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A Church in Crisis: Pornography and Patriarchy

On August 10, 2016

Our character as human beings is determined by what we do when no one is watching. When no one is watching, many in the church are watching porn.

Pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” by political officials. At least a third of US men self-identify as being addicted to it.[1] In April, Time magazine featured a front-page article exposing the harmful impact of porn on society.

Despite this, two-thirds of practicing Christians feel no guilt about their porn use.[2] What does this extreme level of consumption (and lack of guilt about it) say about the condition of the church as a whole?

For readers unfamiliar with the state of modern porn—it looks less like sex and more like sexual assault. Unlike yesterday’s softcore porn industry, mainstream porn today is definitively hardcore—exploitative videos saturated with physical violence, bondage, verbal abuse, sadism, brutality, humiliation, and degradation.

Women’s pain is the cornerstone of porn, and the industry derives both pleasure and profit from it.

Porn delivers an endless assortment of cruelty, divided into categories based on the (mostly male) viewer’s fetish. Regardless of its diversity, porn has a common theme: women are objects.

In one genre of porn, these objects ask nothing, say nothing, and offer nothing but exist to meet the demands of men. They always smile, always obey, and always eagerly embrace their subordinate status.

The other popular genre of porn eroticizes women’s agony and makes no attempt to conceal its fascination with female suffering. Instead, the pornographer zooms in. Some sites even boast about their original content of “real sexual abuse scenes.” Just to illustrate, last week (7/24/16), I typed in “rape porn” on Google. There were 122,000,000 search results. That number increases daily.

Let that number sink in.

One hundred and twenty-two million search results, many of them real rape videos.

As I speak with churches, I find they are overwhelmed by the effects of porn on their congregations: sexualization of children, widespread addiction, abusive sexual practices, infidelity, broken marriages, intimacy problems, sexual violence, domestic violence, and trafficking.

In the struggle to address pornography and other forms of men’s violence against women, the church is either missing the glaringly obvious cause, or intentionally ignoring it.

I am often asked by the church, “How could this be happening?”

My question in return is always, “How could this not be happening?”

Pornography and all forms of sexist violence will continue to prevail until the church purges itself of deeply patriarchal values and practices. In identifying the root cause (patriarchy), we also find the solution. If the harm of patriarchy is acknowledged, the damage reconciled, and the system dismantled, the church can begin to heal. There is no other way.

Whether in the church, the world, or the porn industry, women are constantly reminded of their supposed “place.” The messaging of objectification is more subtle in the church, and it’s often wrapped neatly in spiritual language. But women don’t need to be naked and videotaped to be objectified.

Youth group sermons on purity tell a woman the greatest gift she can give to her husband is her untainted sexuality—a gift she is told will be the pinnacle of her existence, second only to having children. Her small group options include crafting or a Captivating study on using femininity to “entice” a husband. She is told she is beautiful, certainly, but she is told little else. At the same time, she learns that her body is dangerous and will tempt men to sin.

She hears the pastor gush at the pulpit about how “hot” his wife is, but he doesn’t mention how brilliant, talented, strong, insightful, or passionate his spouse is. A woman's voice is often only validated in relation to, or in the presence of men. She is encouraged to enthusiastically celebrate her supposed “equal dignity and value” won through Christ, yet is constantly excluded from using her gifts of leadership, pastoring, and preaching.

The examples could go on and on. She represents all of us who were/are subject to patriarchal/complementarian theology. The idea of “equality” between women and men in the church is illusory and empty when women hold no real power. If women’s purpose in the church is to support the men who are doing the “important things” women aren’t allowed to do, all claims of equality are rendered meaningless.

Many women don’t feel like human beings in the body of Christ. Many feel like objects. Some even feel like slaves, kept in chains by patriarchy.

Sociologist Robert Jensen describes pornography as “a mirror” that reflects our patriarchal culture.[3] Porn imitates the patriarchal values we often find in the church. There is a striking overlap between pornography and patriarchy if we take a closer look in that mirror.

Both pornography and patriarchy tell us that men naturally dominate and women naturally submit. Pornography and patriarchy silence the voices of women. Pornography and patriarchy extinguish women’s gifts. Pornography and patriarchy exalt power, inequality, and control. And both pornography and patriarchy ultimately deny the humanity of both women and men.

From the start, God revealed a different narrative—the unshakeable dignity and equality of women in Genesis. It was sin that corrupted, sin that created patriarchy.

Fast forward to the New Testament. The gospel exposes the consequences of propping up worldly desires of power, control, lust, greed, and violence. Jesus’ deliberate rebellion against these patriarchal values is evident throughout his ministry. Jesus reminds us that patriarchal, power-centric values have no place in his kingdom.

His radical, counter-cultural response should be of no surprise to Christ-followers.

Jesus gives us infinitely more than what the world has to offer: love instead of lust, liberation instead of enslavement, bravery instead of fear, justice instead of oppression.

The church has a responsibility to do the same: to re-reveal the humanity of women and demonstrate their value. The church must move beyond equality in theory to equality in practice

Only then will the church be released from the bondage of pornography, addiction, and global enslavement. Only then will people lift open hands to God instead of clinging tightly to power and hierarchy. Only then will the body of Christ truly reflect the beauty of Jesus’ mission.

We must recognize, once and for all, that there is a cost to benching half the church. There is a cost to consuming porn. There is a cost to marginalizing women. There is a cost to the betraying silence of the church. And ultimately, the cost is women’s lives.

Combatting patriarchy within the church is not optional—it is an emergency.

Notes

[1] Gary Wilson, Your Brain On Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (UK: Commonweath Press, 2014), 73.
[2] Josh McDowell, “Porn in the Digital Age: New Research Reveals 10 Trends” Barna, April 6, 2016. Accessed July 25, 2016. https://www.barna.org/research/culture-media/research-release/porn-in-the-digital-age-new-research-reveals-10-trends#.V5uEzfmAOko
[3] Robert Jensen, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (Brooklyn: South End Press, 2007), 16.

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