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Published Date: September 5, 2022

Published Date: September 5, 2022

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Church Leaders and Porn: The Devastating Effects for Women in the Church

I was sitting in the passenger seat of my fiancé’s car in 1998 when he confessed to me that he had used porn. My eyes teared up. I felt shocked, hurt, and betrayed, but I loved him deeply. Because I was a Christian, I thought my role was to forgive and move forward. I believed that he was repentant and that porn would no longer impact our relationship. I was very naïve. I didn’t know anything about porn, the proliferation of porn since the advent of the internet just a few years before, the addictive nature of porn, the impact of porn on marriage and family, or how porn perpetuates harmful patriarchal attitudes toward women, which cause a myriad of deleterious effects.

My husband’s porn addiction impacted the next twenty-five years of my life.

After getting married and going to seminary together, we served overseas, worked in pastoral ministry, and planted churches. At the same time, my husband’s addiction to porn was worsening, and he was becoming more and more angry and abusive in our home while maintaining his public persona of a well-loved and gifted pastor. Porn led to abuse, betrayal, and divorce that has scarred my family and deeply wounded the three churches where my husband and I pastored.

As I hear the news about male pastors caught in sexual immorality or abuse and read the statistics about porn use among men, I know that my story is not unique. Porn is causing destruction in individual lives, in relationships, and in churches, and it changes the way men view and relate to women in marriage, as coworkers, and in friendship. My generation is the first to progress through adulthood with internet porn at our fingertips. While my generation grew up before the advent of internet porn, subsequent generations have lived their entire lives in a sea of porn, with the average age of first exposure at eleven years old.1 As a result, porn is wreaking havoc among children, teens, and adults in their identity, relationships, health, and faith. Research on the cost of porn to individuals and society is staggering.

Additionally, the number of pastors using porn is extremely high, and this should be concerning for followers of Jesus. Fifty-seven percent of senior pastors and 64 percent of youth pastors admit to struggling with porn use.2 While most people realize that this problem exists, there is little consensus about how to address the issue of porn among male3 pastors and ministry leaders. Pastors are human beings with struggles and faults, yet at the same time they serve as intermediaries between people and God. They are called to a higher level of faithfulness and obedience and to lovingly shepherd those in their congregations. Porn is dramatically altering how male pastors lead and shepherd congregations, especially women in congregations. Although this article focuses on porn use by male pastors and its impact on women, the number of women using porn is growing, especially among women under twenty-five.4 This issue will also certainly need to be addressed in the church in coming years.

Why Do Our Male Pastors Love Hidden Sins?

Research has shown that many male pastors have a profile that makes them susceptible to sexual acting out and to porn.5 Many people enter ministry and other helping professions with deep wounds that they subconsciously hope to heal by sacrificially following Jesus and giving selflessly to others. As churches have prioritized charisma, leadership, and entrepreneurial gifts, they have in fact placed some of the most emotionally and psychologically unhealthy people in leadership in our largest congregations.

Many men in ministry have deep feelings of inadequacy, narcissistic tendencies, and intense and chronic feelings of shame that lead to a need for affirmation from their congregations and other hidden sources, like porn.6 Porn is a natural outlet for pastors because, unlike other addictions and sins, porn use can be completely hidden from others.

According to 2011 statistics, approximately 15 percent of ministers qualify as functionally addicted to internet porn, and we might suspect that these numbers are even higher now.7 Like other addictive behaviors, porn use is often progressive and can lead to increased consumption, worsening types of porn, and increased acting out behaviors.8 The gravity of this issue cannot be overstated. While porn use and sexual acting out by any individual is a significant issue that has negative impact on the whole family system, porn use and sexual acting out by clergy has an extended impact on entire congregations and can lead to significant trauma for hundreds or thousands of people. When Diane Langberg speaks about such pastors, she reminds us, echoing Jesus’s warning against false prophets, “They look like sheep, but they are insatiable, greedy, and voracious wolves.”9

How Hidden Porn Use Affects Male Pastors

Since the advent of the internet in the 1990s, the availability of online porn has exploded. While the exact percentage is disputed, many pornographic scenes depict physical and verbal aggression and violence, and the targets are almost always women.10 Men are both consciously and unconsciously being conditioned by porn in ways that are dangerous for women. According to William M. Struthers:

It is impossible to view pornography and not have it affect one’s belief about women. . . . There are many psychological, social, professional and spiritual side effects to regular porn use. They may include increased callousness toward women, . . . inability to control sexual arousal, shame . . . , irritability, . . . increased interpersonal conflict, paranoia about being caught as well as lack of inhibition in other aspects of their life.11

Furthermore, repeated exposure to porn leads to entitlement, omniscience, blaming/victimization, pride, objectification, distraction, anger, and aggression.12  There is also an undeniable link between the objectification that occurs in porn and the objectification that almost always precedes acts of sexual abuse.

While the impact of porn use is devastating to any person, men who are in positions of spiritual authority not only hurt themselves but also their congregations. The negative character traits cultivated by porn are antithetical to the virtue expected of pastors as displayed in the life of Jesus, in the qualifications of pastors and elders delineated in the Bible, and in the fruit of the Spirit. It is difficult to imagine how a male pastor, whose soul and view of women is being formed by porn rather than Scripture and the Spirit, can effectively lead and shepherd the women in his congregation.

