It’s the battle of the century, and no one is waving a white flag anytime soon.
This series of tweets last week came as a barrage of sex-negative, heteronormative world salad from none other than Timothy Keller himself. Pastor, author, theologian, who in the past has not been quite so controversial in the Twitter-verse. He’s even respectfully engaged in discourse when challenged by ex-evangelicals and progressive Christians. And although he still won’t affirm the existence of LGBTQIA+ Christians, he still seemed slightly less harmful than the better known husband/father/pastor conservative theobrogians who love to troll progressive Christians daily on Twitter.
So it came as a surprise to some last week, when he started dropping bomb after bomb declaring his horribly toxic idea of sexual ethic and then doubling down when challenged by theological adversaries and survivors of purity culture and spiritual abuse. In his infinite wisdom (yes, that was sarcasm) Keller not only managed to demean all sexual relationships outside of long term monogamous marriages, but then went so far as to claim that sex had outside of those terms is dehumanizing . Yes, he said “dehumanizing.”
In the tweet above, Keller defines “dehumanizing” as “hurting yourselves and so depriving yourself of positive human qualities.” There are several problems with this, but the first is that it rides on his truth claim that sex outside of a monogamous marriage will “hurt” you. Now those of us who attended youth group as teenagers in the 90’s/2000’s can tell you what this truth claim has been used as a fear tactic for decades within evangelicalism. And it’s not so much about the sex itself, as it is about making women believe their bodies are inherently bad unless being used for the purpose of pleasing their husband. This ensures white Christian men always have a pool of Christian women with low opinions of themselves who are in need of saving by a big strong man- and that those men retain their place of power in the church, at home and in the work place (because the women are too busy keeping the home and the children to come snag their middle management promotion). This leads us to the core theological problem with Keller’s stance- which others have written about better than I have- and that is the irreparable harm caused by toxic masculinity within white evangelical Christianity. Just this week religious studies professor and ex-evangelical Dr. Bradley Onishi wrote about this in response to the Atlanta murders of 8 Asian-Americans, by a white evangelical man. Dr. Onishi writes:
“As an Evangelical, Jesus was the most important thing to me. My personal relationship with God took place through the unconditional love of his Son. But when it came to figuring out how to be a godly man, my elders rarely used Jesus as the prime example.
Instead, the model for manhood was the God who destroyed his enemies, rescued Israel — the damsel in distress — from outsiders, and exerted control through a dominant sexuality and physical power. My leaders taught me that most of the Old Testament’s covenant was nullified by the life and death of Christ. The savior brought us a new relationship with God and thus a new set of rules on how to relate to him. At every turn, the new covenant of Jesus overshadowed the old one. And yet, when it came to masculinity, we turned from Christ back to the Most Masculine God in Genesis, Hosea, and other select parts of the Old Testament.”“God is Ultimate Masculinity: Evangelical Visions of Manhood in the Wake of the Atlanta Massacre” by Bradley B. Onishi, April 5th, 2021
As Dr. Onishi points out, white evangelical pastors and theologians insist on reaching back into the Old Testament for their preferred idea of masculinity. The type of masculinity that demands women be subservient to men. The type of masculinity that insists women should not have full agency over their minds and their bodies. These men read the story of the woman caught in “adultery” in John 81 and hear Jesus say “go and sin no more” thinking he means don’t cheat on your husband. But what if her sin was allowing these religious men to control and define her? What if Jesus meant “go and stop believing the lies religious men have been telling about women for centuries”?After all, Jesus also said he did not condemn her.2 I’m no theologian, but its worth considering in a culture where she was probably in an arranged marriage, likely to a man much older than herself. And those were the old laws Jesus came to abolish.
Regardless of how Keller chooses to define the word “dehumanizing,” his truth claim about sexual ethic is literally nothing more than toxic masculinity. Cherry picked Old Testament scripture combined with the decades old purity culture movement, rearing its ugly head. Repackaged and reworded as sound Christian wisdom. But the reason that his tweets got so much push back, is that those of us who’ve already suffered under these oppressive systems- we know better. I find it amusing that in the last tweet below, Keller tries to say that his adversaries are simply trying to persuade him to see things their way, which makes them no different than him. I find this amusing because he says this as if there is no evidence to the contrary of his “truth statements.” When the truth statement that the earth was flat was disproven by empirical evidence, was that just scientists trying to control the general public? No, because evidence. This is why Keller’s argument falls apart.
By making this comparison, he’s insisting that the millions of people who’ve left evangelicalism because they were not only harmed, but traumatized by its teachings- are all liars. He’s insisting that every human being who experiences fulfilling sexual relationships outside of a monogamous marriage- are all liars. By vehemently insisting that sex outside of monogamy is dehumanizing, he is categorically denying the lived reality of billions of people the world over. When you deny someone’s reality, you are denying agency. You are stripping them of their autonomy. And that, that is dehumanizing.
“dehumanizing: (Collegiate Definition) depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: demeaning or damaging to a person’s humanity or individuality.”Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2021
After all, what is more damaging to a person’s dignity, personality, or individuality; then to tell them their lived experience is not valid and should not exist because it does not fit within the paradigm of one religious book written 2,000 years ago?
And so I say this to you, Mr. Keller, your truth statements do not remain true when contradictory evidence has been presented. The naysayers in your threads were not trying to “sway” you to their “point of view.” They were showing you their own lives as evidence. Evidence in the form of complex trauma, spiritual abuse, failed relationships, sexual assault, marital rape, low self esteem, negative core beliefs- the list goes on and on and on. You want proof? We have scars to last us a lifetime. Ask our therapists, our partners, ex-partners, parents, siblings, friends and neighbors. This isn’t a plea for you to see things our way. This is us telling you that lives have been destroyed by your “biblical” ideas of sex and marriage. And we know they’re not “your” ideas, they’ve been around a long time. But you, as a white male pastor with a congregation and a social media platform and book deals, you have the power to shift those ideas. You have the power to relinquish your privilege, to lay down your sword and say “maybe I got it wrong.” And that just might be the most powerful truth statement of your lifetime.