But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. I John 1:7
It would be hard to challenge the notion that sexual abuse issues appear to be on the rise in the Church of Jesus Christ. In fact, some churches have been labeled by wise leaders (Don Cousins, Discovery Church, Orlando Florida) to have a culture that is vulnerable to immorality. Churches today need to recognize that a spiritual war is going on that must be met by humility and prayer. Pastors, elders, church leaders, and volunteers have been guilty of inappropriate sexual behavior, resulting in a predatory climate, unsafe to women. There is no greater assault to the name and reputation of Jesus Christ and His Church than the headlines of sexual acting out in the church. When this happens, it is easy to see how those outside of Christ dismiss the church as hypocritical, and not any different than the secular world.
The Church, the Body of Christ, is supposed to be a community set apart from the ways of the world. The Church is to be a new community, reflecting the Kingdom of God, a family of loved and loving children of the Father. Interestingly, when sexual acting out happens in the context of the Church, the family of God, it is akin to incest- sex among family members. Just like in a real family, the violation of trust is powerful, because the assumption is that the spiritual maturity of believers should serve as a hedge against sexual acting out inside the family of God.
The Church, as an alternative family for many who have come out of the sexually abusive context of their own family of origins, should be the safe and trustworthy context in which abused people can feel secure and protected. But when the Church has sexual acting out going on within its family, it violates the foundational trust that abused persons are seeking as an alternative to their experience. If sexual acting out occurs, even within the context of the Church, where, really, can anyone go to truly feel safe? If pastors and church leaders, who are often seen as spiritual parental figures, can be predatory, where do God’s children, particularly women, go to feel safe?
The Church, reflective of Jesus, is to be the context in which women are elevated to a status of equal value with men. In my church, Willow Creek Community Church, two advocates of the egalitarian position on the role of women in the church, Bill Hybels and Gil Bilzekian, have themselves been accused of inappropriate sexual abuse of women. The core belief of the egalitarian position on women, you would think, should result in a high regard for women as other than sexual objects for exploitation by men. If men who claim to honor women and elevate their status, instead exploit them, how can women trust men in the church? Men in the Church should be safe to women, seen as co-heirs to the Kingdom. The problem, however, is that often men, who are formed in the context of a hyper-sexual secular society, simply bring their unhealthy needs and assumptions about women into the Church. They may be as likely as men outside the Church to approach their sexual needs in broken and predatory ways. So what is the problem, how has it been created, and what is the solution?
As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
Historically men were part of a Band of Brothers, not the isolated and lonely state of most men today. There was a hierarchy of male leaders, with elders at the highest place of respect, who governed the behaviors of the male members. In most cultures, boys were given the soft love of their mothers until they reached the time of what we now call early adolescence (13,14). At that point boys entered what has been called a “liminal” space, a time of training, a time called initiation, that starts with the “calling out” of boys to enter the beginning of manhood.
The best example of this in our day is a man that enters the Marines. He is initially a recruit, not yet a Marine, called into training. After the rigors of training, if he succeeds, he graduates and becomes a real Marine. In the Marines, he begins at the lowest level, based on his experience and training, and then over time graduates up the ranks.The training he receives helps him to internalize the values and behaviors of a Marine. He learns to discipline his own self-centered tendencies, respects a hierarchy of leadership, and slow but sure moves from being an individual to being a co-warrior.
With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the fabric of this male connectedness started to unravel. Rugged individualism was propagated as the new male ideal. Dependence on other men was shamed, leaving men isolated and emotionally lonely. The rules and containment of the group broke down, and men, who crave structure and belonging, began to live separately from one another. Rather than collaborating with fellow men to accomplish shared goals, men began to feel competitive, further alienating them from one another. When men are competitive with one another, they are wary of trusting other men.
