Kenny’s stages of rebellion, and the church’s response

Jan 28, 2020 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We’ll start with an everyman. Let’s call him Kenny. He’s not unusual, in that while he is married to Lizzie, he finds other women attractive. He has a heterosexual orientation. Kenny lets his attention focus on a work colleague, Ellie, who’s married to Ollie. Our Ken desires, covets another man’s wife.

Kenny makes his move at an office social, and Ellie reciprocates. They have sex, although both feel guilty afterwards and promise each other that it will end there. It doesn’t. After some weeks, they meet again after work, and soon they are having regular trysts in hotels, each time telling their spouses that they are on a ‘business trip’.

A sexual orientation not brought under control, has been allowed to develop into desire. This leads to an action, which when repeated turns into a lifestyle.

Leaving aside for a moment a Christian response, what might a friend say to Kenny, intervening at the desire stage, perhaps when he notices Ken’s interest in Ellie at the office? He could appeal to Kenny’s love for his wife Lizzie, to a sense of duty to his marriage vows, to warning about future consequences of having an affair with all the trauma for his family, to his ability to exercise self control and say no to temptation.

But Kenny did not listen to this. In fact he already had answers to these goads to his conscience as he pursued his path towards adultery:

  • “My love for Lizzie isn’t what it was. Now I love Ellie.”
  • “I can’t help myself. It’s who I am. Cupid’s arrow strikes – what can you do?”
  • “Real men need more than just one woman. I was born with lots of testosterone.”
  • “I feel constrained and oppressed by duty. I want to break free, to be true to myself.”
  • “What is marriage anyway? Permanently being tied up, or a temporary contract?”
  • “Love is love. Celebrate it. Live for the present – the future we can worry about later.”

Kenny is justifying himself. This is more than just making excuses. Of course it’s true that many in Kenny’s position know very well that what they are doing is wrong; they feel guilty but continue in their weakness and addiction to pleasure. Kenny is going further – he is creating powerful arguments in his mind by which he declares himself to be not guilty.

So Ken’s adultery goes beyond desire leading to action and habit. In addition, he has created a new identity for himself. He no longer sees himself as a husband to Lizzie, but a lover to Ellie. He is no longer someone with a dull lifestyle driven by duty, stoical and uncaring, but enjoying spontaneity, doing what feels good, seizing the moment, having fun, driven by love. A potent man with expanded horizons, breaking free of convention. Kenny has discovered who he really is, and is justifiably living out his identity.

Lastly, he embraces a new ideology driving societal change. He now believes that monogamous marriage is part of an outdated and oppressive system. People should be free to have liaisons with whoever they choose – there should be no stigma attached to cohabiting, adultery, same sex relationships, as long is there is mutual consent between adults. Kenny rejoices in his freedom as he is not breaking any laws. But more than that: any restriction on the freedom to ‘love’ within these current legal boundaries, any questioning of the morality of Kenny’s choices, whether in social convention, religious teaching or even common sense, is dangerous and itself immoral, as it attacks the inherent identity of individuals, restricts them and potentially damages their mental health.

So Kenny does not speak any more to his friend who warned him against starting the affair with Ellie. It is that friend who is the guilty one, for daring to challenge Kenny’s understanding of himself. In the traditional understanding, Ken is a free agent who has chosen to do wrong. According to this new ideology, Ken is a victim of prejudice – something he can of course add to his identity matrix. Meanwhile the friend, society, the church must repent of intolerance; laws must be changed to facilitate adult sexual freedoms; children must be taught the benefits of the new ideology.

Five stages of rebellion: sinful desire, sinful action, sinful habit/lifestyle, a false identity, a secular humanist worldview. How have Christians responded to this?

The onset of the sexual revolution has massively challenged the church and caught it unprepared for dealing with new ways of looking at sex, especially the last two stages of rebellion. While most Christians would no doubt believe that adultery of the kind Kenny is involved in, is wrong, the use of pornography, sex before marriage and cohabitation, marriage breakdown, homosexual practice and transgenderism are increasingly seen as secondary issues by orthodox believers, and even illustrations of love and truth to be celebrated by more liberal Christians.

Amongst evangelicals in some quarters, a narrative has developed whereby we can affirm the historic teaching on sexual desire and practice – the need for sexual self-control; celibate singleness for same sex attracted people, and monogamy for marrieds – as long as this teaching is only directed at practising Christians. The reason more are not attracted to this lifestyle, we’re told, is because of lack of pastoral care and failure of communication. So, the argument goes, Christians must repent of ‘homophobia’ and general lack of compassion towards those not following the Christian sexual ethic like Kenny, and must improve communication of its message. There must even be a visible reconciliation and working together of Christians who have different views on sex. An example of this thinking can be found in the participation of an evangelical minister in a video commending the ‘pastoral guidelines’ from the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project.

If we take this view, we will see Kenny’s story as illustrating just two problems: Kenny breaking God’s commandments, and the church’s failure to show God’s love. But Kenny’s rebellion is not just adultery. He has also embraced a profoundly anti-Christian belief system, based on self-justification, the creation of a new identity celebrating his sin as an innate part of himself, and an ideology which wants to replace ‘repressive’ Christian morality with something which must in the end repress authentic Christian faith and practice. 

These powerful new forces of sex/ gender identity and neo-Marxist ideology, sinful and idolatrous thinking now embedded in society’s structures, are too often not addressed in contemporary evangelical discourse about sex. Worse than that, we can end up being ‘orthodox’ in terms of our understanding of marriage and personal application of Christian sexual ethics (remaining opposed to rebellion stages 1 to 3), while at the same time imbibing the philosophies of the sexual revolution (ignoring or affirming stages 4-5). This is perhaps the reason why Bishops are able to sign a document affirming the historic teachings of the church on sex and marriage, and at the same time also support re-naming and re-baptism for those who have rejected God’s design for their bodies, and even call for blessings of same sex relationships

If Kenny is to become a Christian, it will involve not just stopping his adultery with Ellie (stage 2 and 3), or even gaining control of his lustful thoughts (stage 1). He will need a profound change in the way he views himself (stage 4), and the world (stage 5). It won’t help if Christians positively affirm his understanding of himself, and agree that he is an oppressed victim. Similarly, if society is to become Christian, winsome presentation of Christ will need to be accompanied by a call to widespread repentance from false ideologies, and practical help to escape them, not collusion in them.

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