Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Pitfalls of Professional Christians: Of Pastors and Pornography

Prophet: This is the word of the Orange Sky.
Congregation: Thanks be to God.

Another month, another news story about a pastor losing his position because of lust. This one because of online pornography, specifically, and I admit I missed this story by a month, because I'm not usually at the cutting edge of gossip about pulpits in Florida. In my defence, my source on the story is a more recent article at Church Central which defends the pastor in question on the grounds that there are "deeper emotional issues" which motivate "addiction" to pornography.

The original story is fairly familiar if the circumstances are somewhat specific. A pastor confesses to a leading committee at a church that he is dealing with a personal moral failure. The committee, in this case, consults others within its denomination before sending the pastor on an indefinite "leave of absence." Dubiously, it brings in "a computer firm under contract" to "investigate the computers" at the church, because even though the pastor hasn't committed a crime, his word can't be trusted anymore and it's time to investigate him like a criminal. Other than that, the Methodists have been fairly gracious here. Instead of running him out of town, Mr. Brian James is permitted to stay in his church-owned home "for up to three months," and gets a vague promise of "some support." What happens at the end of the three months, I'm not sure.

Church Central tries to be compassionate by noting that this is probably a common problem and that the church should consider the presence of "deeper emotional issues" underlying pornography "addicts." I suppose that's true, though I'm a bit skeptical of whether we can basically equate looking at porn with being a victim of sexual abuse or even being on par with other "sexual addicts," something the article does unquestioningly.

The main problem which concerns me is something Church Central only hints at, in noting that pastors likely feel unable to confess their sins to others at the church because doing so "can cost them their job."

Basically, the church creates in its leaders a new category of religious person - the professional Christian - who simultaneously becomes the model of Godly behaviour, a sort of stand-in for Christ, while also a scapegoat in the event anything goes too seriously wrong. Such professional Christians are expected to be able to relate to sinners but nevertheless float somewhere above sin, at least "serious" sins, an artificial category of sin we establish to separate the sins we think are "imortant" and socially disruptive from those which are "less important" and not socially disruptive. Pornography presumably fits into the first of the two categories.

This despite the fact that fully half of evangelical church-attending men in the U.S. struggle repeatedly with pornography, according to one claim. The group which conducted the survey doesn't seem to be fully active online anymore, so I can't verify the results of that survey, but based on similar numbers at sites like this and this, I think we can basically conclude that pastors are human, and generally fall on the low side of the porn-addiction spectrum at that, probably statistically lower than most of their congregations.

Projecting an image of moral superiority onto religious leaders may be convenient in churches but it can also create expectations that these people shouldn't reasonably be expected to meet. My point here isn't to legitimize porn - and in any event, that's a debate for another day. What's important here is that, even from an evangelical perspective, our current system encourages churchgoers to project an image as more than human, and pastors to do this even more so than others. It's unrealistic and harmful. If churches really want to tackle the clearly serious issue of porn use, it would probably be helpful not to pretend that some of the people involved are morally superhuman.