by their wives. Yet in either of these scenarios, part of the man’s problem is that he thinks it’s all about him. Paul corrects this by taking a statement speaking one-sidedly from the man’s perspective and answering it in a pointedly mutual way. Unlike other passages in which Paul gives differing instructions, different roles, or different authority to the husband and the wife, here, in the context of sex, he takes pains to emphasize perfect equality and mutuality. Beginning in the second half of verse 2, Paul gives a series of parallel statements, alternating speaking the exact same words to husbands and to wives. In fact, he carefully makes sure that even the order of address does not favor one over the other: In verse 3, the husband is addressed first, and then in verse 4, the wife is addressed first. In verse 5, they are addressed as a couple: “Do not deprive each other….”
This mutuality makes clear that Paul is commanding not an attitude insisting on rights, but rather of giving rights. He is calling on married couples to give of themselves for the good of the other, instead of seeking to get their “needs” met. As Dave White summarizes, “God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed, and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment.”¹ This mutuality also creates a logical problem for the would-be abusive husband: If he would demand sex from her, claiming his authority over her body, won’t he need to use his own body to do it? But according to the passage, he doesn’t have authority over his own body; rather, she does. The mutuality of the authority makes all coercion and demand logically impossible.
This passage is best understood in the light of other commands of Scripture.
This passage’s call to mutual, selfless service is consistent with the rule of love expressed throughout the Bible, so it is right to group these verses with passages such as Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”—and Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband who knows and submits to his Bible will never use 1 Corinthians 7 to control or manipulate his wife.
¹God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019) 97.
When you are with Jesus in glory, you will not look back on any pleasure in this world and think you’ve missed out.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
26 Sep 2019
God created sex and wants us to know pleasure in it that leads to thanksgiving and worship of him as the Giver of good gifts. That’s the ultimate goal of sex in marriage.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
06 Jul 2017
In the first part of my post, I talked about how sexual pleasure points to something greater than the mere physical experience of it. Many don’t realize that God loves pleasure, and his design for sex and sexuality in our lives is to give us a taste of his love and longing for us. You can read the first post here, and now on to three other aspects of godly sex that helps us better understand God’s purposes.
Godly sex serves
The only sex “how to” passage in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. It states each spouse “owes” the other “conjugal rights” and commands them not to deprive each other. It even says sex is a mandate in marriage; the only reason for not engaging sexually is when both agree specific time is needed to seek God in prayer (perhaps when facing a life or family crisis). This is another problem in many marriages: it’s too easy to let sexual expression fall by the wayside in the busyness of life. Juggling jobs, children, household responsibilities, church activities, and friendships take time. The Bible makes clear that this crucial area of marriage can’t be neglected. Couples must prioritize building mutual intimacy—emotional, spiritual, and physical—for their marriage to flourish. And deepening intimacy is further hindered when couples allow the accumulation of hurts, slights, fights, etc., to build until neither can muster the desire to be vulnerable again.
Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse
Even though sex is “mandated,” there is no room in Christian marriage for sex on demand. Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse. 1 Corinthians 7 mentions that each spouse’s body belongs to the other, but I should not read that passage thinking, “My spouse’s body is mine.” Instead, my body belongs to my wife; I’m called to use it to bless her. God designed sexuality in marriage to teach couples the joy and blessing of serving. God intends husband and wife to approach the marriage bed looking to pleasure his or her spouse—this is the recipe for a great sex life! And it is why a marriage must be marked by good communication. A dynamic sex life doesn’t come easily or naturally; it requires intentionality, effort, direct conversation, and practice! Part of the joy and wonder is discovering how to satisfy someone who’s built radically different than you!
Godly sex takes work
If sex is such an incredible blessing, why do so many Christian couples struggle to have a fulfilling sexual component to their relationship? First, many buy into the world’s lie that “sex = life.” This guarantees you will never be satisfied, and anyone telling you sex is life-giving is lying. There is only one Life Giver. Sex is glorious because it points beyond itself to the Lover of our souls. If we think it’s more than a signpost, we’re setting ourselves up for discontent. Sex will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake—a gift to be received with thanksgiving to God—than something that will change your life. Further, many couples have broken sexual histories or present struggles sullying their experience. Sexual sin mars the blessing God wants us to experience. That’s part of the reason sexual sin is described as a sin against self (1 Corinthians 6:18). So many marriages are impacted by porn use. It violates the call to forsake all others, and its effects are devastating. Porn brings out the base instincts of our fallen nature, focusing on physical appeal and the desire to copulate with abandon, completely ignoring God’s design that sexual desire be focused on serving another in an emotionally and spiritually intimate relationship. Those ensnared by porn live with perpetual discontent. No individual will ever satisfy. Internet porn programs us for constant novelty by providing innumerable sexual “partners,” leaving many people incapable of maintaining real relationships. Years ago secular researchers were stunned to discover the fastest-growing demographic of men dealing with erectile dysfunction were not elderly, but guys in their 20s and 30s, abusers of internet porn since adolescence. There’s even greater social devastation as a generation prefers images over real people. And this isn’t just a “guys’ problem”—women are also drawn to porn. Brokenness abounds in our sexuality, so we need to grasp God’s grace for forgiveness and healing.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically. We were created to be known, and marriage should be the most significant place this happens. In marriage, we are invited back to the experience of “naked and unashamed,” to be known for who we truly are and experience profound love and acceptance. Marriages become broken and distant when it is not safe to be vulnerable. Sex is intended to be a celebration of the emotional and spiritual closeness experienced by husband and wife in all of life. The Hebrew word used most frequently in the OT for sexual intimacy is “to know,” because image-bearing sexuality should be the culmination of a deep knowing and oneness. A great sex life starts in life’s mundane moments: driving in the car, sitting in the living room, during long walks, and doing the dishes.
Practicing godly sex
These two aspects of sexuality—theological implications and practical applications—are crucial in helping couples express godly sexuality. Often couples want to know what behaviors are permitted in the marriage bed. Here’s where couples need to reflect on what they are pursuing and ask: Will my spouse be served, blessed, and encouraged? Or shamed, demeaned, and feel exploited? Is our activity a reflection of Christ’s love for his church? Will my spouse experience love, safety, joy, comfort through this? Will our behavior lead to my spouse’s flourishing, or will it mainly be for the benefit of one, turning the spouse into an object of self-centered pleasure? Honest reflection and discussion about motivation is critical, considering God’s intentions for sex in marriage.
