Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church north of Dallas, has recently taken an indefinite leave of absence after exchanging direct messages on Instagram with a woman who is not his wife. Although he states that the messages were not sexual and that both his wife and the woman’s husband were aware that these conversations were happening, Chandler still offered a confession to his congregation. Further, he stated that his leave of absence was “disciplinary.”
This situation seems awfully strange for us onlookers trying to understand what is going on.
After all, Chandler’s remarks make it seem as though these messages were friendly, consensual exchanges between two friends. Two friends that just so happen to be of opposite genders but have no sexual intentions with one another.
So, why must Chandler take a “disciplinary” leave of absence when he has (seemingly) done nothing wrong? One of two things is going on here:
First, and most harshly, Chandler and his church’s elders may be hiding information that further incriminates him. Because the identity of the woman remains unknown, we do not get to hear her side of the story. All we know is that Chandler is very apologetic for these non-sexual messages they exchanged over Instagram.
This, of course, we cannot know unless more information is made public. However, onlookers can see how Chandler would work quickly to confess, apologize and move away from a situation that may reveal even worse ethical violations, such as adultery or sexual harassment.
But there could be a much more nuanced explanation for this situation.
As a student at Wingate University, my senior thesis is titled “Dirty Discourse” and outlines important issues within the teachings of purity culture in the modern evangelical church. I also recently completed a summer research project titled “Martyrs of Chastity” exploring similar sentiments of sexual purity in the early Christian world. Given my experience as a student and researcher, Chandler’s situation appears to be an example of something called “transactional sexuality,” a phrase that appears in Christianity Today’s podcast series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.”
The podcast does not define the term directly, however, as I have researched this concept it seems it can be defined as such: Transactional Sexuality is a phenomenon within purity culture in which sex is viewed along the gender binary as an economic transaction — men are the consumers, desiring sex like it is a product, while women are the sellers, delivering sex like it is their job. When a man desires sex from a woman, it is because she has in some way advertised herself as being available for sexual relations (even if she did so inexplicitly). This means when men make a sexual offer, it is the duty of women to provide sexual gratification because they are responsible for the regulation of the desires circulating within the sexual economy (even if they do not wish to have sex).
What I suppose has happened to Chandler and the woman whom he has been messaging is this: Although these messages were not sexual in nature, this non-transactional, mixed-gender friendship does not fit anywhere within the ideology of purity culture.
Evangelical Christians who have grown up in environments that promote things like transactional sexuality have become accustomed to the notion that because of the risk of temptation within this sexual economy, women should be friends with women, and men should be friends with men. This segregation protects Christians from inappropriate or immoral sexual conduct.
Perhaps the reason Chandler felt the need to apologize for these conversations is that he has broken these rules of segregation, theoretically allowing himself to be exposed to another woman’s marketable, desirable and, for him, purchasable sexuality.
This type of relationship, regardless of its true nature, is risky within the boundaries of purity culture because evangelical Christian men have been taught they must be careful not to be tempted by promiscuous women. Christians also are taught that women (and their bodies) are responsible for what happens if they become a sexual temptress.
This poses a unique problem for Chandler and this woman because, as a married man, it is especially risky for Chandler to be entertaining the sexual market of another woman.
Although he has clarified in statements that this relationship was not sexual in nature, this is not how evangelical Christians who are informed by purity culture’s teachings of transactional sexuality view it. Chandler’s friendship with this woman is inherently scandalized within the church as something that could not possibly be platonic, even if it is as Chandler claims.
Although we have little insight into the two’s friendship, it seems as though this situation is not really about the actual interactions between Chandler and this woman. Rather, it speaks more clearly about how purity culture promotes extreme and hypersexual relationship dynamics between men and women.
Mallory Challis serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. She is a senior at Wingate University.