“How do you disciple people in the area of sexual behaviour in generous space communities?”
The joy and challenge of cultivating generous space communities is a lack of rigid boundaries and cold-hearted lines in the sand that determine who is in and who is out. But inevitably, I am asked the question, “How far does generous spaciousness go?” This query is often asked in terms of sexual morality. Given the church’s history of fear and shame connected with anything sexual, the years of worry about moral relativism and the infamous slippery slope, and the assumption that “anything goes” in the LGBTQ+ community, it isn’t so surprising that people feel the need to have clarity about sexual ethics and how they are expressed within our communities.
As my team and I have reflected on the growth in our generous space groups (a dozen currently running with another ten in the wings preparing to launch), we have experienced the tensions that arise when discerning how to articulate sexual ethics in these contexts. It has been my contention that sexual morality is not the determining factor in whether someone participates and experiences belonging in a generous space community. This is true for several reasons:
First, LGBTQ+ people have so often been reduced to their genitalia and sex acts in church discussions. This is dehumanizing and disrespectful. And it isn’t something I want anyone to encounter when what they’re most often looking for is a place where their reality as an LGBTQ+ person can be fully integrated with their faith and spiritual journey.
Second, many LGBTQ+ people have been hurt and alienated from church communities because the boundaries were explicitly based on whether they were or weren’t dating someone of the same sex. These boundaries were often experienced as double standards in light of the premarital sex, co-habitation, infidelity, and divorce that the heterosexual majority struggled through but were not shunned or expelled for.
Thirdly, belonging in community should be drawn from what unifies and energizes the group not from what the group is against or opposed to.
Finally, when sin management is the primary focus of discipleship, individualism, hiding and masks, fear as motivation, and shame as control become pervasive. These were not to be the markers of generous spaciousness. Rather, generous space communities seek to cultivate discipleship that is relational and shared, that invites honesty and authenticity, builds trust, and seeks to be energized by love. It is our hope that generous space communities become judgmentalism-free zones.
This is reflected in the questions that we ask someone who expresses interest in checking out our generous space groups.
Do you understand that this is a community seeking to explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ?
Are you willing to listen deeply to others, resisting the urge to persuade everyone else to think and believe just like you do?
Will you commit to doing your best to do no harm within the community – and work towards restoration and reconciliation whenever needed?
I think these questions reflect important priorities.
Dialogue and process over debate and conclusions.
Non-violent peace-making community.
Generous space is also animated by the four core values of humility, hospitality, mutuality, and justice. When questionable ideas, practices, or decisions arise in the group, these values help the community explore whether what has been introduced is consistent with the vision the community seeks to embody.
But what about sex? Our bodies and what we do with them matters and impacts our whole being and our presence in community. So if we don’t want to draw lines in the sand and exclude people because of their beliefs about and engagement in sexual activity, does that mean sexual ethics don’t matter? The reality is that people in our communities reflect on and discern differently on these matters. Some people are committed to celibacy as their best understanding of how to live a faithful life as a queer person. Some are open to being in same-sex relationships but up-front about their intention to reserve sexual intimacy for marriage. Some are sexually active within committed partnerships (which was the only legal option until more recently). Some, in light of their theological reflections and commitment to Christ, express self-emptying love and build a home with more than one partner. People may have different ideas and convictions about topics like masturbation, erotica, or fantasy.
Given that we have people from many different backgrounds, these differences aren’t really that surprising. And, they are probably more common in the average church than most pew sitters would expect. In most churches, however, there is a well-preserved code of silence about these matters. In generous space communities, these aren’t the primary matters of dialogue, but they aren’t off-limits for conversation either. This is the joy and the challenge of honest, authentic, and fearless community that is radically hospitable and doesn’t view difference as a problem to fix but as an opportunity for growth. Learning to respond with love rather than react with fear or shame is one of the good fruits in our community – one that is vital. It’s about learning to see people as Beloved, even when their opinions or experiences make you anxious or angry or offended. Learning to entrust each other to the leading, guiding, and correcting of the Holy Spirit isn’t the easy way out, but an intentional and prayerful act of relinquishing control and growing in confident trust in God. All of these things birth maturity and the sense of a community that is real and safe.
We recognize in our generous space communities both the autonomy of the individual to clarify, own, and then live consistently with their sexual ethics, and the call into community, where we recognize that we flourish when interdependent and willing to engage in shared discernment.
The following questions may help to clarify both individual and communal discernment regarding our sexual ethics:
Expression of our sexuality is to be life-giving in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others.
In the beliefs, values, and practices that you are developing regarding your sexuality, is your relationship with God flourishing?
Is your life open to God without hiddenness or shame?
Are you flourishing in your acceptance of yourself?
Do you feel like you are more and more able to be your true self, discarding personas and self-protective walls?
Are you able to experience the healing, the rest, and the confidence of being Beloved of God?
Are your relationships with others flourishing?
Are you dignifying those around you?
Do you find yourself growing in your capacity for self-emptying love for others?
Are you growing in giving and receiving trust?
Expression of our sexuality is to reflect the image of God. The persons of the Trinity share this incredible union and yet are distinct persons.
Are we honouring of those we are in intimate relationship with?
Do we long to see the other grow, fulfill their calling, be unimpeded in partnering with God?
Are we vulnerable, honest, and deeply connected to the other?
Are we attuned to the way power is shared, given, received, relinquished, and embodied in our relationships?
Expression of our sexuality is to be marked by fidelity.
Do we keep our commitments?
Do we persevere, pursue reconciliation and restoration?
Do the ones we love feel safe and secure in their relationship with us?
Do we embrace fidelity as a gift that humanizes us?
Do we recognize how the fidelity in our relationship impacts the community?
Generous space communities celebrate unity in our diversity without expectation of uniformity. We encourage people to ask questions, perhaps even questioning long-held assumptions that have never been examined. We desire that each individual would embrace in the core of their being that they are Beloved of God. In response to this true identity, we seek to dignify and honour each other as part of the Beloved community. We believe that such love and such commitment will draw us closer to God’s heart – including in the arena of our sexuality and intimate relationships. Building on God’s own recognition, before sin even entered the world, “It is not good for the human being to be alone,” we encourage deep connection, opportunities to know and be known, and break down the dividing walls that keep us isolated, defensive, and disengaged.
And for those who might protest that we haven’t said much of anything about sin or confession or the need to repent, be assured that in following Jesus, those who find belonging in generous space communities respond to the nudges and promptings of the Holy Spirit to dismantle and put away that which causes them to miss the mark, feel separated from God, or damages the shalom we seek, as an essential and consistent rhythm in the life of a disciple of Christ.
In all of these things, we rely on the presence of the living God to energize our best intentions and lead us into life, abundant life.