Tag Archives: sex

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.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Two

Mark Driscoll

I had always heard that Mark Driscoll liked to talk about sex. And cuss. And when I sat in on a service last November at the Ballard campus of Mars Hill Church where he pastors, the guy did not disappoint (well, he didn’t cuss per se… but he did say vulva).

Now, let me preface this by saying that I have a lot of respect for Mark Driscoll. I think that he’s doing great things for the church in Seattle, and deep down—beneath the frat guy, “Jesus was not a limp-wrist hippie in a dress!” veneer—he’s a caring, Godly person. But man oh man does he like sex: having it with his wife, talking about it, and getting as many young married hipsters in his church to have it daily.

In a recent New York Times article about Mark Driscoll, writer Molly Worthen opens with a discussion of Driscoll’s sex-heavy rhetoric:

Mark Driscoll’s sermons are mostly too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian “family friendly” video-posting Web site. With titles like “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse,” his clips do not stand a chance against the site’s content filters. …An “Under 17 Requires Adult Permission” warning flashes before the video cuts to evening services at Mars Hill, where an anonymous audience member has just text-messaged a question to the screen onstage: “Pastor Mark, is masturbation a valid form of birth control?”

Driscoll doesn’t miss a beat: “I had one guy quote Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ ” The audience bursts out laughing. Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.

I can verify that this description is completely accurate, having seen Driscoll in full-on sex-talk mode at a November service in his church. I was lucky enough to be there during a series on Song of Solomon called “The Peasant Princess,” on the night when Driscoll was preaching on the “Dance of Mahanaim” passage of Song of Solomon (6:11-7:10)—a passage which Driscoll describes as “an ancient striptease.”

Before he began his sermon, Driscoll noted that this was “one of the steamiest passages in the entire Bible” and urged all young children to immediately leave. He then proceeded to elaborate in great detail on the Dance of Mahanaim, talking about what each of the sexually suggestive metaphors meant, etc. Eventually he came to his point: that this passage of scripture was a call for wives to be “visually generous” to their husbands. They should keep the lights on in sex. Walk around the house topless. Things like that.

“The body is the greatest gift a wife can give,” said Driscoll.

A good marriage should be sexually open, with both husband and wife totally willing to do whatever pleases the other—whether it means getting your hair cut “just how s/he likes it” or being willing to do weird fetishy things to please your spouse.

At the end, Driscoll brought his wife out on stage (a little awkward, given the fact that he’d just been telling us about how great she was in bed), and the two of them answered questions that the audience had texted in during the service. One of the questions was about the biblical merits of married couples making homemade sex tapes, to which the Driscolls responded with coy looks at one another and a “yeah, we’ve done it” moment of awkward laughter.

All of it is well and good, I suppose. I do think sex is a wonderful thing for married people—and that they should be doing it freely and often. But here’s my problem: what are all the single people in the audience (and there looked to be a lot of them) supposed to do with this???

Clearly Driscoll’s aim is to get the young Christians in his church married off asap, so this whole “I’m single!” thing doesn’t pose too many problems. Friends of mine who attend or have attended the church confirm this. To be married at Mars Hill is the goal; to be single is to be, well, kinda shunned. In a recent interview with ABC, Driscoll said that at Mars Hill, “We encourage our people to get married and enjoy one another.” Fantastic. But what about the people who stay single well into their twenties, thirties, and beyond? What about the people who feel called to singleness?

From my vantage point—as a 26 year old, unmarried male—Driscoll’s “sex is grrrrrrrreat for married people!” emphasis is more than a little unhelpful. Here’s what it does: it alienates single people and makes them feel like they haven’t lived or won’t live until they get married. It leaves no room for any “satisfied single person identity.” And—most obviously and unforgivably—it makes no attempt to articulate a cogent and Christian sexual ethic for singles. What are we singles supposed to do with our sexual frustration when we get more scandalous and visceral images of sex in a church service than we do from a week’s worth of MTV?

