After skimming through Brent Detwiler’s, ahem, copious comments on his numerous issues with C.J. Mahaney, my overall impression is that they corroborate pretty much all of the issues that various blogs and individuals have raised about SGM, and shed new light on how those issues manifested in the inner circles of SGM leadership. It’s not a pretty picture. No one comes out looking very good, not even Brent himself.
Much of my reaction to the documents echoes what people have already commented on at length on the SGM Survivors and Refuge blogs. For those who don’t read there or don’t want to wade through the comments, the highlights are below. I’ll post some of my thoughts that haven’t been discussed as much on the other blogs in another post.
The main issues, in summary [Trigger warning: sexual assault]:
– A long-standing pattern of narcissistic and egotistical behavior on C.J.’s part: passive aggressive or outright aggressive responses to the slightest criticism or questioning, expectations of special treatment, unilateral decision making, intense scrutiny and interrogation of the lives and work of his fellow pastors, all the while routinely being dishonest or secretive about his work and home life.
– This was coupled with extreme enabling behavior on the part of basically everyone around C.J. Despite their numerous statements effectively damning C.J. as a poor leader (see the above), they were continually praising him for being an amazing and wonderful a leader: “CJ is an exceptional leader and this summary does not provide the opportunity to celebrate all of the ways in which he excels.” They consistently stated that the thought of him stepping down never crossed their minds: “There is no one we would rather have leading the apostolic team than CJ”. Despite over 10 YEARS of attempting to persuade C.J. to be less difficult, despite the fact that even the most basic of tasks (e.g., keeping track of his vacation time) were made inordinately difficult by his insistence on being treated as perfect and special. The cognitive dissonance is kind of mindblowing.
– The fact that 6 men – at the very least – weren’t able over 10 years to keep C.J. from running amok makes the CLC pastors and apostolic team look very, very weak and cowardly.
– The interactions between the men leading CLC and SGM are stilted and highly scripted – and incredibly uncomfortable to read. There’s page after page of interrogation of the tiniest details of each others’ words, and motives behinds words, and motives behind questioning words or motives… Constant “loving challenges” to each other over “sin” and confession of “sin” that really amounted to unrelenting examination and policing of each others emotional, spiritual, and personal lives. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to live like this every day, having people constantly in one’s business and constantly being in other people’s business, all while claiming to be the closest of friends…
This. is. not. friendship. It’s not. I feel sad for these men who clearly have no concept of how joyful and affirming real friendship can be.
– Worse, the correspondence reveals the leadership teams to be a big nasty circle of bickering, backbiting, backstabbing, and thinly veiled jostling for power and approval. Meanwhile, the whole time these men are presenting themselves as a totally united front and CJ as the most humble and wonderful leader ever. The man literally WROTE A BOOK on humility – and they knew the whole time that they were lying through their teeth to CLC and all of SGM.
C.J. wasn’t humble. The men who worked most closely with him unanimously observed this. They routinely presented unilateral decisions on C.J.’s part – about handing the leadership of CLC over to Joshua Harris, e.g., or changing CLC’s doctrinal stance on baptism and communion – as unified decisions the pastoral team arrived at after lots of prayer and discussion together. Bottom line, they were lying to everyone for YEARS. Years.
– Oh yea, and there’s the whole part about C.J. trying to blackmail Larry Tomczak, co-founder of what eventually became SGM, into not leaving the group. This is the most serious allegation, with potential legal ramifications for C.J. and SGM. The story is that C.J. threatened to reveal information about his teenage son’s “youthful sin” (as Larry Tomczak puts it) to the church. It seems pretty clear that this was some sort of sexual “sin.” What’s less clear is whether this was participation in a consensual act, or, as has been alleged on the Survivors blog, a case of Tomczak’s son sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the church. If the latter, then not only is C.J. guilty of blackmail, he and everyone who knew about this incident are guilty of keeping a sexual crime from the authorities.
Narcissism. Enabling. Lying in order to maintain their influence over the congregation. Power grabbing. Blackmail. Coverups. Wonderful pastors for you. Again, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? Self-aggrandizement and dirty politics for personal gain? Yep.
ETA: This news has now been confirmed on C.J.’s blog. I’ve moved my previous disclaimer to the comments to avoid it cluttering up this post.
