Sexual Ethics & Generous Spaciousness: Part 1

I have decided to take another paper that I wrote for my doctoral program and break it down into several parts for the blog.  I have tried to make it a bit more readable – but it will likely still feel a bit academic.  I hope, however, that it will cause people to think and start some robust conversations.

Part 2 | Part 3

Ethical reflection within a framework of faith in Jesus Christ is appropriately an evolving practice.  Christians who truly seek to follow the way of Christ will recognize that this way is never static or formulaic.  The way of Christ is always contextual and always open to the ongoing revelation of God’s story in our day and in our time.  Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit who would continue to reveal, lead and guide his followers.  That this impacts our ethical reflection should come as no surprise or threat to those who recognize that this truth we seek to embody in our Christian faith is found in a person, not a proposition, and found through dynamic relationship, not rigid laws.

If this is the case with ethics in general, it is all the more so when it comes to reflection on sexual ethics.  God’s interaction with people through the stories revealed from Genesis to Revelation presents a variety of sexual mores, customs and practices.  The Biblical witness fails to present one permanent, universal sexual ethic.  Walter Wink says, “The Bible has no sexual ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history.  The Bible only knows a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.”[1]

Many who profess Christian faith, however, do proclaim one sexual ethic.  It can be summarized as the conviction that marriage is to be between one man and one woman for life, marriage is the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy, and any sexual expression outside of this context is immoral.  This sexual ethic has been the backdrop for the shaming, exclusion and marginalized status of those who are single, divorced, or outside of the heterosexual majority.

Human beings, unique in all of creation, were created in the image of God.  They were created out of the outpouring of self-giving love flowing from the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The image of God, therefore, is essentially relational and expressed through love.  This draw to intimacy is an intrinsic part of being human.  And unlike the angels, human beings were created with an embodied reality.  Our bodies matter.  And it is through our bodies that the image of God, this draw to relational, loving intimacy is expressed.  All humans are sexual beings.   All humans seek to overcome aloneness, the one thing the Creator deemed “not good” in the perfect creation, through embodied expression of relational love.  “Sexual love, like all love, gives rise to and is the ground of desire – for fuller union with, and greater affirmation of, the beloved.”[2]The question that arises with the traditional expression of a Christian sexual ethic is that it fails to consider the implications of this image of God for those who do not find themselves in a life-long marriage with a spouse of the opposite gender.  God’s movement towards creation is always particular and distinct.  God counts the hairs on our heads, he knows us by name.  Jesus exemplified living by the spirit, not the letter, of the law.  Jesus discerned the application of God’s word in each unique circumstance never relying on stereotypes or generalizations.  This is especially critical to bear in mind when considering the implications of gender and sexuality in ethical reflection in the Christian context given the history of patriarchy throughout the Christian tradition.  As an example,  James Nelson captures both the strength and weakness of Karl Barth’s theology of marriage saying, “The two-fold strengths of Barth’s approach are indeed of central importance:  that we are created not as solitary selves but as beings-in-relationship, destined for communion; and that sexuality is intrinsic to and not accidental to our capacity for such co-humanity….. Either his interpretation of the image of God makes a woman’s humanity crucially dependent upon her husband’s masculinity and the husband’s upon his wife’s femininity, or it makes their humanity dependent upon heterosexual genital intercourse, or both.  In so doing, Barth’s interpretation subtly but surely rests on either sex role stereotypes or on the genitalization of sexuality, and probably on both.  And in so doing it unfortunately has squarely linked the doctrine of the image of God with the alienated dimensions of our sexuality.”[3]

In today’s context, there is greater familiarity with the reality of individuals who experience enduring orientation to be emotionally, spiritually, relationally and sexually completed by someone of their own sex.  While there continue to be many unanswered questions and much complexity concerning sexual orientation and gender expression, what is clear is that there are children of God who are drawn to image their Maker through covenanted relationship with someone of their own sex.   As Christians from a variety of theological backgrounds learn through relationship with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals, there is much diversity in perspective on the question of whether or not gay marriage is an appropriate expression of Christian discipleship.  The traditional sexual ethic perpetuates polarity and enmity among Christians through its insistence of one permanent and established ethic as the only correct way to interpret and engage the Biblical witness.  Faithfulness requires openness to continue to wrestle with the implications of Scripture, tradition, reason, and lived experience in the ongoing construction of sexual ethics that can serve the reality of a diverse Body of Christ.

