When I use the word Evangelical I am using it to describe churches and denominations that have beliefs and practices normally associated with Evangelicalism. Groups like the National Association of Evangelicals, denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, and various Nondenominational, Charismatic, Pentecostal,Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches, and a plethora of smaller independent Church groups. Collectively, they are one on the largest religious groups in America.
While my posts on sexual abuse address what is going on in Evangelical churches, I want to be clear that I don’t think liberal/progressive/mainline Protestant churches are exempt from having problems with sexual abuse. Evangelicalism is what I am most familiar with and my writing naturally reflects that. I am sure if I did a bit of research I would find similar problems in liberal/progressive/mainline Protestant churches.
My posts, up to this point, have dealt with the sexual abuse of children and teenagers. In this post I want to write about the OTHER sexual abuse that goes on in Evangelical churches. This sexual abuse is perpetrated by pastors and church leaders on adult parishioners.
Some readers may immediately object and say, What goes on between two consenting adults is no one’s business and it is NOT sexual abuse.
To some degree, I agree with this sentiment. Years ago, I had a pastor friend who had an affair with a woman in the church he was pastoring. He later divorced his wife, left the ministry, and married the woman he had the affair with.
Over time, the whole story came out. The pastor’s first wife had secretly been a lesbian for many years. My pastor friend knew this and did his best to hide it. His lesbian wife had not had sex with him for 20 years. She maintained an apartment in the city where she stayed with her lover. (imagine how difficult this was to pull of in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church)
While I, at the time, deplored the deceit and the affair, as a man, I completely understood the pastor seeking out the affections of a woman.
As far as I know, the pastor did not use his place of authority to coerce the woman he had the affair with into having a relationship with him. She was divorced. Perhaps she was lonely, looking for a man to have a relationship with.
Forget all the Bible commands about sex. They aren’t relevant in this discussion. Men and women fall in love with each other. Sometimes they fall out of love. Sometimes they fall in love with people who are married to someone else. Sometimes married people have affairs. Sometimes married people have sex with people other than their spouse.
Pastors and church leaders aren’t immune from these things. I could spend the next hour detailing the stories of pastors I know who had an affair or ran off with their secretary, a deacon’s wife, the church pianist, or a choir member. One church I know of had two music directors run of with one of the choir members. In the same church the pianist had an affair with a choir member.
Affairs happens. Sexual hookups happen. As a heterosexual man, with a normal libido, I fully understand how and why these things happen. Every man I know, if they are honest, will admit to being sexually attracted to someone other than their spouse. (since I am not a woman, I can not speak to how women think on these matters) Just because someone is a pastor or church leader doesn’t mean they stopped being a sexual being.
Pastors and church leaders are attracted to women just like any other male. Their religion requires them to behave according to the moral code of the Bible but they don’t stop being normal, heterosexual men. In fact, the moral code they are required to obey sometimes causes them a good bit of internal struggle. Instead of being allowed to act like a normal, heterosexual male, they are forced to act like a horse with blinders on. He must never look at another woman and say n-i-c-e. Oh, he will continue to do this in his mind, but he can never be the man he is outwardly.
This is why pastors and church leaders sometimes find themselves in embarrassing situations. Porn on their office computer. A Church member sees them coming out of an adult bookstore, strip club or bar. These things happen. In the normal world, it is no big deal. It is understood that this is normal male behavior. (and before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting than men who DON’T do these things are abnormal)
One of the most liberating things that happened in my life after I left the ministry and Christianity was the freedom I gained to be a normal, healthy heterosexual man. I no longer have to feign not looking when an attractive woman walks by. These days my wife is quite interested in what type of women I find attractive. (besides her, of course) It is quite liberating not to have to walk down the street with averted eyes every time a nice looking woman walks down the street. I no longer have to pretend I don’t like steamy sex scenes on TV. (and some of them I DON’T like)
My wife and I can laugh together at Skin-a-Max shows on TV late at night. Personally, they do nothing for me. Both Polly and I find the shows amusing and dreadfully bad TV. I am certainly not a sexual libertine but I am now free to be the sexual being God made me to be.
Embracing a humanist view of life and reconnecting with my self has allowed me to better understand the sexual being I am. I have come to see that Evangelical Christianity is sexually repressive, and when I hear of sexual trysts, affairs, and the like happening in Evangelicalism, I am not surprised. These things happen among unwashed heathens and Evangelicals are no different. (though they generally have a lot more guilt)
I am in no way suggesting that affairs and extra-marital sexual activities are necessarily good things. Every circumstance is different. Every married couple determines the rules that govern their marriage. Personally, I made a commitment to Polly that I would be faithful to her until death do us part. We have lived by that commitment to each other for 34 years. I may now have the freedom to look, but my vow to Polly means I dare not touch.