For example, many in our culture were swept up in the 50 Shades phenomena, including Christians. But activities like sexual bondage (BDSM) are completely at odds with everything we’ve been considering. To inject humiliation, pain, shame, fantasy role-play, and violence into what God designed to be the most intimate place of love, mutual trust, respect, and safety is destructive to godly sex. Many behaviors celebrated by our culture are the result of porn’s destructive influence on our imagination, and safety, trust, and respect are violated when a spouse uses power or manipulation to get their way. And some Christian couples justify using porn to try to “spice up” their sex life. The marriage bed is a place where God wants us exclusively devoted to one another, focused on each other, learning of each other, not titillated by others.
Finally, there’s also no room for pouting when your advances are met with tired refusal. Focusing on one another forces us to balance our own longings with the desire to bless our spouse. And the cultural joke about a wife’s headache is increasingly inaccurate. Many wives are desperate for their husband to engage them sexually, but often he neglects her, consumed by his own struggle with pornography and other sexual sin.
Some Christians believe the world’s lie that maximum pleasure is the goal of sex. Scripture warns that in the last days people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). God wants us to know him more fully in all of life, to worship him as our Creator and see that the world and life are charged with pleasure and glory as they reflect the wonder of his majesty. Although only partial in this life, he wants our eyes open now to this wonder, even as we long for its fullness. Sex, like all of life, is profoundly theological, while being gloriously earthy and physical. There should be a “Godward” orientation to every aspect of our lives. Through sexuality Christians are invited into deeper relationship with God, knowing our Creator’s delight in our experience of pleasures he designed for his glory and our good.
May we increasingly worship God through our sexuality, knowing that whether we fast or feast, sex is a signpost to the great consummation with Jesus, a herald of the glorious life to come.
You can watch Dave talk some more about this on his video: Just What is Godly Sex? – Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
06 Jul 2017
Christians seem to know morality when it comes to pleasure, sex and sexuality, but most are not able to articulate the full picture of what God’s design for sex and sexuality is about. Dave White discusses his two-part blog on the need for Christians to understand the bigger picture that makes God’s boundaries for sex and sexuality understandable and necessary.
Click here to see Dave’s first video on his blog. Click here to read Dave’s second post on how sexual pleasure points to God and his purposes. And click here to read the full version of our latest harvestusa magazine.
26 Jun 2017
Christians seem to know morality when it comes to sex and sexuality, but most are not able to articulate the full picture of what God’s design for sex, sexuality, and pleasure is about. Dave White discusses his two-part blog on the need for Christians to understand the bigger picture that makes God’s boundaries for sex and sexuality understandable and necessary.
26 Jun 2017
In the Christian worldview of sex and sexuality, sexual pleasure points to something greater than the mere physical experience of it. Although most Christians know the moral “guardrails” of sexuality – one man, one woman, for life–they’re unable to explain the theological realities behind God’s design for sex. The idea that the Bible encourages sexual pleasure between a husband and a wife is generally minimized (by the church), in favor of speaking of what’s permitted/not allowed in order to keep things safe. When churches fail to teach God’s intention to enrich our lives and that of society as a whole through our sexuality, it leaves believers unable to adequately respond to a culture that sees biblical sexuality as restrictive and repressive. Yet, the Bible has much more to say about sexuality than procreation or “wait until marriage.”
Like Paul restating his point (Philippians 3:1), we need to keep returning to what God has said about this glorious and powerful gift of sex. We need to recapture the rich meaning of sex and God’s desire to bless men and women with it.
We’ll examine two theological aspects of godly sex and three practical considerations.
God loves pleasure
Scripture is unashamedly positive about sex. Remember God’s first command to newly created humanity? “Be fruitful and multiply!” Genesis 2 records the beauty of human sexuality prior to the Fall: Adam rejoices in Eve (“This at last is bone of my bones…”); their union is described as becoming “one flesh”; and the passage concludes they were “naked and not ashamed” (ESV). Shame surrounds our nakedness and sexuality because of sin. It’s not the design of our loving Creator. Jesus came to restore our sexuality, that we may know God’s joy in it. God designed sex to be pleasurable. He’s the one who crafted everything, including orgasms, and declared it all “very good.” This is hard for us to believe because we are prone to overdo pleasure, whether food, entertainment, sex, etc. This leaves us feeling guilty and ashamed; our problem is we worship “created” things, rather than letting these good gifts lead us to a deeper worship of the Giver. As the majesty of a sunset declares God’s glory (Psalm 19:1), all beauty—and pleasure!—should lead to worship of our Creator.
The Bible extols the pleasure of sexuality. Proverbs 5:18-19 tells husbands, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth… Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” God wants married couples to be drunk with sexual delight! Further, the Song of Songs contains passages with profoundly sensual language. Most English translations render the Hebrew with accurate, but very safe, interpretive decisions. The bride proclaims, “His body is polished ivory, bedecked with sapphires” (5:14). Many scholars observe that knowing ivory comes from an animal’s tusk gives a clearer picture of the object of her delight. Prudish views of sex are added by church tradition but are foreign to Scripture.
The wooing Bridegroom—the importance of “otherness”
God created us with an erotic drive so we’d glimpse his heart for us and be amazed by his love. We see this in the OT Prophets, where God describes his relationship to Israel as a Husband with his Bride. In the NT, Jesus takes the OT description of God as Israel’s husband and says, in effect, “I AM!” He places himself in the center of this metaphor, in the very role of God. And, of course, all of human history is hurtling forward to the New Heavens and Earth, beginning with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10). Why did Jesus teach there’ll be no marriage at the resurrection (Matthew 22:29-30)? Because marriage points to our relationship with him. Writing about marriage, Paul makes this explicit: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). This glorious reality should be reflected in, and guide, sexual activity in marriage, so a couple’s physical intimacy appropriately mirrors Christ’s love for his Bride.
God designed sex to be pleasurable. He’s the one who crafted everything, including orgasms, and declared it all “very good.”
God created you as a sexual, romantic being with deep, powerful longings so you would understand his longing for you! When I was engaged to my wife, Isaiah 62:5 bowled me over: “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” This verse teaches my love and longing for my wife, my desire to be one flesh with her (which far transcended mere physical desire), was a drop in the Pacific Ocean of God’s heart toward me. And you. He created us that we would catch a glimpse of this “profound mystery” through our longings—Christ’s love and longing to be consummated with his Bride. God insists on sexual expression within an exclusive, covenantal relationship because it is analogous to a deeper, eternal reality—a husband and wife devoted to one another, forsaking all others, as a reflection of Jesus’ desire that we be utterly devoted to him, forsaking worship of all others.
Further, gender asymmetry is foundational to godly sex as the only physical coupling that suitably reflects the mystery of “Christ and the church.” While male and female is directly connected to procreation in Genesis, theologians have long pointed to gender differences as contributing to a deeper shaping of humanity. All that can be said in this brief space is this: the unity and diversity of male and female, in life as well as in sex, is a call to explore, know, and delight in someone who is “other.” As each spouse grows in wonder of the “other,” it is a snapshot of our ultimate union with the One who is holy, which means “set apart”—profoundly and infinitely “other.”
