Monday, 25 January 2016

Thoughts on Sexuality

I have been asked by a number of people about what I think about same sex relationships. It has come up in diocesan talks. The Primate’s meeting has put restrictions on the Episcopal Church (USA) for changing their marriage canon. So it has been in the news. I also recently came from a diocese that allowed our bishop to grant permission to clergy to bless civilly married same sex couples, and I was present for many of those discussions. One thing needs to be said on the front- love is always to define us as Christians. Regardless of what “side” we land on, our decision has to come from a place of love.
The following is not my attempt to solve anything. What you will find are questions that I’m asking and some of the ways I’m trying to seek a way forward. I want to always be open to what God might be saying and so that means also listening to what others are saying. So this is a growing and morphing thought process. In some ways I’d rather not say anything. This is such a divisive issue that it can define you in some peoples’ eyes. Not making your position known is sometimes a valid place to be.  

The Anglican Church is continuing its discussions regarding same sex sexuality and is considering whether or how to bless such unions. On this issue the church is in a crucible of desire and Scripture. The church is in the heat trying to find a way to bring union between the two.
Origins of Desire:
What is the place of personal experience in ethics? Most of us have experiences with people who are attracted to the same sex. For many of us these are friends and family members we love very much. We experience them to be good people that make positive contributions to our lives and to society in general. What place do these experiences have in the ethics of sexuality? In what way might we consider same sex relationships wrong? On what basis, and why? Some things seem wrong for obvious reasons. Theft, for example, causes damage to people’s lives. In what way could these relationships be considered wrong? And what role does Scripture play in all this? 

It has become obvious that some people are attracted to people of the same sex in a way that is difficult for them to deny or control. In general, most do not feel called to celibacy and want to have a committed relationship.  Many desire validation from society and the church by recognizing this relationship as equally as valid as heterosexual marriage.
 For more information about the causes of sexual orientation see:
It should be said that the scientific research on this topic has not revealed a “gay gene”. For example, there have been studies on identical twins who share the same DNA. One twin can be gay and the other straight. Sociological and psychological factors also play a major role in determining if a person will be sexually attracted to the same sex. Researchers at the moment are leaning towards biological factors as being the stronger cause. Regardless of how this desire arises within an individual, they find it very difficult to deny this side of themselves once this desire has been formed in them. Programs designed to “make gay people straight” are notoriously unsuccessful.

Because this sexual desire is viewed as such an established and permanent sexuality it is sometimes spoken about as analogous to an ethnicity. This has brought in language of social justice and comparisons have been made to the Civil Rights movement, where African Americans struggled to be viewed as equally valued in a segregated society. The issue has become framed in an absolute moral way as a minority people group desiring freedom and equality in the midst of an oppressive system.

Desire is often more complicated than we want to admit. Our culture tends to divide people into gay-bi-straight. The diversity of sexuality is broadened a bit by the acronym LGBTQ, which recognizes not only same sex attraction, but also the felt conflict between one’s biological sex and the gender one identifies with. I think that this is complicated more by anecdotal experiences of many of us who know people who transition from one form of sexuality to another- straight to gay, and gay to straight. There is also a “polyfam” movement that includes more than just two people in a long term committed relationship that involves sexual relations between all members in the relationship. Needless to say, the issue of sexuality in our culture is much more complicated than “are you gay or straight?”       

There are reasons this question is at the forefront of our minds at this point in time and primarily in North America and Europe. We have had cultural shifts that have moved the sources of authority. (For more on this cultural shifting see the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, especially “A Secular Age”). Our culture has given minorities greater moral authority and voice and has become much more sensitive to the pain of minorities who have often been mistreated. Our postmodern culture has also given personal experience a greater amount of authority. “This is true for me” is an almost unquestionable authoritative phrase in our culture. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the advancement of contraceptive technologies has led to our view of sexuality being drastically altered. No longer do we view sex as a means of procreation. Sex is now recreation. Pregnancy can be considered a negative and unwanted consequence of such recreational activity- Like a sprained ankle as a consequence of playing basketball. Sexuality has become about personal recreation. The main sexual ethics come from consent. Does your sexual partner act willingly, and are they at an age that we believe they are mature enough to give consent? We also value exclusive commitments. If you are in an exclusive relationship you should not have a sexual relationship outside of that relationship without your partner’s consent. But, the violation of the exclusive relationship through adultery doesn’t deem one a criminal. It is considered a private (rather than social) matter. So we should recognize that the conversation we are having has a historical momentum, without which we would not be having the conversation. Other areas of the world do not have this historical momentum, so we should be careful about labeling people with a different history and worldview as “less enlightened” or “less evolved”.

How are we to make any sense of this? With the quickly shifting culture, and uncertainty around how sexuality works, and deconstructionism making us question what we think we know (especially around the history of relationships, and what “gender” is), it can be fairly overwhelming to try to understand this. It can be difficult to figure out what it true. What is at the very heart of the matter? What are the assumptions we bring into the discussion? By what method do we determine what is true? What is truth (Jn 18:38)?

