This post contains language that could be triggering for people who have suffered sexual violence.
If you were a pastor, and a member of your congregation told you that their spouse had secretly filmed them having sex, would you consider it abuse? If one of a christian couple physically restrained their partner to have sex with them against their will, would you call that rape? What if they didn’t physically restrain them, but they did manipulate and threaten them? I suppose the answer depends on whether or not these things occur while you are a member of an OPC or a PCA church. Yes, it turns out that while “The World” seems perfectly clear about these things, actual pastors in the OPC and PCA who found themselves confronted with these exact situations in their churches told the victims that they hadn’t been abused at all. Their reason? According to them, consent is irrelevant to a Christian sexual ethic.
My gut reaction on encountering this information was that these pastors should be defrocked and the sessions disciplined. By refusing to address abuse, they are complicit in it. By manipulating or bullying victims into not reporting abuse, they become perpetrators of abuse themselves. Such men are wolves, no matter how pretty their pulpit words may be. You don’t need to know the details of those cases to agree with me here. The issue is that before the details of the case can come to adjudication, their refusal to consider the consent of the abused relevant to the case already determines the outcome. That this happens among us belies how deeply and shamefully confused we are about the issue of consent.
Let’s also put out there that any time we talk about these issues publicly, we do so in the hearing of people who have or are actively undergoing abuse. So what we say about consent, however rational the arguments may be, needs to be pastoral, and needs to be tailored to protecting and nurturing the vulnerable Christians in our care. As I write this, I myself am conscious that among those reading it are people who need to hear clearly and often that they can say no to sex, even if it’s their husband or wife asking. They can say yes, and it’s OK to change their minds later. They can say yes to one kind of touch, and no to another. And if they are deprived of the opportunity to give or deny consent, then it’s abuse.
I understand some of the reasons for our confusion. As many see it, the church’s “worldview” differs from "The World’s", and we feel defensive about this. Our ideology makes us suspicious that the world tells insidious lies about pretty much everything, and we should maintain constant vigilance against its deception. Of the insidious lies we think "The World" tells, one is that I own myself. And so many conservative Christians suspect that talk of one’s well being, one’s feelings, one’s self determination, and yes, their consent to sexual intimacy even within the marriage bond, encodes their 'wretched grasping after autonomy,' the very sin that Eve gave into in the garden. Being good Christians, steeped in the language of scripture, we counter that our bodies are not our own, and that the marriage bond is built on mutual submission, sacrifice, and selflessness.
An array of pastors and seminary professors, and assorted Christian pundits tell us that consent is what "The World" writes on their banners, seeking to justify all manner of “perversions,” including attacks on marriage, letting trans folk into the bathroom of their choice, and, if they were really honest, allowing incest and pedophilia. So the story goes: if we open the gates to consent, and let that play a determinative role in our sexual ethics, then we may drag in the world’s pitiable, sulfur-stinking worldview with it. No, surely our sexual ethics has no place for consent. Women don’t get to say no. Thus we avoid women using the promise or denial of sex as leverage in relationships, and we protect men who can’t control their sexual urges from retreating to pornography or to the arms of some other woman, by providing them with on-demand access to an approved source of gratification.
For those of you who feel incredulous that leaders in our church would offer such arguments, let me assure you that it really does happen. It happens a lot. It happens with enough frequency and is defended with enough vigor, that for those of us who are paying attention it becomes increasingly impossible to hear it as merely some isolated ideological excess. To be sure, when someone is abused, and when that person is denied basic protection and disciplinary recourse by their local ecclesiastical authorities, this itself is a matter of discipline to be handled by the church’s courts. But as long as we continue to treat these issues quietly, as isolated and exceptional disciplinary events, we will continue to miss the much larger problems that speak to the fundamentals of our life as a community of Christ. This is theological in the deepest and most vital sense of the word.
