Why do evangelical leaders and pastors devote so much energy, so much attention, to sex?
In particular, evangelical pastors and leaders spend an enormous amount of time delineating what constitutes God-ordained sexuality and God-ordained sexual roles. Man is to be the “head” in home and church; woman is to be joyfully submissive in home and church; marriage is between one man and one woman; homosexuality and transgenderism is unnatural, and sin.
The 2017 “Nashville Statement“ – published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and signed by over 20,000 evangelical leaders — is the quintessential example of the evangelical effort to lay out these timeless truths regarding sexual roles and sexuality. And in the preamble to the statement the authors make clear why these issues are so pressing right now:
Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being . . . It is [now] common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences . . . [But] our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.
In his brilliant 2011 book, The Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers argues that the last decades of the twentieth century were a time in which the ideas by which Americans had ordered their lives began to come apart. Notions of consensus disappeared, replaced by imagined communities that grew smaller and smaller, and with more emphasis on the self. And regarding this self, identities became less fixed and more fluid, giving way to conceptions of human nature that stressed agency and desire and performance.
These changes are at the heart of the “culture war” in which we still live. On one side are Americans who thrive in this fluidity that marks “the age of fracture.” On the other side are Americans who find the destabilization of “tradition, certainties, truth itself” to be “a source of fear and outrage.” And while this culture war involved and involves a host of issues – immigration, patriotism, literary theory, schools and schoolbooks, and morality – Rodgers argues that gender is the cultural conflict:
Above all, in ways that historians of these culture clashes have only begun to realize, it was a battle over women’s acts and women’s and men’s natures. Of all the certainties whose cracking seemed to culturally conservative Americans most threatening, the destabilization of gender roles and gender certainties set off the sharpest tremors. (145)
Rodgers helps us to see that the obsession among so many evangelical leaders with sexual roles and sexuality is not just about obeying the Bible. It is about holding on to certainties that order all of human life. As they see it, abandon fixed and essentialist understandings of male and female, and all that remains is chaos.
At least, this is how many older evangelicals see it. Their children and grandchildren are not so convinced.