It seems to me that if Mark Driscoll and preachers like him want to talk about sex so frankly and frequently in their churches, they must at least be willing to talk as enthusiastically about the merits of single, celibate life for the Christian, or at least about how it can feasibly be done. But that may be asking too much of them.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part One

It’s a topic that used to be taboo in church—a topic that made church ladies blush and teenagers giggle. If it wasn’t totally off-limits in a church, it was handled with great care and (usually clunky) attempts at subtlety. But not so these days. Over the last few years, sex has not only become accepted as a sermon topic; it’s become almost requisite. If you’re a pastor and you haven’t done a sex series or at least a mildly scandalous sermon on Song of Solomon, you’re behind the times.

It’s a topic that Christian authors are writing popular books about. Rob Bell’s Sex God, for example, or Lauren Winner’s Real Sex, which I highly recommend. There’s also last year’s much-praised Sex and the Soul, by Donna Freitas, which I have not read yet. Interestingly, there was a chapel series at Biola University recently entitled “Sex and the Soul.” Doubtless there are dozens others like it happening at other evangelical universities. Oh, and for a “frank discussion of pornography & masturbation,” you can check out Porn-Again Christian by Mark “Sex” Driscoll (more on him in part two of this blog series).

The Christian sex industry, if you can believe it, is thriving. There are websites where you can buy Christian sex toys, and oodles of evangelical sex advice books that talk about the biblical merits of orgasms, vibrators, and other more unmentionable bedroom options. There is a growing cottage industry of books that urge married Christians to vigorously rip off those chastity belts and get busy having wild and experimental sex as often as at all possible.

But it’s not just that Christians are talking more openly about sex. They’re making it a community-building exercise. There was a pastor in Florida last year who issued a challenge for all his married congregates to have sex every day for a month; and another pastor of a Texas megachurch did a similar “sex-periment”—challenging married couples to get it on daily for 7 days straight. The Texas pastor, Rev. Ed Young, explained the rationale to CBS news in this way:

I think the church has allowed the culture to hijack sex from the church, and it’s time that we moved the bed back in church and put God back in the bed, and I think we are the real sex-perts because, after all, we’re made in God’s image and he’s the one who wants us to do it his way.

I can totally buy this. But I wonder: is this sex-crazy movement within current evangelicalism just one more over-reaction to the err of our past? So yes, it was wrong to be so prudish and silent on the topic for so much of our history; but is the pendulum—as it always tends to be—now swinging too far in the other direction?

Also, I am more than a little suspicious that this sex-ification of church is simply the latest marketing tool to bring in crowds and brand the church as “edgier than you think!” Are we doing this because being “for” sex rather than against it makes us more appealing to the sex-obsessed masses?

This is the accusation of a recent article in the aggressively secular New Humanist, which suggests that “America’s Religious Right has devised a seductive new recruitment strategy”:

From pornography and sex education to reproductive rights and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, Americans have allowed a conservative religious movement not only to dictate the terms of conversation but also to change the nation’s laws and public health policies. And meanwhile American liberals have remained defensive and tongue-tied.

The article goes on to suggest that, in contrast to what most people assume,

[The Religious Right] is far from being sexually uptight. On the contrary, it is wildly pro-sex, provided it’s marital sex. Evangelical conservatives in particular have begun not only to rail against the evils of sexual misery within marriage (and the way far too many wives feel like not much more than sperm depots for insensitive, emotionally absent husbands), but also, in the most graphically detailed, explicit terms, to eulogise about the prospect of ecstasy.

Reading that, I thought about a clip I recently saw of Ted Haggard (more on him in part three of this blog series), where he talked about how Christians statistically have the most and best sex of anyone:

Of course this clip is sad and ironic, given what we now know about Haggard’s sexuality, and it also sirens an alarm of sorts, I think: when we talk so much about sex (even good, married-people sex), is it really helping our psychological state? Do we really need to pump our minds full of sex more than they already are? Are pastors who talk about sex openly and descriptively from the pulpit actually turning their congregations into sex-addicts and horny perverts? Certainly it did Haggard no good…

Coming Tuesday in Part 2: Thoughts on Seattle’s bad boy preacher, Mark Driscoll, and my reaction to visiting his church (Mars Hill) on Song of Solomon night.