So apparently the top leader of SGM is temporarily stepping down in light of charges “[including] various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” More at SGM Survivors (usual warnings apply about the comments not being safe space in various ways). It’s a sudden and somewhat shocking development, at least to me; my reaction to it is mixed and will take some time to process. It’s definitely unexpected given how much of a cult of personality SGM is – one that specifically revolved around C.J. more than anyone else.
A couple things strike me off the bat – one, he focuses exclusively on grievances that former SGM pastors and leaders have with him and SGM, and only talks about other leaders who are friends of SGM as having any role in providing him with “counsel and correction” in considering these charges. This is not the best sign. A huge part of the complaint against SGM has been that leaders are treated as though they have some special extra-godly status while “regular” members are expected to unquestioningly submit to and practically worship them. This doesn’t really alleviate concerns about SGM’s pyramid-like hierarchical and authoritarian culture, especially since most (not all) of the complaints brought against the group have been from regular members, not former pastors or otherwise influential members.
The way he name drops about the bigwigs (for the tiny reformed evangelical world, anyway) who will be helping him (not doing an unbiased assessment, in other words) through this process is particularly disturbing:
I have also contacted David Powlison and Mark Dever and asked them to review the charges and provide me with their counsel and correction. I have enlisted them to serve me personally during this time and to ensure this process of examining my heart and life is as thorough as possible.
He’s enlisted them? To serve him personally? That just sounds weird. It really doesn’t sound like he’s going through a period of “discipline.” It sounds more like he’s simultaneously trying to score points for being so humble to voluntarily step down and invite “correction,” while also trying to impress people by his ability to personally summon important reformed leaders to pow wow with him. Bleh.
On the plus side, they are bringing in an outside group with (supposedly) no history with SGM to evaluate the situation, and C.J. says he’s stepping down to make sure there’s no conflict of interest created by his continuing to lead SGM while this group conducts their investigation. That’s good. I’m sure the group is extremely conservative and fundamentalist, which will limit the degree to which they can really see the wrong that’s been done by SGM (e.g., with their queer hating theology). ETA: Not an outside group. The group is linked to Peacemakers, a ministry that has a long, ugly history with SGM, including attempting to “reconcile” a family whose child had been traumatized at an SGM church to the pastors who attempted to cover up the trauma (see here, trigger warning and also not a safe space).
I also gotta point out that it was only a few weeks ago that Josh Harris credited C.J. with the insights that led to the his weak sauce apology to CLC:
For several years now C.J. Mahaney, who was one of the founding pastors of Covenant Life and now serves as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, has been leading the pastors of Sovereign Grace to recognize the difference between principle and practice…
C.J. shared something with me recently that turned the light on for me. He quoted J.I. Packer who wrote that the Puritans were known for their ability to “reduce to practice”—in other words, they took biblical principles and reduced them to specific choices and decisions in their lives. This is a good thing. God’s Word, handled rightly, leads to humble and skillful application.
But C.J. pointed out that there can be a problem when we “reduce to only one practice”—and give the impression that there is only one godly way to honor a given principle.
So just six weeks ago C.J. was a great leader who helped the pastors see how wrong they’d gotten things (as it turns out, not that wrong! shocking!). And now he’s the target of accusations so serious that an outside body needs to come in to evaluate them. Accusations that he’s been aware of for years, by his own admission, but has said nothing about, allowing himself to be continually held up as the paragon of perfect leadership and godliness the whole time:
Over the last few years some former pastors and leaders in Sovereign Grace have made charges against me and informed me about offenses they have with me as well as other leaders in Sovereign Grace. These charges are serious and they have been very grieving to read. These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn’t minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.
Golly. Well. Things sure do change quickly in SGM! “Constant change is always with us,” indeed.
Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spousal/domestic abuse, spiritual abuse.
