Sex and the clergy
Pastor John,1 a progressive, creative thinker and experienced shepherd of the flock, allowed himself to get caught in the web of emotional entrapment. Not only had his ministry been highly successful, his wife, a professional, enjoyed her role as a shepherdess and did her best to keep her family intact and her husband’s ministry thriving. Their children enjoyed the serenity of home, appeared emotionally stable, and had many friends. From the outside looking in, one could conclude that the pastor had a healthy relationship with his wife. But on that fateful morning, when he preached that formidable sermon on the family, it laid the foundation for him to become the antagonist in the drama “Sex and the Clergy.”
Anna,2 a beautiful woman, had a winsome personality, an attractive appearance, an enticing smile, and a sensational wink. Unfortunately, however, she had the toxic mix of being charming and cunning, and she used it to her advantage. As she listened to him preaching that powerful sermon on marital fidelity, she mused to herself that he could not be that strong and, from then on, set out on a calculated path to test him. She developed a three-stage approach to accomplish her objective. Her ploy included:
- Befriending the pastor. Her handshakes were a little longer and firmer, as was her gentle embrace. Her words of affirmation on his appearance, ministry style, sermon content, and delivery went to his head, as she got to his heart, and their contact developed into a platonic friendship.
- Befriending the wife and children. It is easier to conceal interest in one party when you are friends with the other one. So, she worked her way into the family. Gaining their trust and appearing loyal, she soon became their friend.
- Employing fictitious sicknesses.To have more private moments with the pastor, she faked illness. Frequent pastoral visits encouraged the growing affection that morphed from platonic pastoral care to a sensual affair.
Do not think that pastors are passive victims in such dramas. Pastors, too, are passionate about sex. Unfortunately, these passions, when uncontrolled, have led many well-intended and gifted preachers to make irreparable errors in judgment. How can pastors model and preach healthy sexuality? One effective way is through the Song of Solomon.
The drama of the Song of Solomon
The Song of Solomon is one of the most misinterpreted books of the Bible, containing four types of drama: periodic, poetic, symbolic, and erotic.
A periodic drama. Here, the relationship between the king and the bride represents Israel’s history: longing for deliverance while in Egypt (Song of Sol. 3:1–5), the Exodus (vv. 6–11), the conquest of the land (Song of Sol. 4:1–15), idolatry (Song of Sol. 5:2–8), correction by prophets (v. 7), repentance (Song of Sol. 6:1–3), restoration (vv. 11–13), and the return from exile (Song of Sol. 8:5–7).
A poetic drama. Authors, composers, and, yes, lovers have all drawn from the poetic composition of the biblical book Song of Solomon. James Hamilton believes that Solomon is “not presenting historical narrative but idealized poetry.”3 In this poem, Solomon is portrayed as a new Adam who, through love and forgiveness, reverses the Edenic curse and restores God’s original intention for marriage. The Song of Solomon, therefore, is seen as “a stunning renewal of Eden’s lost glory.”4
A symbolic drama. The marriage depicted in the Song of Solomon is viewed as a minidrama of God’s relationship with His people. Douglas O’Donnell, a senior lecturer in biblical studies and practical theology at Queensland Theological College, asserts that this song of songs is meant to teach us about both biblical sexuality and God’s heart for His people.5
An erotic drama. The Song of Solomon is about love between a man and a woman in marriage. Wyatt Graham states, “We need to disabuse ourselves of wrong notions of what Song of Songs is about.” “In the song, sex and romance are viewed as good, holy, and right.” “Song of Songs speaks of legitimate sexual desire for one’s love.”6 This latter drama is the one that arrests our attention here.
The Song of Solomon and romantic attraction
People in love have often employed lyrics from the Song of Solomon to flatter their beloved. Some frequently quoted verses:
- “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine” (Song of Sol. 1:2).7
- “Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me” (Song of Sol. 2:13).
- “Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out” (Song of Sol. 1:3).
- “May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples” (Song of Sol. 7:8).
It is hard to read the Song of Solomon and not experience its sexual attraction. But the biblical book sees its beauty only in the context of the splendor of marriage and not otherwise. Many people can identify with such romantic verses; they help to enhance romantic attraction and amorous conversations. And one should not deny clergy such passionate feelings and expressions. Sex for them should not be a dull, inhibited, and sinful thing. Rather, it should be an invigorating, romantic, and wholesome experience. The Song of Solomon is speaking to the heart of “clergy passion” in the context of marriage. And rightly so, because it was God who designed sex for His people, including the clergy, but only within the context of holy matrimony.
John’s failure was not Anna’s doing but a consequence of his miscalculated and misplaced romantic expression, enhanced by a lack of ethical and professional judgment. Ellen White says, “When men, standing ‘in Christ’s stead’ . . . to speak to the people God’s mes-sage of mercy and reconciliation, use their sacred calling as a cloak for selfish or sensual gratification, they make themselves the most effective agents of Satan.”8 In the light of this statement, here are some possible miscalculations a pastor can make and their results:
- a breakdown in marital commitment
- failure to count the cost to one’s ministry, integrity, and future
- unawareness of the emotional wounds inflicted on parishioners, friends, family, and society
- the mental, emotional, and psychological pain caused to one’s spouse
- allowing spirituality to fade
- giving the enemy cause to blaspheme God’s name
- a dying relationship with God
- ignoring the spiritual cost to members who could become discouraged by the pastor’s behavior
Professional literature is replete with discussions of clergy sexual mishaps. We are inundated with cases of clergy misconduct. Talk show hosts, late-night comedians, and media have bombarded us with accounts of clergy sexual failures. Research on the topic of sex and the clergy reveals the prevalence of the problem. One article recounts that almost 700 clergy from one denomination in a single state face accusations of sexual immorality.9 It has become common to view clergy as sexual predators. Some even conclude that more cases get covered up than actually come to light. Unfortunately, this kind of negative portrayal of sex and the clergy creates two problems.
