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