2 Things Pastors Should Never Say

by | Aug 9, 2022 | Pornography | 49 comments

Pastors should not confess abuse or objectification

I do not believe that pastors need to be perfect.

I absolutely believe that all of us are works in progress, and that we will always have areas where we need to grow.

And I think it’s a good idea, in general, for pastors to admit when they’re still growing or where they have certain areas they’re working on.

However–and this is a big however–there’s a huge difference between a struggle to love well and a struggle to not abuse or objectify someone.

Struggling about how to communicate well with your spouse when you’re just so tired? Struggling with how to prioritize everyone’s needs while work is also stressful? Struggling to become more disciplined while you’re trying to prioritize your health? Trying to defeat materialism and get God’s view of money?

Totally understandable. Things that everyone goes through. Yep.

But then there are other struggles–struggles to not watch porn or not to lust, for instance. Or I was recently reading a big marriage blog where the couple said that they’re having struggles because she doesn’t feel safe sharing around him because of their past problems and current dynamics.

If a wife doesn’t feel safe, that’s not a run of the mill marriage problem. That’s a serious marriage problem.

It’s one thing to say,

Earlier in our marriage, I treated her badly, and I often belittled and criticized her. I got help for that and I don’t do it anymore, but sometimes when I get careless or busy I can trigger her to think that we’re going back to that dynamic.

So we’ve learned a quick thing to do is for her to say a phrase, like, “am I safe?”, and I immediately realize what I’m doing and give her my 100% attention so she knows that old me hasn’t crept in again.

You see, that would be showing, “the abusive me was in the past, and I recognize and own the problem, and I take steps to correct it.”

But if you just admit that your wife doesn’t feel safe with you, then you have a dynamic that isn’t safe. And this is not someone who should be teaching about marriage, and really not someone who should be leading a congregation.

There is a difference between normal struggles that people face, and struggles caused by one person trying to control another or use another.

We need to start making a clear differentiation between the two.

If someone is trying to control or use another, that person is unfit for the pastorate, and is unfit for any teaching role.

And, I would argue, if someone doesn’t recognize how dangerous trying to control or use someone is, they are also unfit for the pastorate and unfit for any teaching role.

(see also–what do I do if my husband is a pastor or missionary and he uses porn?)

When pastors “confess” certain sins that use, abuse, or degrade another, they make people, especially women, unsafe.

That’s why there are two things that I believe a pastor or speaker should never say from the pulpit:

  1. They should never tell anecdotes where objectification or lust of others is normalized
  2. They should never tell anecdotes where they were abusive towards someone, and this is ongoing (or where someone else did, and it’s seen as normal behaviour).

When abuse or objectification are confessed from the pulpit, as if they were any other sins and aren’t treated as something that disqualifies them, it normalizes these sins, making it harder for women to fight against them in their marriage.

It also makes women especially (though also men) feel unsafe with the pastor.

To show you what I mean, here’s a brilliant Facebook post that was written by Ngina Otiende from Intentional Today. I really appreciate Ngina. I had her on the podcast a while ago to talk about why she’s changed how she teaches about marriage, and she’s been sharing AMAZING posts on Facebook. She’s on FIRE (and you really need to follow her!).

I recently heard a speaker talk about how he and his wife addressed a huge crisis in their marriage.

The gist: Prolonged emotional disconnection had led to prolonged sexual disconnection. Sexual disconnection led to his sexual infidelity.

Rather than help people, here’s what this speaker did.

  • He outed himself as an unsafe man.
  • He devasted the women in the audience ravaged by the evil that is infidelity.
  • He pretty much told the men “if your wife is not giving any, you can look for it elsewhere because men need sex and when they can’t get it from their wives they’ll find it elsewhere and that’s just the way God created them.” “Women, it doesn’t matter if your husband has abandoned you emotionally/you’re feeling emotionally disconnected; you give up the goods. If you don’t, you’re a terrible woman who is driving her poor husband into the arms of another woman.

Women: Can we just say “no” to men putting their sin on us?

Let’s say “no” to pastors and preachers pressuring us to fix problems that have nothing to do with us.

Let’s normalize walking out of rooms and spaces that traumatize/retraumatize us.

If the takeaways from this pastor’s illustration were

  • how he took responsibility for his sin of infidelity,
  • how he alone was responsible for breaking his marriage vow
  • the steps he took to address his misogyny, entitlement, and wounds
  • how he created safety for his wife and earned back her trust,
  • how they eventually were able to address the issues that led to the emotional disconnection

Then perhaps it would have been a sermon worth listening to.

