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Pastor’s wedding night advice to women opens a conversation on harmful evangelical teaching on sex – Baptist News Global

14 minutes, 38 seconds Read

On your wedding night, “stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do.”

This is the advice Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Josh Howerton gave the women of his congregation last month at Lakepointe Church in Dallas.

If these words had been spoken by a traditional Baptist pastor in his 60s wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a wooden pulpit, many young couples would have been mortified. But when this advice is given by an attractive younger man with the posture of a standup comedian donning a jean jacket and surrounded by cool stage lighting, everyone laughed and cheered.

The response outside the church has not been so kind. A video of the sermon is being shared widely, and many people are calling out Howerton for his views on women and marriage and submission.

This is part of a larger conversation we need to face head on because this is bigger than Howerton. What’s happening here is a sacralized attack on human flourishing and a demonstration of how authoritarian pastors wield modern worship and aesthetics as the drugs to help their misogyny go down.

Marriage night

The controversy started when Howerton described to his congregation what happened during a marriage conference that featured the teaching of Levi Lusko, a pastor, author and podcaster.

The conference featured worship, videos, humor, a sermon by Lusko, and a Q&A between Levi and Jennie Lusko and Josh and Jana Howerton.

Their Q&A included a number of harmful messages, including the trope that women need emotional intimacy before having physical intimacy. Howerton instructed the men of his congregation, “Access the heart before you get the body.”

To the women, Howerton preached: “You’ll hear me talk about wives respecting and following the leadership of their husbands. People will say, ‘Yeah, but I’ll respect him when he’s respectable.’ Listen, you cannot disrespect a man into respectability. Here’s how it works. Give him a crown and then he becomes a king.”

“Give him a crown and then he becomes a king.”

While Howerton keeps wanting to instruct men and women based on gender stereotypes that ultimately have the effect of crowning men as kings, Lusko keeps bringing the conversation around to sex. At one point, Lusko mentions maxing out at five minutes during sex. And then Howerton exclaims, “I love marriage night! I love marriage night!”

A gold nugget of advice

Recalling that conversation was the setup for Howerton’s latest comments that have sparked so much concern.

“This is a gold nugget of advice I was given by a mentor,” he says. “Guys, when it comes to her wedding day, she has been planning this day her entire life. She got her first like wedding magazine when she was 14. She draped the blanket around her like it was her wedding dress when she was a teenager. She did the towel over her head. It was a little veil. All the stuff. She’s been planning this day her whole life. So here’s what you need to do, man. When it comes to that day, just stand where she tells you to stand, wear what she tells you to wear, and do what she tells you to do. You’ll make her the happiest woman in the world.”

Notice how he describes a woman’s concern in childish detail. A woman is this cute little thing with a blanket around her and a towel on her head playing pretend. You can let her have her little fun and play the role of standing wherever she wants to put you. And you don’t have to invest any interest or care in what happens during your wedding. That’s the concern of a woman, he assumes.

But then he shifts the topic. “Now ladies, when you get to his wedding night, he’s been planning this night his whole life. So what you need to do is stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do. You’re gonna make him the happiest man in the world.”

How evangelical disembodiment fuels sexual entitlement

In stark contrast to the childish detail of the woman’s concern, he offers no detail about the sex plans of men. Of course, much of that may be due to evangelical theologies of sex that tell teenage boys they are never to masturbate. Even thinking about sex is taking on the risk of getting turned on, masturbating and spending an eternity in hell. Thus, evangelical men are developed to be sexually starved, utterly dependent, disembodied and helpless. Howerton is creating a scenario here of an evangelical teenage boy who is planning out the sex for their wedding night a decade ahead of time while attempting not to get turned on by it.

Thus, by the time the evangelical teenage boy grows up and gets married, Howerton refers to the wedding night as “his wedding night.”

Women, on the other hand, are assumed to have no sexual desire, are required to submit to the entitlements of helpless men who they crown as kings that get their body.

“It’s no wonder why sexual abuse is rampant in these conservative churches.”

Not only is that a perfect example of obligation sex, it’s also promoting the dynamics of rape. It’s no wonder why sexual abuse is rampant in these conservative churches.

April Ajoy

April Ajoy, co-host of the Evangelicalish podcast and a popular progressive Christian social media influencer, told Baptist News Global: “That rhetoric leads women to view sex in marriage as a duty, not something to enjoy. While his words were more overt, it’s not niche.”