The problems Josh addresses in his comments (and those he fails to acknowledge) are characteristic of SGM as a whole. A single apology to a single church is inadequate. CLC teachings are funneled to and reproduced at every other SGM church through conferences, podcasts, books, sermon recordings, visits from CLC pastors, blogs, on and on. Books by CJ and Josh and CJ’s wife and daughters are virtually required reading for SGM church members. The typical SGM church member outside CLC has heard several sermons by CJ in particular, along with other top-level SGM leaders, and has heard each of those sermons more than once. The typical SGM church member, in fact, is familiar with CJ’s catchphrases, and can and will repeat them with little prompting (“I’m doing better than I deserve!” and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”). People across SGM read the same books, listen to the same music, make the same lifestyle and educational choices, only marry people from their own or other SGM churches, have a religious vocabulary unique to SGM, even among other evangelical reformed groups, etc., etc. But don’t worry, just because almost everyone happens to conform to a very narrow set of lifestyles and behaviors, just because everyone looks and talks the same, doesn’t mean SGM is a high control cultic group.
This raises a set of related problems with this “apology”: in various ways it’s a perfect illustration of the high control/cultic aspects of SGM’s church culture.
1) This “apology” does not at all address the established pattern of SGM leaders covering up child molestation, promoting teachings that foster, enable, and excuse domestic spousal and child abuse, and bullying women in particular into staying with abusive husbands. These are allegations that in a healthy church with responsible leadership would be addressed in a transparent and direct fashion. Instead the leaders at CLC and other SGM churches privately deny that these incidents ever took place (even though at least one of them involved a registered sex offender) and publicly pretend as though the allegations don’t exist.
A church that doesn’t tolerate or enable abusive behavior is one where the leaders don’t hesitate to say so publicly, and loudly, and to be very clear about the measures they have in place to minimize abuse, to report abusers, and to help survivors. SGM couldn’t be farther from this; they don’t deal honestly with the issue of abuse. They in fact give the impression that SGM is some sort of abuse-free nirvana: CJ calls CLC “the happiest place on earth” while Josh claims that spousal abuse is “very rare” (more lies). SGM cultivates a culture of silence and secrecy around abuse, a culture in which abuse and abusers thrive.
2) Josh doesn’t address allegations that children of pastors at Covenant Life School are have been held to a lower standard of behavior and faced much less harsh consequences for breaking school rules than children of “regular” members, who are frequently expelled for serious infractions (again, totally not culty).
3) The problems at Covenant Life LONG predate Josh’s presence there. Josh isn’t the one responsible for creating these problems, though he’s certainly had a huge hand in perpetuating them. The longtime leaders of SGM – Dave Harvey, Steve Shank, Brent Detwiler, among others, and most especially beloved leader and “apostle” CJ Mahaney – are the ones who should be giving this apology. Why leave it up to one of the youngest and least culpable members of the leadership to handle? Why isn’t CJ stepping up and taking responsibility for the toxic culture he’s micromanaged for the past 30 years? Instead Josh effusively praises CJ – who’s known for his narcissistic and controlling style of leadership and his encouragement of a cult of personality with himself and his family at the center – for showing the pastors where they went wrong with reducing holiness to a single practice. Ugh. Again, this is how cults work. CJ is being held up yet again as the paragon of perfection despite the fact that as CLC’s leader from its founding, he bears main responsibility for CLC being what it is today.
4) Throughout his comments Josh undermines in various ways the seriousness of the mistakes he’s supposedly apologizing for. He says he understands that these mistakes have caused people deep pain, but simultaneously makes light of them by cracking jokes and laughing inappropriately (this is more obvious in the audio of his comments, which isn’t 100% identical to transcript). He attributes the high level of group conformity at CLC to the fact that they care so much about being holy. He feels the need to assert that the CLC pastoral team hasn’t been wrong about “everything” – as though the pastors would have to be wrong about everything to do serious, long-term damage by abusing the trust people have in them. He uses the manipulative language of “our church isn’t perfect/no church is perfect” – as though calls for accountability are identical to expecting perfection.
5) Relatedly, Josh claims to understand that there’s been a longterm established pattern of high pressure to conform, and that the pastors themselves have perpetuated this culture. Yet he expects his audience to continue to invest complete trust in the pastors that NOW they really understand what the problem is and things will be very different in the future. If the pastors were so unable to see that these things were issues for so many years, why should they be trusted to understand them now?
