Let’s Talk About Sexual Ethics ~ Part 2

In Part 1 I introduced the shift that Generous Space has made from a rules-based approach to sexual ethics to a values-centered perspective. Now I want to unpack more specifics about how that takes shape in our community.

Our first retreat six years ago was where I encountered the reality of polyamory in the context of relational, pastoral ministry. Three individuals who were committed to each other in intimate relationship attended the retreat. They were individuals who loved Jesus, in fact two of them were studying with the intention to pursue ordination to Christian ministry. Two things quickly became apparent: these folks belonged in the Generous Space community as beloved siblings in Christ; and we were not sufficiently attuned to know how to cultivate safe space for them to share their lives with the community. This began the journey for me, personally, to listen deeply, with curiosity and compassion, to how they, as Christians brought up in Evangelical environments, arrived at the place of believing that multiple partnerships were blessed by God.

Last week, I had several conversations with those who had attended the QCF conference in Chicago to debrief. One of the things that came up in every conversation was the matter of polyamory. Poly folks had the microphone for the first time in this conference in both breakout sessions and on panels. In a conference that was focused on loving across and beyond our differences in “Love Undivided”, I think the presence of those advocating for polyamory may have been the most divisive element. While some celebrated that finally this was being talked about – others questioned whether this meant that “anything goes” in the sexual ethics of LGBTQ+ Christians. Some feared this would simply reinforce the damaging stereotypes that are decried from anti-gay pulpits, stirring up and perpetuating even more entrenched animus towards the LGBTQ+ community.

In the Generous Space community, we have been making the shift from talking about sexual ethics in a bounded set perspective to a centered set perspective for many years. You can read one of the first posts I wrote about sexual ethics in 2013 here, here, and here (a 3-part series no less) and the precursor to some of my centered set material from 2015 here. I don’t expect anyone to actually go back and read these posts, but I do think it demonstrates that this has been a multi-year process of learning together as a community. These kinds of shifts take time – especially when different people within a diverse community are all at their own places of readiness.

To recap, bounded set ethics set up the rules and regulations that determine who is “in” and who is “out”. Such ethics are about keeping universal rules that are equally applied to everyone, most often from a particular, privileged, majority perspective. A centered set invites people to embrace values that are consistent with their Christian convictions, that contribute to their flourishing, and to then exercise discernment in the decision-making process in alignment with these values. People might share the same value – but interpret the application of that value in distinct ways in their own context. For example, fidelity is a central value Christians embrace as part of a centered set sexual ethic. The question that animates this value is, “Do I keep my commitments?” For the person committed to celibacy, fidelity may have to do to with sexual abstinence. For the person in a monogamous marriage, fidelity may have to do with not engaging in sexual intimacy with anyone other than their spouse. For the polyamorous person, fidelity may have to do with keeping the honest commitments they have proactively made to their partners.

People in a community may disagree with how another person interprets the application of a particular value and may even question whether that falls within the expression of appropriate Christian discipleship. However, in a community where we prioritize Jesus’ confirmation that all of the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the command to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, we recognize love must transcend our disagreements. To be a community that sees our differences not as a problem to fix, but as an opportunity to grow and mature in Christ-likeness, means that we both honour another’s agency to discern how to navigate their journey with God and invite them to do so in relationship where we reflect and discern together. Centered set sexual ethics enables us to keep on having conversation together about the decisions we’re making to steward our sexual lives, even in the midst of people making different choices. As we do this, we get to remind each other of God’s presence in our lives, God’s love for us, and to be attentive to address the things that seem to be barriers in our relationship with God.

In bounded set sexual ethics, repentance is front and center. When you transgress the rules, repentance is the way in which you are re-instated into community. Such repentance is often energized by shame and fear. In centered set sexual ethics, the desire for right relationship with God, with self, and with others is energized by questions like, “Are you flourishing – if not – what is getting in the way?” Sin impedes us from right relationship with God, self, and others – but living in alignment with God’s best intentions for us will result in flourishing. Addressing sin is less about avoiding punishment and more about attuning to the deep inner longing to be in right relationship. This approach helps to dismantle toxic shame. And it helps to put an end to scapegoating.