God created you as a sexual, romantic being with deep, powerful longings so you would understand his longing for you…Our sex drive is an invitation to worship!
Our sex drive is an invitation to worship. Perhaps you’re experiencing the richness of this in your marriage. You worship God easily in your sexuality. But what if you’re single or, like many, in a marriage that falls short of your sexual hopes? Jesus invites you to draw near to him in your unsatisfied longings, realizing they ultimately point to him and the sure promise that they will be forever satisfied on That Day. At his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11), which God says we can’t even begin to comprehend (1 Corinthians 2:9).
This doesn’t mean singleness isn’t hard and at times crushingly lonely, or that a distant, sexless marriage isn’t painful. But these frustrated desires point beyond themselves to something God will eventually give you with a fullness you can’t begin to imagine. And you need to know Jesus “gets” your experience. He suffered in this life with all kinds of unsatisfied desires, and he’s been waiting 2,000 years for the glorious consummation to come. He’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, ruling over the universe, still waiting and fasting (at least from wine; see Matthew 26:29) until he can celebrate with us at the Wedding Feast. He understands your suffering, groans within you by his Spirit, and promises that you will be satisfied if you hunger and thirst for righteousness.
You can watch Dave talk some more about this on his video: Just What is Godly Sex? – Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Silence—something the church in general does rather well. The effects of this were brought home to me recently. I was speaking to a group of students from the Reformed University Fellowship at Yale. The topic was “Gay and the Gospel.” I talked about our duty to love others by bringing both the truth and the mercy of the gospel to those self-identifying as gay or lesbian. I stressed that homosexuality wasn’t the real issue. Beneath all struggles and sin and ways of living that are outside of God’s design is a human heart that says, “I have a wonderful plan for my life, and don’t you (that is, anyone) or you (that is, God) get in my way.”
Afterwards, a student came to talk with me. Through her tears, she shared that she had been raised at a large evangelical church. She asked, “Why didn’t my church prepare me for what I was going to face at college? Why didn’t my church talk about sex and homosexuality? I feel like I have no biblical basis from which I can talk intelligently about it.”
I remembered talking to a church’s prayer team years earlier. They had been praying with people for more than ten years at a weekly intercessory healing prayer meeting. One leader said to me, “John, we’ve prayed with people about marriage issues, problems with children, job losses, interpersonal conflicts, crises of faith, and other personal problems, but never has someone come for prayer about anything of a sexual nature. Not once.”
I was shocked. The numbers of those struggling with pornography, same-sex attractions, and sexual addictions are increasing daily. Add in family members affected and impacted by someone they love dealing with sexual brokenness, and it is clear this is a huge problem in the church today.
I responded to this leader’s comment by saying, “You know, I’d be asking, why not? I’d be asking, how has our church communicated that it’s OK to talk about everything else, but not about ‘that?’ Somehow you’ve conveyed this isn’t a safe place to talk about sex and sexual issues. And in doing that, you’ve become part of a collusion of silence.”
Several years ago when our Board began thinking about expanding our mission focus at Harvest USA, one that would focus on educating and equipping the church, I remember what Board member, Steve Brown, said: “What Harvest USA does is the work of the church, work which the church has neglected out of fear and shame, out of not knowing what to do. We’ve got to help the church recapture the calling to rescue and redeem those struggling with sexual sin in the church. But, if we do this, it will be the most difficult thing that we’ve done.”
Prophetic words! As we’ve begun helping churches address these issues, we’ve run into all kinds of roadblocks. You’d think that churches would eagerly desire to help people, to bring the light of the gospel into these difficult places. The reality is quite different.
This resistance and hesitancy got me thinking. I’ve been trying to better understand why we—members of the church, the church as a whole and church leadership in particular—are so reluctant to proactively talk about these crucial matters with our people. I came up with 10 reasons why the church is so silent. Which of these describe you, or your church, or your church leadership? The silence of the church is crippling our people. But it doesn’t have to be this way any longer. Believing in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than enough to move us from hesitancy to redemptive action.
1. The church is silent because it’s in our nature to pretend—to pretend that, “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
The truth is, in today’s highly-charged sexual culture, almost no one is OK in this area. The reality of Genesis 4:7, that, “sin is crouching at the door and its desire is to have you,” has never been truer when it comes to ways our hearts seek comfort, relief, and life in things of a sexual nature. We don’t have to go looking for ways to stain our hearts; they come looking for us! The pathways to dark and destructive places abound: Internet, cable TV, hotel room adult video offerings, movies, and mobile dating apps are part of a culture that beckons us to give in to our feelings and desires, to escape lives of loneliness, routine and stress. Even if you aren’t personally struggling with sexual integrity, there are dozens of people sitting in the same church service as you who are struggling.
I’ve learned that we’ll go to any lengths to keep from being honest about all this. Why? Fear, shame, hatred of self, not believing the gospel has any practical answer, guilt, giving up—you name it.
I was having lunch with a businessman from my church, and halfway through he brought up his Internet pornography usage. What happened next was a microcosm of what is happening throughout the church. I asked him when it started. When he was 10 years old. How often do he look at porn? Several times a week, for a couple of hours at a time. Anyone know about this? No. Was he in a men’s group at church? Yes. Does this topic ever come up for discussion? No. Would he be willing to bring it up? No way!
Then he began to backpedal, saying it’s not really that big a problem nor is it that damaging. I’m not usually blunt with someone, but I had no choice this time. “You know, what I hear coming from your mouth is addict-speak. You’re far worse off than you can possibly imagine. Can you believe that Jesus longs to enter this area of life with you?” He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights. I don’t think we’ll be having lunch again anytime soon.
You see, we all like to pretend we’re OK or that whatever struggle we have will get better on its own. It won’t, and it never will—apart from our willingness to die to self, to discard our investment in our reputation and image, and to open up and walk in honesty and in the light of transparency and vulnerability. That’s a supernatural thing to even want to do. Yes, we all need to stop pretending.
2. The church is silent because we really don’t believe that the gospel can transform deep sexual struggles.
In other words, when we admit the depth of struggle among our people, it messes up our categories of what we think the “victorious” Christian life is or should be! You know, the kind of life we hear TV evangelists talking about, those peddling the prosperity gospel of “you shouldn’t have problems with sin kind of stuff.”
Don’t be fooled! It is a false gospel that proclaims, “You can be free of pain, fighting and struggling with sin; you should be free from that type of suffering—now that you’re a Christian.” It’s a message that we can too easily buy into, that something must be very wrong with our faith if we struggle so much.
