I was 14 when I was first pressured to have sex with my boyfriend. As a young impressionable woman without the moral guidelines of the Bible, I allowed romance movies and novels to provide the lens through which I interpreted the meaning of sex. It was clearly 1) always passionate and 2) the best indicator of true love. When my boyfriend confided to me that another girl was promising him sexual favors if he broke up with me, I knew what I needed to do in order to keep him.
It was not romantic or passionate. There was no great revelation of our everlasting love for one another. It was embarrassing and depressing, and I felt betrayed by the lackluster event that it turned out to be. I vowed that summer never to be used in that way again. While I was not abused, I was broken and disillusioned.
My years of working with teenagers has reminded me daily of the confusion that swirls around this act. Though it is created by God for the bringing together of two in a physical and spiritual union, there is perhaps no other act that has brought such pain and devastation to so many. I work with young people, and girls have confided in me about pressure to send nudes and engage in oral sex (even at school). A big change I have noticed is there is not even a pretense of relationship anymore. Requesting sexual favors falls in the same category of asking to borrow someone’s pencil or pen.
I am amazed at how many girls simply comply. It saddens and angers me until I remember myself so many years ago, looking for love. Many of these very teens are professing believers too. They feel guilty for engaging in sexual activities but have zero understanding of what biblical sexuality is about.
It’s easy to see how the world gets sex wrong. They have relegated it into the land of needs, like food or water. If someone iconsents, there is no reason to abstain. We see the fruits of this thinking: lives destroyed by sexually transmitted diseases and abortion. We see a whole generation of adults who’ve been burned by the hookup culture and the lack of connection they experience.
However, equally destructive is the church’s stance, or lack of a stance, on sex. We have done well to communicate its rightful place within marriage, but we have not gone the extra steps to help unravel the complicated knot of sexual desire and responsibility.
If we ever needed evidence of this, we see it in the wake of the #Churchtoo movement. When the #Metoo movement began, we as the church all recoiled with horror as the details of sexual abuse came to light. We shuddered when we read about automatically locking doors and cover-ups that allowed certain men to stay in positions of power.
I’m sure we liked to think that the church had no similar skeletons in our closets. If we did, however, Houston Chronicle’s article detailing over 20 years of covered up sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention removed any such illusion.
How is it possible that the church could have allowed this?
When Paul was confronted with a church that had no real understanding of sex and its consequences, he was quick to teach them. This ancient culture had a very low view of sex. Temple prostitutes were common. Men were expected to engage in sexual relations with any servant in their home (with or without their consent) and with whomever they chose outside of the home.
In fact, Paul’s teaching on the refraining of sexual acts outside of marriage was revolutionary and offensive. It was also a protection for women.
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:13b-19 ESV)
Couched in terms that the people would understand, Paul explains that our bodies are now the temple of God. The act of sex creates a bond with whomever we engage in sex. This is not a flippant, merely physical act like the culture of the day propagated. Instead, sex has dimensions not often known or understood. There are spiritual connections being created—a joining of flesh and spirit. While we may not value our own bodies for the sake of ourselves, he takes it a step further in asking if this is how we would treat something God views so highly.
In her book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey quotes Beth Felker Jones saying, “At the time, ‘people thought men couldn’t commit adultery.’ It was ‘women’s bodies [that] were property and could be ‘stolen’ or ‘damaged’. Jesus ‘challenges a whole market economy that would buy and sell bodies, especially women’s bodies. Adultery wasn’t a property crime. Adultery is a violation of God’s intention for humanity…Jesus radically equalizes the man and the woman in the one-flesh union.’” A new view of sex emerged from this biblical view. An idea that sex was for marriage and was meant to be practiced in a way that honored both spouses.
Because of this, the church should always be the first to protect those who could be abused. Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast and sexual abuse victim, explains in an interview with Christianity Today that “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.” She explains this lack of help as an example of poor theology. Her stance is clearly on the unwillingness of the church to value all its members and to root out evil where they find it. If sex is a big deal, as we claim, there should never have been incidents when those who abused others should have been tolerated. This reveals our low view of sex and how the church has been influenced by the secular standards of sex more than we realize.
Much like the church’s obsession with celebrity pastors, instead of paving the way in transforming culture, we have imitated culture at its lowest points. Tyler Huckabee explains in his article “James MacDonald and the End of the Celebrity Pastor” that it is challenging for churches to not be influenced by the cultures surrounding them. He notes, “In recent years, as the entertainment industry became the focal point of American culture, a growing number of churches began operating like a brand, with the pastor acting as the focal celebrity while a team around him (it’s almost always a him) streamlined his content for maximum impact and ran interference on potential scandals.This has led to a phenomenon we call “celebrity pastors,” a phrase that should ring alien, yet doesn’t in the American church of 2019.”
It is this imitation that Huckabee surmises lies behind the horrifying results of Houston Chronicle’s report. It is also seen behind almost every church scandal that has blazoned across the headlines over the years. We have adopted standards that don’t hold up biblical truths and have turned people into idols or disposable things that are cast aside.
It is clear then what the problem is, so how can we heal? We can heal only as we value truth and embrace our role of protection. We must grapple as a church with hard things like sexuality and power. We must discuss them and make sure that we have done our best to understand. The church must take seriously the role of protecting younger generations who have no defense against the lies of our time.
The resounding message of the church must consistently be one that speaks of the value of each person—not just those in power. This will help bring healing and restoration to the many who have been or could be broken.
My own experience as a young woman without guidance emboldens me to speak about this difficult topic. If I can help even one young person to avoid the heartache I experienced, it is worth it. Imagine what could be done though if the Body of Christ spoke the truths we all need to hear.
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