(It was a very problematic sermon, overall, but that part could have been salvageable.)

The thing is, emotional disconnection in marriage is a symptom of something else going on.

It is not the actual problem. Spouses need to be taught how to diagnose issues, not encouraged to bypass symptoms and engage in dummy “solutions.”

No one should feel pressured to have sex with someone they are not feeling connected to. Healthy sex is about intimacy and connection, not about “male sexual release” or fusing of male and female g*nitalia.

When the emotional connection is missing in a marriage, sex should automatically be off the table as a couple seeks to address the root cause of the disconnection.

A sex life devoid of emotional connection is traumatizing. Horrendously traumatizing. Expecting or pressurizing a woman to be sexually available to a husband when she is not feeling it, is cruel. It is sex without consent. It is encouraging marital r*pe.

My heart is grieving today. Oh, we have such a long way to go, church.

For the men who’ve been counseled incorrectly, who’ve been taught that they are owed sex, and they can’t do without sex, but they want to explore and do better, you’re not alone. There’s plenty of help. Check out:

We serve a wonderful, safe and loving God. He does not coercively control or devastate. He is not mean. He is not a user. He is safe. Our marriages should reflect Him.

Ngina Otiende

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I think Ngina’s exactly right.

It also reminds me of this:

Pastors and Lust

Women should not have to feel as if they are not safe in church.

But when pastors and male evangelical leaders tell us that it’s inevitable that men will lust and want to undress them with their eyes, why would we want to be anywhere near them?

Seriously, after reading all of these evangelical marriage and sex books, I have a long list of male evangelical leaders I will NEVER allow myself to be in a room with. 

Women deserve to feel safe, and if pastors can’t help but objectify and lust after the women in their congregation, then they should deal with that, rather than subject women to it. Because as we found in our survey of men for The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, lust is NOT every man’s battle. There is no excuse. Jesus didn’t objectify women, and men can learn to treat women as whole people, made in the image of God, too.

I think we need to set higher standards of pastors and leaders so that people are protected.

Church should be our safe haven, not the place where we feel the least safe. Church should be a place where treating each other well is normalized, not where it’s assumed that others will try to control or objectify you.

I think this can change. Next time your pastor does this, write a letter to the elders’ board explaining how that made you feel. If the response is not positive, consider leaving that church. If we stopped putting up with this, I think we’d see real change. 

Pastors leaving women feeling unsafe

What do you think? Has a pastor ever said anything that made you feel unsafe? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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49 Comments

  1. Purplecandy

    I thank having women preach helps a lot. It is not 100% fullproof but I have found this problem to be way less common in churches where there are women pastors.

    Reply
    • Mel

      Having both men and women pastors would likely bring some balance, wouldn’t it?

      Reply
  2. Stefanie

    I’m at the point where I’m definitely ready to consider leaving my church, unfortunately. However, it’s not that easy when you have other family members to consider. I’m “new” at my current church (11yrs), but this is my husband’s home church. He has best friendships of 20+ years here. Also, the kids ministry is pretty big, and we’ve built friendships with the other families where we see each other outside of church and they are a regular part of our lives. Losing that community would be hard. If it were just me, I would leave in a heartbeat and go find a church that felt safer to me.

    Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      Different perspective: your kids are better off starting over from scratch in a new church than spending vulnerable, formative years in a toxic church.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        We actually delve into the numbers on this in our book that’s coming out next spring–She Deserves Better. It certainly is true that in general attending church is positive for girls’ self-esteem and all kinds of other measures. But we also found that attending churches that teach toxic things, and then internalizing those messages, can lead to worse outcomes than not attending church at all. And the other problem is that when you’re in a toxic teaching environment, the friends you make are more likely to believe these things. And so you may end up marrying someone who believes these things. It’s just a huge big ball of mess, and it’s so hard to untangle.

        Reply
    • Amy

      I see you. I don’t necessarily feel safe at the church I’m at. However, it’s also the church I grew up in. The church my parents attend. The church my widowed aunt attends. Church is a weekly scheduled event where my daughter connects with her grandmother. Staying can be frustrating, but leaving would create challenges too.