The first problem is clergy inhibition. Hollywood and social media have taken over as the proponents of sexual expression and culture. Because society has concluded that sexuality is a purely secular behavior, they think a secular society should be its chief advocate. That myth drives clergy from discussing it. However, they should be the ones preaching and teaching to their congregants, and to society at large, the sacrosanct nature, purity, beauty, and sensual passion of sex. Instead, some are afraid to use the word sexin any sermon. R. Kent Hughes, professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, maintains, “Our culture holds the megaphone when it comes to talking about sex today. Yet the church has maintained a reputation for keeping quiet, hesitant to teach people about this sacred aspect of life. The Song of Solomon, however, holds nothing back as it sings loudly about the holy practice of sexuality and pushes us into the conversation with godly theology.”10 Understandably, the failures of some have silenced the majority. Public criticisms have repressed the prophetic voice.
Second, too many see the clergy as neophytes to romantic expression. Clearly, if all one hears about sex and the clergy consists of immoral and derogatory innuendoes, then it is understandable why many may regard pastors as incapable of true romantic expression. But let the truth be told that the vast majority of clergy are actually sexually pure, sexually expressive, and romantically inclined. Pastors make their spouses happy by the way they love them, embrace their human beauty, and sexually stimulate them. Such clergy members are human beings who relish the orgasm of the climactic experience, embrace the tenderness of their spouse’s body, and savor the feelings of sexual arousal in their marriages. The Song of Solomon experience is theirs: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”; “May your breasts be like clusters of grapes.” The incongruity that sexual expression is a carnal manifestation and therefore needs a carnal mind to explore and express it must be debunked by the fact that sexuality is the Creator’s gift to humanity. It lies at the heart of one’s spiritual commitment to God to be morally pure. If one can understand sexuality in the context of spirituality, who better than the clergy to write, teach, and practice sexuality as God designed it?
A paradigmatic shift
Our perception of sex and the clergy needs a paradigmatic shift. Hollywood is not the best authority for human sexuality. Neither is social media or talk show hosts. Sexuality came to us from God and needs a sacred platform. Clergy members are God’s spokespeople and should be best equipped to promote wholesome sexual practice and passion. It is said that one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel, and while it is not true that all clergy members are sexually spoiled, the perception is there. It hampers them from actively preaching and teaching human sexuality in the context of God’s gift to humanity.
The time has come for clergy from all walks of life to stand up and speak out. The statement of Ellen G. White rings true: “The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.” 11
“But such a character,” she continues, “is not the result of accident; it is not due to special favors or endowments of Providence. A noble character is the result of self-discipline, of the subjection of the lower to the higher nature—the surrender of self for the service of love to God and man.” We may apply her observation to the clergy. Is it too audacious to say, “The greatest want of the world today, is the want of clergy who are sexually pure and spiritually connected”? In order for this to happen, they must have the mind of Christ. The apostle Paul summarizes it best by saying, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5, KJV).
The Song of Solomon provides a classic reminder that God’s people, including clergy, were intended to be passionate, romantic beings. Sex is a spiritual function in the marriage of all clergy members. And they must stand tall amidst a corrupt and decadent society. The more social decay we see, the more we should see clergy living with integrity. We owe it to our family; congregants; ministry; society; and, most of all, to our God. He has called us to be light bearers to the world in the areas of modesty, morality, and spirituality. The danger of sex and the clergy lies not in hot, passionate, lovemaking with his or her spouse—that is normative and expected—or even in preaching and teaching appropriate human sexuality. Rather, it lies in expressing lustful, seductive sexuality outside of marriage.
We must commend those who are able, by His grace, to live up to the integrity of ministry and be bright light bearers to a world that needs examples of men and women with sound moral compasses. Faithful clergy persons must continue to be the forerunners in preaching, teaching, and living the beauty of sexual fidelity. The admonition is that whatever we do, we should “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31, KJV). Let our mantra be, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8, KJV).
The plea, therefore, is for clergy to get in touch with their sexuality, be in control, master their affection, and create a beautiful symphony of love and romance in marriage.
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1 A pseudonym.
2 A pseudonym.
3 James M. Hamilton Jr., Song of Songs: A Biblical-Theological, Allegorical, Christological Interpretation (Fearn, UK: Christian FocusPublications, 2015), 45.
4 Ibid., 26. See also Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson, 2007).
5 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Song of Solomon: An Invitation to Intimacy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
6 Wyatt Graham, “Three Ways We Misread Song of Songs,” The Gospel Coalition, Canadian edition, August 25, 2017, ca.thegospelcoalition.org/article /three-ways-misread-song-songs/.
7 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture references in this article are from the New International Version.
8 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 580.
9 Jessica Mouser, “Almost 700 Catholic clergy in Illinois accused of sexual abuse.” https://churchleaders.com /news/340298-almost-700-catholic-clergy-in -Illinois-accused-of-sexual-.html#abuse
10 R. Kent Hughes, “A Word to those who Preach the Word” in Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Song of Solomon: An Invitation to Intimacy, p. 11.
11 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 57.