In the evangelical church, too many of our books, resources and pastors spread messages that we now know are harmful–and we don’t have a way to stop it.
Last year, we conducted a survey of 20,000 predominantly Christian women to see if any of the messages that are commonly taught in the evangelical church actually WORSEN women’s marital and sexual satisfaction, or cause sexual pain to increase.
We identified four main teachings that do great harm–teachings which are not biblical, but are often spread in the evangelical church nevertheless. We also created a 12-point rubric of healthy sexuality to apply to our resources to see if they are helpful or harmful. Of the 13 bestselling sex and marriage books we looked at:
- 4 were helpful
- 2 were neutral
- 7 were harmful
Why is it acceptable that best-selling evangelical marriage books cause harm?
Now, it’s normal that there will be disagreements about biblical interpretation.
What I am talking about today is not merely disagreement, but rather messages that we know cause measurable harm. When we follow God’s design for relationships, emotional health should follow–not emotional and relational harm. If following a piece of advice brings harm rather than health, that should be a sign that what is being taught is not of Jesus.
In fact, Jesus Himself said this:
Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
Jesus is telling us that outcome matters.
Right now, in the evangelical world, we do not even consider outcome when it comes to teaching. Instead, the criteria we use for judging whether or not to recommend a book, or whether or not to invite a speaker to a conference, tends to revolve around these three things:
- Do I agree with the person’s theology?
- Are they friends with the right people and featured on the right media?
- Are they famous/have they written best-sellers?
None of these things relates to whether or not their advice actually works. But marriage, sex, mental health, parenting–these are not just doctrinal issues; they are relationships, and they are complicated. We need to handle with care.
We are facing a crisis of harmful teaching in the evangelical church.
Because we have relied on connections rather than asking people to prove that their advice works, we have elevated people and teachings that should never have been elevated.
Emerson Eggerichs, for instance, was a good friend of James Dobson’s, and Focus on the Family published and promoted his book Love & Respect. But as we’ve talked about before, when we put that book through our rubric it scored 0/48 (while The Gift of Sex by the Penners scored 47/48).
It could not have scored worse. (And if you’re interested in seeing why it scored so poorly, see this post.) Yet, Love & Respect remains the most widely-used marriage book study in North American churches today.
Over the last two weeks, the American Association of Christian Counselors held their annual convention in Florida. Some authors that we found to be the most harmful delivered keynote addresses (even though they are not trained in counseling). We have to ask: by what criteria were they considered to be the best choices for speaking from the stage? (And please note: this is not about me wanting to be there instead. I couldn’t have traveled from Canada due to COVID restrictions anyway!).
Right now, the evangelical world is doing real harm to real couples, and especially to real women. This must stop. But it won’t stop until we adopt higher standards for our resources, and start enforcing them.
We would like to suggest a simple 2-pronged approach to evaluating relationship teaching.
We believe that we could avoid much of that harm by expecting authors, speakers, and teachers to pass two tests:
- Evidence-based advice
- Accountability for their teaching
Our call is that, before a church or conference invites a speaker, or before a small group leader suggests a book to study, or before a publication features an author or speaker, they be vetted using these two criteria. We don’t expect everyone to vet everyone; but before someone gives an author a platform, they have a responsibility to vet that author and his/her work first.
Let’s look at these two criteria in turn:
A. Is the book “Evidence-Based”?
Instead of asking what is this person saying, we tend to focus on who is saying it.
But please remember that a seminary degree does not confer relevant experience or knowledge about abuse dynamics, human sexuality, mental health, or anything of the sort. In fact, one of the most horrifying things we have seen as we have researched evangelical marriage and sex teaching is how many seminaries use the harmful books that we identified in The Great Sex Rescue as their actual textbooks. Seminary teaches people to be a pastor; it does not qualify someone to teach the intricacies of marriage or sex.
What matters is whether the advice is evidence-based–whether it’s been shown to bear good fruit. Let’s look at what that entails:
1. All claims must be backed by peer-reviewed research
When an author makes a claim, the author should be citing his or her sources.
We can’t just say things like:
- as we all know, the divorce rate is increasing
- since people stopped spanking, disobedience and rebellion has increased
- the root of depression is a spiritual failing
- the reason people divorce is that men aren’t acting as head
- teenage pregnancy is increasing because of awful sex ed in schools
and many more, without citing our sources.
If an author makes a claim like this without citing data, that is a sign that the book is based on ideology rather than evidence.
Not only should books use peer-reviewed journal articles, though; they should use the most up-to-date research. Many of our books are relying on research that has been disproven, or are still spouting things that we know are not true.