Nonsense! If you’re fighting against sin in your life, then it may indicate that something might be very right! Throughout the New Testament we read its call to godly living, to redefine our lives, sexually speaking, by the meaning and implication of the cross in our lives. Scripture isn’t shy when talking about sex and sexual brokenness. In fact, if you were to take out of the Bible all the places where it speaks to the reality of sexual sin, struggle, and temptation among God’s people, you’d be taking out large portions of Scripture.
Our sexual temptations and struggles don’t take God by surprise, nor do they shock him. Rather, he expects it. He knows our nature is to seek out and fall for false worship, that we give our hearts to “false gods” and pursue them as having ultimate purpose and meaning in our lives, rather than seek out him and his purposes. The results of what happens when people live for themselves, following their own fallen sexual desires, are well-documented in Scripture and in countless personal lives.
What happens, then, when we begin to call Jesus “boss” over all our desires and longings? World War III breaks out in our lives and hearts. Conflict. Adversity. Suffering. Struggle.
I love what noted Bible teacher and author Martyn-Lloyd Jones said about all this. He wrote in his classic work, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6, The New Man, “There is a teaching today which says that sanctification is quite simple, that the mistake we’ve been making is that you’ve been trying to fight the sin in you. It says that what you have to do is to give up struggling, to give up fighting; just hand yourself and your whole problem to Jesus. He’ll do it all for you. But any teaching which tells us that sanctification and holiness are really quite simple (and don’t involve struggle and fighting) is clearly not in accord with Scripture” (p. 164, italics mine).
This is what happened early on in my own life when I sought to follow Jesus. I had many a major knock-down, drag-out fight with God in my small attic apartment. Why are you calling me to a new way of living? Why are you asking me to stop practices and walk away from relationships that fill the empty void in my heart? Why are you giving me new desires, desires that are different than those that seem so natural in my heart? What am I to do when I want to look at porn or frequent hang-outs where I might meet someone for a brief encounter that will take away my relational pain?
How did change happen in my life? When I began to hear him speak into my struggle with a heart of compassion and love—for me! He wooed me to himself, to a relationship with him rather than something else on which to set my heart. When this happened, and when conflict over desires and sin surfaced, I learned to repent. Although it began slowly, and moved forward in small steps, repentance became my new response to sin and temptation. What is repentance? Tim Keller says that repentance is “killing that which is killing me—without killing myself.” Repentance is liberating, not limiting.
Here is the point about whether the gospel has power to transform our sexual struggles. The desire to obey God, no matter how small and weak it may feel in the moment, is the proof of spiritual life. Repenting is what fans that spark into flame. Whether it’s repentance with a capital “R” when we first begin to follow Christ, or repentance with a small “r,” the ongoing, daily repentance to repeatedly turn away from that which you felt gave life and turn instead toward Christ who really gives life—this is the true Christian life and walk. It’s an ongoing battle.
What’s the bottom line here? We avoid talking about sex or sexual sin because we have a faulty, unbiblical theology of struggle and suffering. Regaining a right view of struggle with sin in the Christian life will lead us to say to the members of our churches, “We are not surprised that you are struggling with some type of sexual temptation and sin. Let us know about it; tell us what is going on; let us help you.” This is the exact opposite of being dismayed or shocked over the struggles every Christian experiences.
A flipside to having a bad theology of sin and struggle is that we often just stop calling sin, sin! We soften our response to it. We become dismayed over the enormity of the struggle. I’ve seen this happen with pornography usage. Too often I hear a response of compromise: everyone’s doing it; it’s no bi -deal; it’s private and it’s not really hurting anyone.
I have heard the same in dealing with the issue of homosexuality. I had an elder in a church recently tell me, “I like what Harvest USA does with the pornography issue—but I don’t believe that homosexuality is wrong in every situation.” I asked him to tell me more. He said, “Well, I’ve just seen too many people struggle too deeply and too long. Christianity seems to have no ability to solve the dilemma of their faith versus their feelings.” He had given up hope that anyone can experience any type of transformative change, because his theology was faulty. He put sociology over theology; that is, he placed the experiences of people and their subjective assessment as the norm of what is acceptable, rather than allow the Bible to set the norm of what is true and right and acceptable to God. Giving in and giving up is not compassionate to strugglers.
3. The church is silent because we feel that the answers we find in the Bible seem trite, passé, and outdated in today’s culture.
For many, the answers they think the Bible has for broken sexuality are: Stop it. Don’t do it. Just wait until marriage. That’s bad. Homosexuality is an abomination. Being gay is a choice. These are all one-dimensional reactions, and they are unhelpful. They don’t bring much weight to the discussion or issue. So, how does the Bible help us?
I’ve never met a ten-year-old who said, “I think I’ll be gay when I grow up.” No. Youth most often became aware, over time, of unexplained feelings and “pulls” towards their same sex; these attractions feel strange and shameful but exciting, and in an odd way, they meet a perceived need of the heart, all at the same time. What often follows, though, is a pursuit of these feelings with many small choices and decisions along the way, and it is this process which makes it all seem like it was their core nature to begin with.
That’s why, even though the Scriptures speak to many of the underpinnings of same-sex attraction and homosexual desire and practice, an exhortation to just not feel that way, or not be bothered by it, is unloving and unrealistic. Unfortunately, many in the Christian community are very confused on these issues today. We either settle for biblical error on the one hand (“it’s a choice”) or cultural compromise on the other hand (“if you profess Christ and you feel sincerely that it’s OK, then it’s OK for you”). We fall for what I hear in more Christian circles today: that the Bible doesn’t speak to homosexuality of the kind we see today (i.e. monogamous same-sex relationships).
Truthfully, Scripture does speak with clarity to all this, with both truth and grace. That’s also the way we must approach it. When we over-simplify the issue, or vilify it, or even make it more than it is, we fail to speak with Scripture’s authority into it.
A pastor recently told me that he went to a counselor for several weeks, seeking to deal with his pornography struggle. Week after week, the counselor naively just kept telling him, “Oh, that’s bad—you shouldn’t want to do that. You shouldn’t be doing that—it’ll get you in trouble.” He gave him some verses to memorize. There were no attempts to connect this man to the deeper gospel themes about this own life and heart. The result? The pastor walked away more discouraged and feeling more shame, guilt, and hopelessness than ever.
