You may remember that oft-quoted plea that is a part of baseball lore, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” In 1919, famous baseball player “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was accused, with several teammates, of betraying the fans of the game by “fixing” the World Series, after the highly favored Chicago White Sox lost the championship to the Cincinnati Reds. After Jackson’s testimony before a grand jury in 1920, a young, faithful, and believing fan begged his hero to deny the charge of betrayal: “Say it ain’t so…”
I feel similarly as I write this article and plead… “Say it ain’t so…Al (Mohler)!” “Say it ain’t so…John (Piper)!” I am a fan of these leaders and highly value their teaching. But recently both have taken positions on the sin of pornography that are confusing and potentially dangerous for the Body of Christ. Both have offered endorsement of psychology and neuroscience, proclaiming this form of sexual immorality a biological addiction.
This may seem a minor thing; a frivolous matter of semantics; but it is far more insidious. This is especially true for teachers with sizable platforms and influence. Bear with me as I discuss why this matters.
In a recent article, How Pornography Works: It Hijacks the Male Brain, Dr. Albert Mohler offers his belief that pornography takes the biological brain captive (2013). Mohler quotes psychologist, Dr. William Struthers who states:
“Men seem to be wired in such a way that pornography hijacks the proper functioning of their brains and has a long-lasting effect on their thoughts and lives.” (Struthers, 2013).
This sounds right unless Scripture is applied to the theory. Dr. Struthers’ statement suggests that the agent of pornography invades and takes hostage the “proper functioning” of the brain and then has a deleterious effect on one’s thoughts and actions. However, Scripture states the following:
But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren (Jas 1:14-16).
According to the Word, one is “carried away” (hijacked) by “his own lust.” Our bondage is internal, a product of a wayward heart that seeks after the object of its lust (pornography). Pornography itself, has no power to penetrate, imprison, and control…it can only entice. Lustful desire goes after the enticement which gives “birth to sin” (viewing of pornography and associated conduct).
When fully “accomplished” sin “brings forth death.” Sin kills, not porn. Sin destroys health, marriages, parent-child relationships, character and integrity. Sin, without salvation, leads to damnation. Christians must not become so focused on the fruit of temptation that we disregard the heart that rejects God’s truth:
The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16-17).
Dr. Mohler writes, “In a fallen world, pornography becomes more than a distraction and a distortion of God’s intention for human sexuality. It comes as an addictive poison” (2013). But did the fruit bring death (poison), or did disobedience? Did Eve and Adam have a choice to eat, or were they “hijacked” by the delivery system (the tree of knowledge of good and evil)? Yes, there was encouragement (distraction) from the serpent who promised, “You surely will not die!” [Gen 3:4]); but the choice was a matter of a heart, determined to go astray (Is 53:6). Jesus confirms this in His teaching:
“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (Mk 7:14-15).
Jesus had just admonished the Pharisees for their ritualistic control and focus on outward demonstrations of righteousness (washing hands and pots) instead of heart transformation. The Lord went on to identify the source of sinful actions:
“That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mk 7:20-23).
As with all who advocate the theology of addiction, Mohler’s article suggests that pornography leads to the pursuit of increasingly aberrant images, infidelity, promiscuity, and other expressions of sexual immorality. Mohler writes, “So, the experience of viewing pornography and acting out on it creates a demand in the brain for more and more, just to achieve the same level of pleasure in the brain” (2013).
But according to Jesus, humans are not defiled by external contaminants. Instead, “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
Dr. John Piper has adopted a view similar to Mohler’s. In his article, Pornography: The New Narcotic, Piper quotes Morgan Bennett (Piper, 2013):
Neurological research has revealed that the effect of internet pornography on the human brain is just as potent — if not more so — than addictive chemical substances such as cocaine or heroin (Bennett, 2013).
Piper appears to reference an authoritative source that states, without equivocation, the revelations of neurological research. But who is Piper’s source? Who is Morgan Bennett? Morgan Bennett is a law student at Pepperdine University and a writer for conservative blog sites. He is not a pastor, teacher, or theologian. He is not even a psychologist, scientist, or researcher. He is a student and a journalist.
Morgan Bennett’s impact would be lost but for the platform of Dr. Piper who, because of his authoritative position, gives credibility to these broad and potentially destructive claims. Taking Bennett at his word, Piper advances the following (2013):
- Pornography is potentially “more addictive” than cocaine or heroine
- Pornography changes the “physical matter” (organic functioning) of the brain
- Pornography leads to “taboo sexual acts, child pornography, and sadomasochistic pornography”
- Pornography’s impact on the brain is permanent
In truth, these so called facts are little more than theory and speculation, still under review and research. Piper quotes from Bennett’s article freely and with certainty. But who does Bennett, use as his source of truth regarding these matters?
