Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Moral Formation and Sexual Abuse, Part II: Learning to love what is good by loving one another

February 7th, 2018 | 11 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Part I

If human beings were perfectly rational masters of their appetite by default, “Just don’t abuse women!” would be a sufficient response to the crisis of sexual abuse (along with “Punish the abusers!”). One sees a very strong Pelagian streak among Christians and non-Christians who assume that the “Just Say No” approach is all we need and that an improved moral stricture can be incorporated into our lives like a new app can be downloaded to our phones. However, we are all born slaves to our passions and it takes a lot of work to discipline ourselves to the point that we can refuse temptation.

We cannot seriously deal with sexual abuse and harassment until we can acknowledge that loving others is a lifelong discipline dependent on learning and practicing other disciplines. Someone might occasionally develop enough self-restraint to respect womens’ need in the absence of other virtues, but unless we start from the premise that virtue is formed holistically we’re going to have a lot of people failing to grant other peoples’ basic dignity. As the #MeToo discussion has shifted from episodes of outright violence to instances of coercion and uncomfortability, it has become clear that women want men to think of their good in sex. This, of course, necessarily entails a shared conception of what is good for one another and an attitude of self-sacrifice.

A person whose tongue is unrestrained is going to have unrestrained hands; a proud person who thinks nothing of other peoples’ needs is going to think little of another person’s consent. A person who is always too tired, busy, or stressed to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in small things is going to use the same justifications when a big moral challenge comes their way; a person who justifies being a jerk for the right cause is going to justify being a creep for their own satisfaction. A person who is uncouth enough to yell at a stranger on the street for any reason is going to feel entitled to catcall. Similarly, those who make excuses for other people who are undisciplined, arrogant, lazy, or unkind because they accomplish other things well or (even worse) stick it to our enemies effectively will find themselves covering for gross abuses of power.

All of this is fairly intuitive even for the Pelagians among us, but how we move from weakness to discipline is a difficult question. For Christians, this formation takes place in the context of a community that hears direct messages explaining our moral duties, practices acts of love and sacrifice for others, and holds one another accountable for sins internal and external. It is also grounded in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection -- if we can understand our need for Jesus to die for our sins and trust that his resurrection gives us power over sin, then we will be able to honestly confront our sinfulness and take hope in the possibility of being forgiven and transformed. We sing and tell stories that reinforce these truths and help us to persevere even when we don’t want to.

Outside of a healthy local church, learning these disciplines is more scattershot unless one is going to wholly imitate the church while chucking the doctrines that animate and undergird the body of Christ. Presumably the content of some moral values can be instilled through the schools, though any educational system will have to compete with the power that mass media has in forming moral imaginations. If the stories and songs out there are concordant with the right kind of values (e.g. respecting women), great, but if “I Used To Love Her” is popular, you’re out of luck. The only regular practices of love and sacrifice are purely voluntary and individualized; the only ways to hold others accountable are the police and public shaming.

Beyond the question of these communities of moral formation, obvious conflicts arise when considering the effects that particular moral systems have in shaping our disciplines. Again, there is no ideology that fully protects its adherents against sin, but some things can hurt more than they can help. In order to discern the patterns of thought that will reinforce rigorous moral formation, we must be willing to glean insight from anywhere and find ways to compensate for any system’s inherent weaknesses. It is necessary to acknowledge that the Sexual Revolution made some things better for women and other things worse, but it is prudent to examine how the underlying impulses of the Sexual Revolution are far flimsier and more ripe for abuse than those of the Christian sexual ethic.

The insights of feminism and the Sexual Revolution can illuminate the ways in which systems that denigrate a woman’s words can lead to women being ignored when they are speaking the truth. Similarly, moral and social codes that absolutize women’s sexual nature will necessarily diminish the entirety of their humanity. Failing to address the power dynamics inherent in most acts of abuse will create situations in which Christians to assign blame to relatively powerless victims who are manipulated or intimidated by men far more powerful than them.

