Every Congregation’s Battle: Sexual Temptation

Pornographic websites. Indecent apps. Movies with racy content. Chat groups with lewd language. Sexting. Books that entice rather than entertain. Pre-marital sex. Extra-marital sex. The list goes on, but it can be summed up in one phrase: sexual temptation.

The title of this article alludes to, and slightly alters, the title of a Christian best-seller: Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time (WaterBrook Press, 2000). Published twenty years ago by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, this book has sold more than a million copies. It has also spawned study guides, DVDs, conferences, and other books specifically oriented toward women and teenagers.

Questions have been raised about whether Every Man’s Battle always uses the most appropriate language and is sufficiently gospel-centred.[1] I share those concerns. At the same time, this book has brought the struggle against sexual temptation into focus.

But do we see the danger clearly enough? Are we taking enough action? The right action? Yes, sexual temptation is every man’s battle, but every Christian man lives within a congregation. What are we, as brothers and sisters who belong to the same family of God, doing to protect and help each other?

Alarming Statistics

Simply put, the statistics are staggering.[2] More than one-third of all material on the Internet—36% to be precise—is pornographic. The average age at which children first encounter sexually immoral images is 11 years old. Since that is an average, many children are exposed to them at a younger age.

Twenty-nine percent of teenagers (ages 13–17) report stumbling across Internet pornography on a daily or weekly basis, without seeking it out. Forty-eight percent of young adults (ages 18–34) say they have the same experience. One in every four internet searches is for porn, and 49% of Canadians think there is nothing morally wrong with that. In fact, worldwide the “adult entertainment” industry pulls in US$97 billion each year.

Smartphones are making things worse. Back in 2008 only one percent of online pornography was accessed through a phone. By 2017 that same statistic had skyrocketed to 75%. Why? People have their phones with them all the time, and it’s much easier to retreat to some quiet corner of your house and pull out your phone than it is to cart a laptop around.

One might expect that the use of pornography is higher among unmarried people than those who are married. Yes, there is a difference, but not as much as we might think. According to one study 70% of unmarried men viewed pornography at least once a month, as compared to 55% of married men. That is still one in every two married men, though! Also, the same study actually reported that more married women view pornography than unmarried women. Clearly, marriage does not solve the problem.

These numbers all come from studies of the general population. Are things any better within the church? The humbling truth is that if they are better, it is not by much. Among Christian men 64% report watching porn at least once a month, and many of them do it more frequently than that. Fifteen percent of Christian women are involved in the same thing. Studies also indicate that one in every six pastors in North America is struggling with a porn addiction.

True, statistics must interpreted carefully, but the message is more than clear: sexual temptation is a huge—almost overwhelming—problem. We ignore it at our peril.

Our Heavenly Father Speaks

Of course, we did not really need a raft of statistics to teach us that sexual temptation is powerful and pervasive. Long ago our God told us all about this.

As recorded in Exodus 19–20 our Holy God descended upon Mount Sinai and gave ten critically important instructions, one of which was the seventh: you shall not commit adultery. Purity in the sexual realm of our lives is not a taboo topic that warrants little more than quiet whispers. On the contrary, its significance was literally thundered from the top of Sinai (19:19). 

Elsewhere in Scripture, the Lord expands this brief command into entire chapters. Chapters 18, 19, and 20 of Leviticus contain repeated, specific warnings against sexual sin. Also, the first nine chapters of Proverbs describe how parents should instruct their children in the ways of the Lord. Almost one-third of this section, the majority of chapters 5, 6, and 7, deals with real-life situations connected to the seventh commandment. Speaking of numbers, that statistic alone indicates that our Father in heaven wants us to pay ample, not merely occasional, attention to guiding our precious children along the wise path of sexual purity.

Our wise Father also draws a sharp, clear perimeter around what the Catechism calls “a chaste and disciplined life” (LD 41). Consider these two verses. “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph 5:3). The italicized words leave no room for a moral grey zone: if it’s impure, it’s out. Or, said differently, if it’s racy, run… in the opposite direction!

This God who speaks to us is our Father. He warns us so strictly because he loves us so intensely. But it does not stop there. Because he loves us so intensely in Christ (Eph 1:4, 5), he also forgives us so graciously and so generously. After describing various immoral lifestyles, the apostle Paul added this liberating good news: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Falling into sexual sin is not the unforgiveable sin.

This Battle Involves the Whole Congregation

There is a verse in 1 Corinthians that we love to quote. Since we are all members of one body, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:26). If one member in our congregation becomes seriously ill, we all rally to help: cards are sent, meals are delivered, visits are made. Beautiful. If young people publicly profess their faith, we all share in their happiness. Songs are sung. Handshakes are extended. Gifts are given. Beautiful.

