Christianity has a sex problem.
When it comes to physically intimate acts, by reputation Christians are known to disallow any acts between anyone except a married heterosexual couple. Those who are single, co-habitating, and any LGBT person must remain completely and totally chaste. Many intimate acts, including kissing (in some religious sects), are absolutely wrong in premarital relationships.
So when we hear stories of a fundamentalist Christian teen who molests multiple minor girls, we notice mixed reactions. Some believe it’s like all other sexual sins – no more or less sinful. Others name the acts of molestation as a more heinous crime.
The problem comes down to whether we see sex outside of marriage as breaking a legal code or something that has the potential of being a healthy act. More conserving Christians will note that all sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are sinful. They may even imply that ALL sexual acts not in the confines of marriage are equally sinful. And they may even mention that everyone is an equal opportunity sinner.
Like many other progressive Christians, I personally don’t think that all sexual acts outside of marriage are considered sinful. Yes, this is absolutely contradictory to what the loudest people in Christianity believe. But after placing Scripture in conversation with reason, tradition, experience together, I see that sometimes, there are no definite answers to whether someone should engage in sex outside of marriage. Instead, there are many questions that arise: Is the situation healthy and safe? Do both people respect one another? Is anyone being hurt by this encounter?
For a moment, let’s put aside our differences. For those who still may believe that intimacy should not be outside of marriage, we must come together to considered one factor: some sexual acts are more devastating and painful, thus making them more sinful. And the reason is the lack of consent.
Two consenting people having sex may just be two consenting people having sex. It’s a potentially healthy expression of the way two people like/respect/admire/love one another. Not everyone will feel it is right to engage in premarital sex before marriage. People who wait shouldn’t be called names and shamed – just like people who engage in sex before marriage should not be shamed. Individual choice should be respected – as long as people are being healthy and safe. We must respect that some people will engage in sex outside of marriage and others will not, and we must be as loving as possible to someone no matter which they choose.
But here’s when we get into a problem. There is a HUGE difference in how we see God in relation to our sex lives. Some will see God’s presence and blessing in an intimate consensual relationship prior to marriage. Others will see God’s condemnation. Some will pray to God to bless their sexual union. Others believe God wants nothing to do with our sex lives – especially outside of marriage.
No matter which side of the conversation we fall, most of us can probably agree that sometimes there’s sin involved in sex – especially when one person is using the other, levying their power over their partner, or manipulating another person into sexual acts. When we hear stories of rape, sexual assault, molestation, drugging a person to have sex, taking advantage of a drunk or drugged person, and touching someone inappropriately, we are listening to non-consensual sexual encounters. Because these acts damage the relationship between God, neighbor and self, sexual abuse is, undoubtedly, sin. Additionally some sexual encounters within an unhealthy marriage are sinful as well, notably when one spouse requires the other to become intimate.
I’m extremely tired of hearing “all sin is equal sin.” No, that’s not the case. When two people are expressing love or respect to one another, that is not damaging to God and neighbor like when one person is levying power over another person. These two acts are not even in the same ball park. I may sound like I’m judging, but when you hear the pain that comes from many women’s experience with sexual abuse, it’s time to change the system.
Just because Deuteronomy 22:38-39 says that a man can rape a woman (as long as he marries her) does not mean he should treat the woman like an object. Additionally, just because Lot offered his daughters to be raped while they still lived in Sodom doesn’t mean we can look the other way when women’s bodies are used as commodities. Likewise, it wasn’t right when they had non-consensual sex with their father to get pregnant. And it wasn’t ethical when King Xerxes banished Vashti when she refused to be objectified.
Just because the epistles mention that women must submit their lives to their husbands (1 Peter 3, 1 Corinthians 7:4) does not mean men have the right to rape their wives.
We must thoroughly research scriptures which require a woman to have sex with her husband each night or when she isn’t in the mood. If anyone is manipulating their spouse or partner into sex, it isn’t consensual. When webpages exist that are dedicated to making sure women are required to have sex with their husbands each time he wants it (because it’s God’s will), then we have a sex problem, Christianity. When people are considered bad when they have sex prior to marriage and then bad when they don’t have sex after marriage, then we have a sex problem, Christianity. When your sex rules don’t include Leviticus 18:19 but absolutely must include Leviticus 18:22, then we have a sex problem Christianity. When Christian groups have materials that blame women for being molested and raped based on how they are acting or what they are wearing, then we have a sex problem, Christianity.
When we don’t look at the bigger picture with the Duggars’ situation, we have a problem with sex, Christianity. Josh was 14 when he sexually abused minor females. And Jim-Bob decides to swiftly and silently sweep the situation under the rug. But did anyone ask how these women are? Do any of the statements given mention the pain, shame, and humiliation that the women experienced? Did anyone ask if Josh was abused at some point? (Many abusers have been abused in the past.) Does anyone wonder if Josh has experienced the help he needs so that he’s not putting other people at risk? This isn’t just about judging or forgiveness. It’s stopping unhealthy patterns so that the cycle of abuse stops. It’s making sure that those who have been hurt can find new life.
Undoubtedly, God will forgive Josh – just like God will forgive all of us. That’s what unconditional grace is about. But this doesn’t mean that his actions are far from gone in the lives of five females. This doesn’t mean that they are ready to forgive him. This isn’t the time for us to rush to forgiveness. This is time for us to understand what healthy sexuality is, find ways to have conversations so that more 14 year old children don’t feel compelled to abuse their sibling, and stop parents from sweeping the problem under the rug. This is time for us to extend our hand of grace to these five girls so that they won’t feel the shame that they probably carry in their hearts.
Christianity, let’s look at what sex, consent, and sin mean. It’s time for us to change the language of appropriate sex from “good” and “bad” to “unhealthy,” “healthy,” and “consensual.” God’s ready for our conversation. Are we?
The current version of this post has been edited from the original.