In a recent blog post, evangelical theologian Doug Wilson explained why he married pedophile Steven Sitler to a woman in his congregation four years ago, calling on God to bless them with children. (For background on this story, see here and here.) Or at least, he thinks he explained it. He really didn’t. Fortunately, his explanation does give us more insight into how Wilson views child molesters.
Throughout the post, Wilson continually puts pedophilia in the same category with adultery and homosexuality—he genuinely does not appear to see any reason for approaching these very different things differently at all. In addition, he doesn’t think it’s quite right that serial child molesters are labeled pedophiles for the rest of their lives. That’s not in keeping with the gospel, you see.
Probably the most stunning thing in Wilson’s post, though, is what isn’t there—any mention of children or of Sitler’s risk of reoffending or of the problems that come with a pedophile living with and raising children. Yes, really.
Wilson Misses the Locus of Outrage
Now because he has been welcomed into your fellowship, as he ought to have been, he meets a Christian woman whom he would like to marry, and she would like to marry him. He manifestly does not have the gift of celibacy. Do you bless it? Do you okay it, but make him get married by the justice of the peace? Or do you forbid it?
Here is Wilson’s setup. Notice that he doesn’t mention that one of the elders at his church, a man who also works at his university, introduced Katie to Sitler after Katie asked him to find her a husband. I have no idea whether Wilson knew about this beforehand, but he certainly knows Sitler didn’t simply “meet” Katie. To suggest that it happened naturally and without the arranging of his church leadership is disingenuous.
If you forbid it, one reason might be because you think he should live as a celibate because he did things that would have resulted in his execution under Moses.
Um, what? No. No one is saying Wilson should have forbidden the marriage for this reason. Rather, I and others are saying that officiating Sitler’s marriage knowing that he intended to have children was incredibly unwise because of Sitler’s history of molesting very young children, including children living in the same house with him and (reportedly) relatives. In other words, procreative marriage would give Sitler a steady stream of potential victims.
And this is no idle fear—Sitler is today back in court after becoming sexually aroused by his infant son. The judge who allowed Sitler to marry did so in large part because Sitler’s lawyer (who also attends Wilson’s church) insisted that the question of whether Sitler should marry was a completely separate matter from the question of whether it was safe for Sitler to live in the same home with any children he might father, and that that conversation should be had down the road. The judge clearly recognized the danger inherent to Sitler living in the same household with young children, but Wilson cared so little about this danger that he officiated the wedding while presumably knowing Sitler’s plans to have children, and indeed asked God to bless Sitler with children. This is the reason people are upset Wilson blessed Sitler’s marriage.
Wilson Equates Pedophilia with Adultery and Homosexuality
But if we are to use equal weights and measures, there are other offenses like that in your church also. Must adulterers live in perpetual celibacy? Homosexuals? When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, He told her to go and sin no more. He didn’t say that she must never get married because she had done something that could warrant the death penalty, a penalty that had almost been applied to her, and the issue clearly might come up again. In fact, Jesus warned her against the possibility of a repeat offense — go and sin no more.
Must women who have had abortions be prohibited from marrying? I am going to say something here with a hard edge, but it is only so that I can declare a scandalous gospel. Please stay with me. Sexual molestation is terrible, but the murder of unborn children is worse. Should women who have had abortions be placed under the ban? Of course not — but that means something is wrong with the earlier “death penalty sins” logic.
Sitler puts adultery and homosexuality in the same category as child molesting, and then argues that having an abortion is a worse sin than molesting children. In Wilson’s view, consensual sex between two members of the same sex appears to be as egregious an offense as sexually molesting a child. If that’s not screwed up, I don’t know what is. Of course the problem here is that Wilson is not operating on consent-based sexual ethics. For him, what matters is whether the sexual act in question is sanctioned by God, not whether or not it is consensual. (Child molesting by definition is not consensual, as children cannot give consent.)
Wilson Argues Pedophilia Can Be “Surmounted”
Or you might forbid it because you think that the “identity” of pedophilia is something that simply cannot be surmounted. This collides with the gospel as outlined above, and it is also inconsistent with what we say about things like homosexual temptations. A homosexual who cannot desire a member of the opposite sex should not get married. But that is not true of all homosexuals. Some can and do marry, and those who can, and who have the opportunity, should. Do we want to say that pedophilia lies closer to the bone than does homosexuality? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
Wilson appears to be arguing that pedophilia is something that can be overcome, which is in direct conflict with everything we know from psychology and, well, every professional opinion ever. It is also in direct conflict with professional evaluation of Sitler in the months leading up to his wedding, which found his risk of reoffending high, and in direct conflict with the reality that he has (according to the court) become sexually aroused by his infant son.
Pedophiles can choose whether or not to offend, but they cannot choose whether or not to be sexually aroused by children. Wilson appears to think that pedophiles can be “cured.” This is, again, why pastors need to listen to professionals in areas where they have no training, rather than assuming they know about things they don’t.
Wilson refers to homosexuals who can and do marry, and to “homosexuals who cannot desire a member of the opposite sex.” It seems Wilson is unaware of the term “bisexual.” Regardless, Wilson is suggesting that just as some individuals can be attracted to members of both sexes, some pedophiles can be attracted to and adult partners. That’s all well and good, but from what I’ve seen, people do not care whether or not Sitler is capable of being sexually attracted to his wife. In contrast, people care very much about the risk Sitler, a pedophile, poses to any children he may father—and even before his wedding, which Wilson officiated, Sitler was upfront about his intentions to have children with his soon-to-be wife.
