Monday, February 05, 2007

Further Thoughts On Sexuality And Church

Recently I’ve written a couple of posts on sexuality, and have had positive feedback from several people who have said that it has helped them to wrestle with the issue. I recognise that sexuality is a pastorally sensitive issue; that the relationship between Christian faith and homosexuality is particularly (and, in my opinion, unhelpfully) charged at the moment; and I recognise the wisdom of those who feel it is best to hold back from expressing their views on an issue that has, perhaps, been blown out of proportion in importance. But perhaps it is the very fact that sexuality has been blown out of proportion that means that we have to address it. And perhaps the current over-emphasis on homosexuality within church dialogue (both internal, and with society) needs addressing, too. Personally, I believe that addressing has to be done through a combination of personal reflection and communal discussion; arriving at plans as to how we shall live, that may be provisional but in which we are nonetheless holding each other accountable to act in a manner that is consistent with those plans. Therefore I have decided to add this further post, in which I will try to set out where I find myself at this point. Though I generally prefer a narrative approach to theological reflection, on this occasion I shall make a series of statements. What follows is long, and wide-ranging; but is not intended to be exhaustive, nor especially systematic.

a) I believe that every aspect of our being has been broken, in some way or other, as a result of humanity’s decision to act in opposition to God’s expressed will for our lives; as symbolically expressed through the decision of our first representatives, recorded in the first chapters of the Bible.

b) I believe that for each one of us, our sexuality is broken; and that that brokenness is expressed in a variety of ways. I believe that the Bible records some examples of the ways in which sexual brokenness is expressed (though not every possible example), in the forms of prohibitive statements and of narratives that show the consequences of acting out of our brokenness. The examples of sexual brokenness recorded in the Bible are not necessarily considered to be examples of sexual brokenness in every culture; and may be seen as neutral or even desirable in certain cultures. For example, I live in a culture that has a ‘neutral or desirable’ view of adultery, and of same-sex sexual relationships.

c) I believe that our brokenness falls short of the wholeness God intended and hopes for our lives, as those made in God’s image to share in God’s wholeness; and that therefore we can rightly describe our inherent brokenness as ‘sinful nature’ (‘sin’ literally meaning ‘falling short,’ as in an arrow that fails to reach the target), and the actions that result from our brokenness as ‘sins’ (attempts that fall short).

d) I believe that denying our brokenness – whether by calling it ‘not broken,’ or by hiding from others those things in ourselves that we consider broken in others – only serves to further break us.

e) I believe that God longs to bind up the broken-hearted: which I understand to mean, God can hold our broken nature together so closely, so intimately, that we are able to live as though we were whole. I believe that as we (increasingly) admit to our brokenness, and allow God to hold us, we experience (increasing) wholeness.

f) I believe that it is wrong to require that those who do not claim to live in relationship with Christ should live according to the same values as those who do. I believe that the ‘moral norms’ of Christendom, imposed upon culture, served to strengthen the tendency in all of us to hide our brokenness; and also to obscure our need for wholeness, our need to be made whole. I believe that this was unintentional, and deeply ironic; but I am glad that we find ourselves in a post-Christendom context.

g) I believe that, in response to humanity’s commitment to calling brokenness ‘wholeness,’ God has chosen to give humanity over to the consequences of this commitment: brokenness upon brokenness. I believe that God has done so in the hope that we will wake up to the condition in which we find ourselves, and turn (back) to him. But, I also believe that if this is what God has chosen, then when Christians seek to oppose the choices of society – such as legislation that confers the name ‘wholeness’ on brokenness – we may in fact be guilty of opposing God’s decision (as unintentionally and ironically as Christendom – which perhaps such Christians are hoping for a return to). In the specific context of early C21st Britain, I believe that Christians who lobby Government in opposition to civil partnerships and other anti-discrimination legislation (which differs from requesting that Christians have the freedom under law to live differently) fall into this trap.

h) I believe that a lifestyle of habitually behaving out of our brokenness and habitually calling brokenness ‘wholeness’ – as opposed to a lifestyle of habitually wrestling with our brokenness and habitually asking God for grace to overcome, and grace to be restored when we succumb – is incompatible with a life of orthodox Christian discipleship. Regarding sexuality, I believe that same-sex sexual relationships are one of various expressions of sexuality that are incompatible with orthodox Christian discipleship.

