Recently, the world was shocked (or not so shocked) by the revelation that Josh Duggar—of the hyper-conservative Duggar clan—was caught seeking to have an affair on the now infamous Ashley Madison site. His name was dropped, along with countless other pastors and public figures, who must now answer for their behavior.
I don’t want to recycle better and more informed analyses of how the Duggars’ beliefs can lead—psychologically, sexually, relationally, and spiritually—to this kind of moral failure. I also don’t want to devote an article to what Josh individually did wrong. It's my hope that the body of Christ can agree that the depth of violation and abuse is inarguable and heartbreaking. There are also plenty of writers who have followed the Duggars more closely than I have, and can give a well-formed critique of Josh’s individual choices. The purpose of this article is not to call out an individual, even justifiably.
Instead, I want to make a few suggestions about what about this type of ultra-conservative theology of sex (even lesser degrees of it) tells us about men and women, and how it fails to truly honor the imago Dei of women.
1. Opening Our Eyes Is Better Than Shielding Them
We can’t solve a problem by avoiding it. This is true in every other area of our lives. We must confront our sin. Yet, Duggar men are trained to believe that if they do not see attractive women (at least their bodies) that they can starve their lust away. Other articles have provided accounts of Duggar daughters proceeding ahead of the men in public places to screen passing women for possible temptation.
Well, I’m all for removing temptation, but this method is just not practical. The media, a walk down the street, or a night out at a restaurant provide plentiful examples of physically attractive women. Honestly, that's not the issue.
Instead of changing something about how we personally behave when we sin—and instead of addressing where and why our attraction to others becomes sinful lust—we remove the wholeness of other people. And we convince ourselves that it’s okay, because their whole selves are our temptations. It’s a band-aid on a bullet wound. A way to deal with the problem without dealing with the darkness in our own hearts.
Yes, this theology is sometimes (often on the surface) driven by a desire to protect women from men. But, it’s really not that simple. It’s deeply dehumanizing that Christian men need to remove their awareness of women's physical selves to show us honor and respect or even just the dignity of a non-sexual gaze or conversation. It doesn't need to be that way, and women don't need to be reduced to the threat their bodies pose to men.
Plus, how are men (or women) supposed to avoid ever being attracted to anyone? How is it helpful to fear our own sex drives—so that they surprise us in the real world when we have the opportunity to exploit, use, and abuse others?
How is this a helpful or healthy prescription for male-female relationship? What accountability mechanism exists to deal with our own sex drives when we attempt to hide them from ourselves?
The problem with this approach is that everything physical is then also made sexual. Women’s bodies can only mean temptation. They become one thing and one thing only, an object over which to stumble.
The church is saying, through purity/modesty culture, that women are objects. Not directly, but that is what we must conclude if we instruct men to avoid women and women to be ashamed of their bodies.
We don’t grant women dignity or affirm their humanity when we reduce their physical being to lust-inspiration. We steal their humanity. We, Christians, often the greatest (and blindest) champions of female non-sexuality, participate in, nay, promote the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies.
When Christian men think they can solve lust by avoiding the female body, they are making a painful claim. They are saying to each individual woman who they think might tempt them: you are primarily sex to me. Your humanity, your God-given dignity, isn't strong enough to regulate my lust unless I physically avoid you.
In other words, your body is more central to me than your soul.
The most effective way to combat the objectification of women is to assert once and for all the incontrovertible dignity and wholeness of women. I believe that we can address lust by opening our eyes to the issues at the root of the church's rhetoric on sex, not by closing them to the reality of sexual attraction.
2. Time Alone With the Opposite Sex Doesn’t Always Lead to Sex
The church's extreme ban on spending time with the opposite sex, disallowing even a side hug for fear of stimulating arousal, is ridiculous.
I recently heard a story from a female academic friend of mine who was left to find her own transportation to a Christian conference. Apparently, she was told that it would have been inappropriate for one of the male staff of the church to pick her up from the airport and drive half an hour with her alone to the event she was invited to speak at. Another example? At some Christian colleges, there is a shoe-in-the-door policy to keep men and women from getting frisky.
To be clear, I believe in the power and value of committed, relational, God-honoring sex and intimacy. But I don’t believe that men and women are so uncontrollable that we must pretend the opposite has contracted the plague. Of course, age absolutely factors into this discussion. Yet, fully grown adults still buy into the Billy Graham rule: everyone is a sexual threat.
We’re human—sharing in dignity, worth, and function. We can engage in meaningful, even private relationships without sexualizing each other.
The problem with “Duggar theology” is that men and women both seem to have more in common with animals than with each other. We are not gifted by the Holy Spirit with self-control, with patience and kindness, or at least not enough of it to engage respectfully with each other.
How much is lost when we can’t be trusted with each other? Of course, we should still exercise reasonable caution, and this should not be used to enable abuse. But I believe that a healthy respect for each other and the promotion of meaningful Christian relationship based in our mutual human dignity will do a lot more than an all-holds-barred theology of male-female friendship rooted in fear.
3. Transparency Is Everything
We’re imperfect people. So are the Duggars, and so is Josh. Because of this, we aren’t called to be stand-alone paradigms of perfection. No, we are simply called to walk after Jesus.
But the cold-hard truth is this: Josh was able to hide his addiction and abuse behind a wall of pristine perfection. Ultra-conservative Christianity makes claims that it can’t uphold—promises of purity and perfection that simply aren’t reachable.
We continue to see fall after fall from grace, because appearance has become everything in the church. We have become so concerned with outward holiness that we have neglected the painful truths in our hearts: that we are not, nor can we ever be, perfect.
There is no way to undo what God has created and made good. Sex is not dangerous or unhealthy in the right context. But hiding the reality of our sex drives from the world and from ourselves—that’s both.
It’s time to embrace transparency in the church around the sex issue. It’s time to explore it without fear.
I believe that Josh Duggar is responsible for every choice he's made from the abuse he subjected his sisters to in the past to the bombshell of his current unfaithfulness to his wife, Anna.
There. Is. No. Excuse.
We are culpable for our actions and our sins. We may repent and we may seek to repair, but we are culpable for the hurt and pain we wreak on those around us.
There are many who suggest that we need to extend grace to this fallible human being, even at the expense of true healing and reconciliation. At the expense of our justifiable rage on behalf of those Josh abused and those he has hurt in his hypocrisy.
But, what has changed about Josh’s theology? What has changed about how he sees women? What has changed about how he sees sex?
How can we simply move forward when we know that the problem is more deeply rooted than just individual sin? When the issue is also rooted in theology—when it is driven forward by fear, guilt, shame, and the suppression of sexuality—how can we simply treat a surface wound? What can we expect will be different?
Many authors across the blogosphere have rightfully pointed out that Josh is also a product of his environment. He carries the messages about sexuality that his parents have indoctrinated into their children in his heart. As do many Christians.
We must see changes. We must see correction of twisted theologies of sex. We must do better and be better as the body of Christ.
So, even as I grieve the specifically damaging messages of the Duggars’ theology, and how they have enabled to some degree sexual abuse and addiction, I want Christians to critically examine the sex rhetoric in the broader church. I want us to tell a better story about sex. And, I think there’s a good story to be found if the church is ready to hear it.