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.
11 thoughts on “Sex and the Wayward Christian Pastor”
Thank you for a timely, incisive posting that tackles a huge problem among Christian male church leaders. Your candor and courage are rare and deserve praise.
Some minor observation that I have by way of constructive comment (not intended at all as criticism or I would say so):
Your usage of the term “paraphilia” was not helpful to me in an otherwise very specific and detailed analysis of a problem (though you gave a few examples—but the internet lists many different others).
I had to look up the term and it appears to me to cover so many different sexual activities (all aberrations?) that the only thing not involved is marital intercourse
You used the expression “agency” twice and that did not communicate to me. I guess this is a specific counseling term. 3. As I had spoken in public gatherings (like Ladies Day) on the issue of pornography, the school asked me to lead a pornography addiction group for faculty and staff who had been found out on the school’s internet.
Frankly, Paula, that has been a problem I struggled with all my Christian life (and only now in older age have overcome). Maybe that is one of the paraphilia you write about.
Two sentences colored green capture your message well.
Thank you for addressing this issue. One of the heroes of the faith for me, before I defected, had been Ravi Zacharias. His catastrophic downfall did not bring me joy (as an agnostic); on the contrary, it brought me an intense disappointment. By God’s Amazing Grace I am now fully reclaimed into the Family of God and I am finding ministry opportunities very day, including becoming a fulltime Sunday School teacher.
Committed to love everyone
Because life is so precious
Because death is so final
Because Christ is Lord
Thanks so much, John. I, too, was so disappointed with Ravi Zacharias, and surprised with the most recent revelation. The term “Agency” here is the ability to act or the freedom to choose. “Paraphilia” has become the preferred term for what used to be labeled sexual perversions. Some have identified over 200. Others say there are over 60. There are about seven or eight that are fairly common, including voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism (rubbing against someone), sexual cross-dressing (which is not the same as being transgender,) masochism, fetishism, and pedophilia. Pornography generally is not included in the list, probably because it is so extremely common among males. It is rare with females.
Thanks Paula. A fine balance between compassion and integrity. Reminds me of Kristin Du Mez’s book: “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” – a study in toxic masculinity. She’s also on Substack.
Thank you for this thoughtful analysis! To me, this models exactly what it means to make judgments without being judgmental–such a difficult navigation.
As always, this is a wonderful entry. There’s so much shame around sex and sexuality in the evangelical community it’s not really surprising that they are received the way they are. Because nobody wants to have the conversations. More people need to be willing to open up the dialogue about things that are considered “taboo” instead of just being complacent with “the way it is.” I try a lot to get people to engage in these conversations with me and am often met with the already-known fact that most evangelicals aren’t even interested in having the conversation, much less to they know what the Bible actually says about most of it.
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as always, good stuff Paula!
Thank you Paula. Excellent thoughts.
The roots of patriarchy are pre-historic and based on the legitimacy of children. The revolutionary words of Jesus referring to marriage as “one woman, one man” had nothing to do with homosexuality but referred to polygamy, and likely were meant to empower women in marriage. The point of patriarchy in pre-history was the legitimacy of children during eras where fatherhood could not be proven.
None of the early sexual rules were meant to control men, they were meant to ensure that the fatherhood of women’s children was certain. So for most of Abrahamic history, men had mistresses without comments, popes fathered many children, pedophilia was ignored as was homosexuality and rape was a violation of property rights rather than a stand-alone evil. Those habits are deeply ingrained in patriarchal societies, including our own. It squarely puts the blame for sexual rule-breaking on women. We haven’t come very far in the last century as victims are still often where the blame is placed for the actions of men. I am a living example of that.
When religion can place the emphasis on the rights of all people as equals we will make progress. In the meantime, as our culture shifts, it isn’t surprising that many evangelical men say one thing and do another. That is how they were acculturated and that is a very hard thing to overcome.
Will we make it to sexual equality? I have hopes but it will be lifetimes in the making. I won’t see it, but I have hopes for our grand children.
Such good points as usual.
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Paula wouldg see it herself if she were to step away from her environment, it’s very scary.
She would see what you point out Dee, that she sympathizes with male plight, and doesn’t see that #MeToo was about rape. It’s there Paula sees both but sympathizes with the gender training that she doesn’t give a second thought.
Paula calls us sexual beings, not humanity, but sexual beings; that’s toxic masculinity, they’ve trapped gender and sex together. We are human beings, only God creates. God gave us Breath.
Thanks Dee, I love Paula’s book. It’s epic. Thanks for sharing you thoughts, mine run similar. Dolly
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I would note, as I read Paula’s book, that she is a wonderful person, heart-felt, full of observations. She can restore a meaningful existence to religion. Her pages are full of love, contemplation, the struggle to understand ourselves in the world we’re born, before nurture overruns our nascent spirit.
Thank you for writing the book, Paula Stone Williams.
I recommend to you, Paula, that you read Maureen Quilligan’s book, “When Women Ruled The World.” You come from a religious dynasty, in this book you will see the roots of the religion, in deed, perhaps it may help you see yourself in the world that has always surrounded you. I am also grateful you have this space for conversation. Thank you, again. Dolly
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