Every Woman Suffers When Her Male Pastor Looks at Porn

Even though porn has been around for centuries, we don’t fully know how the meteoric rise of the availability and accessibility of online porn is impacting women in the workplace. Porn is perpetuating and worsening the power differential between women and men, and this plays out in everyday male-female interactions in congregations and on church staff teams. As Andrew J. Bauman describes, people who view porn develop a “Pornographic Style of Relating.”13 I suspect that many churches and pastors are unwilling to grapple with the connection between porn, violence, discrimination, and attitudes toward women because men still lead close to 90 percent of churches, and porn use is so prevalent among male pastors.14 Church leaders choose to remain silent about porn within a religious system that condemns such behavior because confessing or exposing porn use is risky—personally, professionally, and organizationally.

It is impossible for male pastors to fulfill their spiritual calling while using or addicted to porn because their view of women, relationships with women, and actions toward women are deeply flawed and irreconcilable with the biblical vision for pastors and for women and men in relationship and as co-laborers for the gospel. Male pastors who use porn cannot look at female worship leaders or preachers as whole persons without objectifying their bodies. Women cannot feel safe in a one-on-one meeting with a male pastor when the porn he watches has trained him to see women as submissive, not equals. A male pastor will not invite a woman into a shared leadership role when he sees her as a sexual temptation. A woman cannot seek counseling regarding marriage or sexuality or abuse when she is unsure if her pastor can be trusted with intimate details or to protect her vulnerability. The daily situations and relationships in the church that porn impacts are innumerable. Women will constantly feel unsafe, hypervigilant, unsure, and anxious at a conscious or subconscious level with male pastors who have a pornified view of women.

Male pastors cannot love and care for women as sisters while simultaneously objectifying women’s bodies to satisfy their own needs. They cannot work appropriately alongside women in partnership and equality in the church when outside the church they use and abuse women—even if “only” through a screen. Women in the church simply cannot flourish when there is hidden porn use by male pastors. They will inherently miss out on an abundant life, loving faith community, and purposeful engagement in God’s mission.

Finding a Path Forward

We can no longer bury our heads in the sand with no regard for porn and its impact on pastors, churches, and women. As a woman and as a pastor, I want to know that my male pastors, colleagues, and friends see me for who I am—a beloved child of God, a sister in the faith, and an equal coworker—and that their thoughts about and interactions with me and other women would validate these truths. Male pastors have a model in Jesus who had deep friendships with women, worked alongside women, and was touched intimately by women. I don’t believe that this type of friendship and partnership is possible when male pastors are enslaved by porn.

Addressing porn use in church leadership requires extensive openness, curiosity, vulnerability, attention, and research for us who care about the church. There are wide-ranging questions that we need to grapple with in the church if we are to promote spiritual, relational, sexual, psychological, and emotional health in the church and in Christian leaders. Women continue to carry the burden and bear the impact of porn while men are silent, avoid responsibility, and yet receive compassion and forgiveness. While it is essential to address porn use by male pastors, we must also pay attention to the price that women are paying for men’s continued sexual sin. We must prioritize the real needs of women and the future of the church over the reputation of individuals and organizations.

As more women step into church leadership, a rising generation of young women are expectant about the role that they can play in the mission of the church. At the same time, we must be aware of the increasing number of young women who are being enslaved by porn use. If male church leaders will address the devastating impact of their porn use now, then perhaps we will be able to avoid seeing a similar problem among female pastors in ten to twenty years. There is no doubt in my mind that confronting the alarming use of porn among male pastors now will create space for women to freely flourish in ministry to the benefit of men, women, the church, and the world.

This article is from “The Problem of Porn,” the Autumn 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. Amanda L. Giordano, “What to Know About Adolescent Porn Exposure,” Psychology Today, 27 February 2022.
  2. Josh McDowell and Barna Group, The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Porn in the Digital Age (Ventura: Barna Group, 2016), 81.
  3. While women use porn as well, their usage numbers are much lower than men’s are. According to research shared in The Porn Phenomenon, only 2 percent of married Christian women and 9 percent of single Christian women look at porn once or twice a month (101). Additionally, approximately 90 percent of pastors are male, which means that porn use among pastors is primarily an issue for men (see “Gender of Religious Leader,” Association of Religion Data Archives, https://www.thearda.com/ConQS/qs_8.asp).
  4. McDowell and Barna, The Porn Phenomenon, 58.
  5. John Thoburn, Rob Baker, and Maria Dal Maso, Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Systems Approach to Prevention, Intervention, and Oversight (Carefree: Gentle Path, 2011), 9.
  6. Thoburn, Baker, and Maso, Clergy Sexual Misconduct, 9.
  7. Thoburn, Baker, and Maso, Clergy Sexual Misconduct, 3. See also McDowell and Barna, The Porn Phenomenon, where 56 percent of youth pastors and 33 percent of pastors who use porn self-report being currently addicted to porn and living in constant fear of discovery (158).
  8. Robert Weiss, “Examining the Cycle of Problematic Porn Use,” Sex and Relationship Healing, 4 October 2021.
  9. Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020), 139.
  10. Fiona Vera-Gray, Clare McGlynn, Ibad Kureshi, and Kate Butterby, “Sexual violence as a sexual script in mainstream online porn,” The British Journal of Criminology 61 (2021): 1243–1260.
  11. William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Porn Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 50, 72.
  12. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy, 70–71.
  13. Andrew J. Bauman, “A Pornographic Style of Relating,” in The Pscyhology of Porn: Essays on Porn, Objectification, and Healing (self-pub., 2018), 16–21.
  14. McDowell and Barna, The Porn Phenomenon, 158–59.