Pastor’s wedding night advice to women opens a conversation on harmful evangelical teaching on sex

This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on March 29, 2024.

On your wedding night, “stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do.”

This is the advice Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Josh Howerton gave the women of his congregation last month at Lakepointe Church in Dallas.

If these words had been spoken by a traditional Baptist pastor in his 60s wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a wooden pulpit, many young couples would have been mortified. But when this advice is given by an attractive younger man with the posture of a standup comedian donning a jean jacket and surrounded by cool stage lighting, everyone laughed and cheered.

The response outside the church has not been so kind. A video of the sermon is being shared widely, and many people are calling out Howerton for his views on women and marriage and submission.

This is part of a larger conversation we need to face head on because this is bigger than Howerton. What’s happening here is a sacralized attack on human flourishing and a demonstration of how authoritarian pastors wield modern worship and aesthetics as the drugs to help their misogyny go down.

Marriage night

The controversy started when Howerton described to his congregation what happened during a marriage conference that featured the teaching of Levi Lusko, a pastor, author and podcaster.

The conference featured worship, videos, humor, a sermon by Lusko, and a Q&A between Levi and Jennie Lusko and Josh and Jana Howerton.

Their Q&A included a number of harmful messages, including the trope that women need emotional intimacy before having physical intimacy. Howerton instructed the men of his congregation, “Access the heart before you get the body.”

To the women, Howerton preached: “You’ll hear me talk about wives respecting and following the leadership of their husbands. People will say, ‘Yeah, but I’ll respect him when he’s respectable.’ Listen, you cannot disrespect a man into respectability. Here’s how it works. Give him a crown and then he becomes a king.”

“Give him a crown and then he becomes a king.”

While Howerton keeps wanting to instruct men and women based on gender stereotypes that ultimately have the effect of crowning men as kings, Lusko keeps bringing the conversation around to sex. At one point, Lusko mentions maxing out at five minutes during sex. And then Howerton exclaims, “I love marriage night! I love marriage night!”

A gold nugget of advice

Recalling that conversation was the setup for Howerton’s latest comments that have sparked so much concern.

“This is a gold nugget of advice I was given by a mentor,” he says. “Guys, when it comes to her wedding day, she has been planning this day her entire life. She got her first like wedding magazine when she was 14. She draped the blanket around her like it was her wedding dress when she was a teenager. She did the towel over her head. It was a little veil. All the stuff. She’s been planning this day her whole life. So here’s what you need to do, man. When it comes to that day, just stand where she tells you to stand, wear what she tells you to wear, and do what she tells you to do. You’ll make her the happiest woman in the world.”

Notice how he describes a woman’s concern in childish detail. A woman is this cute little thing with a blanket around her and a towel on her head playing pretend. You can let her have her little fun and play the role of standing wherever she wants to put you. And you don’t have to invest any interest or care in what happens during your wedding. That’s the concern of a woman, he assumes.

But then he shifts the topic. “Now ladies, when you get to his wedding night, he’s been planning this night his whole life. So what you need to do is stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do. You’re gonna make him the happiest man in the world.”

How evangelical disembodiment fuels sexual entitlement

In stark contrast to the childish detail of the woman’s concern, he offers no detail about the sex plans of men. Of course, much of that may be due to evangelical theologies of sex that tell teenage boys they are never to masturbate. Even thinking about sex is taking on the risk of getting turned on, masturbating and spending an eternity in hell. Thus, evangelical men are developed to be sexually starved, utterly dependent, disembodied and helpless. Howerton is creating a scenario here of an evangelical teenage boy who is planning out the sex for their wedding night a decade ahead of time while attempting not to get turned on by it.

Thus, by the time the evangelical teenage boy grows up and gets married, Howerton refers to the wedding night as “his wedding night.”

Women, on the other hand, are assumed to have no sexual desire, are required to submit to the entitlements of helpless men who they crown as kings that get their body.

“It’s no wonder why sexual abuse is rampant in these conservative churches.”

Not only is that a perfect example of obligation sex, it’s also promoting the dynamics of rape. It’s no wonder why sexual abuse is rampant in these conservative churches.

April Ajoy

April Ajoy, co-host of the Evangelicalish podcast and a popular progressive Christian social media influencer, told Baptist News Global: “That rhetoric leads women to view sex in marriage as a duty, not something to enjoy. While his words were more overt, it’s not niche.”

Ajoy remembers: “I was taught that it’s the wife’s job to please her husband even when she’s not in the mood. I remember being a young girl at women’s church events where the leaders would talk about the importance of wives putting out and how sex is something men need and if that need wasn’t met, husbands could look elsewhere. I was never once taught about female pleasure. It took me years into my own marriage and lots of therapy before I stopped objectifying myself and could actually enjoy intimacy in marriage.”

The larger context

When Jay Stringer, author of Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing watched the clip of Howerton, he reached out to Sheila Gregoire to hear her thoughts about it. Gregoire is an occasional columnist for BNG who has researched and written extensively about evangelical women and sex.

The two of them recorded an episode for the Bare Marriage podcast titled “Why Evangelical Honeymoons Often Go So Badly.”

Sheila Gregoire

Gregoire notes how Howerton’s theology is common in the larger context of evangelical teachings and books about marriage: “When people say these things like they’re jokes, it’s not OK because it’s being said on top of Every Man’s Battle that called women methadone for their husband’s sex addictions. It’s being said on top of Love and Respect, which said that you have to have sex or he’s going to have an affair and that what he needs is physical release. … It’s being said on top of Sheet Music, that says that your period is a difficult time for your husband and so you need to give him sexual favors during your period so he doesn’t climb the walls. There’s a context to this.”

Continue reading at Baptist News Global.

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