So what would a theology of consent look like? I’m the first to admit that the issues are complex. Being prone to philosophizing, I’m usually glad to take a mental meander through the analysis of subjectivity, of agency, and so on. And as an armchair theologian, I’d find it fascinating to pick apart the trinitarian heterodoxies and christologies that animate today’s debates about complementarianism. But as satisfying as those sentences would be to me, and to other like-minded folks, I fear that indulging our impulses to argumentation would obscure our vision of the bright light of any Christian ethic, sexual or otherwise: Jesus, the God-man, incarnate Lord, the heart of our faith.
From Him there resounds a “yes” so compelling and penetrating that it echos in our hearts, expressing itself in our own “yes” to what Jesus has accomplished in us, through history. Our yes emanates from beyond mere acquiescence or submission, arising not from need but from the fullness of union with the risen and glorified Christ. The yes of Christ joins the being of one to the being of another. Do you desire a union with others who are joined in the same way to their savior, that echoes your union with Him? Do you desire it with your wife or with your husband? Then why would you settle for anything less than their “yes” in that expression of intimacy that is yours alone to share? And how does your entire being not rebel at the wickedness of extracting that intimacy to the sound of their “no”?
Men, you hold the place of privilege and power in your conservative evangelical churches. Your physical, ecclesiastical, and familial dominance put you in a dangerous and fragile position. If you do not take pains to get her yes every time and at every stage of your intimacy, or if you extract it by coercion or manipulation, then you turn a blessing into a curse. Sex is like everything else in marriage. It takes work to learn how to communicate about what’s working and what isn’t. Communication isn’t always verbal. After fifteen years, I certainly know enough about my wife’s signals that I don’t always need words to ask or to be asked. But even couples who have been together for many years find their needs and wants changing, and therefore need to recalibrate and retune to one another.
Pastors, elders, seminary professors, if you do not take every opportunity to affirm the centrality of consent in a Christian sexual ethic, then you fail us in your duty to defend the innocent and avenge the powerless, who far too often find themselves bullied into silence and self doubt, who are told they must return to domestic situations that threaten their physical and their spiritual well being in the name of moral uniformity. No doubt, the world is full of people confused about consent. They may deploy it in the service of a contrary agenda, inimical to the interests of the church. But they understand what rape is. They understand what abuse is. If we who have the light of the gospel, the substance of the great yes that echoes in each of us with every act of love and intimacy shown to another human being, can’t understand something so basic, then truly, we have lost ourselves and Him. I can only pray that He finds us to lead us back.
Since I originally wrote this piece it's been aggregated or re-blogged a few times. In each instance, someone took exception to the title, "Consent is Everything," citing that consent isn't enough when someone feels they are obligated to give their consent. In other words, consent can be manipulated. I glossed over this toward the end of my piece because I wanted to keep the message simple. I still want to keep it simple, so I'll just take this opportunity to clarify that yes, someone can say "yes" and mean no. Or they can say yes, and think they mean yes, even when they aren't in a position to know their own minds, as in the case of people who are the victims of long term trauma, or who are at the mercy of a manipulative abuser. Consent is complicated. There's lots of literature about this that the interested and thoughtful person can find on their own. What I want to say here is twofold:
To my detractors, who believe that our views on consent are too subjective, or two wishy washy, this is not an attempt to trap you. You don't need to be defensive. You do need to be humble. In my marriage, I have done and said things that I now believe were abusive. I have sat down with my wife and explained to her what I think I did, and how I think it may have hurt her. She heard me, and she forgave me.
To everyone, healthy relationships are all about failure and forgiveness. Did your wife consent to something in bed and later tell you that she felt pressured, and now she regrets giving her consent? She can do that, and you can hear it without feeling accused. Just talk about it. Take that opportunity to get better at communication. Your willingness to do so precisely is what makes you not an abuser. Your failure to hear her, your anger when she tells you, or your gas lighting arguments absolutely do make you an abuser. Don't be an abuser.
Thanks to everyone who has written in or commented. Keep it coming!