Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.

The case of Ted Haggard, unfortunately, has recently resurfaced with a vengeance, thanks to two things: 1) the release of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, and 2) the new allegations that, in addition to having sex and meth with a male prostitute, Haggard also had an inappropriate relationship in 2006 with a 20-year old boy in his church. In something of a bizarre press tour (similar to that of Rod “I might as well milk my infamy” Blagojevich), Haggard has recently appeared on Larry King, Oprah, and Nightline to discuss his experiences of being sexually confused, shunned by his church, and generally despised by most everyone. It’s all very sad to watch, as Haggard describes his various therapists’ opinions on his sexual orientation and how he’s tried to reconcile his sexual struggles with his abiding passion for Christ, the church, and his family.

Watching Haggard on Larry King Live last week, I had a few thoughts:

  • It’s hard to feel bad for Ted Haggard. But I do. He started his church from the ground up, made it a megachurch, made a name for himself in evangelical circles, and let the pride and hubris of all of it undo him. It’s not the easiest thing to be powerful—especially in the church.
  • The evangelical church is really bad at dealing with any sort of complicated issue in sexuality. This is why Haggard was and is so confused about it; it’s why he is shunned by most in the established church. We don’t know how to handle people like him. He had no one to talk to about it for all those years, because the church is so ill equipped to offer any guidance on the matter. This is not to put the blame for what Haggard did on the church. It’s just to say that, as an institution, we’re not that great at helping people through these things.
  • The church’s reaction—to exile Haggard and let him fend for himself post-scandal—is understandable but very unfortunate. When people in our Christian communities mess up, are we really supposed to kick them out and let them find redemption some other way? (in Haggard’s case: not through a church, but through a string of therapists and counselors). I understand the gravity of Haggard’s sin. It was egregious. Our response to moral failure must involve discipline and punishment, yes; but shouldn’t it also involve forgiveness and restoration?

All of this got me thinking of Lonnie Frisbee, an influential evangelist from the early 1970s who ignited the Jesus People movement in Southern California and proved to be the catalyst for the explosive rise of two very prominent evangelical denominations: Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. Frisbie, an LSD-tripping hippie who converted to Christianity in the late 60s, struggled with homosexuality prior to his conversion. And, as is so often the case with life post-conversion, he continued to struggle with it. But he was a lightening rod and major boon to the growth of the church in Southern California, and so initially the pastors who brought him on as preacher looked past his sexually suspicious past. But as soon as Frisbie had a few “lapse” moments and it became clear that his homosexuality could not be hidden from the congregations, he was kicked to the curb—first by Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel and then by John Wimber at Vineyard. Eventually both denominations made attempts to write Frisbee out of their official histories or at least downplay his contributions. Exiled, Frisbie eventually died of AIDS, a shunned and misunderstood footnote in evangelical history.

It’s not that I fault any of these churches for removing Haggard or Frisbie from their ministry; I think it would have been wrong to let them continue in ministerial authority even in the midst of illicit sexual sins. But I do lament that they felt the need to essentially disown these fallen men, making little attempt to work with them for community-based healing and restoration. It’s as if they were saying, “It was an aberration that this pastor ever had our respect; we’re sorry we put you in the trust of such an imperfect man.” But aren’t we all imperfect men? I’m not saying that we should validate unrighteousness or anything. But can’t we at least admit that struggling with sin is not abnormal or immediately exile-worthy? Hasn’t the church always been led by screwed up people?

Thus ends the “Sex From the Pulpit” series, on a slightly off-topic note. I suppose one take home from all three posts is that, while sex can be recklessly wielded from the pulpit, it can also be recklessly ignored by the church at large. We need to talk and think about all this stuff, critically, carefully, and Christianly, and we need to do it together. I hope these blog posts have been productive in that regard. Now I’m ready to not write about sex for a long long time.

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9 responses to “Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

  1. It’s true: By and large, the church has become a place of judgment, exclusion, and other-defining. Ariah Fine recently asked on his blog: If you were a pregnant teenager, is the church the first place you would turn to? Shouldn’t it be? What has happened to our church?

  2. i’m a relatively new reader here, but wanted to let you know I really enjoyed this series.

    it amazes me how much of a facade churches and Christians in general try to display… regardless of what the ‘perfect image’ is for a given church, it seems like more often then not they are willing to step on fallen, hurting people in order to keep their image.