Who’s Really a Pedophile Anyway?
Or you just might prohibit marriage to a pedophile if he had been a serial offender. Okay, now we have to define that. And do this remembering that many adulterers are serial adulterers, and many homosexuals have had serial encounters. If the past is the indicator of the future, this applies to more than just pedophilia. A lot of things might happen again, and a lot of men have a lot of dark urges. They have serial dark urges.
Wilson says that “if the past is the indicator of the future, this applies to more than just pedophilia,” and I completely agree with him. And once again he is comparing child molesting with adultery and homosexuality. The problem with this is that the harm caused by child molesting is wholly different level from any harm caused by adultery, to say nothing of homosexuality. It’s really baffling that this appears to be completely lost on Wilson.
But back to the pedophile. We can have a serial pedophile who started when he was fifteen, molested six cousins, and ended when he was eighteen. Is that identity fixed forever? He is a serial sinner, like everyone else in Adam, but is his sin tattooed on him in such a way that Christ cannot remove it?
Judging from this passage, Wilson appears to believe that Christianity can cure pedophilia. But you know what Wilson has yet to mention? The danger Sitler’s pedophilia poses to any children he may father. It’s like those children are completely invisible to him. Wilson also does not mention that the professionals who tested Sitler in 2011 found his risk of reoffending high, or that Sitler has (according to the court) become sexually aroused by his infant son. Sitler has very clearly not been “cured” of his sexual attraction to children.
Furthermore, the example Wilson gives is disingenuous for several reasons. For one thing, while professionals do treat juvenile offenders differently from adult offenders, Sitler was an adult, not a juvenile. For another thing, even for juveniles, having multiple victims or having victims who are significantly younger are considered risk factors for reoffending as adults. Because of this, Wilson does not provide enough information about this scenario for readers to make an informed judgement. The individual in his example may be a pedophile, or he may not be, but there are ways of determining whether or not he is, and the criteria aren’t arbitrary.
It’s Good for Pedophiles to Marry!
Then there is another thing. If you forbid marriage to someone who is not gifted with celibacy, under pain of excommunication if he marries, then you have painted yourself into quite a medieval corner. You now have as a “mortal sin” the sin of marriage, which God did not prohibit, as opposed to the “venial” sins of porn and hookers, which He did prohibit. The church, trying to head off one possible sin, ought never to make other sins fairly certain.
Is Wilson aware that we are talking about a pedophile here? His mention of “porn and hookers” suggests not. Pedophiles are sexually attracted to children. If he is to keep from reoffending, Sitler will have to spend his entire life saying “no” to those attractions, and marriage won’t change that. Yes, if Sitler is also attracted to adult women (as is the case for some pedophiles), marriage may provide a sexual outlet. But in the absence of effective birth control, marriage will also provide children, and things get really iffy when we start talking about a pedophile raising children.
Wilson has yet to show any concern for any child who may be at risk of being molested by Sitler. Wilson could have argued that lack of access to a same-age sexual partner would make Sitler more likely to act on his attractions to children, but he didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’d very likely have a problem with that argument too (I’m not sure it’s true and I’d want to hear from experts), but what does it mean that Wilson felt it was more relevant to mention hookers than reoffending against children in a post about whether pedophiles should marry? To me it suggests that Wilson values the safety of children even less than I’d thought.
So when I say that bringing repentant pedophiles into the church is a gospel issue, I do not mean that they get a magic forgiveness card at the door such that no one has to think about it ever again. That would be both naive and stupid. But I am saying that the gospel project is the divine project of making us all into true human beings again. When marriage can be a part of that, it should be a part of that. Sometimes it cannot be. But when it is, and it is good, it is very good.
Some have hypothesized that Wilson hoped to “cure” Sitler by marrying him off. While I cannot say for sure how far this goes, Wilson here suggests that to at least a certain extent, he does believe this. Wilson finishes by writing about how God is “glorified in the salvation of sinners,” including “really bad sinners,” perhaps confirming what others have hypothesized about Wilson’s desire to gain prestige by “curing” Sitler.
And that’s it. Wilson spent hundreds and hundreds of words explaining why he blessed Sitler’s marriage, and he never once mentioned either Sitler’s infant son or the potential that Sitler would have children. He never even grappled with the real reason people are upset that Wilson blessed Sitler’s marriage. I’m left wondering—did he fail to address the real reason for concerns for some reason unknown to me, or has he honestly not read anything his critics have written?
Frankly, I’m surprised, and I really didn’t think Wilson could still surprise me. But to spend an entire post explaining why he blessed the marriage of a pedophile without once addressing people’s actual concern and without even mentioning children? Seriously? I’m not sure how even his regular followers can take him seriously.
If nothing else, we can say for certain that Wilson knows far less about pedophiles than he thinks he does, and that his view of child molesting is impacted by his conservative sexual ethics in some truly toxic ways. Wilson puts child molesters in the same category as adulterers and homosexuals, and appears to believe that pedophiles can be cured. But perhaps most toxic of all is his utter lack of concern for potential victims. That Wilson could spill so much ink and forget to even mention the risk pedophiles pose to children is utterly appalling.