You see, we are complicated beings with complicated hearts. We need to see the Scriptures not as a magic pill or a cure-all to life’s dilemmas or confusion, but as God’s heart toward us about real human struggles and issues of the heart. Heart change takes time. Repentance that is lasting and deep takes time. We have to see the larger-themed sin areas in our hearts, see how they grieve God and the damage they cause us and others around us before true repentance can happen. That’s why, when I’ve taught a course at a local seminary for future pastors and counselors, I’ve often warned them about leading people into repentance too quickly. We must see the depth of the hurt we have caused, to ourselves, to others, and to God, or our repentance will be shallow and temporary. Jesus yearns to enter the struggle of our hearts in deeper ways than just getting us to ‘stop this’ or ‘do that.’ As a man in one of our Biblical Support Groups put it one time, “Jesus just isn’t a self-improvement program.”
When we look at Jesus or the Scriptures as a way to improve ourselves and our situation—well, that just isn’t gospel transformation. As the church, we have to be careful not to lead people in a superficial, shallow manner which makes Scripture seem archaic or obsolete. God says that his word is “active, living, sharper than a double-edge sword” (Hebrews 4:12). We must help people apply the gospel to the deeper issues of the heart, which God has gifted believers to be able to do as we seek to minister to the body.
Sometimes, we feel that the Bible is no longer reliable when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality. We often feel the Bible isn’t adequate because of science or pseudo-science. We must remember that science does not pull a surprise on God. The “new discoveries” that media, culture, and academia proclaim about sex and sexuality must be brought into submission to God’s word. Obviously, there will be tension when we hear, for instance, that sexual orientation is fixed and irreversible from each of these three sources. How does that relate to God’s Word and his call for obedience for followers of Jesus? How do these cultural mantras come in line with Scripture? For believers, God’s Word cannot be negated or pushed aside, just because all of culture says it should. We must learn to speak intelligently and compassionately about these crucial issues, recognizing and admitting their complexities, yet at the same time seeing no contradiction in how God calls his people to live.
4. The church is silent because many of us still struggle with unresolved sexual baggage in our own history, and it continues to plague us and bring us shame.
Failures from our past, especially ones that involve such powerful experiences like sex, can haunt us for years. When those failures continue into the present, even if they are not so large as they once were, they can hinder us from being available to those closest to us who are also struggling. Our ongoing struggles fill us with a pervasive gloom of shame, and our conscience freezes us into inaction. “Who are you kidding? You can’t speak with truth or authority into anyone’s life. Just look at your own heart and record of failure.” This cripples us and those around us, because we are unable to speak the truth of the gospel into our own hearts first, and then to others.
I find this the biggest deterrent to speaking to our kids and young people about sex in a redemptive way. Many parents carry around unresolved sexual sin struggles in their hearts and lives, either issues from long ago or current struggles.
The rule of thumb for parents here is to do what flight attendants say to do just before takeoff. What do they say about that mask? In case of emergency, if that mask falls, place it first over your face and then place it over the face of your child. In other words, you need to be okay first, able to function in order to bring safety measures to your child!
The same is true with our sexual baggage as adults and parents. We need to seek help for our own issues; we need to follow the desires of our hearts as parents to shepherd our children by having the courage to deal with our own baggage and sins. Until we do so, we will remain silent, wanting to talk with our kids about these critical issues but feeling shamed into silence by our own lack of resolution or progress. We either speak simplistically to them, “Wait until you’re married”—good advice, but our kids need a more coherent sexual message, grounded in Scripture, that can compel them to swim against the sexual tide that is washing away so many youth into chaotic and destructive sexuality. Or, worse, we practice denial about what our kids are facing today and passively allow the culture (TV, movies, Internet, social media) to evangelize our kids, sexually speaking. (We have a mini book that teaches parents how to protect their kids from the dangers of technology as well as how to approach them on issues of sexuality: iSnooping on Your Kid: Parenting in an Internet World. Click on the title to link to the bookstore.)
Church leaders are not exempt from this struggle either. We like to put our pastors and church leaders on a pedestal, thinking they are more saintly than us. Why we think this way astounds me at times. The culture of the church reinforces this image in a way that is ultimately harmful to leaders as well as the entire church community. We must remember that they are just as fallen and in need of the grace and power of the gospel as anyone else. Tragically, the church culture “forces” pastors and leaders to project an inflated image, and so they are reluctant to speak on these topics or to move their congregation to engage in redemptive ministry to those who struggle because they cannot admit issues or struggles in their own lives. The result? They don’t get help, and their people don’t get help, as well. Men, women, and youth are left to continue struggling in silence and shame, wrestling with a faith that they feel is unable to help them with the real issues of life.
What’s the answer for our church leaders? We need to help them to first deal with their own hearts, just as parents need to do. We need to encourage them to be real and to find a place of safety where they can go and get help. The silence, stress, and, often, just the intoxication of ministry keeps leaders from both gospel self-awareness and from seeking and getting help. This is the reason Harvest USA has Sexual Integrity Groups for pastors only, because they often have no place to go to be honest about the struggles of their heart in this area of sexual integrity. For more info about this or to get a brochure, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. The church is silent because we can’t see how our brokenness in sexuality can be redeemed in and through our brokenness. Our brokenness feels hopeless.
Sin has so tainted everything, even our sexuality, that everything that exists is as it should not be. No part of our persons, hearts, or affections has been left untouched by the Fall. All efforts at self-repair don’t work; even our deepest, most sincere vows to try to do right next time always come up short. An awareness of this deep brokenness should give us compassion for those who struggle. While not lowering God’s standards for holy living, we must realize that the ability to obey, out of a heart of joy, just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s both supernatural and interpersonal. God’s people help God’s people walk in holiness! That means we have to own up to what a mess it all is and be willing to jump down into the trenches with others.
I love how Pastor Scotty Smith describes brokenness in his book, Restoring Broken Things. He says that there are two types of brokenness. In Brokenness “A,” something is broken to the degree that it ceases to or no longer reveals God’s glory or serves his purposes. Smith says that the main language the Scriptures use to demonstrate Brokenness “A” is that of idolatry or false worship. False worship happens when we ascribe to or give anything or anyone the adoration, attention, allegiance, or affection of which Jesus alone is worthy. Therefore Brokenness “A” is a worship disorder (p.73).
But there is also a different kind of brokenness of which the Scriptures speak. Brokenness “B” is what results when God begins to do his refining, redeeming, and rescuing work in our lives. It is characterized by a heart attitude of contrition, humility, and repentance in response to the specific ways we haven’t or have ceased to reveal God’s glory (p. 74). In other words, Brokenness “A” is set right or redefined by Brokenness “B.”
The truth is, for most of the people sitting in our pews, whose lives, histories, and hearts are increasingly marked by some kind of long-term sexual sin and/or continual temptation, their lives cannot ever be lived as if Brokenness “A” had never happened. But they can, with the Holy Spirit and the help of the body of Christ, the church, turn around what they and the evil one meant for harm and damage, and bring God glory out of it all. But the remnants of brokenness remain, and that is what both drives us to the cross and gives us a heart for others.
