How a Better Theology of Women Could Help Your Church Find Freedom from Porn

Recently, Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumaker, authors of Worthy: Celebrating the Value of Women, invited me to be part of their podcast to discuss women in the church. More specifically, they wanted me to talk about how a better theology of women could help combat pornography. You can listen to that podcast interview here.

In general, how exactly do you apply theology to the problem of pornography in a practical, tangible way? For most people (even Christians), saying “the Gospel” is a solution to their sins sounds like nonsense. They may believe Jesus saves, but they’re not going to think of his atoning work on the Cross at 1:30 a.m. when they can’t get back to sleep and it’s so easy to watch porn.

For most people, the Gospel changes people in slow, small ways that add up over time. It’s that pang of conscience that shows up before you view porn. It’s the conscious development of spiritual disciplines (studying the Bible, prayer, church membership) that slowly fills your mind with wholesome thoughts instead of inappropriate daydreams.

The transformative power of the gospel is more often put on display at the church level. Does a church welcome sinners, gently encouraging their repentance and pointing to Jesus? Does a church extend Jesus’ compassion to the sick and downtrodden in their community? Does the leadership tenderly care for their flock, teaching them to be shrewd as serpents yet innocent as doves?

This, of course, brings us full circle. How can a better theology of women help us change our perspective on pornography?

A better theology of women helps you understand the impacts of pornography as a sin.

One of the primary ways that pornography rewires the viewer’s brain is that it changes how they view women. A famous study published early in the 1980s surveyed three groups of people who were exposed to a total of less than 5 hours of videos over several weeks. One group was shown only clean content, one view was shown a mix of clean and pornographic content, and one was shown only pornographic content. The more pornography participants viewed, the less satisfied they were with their own intimate partners, the less they supported women’s rights, and the more desensitized they were to cruelty against women, such as rape. In other words, viewers increasingly saw a woman’s value only in her sexuality.

(By the way, the differences were noticeable even among women in the high-exposure group. While the majority of porn viewers are currently male, there’s a growing number of female viewers too, especially among teens and young adults. This post mostly assumes male viewers, but do keep it in mind that women struggle too.)

While the ancient Israelites weren’t exactly dealing with pornographic images (although it’s entirely possible that household fertility idols served similar purposes), the Bible clearly communicates that using a woman for sex is sin. The clearest example is in Matthew 5:28, where Jesus says that even looking at a woman lustfully, the very definition of pornography, is adultery and against the law of God. The ramifications of using women as sex objects echo throughout the entire Old Testament.

In Genesis, Sarai and Hagar are among the earliest examples. Abram twice claims Sarai as his sister instead of his wife to save his own skin, bringing a curse on the local kingdom. Sarai has Abram sleep with her slave Hagar, then abuses her; the resulting child becomes a father of nations who spend the rest of the Old Testament in conflict with the descendants of Isaac. In Judges 19 a man throws his concubine to rapists to save himself; she does not survive the night. The resulting war nearly wipes out the tribe of Benjamin. King David’s own abuse of power over Bathsheba (which by at least modern standards would be considered rape and by all standards was his sin) resulted in his own family being split apart, dragging the nation into war.

I could go on, of course. But if you look at the stories of the women of the Bible and realize that the Bible more often treats them as the victim, not the harlot, and if you look at the men’s attitudes toward the victims and God’s acts of justice in response, the impacts of sexual sin, especially abuse towards women, become apparent and appalling. God despises the sexual abuse of women.

In short, then, a better theology of women means that pornography’s treatment of them should grieve you deeply. Any view of a woman that is less than a co-heir and fellow disciple of Christ (or a potential one) should grieve you—even more so if she is viewed merely as an object for pleasure.

A better theology of women helps you listen better to them.

Consider a wife who comes to her pastor to ask for help for her husband’s porn problem. She probably wants her marriage to recover, and she’s probably willing to do everything in her power to help her husband. Unfortunately, many wives have commented on our blog to report that the pastor has shifted the responsibility of his sin to her shoulders:

  • Losing weight or otherwise changing her appearance to be more attractive.
  • Being more available sexually.
  • Just plain tolerating his sin for the sake of the marriage.

Statements like these make many assumptions–that women have any real control over their weight, or that the wife isn’t already making herself sexually available to her increasingly-disinterested husband. It presumes that pornography may be the worst of the husband’s sins, when in reality, as counselor Lisa Taylor points out in the ebook Counseling Wives, when a wife first asks for help she likely will not reveal the full scope of the marital issues, and may not even reveal the full scope of his pornography use.

This dismissal of a wife’s concerns is not at all reflective of the God of the Bible, who demonstrably hears women and encourages people to listen to them. The most obvious example is the day of Christ’s resurrection: the first message that he is risen is delivered to women, who at the time were not legally credible witnesses in a court of law. But the pattern of caring for women by listening to them is set long before, in Genesis, when God hears Hagar’s pain and she names him the God Who Listens. Can we do any less than at least listen to the women who report pornography use in their marriages? Can we at least work from the assumption that she has more knowledge of how her marriage is going that we do as outsiders?

A better theology of women helps you better care for them.

Combined, the first two points already provide a better picture of how to care for the women in our congregations: we must recognize how damaging pornography use is to women and how we see them, and we must do a better job of listening to them. But we can glean a lot of specific ministry tips from this as well.

For one thing, in caring for women, Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned about following the Billy Graham rule. Take, for example, the woman at the well in John 4. Even though he knew she was cohabiting with a man who was not her husband, he did not shy away from her, or wait for his disciples to return before he spoke with her. Nor did he chase away the woman who washed his feet with her hair, although Simon the Pharisee judged him for it (Luke 7:36-50). Never in the Bible is it implied that Jesus is fearful for his reputation or fearful that a woman will try to seduce him. So then, neither should ministers be fearful.

Of course, we don’t live in a sinless world, and we are not the sinless Son of God. Your church may even have policies restricting the ability for men and women to meet, such as the aforementioned Billy Graham rule. Regardless, if you are caring for a woman in your congregation, remember that she is first and foremost your sister in Christ—a co-heir in the Kingdom of God, made equally (if differently) in his image. With that in mind, then, here are a few practical tips:

  • Don’t assume she is trying to seduce you or destroy your reputation. Just meet with her as you would anyone.
  • If for some reason you do not feel you can meet privately with her, whether due to policy or personal comfort, make that clear to her without ambushing her. Care for her as your sister and do not treat her as a temptress. That may mean, when scheduling a counseling meeting with her, that you make it clear that you only counsel women with another person present before showing up at the meeting with that other person.

It’s also important to make sure you’re not trying to protect your church’s reputation over the truth. A number of high-profile Christian leaders in recent times have lost their ministries because they covered up someone else’s abuse and discredited the victim. Your church’s reputation does not need your protection—your church members need to be protected from the wolves.

Let’s say the wife of an elder in your church reports her husband has been watching porn. He does not deserve special protection because he’s an elder. You need to believe her, and offer both of them help and support to break free. That may mean that you need to remove him from leadership for a time. If she reports criminal behavior, that means reporting that behavior to the police; even if you have a hard time believing an accusation, it is the police’s job to investigate, not yours.

So how does a better theology of women help combat porn? If your church starts treating women as sisters instead of temptresses, and if you start believing them instead of protecting the men for the sake of the church’s reputation, then over time your church becomes a much less hospitable place for porn viewers and abusers to thrive in secret.