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pornography is a trap

I don’t think there’s anyone that hasn’t heard (at least) rumblings of the pornography issue. However, sometimes it’s just too much to believe that this could be impacting our assemblies significantly. So: let’s look at the data together before we start talking about how to help those who find themselves in the grip of this problem.

The Numbers Do Not Lie

When I am asked to speak on this subject, as I did recently during the 2017 PEI Conference, I usually start with a shock-and-awe approach. I want to awaken those who are listening to the extent of this problem in our gatherings.
So let me start here again with the statistics but I’m going to begin with the most conservative measures and then expand from there. I’ll also explain and reference my sources so that you can critically evaluate the numbers for yourself.
Let’s assume you have forty people in your assembly. If so, you definitely have five believers that have actively been seeking out pornography in the last month. That’s based on measures provided by the Barna Group in their Porn Phenomenon report. This would represent the most objective and the most rigorous study that I have seen. It is based on the evangelical Christian demographic. The Barna Group is a 30 year-old research company in Ventura, California.

Surely Not Us?

I know what you’re thinking: I said “evangelical” right? Well, that’s evangelicals. Surely, with our greater care and interest in the preaching and upholding of gospel truths, this issue must not be as prevalent amongst Gospel Halls. (By the way, people, we need to stop the “better-than” language).
Well, slow down for a moment. I first spoke about this problem at a mini-conference held at Victoria Drive Gospel Hall in Vancouver, BC in 2009. Prior to that conference I put a survey link on Facebook that went out to all my Facebook friends. Most, if not all, of those friends would be assembly believers at the time. Based on those responses I found that half of the men and 1 in 8 women had sought out pornography in the last month.
Now by those measures there would be about 10 men and 2 or 3 women in your assembly of forty people who had actively gone searching for pornography in the last month. Keep in mind this survey would have been much less rigorous and less formal than the survey conducted by the Barna Group. But the numbers are higher, and shockingly so.
According to Covenant Eyes, a popular Internet filtering and accountability software, 64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month. That would bring the numbers up to about 16 believers in your assembly of forty. Now: keep in mind Covenant Eyes is selling the solution so it only stands to help them if they can report numbers as high as possible.

 

64% of Men
15% of Women

 

Half the Men?

But seriously: half of the men in your assembly are looking at porn?
Yes, indeed they are.
But surely it cannot be this bad.
Well, did you know that Covenant Eyes also reports that self-identified “Fundamentalists” are 91% more likely to look at pornography than regular church attendees? It’s hard to deny this reality.
Also, keep in mind that my own survey is nearly 10 years old, focuses on the assembly population, and was carried out just as the smartphone was coming onto the market. Nowadays, the smartphone is the device of choice for the consumption of pornography. Your assembly youth are looking at porn in their bedrooms at night after their parents have gone to bed, your young dads are watching it in the bathroom at work or in their vehicle.
The biggest challenge with this pornography problem is accessibility. No longer do people have to sneak into a 7-Eleven and grab the magazine off the rack and go through embarrassment of checking out with it. No, anyone can now view porn anonymously, privately, with very easy access and usually for free. And they can eliminate all traces — except the guilt and shame it leaves behind.

The Other Part

And I should say, too: any time you have someone viewing pornography, you have masturbation. Those two things go together. That’s the reward part of the addictive cycle.
And yes, this is an addiction. A young brother said to me that he was doing much better with pornography. I said to him, “OK, so how often are you viewing pornography now?” He said, “Oh, it’s much better, only maybe once every three or four weeks.”.
Really?
If you cannot stop, you have an addiction, so we need to talk about this addiction piece.

But How Can a Christian Be Addicted?

Now, we could get all tangled up just on this addiction terminology.
I want to keep it simple. If you have someone who has repeatedly tried to stop a behaviour and they cannot, then I am calling that an addiction. I am not trying to legitimize sin by reducing it to a sickness: an idea popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. When I use the word I am simply talking about a believer who wants to stop a sinful coping mechanism but has failed in their attempts so far.
Often when I get folks settled on the use of the word “addict” or “addiction” the next thing they want to talk about is if a believer can be an addict.
May I kindly suggest: if you don’t think a believer can be an addict, get to know the believers in your assembly. Look around. You have food addicts, work addicts, porn addicts…some are more obvious, some more hidden. But they are there.
And I’ll tell you something else: those smokers and alcoholics that got saved and stopped using? They just switched their addiction to something more socially acceptable: like food or overworking. They’ve found another way to fill the gaping hole or to meet the gnawing emptiness — there’s hope for them in Christ too.

The Addiction is Still There

As for the theological side of things: I know what 1 John says about believers who continue in sin. Especially chapter 3 verse 6 “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him” (KJV).
However, these Scriptures were given to believers as a means to evaluate the false teachers they were confronted with. I don’t believe that we are meant to hold addicts up to these verses. Besides that, is there a verse that says a person stops sinning the moment they are saved? Not at all. Nor is there a verse that claims an addiction should stop the moment we get saved.
I know that we hear the stories on the gospel platform of the bottles of alcohol being emptied into the sink and they never touch another drop again. We do well to celebrate this. But is that the end of the addictive function in that person’s life? Or has it just moved on to another more acceptable area?