If we understand our brokenness from this perspective, we are filled with hope for what God is accomplishing in us, while we still “toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within (us)” (Colossians 1:29).
6. The church is silent because we don’t understand or see how ministry to those who are a sexual “mess” is the average, ordinary work of the church.
This reason is related to the former point. We not only keep silent because of our own secret struggles; we do so because we think we need another kind of gospel in order with these problems. The issues seem so big, so complicated, and so pervasive that we can’t begin to see how ordinary, gospel-centered ministry can help at all.
In his book, Homosexuality: Laying the Axe to the Roots, (unfortunately, it’s out of print), Ed Hurst points out how we’ve failed to see just how the Scriptures speak to sexual sin, especially homosexuality. He writes at the beginning of the book, “The homosexual problem presents itself as one more complex and more deeply rooted than any other. The power of homosexuality lies in the fact that it masquerades as a problem that is larger than life. It begs new answers, new remedies, and special treatment. It invites us to lose heart, give up hope, and to expect failure. It has caused some to reject the Word of God and others to reinterpret it—and still others to doubt that the remedy of Jesus Christ is sufficient for sin. As Christians, our ability to minister or deal with the problem has become weak, ineffective, and, often, non-existent” (p.1).
Actually, I think we can expand Hurst’s comments to encompass all the various sexual struggles people in our church are experiencing today. Pornography and sexual addictions, along with homosexuality, often seem larger than life and too frightening and complicated to tackle. The result is that we either neglect ministry to those dealing with these altogether, or we offload them to professionals (Christian counselors are an excellent resource of help, but if the church’s only response is referral, then they have abandoned their rightful place of help to the struggler).
I once had a seminar professor tell me 30 years ago that one of the reasons the gay community was one of the fastest growing people-groups in America was due to this hands-off approach by the church. We have either relegated these problems to a category all their own, apart from the Scriptures or the ordinary avenues of help in the church; or we have assigned them to those possessing exceptional or special training.
Church leadership can also allow fear or be overly concerned about what others in the church will think about all this. I once had a meeting with a small church staff that was strongly hesitant about having an adult Sunday school class devoted to different areas of sexual sin and how to address it. One staff member said, “We’ll have to poll the church to see if they want something like this.” I couldn’t believe what I heard. I asked,” Did you poll the people to see if they wanted a study on Romans, on the Old Testament, or on Lifestyle Evangelism?” Of course the answer was no. So I continued, “Why then would you do that just because it’s sex or sex gone wrong we’re talking about? Aren’t you in charge of the spiritual health and shepherding of your people?” We ended up having the class, and about 75 people attended each session.
In speaking to people, I often get a response something along the lines of, “I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, but I could never do that.” Really? Why not? Someone once said that the Bible can be summed up in three points. It’s a book about how we got in the situation we’re in. It’s about what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ, as Savior, Redeemer, Mediator, and Advocate to deal with it all. And, it’s about how it’s all going to turn out because of what he has done for us. In an analogous way, ministry to those scarred by and struggling with sexual issues is the same. We must provide a place and context where people can have a framework for discovering those three points: 1) how they got there and what’s gone into the problem or situation they’re in; 2) how God in Jesus longs to meet them in the midst of it all in order to bring wholeness, healing and growth; and 3) how walking with Christ relates to their history and future in learning how to love and serve God and others well. That’s the ordinary, gospel-centered ministry of the church that for 2,000 years continue to help transform broken lives into living objects of grace and change.
The interesting thing here is that this biblical framework applies for those struggling with pornography, sexual addictions, same-sex attractions—and even for spouses, parents, and family members seeking to better relate to loved-ones who live in such brokenness. We have to create safe places in our churches; that is, create contexts and environments where people can begin to look at and apply the gospel to the deeper recesses of the heart, where idols (false gods) as well as pain, chaos, confusion, and hopelessness figure in deeply to the person’s struggle.
Frankly, this kind of ministry isn’t rocket science! But we treat it like it is. Our fears about engaging in ministry of this sort must be named, faced, and worked through. We must answer the question of why we wouldn’t want our churches to be engaged in this kind of ministry. Why wouldn’t we want our people—our men, women, and youth—to be freed up from all this? What would it require from the church and leadership to begin, and stay committed to, this kind of ministry? When we begin to face these questions, we often find that fear and issues of unbelief of all kinds, especially on the part of leadership, will surface. Like I said at the beginning of this article, no wonder Steve Brown, one of our Board members, said this would be one of the most difficult things our ministry would ever do!
There is a way and a foundation from which to do this much-needed ministry. It’s been my experience that believers who know how much they’ve been forgiven and what it cost God to forgive them are the people who most seek out those who struggle.
One of the lessons of Luke 7:36-50, when Jesus receives the anointing tears of the sinful woman at his feet, is that, “he who is forgiven much, loves much.” In other words, our appreciation for the cross and our joy for what the gospel of Jesus has done for us leads us to seek out and be available to minister to others, even if their struggles, sins, or temptations are different than our own.
This is an important thing to see! You do not need to have struggled with the same issues that someone else has in order to be powerfully helpful to them. I’ve seen people so moved and transformed by grace, without any personal experience of sexually addictive behavior, be the very best support group leaders, accountability partners, mentors, disciplers, and just plain friends to those desiring help with their own sexual struggles. It often just takes stepping out in faith. Equipping comes later, as ministry will compel one to seek training to better help and support.
We’ve got to believe the Lord longs to meet our people in the midst of their problems and dilemmas, to bring to them life and wholeness. We also have to believe that we have all we need (yes, with a little help and encouragement) to effectively minister to people. We need to reclaim this fact: that the church (the body, the people of God) has historically been, and continues to be, God’s chosen instrument for the transformation of people, nations, and culture!
7. Since sexual issues seem like such an overwhelming topic to tackle, the church is silent because there is fear that to do so will open up Pandora ’s Box.
Again, our own personal history and the scars we bear often forge the path here. When Adam and Eve were faced with the reality of their nakedness and shame, what was their reaction? They hid! It was all too overwhelming and too much to face. Better to hide than to tackle something that we fear may be too difficult or too complicated or too messy to deal with. Just keep the lid on the box and go on with ordinary church business. It’s a lot safer.
But the church can and must take the lead in speaking on these issues in every facet of church life. We can be proactive and not have to feel powerless about the moral decay all around us, adopting a passivity characterized by an, “Oh well—what can we do?” attitude. Will there be messes that will be hard to clean up? Will church leaders and members feel at times like they are in over their heads? Sure. But those situations are where we tend to most see God at work, because transformation is a work of the Spirit, not technique. By stepping into a struggler’s life with humility and boldness, we are faced with a dependency upon Christ that can transform not just the struggler, but us as well.