Other times the book may have used up-to-date knowledge at the time it was written, but these claims are now wrong. The book The Act of Marriage, for instance, first published in the 1970s, says vaginismus does not exist (even though Christian women suffer from it at twice the rate of the general population). If a book has passed its “best before” date, it is best to let it die.
TIP: Check the back of the book for footnotes. A safe book will quote at least a handful of peer-reviewed journal articles to back up their claims. Make sure those articles are within the last 10 years.
The book Every Man’s Battle, for instance, focused on an area which has been widely studied in academic literature: sex addictions, pornography addictions, and lust. And yet there is not a single footnote in that book.
2. Does the author understand data and statistics?
To be qualified to write on relationships, a person must show that they can understand how research works and what to do with data.
In a recent (now deleted) article by Gary Thomas about how a wife can’t cure her husband from porn, but he can help her, he shared that Christina, the wife, wasn’t having sex very frequently, even though she was orgasming. Thomas asserted:
“This blows apart the myth that sexual infrequency is always caused by a husband’s selfishness or lack of hygiene.”
He does not cite where this myth is from. Also, by using the word “always” in his sentence, he appears to be setting up a straw man so that he can knock it down. However, there is indeed a wide body of evidence that shows that women who don’t orgasm frequently do indeed want sex less–although that same evidence also shows that relationship quality, porn use, and sexual dysfunction contribute to frequency as well.
But most importantly, one anecdote does not blow apart data.
In fact, multiple anecdotes do not blow apart data either! Think about it like this: we know that lung cancer is largely caused by smoking. If you meet someone who has smoked two packs a day for fifty years and they don’t have lung cancer, that does not mean that the research into smoking causing lung cancer is disproved. It just means that you met an outlier.
When we were looking at our survey results, I was very surprised when Joanna, our wonderful stats person, told me that 48% of women orgasm always or almost always during a sexual encounter. I assumed it would be way lower–because I work in this field, and the people who write in to me or comment on the blog tend to be people who are having more problems than others. And so I had a distorted view of what was actually happening–even though I know a lot about sex in Christian marriages.
Just because someone counsels hundreds of couples a year does not mean that they know more than a research study. Your own experience does not trump data. Experience is important, and anecdotes and case studies are wonderful and make books richer, but they cannot stand alone, nor can they disprove what academic literature says.
TIP: If the author/speaker makes a claim that says that current research consensus is wrong, be suspicious. The only valid way to claim “the research is wrong” is to show either how the research was done incorrectly or to conduct your own study and publish it in peer reviewed journals. And one has to be qualified in the field to properly critique other people’s research.
3. Does the author’s anecdotes line up with their teaching?
Often authors will know what they “have” to say to avoid criticism, but in their anecdotes they’ll give the opposite advice. So, for instance, the author may teach that women aren’t responsible for men’s porn use, and that women are never to blame, but the anecdotes they use may all be about how having sex with her husband helped him not watch porn.
The classic one is the standard abuse caveat. Authors will say that “this advice doesn’t apply if you’re in an abusive situation; and abuse is wrong, and you should call the police,” but then they give anecdotes of situations which are obviously abusive where the wife is told to submit more or consider what she can do differently to not provoke him.
Here’s how I explained this problem previously:
Here’s an analogy: Think about how drug companies handle warnings
Drug companies are required to warn you: “This drug is not meant for people with these conditions.”
What would we think, though, if a drug company said, “This drug is not meant for people with asthma”, but then went on to tell a story about a woman who was having real shortness of breath, and who felt her chest tightening, and who often had trouble catching her breath when it was cold or after exercising, but she used the drug and it was amazing!
Well, you might assume that if you have shortness of breath, and if you have chest tightening, and if you cough a lot after exercise or when it’s cold, then you must not have asthma. You must have something else. And maybe this drug would work!
That’s what going on with too many Christian marriage books.
They’re saying they’re not meant to be used in abusive situations, but then they’re describing abusive situations without naming them as such.
TIP: Leaf through the book and find 5 times when the author uses names–that’s usually an example. Read the story and see if it lines up with the caveats or advice that the author explicitly gives in the book, or if the anecdotes tell a different story.
4. Use a standardized method to judge the outcome of marriage and sex teachings: Does the advice work?
In the academic world, researchers are expected to have their work peer-reviewed in journals. That means that they have to first pass an ethics review (if the research uses people), and then several peers (academics in the same field) will evaluate that research, look for holes in the arguments, see if it passes current standards, see if the research was done well, and see if the conclusions are correct. Only then is it published (that’s how we get the term “peer review”).
In the Christian world we don’t do any of this.
