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01 March 2011

Holy Matrimony

Christian leaders are more likely to have had an affair than members of their congregation, and many face struggles with online pornography which threaten to harm their marriages. Chine Mbubaegbu explores the implications of a shocking new survey...

We expect our leaders to be whiter than white, to exemplify purity by shunning the sexual temptations which pervade our society. We assume that they are able to do so because, if not, what hope is there for those of us in the pews? But a new survey suggests that church leaders could in fact be more vulnerable than the average churchgoer.

Around one in 10 leaders has been unfaithful to their spouse, compared to three per cent of Christians in general. Meanwhile, half of leaders aged between 25 and 55 say they have deliberately accessed the internet to look at pornography.

This is according to a survey carried out in 2010 by Marriage Week Northern Ireland, a group of organisations including the Evangelical Alliance in NI. More than 1,000 respondents from a variety of denominations, including 157 church leaders, responded to the survey - one of the largest pieces of research of its kind in the UK.

Of particular concern was that female leaders were more likely to have admitted to an affair.

Dave Percival, co-ordinator of Marriage Week UK and founder of 2-in-2-1, said he was not surprised by the result. "Church leaders come under a huge amount of pressure and spiritual attack and we, the congregation, don't help. We expect our leaders to be available 24/7 and we don't encourage them to take time off to be with their families," he says.

"Yes, God has called them into ministry, but He's also called them to be a husband or a wife, and marriage is a vocation too. Most people whose leadership has been through a marital break-up or affair say that it's hugely disruptive for the whole congregation and can have a knockon negative effect on members."

According to Maggie Ellis, a Christian psychosexual therapist who says she gets many requests for support from believers facing these issues, leaders' lifestyles and personalities may make them more vulnerable to being unfaithful. She says, "They often battle with loneliness created by the feeling that they can't talk to anyone in the Christian community. They may have several really close friends but they feel they can't talk to them because of the possible repercussions.

"So they turn to someone else, very often someone who is outside the Church. That's the appeal for them - it gives an escape from the pressure cooker of church life. Beyond that is the pressure of leadership itself: the pressure of always setting a good example and constantly being in the public eye. Affairs are ways for them to have 'me-time'." 

Internet temptations

While the survey showed infidelity was an issue, it also showed that addiction to pornography is not just a problem for the secular world, but for believers as well.

On average 22 per cent of respondents said they had intentionally accessed the internet to look at porn. But when broken down, this rose to 65 per cent among men under the age of 35 and 50 per cent among male church leaders aged between 25 and 55. Around 12 per cent of women under the age of 35 admitted having done so. While the results showed women were less likely to access porn online, it suggested it was a growing problem, with younger women more likely to do so.

"Porn is heavily used in our society," says Maggie. "I don't think Christians are much different to non-Christians in that respect. We are sexual beings the same as non-Christians and are under the same pressures at work, university, college or school.

"It's particularly an issue for men because it involves the kick of sex without the perceived complexities of relationship. It gives the chemical rush without having to think about the female partner needing TLC and sensitivity.

"But all the studies show that sex without intimacy becomes more and more addictive and less and less satisfying. You need a higher and higher kick, which quickly becomes destructive. Complicate that with the fact that as Christians we feel more guilt than non-Christians. Laying on more guilt can push us into more addictive behaviour."

Maggie puts the addiction to pornography ultimately down to an 'inner malaise', a deep emptiness which people attempt to fill. "Some people fill that inner malaise with healthy things while others go after destructive things. While it's good to take practical and helpful steps such as putting software on your computer to prevent you accessing certain sites or being accountable to people within your church, these things do not go to the root and can still leave room for the cycle of addiction to perpetuate.

"The danger is when Christians try to bury and deny the inner malaise they carry. Denial leads to unhealthy ways of trying to soothe the inner drives. What we need to do is create communities full of grace and acceptance where we can get into the light our struggles, rather than pretending." 

Place of grace

God loves marriage and He calls husbands to love their wives in the same way as Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25). When marriages break down, or couples suffer pain and heartache, it is the whole community that suffers.

Dave Percival, who leads Marriage Week UK which has been running since 1997, says good marriages are symbols of God's unconditional love for us. The mainland initiative is run by organisations including Care for the Family, Premier Christian Radio, Mothers' Union, 2-in-2-1 and The Marriage Course at Holy Trinity Brompton. It celebrates the diversity and vibrancy of marriage as the basis for family life in the UK and took place over Valentine's Day week.

"Marriage is part of God's plan and God doesn't do anything without cause. One of the reasons He created marriage is to reveal something of His nature. He's a God who makes promises and then keeps them. We as human beings can do the same."

Churches must do more to support, encourage and equip married couples to exemplify the love of God through their own relationships. The survey showed that while marriage preparation courses are run in 70 per cent of churches, just 30 per cent offer marriage enrichment courses or events.

Reasons cited by leaders for not running such courses included being too busy, never having heard of such courses and not having enough volunteers to lead or help run them.

"Churches seem to have a fear of actually saying something positive about marriage for fear of disenfranchising the unmarried and I think that's sad," Dave says.

"We would encourage leaders to start to build a culture where doing something positive for your marriage is desirable. It's like going to the gym; instead of waiting till you're ill and then going to the doctor. It builds a healthy culture around the issue."

Maggie agrees, encouraging churches to be places "full of grace and reality about what it is to be human". She also says Christian couples are often inclined to suffer a "poverty of romance" in their relationships as they often feel it is "wasteful" to spoil each other by buying gifts or spending money on having quality time together.

The HTB Marriage Course has become renowned for supporting, nurturing and sometimes saving marriages. The seven-session course is for any couple that wants to invest in their relationship - whether it is already strong or whether their marriage is on the rocks.

"These types of courses can cover issues such as love languages, forgiveness, conflict and how we experience love in a deep relationship," Dave says. "Ultimately, as married people we need to think about why God has put us together and what the greater purpose is. We are called to be a sign of God's love in the world. How do we do this with the strangers we meet and the way in which we conduct our relationships?"

Lindsey Holley, the Alliance's public policy officer in NI and chair of the Marriage Week NI committee, says: "The Marriage Week NI survey highlights a number of serious issues, but we were encouraged to also see how churches were beginning to respond in very practical ways.

"We have already started taking the results of the survey back to the churches, denominations and training colleges, so that together we can work towards a wider response. With the wealth of resources now out there, churches are ideally placed to help encourage and equip marriages in their congregations and local communities but we need to also make sure that support for church leaders is not overlooked." 

In numbers...

11% - Christian leaders who had been unfaithful to their spouses

50% - Christian leaders aged 25-55 who haddeliberately accessed online porn

65% - Christian men under 35 who had deliberately accessed online porn

3 - average number of pre-marital sexual pertners of those Christians who had been sexually active before marriage

95% - found a marriage course helpful

1,000 - respondents to the Marriage Week NI survey

Sources of help for those struggling and churches that want to take action. 

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