The Sexually-Repressive Church

This won’t come as any surprise to pretty much anyone: the church is seen as behind the times on a variety of issues of sexuality. Maybe for the naive it will be more of a surprise to learn that many people have left the church because of it. You may be tempted to dismiss them as just heathens who just want to live in sin and don’t want the truth to get in the way but I would encourage you that even when there are sometimes grains of truth in that thinking, it is also not in the slightest bit helpful.

Some Specific Issues

Throughout this chapter of You Lost Me, author David Kinnaman hits on a few cultural changes which are contributing to the disconnect between the church and young people. I’m not saying that traditional understandings of sex are to be discarded because of these challenges. I’m just saying that the church rarely acknowledges them, let alone does anything to help with them, and then wonders why their young people are almost all having trouble in this area.

The most obvious is that we are bombarded with sex all the time. We use it to sell things and it is all over our advertisements on highway billboards, on TV, on the Internet, and even radio pulls it off despite not having images. Many years ago sex could simply be avoided so churches didn’t need to talk about it but now many in the Western world absorb literally hundreds of sexual messages every day either subtly or in our faces.

Everything Covered But Her Eyes vs Nothing Covered But Her Eyes; Which Is More Oppressive?

This comic has a point…

Also, marriage and parenting are being pushed farther and farther back at a fairly quick rate over the past 100 years. No longer do we get married and have kids soon after we are biologically capable of it. There are good and bad things to this prolonged adolescence – I am definitely not advocating encouraging our youth to just get married once they hit puberty – but one of the challenges is clearly what to do with the human sex drive if we aren’t supposed to do anything sexual between 13 and 26. That would be half of your life to that point spent repressing natural desires, so it isn’t too hard to see why many think that the church is repressive of sexuality.

Lastly, culture as a whole has essentially made sexuality the core of the human being. When we say that somebody is a virgin or is promiscuous, is straight or is gay, is a parent or had an abortion, we often do not simply think of those things as adjectives. We are often using them as the very definition of that person. Sadly the church has often followed in this way of thinking and it is no surprise that we then turn around and shun anybody who disagrees with us. “They didn’t just choose to have an abortion; they ARE a murderer!” Sexual choices are immediately mapped to character in a way that no other issues are (interestingly to me, many churches would welcome repentant murderers but wouldn’t welcome the teenager who was pressured into an abortion and now regrets it). This makes navigating sexual ethics far more challenging than navigating other issues since pretty much everybody on both sides will equate a challenge to a sexual ethic as the same as a challenge to that person’s worth.

The Extremes: Traditionalism vs Individualism

This and much more has all built up in such a way as to create two extremes: traditionalism and individualism. While there are many who inhabit somewhere in between, these two extremes dominate the popular discussion because everybody loves to watch conflicts rather than nuanced peaceful discussion; that’s the same tendency that overexaggerates the supposed conflict between science and faith. Don’t get me wrong. The extremes definitely exist. Their voices are just blown out of proportion to sound like it is either this or that.

In this case, the one extreme is traditionalism. The traditionalist policy is to avoid talking about sex or sexuality. If you slept around – and a man could get away with it far more than a woman whose worth was much more strongly tied to her virginity – you definitely didn’t talk about it. Sex was solely to satisfy the command to “go forth and multiply.” It was not for pleasure. It was not even for any kind of spiritual union. If it was for anything other than procreation, it was wrong, and if you questioned this basic ethic, you were also wrong and became a social outcast.

In the 1960’s, this began to crumble and individualism emerged on the other extreme. The key word for this extreme is pleasure. I remember song lyrics from my teenage years: “if it feels good, do it, even if you shouldn’t.” The underlying assumption is that pleasure equals fulfillment. Anybody who says you shouldn’t are just behind the times and are trying to repress you. It doesn’t even matter that a lot of young people are realizing that casual sex is not fulfilling. They will still do it because that is the narrative that they have been told repeatedly and have eventually bought into themselves.

The Solution: Talk About It

All of these issues have a common and simple solution. We need to talk about sex more. In this post I’m not going to try to say what I think is the right answer for all of the specific sexual ethics issues that we face – abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, polygamy, etc – although I have hit on all except the last one at times before and maybe some of those could be a model for you whether you agree or not. Kinnaman doesn’t provide similar statistics as he did in the previous chapter on the anti-science church, but I would love to see what the comparison is between how many youth are sexually active and how many youth group leaders are talking about sex other than with legalisms. It seems to be a huge need that isn’t being satisfied.

Particularly, we need to move past the extremes. We neither want to be legalistically stifling discussion about the place of sex nor just encouraging people to do whatever they’d like. Kinnaman claims, and I agree, that neither of these extremes is true to Scripture or even to a lot of traditional Christian values (no, traditionalism is not the same as traditional values). We can maintain that sex is meaningful without condemning those who do things we think is wrong. We don’t have to treat all things related to sex as the ultimate sins worthy of quick ex-communication, something that is out of line with the priorities in Scripture. As Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, we have to figure out how best to say, “I don’t condemn you” as well as “sin no more.”

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.