The question of gay marriage for Christians is one that impacts Christ-followers throughout the world whether they are queer or not.  Just as God is in essence relational, human beings are created interdependently.  Desmond Tutu has said it well when explaining the concept of ubuntu, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.”[4]  If the church is not able to openly consider the development of sexual ethics that include the reality of our LGBT sisters and brothers, the church continues its participation in the exclusion and marginalization of gender and sexual minority individuals.  Such exclusion, as imperceptible as it may seem to some, erodes the capacity of the church to celebrate and nurture human wholeness and flourishing.  It is true, of course, that human beings do not need to experience sexual intercourse to live a full life.  Jesus modeled that well.  Farley says, “To say that we are incomplete in ourselves does not mean that we are “halves” of persons who will be “whole” only when we find our gendered complement.  We may indeed long for union with another, for a kind of wholeness that comes from both a profound love and a sharing of our lives.  Gender by itself has never guaranteed we will find what we seek.”[5]  A question to be grappled with is whether the traditional sexual ethic adequately considers the legitimate need to experience the companionship, belonging, establishment of family, and intimacy that covenanted relationships offer to all, regardless of sexual orientation.  Sexual ethics that deeply consider and honour the humanity of gender and sexual minority individuals is essential for human flourishing in our churches and communities.

The perception that traditional church teaching excludes queer people from intimate relationships is an incredible barrier to the development of mature faith for all who are or know and love LGBT people.  Many individuals I speak with cannot necessarily theologically explain why this sense of injustice overrides fear of God or the church, but it is sufficiently powerful for them to walk away from established Christianity.  It is my assertion that human beings, through God’s gift of natural revelation, know something of God’s relational character and balk at the thought of a group of people seemingly arbitrarily being excluded from this essential life experience.  Literalist interpretive justification such as, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” carries very little weight to those who in their gut believe that excluding LGBT people from the potential for covenanted, consummated love is intrinsically unjust and inconsistent with a belief that God is love. “The biblical witness, in particular, claims to present truths that will heal us, make us whole; that will free us, not enslave us to what violates our very sense of truth and justice…. As a revelation of truth, it asks for something less like a submission of will and more like an opening of the imagination – and hence the whole mind and heart.  In its own terms, then, it cannot be believed unless it “rings true” to our deepest capacity for truth and goodness.”[6]  Christians are called to address their internal anxiety and enter the dialogue about just and inclusive sexual ethics because it is a matter that is deeply maligning Christian witness and impeding the resonance of what seems true and good with the perceived expression of the Christian religion.

Grappling with the question of gay marriage for Christians exposes power structures and misuse of status and privilege that is rampant within the church.  When one considers the perspicuity of Scripture, it is clear that God’s story demonstrates that there is a way for all of creation to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.  It is also clear that God calls humanity to join in the work of ensuring shalom for all, creating an environment of justice where all can flourish.  The Incarnation demonstrates God’s strategy of stripping power and privilege to undo the powers and principalities that undermine and oppose God’s justice and love for the world.  This power of powerlessness reveals the movement towards reconciliation and redemption of all things.  Engaging in reflection on the ethical question of gay marriage quickly reveals where privilege and power have become entrenched strongholds that are impeding the church from fulfilling its call to be a blessing for the common good.

Finally, ethical reflection on gay marriage will reveal the reality of diversity in our Christian community.  When one considers the sources that undergird ethical reflection, it is not difficult to see why there would be such diverse perspectives.  Our engagement with Scripture from exegesis through to hermeneutics is based on differing frameworks and different priorities.  Consideration of tradition may emphasize various streams of thought.  In the area of reason, there are many competing theories about the formation and construction of sexuality from such disciplines as biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. And the arena of experience is afforded different weight and is itself, incredibly diverse.  Such diversity is a given.  The expectation that Christian ethical reflection will lead to uniformity in the expression of sexual ethics is unhelpful.  Rather, the construction of a framework of sexual ethics that will be of practical use to Christians in a pluralistic context will anticipate and acknowledge this reality of diversity.  Sexual ethics that only communicate an ideal will be of little communal use where the navigation of disagreement is a given.

In the following posts, I will seek to reflect on a sexual ethics of generous spaciousness.  The articulation of this framework prioritizes the interdependence of our human communal life, the consideration of the public witness of the church, the call to a strategy of incarnational powerlessness, and the acknowledgment of the diversity in perspectives within the church.  As an advocate for the flourishing of life and faith among LGBT sisters and brothers, it is my hope that a sexual ethics of generous spaciousness will encourage and affirm their deepest humanity as they find themselves in diverse communities.