by Arthur Sibanda  |  29 May 2020  |

I grew up in a culture where speaking about sex was taboo. Adults went out of their way to use indirect speech to explain how babies were born. Sexual organs were never called by their proper names. Even today I cannot mention genitalia, or even the simple word “sex” in my mother tongue, without releasing uncomfortable emotions. 

Indirectness is a way of acknowledging the sensitivity or even sacredness of a subject, and in many cultures sexuality falls into this category. Yet globalisation and technology are bringing a new set of challenges to my conservative culture, which we now need to deal with. Sexual information is available at the click of a button, and subjects at which one would traditionally shudder when even whispering about them can now be easily researched on one’s mobile gadget. 

The challenges of an internet world

WhatsApp has significantly eased the communication process for many in Africa, but it has brought significant ills, too. Because our country has considered itself culturally conservative, including sexual expression in art or fashion, social media has caused a huge culture shock. Almost everyone now has access to a sexual world that was traditionally forbidden. Though there are laws that prohibit public indecency and criminalise the production, distribution or use of pornography, the internet has opened an avenue for unrestricted access to sexual materials, and there is little that can be done to control the private use of one’s smartphone or laptop. 

The moral and ethical line that delineates appropriate behaviour has become blurry even for Christians. I have been in WhatsApp groups for married Christian men where once in a while a picture of a woman in semi-nude or nude pose is shared. The justification: “We are all mature married males who can handle an off-color joke now and then. We need not be uptight and overly religious.” 

What about an animated video showing various sexual positions for the purposes of education? Wouldn’t that be educational on how to spruce up one’s sex life? Surely it’s better than watching hard-core pornography for the same purpose! 

Once when I was working at a church clinic annexed to an institution of higher learning, a youth asked me about graphic depictions of sexually transmitted disease he’d seen on the internet. While I was glad he’d asked a medical person, I was shocked at how easily accessible that information was to him. What else was he accessing?

Of addictions and struggles

At some point I had to take a personal stand about how to engage on the internet. Any of the people I knew could easily send a sexually suggestive message to my phone, even with a supposedly “good” reason like “See how the devil is causing people to sin?” I have seen how readily people submit their WhatsApp contact details when they are promised to receive a leak of the latest sex tape of a public figure. It is a common occurrence on Whatsapp to see “sorry, wrong forum’’ in apology for accidentally posting inappropriate material in a church or work related forum. One South African pastor committed suicide after posting nudes into his church’s WhatsApp group: he couldn’t face the embarrassment and shame. 

Yet even such stories do not deter people from reckless online activities. There are WhatsApp forums solely dedicated to the exchange of pornographic material and several people I have spoken to have admitted being on them. This fascination with sex and nudity has spread like a ravaging inferno, and it’s difficult to address because the use of the internet is largely anonymous. Any ordinary-looking person in church could be bound by compulsive use of pornographic material. How can an individual feeling entrapped in such engrossing activities find help to break free? 

Censure and disfellowship

The church isn’t sure how to deal with this problem, either. 

Of the reasons for church discipline in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, numbers 3 to 5 have to do with sexual misdemeanour. Number 5 gives “The production, use, or distribution of pornographic material” as a reason why a member may receive church discipline, which would imply that many people, at least in my part of the world, need to receive this discipline. However, I have questioned whether disciplines listed on the next page are practical in dealing with such delicate issues.

According to the Church Manual a person who manufactures, uses or distributes pornography should either get a vote of censure or a vote to be removed from membership. Yet I doubt these disciplinary methods will address the scourge of pornography.

Censure serves two purposes according to the Church Manual. It gives the church a platform “to express its disapproval of a grievous offense that has brought disgrace upon the cause of God.” And, it “impresses the offending members on the need for change of life and reformation of conduct” and “gives them a period of grace and probation during which to make those changes.” The period for achieving these two objectives is from “a minimum of one month to a maximum of twelve months.” 