      Reply
    • Angharad

      Stefanie, if church doesn’t feel safe to you, is it safe for your children? If a church feels unsafe for a grown woman, then it is likely to be unsafe for young girls. And it will also be an unhealthy environment for young boys to grow up in, because they will be absorbing the same teaching that is making women feel unsafe.

      Reply
  3. Jane Eyre

    Regarding Ngina’s post: if sex and emotions aren’t connected, if husbands don’t have a duty to make sex fantastic for their wives, and if husbands can get theirs via infidelity, there is NO POINT in women waiting for marriage. Have sex before marriage – maybe with a married man, since that is apparently okay now – maybe with your boyfriends to make sure they are good in bed before you commit to forever.

    They DO understand that this b.s. is what lead to the sexual revolution, right? If men can be pigs, women are going to look out for themselves and no holds will be barred.

    Reply
    • Jo R

      If these men really believe this stuff, then there is no point in marriage.

      Reply
  4. Amy

    A few years ago the pastor at my church, from the pulpit, declared that he had a victory in his battle against lust in that he attended a pool party sponsored by the church his son pastors and he didn’t lust after the swimming suit clad girls. I guess we were supposed to be proud or happy or something over that comment? It was incredibly creepy. He was essentially outing himself as having objectified the swimming suit clad girls at every other church pool party he had attended. Yikes!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Definite yikes! I hope people kept their teen daughters clear of him after that.

      Reply
  5. NM

    Part of the reason we left our church was the rather frequent confessions of porn use by pastors & staff. I definitely did not feel safe. I did mention it in a long letter I wrote to the elders. The pastor responded to several of my points but skipped that one. Overall he tried very hard to be polite, but dismissed my concerns…basically that I was seeing everything through the lens of my theology and that’s why it bothered me. A dear friend of mine who’s more involved in leadership is still there and she’s going to address the porn issue too. I’m curious if they’ll give her any more consideration.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Good for you for leaving! Those people should not be in leadership.

      Reply
    • MS

      Porn wires the brain to objectify women, to dehumanize them. How can any church minister to women at the same time they see women as less than human and objects for their own sexual pleasure? I honestly think porn is one of the big reasons we are seeing all these mega-churches now with young megalomaniac pastors. These pastors grew up with easy access to porn on the internet. I think it has profoundly shaped their view of women.

      Reply
  6. Nathan

    Sheila, I’m a bit unclear as to what you’re trying to say here. Are you saying that pastors can openly discuss various struggles they’ve had with sin, EXCEPT for lust, and they just shouldn’t talk about it? Or are you saying that if a person ever lusts in their life, that this should keep them from being a pastor forever? In other words, are you saying that sin, imperfections of some kind, etc. is understandable in pastors, EXCEPT for lust?

    Reply
    • Jo R

      I think the issue is a pastor admitting these wrong beliefs and their attendant actions WITHOUT ALSO explaining how he is taking positive steps to change thinking, attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

      And “positive steps” has to be way more than just admitting it and feeling bad. Serious actions to reverse course (i.e., repent) as well as long-term evidence of actual change (i.e., production of fruit) would be the minimum requirements.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think lust is a difficult case. I think if a pastor honestly cannot be with a parishioner without lusting after her, he should not be a pastor. He is not safe to the women there. If you can’t view the people in your congregation as whole people, made in the image of God, but instead objectify them, then you should not be spiritually guiding them. You’re unsafe.

      At the same time, if it’s merely that you struggle with it, but you really don’t actively lust after people, then that’s different.

      Whatever the case, a pastor should take pains NOT to admit this from the pulpit. Seriously, if a man admits he struggles with lust, I don’t want to be near him, and I would want to make sure that all teenage girls are kept away from him, as well as any vulnerable single women. I think if more men understood how profoundly unsafe and creeped out women are by this, perhaps it would be easier to stop!

      Reply
      • Amy

        I also wonder if part of this issue is the evangelical church equating noticing with lusting. If a pastor says that he was lusting, was he really lusting, or did he just notice and then equated it to lusting, since the message he’s received from his culture is that any noticing implies lust. We can’t easily tell what’s really going on because the message and language has been so twisted.

        The message is so unsafe that it makes guys who would probably normally be safe unsafe due to the lies they have internalized. In other words, these messages are profoundly hurtful to men too.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I completely agree! I think so many men grew up with so much shame and feel like they’re fighting a losing battle because they’re merely noticing that a woman has breasts.