Feelings, the foundation of social connectedness, were frowned upon and even laughed about. In earlier cultures of male brotherhood, sexual behaviors that broke the rules were contained and even punished. The community could not afford to allow rogue men to pursue sexual gratification for their own selfish purposes. Women needed to feel safe, and it was one of the functions of the male brotherhood to provide and protect the culture, so women could feel secure. Men who were in connected communities knew each other, were accountable to each other, and could rely on each other to stay disciplined. The acting out behavior of any man would be quickly recognized and responded to in swift and strong ways. Women could trust this process, because all of the men shared the same cultural set of values and behaviors.
How Has The Church Perpetuated The Problem?
The Church should be the path back to the way that things were for men. The Church should have constructed rituals of initiation, structures of hierarchy, values of collaboration, and connections for lonely isolated men. But, in many ways, the Church has not been strong in going back to the way that I believe God intended for men to have community. The average guy who goes to church does not feel connected in any meaningful way. The church has not really addressed the break down of male community and its devastating effects. The accountability structures that were natural and normal in healthy male communities do not exist in the modern day church. Men, who struggle with emotional isolation and fear, do not feel a sense of safety to move towards other brothers in Christ. Instead, they suffer in silence, often using tried and true addictive behaviors to cope with their feelings. All too often these are sexual in nature. The catastrophic rise of online sexual sites has become a simple solution for a man to go from sad and lonely, to a sudden surge of sexual intensity. Sadly, the aftermath of this behavior is a growing sense of further isolation and shame. And so the cycle continues.
No Real Accountability
A leader at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) shared with me that he had gone to the senior leader of the church and proposed that the church develop accountability structures for the men of the church to stay on top of potential sexual acting out behaviors. He was met with a response that basically said no, we do not need that, and then implied that maybe the leader that proposed this had a problem.
WCCC is a church that, in my opinion, is structurally set up for vulnerability to adulterous acting out. Its leader lived a non-accountable life. I have not found one person who said that they had a sense of knowing the insides of the senior leader. The senior leader was isolated, hyper-competitive, unwilling to be governed, showed little empathy, and did not share his struggles or emotional pain. By his behavior he set the template for the average male leader at WCCC. The average male leader at WCCC had to look good, stay in shape, use Willow speak, and endorse the vision and values of Bill Hybels. They often lived in fear of failure, and had no real place to go to get comfort or reassurance for their feelings, and felt a fear of being looked at as weak if they admitted to emotional struggles or even anger at their spouses or fellow employees. This is a culture where all forms of sexual adultery can be a rife alternative to healthy coping.
In healthy cultures it is normative to share struggles and get help. In toxic cultures of competition and fear, it is viewed as weak and dependent to seek help.
Cultures like WCCC, with high perfectionistic demands and lots of emotional isolation, can easily become the “cultures of immorality”, where the evil one proposes sexual sins as the solution to the painful pressure and isolation of many men.
In some ways, the modern church culture has created a “Catch 22” for church leaders, particularly pastors of smaller churches. We pay them to be icons of spiritual health, place them on idealized pedestals, and place a perfectionistic demand on them to be holy and righteous. Pastors pick up the signal that they could be punished somehow for admitting their weaknesses and emotional struggles. They may feel anger towards their parishioners or their spouses, but do not believe that it would be acceptable if they shared these struggles. Since churches do not give pastors healthy options for dealing with their intense feelings, why are we so surprised that they often resort to unhealthy, sinful solutions?
Pornography viewing is on the rise among pastors. Acting out sexually is growing. Why? Because we place so much pressure on spiritual leaders to be so perfect, that they cannot bear that kind of burden. They are set up to fail. If we do not normalize structural ways to allow pastors to be simply members of the community of men and women, we are creating conditions for sexual failure. We have created an elitist view of leadership, that becomes a barrier for leaders to simply be one of us, broken and in need of community.
My son, pay attention to my wisdom,
and listen closely to my insight,
2 so you may carefully practice discretion and your lips preserve knowledge.
3 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil.
