Church’s use of anti-porn ‘shameware’ ignites Christian debates over sex and sin

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(RNS) — Sexual sins, especially of the private and secret kind, remain notoriously difficult to talk about in most religious contexts. When preachers get caught in adultery or to a lesser extent fornication, their hypocrisy rightly causes outrage and dismay. When they use their power to coerce, abuse or cover up their behavior, their infidelities are increasingly regarded not just as sins, but crimes.

But taking pleasure in garden-variety impure thoughts is barely even regarded as sin.

Debate over sexual sins received an unlikely signal boost last week from the tech magazine Wired. In an article titled “The Ungodly Surveillance of Anti-Porn ‘Shameware’ Apps,” Dhruv Mehrotra, an investigative data journalist, described a group of churches that monitored their congregants’ activities through their phones. Almost needless to say, church leaders soon ran afoul of basic standards of security, privacy and ethics.

Using apps such as Accountable2You and Covenant Eyes, pastors, especially evangelical ones, have been experimenting with these programs for some years. Users consent to have their internet browsing, app usage and even keystrokes logged, with actually or potentially objectionable online activity reported to a designated “accountability partner.”


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“I wouldn’t call it spyware,” one person told Mehrotra. “It’s more like ‘shameware,’ and it’s just another way the church controls you.”

Mehrotra focused on Gracepoint Ministries, a network of mostly Asian American churches that have cropped up in some 35 American college towns and abroad. One young gay man told the reporter of a pastor who demanded he use accountability software that tracked his internet usage. But Gracepoint blurred the delicate concept of accountability. Even Covenant Eyes, a company spokesperson told Mehrotra, “discourages using its app in relationships with a power imbalance.”

The young man wasn’t alone. Gracepoint ministry leaders, according to Wired, obsessively monitored parishioners’ browsing history, web searches and keystrokes, confronting them about even innocuous online activity.

A couple of cautions here: Christianity Today reported that Gracepoint has shown a pattern offline as well of overbearing and even cultlike “whole life discipleship” that some ex-members have described as spiritually harmful.

On the other hand, some of the fault does seem to lie with the technology as much as the spirituality. In response to Mehrotra’s reporting, Google removed Accountable2You and Covenant Eyes from its Play store for “exploiting Android’s accessibility permissions to monitor almost everything someone does on their phone.”

I will also say that Mehrotra, understandably hostile to Gracepoint’s “surveillance,” is incurious about why religious folks might turn to apps (or churches) to help them resist certain behaviors. (Covenant Eyes is named for a verse in the Book of Job: “I have made a covenant with mine eyes. Why then should I think upon a maid?”) Their users have presumably tried and failed on their own to resist the temptation to access pornography on their devices. They may hope, as much as their pastors, that a combination of web monitoring and relational accountability will help them avoid sin.

 But while some on social media said Gracepoint’s use of accountability software was excessive, others argued that shame is not a sufficient, or even a valuable, motivator. The latter argument came from progressive Christians and many in the broader culture who seemed hard-pressed to name sexual desires that should not be satisfied as long as they do not involve infidelity and occur within a framework of consent.

A 2016 Barna study revealed that only 32% of teens and young adults think viewing pornography is usually or always wrong, compared with 56% who say the same about not recycling.

Likewise, Barna and other studies suggest that well over half of even Christian pastors regularly indulge in sins of the eyes and body, especially of the sort made easy — and easy to hide — by the ubiquity of internet pornography.

But the prevalence of sin does not make it less sinful, and in general I would rather see Christians who wish to be free from sin encouraged, not mocked. I do question the motivation and psychology of these apps; people can just get another device, thus committing a further deception and deepening their own shame about their behavior. But the aspiration to chastity and fidelity strikes me as normal and healthy.

After all, it is still a sin to take pleasure in impure thoughts. The well-formed Christian conscience will want to avoid sin, even if growing numbers of people in churches and in the broader society accept pornography. “Shameware” apps are not the answer. But society would be better off, not worse, if more people lived in accordance with Christian teachings on sexual self-control.

The worthier debate, in my view, is about the best methods for clarifying our values and ordering motivations to change behavior we want to change.

Religion and psychology are not in conflict, though most religions locate morality in divine revelation and most mental-health frameworks derive morality from discovery and self-assertion.

But just as mental-health clinicians should not try to talk Christians out of their commitments to Christian sexual ethics, neither should religious leaders fear psychotherapy, which can be profoundly helpful to people who wish to integrate their behavior with their religious obligations. 


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Even if one trusts religion to inform one’s sexual ethics — as untold millions have and will continue to do — psychological treatment can work alongside faith to not only build a more coherent internal morality, but also help men and women live in accordance with their values.

Church members willing to submit to online monitoring are following an honorable, humane intuition to let themselves be known. But submitting to another’s accountability, online or off, demands a level of honesty and vulnerability that humans readily sabotage. And while religion provides opportunities for grace, forgiveness and redemption, it can also nurture shame-fueled inclination toward, not away from, sin.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)



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