  3. Brett
    The only person to have lived a sinless life is our Saviour – that is precisely why He ‘qualifies’ as such. Even when a person is rightfully excommunicated, it ill becomes us to totally shun them and remove the hand of fellowship and forgiveness. It may sometimes be a difficult thing to do, but we need to forgive others for their sins (no matter what they may be), or the pain and suffering will never leave us. Jesus set the standard when He said to the woman caught in the very act of adultery “… Neither do I condemn thee. Go thy way and sin no more”.
    This has been a difficult topic to get across in terms of what the Gospel requires of us, but you have done it well – as usual!
    Keith Allen.

  4. This blog series was helpful and thought-provoking. It seems that the church, in trying so desperately to act like they’re comfortable with sex and equipped to handle its multiple issues, have indeed swung the pendulum too far. This kind of overcompensation only shows that we haven’t quite gotten it right yet.

    Furthermore, on the topic of Mark Driscoll: my only experience with his sex-related messages are from reading this blog, but I find his unabashedness a bit alarming. The kind of material that he is presenting should be shared at a marriage conference or support group–not diffused through a mega-group of mixed ages and relationship statuses. And God bless the man’s wife, because if someone were to expose me in that way, he’d be the one kicked to the curb.

  5. Great posts. Very well structured and indeed thought-provoking. I agree with Crystal that it seems Pastor Mark is a bit reckless in who he allows to hear his sex messages. Personally, even though I would have a great time listening to his sex messages, I know it would be wrong for me to be in that audience because I’m single, and what would I do with that knowledge? It would simply make me pine for my own spouse with whom I could enjoy the pleasures and blessings of sex in a pure and Godly relationship, and I don’t need that hardship. Right now, I need to focus on glorifying God in my singleness, and striving after absolute celibacy until God gives me a wife. Being lectured on how wives shouldn’t be afraid to striptease their husbands or occasionally go topless in the home, which, even though I agree with, wouldn’t push me any closer to Christ in the situation I’m in. All this to say, his “sexessages” should be limited to a marriage conference or support group.
    But I don’t take issue with his unabashedness about the subject. I just think it needs to be in the right context. This would have to be a sort of Sunday school class available only to married couples. A congregational service is NOT the place to be speaking about vulva’s and such.

  6. “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Sound familiar? Know what it means? (Well, I know you do Brett!)

    There are so many people who struggle… wait a second… we ALL struggle. It’s God’s gift to us. Our pain, our loss, our confusion. When we move away from God we run into trouble. Why? Well, I believe (you can disagree if you want) that it is not some devil playing tricks on us to keep us away from God, but it is a natural consequence in and of itself that is divinely designed to pull us back to God.

    Christians rarely discuss this, but it is an ancient mystic belief that has been removed from the teachings of modern Christianity.

  7. It’s definitely tarnished a few reputations, that’s for sure!

  8. Brett – I recently stumbled upon your blog through a link to the “Christian Hipster” post, which I found very interesting and enlightening (I had no idea what a Christian Hipster was and I was surprised by, among other things, the appearance of a few of my favorite authors like Chesterton, Lewis, Percy, O’Connor, and anything ancient and/or philosophically important).

    Anyway, I found this recent series on sex from the pulpit equally interesting. You’ve touched on a necessary discussion which is taking place in the Church today regarding the meaning and design of our human sexuality. I know for my own part I sympathize with Driscoll’s desire to break Christians free from the overly pessimistic and puritanical vision of sexuality that has dominated Christianity for centuries. However, I agree with your suspicions that there is something not quite right in Driscoll’s presentation of the issue, and not just in the practical application but in the theological foundation. I’ll admit that I’m no expert on Driscoll, but from what I’ve seen and heard (on this issue) he seems to be operating from a grossly simplistic theological foundation. You say “(Driscoll’s sex emphasis) makes no attempt to articulate a cogent and Christian sexual ethic for singles”, but I’d go even further to say that it makes no attempt to articulate a cogent and Christian sexual ethic at all. His “ethic” is that you should get married so that you don’t need an ethic; just do what gives you and your spouse the most pleasure. There is no consideration of an underlying objective purpose for our sexuality, and how it contributes to our creation as images of God. One mark of the infantile immaturity of his “sexual ethic” is, as you point out, no consideration for singleness. Another such mark is the lack of serious consideration of the connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of our sexuality, and how this reflects God’s design and purpose.

    If you have never heard of it, I would strongly suggest looking into Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” I know that in my own search for answers to the questions of God’s plan for sexuality it has been immeasurably valuable. The “Theology of the Body” was actually a series of lectures given by the pope, but can now be found in book form. However, my introduction was through a commentary on the lectures written by a Christopher West; it was excellent and I highly recommend it. It’s exactly the message a sex-obsessed culture, and a sometimes sexually confused Church needs to hear.

    I know you’d profit from investigating it, and I hope you do.

  9. You indicated this was the last post in this series. Good.

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