Last year I preached at a church in Norfolk, VA. We had copies of our men’s workbook, Crossroads: Choosing The Path To Moral Purity, on our literature display table. A man, identifying himself as an elder, walked over to the table. He picked up the book and said to me, “Oh, we’ve been using this for the last three years with all our teenage boys in a special Sunday School class.” Wow! We hadn’t even thought of having churches use this resource in this way. Now here was a church being creative and bold, taking the lead in shepherding the hearts of the young men in their church community.
Again, if we don’t do this with our people, there will be ample avenues for them to walk further into darkness and lose hope every step of the way. I find that especially those involved in youth ministry seem to be the most hesitant here. We really do want 13-year-old Johnny to be able to say, “I’m doing things on the computer I shouldn’t be doing,” or 15-year-old Jenny admitting, “I think I’m a lesbian.” Most youth workers are horror-stricken when this happens (or more likely never to bring up the subject of sexuality so that the problems never surface). But they should welcome such confessions and see them as desperate calls for help. What would it look like for those in youth ministries to say to Johnny or Jenny, “I’m so glad you told me that. Can we talk about it? In fact, would you meet with me every week for a while to talk about it?” Our youth are desperate to talk about sex, to know what is healthy sexuality, and to know why God’s design for our sexuality is the best way to manage it and enjoy it.
This is what needs to happen as we deal with teens and every other age group in our churches. If we did this, I think many would be led away from deeper falls into sin and darker life paths down the line. But if we see all this as too complicated and overwhelming—too messy and uncomfortable—we’ll be failing our people and missing rich opportunities to see the glory of Christ begin to shine through broken lives and broken families. Remember that God has “in his divine power given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who has called us” (2 Peter 1:3). We can talk about these things and don’t have to be afraid of what we will find there.
This means that nothing is too complicated or too overwhelming for us to face, or help other’s face in their own lives. Here we must again believe that the gospel (look at Point 5 again) has substance and power to address any problem and change any life. It’s also why our first response to men, women, and youth who do openup and get honest about these life-crippling problems is so very important. Again, while we don’t have to be experts about every problem, we must believe we have, by virtue of His Holy Spirit and access to God’s Word, the ability to bring hope and help to strugglers of all types. In this sense, nothing is too complicated for us as God’s people to handle!
Not long ago, my wife and I were privileged to teach a one-day seminar at Fellowship Church in Knoxville, TN. Over 3,000 people attend this church on any given Sunday. Fellowship Church is a community which works hard to minister God’s Word faithfully to its people. They are aware that many people struggle with all kinds of problems there. On this particular Saturday over 125 of the church’s small group leaders (men, women, and couples who lead any type of home-based group) came to learn about how the gospel addresses sexual sin. Why was it important to train these church leaders? Because most people struggling deeply with sexual issues will not go to the pastor for help. But, they will be more willing to go to a trusted small group leader with whom they can confide. Fellowship Church felt that anyone leading a group in the church needed to know how to respond in hope and help to someone who walks into the light of confession. That’s a scary place to be for a struggler! Would that more churches have this attitude to educate all those in any helping or leadership positions in the church! Here again, the emphasis is not on anyone having “the” answer or having to know everything about all the issues, but to realize that, as a body, we’re all in this together.
8. The church is silent because pastors and leaders, so busy with other agenda items, neglect the need for leadership to intentionally invite strugglers to come into the light and ask for help.
Pastors, elders, and other church leaders have a whole lot on their plates. They often have good intentions to deal with the sexual problems they see in their church community. Some day. Then that day never comes, because it’s crowded out by other, incoming problems. Here is what churches have to face regarding this matter: That day will never come unless we plan and strategize for it!
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality is deadly. Left unaddressed, the sexual sin struggles among our people will only fester and cause untold damages to hearts, relationships, and marriages. There is a tragic collusion of silence in our churches: pastors and leaders who don’t intentionally address these issues, who don’t invite people to come for help, and the congregation whodoesn’t come to them for help because no one is talking about it.
Pastors often tell me that no one in their church seems to be coming for help with problems of a sexual nature. Why is that, especially because we all know that there are a large number of people in our congregations overwhelmed with sexual struggles? One answer may be this: Church leadership may not be seen by their people as being approachable on these sensitive matters.
Sometimes my grown children have come to me, as adults, not with confessions of hideous sin but to reveal things they didn’t want me to know about when they were 15, 18, or 22 years old. When I inquired why they didn’t come to me at the time of their struggles, they replied, “Dad, you were so busy. I didn’t want to upset you, or for you to think poorly of me. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
Do you see the point? They didn’t want my view of them to diminish; they wanted to preserve their reputation, no matter how small the problem or offense was.
Embarrassment and shame kept them from going to me for help. The same principle is operative in our churches. Leadership needs to understand that this often keeps people from coming to them with their sexual struggles. They don’t want to disappoint us. They don’t want our view of them discredited or tarnished. After all, they have to face us each week, as we stand in the pulpit or shake their hands at the door!
Being available to help a sexual struggler when, as a church leader, you are not proactively addressing these issues is a recipe for continued silence and denial. Church leaders must cultivate approachability by initiating talk about these matters, and doing so in a manner that really and truly invites people to step into the open for help. The church must give messages, both verbal and non-verbal, that “we can handle these issues around here”—because Jesus can handle them. If we don’t do that, we abandon our people to work out their problems on their own, and that is a highway to disaster for a sexual struggler. The best way to increase sexually addictive behavior in a struggler’s life is for the struggler to try to deal with the problem on his own!
Neglecting to proactively invite our youth to come for help is even more tragic today because of the sexual chaos that exists and is promoted on the Internet, where most of them live. A profound lack of initiative, by leaders and parents, leaves them open to and receptive of many, many other voices “out there” which are more than willing to evangelize them to embrace a destructive sexuality outside of God’s design. Today, more kids than ever, even at nine or ten years old are getting hooked on pornography. They are viewing it with their friends at sleepovers, campouts, even with other kids from church. Also, churched youth are increasingly very sympathetic to the gay movement and supportive of gay marriage—due to the silence of the church. How could they not be, when the culture bombards them daily with messages that it’s okay and even a good option? So there is much to lose when the church never seems to get around to dealing with these matters. Silence, in the form of not taking a proactive initiative, is playing Russian Roulette with our people.
9. The church is silent because our people are increasingly unaware of the depths to which the Bible speaks about sexuality and the way God designed it.