4 But in the end she is as bitter as wormwood, and as sharp as a double-edged sword. Proverbs 5
What Is The Solution?
7 For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, 8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. Titus 1
When a church is vetting a male leader for employment, the first question that should be asked is “How have you been intensively involved in a male community that is honest and transparent about feelings and sexual impulses?”.
Ask these questions: 1. Who do you share with related to anger feelings regarding your wife or children or fellow employees? 2. How is your sex life and are you struggling with fantasies of sexual gratification? 3. Is there a women in your life that you have become enamored with. either sexually or emotionally? 4. With whom, besides your partner, do you share your feelings? 5. What impulses do you experience and who do you share these with to hold you accountable? 6. How aware are you of tendencies to be prideful or to be critical of others, and who do you share this with? Etc.
If the candidate is offended by these questions, cross him off the list.
No leader is too great or important to not have down to earth accountability. Any church that does not demand this is culpable in the potential acting out behavior of its leaders. There is no reasonable justification, in the current climate of sexual acting out, for any leader to not be intimately connected to a community of men who will ask tough questions and hold leaders accountable. The safety needs of women in the Church are dependent upon this strong position. Mega-churches, like WCCC, may tend to attract somewhat narcissistic leaders, who, by virtue of their successes elsewhere, may be offended by a demand for their accountability. Too Bad! The painful consequences of the WCCC narcissistic leaders, who were unaccountable, should support the absolutely essential requirement of a leader’s willingness to enter the crucible of personal vulnerability!
Diminished Value Of Men’s Ministries In The Church
In most churches women’s ministries are far more active and vibrant than men’s ministries. WCCC abolished formal paid staff for men’s ministries years ago. It is my belief that the senior pastor did not value a strong men’s ministry because, at some level, strong, aware, mature Christian men could potentially confront his unhealthy isolation. I was annoyed that Bill Hybels would not just be another guy at a men’s ministry event. He allowed the hierarchical and elitist mentality to exist whereby he did not see himself as an equal to other men. That elitist mentality, driven by competitive and hierarchical values, is the absolute opposite of the collaborative and horizontal ideas of a body of men. Any church that allows a pastor to not have deep and accountable relations with other men is going down a path to potential destruction.
The real solution to the sexual acting out behaviors in the church is a return to the initiation and containment structures of the past. The culture of male isolation and hidden sin has resulted in a true spiritual and emotional emasculation of healthy male strength. We must understand the fact that the Evil One, the great divider, is thrilled with the current state of men who are weakened by living in isolation. When men do not understand healthy strength, the kind that is used for Godly good, they default to the counterfeit forms of strength, such as sexual aggression, which can lead to toxic masculinity. Men need a path to transition to manhood in a healthy way. Our culture and churches allow secular structures to initiate boys. These are primarily the media, internet, sports, gangs, fraternities, video games, or the military. The Church must provide healthy alternatives.
The exposure of sexual sin at WCCC and other churches simply reveals the symptoms of a toxic culture for men. How many women must be assaulted and damaged by the unwanted intrusion of male sexual aggression before the church wakes up to its complicity in supporting a model of male isolation. The church has vacated its role as the primary socializers of boys becoming men that existed for many years in the past. Men’s ministries should be one of the most essential ministries in the church. Most women, if asked, are thrilled when men create community that helps them to stay accountable to Godly ways of living. They know that healthy men, who are initiated by wise Godly men, are going to have a deep respect for women and are going to be sexually safe in the community of men and women that is the Church. And mothers, who pass off their sons to a community of wise Godly men, feel confident that the wisdom of God will be the foundation of how their boys/men will grow to maturity.
Years ago I, along with some other leaders at WCCC, developed a ministry called “Passage To Manhood”, which created the kind of ritual structures that allowed for a formal process of helping boys move across the threshold from boyhood to manhood. It was a low incidence program at WCCC, and so was not supported. This needs to be pursued again in the church so that the church becomes a haven of safety for women, rather than a place of vulnerability.