In these centered set conversations, it is not uncommon for someone to ask, “How is this different from the time of the judges in the Old Testament where “everyone did what was right in their own eyes”?” What is perhaps crucially different is that today we discern in light of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who promised that the Holy Spirit would come to lead us into all truth and righteousness. Today, we have the whole of scripture to consider, the history of the church, with all its mistakes and failures, the canon of reason with all that has been learned about the human race, including the topics of sexuality and gender, and the gift of our own experience and intuition that, despite many of us being warned of our proneness to self-deception, can be a trust-worthy conduit through which the Holy Spirit invites us to choose, risk, and embrace that which will contribute to our flourishing. Today we are no longer a tribal people warring with neighboring nations, we are a people exhorted to love our enemies in the conviction that perfect love will drive out fear and be the way to make and live at peace.

Centered set ethics will, however, challenge our assumptions, expose our privilege, and force us to question the ways we have been socialized to internalize disgust, perpetuate shame, levy judgment, and contribute to exclusion, alienation, oppression, and injustice.

If all that had been taught to God’s people over generations is summarized by the call to love God and love neighbour as yourself, how is it that the Christian church has so internalized the assumption that our interpretation of sexual sin justifies the shaming, shunning, and scapegoating of those deemed unworthy?

An intrinsic aspect of most ethical systems is the commitment to do no harm. And some of the legitimate concern about any sort of shift from a rules-based system is how vulnerable people will be protected. The notion of consent, which forms the most basic building block of justice-based sexual ethics, is connected to this concern. The value of ongoing, enthusiastic consent recognizes that the concept of consent is not static or theoretical but rather an embodied, lived reality in the present moment. Wedding vows do not equal life-long uninhibited consent to whatever one’s partner wants to do and experience sexually. In the context of our commitments, honouring another’s agency to say ‘no’ marks the kind of sexual ethics that center mutuality, respect, and self-emptying love.

Vulnerability is often obscured by the personas we create to present a much more confident, mature, and secure self than we actually experience ourselves to be. Sometimes we say ‘yes’ when, if we truly valued ourselves and listened to what we need and/or want, we would say ‘no.’ Sometimes we try to get someone to like, or even love us, by putting ourselves in situations that won’t actually contribute to our flourishing. Centered set sexual ethics invites each individual to do the, sometimes challenging, internal work of reflection. This work will include identifying when we are energized by the false self and ego need and learning how to live into our true selves, as those who are Beloved and who Belong. This work will include prioritizing the values that most contribute to our particular flourishing and that of those we love. And this work will invite us to know our own capacity and limitations in stewarding our sexual lives.

As an example of this, I’ll share how I respond to those who challenge me on the inclusion of poly folks in our communal reflections on Christian sexual ethics. “In a values-centered approach to sexual ethics, it is not my job to draw the line in the sand by approving or disapproving of poly relationships. I’m not going to get caught up in debating whether scripture, with its numerous examples of plural marriage, is for or against the kinds of poly family arrangements some deeply committed Christians have embraced today. Rather, I want to ask reflection questions that will invite someone to deeply consider what will help them to flourish. For myself, I know that I have such a traumatic pattern of rejection in my early life that I don’t have the capacity to navigate polyamorous relationships in a way that would be life-giving for me. I know that I am too prone to insecurity and jealousy to be able to love well and be loved well with more than one partner. When I encounter, particularly a Christian, who is loving well in a poly situation, I want to be open to hear what God is up to in their life and what truths they are drawing on so that they will flourish – just as I hope they would be open to hear what God is up to in my life, the truths I’m drawing on, and the ways I’m flourishing. And I hope that we would build enough trust between us to also eventually talk about the places where we’re struggling, not flourishing, and be curious together about how we might help each other dismantle those barriers. If, however, either one of us comes into those tender conversations with preconceived assumptions about the right-answer-and-solution to cultivate flourishing, I’m pretty sure that we will do more harm than good.”

All of this will likely sound foreign and potentially heretical to the one committed to a bounded set way of navigating sexual ethics. Whether one believes that ethic should be that all sexual intimacy outside of a one man, one woman life-long marriage is sinful or that sexual intimacy is to be exclusive to a married couple regardless of gender, the idea that people could embrace similar values and commitment to Christ and yet interpret those values differently in their life, is a significant paradigm shift. And even if one is open to exploring the potential of a values-centered approach, such a shift doesn’t happen overnight. In the meantime, young people, those newly out, those in the midst of significant theological reflection, or those who have long embraced a bounded set as the only faithful and obedient way to be a disciple of Jesus, may need clear boundaries to feel safe – both in their own lives and to be able to experience a sense of belonging in community.

Interestingly, I have to wonder if this isn’t another opportunity to reflect on Paul’s words to the diverse mix of Jesus-followers in Rome. “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all ove