The Christian man's battle with his sexuality

Pastoral pressure points, part 4

Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., F.P.P.R., is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California. He is the author of the book The Anxiety Cure, published by Word, that can provide additional help for the reader.

It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality" (1 Thess. 4:3, NIV).

The greatest challenge facing the Christian church in this century lies in the area of sexuality. And it is men, especially "good" Christian men, who face the greatest challenge. Almost every letter I have received from men since publishing my book The Sexual Mart eight years ago confirms this assertion, which for me is a conviction.

The war within

In the hearts of all good men there is a battle raging, a battle as real as any literal war we might wage. It is a battle for integrity, decency, and purity. It is a struggle to overcome forces that seem uncontrollable—in human terms. And many good men are losing this battle, including pastors.

While recent revelations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests has rocked the confidence and trust of Catholic parishioners in North America, we have known for many years that the Protestant house isn't exactly in order.

I first started researching the incidence of pastoral sexual failures 18 years ago, as did several others. We went public with these findings and soon noticed a gradual decline of reported violations.

Raising the consciousness of pastors by reminding them of how vulnerable they were in the sexual arena, coupled with clearer ethical statements from denominational leaders, did much to stem the tide. Now I see a gradual but steady increase in pastoral sexual failures.

My focus here is not on the sexual indiscretions of pastors. Rather, I want to examine the broader issue of male sexuality that, to some extent, underlies pastoral failures. "Pastoral indiscretions" are, in my opinion, the outworking of a distorted male sexuality—a reality all men must face up to.

A distorted gift

Sex is a joyous gift from Cod. But of all of the gifts of creation it is probably the most perplexing. There is more potential for sin in the realm of sexuality than in almost any other area of our lives. Paul's admonition to the Thessalonians is as needed today as it was in New Testament times. This Thessalonian text gives indication of the power sex had in Paul's day and that it has indeed always had.

In more than 30 years of clinical practice, working with many Christian men and pastors, I have not encountered a topic more bewildering to them. Despite the sexual revolution, or perhaps because of it, men seem to be more confused about their sexuality than ever before. They struggle to understand its power, how to control it, and above all how to "sanctify" it according to the admonition of Paul.

Why is it that so many struggle to balance their strong hormonally-driven urges with their desire to be good, devout, and faithful partners and pastors? One reason is that the tensions we feel in our sexual drive seem to fit "the lusts of the flesh" Paul talks about. Another is that we live in an era of sexually supercharged stimuli.

That men engage in such a struggle is indisputable, as every counselor of men knows. Good men have difficulty differentiating between ordinary, healthy sexuality and what is abnormal.Many men fear that just because they have a strong sex drive they are in some way deviant. "I must be something of a freak" a pretty normal pastor told me once. Some even fear that they may be "perverted" or addicted to some sexual aberration.

The bottom line is that all men struggle to keep their heads above the turbulent waves of their testosterone. The sex drive is a powerful force in healthy men and clearly some have a harder battle with the fight than others. Men with strong sex drives can easily develop a pervasive sense of shame and self-rejection, even though a strong drive, in and of itself, is not abnormal.

That we must learn to control our sexual urges and channel them into appropriate outlets is the challenge we all face. But how do we accomplish this and what is the real problem? It can't be sexuality in and of itself, since this is part of God's creation.

I believe it is that the beautiful gift God has given us has become distorted, and men in particular, have lost their way! What was intended by God to be a joyous, transcendent experience that unites a man and a woman, has become a bewildering, bothersome, and, for most, baffling challenge.

Major sources of distortion

Several obvious sources for the distortions can be identified. I discuss these in detail in my book The Sexual Man, but here we will take up only three major sources.

1. The "veil of silence." "Men are known by the silence they keep" some one has said. This sums up a major distorting influence in male sexuality. The shrouding of male sexuality is not difficult to discern. While average men think about sex a lot, it's too personal and intimate to discuss openly. They won't even admit how often they think about it!

Some men may joke about sex, but they hardly ever talk about it seriously. The result? Most boys grow up struggling to distinguish between what is "normal" and "healthy" from what is "sick, sinful and dysfunctional." They have no sense of where "normal" lies because they don't know what others are thinking or feeling deep down.

This "veil of silence" can have devastating consequences. For one thing boys don't get healthy or even accurate information about sex from their fathers as they grow up. What they learn from friends is full of distortions and embellished with the shame we so easily associate with sex if you grow up in a Christian home.

There is, however, a much more serious penalty for men's silence: It fails to help fathers model a healthy sexuality. Most sons do not see their fathers as sexual beings and this can, for example, keep them from learning how to behave in a healthy way toward women. Without adequate models, boys develop a sexuality that is misguided, and in many cases immoral or even dangerous.

2. Pornography and cybersex. There is no greater threat to a healthy, let alone sanctified, male sexuality than pornography. It is devastating our Christian sons and creating an epidemic of addiction to sexually stimulating images. Through pornography and the related means of communication that it exploits, many men have developed or exacerbated what can only be described as "an obsessive/compulsive sexuality." That is, men are engrossed in the physical aspects of human sexuality and they have come to obsessively act these out compulsively.

The average male growing up in today's world is so bombarded by sexual stimulation (mainly through the sex-crazed media who have discovered that everything sexual sells better than anything else), that few men escape its influence.

Pornography also feeds unrealistic expectations for gratification, changes how men view women in that they are only seen as sexual objects, and fosters a nonrelational sexuality. This means that many men who have used pornography for a long time do not know how to relate to real women, and have great difficulty breaking the way they do it.