6) Finally, and also relatedly, from start to finish the apology is a carefully orchestrated performance completely controlled by Josh and the pastoral team behind him. No actual victims of CLC’s abusive practices were allowed to share their stories with the church. All discussions of negative experiences have taken place behind closed doors, on turf firmly controlled by CLC: e.g., Josh’s home. We have to take it on his word that people have truly been quick to extend forgiveness for the damage done, as he claims. Further, Josh gives numerous verbal cues to the congregation about how they should interpret his admission and apology. His comments aren’t evidence of a serious, endemic problem exposed by blogs critical of SGM, but rather “realignments” and “refinements” (in other words, minor adjustments) that are God’s answer to prayer for revival. They’re “not an indictment of [CLC’s] history,” but part of an ongoing growth in the church. And on and on. The whole thing is deeply manipulative in how it attempts to direct and control the congregation’s reaction.
This is not an adequate apology. In my opinion, it’s not even an adequate first step. It’s damage control. It’s a vague, minimizing, manipulative, blame-shifting, micromanaging, incredibly dishonest attempt at damage control. People are leaving several SGM churches in droves. Enrollments at Covenant Life School have dropped significantly. Josh and the rest of the pastoral team want people to believe it’s purely coincidental they’ve just now figured out that they’ve made some serious mistakes. In a high control cult of personality like CLC, such a transparently convenient excuse just might fly.
I mistakenly scheduled this the post before I was done drafting it – so this post may change pretty dramatically in the next few days. Just FYI! :p
Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spiritual abuse.
After over two years of mostly ignoring accusations of widespread dysfunction and abuse in their churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries is finally paying attention. In recent months, Joshua Harris, current senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, the SGM
motherflagship church, has been meeting with present and former members of the church to hear their grievances. This past Sunday, he led a church-wide “family meeting” in which he apologized for “where we’ve gotten things wrong” and pledged to “grow as leaders and as a church.”
Well, it sounds nice, but I’m not buying this “apology.” For a lot of reasons. Just for starters:
1) It’s framed dishonestly from the very beginning. There’s no acknowledgement that this is the result of increasing pressure and bad press from ex-members’ blogs, particularly Survivors and Refuge. They’re sticking to their policy of closely monitoring the blogs in secret while publicly pretending that they don’t exist. Instead Josh claims that “God has been showing the pastors about where we’ve gotten things wrong” and “answering our prayer that he would revive us and refine us.” Well. God works in mysterious ways, I guess, including online callouts for covering up child molestation. “His” timing in bringing correction and revival also curiously coincides with declining enrollments at Covenant Life School and loss of members in several SGM churches.
2) Josh acknowledges mistakes in a vague and unsatisfying manner. He glosses over huge issues in a matter of minutes. This would be fine if there were any indication that there will be future meetings to discuss these issues in more detail, but there isn’t. This is a church culture that hammers home to its members that when someone sins, they should make a specific confession of sin, and a specific plan to do differently (you know, repentance). There’s no specificity here, only running down a list of things people have been saying for years in a superficial, parroting fashion that doesn’t give much indication that Josh or the other pastors truly comprehend or care about the problems at hand. Once again the pastors hold themselves to a far lower standard of ‘holiness’ than they expect of their members.
For example, Josh states that in at least one case where a pastor was having “problems” with a teenage child, he (Josh) didn’t respond in a caring way. Which pastor? What was wrong about his response? Wouldn’t more transparency and specificity show he’s really serious about recognizing where things were done wrong and about changing in the future? It seems to me that the pastors want all the benefits of making an apology without having to take on all the self-sacrifice and pain that comes with making a sincere admission of wrongdoing.
3) Relatedly, he refuses to take proper responsibility for problems at CLC (which are characteristic of SGM as a whole). He uses passive language, admitting only that the pastors “allowed” a toxic culture to develop at CLC, or “could have worked harder” to prevent such a culture from developing. He repeatedly denies any pastoral responsibility for communicating narrow-minded and oppressive beliefs to the congregation, e.g.: “If you went back and listened to past messages, I don’t think you’d find us teaching, ‘There’s only one godly way to do this or that'” and “I don’t think the ‘good parents = good kids’ idea has characterized our teaching on parenting.” In effect he casts the problems at CLC as being the primary fault of the lay members (for what, being too stupid to understand what the pastors really meant?). The root problem is that members weren’t listening carefully enough.