I remember being at a conference for churched youth when a teenager came over to our exhibit table. Obviously influenced by the culture, he said to one of our staff, “I don’t see how you people can say that homosexuality is wrong. Jesus never mentioned it.” Our staff member was able to guide this young man, in just a few minutes, into the Scriptures to look at some texts on what Jesus did say about sex, and how Christ’s view of God’s original design for sex did in fact speak about the issue of homosexuality. His next words stunned us. He said, “Well, I guess I should read the Bible for myself to see what else is in it.” We encouraged him to do so.
It’s not just our teens who need to be taught about the content of Scripture. Many of our people, especially those who come to faith as adults, are pretty much in the dark about Scripture. The emerging church and missional church movements have, in some cases, contributed to this phenomenon, with their de-emphasis on education and doctrine. Unfortunately, many churches today think that doctrine divides, and so they settle for a short Sunday morning sermon heavy on illustrations and emotionally-laden content—hoping that it will hook people into wanting more—but then they have no venues in place to offer more. The result is a growing illiteracy of the very foundation of Christian faith; that is, the Bible and its story of creation, Fall, redemption, and restoration.
In many of today’s evangelical churches, there are few places for people to really become educated in content of the Bible. We just kind of hope they will find their way. Is it any wonder many of God’s people are “tossed here and there” by every kind of teaching they hear? If the media speak of the latest scientific or sociological/psychological discovery that is contrary to or contradicts the Bible—guess what wins? More people in the last twenty years have gotten teaching on crucial issues from Oprah, 20/20, Dateline, and the host of daytime talk shows that proliferate like weeds, rather than from biblical teaching coming from their churches. This is especially true when it comes to sex, sexuality, and homosexuality.
I find that people are often shocked when they begin to understand the extent to which the Scriptures speak on sex and sexual issues. When it comes to sex, I have often said that, “If God talks about it, then we should be talking about it.” The Bible is full of teaching about sex and sexual relationships. Since sex is a major issue or problem for most believers, God hasn’t left us alone to try to figure it out. He’s lovingly and proactively spoken to us about it. We should be doing the same with our people. Sex has become a cultural battleground upon which the Christian faith is losing, so there is no greater need in the church today than to find multiple ways to talk about sex in the profound ways that Scripture does. We need to be doing that in Sunday school classes, men’s and women’s groups, small groups, youth groups, and so on.
A few years ago, Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia held a weekend Urban Missions Conference entitled “Sex in the City.” Over 400 people attended, primarily between the ages of 20 and 35. I was one of the main speakers, and the Harvest USA staff presented workshops all day on various subjects.
After the Sunday service, as I was walking down the sidewalk after leaving the church, I felt a brush of air as a bicyclist rushed by me. As I turned to look, I saw the cyclist throw on the brakes and turn around. The young woman said to me, “Weren’t you the Friday-night speaker at the conference?” I affirmed that I was. “Well, I went to this church when I was young, but have been away from it all throughout college. But I think I’m going to be coming back here now. Any church that speaks about these things this boldly and opens up the Scriptures to teach us like this is someplace I want to be.”
10. The church is silent because we are not just ignorant of God’s design for sex; we don’t believe that he designed it for our good!
There is so much around us that presents sex in a negative and broken sense that we’ve ceased to believe it was all meant for good, or that God wants us to experience it as something good and noble!
Several years ago I was on a short-term missions’ trip to Amsterdam to work with a church-planting team. Amsterdam is a very dark city, sexually speaking. Its reputation for sexual freedoms and debauchery is well known. We’ve all seen pictures of those prostitutes sitting in windows, offering their wares. Pornography shops and prostitution are, literally, on almost every corner in the city-central area. I remember asking my church-planter friend, “How does anyone here ever have a healthy or godly view of sex or sexuality?” His response surprised me. He said, “I don’t know, and I don’t know if I do anymore either.”
Today, Amsterdam as a metaphor for sexual chaos is in our own backyard. The Internet has turned every computer and every mobile device into an adult bookstore. Like my friend, I now wonder if the average believer has any kind of healthy appreciation for sex as God designed it anymore. As fallen creatures we either make way too much of it, using it in a selfish and demanding way to meet our own needs, or we think much too little of it, forgetting that it is one of God’s good gifts. The evil one is often behind these extremes. He is certainly pleased when God’s good gifts are twisted or neglected.
Christians need to reclaim the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality and of sex. We need to affirm God’s good intention for it and for it as being a soul-uniting force between a husband and a wife, as something so pleasurable that it is, in the right context, wonderfully intoxicating. Think “The Song of Songs,” a book in the Old Testament that boldly proclaims on its every page the beauty of God-designed sexuality.
This message that God is pro-sex is often lost and marred by our own broken histories and struggles with it. We unwittingly transfer our own attitudes about sex to those around us, especially our children. We spend more time talking, when we do talk about sex in the church, about all the ways it’s gone wrong. I know when we’re asked to come to speak in churches, it’s rarely to talk about the goodness of sex. It’s usually about sex gone wrong.
You’d be surprised the frequency we’re asked to speak to youth groups, often for the first time, about all this (and they often want us to say everything we can possibly say about it in one meeting). Yet the leaders often want us to warn (scare?) kids into obedience and doing the right thing. When we’re asked to speak to teens, leaders often have little motivation for us to speak about it in larger gospel-oriented themes or in a way which might wake them up to the mysteries, goodness, and holiness that God designed sex to be. In wanting to protect our young people from the many destructive ways that they can use sex to derail their lives, we have failed them when we have not taught well from the Bible about the glorious design for sex that God has given to us. All of us, but especially our youth, need a coherent, persuasive and solidly biblical apologetic that can capture our imaginations and enable us to want to live lives of sexual integrity and enjoyment, all for his glory.
Obviously, this list of reasons I’ve shared for the church’s silence is not exhaustive. Most churches can find themselves somewhere in this list. If your church has been committed to silence for the reasons I’ve talked about, what’s the answer? Isn’t it coming into the light? Isn’t it an awareness and admission that this is what has characterized us as a church or as leadership? We’ve let our people just find their own way in all this. We’ve mistakenly—out of fear, our own insecurities, or just not knowing what to do—did nothing, naively thinking, “no one here struggles with ‘that.’”
The next step, then, may need to be repentance as leaders: imploring God to change our minds about our role to help make our churches biblically healthy places, places where we can both talk about all this and provide our people with much needed help. That always becomes a win-win situation. We have everything to gain if we’ll just do that—but everything to lose if we don’t.
Harvest USA wants to help your church develop a strategy to begin dealing with this to the glory of God. Let us know how we can help you. The Harvest USA website (www.harvestusa.org) is a good place to discover resources. Where possible, our staff is available to help, at your local church, in education and in equipping your leaders. We are also available to speak, via Skype or web to your leadership or board of elders, etc. We would love to help. May the Lord bless you in your desire to build his kingdom.