We would like to suggest that evaluating outcomes is the most crucial component of accepting any marriage or sex teacher.
Currently, there is a huge body of knowledge in the academic literature of what beliefs and practices lead to:
- lower marital satisfaction
- higher rates of abuse
- higher rates of porn use (or difficulty quitting porn use)
- lower orgasm rates
- lower libido
- higher rates of male sexual dysfunction
- higher rates of sexual pain disorders in women
Our own research identified beliefs that directly lead to lower marital satisfaction, lower orgasm rates, and higher rates of sexual pain. We should be able to screen people’s teachings to see if they match up to best practices.
My co-authors and I have created a rubric for healthy sexuality teaching that we encourage others to use to judge materials before they host a marriage conference or a book study.
A book or resource should be required to achieve a “green”, or “healthy” rating, in order to be used.
If others would like to develop their own rubrics about healthy marriage, parenting, or mental health teaching, we welcome that and would welcome a robust discussion on what such rubrics should include.
We are endeavouring to have our sex rubric in peer review publication, and we encourage others to do the same thing. It should be normalized that we go to peer review with our research.
B. Asking for Accountability: Have they proven themselves trustworthy?
1. Have they corrected their own work?
No one can be perfect all of the time. In academia, the aim is to disprove the current theories and move research forward. That should be the norm in the evangelical world, too. Or, to put it more simply, in the words of Maya Angelou:
When you know better, do better.
It must become the norm that people can admit that they didn’t have the full picture, and then correct course.
When people have been shown to do harm, they should be expected to issue revisions to their books, or at least state on their websites and explain what teaching they no longer agree with.
2. Are they platforming people who have done harm and will not course correct?
Here’s where the rubber hits the road: the only way to eradicate harmful teaching from evangelicalism is if there is a price to pay for promoting harmful teaching. That means that when someone is known to have spread demonstrably harmful teachings, we must no longer platform them or endorse them.
And, if someone continues to platform a harmful teacher, without any kind of disclaimer or announcement, that is a sign that they are not safe, either.
We should not use people’s books, invite people to speak at our conferences, or recommend people who:
- Have not corrected previous books that contain messages we know cause measurable harm
- Work with and frequently speak with those who have covered up abuse or caused measurable harm (for example, those who work with Mark Driscoll in marriage ministry)
- Have endorsed highly problematic books or people in the past, and have not rescinded those endorsements, though they’ve been asked to (for instance, those who endorsed Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage; endorsed James MacDonald; endorsed Every Man’s Battle; endorsed Ravi Zacharias, etc.)
Measurable harm will keep being spread until we all say, “enough is enough,” and expect more from our teachers.
It is not unreasonable to ask teachers to correct their teaching when they learn more, or to withdraw endorsements when appropriate.
Look, I’ve endorsed stuff in the past that I regret, too! As I’ve said repeatedly, I held up copies of Love & Respect at marriage conferences and told people it was a great book. When I realized it wasn’t, I apologized and have been very vocal about how I was wrong.
I asked Zondervan, one of my publishers, if I could rewrite The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex for its 10th anniversary this spring, and I completely gutted the book and pretty much started over. It was my best-selling book, and people have loved it. But after surveying 20,000 women, and listening to all of your stories, I felt it needed a different emphasis. It’s not that I thought the original was harmful; it’s just that it wasn’t done to my current standards.
Growth is allowed, and should be encouraged. That means that we don’t ostracize those who apologize and retract; we embrace them. There should be benefits to admitting you were wrong. We must become a Christian community that rewards people for growing, but that also stops platforming those who refuse to acknowledge harm and change course.
It’s not about cancelling people–it’s simply holding people accountable.
It must become the norm that we hold teachers to a higher standard, as the New Testament does.
Let’s remember that the sheep’s welfare always matters more than the shepherds’ reputations.
Please, church, let’s get away from celebrity culture and start asking for more.
Jesus does not want people hurt.
What the church is doing right now by allowing those with no or few credentials to speak; by not judging outcomes; and by not holding people to account is hurting the sheep.
When we don’t care for the sheep, but instead worry about protecting the platforms of those in power, we show we’re not following Jesus.
As the wider church, let’s repent of the harm we have done. Let’s figure out a new way, together, to raise the bar on what we expect of teachers in the marriage, sex, and even parenting realm.
Will you join me in praying for these changes, and then will you start demanding that your counselor, your pastor, your denomination starts vetting people and books, too? Thank you.
The Great Sex Rescue
Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?
Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.
What do you think about my criteria? Is there anything you would add? How can we make this easier/more practical? Let me know in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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