This is utter nonsense. Whatever Joshua Harris might be, he’s neither unintelligent nor completely naive, and he would have to be to fail to recognize that SGM’s oppressive and abusive culture is a direct product of what its pastors have clearly communicated to members from its earliest years. Take an issue that I’ve been directly affected by: Josh implies that the pastors “unintentionally” gave the impression that “to practice biblical femininity, [women] shouldn’t pursue higher education or work outside the home.” This is simply not true.
Josh is probably technically correct that one is unlikely to find any recorded sermons in which an SGM pastor says that women shouldn’t go to college, or work outside the home. Like most complementarians, SGM’s leaders are very careful to avoid communicating their misogyny so explicitly. But there’s no mistaking their consistent pattern of undermining higher education or out of home employment for women, for example, in Brent Detwiler’s teaching (particularly “Thoughts on Vocation”*) on how young adults should prepare for (straight) marriage and parenthood, which he was teaching as recently as 2006 and which is still posted on his former church’s website:
YOUNG LADIES MUST PREPARE TO BE HOMEMAKERS…Prepare to Marry Young If God’s Will; Don’t accept cultural norms and practices…Don’t Assume College or Career:
1) Be aware of serving the cultural idol of education and career.
2) Be willing to lay aside the pursuit of higher education if marriage comes early.
3) Be willing to lay aside a career when married.
4) Think of a non-paying (but very rewarding and important) “career” in the home related to your husband and children.
5) If unmarried, consider a “feminine” vocation or job that will benefit family later.
Detwiler further divides reasons married women work outside the home into “necessary” reasons and “wordly” reasons. The only “necessary” reasons are a husband’s unemployment or disability, or to save up money or pay off debts. The clear implication is that any woman who works outside of the home when her husband is also employed is sinning if her work is not indispensable to family finances. Meanwhile, worldly reasons for a woman to work outside of the home include:
6) Identity and fulfillment primarily in work outside the home. Not content with obscurity of being a wife, mother and homemaker… [my emphasis] 8) Husband and wife may think she can work outside home with little or no harm to the marriage and family. 9) Realization by a woman that it may be easier to work outside the home than in the home as a wife, mother and homemaker.
There’s an obvious disdain here for women and especially mothers who have outside employment. Detwiler clearly implies that such women are lazy, self-absorbed, and unwise parents. He clearly associates a woman working outside the home with “harm” to her marriage and family. He states that there is “lack of biblical support” for women to work full-time outside of the home. This is official SGM teaching – or if it’s not current official teaching, it’s not been clearly repudiated, and it needs to be.
That’s even without the fact that the pastors send an unmistakable message by “leading” the vast majority of their wives to be homeschooling, stay at home moms and “leading” the vast majority of their daughters to live with their parents until they marry, to attend local community colleges if they go to college at all, to pursue stereotypically feminine careers as secretaries, teachers, or nurses, and to become homemakers when they marry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these lifestyles (and it’s worth keeping in mind that choice in these matters is a luxury that many, many people around the world don’t have). But when practically every immediate female relative of an SGM pastor makes the same choices, it’s not a free choice, and it sends a clear message to SGM members that truly “godly” women should, barring a few exceptions, always conform to one narrowly defined lifestyle.
Yet Joshua Harris would have us believe that any impression CLC members might have that it’s less godly for Christian women to have college degrees (or heaven forbid, post-bac degrees) or full-time careers was a complete misinterpretation on the members’ parts and never intended by the pastors.
What a load of crap. Memo to Josh: sincere apologies don’t involve lying or insulting your audience’s listening comprehension.
*Just in case this page is taken down later – I have copies of this and other outlines documenting Detwiler’s extremely sexist teachings.
Harris continues to lay out his interpretation of the connection between the verses on female submission in 1 Peter 3, and the verses on other kinds of submission and authority in the preceding chapter. Peter’s point in these passages is to teach Christians what “honorable conduct” is so that non-Christians will be able to see how holy they are:
When an unbelieving word looks at [Christians] and slanders them and calls them evildoers, they will see that it’s not true, and on the final day they will glorify God. On the final day they’ll be able to say, you followed Jesus, you represented this holy god.
