Christian Sexuality Focus: Evangelical view of sexuality questioned

First published on Christian Sexuality Focus

This blog hasn’t been written for more than a year because of some questions over its function and purpose. The Facebook page that used to be linked to it was voluntarily taken offline due to this uncertainty. However it will continue to receive occasional posts like this one and they will be syndicated via converser.nz feed page and associated Facebook feed as with other converser.nz blogs.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is well known as the host of a women’s ministry blog “To Love, Honour and Vacuum” and author of a number of books addressing Christian female sexuality. On February 14, she questioned the basis of the evangelical view of sexuality on Twitter, and received a strong response which has resulted in an article on Religion News Service this week. The same general article can also be found on her site.

Gregoire is right to question a series of teachings about male and female sexuality that are at the heart of a strand of theology called Complementarianism, which is a well developed and articulated set of viewpoints that have been created in order to define the roles that Christian women should follow in everyday life, but especially in the Church and in family life. These ideas have become quite mainstream over perhaps centuries, as their roots can be found in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and conservative Protestantism of previous eras, such as Reformed / Calvinist doctrine. The views owe their pervasiveness to the formal development of complementarianism as a mainstream theology (led by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, formed by prominent theologians and pastors) and its widespread adoption throughout the Protestant Church as well as Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism. The contrasting Christian Egalitarian viewpoint really only took off in the 20th century and is largely advocated and supported by relatively modern churches, giving it a somewhat less visible profile in faith circles.

The practices or beliefs that Gregoire has highlighted in her articles require a more in-depth study of complementarianism to ascertain how much they are a part of that strand of theology or whether they have come in more from conservative evangelical tradition. She has highlighted in particular the views stated in the well known “Every Man’s Battle” series of books, which essentially outline ideas that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and that women are responsible in their actions and the way they dress to ensure they do not provoke attacks from sex-crazed men. These ideas are quite pervasive, for example influencing very conservative styles of uniform at Christian schools in New Zealand, where it is claimed female pupils / students should not wear pants because their bodies need to be hidden from view or de-sexualised as much as possible. Undoubtedly, the same ideas are present in the conservative dress styles in churches aligned to Reformed / Calvinistic traditions. Some more extreme views amplified by this type of belief goes on to assert that women are not sexual beings, that they do not have sexual thoughts or feelings, and that their sole function in life is to become married and be a sexual plaything for their husband. In short, conservative views on female sexuality deny many of the physical or physiological realities that most women are capable of experiencing from the onset of adolescence.

Egalitarian churches generally teach that males are responsible for their own thoughts and actions and are able to discipline and manage their sex drives sufficiently well in everyday life, and there does not appear to be any suggestion in any egalitarian churches that there is a higher incidence of problems with males unable to control themselves. The complementarian viewpoint just seems to be a series of excuses for men to deflect blame, or to justify a highly sexualised lifestyle. However, egalitarianism as a theology somewhat lacks the same kind of broad support as complementarianism has attracted and also appears to lack the breadth of in depth teaching on significant levels of male and female sexuality that appears to be enshrined in complementarianism (subject to the comment above about the scale of complementarianism).

In the 1990s, complementarianism inspired the “purity movement” best exemplified in “True Love Waits”, a campaign for adolescents sponsored by the staunchly complementarian Southern Baptist Convention, which continues to the present day despite some well publicised challenges and retractions, most notably from Joshua Harris, a US pastor who authored a series of books enshrining a purity-focused viewpoint of courtship and marital relations. Other denunciations recently published have come from Linda Kay Klein (Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free), and Rebecca Lemke (The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation). Both of these authors retain some sort of allegiance to the Christian faith, although Klein now associates with a sexually liberal viewpoint; Lemke’s current theological affiliation is unclear. Affiliation is important because there are still relatively few independent sources of commentary challenging complementarianism and its teachings from within the evangelical community, an important consideration for establishing a credible narrative of support for egalitarian-inspired teachings on human sexuality for Christians.

Complementarianism remains a dominant Christian theme of doctrine about human sexuality to the present day although efforts made by a loose coalition of egalitarian activists have borne some fruit. There remains a theological vacuum of egalitarian beliefs that cover the more physical aspects of sexuality, whereas egalitarianism in general is more focused on leadership roles within the church. This leaves egalitarian-affiliated churches to find their own wisdom and beliefs on physical sexuality to articulate to their members, particularly adolescent youth, with the suspicion that these may create challenges of their own. The hope is, therefore, that an egalitarian counterpart to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood will arise and become a prominent theological movement in its own right.