Hi and welcome back! Lately, evangelicals are understandably much abuzz about their most recent batch of sex scandals. In response to them, Sheila Wray Gregoire, a Christian blogger, offers up what she hopes will be a solution to end sex scandals — and women’s misery within evangelicalism itself at the same time. She calls her solution “a Jesus-centered sexual ethic.” However, she doesn’t realize that evangelicals already have one. Today, let me show you what her suggestion is, and why it’ll never fly with evangelicals.
Everyone, Meet Sheila Wray Gregoire.
Evangelicals would say that Sheila Wray Gregoire has a heart for sex abuse victims. A Christian who has a heart for something, in Christianese, focuses intently on that topic and cares deeply about it. Gregoire writes a blog called To Love, Honor, and Vacuum, which focuses on evangelical relationships.
By our standards, it’s not a bad blog, either. (It speaks Oxford Comma, which is a point in its favor.) Last year, she wrote a good post demanding that Focus on the
Bigotry Family not associate with a particularly odious, toxic fundagelical guy who wrote a particularly odious, toxic fundagelical marriage-advice book. She’s not perfect by any means, but overall she seems to have a good instinct for pinpointing her tribe’s worst traits.
However, like Rachel Held Evans unfortunately did, Gregoire tends to swing-for-the-trees-and-miss when it comes to figuring out what to do about those traits. Like so many other decent-hearted Christians, she carries this vision in her head of Jesus as the Ultimate Good Guy. So naturally, she assumes that Christians obviously want to make that version of Jesus happy.
She is not reckoning with her hosts, and it gives her writing this strangely surreal feel.
Hopefully, today you’ll see what I mean.
Does Her Post Reflect Betteridge’s Law of Headlines?
The post in question comes to us from Religion News Service (RNS). Sheila Wray Gregoire titled it:
Is the evangelical view of sex at the root of our sex scandals?
It was not celebrity culture that taught Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz and countless other pastors to objectify women. Our evangelical culture primed them for it.
Now, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states that when someone asks a question in a headline, the answer is usually “no.” But in this case, Gregoire is saying an emphatic yes! Evangelicals’ view of sex is, in her opinion, absolutely the cause of their sex scandals.
(She’s wrong, I’m afraid, but trust me: we are only just getting started. Hang in there.)
After a brief introduction about the latest pair of big-name evangelical sex scandals — those of Ravi Zacharias and Carl Lentz — she says evangelicals tend to blame “celebrity Christian culture” for causing those scandals. She provides no sources for this assertion. I have seen evangelical criticisms of this culture over the years, but usually when evangelicals talk about fixing celebrity-Christian problems they focus on trying to get everyone on board with their flavor of Jesus-ing, not on ending celebrity-pastor culture.
Indeed, in this post, Gregoire takes aim at evangelicals’ entire conceptualization of sex itself.
The Big Problem Here, to Sheila Wray Gregoire.
Often, I talk about evangelicals pointing to something they’ve identified as The Big Problem Here. They either ignore or can’t even perceive other factors going into the problem they’ve identified. No no, this right here is the problem. Once it’s solved, the rest flows like rum sauce over spice cake.
And almost always, these Christians offer a solution to The Big Problem Here that doesn’t even remotely address that situation. They might as well tell their viewers to burn sage and chant mantras to end national-level conflicts forever. This non-solution has the benefit of being completely ignored, so the person offering it can feel hard-done-by — like the guy at a Town Hall meeting who enjoys grumbling afterward about their suggestion being rejected.
With respect to Sheila Wray Gregoire, she’s fallen into this trap.
To her, The Big Problem Here is that evangelical men get taught from infancy to see their sex drives as uncontrollable and insatiable — and to see women as receptacles for that lust. She’s talking about the concept of “rape culture,” though I’m not sure she’d ever use a feminist term. Rape culture creates an environment that excuses men’s sexual predation of women, and then blames the victims of this predation for their victimization.
And it is this view of victimization and predation as just being “a natural, unavoidable part of being male,” Gregoire asserts, that is causing all these sex scandals.
And The Big Solution.
Thus, Sheila Wray Gregoire’s big solution involves moving evangelicals back to what she calls “a Jesus-centered sexual ethic.” She writes:
We want to call the evangelical church to something higher, something better, something more centered on the person and character of Jesus. Until we start talking about a Jesus-centered sexual ethic, rooted in mutuality and intimacy, we will continue to have these scandals on our front pages, because they’re reflecting what’s happening in our bedrooms.
Ah, okay. So TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ will totally fix this problem. But how? She certainly doesn’t tell us in her post. This suggestion comes almost at the very end of it — and then it ends by asking evangelical men to “see” women the way Yahweh did in the Old Testament and Jesus totally did in the Gospels.
I can find no other instance of her using the phrase “Jesus-centered sexual ethic.” However, I did find hints of how she thought evangelicals could achieve it.