Ah. Problem: people who aren’t already invested in patriarchal assumptions see demands for female submission as dehumanizing and oppressive, not as “honorable conduct.” Good luck getting us to believe you’re being holy by telling women and girls they have to obey men if they really love God. Harris does actually teach in this message that “submission” means obedience and subordination:
Peter gives a very specific way that we as God’s people can be honorable in our conduct . . . He says, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” That phrase “be subject” is the same word used to tell wives to be submissive to their husbands. It means to obey. Be subject, to be submissive, to submit, means to place yourself in a secondary category, and to receive the leadership of someone else. It means to obey. [bold my emphasis; italics are his]
I’m somewhat surprised that he’s so candid. My experience in SGM was that the words “obey” and “obedience” were very deliberately avoided when discussing female submission. The pastor who did our engagement interview (yes, really) advised us not to choose the traditional vows that include the word “obey” in them, because it could “give the wrong idea” to wedding guests from outside our church – not that we would have chosen that set anyway! It was particularly strange given that this set of vows was included in the materials they gave to engaged couples with ideas for the wedding ceremony.
This is yet another example of the hypocrisy and cynicism of complementarian leaders. They distance themselves from the clear meaning of their beliefs in mixed company because they know it’s bad PR. The only explanations I can think of for Harris’ candidness in this sermon are that SGM has gotten more extreme in its beliefs on gender in the years since I left, and/or that Harris feels comfortable using such language because he’s preaching to the home crowd.
Harris continues with the argument that male authority in marriage isn’t a misogynistic singling out of women, but rather is just one kind of authority set up by God :
What’s being communicated is that God, in other words God, has ordained institutions of authority. And so because you are a Christian who is submitted to the Lord, be submitted to every institution of authority that your Lord has set in place in this world for your good [my emphasis].
And then Peter lists three examples: government leaders, who are set in place by God to determine and enforce laws; masters or employers in the workforce, and then husbands in the home who are called to be the head of the family.
I discussed in an earlier post one big reason why the comparison of “authority” in marriage to “authority” in the workplace is problematic: 1 Peter 2 doesn’t actually say anything about “employers.” It calls on slaves to submit to their masters, and states that a slave owner’s authority is God-ordained. It calls on slaves to submit even when they are unjustly beaten (as opposed to justly beaten, I guess?). This is the real parallel to female submission, not workplace chain of command. The real meaning of this passage, using Harris’ philosophy of biblical interpretation, is that wives are their husbands’ property, and they are obligated to obey them even in cases of horrible abuse.
Again, Harris tries to have things both ways, preaching an oppressive message while being dishonest about it’s implications. He lies by equating slave masters with modern day employers, and goes on at length about the importance of authority in the workplace and in the government, as though either has anything to do with the very different kind of submission Peter preached – a philosophy of ownership that saw women, slaves, and children as literally belonging to the male head of the household. He lies by equating patriarchal marriage with an employer-employee relationship, or the relationship between a citizen and the government. Neither employees nor citizens are expected in our society to “obey” or be “subject” to employers or the government in the way complementarian wives are expected to – total and complete submission to their husbands in every little detail of their lives.
And he uses this false equivalence to argue that just like there would be chaos in society and in workplaces if there were no one to lead, or set the agenda, there would be chaos in the home and family if no one was the leader:
Go spend a week in Somalia [ah, the classic look how bad things are in Africa example – Grace], and you will realize what a blessing it is to have just laws and a government that enforces it [sic]. Authority is a good thing. Authority is all around us.
If you go to the workplace, uh, you want there to be leadership. You know? Th-this idea that you know what, we should just all be equal, let’s just all show up and do what we think is right, and – have you ever worked in a place like that? That’s not a good place to work! . . . The same is true when it comes to the home. Someone has to lead. And God has set authority and roles of leadership in these different contexts, and this is not a bad thing, it’s an expression of his care for his creation to establish authority in human institutions. [emphasis his]
Funny, somehow my husband and I and the vast majority of couples we know manage to run our households just fine without one spouse telling the other what to do and think all the time. Maybe we just got lucky?
Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.
You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was. After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).
Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church. Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly. Then again . . .
h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).
Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught. That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex. I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.
Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic. How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight? Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God? What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)? How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?
These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages. Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination. They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with. They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.
Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course. Just premarital sex – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people. Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted. Well. The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is). The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully. A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message. If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.
And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind. A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals. A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality. Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework. Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members. For example:
I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.
I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage. That’s a legitimate choice to make. The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous. It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies. And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas. It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.