i) I believe that we act out of brokenness (that is, we sin) when we consider the brokenness of others to be greater, or of greater seriousness, than our own: whether we consider sexual brokenness to be greater than other areas in which we are broken; or particular expressions of sexual brokenness to be greater than others. Sadly, I believe that the Church, as community of broken individuals and institution, is guilty of this sin – in particular in relation to those whose sexual brokenness is not manifest primarily or fully in opposite-sex desire – and needs to repent.

j) I believe that in order to honestly identify-with and reflect humanity’s brokenness, and model God’s redemptive restoration to wholeness, the Church needs leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards same-sex relationships as much as the Church needs leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards heterosexual promiscuity (I suspect, the vast majority of church leaders; myself included).

k) I believe that the Church should be a community where it is safe for leaders to be honest about their brokenness, including specific forms of brokenness – safe enough that they can repent of acting out of that brokenness, when they do, and be restored to the community, including the possibility of retaining their position of leadership; and safe enough for their families. If this is not the case, such honesty, vulnerability, and love is not modelled for the community; and, indeed, secrecy, defensiveness, and hate are endorsed. The Church needs to be a safe place for leaders whose brokenness manifests itself primarily or partially in same-sex desire; and for leaders whose brokenness manifests itself primarily or partially in opposite-sex desire. Sadly, I do not believe that the Church, in general, is a safe place for leaders, regardless of the specific nature of their sexual brokenness.

Though I have given these views some reflection, they are essentially a snap-shot of where I am right now. However, I believe them to be located within orthodox Christian belief, while seeking to be more generous in orthopraxy than the Church has often been. Feel free to disagree with me, strongly if necessarily; but please respect my right to place myself here, at least for now.

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  1. i've only read points a) to f) and am now having a break. but thus far i concur.

  2. finally got round to reading the rest of the post. what do you mean by "the Church needs leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards same-sex relationships...&...leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards heterosexual promiscuity"?

  3. Okay, I'll try to explain.

    As a tactic of satan, temptation most often seeks to exploit the particular biases of our brokenness, because it is more likely to succeed that way. Take the temptation to over-eat, to the point of health problems. Personally, I'm more likely to give in to the temptation to eat sweet things than savoury things; to have a fat- and sugar-rich dessert, and go back for a second helping. I'm not 100% that way inclined, but, I'm more likely to overeat sweet foods.

    For some people - in the population as a whole; in the church as a whole; and among church leaders - the nature of their sexual brokenness is such that they face the temptation to commit heterosexual adultery. For others the temptation is to a homosexual sexual relationship. But a person is not necessarily 100% "straight" or 100% "gay" - brokenness is more complex than that! So, people face a complex manner of temptation. That's why I use the phrase "results in or includes a bias towards".

    I believe that church leaders have a pastoral responsibility to those struggling with their sexual brokenness. We need to make it clear that no inherent brokenness excludes people from God's grace - or from being a leader in the church, for that matter - and that God can empower us to withstand any temptation (as Jesus teaches us to ask), and forgive and restore us when we give in to any temptation. It is hard enough to admit to our brokenness, let alone to those times when we give in to it: if we believe that our church leaders have no idea what it is like to face the temptations we face, it becomes even harder.

    By the grace of God, I have never been sexually unfaithful to my wife. But I have been tempted to adultery with other women, at least at the level of fantasy. That means that I can identify with the temptation as others face it (and they can identify with me), and extend the gospel of hope that in Jesus such temptation can be overcome.

    Where the church presents the message that in order to be a leader you need to be heterosexual and beyond sexual temptation (or at least able to pretend that this is the case), that is bad news for leaders and bad news for those they lead.

    It is bad news for leaders because it sets them up for a fall. And it is bad news for everyone else because it excludes many potentially very good leaders; and because it denies the reality of what they face, and therefore the possibility of being transformed into Christ's likeness.

  4. "I believe that God longs to bind up the broken-hearted: which I understand to mean, God can hold our broken nature together so closely, so intimately, that we are able to live as though we were whole."

    I like this idea. We are broken apart by sin, yet God holds us together in His power and ability. Through this we are able to live, serve, rejoice, and breathe like our sickness was well.