Pornography is only the tip of the iceberg. Cybersex is rapidly becoming the primary source of pornography. There are now literally thousands of Web sites that offer extremely explicit pornography that can be indulged in total privacy without anyone else knowing about it.

This has already become a significant temptation for Christian men—including pastors. Besides this, just around the corner there is an even more frightening prospect that will turret the current level of pornography into "virtual sex," where computers connected to high speed Internet sites will be able to offer sex-hungry men a variety of sexual experiences in real time with "virtual" partners. This promises to be so addicting that it is bound to put substance abuse down on the list of social con cerns.

3. Puberty, adolescence, and the long "waiting period." The detrimental influence of pornography is particularly severe when it captures young boys. In this context we need to be aware of one significant biological effect that is not going to go away. It is this: The age of puberty is now lower than it has ever been, and it continues to drop.

This reality always comes as a surprise whenever I lecture on the topic of male sexuality. For both boys and girls, the more developed a culture, the lower is the age of puberty. Many factors, including healthier living conditions and better nutrition are considered to be the cause.

Two hundred years ago puberty only arrived at 17 or 18, when a young person was almost certainly going to be married by age 20—a very short "waiting-for-sex" period. When I was a teenager, the average age of puberty was around 13. My grandchildren now are all going through puberty at about 11 years of age. Who knows when this phenomenon will level out!

Think for a moment about the difference in maturity between 11 and 18. It is frightening to realize that 11 -year-old boys, and for some it is younger than this, are physically mature enough to "make babies," but not mature enough to feed or raise them. But that is the reality of our world today. The ramifications are mind boggling.

At the other end, the age of adolescence has gone up. No longer can we think about it ending, say, when a boy leaves high school. Many social commentators are saying that today adolescence doesn't really end until age 28 or 30 because men are not financially able to support a family until they are done with graduate school and begin to work and live independently.

The point is this: The period of "waiting" between puberty (say 11) and when a young man can legitimately experience sex in marriage (say 28), is already too long and getting longer.And it is this long "waiting" period that is highly influential in providing the opportunity for sexual distortion to develop in young men.

The common, secular-based alternatives facing our young people today are either free sex without any commitment (risking pregnancy and a host of spiritual, psychological, cultural, and social distortions) or masturbation to pornography. Often it is a combination of both. Certainly, a heavy dependence on pornography by men in these early years must inevitably create serious addictive tendencies that will be difficult to break.

Creating a healthier sexuality

Given what I have said so far it is not surprising that I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that we address these issues in our churches. There is no other social structure that holds out hope!

Whatever else we do, we must give the highest priority to shaping a healthier sexuality in our young people, especially boys. We also need to provide opportunities to bring healing to our men. judging them because they seem out of control won't help. It only breeds more shame, remorse, and crippling silence. The battle can only be won by helping them to develop a healthier sexuality.

How does one create a healthy sexuality, given the problems mentioned? And what can men do to heal an already distorted sexuality?

The challenges are enormous and I don't want to give the impression that there are quick and easy solutions. However, here are some practical ways we can begin to rebuild the beautiful gift that God has given us through our sexuality:

1 . We need to acknowledge our need for divine intervention. While there is a lot of therapeutic help we can offer, only the power of God can get a man out of the mess of a distorted sexuality with any degree of permanency.

2. We must help the church at large to break the veil of silence that shrouds sexuality. Men's support groups have already begun to spring up around the country. The time has come for frank, open discussions in our churches about the dangers of such practices as sexual fantasies, the damage of the early expo sure of boys to pornography, and the importance of building healthy, balanced lives. Believe it or not, when one's life is rich with meaning, sexual temptations lose their power even in men with serious distortion.

3. Couples need help in addressing sexual problems as early as possible in their marriages. Churches which maintain a distance from these matters or which do not offer programs that can help couples in their struggles at reconciling the sexual differences between the spouses are only perpetuating the problem.

4. Parents need help in educating their children, especially boys, into developing a healthy sexuality. This has to be done without shaming them or creating severe guilt, which is quite inadvertently the most common form of control that Christian parents resort to. Parents themselves need training in how to educate their children!

Since it takes healthy parents to raise healthy children, parents, especially fathers, should be encouraged to con front their own sexual distortions and get help in undoing them.


The problems facing men as they seek to develop a sanctified sexuality aren't going to go away. Instead, the challenges are greater. For our Christian subculture at least, the church is the system that must commit itself to restoring a sanctified sexuality.

The apostle Paul's advice to men has never been more needed than now: "That each of you should learn to con trol his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God" (1 Thess. 4:4, 5, NIV).

In one sense we need to learn how to control our bodies because the temptation to sin is greater in the realm of sex than in anything else. But we also need to learn control because we have lost our way on the sexual road.

God help us as a society if we don't find the way back to His road before it is too late!

Editor's note: Ministry is proud to recommend Dr. Hart's book, The Sexual Man (Dallas: Word Books, 1994).

1 Archibald D. Hart, The Sexual Man (Dallas: Word Books, 1994).

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D., F.P.P.R., is professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California. He is the author of the book The Anxiety Cure, published by Word, that can provide additional help for the reader.

July 2002

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Loving the city

Neither assimilation nor separation: Our ministry to the cities.

Patrons and patronage in the early Christian church

A biblical and historical study of the influence of the economically advantaged in the church.

The use of imagination in preaching

An interview with Thomas H. Troeger

My call to ministry

The pastor's call.

When clergy couples come for counseling

Helpful observations of a counselor specializing in clergy marriages.

"It ain't necessarily so"

A review of the validity of Charles Darwin's thinking.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All