The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology & Sexual Abuse Collide

The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology & Sexual Abuse Collide April 22, 2024

"Purity culture" theology helped facilitate Jeff Taylor's abuse
A bad theology of sexual “purity” helped facilitate Jeff Taylor’s alleged abuse. Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash.

My church, The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia, recently hired an outside firm to investigate credible allegations of sexual abuse, occurring in the 1990s, by former youth director Jeff Taylor. The investigator’s report, which is available here, was released late last week. In it, victim after victim tells a similar story: the gateway for abuse was a one-on-one discussion with Taylor on the “sin” of masturbation and managing the “lust” that young men face. jeff taylor

It appears that Taylor cloaked his sexual grooming of these young men under the auspices of facilitating their spiritual growth.

Obviously Taylor’s most egregious act was the alleged overt and covert sexual abuse of these boys, as described in the investigator’s report. But as we process this report and its many implications, as a church family, we need to go deeper. There are many wrongs in this tragedy, and one of them is the untruths Taylor apparently told about the “sin” of masturbation, untruths that continue to plague the evangelical church.

The 1990s Purity Movement

The purity culture of the 1990s, which idolized sexual purity and sent many young men and women into spirals of shame, undoubtedly greased the wheels of Taylor’s scheme. Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, describes in an interview the detrimental effects of purity culture on Christian youth:

Over the course of my research, I realized that my interviewees and I had unknowingly been members of one of the first classes of adolescents to have grown up in the purity movement—a white evangelical Christian movement that shamed young people into believing that the only way for them to be worthy of love and acceptance was for them to be–more than abstinent–for them to be sexless in their minds, hearts, and bodies before marriage. For girls and women, this sexlessness included not “inspiring” sexual thoughts or feelings in men by the ways that they walked, talked or dressed.

The purity movement quickly developed a purity industry with rings, pledges, curricula, books, events, mugs, underwear, t-shirts, and on and on. I imagine that many who developed and bought these products assumed that all this would be good for young people. But my life and the lives of the people I’ve since interviewed over 12 years show something very different. A generation of young people—particularly girls and women—were shamed, dramatically shaping their lives and damaging their self-confidence, their sense of worth, their ability to connect with others sexually and otherwise, even their ability to connect with themselves.

(If anyone doubts the harm of “purity culture,” consider that Klein’s interviewer here is a former Christian-turned-atheist who partially attributes her deconversion to purity culture disillusionment. Fortunately, Klein still describes herself as a “deeply faithful” Christian.)

Interestingly, in the same interview, Klein states that one of the most surprising responses to her book has been from young men who’ve shared that it has become a key resource in their healing from the damage of purity culture. She concludes, “This tells me just how desperately we need a book that delves into the ways in which boys are shaped in the purity movement and how those teachings impact them as they grow.”

Enter Jeff Taylor. The young men he allegedly violated were first and foremost victims of sexual abuse, but they were also victimized by his bad theology on masturbation.

What the Bible (not Jeff Taylor) Says about Masturbation

The Bible never calls out masturbation as a sin.

There are Old Testament purity regulations in Leviticus 15:16 and Deuteronomy 23:10 on seminal emissions outside of intercourse. However, these regulations would appear to be no more applicable to Christians than those stating that women are unclean for a period of seven says after menstruation ends (Lev. 15:25).

The Bible condemns sexual immorality (Eph. 5:3, etc.), but nowhere is masturbation described as sexually immoral.

What purity movement champions did was read a “purity” agenda into the Bible through some of the following means:

  • As mentioned above, they hypocritically singled out masturbation as “impure” based on Old Testament ritual purity laws.
  • They conflated masturbation with lust, thereby lumping masturbation into the category of sexual immorality. It is important to note that for Taylor, as implied in the investigative report, masturbation was OK if you are thinking about a doorknob or a tree; but as soon as you masturbate with thoughts of a real person, you are committing the sin of lust. This conclusion is probably based in part on a misunderstanding of Matthew 5:27-28, where Jesus says: “You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman/wife in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Theologian Jason A. Staples has a wonderful blog series, “Most Misinterpreted Bible Passages,” that deals incisively with this verse. His grammatical analysis of the passage concludes that Jesus isn’t simply stating that your sexual thoughts toward a person not your spouse are sinful. Rather, it’s your intent, or volition, that determines whether your thought or “look” is sinful, even if you’ve taken no other action. Below is an excerpt of his argument, and I have put his key points in bold italics:

