Pursuit of sexual integrity as a church leader
How do we approach the pursuit of sexual integrity when we feel like we are risking everything by doing so? Unpacking this issue can feel like opening Pandora’s box. The uncertainties of what the consequences may be can feel daunting, yet the inner cry for release from the gripping hold and bondage constantly war against each other.
In his book Unburdened, Michael Todd Wilson presents a refreshing perspective intended to provide permission for ministry leaders to face their humanity and challenge them to pursue sexual integrity.
He explains that in the last few decades the question has been: “Do you struggle with sexual integrity?” This question has been explored, unpacked, written about and discussed. There are plenty of books on a wide variety of sexual addictions and how to find help to break free from it.
But he asks us to consider a different question: “How do you struggle with sexual integrity?”
“The two sentences only differ by one word,” he writes. “Yet the difference between them represents a significant shift I’d like to see among Christian leadership.” He goes on to explain that the first question leads many to avoid telling the truth. It often evokes a defensive, protected and guarded response. With only two possible responses, one which is positively accepted and the other which may result in significant consequences, the first question doesn’t welcome a heartfelt discussion.
However, Wilson goes on to explain that “the second question feels safer and invites conversation beyond a simple yes or no answer, causing a shift away from defensiveness toward a freedom to engage in honest dialogue.” Maintaining sexual integrity is something that is commanded to all believers. “Engaging in sexual sin is optional, contending for sexual integrity isn’t,” he adds. A significant point that he makes is that disclosure is easier than being found out. Though there may be pain that comes along with that, in the long run, it is more trustworthy.
In the book, Wilson unpacks the meaning and implications of Matthew 11:28-30, presenting a grace-based path of the sanctification process as opposed to a guilt-driven bondage which feeds the cycle of keeping our sins hidden. Taking into account the struggles of leadership, he challenges readers to reformulate their understanding of sanctification:
“Grace may be difficult for us to receive because we have unconsciously taken on our professional grace-giving roles as an identity, extending grace to others as a diversion from having to think about our own human need for experiencing grace.”
Rather than having a few simple steps to freedom, he raises the issue of sanctification as a part of the process. In some ways it seems to be quite gracious, not holding one to account. Yet, in other ways it seems to rely on an honest self-awareness that translates to our relationships with other people. We as leaders need to have someone to mentor or coach us. This needs to be someone whom we can trust to confide our victories and our struggles and who will respond in love while holding us accountable.
There may be a misconception among Christian leaders that we are destined to suffer alone, especially in regards to the struggle for purity. Maybe we should consider that the folks that we minister to may not be saying that. This would lift a heavy burden and give some space to give ourselves permission to have someone join us in this journey.
Wilson also makes clear the intentionality necessary in this journey. He does not simply give a few steps to victory over sin. Rather, he emphasizes the process of sanctification in our lives. This sanctification is evidence that life is a struggle and those struggles do not usually miraculously go away. Jesus inviting us to take up His yoke because it will make our burden light is very significant. Jesus will help us. He will bear much of the burden. We recognize our humanness and that God is there to be our helper!
While there is no fail-proof equation to follow, Wilson does offer several different suggestions given with the understanding that what may be helpful for one person may not be as life-giving to another. He suggests that we make a conscious decision to get on the pathway to sexual integrity, yet do so laced with grace to own where we fail and celebrate when we see growth, writing, “The pathway to sexual integrity is a path of sanctification, not perfection.” Those in the struggle need to make positive decisions, one step at a time, until eventually we will be able to walk without falling as often.
“There is no magic prayer to serve as a lottery ticket for us to win the prize of no longer struggling with sexual temptation,” he explains. “Our journey is about becoming more maturely conformed to Christ. It’s less about deliverance and more about growing up to live within our means. That’s because our sexuality isn’t an evil to banish but a fit we must learn to steward well as His image bearers. That gift is a reflection of God’s own image. Our job is to learn to harness its power for the good of our creator.”
While Unburdened is geared towards a target audience of men in ministry leadership, from a female perspective, I (Pauline) would strongly recommend this book to women in ministry as well. It has challenged me to see how much of a double standard I have lived by. Understanding the sanctification journey a bit more clearly now, I see how there have been times when I required perfection and zero tolerance from my brothers in Christ when it came to sexual integrity. At the same time, I have extended unlimited volumes of grace towards myself when I have not maintained that same standard or when I have sinned in other areas. Can we as women be real enough to own our struggles in being tempted as a follower of Christ in all areas of integrity? This would not only provide fertile soil for my own growth, but it would also translate into how I offer love, grace and support to the men in my circle of influence.
From a male perspective, I (Sam) have found the section on emotional awareness to be very thought-provoking and worth exploring further. Wilson acknowledges the difficulty of living unaware of our emotions and negative patterns that it may develop. This may be a result of the inability to see through and process our emotions in a healthy way. It takes time to develop emotional intelligence and the skills to navigate through all the emotions we experience. This is something that Wilson would consider an important step to acknowledging our weaknesses, insecurities and issues that we face. He goes so far as to say that negative emotions can be the catalyst toward compromising our sexual integrity if not processed in a healthy way. When we identify and feel negative emotions in healthy ways, it can help to discover the feelings that cause us to respond negatively by turning to sexual temptation. We may begin to see a pattern that needs to be addressed.
Overall, we would recommend Unburdened to all Christian leaders. It is worth saying that sexual integrity is not the only pitfall that can capture a leader. The reality is that for some leaders, this issue is not the issue that they may lose their position over, but it is still a significant one.
Sam and Pauline Doerksen are the program directors at our Kerith Retreats Manitoba location. For more information on our retreats visit KerithRetreats.ca.