All I am saying here is that I fully understand how and why affairs happen in the Evangelical church. Often such affairs are ill-advised and destructive, but they do happen, just like they happen in the non-Evangelical world. I am fully aware of the pain and damage an affair can cause to a family. My Dad had an affair with a woman he later married.The affair destroyed our family. However, looking back on it, I can see why my Dad had an affair. ( and maybe had multiple affairs over the years) Being married to my Mom couldn’t have been easy.
I wrote all of the above to explain what I am NOT talking about when I speak of the OTHER Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Evangelical Church. Regardless of how unfortunate, hurtful, and messy the above mentioned things can be, they are the acts of consenting adults.
This post is about sex between pastors/church leaders and adults in the church. Notice I did not use the word consenting. I should also note that I am only talking about sexual relationships between male pastors/church leaders and women. While I am sure same sex relationships DO take place they are not as common as heterosexual relationships. It seems when pastors who are bisexual or closet homosexuals seek out same sex relationships they tend to go outside the church to prostitutes, gay bars and clubs. (as the Ted Haggard story illustrates, though Eddie Long sought out young men IN the Church)
Pastors are considered people of authority. When counseling parishioners they enter into a unique relationship with the people they pastor. Like any profession that bring professionals into intimate contact with people, pastors must be careful that their relationships do not cross not cross ethical boundaries. Sexual relationships are not permitted and can, in some cases, be considered sexual assault or rape.
The reason for this is simple. When counseling a woman a pastor is often hearing intimate details about her life. She is letting her guard down, she is vulnerable. Unless a pastor has a high ethical standard and has safeguards put in place, it is quite easy for a pastor to go from man of God to sexual predator.
Granted, pastors may from time to time have a female parishioner who becomes sexually infatuated with them. This happened to me twice in 25 years. In the one instance I didn’t even know about it until years later when the woman wrote to me to tell me about it. In the other instance, the woman made her intentions clear and I had to take steps to make sure we were never alone together.
However, ethical pastors must always be aware of the dangers of inappropriate behavior when counseling women. As the person of authority they have the responsibility to make sure relationships with female parishioners are ALWAYS above board. Appeals to weakness, lack of sex in their marriage, she came on to me, etc. are no excuse for violating a woman when she is in a vulnerable state.
Let me illustrate this with a story from a church I pastored many years ago. A man in our church was arrested for having sex with his 16 yr. old adopted daughter. When I visited the man at the jail he told me he was sorry but she came on to him and he couldn’t help himself. I am sure he expected me to understand. I didn’t. I pointedly told him that God gave him hands and he should have used them. There was NO excuse for his behavior.
And this is exactly how I view pastors who have sexual relationships with woman they are counseling. Yes, the pastor’s marriage may suck. Yes, the pastor’s wife might have stopped having sex with him 2 years ago. Yes, he might be lonely and in need of someone to talk to. Yes, yes, yes…but none of these things matter. The pastor MUST be in control of his emotions and sexual desire.
If the pastor needs companionship, needs someone to talk to, or just needs to get laid, he is free to seek out relationships with consenting women (or men) outside of the church congregation. He is free to go to bars, clubs, or even hire a prostitute. (I am making no moral judgment here) He is not free, however, to prey on women who are emotionally vulnerable.
I have counseled hundreds of people over the years. I have heard intimate details about their marriages, sex lives, secrets desires and sins. I pretty much have heard it all. Evangelical Christians have problems just like everyone else. In many ways they have MORE problems because obeying the commands of the Bible cause increases levels of fear, guilt, helplessness. (helpless in the sense that they WANT to obey the commands of the Bible but they can’t seem to successfully do so.)
This intimate knowledge of people’s lives requires pastors act professionally and maintain ethical behavior at all times. It is scandalous to do otherwise. I have no sympathy for pastors who got caught with their pants down. They knew better. They knew there was a line they could NEVER cross. They forgot the old maxim, a stiff prick has no conscience. They forgot their calling to HELP others. Instead, they became a predator.
Sadly, this abuse of authority is rarely exposed, investigated, or prosecuted. ( and make no mistake about it people of authority may NOT, in many states, legally have sexual relationships with those they have professional relationships with) Far too often the woman leaves the church in shame and the pastor carries on as if nothing happened. Sometimes, the pastor resigns and lets the church know that God is leading him to a new church. (I know of two stories about pastors who were serial predators, going from church to church seducing adult women, see David Hyles at Conservative Babylon)
I hope through blog posts like this women who have been sexually abused by a pastor will know that I am at least one person who believes and understands what happened to them. While nothing may be done legally, I want them to know that I am one person, and there are many others like me, that thinks pastors who use their authority to sexually abuse women deserve to be exposed. They are snakes of the worst kind.