But how do we get members watching porn to come forward? Pornography use is a secret affair. How do we disfellowship or censure people for an issue we don’t even know they are struggling with? 

Furthermore, any person struggling with a compulsive sexual behaviour would not find it encouraging to have others express their disapproval and prescribe a “probation period’ within which he or she should have completely overcome his or her compulsion. Does the probation period guarantee that the change of behaviour would have occurred when the period elapses? What help do we provide through this period? Who wants to step forward and volunteer for that kind of treatment? 

Church removal doesn’t sound like a good option either. Even though it is supposed to be used only after “all possible efforts have been made to win and restore” the person to the right paths have failed, what are those “possible efforts”? Does the average pastor or church board have any knowledge or training concerning the psychological problems of addiction and recovery? Given the complexities of each individual case and the circumstances surrounding it, it seems impossible to standardise in one rule all possible interventions, much less how they would be undertaken effectively and compassionately. 

So common is church discipline here (particularly for out-of-wedlock children) that there are those who have been disfellowshipped and rebaptized so many times that it’s become a sort of badge of honour, and has completely lost its intended meaning.

Can the church help?

Some I have spoken to—ordinary people who affirm the twenty-eight fundamental beliefs, some in church leadership positions—have expressed how they have struggled with immense feelings of guilt and shame over addiction problems. When I ask if they thought they could open up to someone in their local church, the answer is always a resounding and emphatic no! Church is seen as the last place to get help for such issues. Why? Because church discipline is punitive rather than restorative. 

The Church Manual, in its simplest reading, doesn’t capture the first essential step for a person struggling with addiction: creating a safe environment that makes it safe to openly seek for help.The manual gives no direction on how to assist individuals who are struggling with addictions. By using the word “addiction” I want to be understood as saying that these issues may take more than twelve months to resolve. The individual may find that they continue being susceptible to these tendencies because of the neurological changes that have occurred due to habitual use. This suggests that those who provide help for them need knowledge and training, not just rules about discipline. 

A few years ago a pastor struggling with pornography wrote an anonymous open letter to Ministry magazine, suggesting recovery solutions such as a mechanism of anonymous self-referral to counselling, with the church only receiving bills for services rendered. Some of the evangelical and pentecostal groups run comprehensive addiction recovery programs in their churches. 

We Adventists have yet to learn how to safely tread these murky waters. We may be reluctant to fully deal with these issues because admitting we have such problems in the Remnant Church implies we are failing in our mission and purpose, and hence we choose the path of denial.

A better way

If we are to be a healing church we need to adopt the healing model of the gospel, and discard the legal-punitive model when administering discipline. I believe this is what was shown in the life of Jesus, who was an agent of healing wherever he went. To the religious leaders, Jesus’ mingling with the scum of society was abhorrent, a weak approach to dealing with sin (See Mark 2:15-17). They preferred stoning or, if the Romans would permit it, a crucifixion—just about anything that could make a strong public statement to show that they did not condone such behaviour.  Jesus, for his part, prefered to work in close healing relationships with those who struggled.

About a year ago I started an online ministry to assist individuals who feel stuck in sexual addictions. The ministry offers resources (pdf books and videos) and messages of encouragement. Before the recent health crisis, we experimented with weekly physical support group meetings. Those who have gone through the ministry have found it helpful.

I long for training and research to guide churches on how to deal with issues that relate to addictions, whether sexual- or substance-related. We cannot continue to use methods that only promote shame and fear. The Church Manual, too, could use language that promotes transparency and healing. We should be less concerned with saving face in the church, than about creating a spiritual therapeutic milieu for those distressed by their struggles.

This is far better than people having to look pious in church while secretly battling with sin.  If we did this, many would perceive us as an honest and transparent lot that genuinely confronts our struggles. They would wish to be part of us because we are real and genuine.

Arthur Sibanda is a mental health nurse in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. He and his wife, Mercy, have one daughter, Nobukhosi Tashanta. He enjoys writing, composing songs, and singing, and is also involved in a ministry helping people overcome sexual brokenness.

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