          Reply
    • Jo R

      What if a pastor admits from the pulpit to a gambling or overspending problem? Should his congregants blithely ignore the fact and continue to allow him any access at all to the church’s bank account, or even just a church credit card?

      Or will a smart congregation do everything in its power to keep him away from the church’s money?

      Are women’s and girls’ minds, souls, and bodies of less value than the church’s financial assets? 🤔

      Reply
  7. Nathan

    JoR says
    > > If these men really believe this stuff, then there is no point in marriage.

    (Begin extreme sarcasm)
    Yes, there is. These men need somebody to cook for them, clean their house, take care of their kids, and to have sex with when they can’t find anybody else at the moment. After all, that’s what God created women for in the first place.
    (End extreme sarcasm)

    Reply
    • Jo R

      Yeah, well, there are companies that can hire those daily-living tasks out. And if the guy is such a peach, he can take his awesomeness to a local bar or other location to find women to meet those more-personal needs. 😉 😜

      Reply
    • EOF

      My thoughts exactly when I read that comment.

      Reply
  8. Angharad

    Many times I’ve heard a pastor say something that made me think I wouldn’t want to be alone with him!

    I remember being in a small group led by the pastor of the church I was attending at the time. The Bible study was around the theme of being in a spiritual battle, and the pastor suddenly goes into a 15 minute rant on how single women were like snipers in the battlefield, trying to bring pastors down. How they would come up to the pastor to thank him for his sermon as a way of getting his attention, and flaunt their bodies in front of him, trying to force him to lust. How they would pretend to take notes during the service to try to convince him they were spiritual, when all the time they were trying to tempt him away from his wife.

    I don’t know how I didn’t die of embarrassment that night. I was the ONLY unmarried female under retirement age in the whole church. I had often thanked the pastor for his sermon on the way out of church (I’d been brought up to say thank you to ANYONE who said or did anything helpful). And I always took notes during services.

    I felt physically sick, thinking of all the times I’d been concentrating on the message, and all the time he was obviously fantasising that I had some kind of thing about him. I never went back to that church.

    Later, I heard another church leader talk about how ‘single women are a threat to my marriage’. Although by that point, I’d toughened up and got a little more snarky. I told him “Single women are not a threat to your marriage. If your attitude toward single women is a threat to your marriage, that is your problem. And if your attitude to single women is a threat to your marriage, then you are also a threat to single women.”

    I was told I needed to deal with my unspiritual attitude…

    Reply
    • CMT

      YOUR unspiritual attitude?? Just…lol.

      Common thread with your two stories and a lot of others like this: pastor/church leader who has no actual clue how self-centered he (cause it’s almost always a man saying these things) sounds. No clue how badly he is telling on himself and if someone dares to point it out to him, they are the one with the problem!

      How did we get to the point where this is acceptable??

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        The only answer I really have is that somehow we put up with it. I think it’s because when pastors say this, we women tend to blame ourselves and feel shame. That’s hard to get over.

        But we should realize–these pastors are telling on themselves. And it’s okay to believe them!

        Reply
      • Jo R

        “How did we get to the point where this is acceptable??”

        Because it’s always couched in terms of “If you, as a woman, disagree, then you’re disobeying God Himself.”

        So women are all unrepentant sinners who need men to focus on how much women are in the wrong and can only be pointed in the right direction by men.

        Reply
      • Angharad

        We got to the point where it is acceptable because generations of women have been conditioned to think that it is always their fault.

        My mother was visiting this weekend – she’s adamant that ‘women aren’t responsible for men’s lust BUT…’ (goes on to blame women for dressing in a way that ‘makes it impossible’ for men not to lust…) I suppose it’s an improvement from her old beliefs, which were that women WERE flat-out responsible for men lusting and anyone who got assaulted was ‘asking for it’. She told me about a time when she was in her early 20s and a church leader gave her a lift home. Just as she was getting out of the car, he put his hand on her knee, squeezed it and said ‘you young girls have no idea how hard you make it for a man not to lust. Those short skirts you wear make it so hard for me not to lust over your legs.’

        She used this as an example of a ‘Godly’ man who was ‘brave enough’ to speak out to help her become more spiritual. She was stunned when I pointed out that his behaviour was sexual assault, that he had a huge issue in his own life that he was blaming women for and that he should never have been in church leadership in the first place.