Got Doubts?

The reason why I mention this is because believers who are addicted to pornography often are experiencing a major struggle over whether they are saved or not. And as I work with them, to be perfectly candid, I often push that issue to the side. When we start doing the work that we’re going to talk about in episode 8 and 10 and 12 where we really go deep to understand the grip of this sin: it’ll become clear very quickly if they have the Holy Spirit in their life. So far, I haven’t worked with a “Christian” porn addict who has not turned to be a true believer. I’m sure that will happen one day, but for now, I don’t see the need to get into long discussions or even to deal with doubts they may have. I just reassure them that this will become apparent as we move forward and that we could lose a lot of time if we try to answer that question in the context of their current struggles. So don’t get sidetracked into long discussions about whether they are saved or not.

What If They Don’t Want Help?

Sometimes you are going to find out about the pornography addiction when the addict becomes so desperate for help that they are finally willing to reach out and ask you for help.
Other times, you going to find out by asking them directly. I’ve started doing this a lot more. You should ask every young person getting married this question. You should ask the young people in your 1 on 1 shepherding visits with them. And by the way don’t ask if they ever look at pornography. Ask them: “When was the last time you looked at pornography?” Keep your eyes on their face when you ask: you may hear “Never” as a response but see something different in their eyes.

She Needs Support

And other times you may find out when a devastated wife comes asking for help. Now, towards the end of this series I am going to reveal how you can support the wife of an addict. Don’t underestimate the significance of the impact on the betrayed spouse. This virtual betrayal strikes as deeply as a physical betrayal because the primary offence is the betrayal of lies, not even so much that there has been sexual infidelity. 70% of betrayed spouses will develop the symptoms of PTSD — depending on the severity of the betrayal, the nature of the discovery or disclosure, her personal resilience and sense of self-efficacy, the degree of impact on her will vary. So her need for support is just as significant as his. But we’ll get to that in a future show.
In the meantime, it is quite possible that you will come across a brother in the Lord who is going to smooth talk you and tell you it was a passing thing and it’s under control. Or he’ll just push back and tell you it is none of your business. He’ll deny it or minimize it cover it up.
Basically, if he is not very broken and not immediately seeking help then he is still in the addiction. He is not in recovery.
This could be a topic in itself but if he refuses treatment or refuses to even meet with you to honestly work through the pornography addiction, then you’re in a difficult situation. If he or she is married there is much more urgency because it is absolute torture living with the addict. If children are in the home, they are at risk. I would say for a single person there may be less urgency but keep in mind that this person will have to seek out increasingly edgy, violent or demeaning pornography. This is an escalating addiction. What stimulates your fantasy today will be much less interesting next month. This is how folks who normally don’t have any deviant sexual interests find themselves looking at very disturbing material: it’s because what used to stimulate them no longer does, so they’ve had to escalate the type of material they’re seeking out.

An Intervention Option

In any case, if the person is not willing to seek treatment and you and their family believe they urgently need to be getting help, I would recommend that you seek out an ARISE Interventionist. These are professionally trained people — this is a paid service — but they have a very successful, well documented process that moves something like 98% of treatment-resistant addicts into treatment. It’ll cost some money but it’s a solid last resort.

How Long Does Recovery Take?

I’m a licensed, trained clinical counsellor. In the treatment plan that I use and will be sharing with you, most pornography addicts will be free of this besetting sin in 7-8 weeks with a one hour session per week.
By contrast, Certified Sex Addiction Therapists working with a secular population will typically see good results within 4 to 6 months for a classic pornography addiction. Now, I don’t have any magic going on but I believe that what Paul teaches is true:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (ESV)

I honestly believe the reason I see such quick recovery is that our Lord Jesus Christ is 100% on board with helping His people overcome sin. And the Holy Spirit will get into this work however He can as well. So we have divine support. Believers respond very well to this kind of help.
I want to share this treatment protocol with you because I believe there are too many porn addicts for me to treat. Sounds so obvious but it needs to be said. And I don’t believe that only licensed professional counsellors should handle these simpler cases. It’s too widespread a problem: there aren’t enough counsellors in the world to meet this need.

When to Refer Out

However, I would like to identify some situations in which you would want to refer someone to a professional counsellor.
If the porn addict has experienced childhood sexual abuse it is unlikely they will break free of the pornography unless they seek treatment for the abuse. So you would want to refer in that case.
If there are major co-addictions such as work or alcohol or other types of substance abuse, I would recommend you try to refer this out.
If the pornography use has extended to sexual acting out: such as voyeurism, meeting with online contacts in an offline situation for sex, or even just for the thrill of the chase, or if there has been prostitution, massage parlours, multiple affairs, so on and so forth. Then you’ll want to refer to a CSAT. In these cases you should also expect a treatment plan lasting 1 to 5 years and much more investment into treatment for the spouse as well.
If there are suicidal thoughts and you are not trained to work with this you should also get the person into emergency or at least to their family doctor as soon as possible.
If there is also physical, emotional or verbal abuse in the marriage then you will want to seek professional referrals to a qualified counsellor such as myself.
But otherwise if you have a young man or woman from a reasonably stable home who just stumbled across porn out of curiosity and got hooked, you should find good success with the treatment process I’m going to outline in future episodes.
And of course, if you’re trying to help and it’s a couple months in and there’s no sign of improvement, it’s time to increase the level of treatment. Even as a professional, I follow this rule of thumb.