Ajoy remembers: “I was taught that it’s the wife’s job to please her husband even when she’s not in the mood. I remember being a young girl at women’s church events where the leaders would talk about the importance of wives putting out and how sex is something men need and if that need wasn’t met, husbands could look elsewhere. I was never once taught about female pleasure. It took me years into my own marriage and lots of therapy before I stopped objectifying myself and could actually enjoy intimacy in marriage.”

The larger context

When Jay Stringer, author of Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing watched the clip of Howerton, he reached out to Sheila Gregoire to hear her thoughts about it. Gregoire is an occasional columnist for BNG who has researched and written extensively about evangelical women and sex.

The two of them recorded an episode for the Bare Marriage podcast titled “Why Evangelical Honeymoons Often Go So Badly.”

Sheila Gregoire

Gregoire notes how Howerton’s theology is common in the larger context of evangelical teachings and books about marriage: “When people say these things like they’re jokes, it’s not OK because it’s being said on top of Every Man’s Battle that called women methadone for their husband’s sex addictions. It’s being said on top of Love and Respect, which said that you have to have sex or he’s going to have an affair and that what he needs is physical release. … It’s being said on top of Sheet Music, that says that your period is a difficult time for your husband and so you need to give him sexual favors during your period so he doesn’t climb the walls. There’s a context to this.”

Even though Gregoire has been ramping up these discussions with evangelicals in recent years, these concerns aren’t anything new. Stringer notes, “We have known for generations that we are not offering a thorough and comprehensive understanding of sex to people. And why, why, why do we let this go on?”

Honoring the voice of women

Stringer specifically calls out conservative Reformed seminaries and mentions how thankful he is to have attended a seminary that honored the voices of women. And that’s precisely where much of the problem lies.

Conservative complementarian seminaries and parachurch organizations are run by men. Every board member of The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, Grace to You, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a male.

Jay Stringer

Of course, these men occasionally allow a woman to speak at a women’s event or write an article for their website. But while that may feel like honoring women to conservatives, what it’s actually doing is embodying the male entitlement dynamics Howerton is promoting.

Complementarian women who speak or write for these organizations are standing where the men tell them to stand, wearing what the men tell them to wear, and doing what the men tell them to do.

The reason conservatives have let male sexual entitlement go on for generations without being addressed is that it is merely one expression of their larger context of sacralized male authority and female submission.

Entitled pastors

Howerton demonstrates these dynamics over his own congregation. When he transitions from talking about teenage girls playing pretend while wearing blankets and towels to men telling them where to stand for sex, Howerton awkwardly says, “Now I got an ‘amen.’ Let’s see if you ‘amen’ this.”

He also often names how he intends to affect his congregation’s emotions by saying things like, “I’m going to shift emotional gears so hard right now.”

At one point he says, “I need feminine clapping.”

Then during an invitation, he instructs the congregation to raise their hands and lock their elbows.

“He’s telling his congregation where to stand, what to wear and what to do, just like the sexually entitled man he’s fantasizing about.”

Stringer observes, “He has already mapped his congregation’s mind. He already knows that it’s going to be disconcerting, unsettling and somewhat playful.”

To put it bluntly, he’s telling his congregation where to stand, what to wear and what to do, just like the sexually entitled man he’s fantasizing about. But he does it in a way that makes many watching feel good about it.

Others have observed how his sexual language reminds them of some of the harmful dynamics they’ve seen in pornography. And when he describes a husband’s posture toward his wife on “his” wedding night with those dynamics, he’s giving us a point-of-view virtual reality experience of how he looks down on the church giving him the feminine clapping and locked elbows he calls for.

Pastoral authority on everything

Because conservative complementarian pastors interpret the universe as a perfectly designed hierarchy of authority and submission revealed in a perfectly inerrant Bible, the notion of biblical authority becomes code for their authority. The “sufficiency of Scripture” becomes code for the sufficiency of the pastor.

As Gregoire points out: “In evangelicalism, there’s this idea that because someone is a pastor they are thus equipped to speak on everything. And what we see here are the results of that. We see someone who is not trained in sexuality speaking authoritatively on it in a way that can actually do harm.”

“We see someone who is not trained in sexuality speaking authoritatively on it in a way that can actually do harm.”