        If you tell someone lies about themselves often enough, eventually they will believe it is the truth. Women in church have been listening to lies for generations. Some of them can’t even recognise the truth any more.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, wow! Good for you for speaking up to your mom. How did she take it?

          Reply
          • Angharad

            She went very quiet for a while, and then said ‘you’re right. I never thought of it that way before.’

            She is so entrenched in the view that it’s always the woman’s fault, but I keep chipping away and signs like this are so encouraging. She’s in her 80s though, and it makes me so mad that she’s lived her whole life under these lies.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Oh, that’s so sad! I think in many ways believing it was your fault was a defence mechanism. Otherwise how could you not be so upset at how unfair society was? It was worse for previous generations.

        • CMT

          Well it was mostly a rhetorical question, but I guess generations of internalized misogyny is as good an answer as any.

          I’m grateful to people who call this out. I hope I can learn to be one of them.

          Reply
    • EOF

      Good for you, Angharad! (I want to be you when I grow up!)

      Reply
    • Laura

      I read somewhere about Mark Driscoll “bragging” how women came up to him and tried to flirt with him. I think some male pastors do this for an ego boost.

      Reply
      • Tim

        There’s a story like that in the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. The episode called “what we do to women”

        Reply
        • Laura

          I think I remember that mentioned in the podcast, but I also read it somewhere else. Maybe, in his marriage book that he cowrote with his wife.

          Reply
    • Annie

      I struggle with this rhetoric. I’m 39 and single because I’m widowed – almost 5 years ago now. So did I suddenly go from being acceptable and having a place because I was married to being a threat? Or am I NOT a threat simply because of why I’m single? Was I okay when I was deep in the trenches of grief? Am I now a threat because I’m dating post-loss? It makes absolutely no sense.

      Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      That response is amazing and the truth is not a threat to anyone’s spiritual development.

      Reply
  9. Mark

    Married for 38 years, I now can see how calling my beautiful wife “wife” instead of using her name was a form of objectification that I really want to stop doing. Using her name when I talk to her is ever so much better for both of us.

    Reply
  10. Rb

    I think the heart of the issue is that many who engage in abuse or immorality such as the author is referring demonstrate a surface level repentance and don’t see their sin rooted in an evil self love. Their responses indicate this same sinful selfishness that led to their original sin has not been dealt with or repented of. The biggest problem with the first anecdote is that the husband shows a lack of humility, is still diminishing his sin thinking he is all better because he got counseling and he’s making it his wife’s responsibility to keep him accountable. If issues such as they were having stem from him having a personality disorder such as Narcisstic Personality Disorder, the husband needs to view his situation more like being in recovery rather than “we had issues, got counseling and now its all better”. Clearly, he’s not better and he is not seeing the true root of his sin.

    Reply
  11. Laura

    I used to attend a church where the pastor talked about how he never let his wife wear jeans. He “bragged” about how as “head of the household” he never let her see a bill because “the man” should be the one to handle the finances. Thankfully, I have never heard a pastor talk about a porn addiction, but it bothers me when they talk about how they “manage” their wives.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s a huge red flag. And they get away with it because the elder’s board doesn’t speak up. This now enables all the elders to treat their wives like that too!

      Reply
  12. PopsT

    A great book I have been reading lately is called “The Other Half of Church” by Jim Wilder. He talks about the problem of narcissism in the church and how to prevent it, which, IMHO is the problem with a lot of the bad pastors and men talked about here. The good news of the book is how we can become a healthy church and healthy individuals. Like Sheila and her gang, Wilder uses the Bible and modern psychological research to bring joy and healthy interpersonal to a church and resist damaging narcissism.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Love that!

      Reply
  13. JB

    This post really resonated with me, particularly due to my experience as an autistic woman. I take most things literally, and learn about “normal” behavior by watching other people.
    I remember many times where pastors mentioned in their sermons that they yell at their wife and kids. I think it was in the context of how they need God in order to be decent people, or something like that. I don’t remember them saying if or how they stopped verbally abusing their families. Best case scenario, they implied that and I missed it because they didn’t communicate it clearly.

    I also took all the normalization of lust in the books I read and sermons/lessons I heard very literally. Then, as a young adult, I got my first boyfriend. I didn’t know his verbal abuse and lust (among other abuses) were wrong! I thought he was just a normal guy.

    (Also, I ended up marrying my second boyfriend, a gentle and kind man).

    Reply

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