Pornography and Shame

Now I need to talk about shame because I’m going to talk about assembly discipline in a moment.
Shame is the fuel that drives the addictive cycle in pornography.
And when I say “shame” I’m referring to how this person sees himself or herself. They will often see themselves as worthless or as a terrible person or complete failure. So much so that this has become part of their identity.
The only way that they know to find relief from this identity is in the lurid glow of a promiscuous woman who communicates that the addict is desirable, attractive, wanted, or somehow bigger than they feel. So they watch porn, masturbate and for a moment feel some bliss as the dopamine floods their brain but after they are done they run smack into their own values again and realize they have messed up and are truly horrible. And so the cycle continues.
I’ll be talking to you in future episodes about how to break that shame cycle.
But for the moment, let’s say you as an overseer find out about this pornography addiction and you’re so horrified by it that you decide to excommunicate this person under the label of fornication.

What About Assembly Discipline?

The one thing an addict needs is relationship. Again, sorry to keep saying this, but in a future episode I’m going to show you how to take them to Christ to build that, and to other healthy same-sex relationships, and if they’re married to their spouse for healthy intimacy. But in the meantime you excommunicate them and plunge them into isolation and even more profound shame because they’ve been humiliated in front of their entire church community.
I can tell you right now that you’ll never see that person restored.
But: I realize that you want a Biblical explanation, not a practical one.
I actually do believe there are some circumstances under which it would be helpful to the addict to enact assembly discipline. This just requires so much wisdom on our part as overseers because no two cases are the same and there are a lot of implications.
Even take, for example, the shame the addict’s wife feels when her husband’s addiction is made public. Will people think she hasn’t been giving him enough sex? Will they tsk-tsk because she let herself go after their third child? Think of the profound damage to her mental wellbeing if and when his addiction is exposed publicly. She already feels all of that alone, but in front of the whole assembly now? It’s brutal.
So allow me to suggest a few guidelines.

Treatment vs. Discipline

If the addict is not willing to seek treatment and you have confronted the addict as an oversight, then with the wife and/or family’s support it may be in everyone’s best interests to consider excommunication. You may also consider a therapeutic separation for the marriage.
If the addict is willing to seek treatment and shows clear remorse and a desire to be free from this problem, then as long as they continue to engage in the recovery process I don’t believe that discipline is necessary.
If there is some acting out behaviour beyond masturbation, you would need to assess for the safety of the assembly. Especially if these behaviours are misdemeanours (such as exhibitionism) or even felonies (typical of sex offenders). You have a duty to protect even if this involves embarrassment for associated parties. Depending on your state or province you may even have a duty to report: for example, at the time of recording if you know a person is in possession of child pornography some locales require you to report that person to the authorities. A failure to report is illegal. So, seek legal advice for your locale and make sure you are in compliance legally, not just spiritually.
Now there are other circumstances that we could consider, ad nauseam. For example, what if the person has been engaging in cybersex with another woman online? They’ve never met, but with the use of virtual technology they’ve virtually fornicated with each other. I mean we are facing problems in our world today that were unimaginable in Paul’s day. Very, very complicated and requiring a great deal of wisdom and care.
I’m going to leave it there because it’s not my job to tell you what to do.
I would just remind you that the situation in 1 Corinthians 5 is very extreme in terms of the sin. You have an ongoing, incestuous, sexual relationship that is being endorsed by the assembly. So the response is equally severe. It’s the double-barrelled shotgun and well needed for that absurd a scenario. Where I get concerned is when we point the same shotgun and pull both triggers on a much less severe situation. I believe that Scripture would permit us to use our discernment in mitigating the level of discipline so that it is proportional to the sin we’re addressing.

What Lies Ahead

Let me close by telling you what lies ahead.
I have no doubt that this will evolve somewhat. But right now I have penciled in episodes 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, and 20 to convey the steps of the treatment plan. I chose to address this every second episode because I know there are a number of you actively trying to help folks and looking for a treatment protocol that works. And at the same time I think it would be tiresome to listen to several sessions back to back on this issue. So I hope this is a suitable approach.
If you are working with pornography addicts and would like advice, I plan to fine-tune this approach based on your feedback. I’ve never tried to teach it to others before. And I want to make sure that what I have learned can be replicated by the average Gospel Hall overseer. So I welcome your feedback and will handle that in confidence.
On this topic episode 8 will be dealing with behavioural steps you can take to help the addict take their first step away from the pornography, create some distance and establish sobriety. After that we’ll go dive deeper into triggers and cues in the addiction, then to unpacking their fantasies and why that is important and so on from there.
Lots to cover, but as I said, this has been a very effective approach for me and I want to make sure it is for you as well.


 

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.