Stringer agrees. “In the same way that you would not go to a cardiologist if they had no training in understanding the heart, we should have some healthy level of suspicion about listening and responding to a pastor’s sex message when they have had no training and likely very little therapy of their own.”

So Gregoire pleads to pastors: “Please pastors, understand when you’re out of your depth. … You’re not an expert on mental health. You’re not an expert on sex. You’re not an expert on parenting. … I just really wish pastors didn’t feel like they had to address everything and that congregations didn’t expect their pastors to address everything.”

Blaming women

Entitled pastoral authority creates submission dynamics that turn men into helpless creatures who are victimized by women who won’t submit their bodies to them.

“They have been taught that ‘my only legitimate method of sexual release is my wife,’” Gregoire explains. “‘She is the one that God gave me to give me sexual release.’ And this is what Emmerson Eggerichs actually says. Mark Driscoll called women ‘penis homes.’ This is quite widely taught in evangelical circles. So you’ve got these guys who think, ‘God has given me a way to get sexual release through my wife that is legitimate. Every other way to get sexual release is not proper in the Christian context.’”

Then the blame shifts to women. “And so when she isn’t giving me sexual release, she is depriving me, she is hurting me,” Gregoire describes. “Even if I am pressuring her, I’m not the one sinning because God gave her to me for that. And so she becomes the one who is actively hurting him and he becomes the victim.”

“Ironically, blaming women has the net effect of turning women off.”

Ironically, blaming women has the net effect of turning women off.

“Our sexuality has largely been killed or made dormant or covered because we never learned desire or how to play because we’ve had to turn it off all the time,” Gregoire says. “As teenagers, we’re told we’re the gatekeepers because boys can’t help themselves because their desire is so overwhelming. And so we need to be the ones to put the brakes on, to make sure it doesn’t go too far. And then we’re given messages like Josh’s where it’s assumed she isn’t going to want sex, where to want sex is somehow unfeminine, and it’s assumed that she’s always going to have the lower libido and she’s always going to have to be coerced in some way to have sex.”

An opportunity for healing

Because the problem is one of entitled male authority that disembodies women, the healing needs to include men laying down their authority, affirming women’s authority and encouraging women to be embodied.

Stringer says: “This is not just about Josh. This is about the wider understanding of health, of being able to say we should not be speaking into dynamics to which we have no training. And if we do want to speak into those, we should seek out experts and Ph.D.s and people with advanced degrees that have an understanding to at least consult with them. If you’re going to give an hour message on sex, please meet with a certified sex therapist and a Ph.D. in attachment theory for a couple hours to say, ‘Let’s midrash this together. Is this psychologically healthy? Is this sexually healthy?’”

Gregoire also encourages people to seek the help of professionals. “Therapists are on the front lines here because pastors say all this stuff from the stage or they give out books that say this bad stuff. And then it’s affecting real couples and the couples show up in the therapist’s office and the therapist’s office is the one that has to fix it or address it.”

Congregants seeking healing through therapy will not be seen as a threat to pastors unless those pastors are primarily concerned with their own authority. But if pastors can disentangle their view of themselves from their view of the Scriptures, perhaps some of the couples in their congregations can begin to heal.

Awareness of how we’re being influenced

Ultimately, all of us need to become more aware of how we’re being influenced. It’s easy to point out a misogynistic message from a stuffy looking pastor. But it’s much harder to recognize a relatable authoritarian when you’ve been caught up in the aura and collective effervescence of a megachurch worship service.

Stringer reminds us: “We’re not even fully aware of how these messages go from a book into a sermon into a family system. And we just hold these things in our bodies and we think that they are just intuitively true. But we have no understanding of how they have been built up in our consciousness.”

Many people may get annoyed when they see us post on social media yet again about what some harmful preacher said. They often want us to hurry up and get through our deconstruction in order to heal in reconstruction. But those of us who are healing should remember that nobody is entitled to our reconstruction. That’s them posturing themselves over us, telling us where to stand, what to wear, what to do.

So when pastors like Howerton share harmful messages such as this, it’s good and healthy to feel the wound, to walk through it together, to see a therapist, to learn about how deep the wound goes, and to allow our bodies to work through the healing.

Rick Pidcock

Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a bachelor of arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.

This post was originally published on this site

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