Sex and the Wayward Christian Pastor

Last week the headlines told of yet another megachurch pastor who has been relieved of his duties, at least temporarily, because of inappropriate behavior with another person. Yet again, as the pastor admitted his failure on stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of, “We love you.” I imagine those folks will discover there is more to the accusations than meets the eye, which will cause them to regret that standing ovation. We see it happen all too often.

All of these leaders are men. There are no women megachurch pastors in America. Most began ministry with confidence coupled with at least some level of humility. By the time they had their great fall, however, not much humility remained. They had surrounded themselves with co-workers and friends who enabled their increasingly erratic behavior and ended up slipping into the inevitable zone in which absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A megachurch pastor can exercise power unfairly, treat subordinates poorly, handle money badly, and generally be a jerk and probably not lose his job. But there is one thing that will end his job and career. And that is to have any kind of sexual dalliance with a person other than his spouse. There is no forgiveness for that, because in evangelicalism there is no forgiveness for being a sexual being who makes mistakes.

I am not excusing the behavior of any of these pastors. Too often they refuse to recognize the unequal power dynamics that led to these inappropriate relationships. And as with far too many men exposed through the #MeToo movement, they see themselves as victims, not predators. I am not excusing any of their deplorable behavior. But I do have questions.

How did sex become the all-powerful career ending sin? Has anyone read the Hebrew scriptures? There was a lot of sex going on that was not between a husband a wife. Male religious leaders had hundreds of partners. And what about the relative little the New Testament says about sex? Jesus certainly wasn’t fixated on the subject. He said nothing about his own sex life.

The Christian fixation with sex did not begin until Augustine, hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. That sexual sin as the worst kind of sin is relatively new to the Christian message, dating from the beginnings of the Modern age. The purity movement of the late twentieth century was the apex of the sex negativity movement.

Here is what I do know. Many pastors have had relationships that they believed were consensual, but with unequal power dynamics. They betrayed their wedding vows. But most are not serial philanderers. They made a mistake, and one mistake does not have to be career ending. Far more pastors view pornography or engage in sexual paraphilias. All are decidedly male issues. Over 50 percent of men are interested in at least one of the common paraphilias, and over one third have engaged in a paraphilia like sadism, masochism, sexual cross dressing, or voyeurism. Sexual paraphilias cause great shame, because most people do not understand their genesis or what can be done about them.

Exacerbating the problem for male clergy is that they are not encouraged to talk about their sexuality, ever. Men are left to struggle alone. They never learned to understand the nature of male sexuality, and therefore never learned how to exercise agency to both acknowledge attraction and turn it off before it becomes a problem. They have never been taught about those times and people they need to keep at a distance because they trigger unresolved issues in their own lives that want to be healed through sexual intimacy. Men in ministry are not taught how to manage their sexuality.

For Christian men, there are only two options. There is sex in marriage, or there is no sexuality at all. If you brought a paraphilia with you into the marriage, too bad for you. There will be no place in which it is safe to figure out what that means to the marriage. If you arrived in marriage with the example of an unfaithful father who never taught you the importance of agency, too bad for you. You have to figure out monogamy on your own. If your natural sexual attraction is toward men, you are in a double bind. You can’t even show romantic affection to a man, let alone marry him.

To be clear, I am not condoning bad behavior by male clergy. But we really do need to do a better job of helping male religious leaders integrate a healthy understanding of sexuality into their lives. We need to give them the tools to understand unequal power dynamics, the ability to appreciate the power of testosterone in contributing to unhealthy behaviors, and the wisdom to exercise agency before they end up being the next headline about a pastor being asked to step down.

And so it goes.