Once we have found ways to hedge against the predators as best we can, we then have to deal with the natural problem of men who are tempted to lust after women but are trying not to as well as the problem of men saying and doing things that (without realizing it) make women feel violated. One very strong push (particularly for teenagers) in the Church is a reaction against the Sexual Revolution, one that emphasizes the inherent danger in every interaction between men and women and over-sacralizes the family such that the only recognized relationships are either marriage (which creates a socially impenetrable bubble only to be shared with other married couples), almost-marriage (courtship or dating), or same-gender friendships (but not too close). This only buys into the romanticism of our culture and places too heavy a burden on marriages for emotional and social fulfillment while excluding singles and teaches boys to fear any sort of intimacy with a member of the opposite sex.

A better way is to reform a culture that loves purity and loves one another. Men who love purity will continually work together to discipline their eyes, minds, and mouths and be on the lookout for predators in their midst. The best guards against impure thoughts are close (but not exclusive) friendships and holy affection; it does us no good to think of women as abstract bodies just waiting to tempt us if we let our guard down. Having a lot of good friendships between many different people (whether teens or adults) will also allow many avenues for women to express any uncomfortability they might have with a particular man.

Similarly, women who love their brothers will adhere to the Bible’s advice about modesty, which does not seem especially concerned with the length of a particular skirt but with the unnecessary drawing of attention to oneself. By analogy, a man can choose to lust after a woman in a dress that covers ankles and wrists just as he can covet a neighbor’s Ford. Yet we would consider a Lamborghini an immodest occasion to sin for our friends and a misuse of God’s good gifts in the same way that we would consider a tube top-miniskirt to be unnecessarily provocative.

If we set up lust as a contest between mind over matter, matter is usually going to win out. Yet even if we can’t always will yourself to not think lustful thoughts (which is still often necessary), we can train our bodies (particularly our eyes) to respond to things by situating and habituating them in our imagination over and over. Think, for example, of the movie Terminator 2, where at first we are meant to fear Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator until we know that he is the good guy, at which point we cheer every time he returns to the screen. Or consider how the context of Schindler’s List helps us to know that the naked bodies on screen are not for our titillation but our horror. True friendship, then, helps our bodies and minds to situate the beauty we see in our friends and break the power of lust with love.

We must acknowledge that an intimate friendship with a member of the opposite sex can provide opportunities for temptation, either for inappropriate mutual romance or one-sided sexual abuse. (Many women have noted that parallel temptations can arise in intimate relationships between women.) The most obvious way to mitigate this danger is to make this intimacy less exclusive: for married people, this will obviously entail inviting friends to also be intimate with their spouses, while singles can find ways to share friendships together that distribute intimacy in a manner that all feel is appropriate. In our atomized society, most people need to be closer to one another, not less.

Space does not permit a comprehensive discussion of complementarianism and egalitarianism. It is undoubtedly easier for predators to hide in complementarian churches, but there is also no small number of abusive jerks who have used their egalitarian or feminist credentials to shirk their responsibility. Only a deformed and unbiblical church will take a prohibition on women preaching as a license to not listen to women at all, and only a church full of people who genuinely love and care for one another will truly help women to feel safe. It is more important that we ask how we learn to be loving and sacrifice for one another than to ask how we can better police the roles we expect other people to play.

Having emphasized habits and moral formation, one weird trick that will help guide the entire process is listening to women. As simple as it sounds, the consistent testimony of women everywhere is that a lot of men don’t listen enough. Whether it is because we are too eager to get their own words in, too dismissive of “emotional” discourse, or too proud to admit they might need to learn something or apologize, we need to remind ourselves to heed the Bible’s instruction that we be slow to speak and quick to listen.

Any comprehensive strategy will include some concrete rules.

Consider for a moment the current consensus on child sexual abuse in churches and many other institutions: our goal is to always prevent any instance of abuse and sequester any potential offenders the first time it happens. Thus (as of the last few years, anyway), many churches and other organizations have set ironclad policies forbidding unrelated adults from being alone with children in their care, coaching children on how to avoid situations where they could be abused, and mandating that suspicions of abuse be reported immediately.

