By Rhett Burns
Your house is on fire, but you don’t realize it yet. It’s an electrical fire, tearing through the walls, ready to engulf everything you have. You’re scrolling through Netflix, unaware of the havoc to come in fifteen minutes.
This is the situation of evangelical churches in America. Decades of downgrade in the doctrine and practice of sexuality is smoldering in the walls.
Flames are coming.
I recently spoke with Michael Foster, a pastor and the managing director of It’s Good to Be a Man, about what he’s been calling on social media “a coming tsunami” of sexual reckoning in the evangelical church. His contention is that pastors and churches do not realize the damage being done and the effects it will have on their ministries in the years to come.
Foster sees Proverbs 6:27 as the guiding principle of this discussion:
“Can a man take fire to his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Can a culture take fire to its bosom and not be burned? Can a group of people do that? And the obvious answer is no, they can’t. There are repercussions for these sorts of decisions or these sorts of actions, and what’s true of the individual is true for the corporate reality. So as a society we have taken fire to us and now we’re dealing with the consequences.”
What fire have we taken into our bosom?
The Transformation of Marriage
First, we began changing the nature of marriage in the 1930-40s. “Marriage became less about building a household, a family, and a legacy, and more about self-satisfaction,” said Foster. Over time, the focus of marriage became finding satisfaction in your spouse and self-actualization from your spouse.
As the goals of marriage turned inward toward the individual, children became less important to the American conception of marriage. “You can go back to the contraceptive and see how that changed our attitude toward sex and marriage, where heterosexual marriages operate much like homosexual marriages that are barren by design,” Foster said.
In short, marriage became a self-improvement project held together by emotion. This did two things. First, it made Obergefell inevitable. What was it about this new iteration of marriage that required a man and a woman? Second, marriage became easy to exit once the satisfaction or usefulness of the relationship waned. No-fault divorce culture has left several generations fatherless, creating a mass of what Foster calls “clueless bastards”—men who do not understand what true masculinity is because they had no opportunity to catch it from their dad. They do not know how to shake hands, read a room, or connect with a woman.
The lack of basic masculine skills, especially in relating to and attracting women, has led to a culture of delayed marriage. But not all the fault lies with the men. “Another thing pastors don’t see right away is just how brassy and conceited modern women can be,” Foster said. The likes and hearts of social media are a huge contributor to this phenomenon. Foster pointed out that while we know men for their strength and productivity, we know women for their beauty and productivity. Therefore, it makes sense that vanity is a sin more pronounced among women, and is stirred up by social media. “The damage is that she’ll get a guy who’s certainly within her station, but not be satisfied with him,” Foster said. “She’ll think she’s above him and she won’t marry him.”
Pornography and Promiscuity
But just because these young men and women aren’t getting married does not mean they are practicing sexual chastity. Far from it.
“Does everyone think that women and men that are single through their thirties are not having sex? Do they really think they are not masturbating to porn in this society? Like how dumb do you have to be to believe that? I mean, there is incredible amounts of naivety when it comes to these things. It’s just mind blowing, and, really, what it is, is folks don’t want to see what’s happened to their children and what we’re coming into.”
And what has happened to their children?
First, pornography use is rampant. What a child of the 1980s had to find on the railroad tracks or hidden in a closet, a young person today can stumble upon in YouTube thumbnails. Children are seeing pornography at younger and younger ages, and it is warping their sense of sexuality. Foster observes:
“So there are girls, the first time they’re having sex, they’re getting choked. And it’s because guys are watching pornography where the woman’s being held down by her neck, and they think this is normal.”
Many pastors and churches overlook the fact that women download a third of pornography downloads. And these leaders never consider how the differences between men and women can produce different harmful effects from pornography usage. Pornography can cause destructive physiological habits and patterns for women. For example, shorter refractory periods can lead to developing obsessive tendencies and further anxiety. Men and women both bear deep psychological scars from years of pornography use.
Second, young Christians are very sexually active. Over two-thirds of evangelical young people have engaged in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. That number jumps up to 86% for never married “fundamentalist” women. Foster cites research showing that the average millennial woman will have between five and ten sexual partners, and, in terms of median, that’s on the low end. If they get married, the average evangelical will need one of those rolly carts you find at a hotel for all the sexual baggage.
Third, LGBT confusion is setting in. Thirty percent of women under twenty-five identify as LGBT. That’s a staggering statistic. Even if you grant that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men in terms of what they will engage in over the course of their lifetime; that what is attractive is contextual and cultural; that LGBT identity is pressed upon them; and that many may return to a heterosexual lifestyle, you still have to face that reality. Foster asks:
“What happens when someone comes to faith and you’ve got to deal with the fact that she had three gay girlfriends? Maybe they just kissed; maybe they did other things. Well, what are you going to do when these people start to come to faith, and they’ve got these incredible, twisted, messed up histories? I mean, what problems are we going to face coming down the line? We’re only starting to grasp what’s going on.”
The Coming Reckoning
The tsunami metaphor is apt. When a tsunami hits, the waters rush in and then recede back out to sea, pulling things from shore with it as it goes. With each wave of sexual perversion that has hit our shores, it has pulled parts of our culture with it. There’s only so much left.
Foster also pointed to the 2008 financial crisis, where for a time leading up to that year people got rich, lived great, and it seemed like the good times would never end. But the impropriety caught up with everyone and the economy crashed. We’re in a similar position today regarding sexuality. “There’s a point where we hit critical mass and the system fails,” he observed. “And it will correct itself because nature is inevitable. You can’t get away from it.”
The coming reckoning is dark, and it will be painful. “But God is good, and there’s a lot of hope,” he reminded me.
What Hope Can We Offer?
Christians should be quick to offer the hope of forgiveness and a clean heart found in Jesus. His blood washes away sin and all its guilt and shame. Jesus died and resurrected to untangle the gnarly knots tied by our sexual transgressions. Jesus makes all things new, and this is news everyone with a deviant sexual past needs to hear.
But is there anything we can do to rebuild in the ruins?
Some corners of evangelicalism have erroneously attempted to normalize the ruins. They harp on “idolatry of the family” and normalize singleness, even recasting singleness (not celibacy) as a gift. They’ve retooled Christianity to fit our egalitarian and feminist culture. These attempts might help some people emotionally cope with their situation, but they do little to deal with the underlying issues, nor do they build anything toward a workable future.
So, what should we do?
Foster’s prescription is to preach and teach on the doctrines of vocation, marriage, and the household. Young men need their entrepreneurial spirit kindled and unleashed. They need to find their mission and go hard after it. They need to hear the glories and goodness of marriage and raising children. They need to know what it takes to build a household that lasts and therefore need very practical instruction.
We need a return to the earthy doctrines of work and sex, forsaking friendship with a world upended and leaning hard into the natural order of things.
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business entrepreneur living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids. He publishes Get Your House In Order, a newsletter about building a household that lasts.
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