Bennett quotes two psychiatrists/psychoanalysts (Freudians), a psychologist, an economist, and a neurosurgeon. He does not cite a single academic study or journal article and does not reference any specific neuro-scientific research. He only uses broad, absolute quotes that convey the opinions of the professionals noted.
Thus in Dr. Piper’s article regarding the addictive impact of pornography, we have a pastor quoting a law student and political commentator, who is quoting practitioners of psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis, neurosurgery, and economics. Piper does use two passages of Scripture (Matt 5:28, Prov 23:7), both offered as contextually weak validation for his position.
But the casual reader sees only Dr. Piper’s endorsement, not the muddy foundation from which it grows. Most will never read Morgan Bennett’s article and those who do will not know how unqualified he is to offer such sweeping conclusions. Fewer still will identify and read the writings of the psychiatrists, psychologists, and others from whom Bennett borrows authority. And almost none will examine or understand the absence of verifiable scientific research that would support these ideas. All they know is Dr. Piper said…These problems, along with the absence of an accurate biblical theology, leave Dr. Piper’s article lacking and dangerous.
Why is this Important?
Again, these arguments for addiction lack scriptural integrity. To continue our earlier theme one must first review God’s Word and test everything through its template, like a good Berean:
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so (Acts 17:10-11).
Often Christians apply this standard of “examining the Scriptures” when discerning proper doctrine and exegesis. Yet in matters of life and function, we sometimes look to other sources. As a result Christians can be misled. Peter warned:
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Pet 3:17-18).
Certainly John Piper and Albert Mohler are not “unprincipled men.” They are instead of the highest quality, both in character and preparation. But no man is above error, and on this point, I fear they have fallen short. The addiction argument is a treacherous pipeline that simply leads to greater misery and destruction.
Addiction by nature implies disease/illness. Both Mohler and Piper’s articles suggest a physiological process that is organic and permanent and offer little hope for the sexually immoral beyond disciplined management of a deeply embedded and fixed condition. The authors they quote go so far as to suggest men are “wired” with this specific type of vulnerability.
But Scripture relates that God’s creations are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), and with salvation and sanctification, capable of holiness. We are not imprinted with wiring that is flawed and unable to obey the imperatives of Scripture. Paul wrote:
Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body (1 Cor 6:18).
Thus sexual immorality is man’s sin “against his own body.” It is a choice from which he is to “flee.” How does one flee the “wiring” of God? Such thinking is not only unbiblical; it is counter biblical. The notion is not only absent from Scripture but literally adopts an oppositional position to God’s truth.
Addiction further implies permanent impairment. Piper’s article even quotes a source stating that pornography creates structural and organic changes within the brain that cannot be undone. But Scripture is clear that the mind can be renewed:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).
Of course we understand a tumor or brain injury can irrevocably damage a brain’s function. But it is a great leap, and totally unsubstantiated, to suggest the sin of pornography transforms the organic brain in a way that is irreversible. There is no verifiable research anywhere to confirm this notion.
Clearly, willful,repetitive sin leads to bondage and defiles one’s mind and heart. But it is a bondage countered with repentance and relationship to Christ, not the extinction of outlets for sin. Paul wrote:
To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled (Titus 1:15).
It is the sin that alters the thinking and distorts one’s sense of right and wrong (conscience). The problem is not in the wiring. It is not biochemical. The issue is spiritual.
These scriptural truths are critical, because without them, the Church will pursue the wrong remedy. Christians will focus on behavioral control and the limitation of access to pornographic stimulants, instead of tending to the spiritual matter of the heart. We will pursue abstinence rather than transformation and self-restraint over freedom. But the work of the Church is salvation and sanctification, not behavior modification.
As in the past, I encourage our teachers and leaders to teach Scripture and guard against the deceptive draw of counter-biblical notions. To point in any other direction, is to take believers away from Christ and toward a lie.
Dr. Mohler…Dr. Piper…Say it ain’t so!
Bennett, M. (2013, Oct. 9). The New Narcotic. The Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse, Retrieved Oct. 17, 2013 from: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/10/10846/
Mohler, A. (2013, Oct. 9). How Pornography Works: It Hijacks the Male Brain. AlbertMohler.com, Retrieved Oct. 15, 2013 from: http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/10/09/how-pornography-works-it-hijacks-the-male-brain/
Piper, J. (2013, Oct. 9). Pornography: The New Narcotic. DesiringGod.org, Retrieved Oct. 15, 2013 from: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/pornography-the-new-narcotic
Struthers, W. (2009). Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. InterVarsity Press, Downer Groves, IL.