January 8, 2012
Pastors Are not Qualified as Sex Therapists?
Rachel Held Evans and Mark Driscoll; Hawaii and Maine, Florida and Alaska; opposite poles on the map of contemporary evangelicalism. He the shameless biblical chauvinist complementarian, she the thoughtful progressive evangelical egalitarian. In a hollywood movie they would hate each other but then fall in love because according to that story telling medium opposites always attract. In real life, it’s no surprise that Rachael has called attention to a few of Mark’s eccentricities. Her latest comments involve a review of his book Real Marriage: the Truth about Sex, Friendship and Life Together. One of her main claims is that:
Just because someone is a pastor does not mean that he or she is an expert on sex…or money or relationships or marriage. Christian couples struggling in their marriage should seek professional counseling, and not rely exclusively on a single pastor (or his or her interpretation of Scripture) for help.
Meanwhile, evangelicals in particular need to do something about our celebrity-pastor culture. Mark Driscoll is simply not qualified to serve as a sex therapist—most pastors aren’t! (Mark Driscoll “Real Marriage”)
It’s true that popular pastors get permission to opine on all manner of things that they don’t necessarily know anything about. I’ve experienced it as a Bible teacher. People assume that since you appear to know a lot about the Bible, you will have insight into why their church is dying, why their kids are rebellious or even (this was via email) what sexual acts a husband may legitimately ask a wife to perform (a Monty Python reference is apt here: “run awaaaay….”).
Still, I think Rachael is going too far. While it is true that pastors are not necessarily experts in all the big questions of live (love, finance, success, relationships), neither are they unqualified to address such matters.
First, remember that pastoral training does include a significant dose of counseling and that counseling is part of a pastor’s job description. Rare is the pastor who lacks experience in helping people with personal relational and even intimate problems. Dysfunctional would be the church where the pastor never discussed such matters with the people under his care. No doubt Mark Driscoll has spent considerable time working through such matters during his career.
Second, the Bible does claim to show us how to live in the light of God’s will and purposes. This means that biblical ethics apply, at least generally, to all areas of life. Therefore, pastors, whose job is to lead others in the way of Jesus, should indeed have biblical wisdom related to the big questions of life. I think we should be careful about over-specializing these challenges: if your kid is giving you trouble, go to the child psychologist (the pastor knows the Bible, not child psychology); if you are depressed go see your therapist (the pastor knows about discipleship, not emotional illness); if your marriage is falling apart, go to the family therapist (your pastor can preach a good sermon, but he’s not an expert on relationships).
Lurking here are some pretty serious implications. Something like, “the Bible is not relevant to real world problems” or “when you really need help, it’s not to be found in the church, but in the assured results of the psychological sciences” or “just because the Bible tells us about God and heaven, it doesn’t mean that its principles apply to our daily lives.” I think many Christians (perhaps even Rachael) would disagree with these types of distinctions. And rightly so. Let’s not specialize the biblical worldview into irrelevance.
Bible and Counselling?
Let me see if I can point a way forward while at the same time sidestep the counter criticism (I can feel it coming!) that I’m “against counseling” or that I think we should just “read the Bible and pray” when we have problems.
While the Bible is not a technical manual on the ins and outs of human behavior, it does teach some foundational truths which speak to the entire complex of relationships. Particularly, I’m thinking about love, which is the key to all human interaction, even, yes, sex (go figure). We could also highlight such Christian virtues as: peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (See Galatians 5:22-23).
But it is still true that psychology may offer helpful insights for emotional or relational problems. For example, we learn from counseling that when a child has suffered abuse the first thing they need to hear is “it’s not your fault.” That is something that we may not have realized without specific training. It is a welcome insight, and caring about hurting people means being well versed in this sort of insight.
But Biblical insights can and should still be part of counselling. In my brief career as a sexual therapist, here’s how biblical thinking affected my advice. The person who wrote to me about the propriety of certain sexual acts got this response: love says, whatever you do must be consensual (this was clearly the root issue as one part of the couple was trying to convince the other that something was “biblical”). If you love your spouse, don’t force her to do something she finds distasteful in order to satisfy your own needs. This is not rocket science. If you love her, focus on pleasing her, not on manipulating her into pleasing you. I am not saying this broad insight will resolve all problems. But I think that, if heeded, it does set the stage for a more positive outcome. I even venture to say that the principle of being others-oriented could put a lot of therapists and counselors out work. And it is decidedly a biblical principle; it is unambiguously within the purview of the pastor to teach such things.
So, in conclusion, I don’t think it’s so crazy that pastors and Bible teachers should opine on the big questions of life such as sex, money, success and relationships. These are not the sole purview of the experts. The Bible does speak to them. The Christian tradition has deep resources to address them. Now, whether or not Mark Driscoll’s advice is in continuity with those resources is an entirely different question (I don’t even know what his advice is). But given that he seems to speak out of some deeply experienced challenges, I suspect it is actually quite valuable.