If we presume that preventing child sex abuse is entirely a process of deterring or punishing predators and there is no possibility that a consensual sin could take place (as it could among two adults alone together), then there are three key elements that can be adapted to preventing predation among adults:

  1. Immediate reporting to law enforcement. This is not without controversy, but given the potential stakes I do not think it is unfair; there is less chance for obfuscation if a more objective third party gets involved sooner. Not only does this improve the chances for justice if a crime has actually been committed, but it also discourages false accusations because any potential false accuser will know that they will have to deal with the police very shortly.
  2. Coaching women to recognize and avoid situations where they can be put at risk, while creating channels through which they can immediately express concerns and be taken seriously. This is also controversial because we want to avoid victim-blaming. However, virtually any advice given to help people prevent themselves from being victimized has the potential to make someone feel guiltier after the fact; this is part of the evil that attends any sort of crime against other people works. We teach men not to steal just as we teach men not to rape, but we also exhort everyone to lock their doors because we know that some men won’t heed instruction.
  3. Making boundaries about interactions between men and women. This is not an argument for the Billy Graham rule, and the folks who trounce around claiming that the Billy Graham rule would solve everything are just as ignorant as the “just teach men not to rape” crowd. There may be some men who need that sort of boundary, just like there are some men whose proclivity to drunkenness forbids them from going to bars or parties where alcohol is served. Neighborly love for the latter would generally lead those persons’ friends to mostly have dry parties, and the sacrifices are borne by the community for the sake of love.

Everyone will need to set rules for themselves, and people who in good conscience know that unregulated time alone with a member of the opposite sex won’t lead them into temptation should be able to do so without judgment. However, those people should also not pass judgment on their weaker brothers and sisters. Many men (and some women) will in some way be tempted to sin when left alone with a member of the opposite sex for long enough no matter how well they have learned to discipline themselves, just as the most dedicated disciple of Christ will be tempted to covet if they spend enough time alone in a mall. Healthy boundaries are necessary for every Christian who wants to learn holiness.

For example, my wife and I always let one another know if we are going to (or just have) spent a significant amount of time alone with a member of the opposite sex. It’s a simple part of conversation that prevents me from hiding anything. These situations are unavoidable as part of my job, where I frequently have students working alone with me. We also have access to one another’s social media accounts and email so that either of us can see any extended exchanges with others. We trust one another not to misuse this power, and we don’t give temptation an opportunity to catch us unaware. It works for our marriage.

Others may need more or less accountability, but all Christians need some sort of accountability in their life. (Most frequently, this is needed in matters sexual and financial, but often for other temptations!) Instead of casting aspersions on one another’s restraints (or lack thereof), we ought to be asking ourselves and one another what sort of accountability is best for giving ourselves room to grow while keeping the weeds from cropping up.

Love is on the line

In the end, the problem of sexual harassment and abuse is inseparable from the general questions of moral formation. How do we help frail people become resilient to temptation? How do we guard ourselves from wolves who choose to wallow in their frailty? How do we discern which ideas help us to love one another? How do we remain zealous to do good while not letting legalism poison our love?

There is much more that can be said, particularly in regards to the specifics of how we form communities that support one another as we grow in discipline. We can say, however, that communities tied to the grace and love of God will always acknowledge our human weaknesses without ever using them as an excuse to neglect our mutual pursuit of holiness. We must also ask what stories and pedagogies are shaping us (for good or for ill) and what we need to learn from others in order to correct our deficiencies. We have to weigh out which rules and guidelines will help us each to grow, being patient with those who might need tighter boundaries. We must be on guard against the people who indulge in other forms of moral midgetry – for no matter how successful they might be and despite the fact they may never molest anyone, their presence in any community will eventually bring harm. We need to listen carefully so that we can know whether our attempts at loving are being received as such.

[give_form id="127380"]

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at