In a blog post addressing evangelicals’ attitudes toward men’s lust, we see that her very first suggestion involves the usual omg y’all need to just Jesus harder non-solution:
Stop talking about “every man’s battle” and start talking about Christ in you
Yes, many men struggle with lust. But not all do. And whatever we focus on expands. Are we focusing on the sin, or are we focusing on Christ?
It’s like the boilerplate piracy warning on DVDs: something obligatory she has to put first so she can get to the real stuff.
Basically, Gregoire wants evangelical men to treat women as actual people. She wants men to learn to care about their wives’ sexual needs and their feelings — and to start taking responsibility for their own feelings and behavior. In addition, she suggests that churches appoint more women as group leaders and encourage more mixed-gender activities.
And Now: The Actual Problem.
My body is not a democracy. It is an empire and I am its dictator. You do not get a vote. There will be no coup d’etat. Rebel forces will not overthrow me. I am in charge of it forever.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is dancing around the concept of personal sovereignty, also called self-ownership. This is a human right which states that people own their own bodies, and thus can deny anybody else all and any uses of their body. It is this right which informs almost all of our other rights — like freedom of speech. Most of all, personal sovereignty leads to the right to meaningfully consent to each and every use of our own personal bodies.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a penis, a fetus, a scalpel, a military force, a feeding tube, or a physician seeking to touch us, confine us, make use of us, or harvest our bodily resources. In all cases, every one of us has the right to deny our bodies to anybody seeking to use it for any reason. Governments may violate people’s self-ownership only in the most restricted and carefully-scrutinized ways, and often end up getting a lot of heat for overstepping their bounds.
What’s more, we maintain this right, this ultimate, impossible-to-veto ownership of our bodies, even past our deaths.
When we talk about slavery and rape and why these are wicked crimes, it’s concepts like personal sovereignty that come into play.
And evangelicals absolutely, positively despise this human right. They have never liked the idea of consent. They have never accepted the notion that all human beings own themselves.
Gregoire thinks she can defang evangelical men’s attitudes about sex — but without addressing the massive elephant in the room: their entire conceptualization of human rights.
Jesus Knew Nothing of Human Rights.
In her RNS post, Sheila Wray Gregoire talks longingly of an evangelicalism dominated by “a Jesus-centered sexual ethic,” a “higher” and “better” way of engaging with women that is “more centered on the person and character of Jesus.”
However, any casual reading of the New Testament reveals that Jesus was not a good person — not at all. Like so many other Christians, she’s draped this paper cut-out of Ultimate Good Guy Jesus over what the Bible actually says about the fellow.
And that’s a very, very common shortcoming in Christians — especially in evangelicals. Jesus was not a good person at all. He knew nothing of human rights, committed all manner of transgressions, cared nothing about “mutuality” or “intimacy” in the context that Gregoire uses the words, and had a very firm and fixed conceptualization of authoritarian chains of command binding all people to him and his god.
In his book The Bad Jesus, Hector Avalos constantly references this truth about Jesus. Despite even Christian scholars’ perception of Jesus as “benign and paradigmatic,” the reality portrayed in the Gospels constantly contradicts that image. As he writes (p. 9):
Many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
Human rights would have been as foreign a concept to Jesus as gene therapy.
Thus, evangelical misogynists are probably closer to the Gospels’ actual depiction of Jesus than Gregoire herself is.
Evangelical Leaders Don’t Want What Sheila Wray Gregoire is Selling.
The fundamental problem here isn’t that evangelical men aren’t Jesus-centered enough. The solution, therefore, isn’t going to look like them drilling down harder on their Jesus-ing.
Instead, the problem is that evangelical leaders have painstakingly constructed a broken social system that serves their interests at the expense of those they view as inferior human beings: women and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color), LGBTQIA people, foreigners, and many more.
They like that system. It does exactly what they want it to do.
The male authors Gregoire criticizes (rightly and with justification, yes) in her RNS post have huge audiences. They got those audiences by telling evangelical men exactly what they want to hear.
By now, evangelicals have literally built up entire libraries full of books rationalizing what they’re doing as 100% Jesus-flavored. They’ve got mountains of Bible verses that they think justify every single act of complementarian wickedness they want to push onto women.
So they will easily dismiss her calls for even these mild changes to their culture.
And Despite It All: Nothing Will Change.
Without a radical shift to embrace full human rights for all people, without self-ownership and consent becoming key parts of how evangelicals engage with their relationships, ain’t nothing going to change. And that is never, ever going to happen.
At most, Sheila Wray Gregoire might get a few of those men to harrumph and shift uncomfortably and concede that mayyyyybe evangelical men could stand to be nicer about how they lord it over their miserable, resentful, powerless wives.
They’ll set up some more couples’ retreats and publish a bunch more books with busy-work that promise to heal evangelicals’ tattered marriages and make them the envy of heathens once again.
And the gravy train will continue to roll on, and the scandals will continue to flow, and evangelicals’ marriages will still be miserable. You can’t fix a broken system. As we learned from Joshua in the 1983 movie Wargames, the only way to win some games is not to play ’em at all.
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