…Matthew uses a grammatical construction here [in Matthew 5:27-28] that combines the preposition πρὸς (pros, pronounced “pross”) with an articular infinitive in the accusative. Matthew uses this construction four other times, and each time it denotes the purpose of the action:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be noticed by them.” (Matt 6:1)

“… First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles in order to burn them up ….” (Matt 13:30)

“But they do all their deeds in order to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.” (Matt 23:5)

“For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it in order to prepare me for burial.” (Matt 26:12)

So it is clear that the grammar is reflecting purpose: “anyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her….This is a critically important point; Jesus is not suggesting that any sexual thought or inclination towards a woman is sinful. Nor is he suggesting that such thoughts or attractions being triggered by a look are sinful. The look is not the problem (nor is the presence of a beautiful woman, which some of that day tended to blame as the real problem); no, these are assumed. What is remarkable (given the popular misinterpretation) is that Jesus likewise assumes the presence of sexual desire in the man as a given, and that sexual desire isn’t seen as the problem. Instead, Jesus addresses the matter of intent, of volition, the purpose of the look. The issue is not the appetite itself but how a man directs this natural appetite and inclination. (I’m reminded here of the old saying: If you’re a young man on a beach and a beautiful woman in a bikini walks past and you don’t notice, it’s not because you’re spiritual, it’s because you’re dead.)

This [interpretation] fits well within the immediate context; throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is pointing out the root causes of the sins enumerated in the Law. Yes, adultery is a sin, but the sin has entered the heart the moment one determines to seek it out. The moment a man even looks at a woman for that purpose, adultery has already polluted the heart. This is the line between natural sexual attraction and the “coveting” prohibited by the Law….

In modern terms, it’s the difference between seeing a woman and being attracted to her—a natural part of the God-created appetite and a good indicator that one is alive—and actually considering or seeking an illicit activity. In modern terms, Matt 5:27–28 could be paraphrased as follows: “Obviously, having extramarital sex is wrong, but the moment you decide to start down that path, adultery is already in your heart.”

It’s troubling that some Christians have gotten Jesus’ message on lust so wrong.

Beyond Doorknobs and Trees

Staples’ analysis would indicate that avoiding the sin of lust doesn’t necessarily require you to place inanimate objects between your masturbation thoughts and the women (or men) who inspire them.

Yet on this point, purity culture – and a general lack of appreciation for the importance of human sexual experience – persist among Christians to this day. I am not familiar with the specific views of our church’s rector, Sam Ferguson, on masturbation. However, the topic came up in a gender and sexuality course he presented several years ago with John Yates, rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, NC. While not the focus of his talk, Rev. Yates, who is also the son of our church’s previous rector, commented on the supposed depravity of masturbation.

What happened to some of the boys under Jeff Taylor’s pastoral care is heartbreaking. But my heart aches for all the young people in our church who have been (and may still be?) victims of this bad theology of “purity”; who have been taught to feel shame or to seek forgiveness where no forgiveness is needed; who have been taught to be at war with their own bodies in the name of sanctification; who have been guilt-tripped into masturbating to visions of doorknobs and trees, rather than to the comforting embrace of a loving partner.

One of my hopes for this truly disturbing report is that it will spark other conversations, even if awkward, that are worth having.

Unfortunately I think this is one of them.

"Hi, thanks for your comments. Your point on Reformed theology resonates. Conservative/orthodox Christianity and reformed ..."

The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology ..."
"Thank you for your article. I took an Alpha course that Jeff Taylor taught at ..."

The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology ..."
"Thanks, Steve. It's encouraging to hear support from other Anglican clergy on these issues. I've ..."

The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology ..."
"Excellent - and clarifying - article. As a Canadian Anglican clergy person with friends who ..."

The Jeff Taylor Scandal: Bad Theology ..."

Browse Our Archives