But what if the suffering does not involve sickness but rather the tenacious grip of sexual temptation? Do we also pull together as a congregation in that circumstance and do what needs doing?

This question is not irrelevant because the Holy Spirit placed that famous verse about suffering and rejoicing together in the apostle’s first letter to the Corinthians. Yes, the congregation in Corinth struggled with various problems but suffering from the consequences of sexual sin certainly ranked close to the top of their list. Matters relating to sex and marriage can be found in chapters 5, 6, 7, and 10 of Paul’s first letter to this congregation, and they come back again in chapter 12 of his second letter. So, being a hand and foot to each other, as we often say, includes doing what we can to help our spiritual siblings—both younger and older, male and female—flee sexual immorality. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” But also “keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal 6:1).

To be sure, there are certain complexities here. Sin evokes shame. Sexual sin causes enormous shame. Therefore, unlike the sicknesses that are described on the pages of your church bulletin, most struggles with sexual temptation remain hidden in the dark corners of our lives. How can we assist if we don’t know precisely who needs the help? Beyond that, sexuality does have a private aspect to it. The appropriate manner when responding to illness is not necessarily the wisest approach when dealing with sexual temptation.

At the same time, these challenges can be exaggerated as well, with the net result that little, or nothing, gets done. Brothers and sisters, this is a battle. It is spiritual warfare, plain and simple. In physical warfare, we do not send a soldier out onto the battlefield all by himself. That would be fatally foolhardy! But it is no different in the spiritual realm. Putting on the armour of God is a communal activity. The references to “you” in Ephesians 6 are plural, not singular.

Congregational Action Plan

So, what should we do? Here is an admittedly incomplete list.

  • Everyone: pray for each other, both privately and publicly. The battle against sexual temptation will never be won by our own moral exertion. Liberation and sanctification come from Christ and his Spirit, not us (1 Cor 6:11). This battle begins on our knees.
  • Everyone: remind each other of the gospel. Our brothers and sisters struggling in the grips of sexual temptation usually feel defeated. They stumble and fall, and stumble and fall again, more times than they dare to count. Hope shrivels, despair grows. We need to remind each other that our God is abounding in love and forgiveness (Exod 34:6–7). His grace is not stingy.
  • Pastors: preach and teach it. In the annual cycle of catechetical preaching and teaching, the seventh commandment comes around often enough. Yes, preaching about sexual temptation to an audience that ranges in age from 3 to 93 is challenging. Teaching sexual purity to a roomful of awkward, blushing teenagers is not exactly easy either. However, nothing at all is gained by taking vaguely-worded detours around this critical topic. There is a thoughtful way to speak about sexuality directly yet appropriately.
  • Office bearers: talk to your sheep about this. Certain areas of our lives are bound to come up in home visits, and rightly so. “Are you being fed by the preaching? How are you using your talents within the congregation? How are the relationships within your household?” Let’s add another one to the annual list: “Do all the electronic devices in your household have both filtering and accountability software installed on them?” Since 36% of the Internet is pornographic, realistically speaking, there is no other choice. We would never slip a pornographic magazine into the pocket of our spouse or child. Why would we allow an unfiltered smartphone to be slid into that same pocket?
  • Parents: at the appropriate age we teach our children about the birds and the bees, as they say. But that is only part of our parental duty. Even the most advanced filtering and accountability software does not catch everything. Please do not make that very faulty assumption. Routines may have to change, but all electronic devices, including phones, should be used out in the open, in the family room or at the kitchen table, not in the bedroom or the bathroom. If your furniture needs to be changed to accommodate this, it will be well worth the time and money invested.
  • Congregation: seriously consider starting a support and accountability group to help members of your congregation who are caught in sexual temptation and are not making much headway in fleeing from it. There is good material out there that will help you organize such a group. Your pastor may well be able to point you in the right direction.
  • Everyone: keep talking and praying about this. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

Undoubtedly, some items are missing from this action plan. Other parts could be refined. This article is a conversation starter, not a definitive answer. The fact is that many of our brothers and sisters are suffering intensely. Will we walk right past them? Or stop to help? “If one member suffers, we all suffer… together.”

Dr Jason Van Vliet

Dr Jason Van Vliet is principal of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary 

[1] See www.challies.com/articles/the-bestsellers-every-mans-battle/

[2] The statistics in this section are from “How Pornography Harms: What the Church Needs to Know” (Evangelical Fellowship of Canada) and “Porn Stats: 250+ Facts, Quotes, and Statistics About Pornography Use (2018 Edition)” (Covenant Eyes). Both are available online.

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