Some (like the theologian James Allison) would say that we have discovered something new about humanity. There is a majority sexuality, but also a minority sexuality. In the past our culture assumed the majority sexuality (heterosexuality) was also the moral sexuality. It considered the minority sexuality to be deviant and immoral. But, says Allison, we have now discovered that there is variety among us, which is not about morality. Morality is a factor within heterosexuality and homosexuality (i.e. Gender is irrelevant. What matters is are we faithful and loving to our partner with whom we are in relationship).

Others wonder about putting personal desire on such a pedestal. How do we determine which desires are to be recognized and blessed? For example, what about a married man that finds it very difficult to be faithful to one woman, and still desires to have a family. Might we say that his desire is a natural biological one that should not be restrained? Might we say that there is a “polygamous sexuality”? Why is monogamy more important than gender? Our tendency at the moment would be to say that such a man has psychological or relational problems, but isn’t that what was said of LGBTQ people when it was considered an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders a little over 40 years ago? On what do we base our sexual ethics? How do we determine which desires are to be blessed? I can’t imagine mere biology to be enough. Surely we see all kinds of behaviors in creation that we would not encourage others to “go and do likewise”. How do we recognize a genuine moral minority sexuality? There are plenty of desires that should not be indulged in. Who gets to decide which desires should be blessed and which are to be resisted? And, on what basis?

Understanding Scripture:
The other factor in the crucible is Scripture. People can sometimes think that Christians are obsessed with sex because they seem to be constantly (and passionately) talking about it. I want to suggest that the present issue really exposes an underlying issue, which is how we understand Scripture as Christians. How is it authoritative?  

While there is some disagreement about the details, whenever same sex sexuality is mentioned in scripture is it in a negative light.  
See a great article on this by a former professor of mine, Terry Donaldson:

Some will then say, “Well the Bible says a lot of things that we no longer take seriously”. How can we take it to be authoritative?  This is when we get into what is called “hermeneutics”, which is the method we use to interpret Scripture.

Some will ignore these verses entirely as part of a by-gone era and culture. They will instead rely on general scriptural principals of justice, love, and a trajectory of the Bible that pointed towards greater equality and generosity towards all people. But that is only one hermeneutical understanding. Others will agree with an emphasis on justice, love and liberation for the oppressed, but they will hold a different stance on the present issue of sexuality.  How do we determine a good and true hermeneutic from a bad and false hermeneutic?

There are a variety of kinds of hermeneutics. Below I’ll describe the way I tend to interpret Scripture. For those who use a more traditional hermeneutic they continue to see scripture as being the word of God and as being foundational to who we are as Christians and also want to genuinely seek to live faithfully to it. Those factors aren’t necessarily exclusive to a traditional hermeneutic- all Christians want to be faithful. All want to have some relationship with Scripture (though they may disagree about its authority and interpretation). A traditional hermeneutic will attempt to allow the historic church to have some say in our understanding of Scripture. The ‘plain sense’ of Scripture is often given greater weight. And a desire to be shaped by Scripture as the Word of God is present. A traditional interpretation may invoke the “three-legged stool”, whereby Scripture is given primary place as the first leg. If something is said plainly in the canon of Scripture then our job is to shape our lives accordingly. If something is unclear in the Bible, then we invoke the second leg of the stool which is “Tradition”. Our spiritual ancestors (especially the saints) tried to shape their lives according to Scripture by the leading of the Holy Spirit. So, while Scripture might be silent (or unclear) on a matter it is likely that the Tradition has some wisdom to give the community. If Scripture is silent (or unclear) and the Tradition is silent (or unclear), then we move on to the third leg of the stool, which is “reason”. This is a specific understanding of reason. This is the reason of a mind that has been shaped by being immersed in Scripture and formed by the spiritual Traditions of the church. Through prayer and by the invocation of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit we attempt to discern an answer on the issue that stands before the community. This isn’t always as easy or clear as it might sound.       

Another important issue in Hermeneutics is to help us to put the piece of Scripture into the broader frame of the Bible and theology. A traditional hermeneutic will recognize that the Bible is a story that progresses through time with Jesus Christ being the pinnacle of God’s revelation of who God is and what it means to live a faithful life (see Article 20 or the 39 Articles of Religion in the BCP: ). If Jesus is the pinnacle, then Jesus also becomes the lens by which we read the rest of the Bible. In a sense, we put on “Jesus glasses” as we read the Bible and are always seeking to understand the Bible in relation to his words and character. This means we cannot “proof text” by taking a piece of scripture out of context to prove our point. That piece of scripture has to be understood and interpreted by its place in the bigger story and based on the bigger theological and ethical principles. This means that we don’t throw out pieces of scripture as a part of a by-gone era, nor do we read it as if it has no context. We read it as a part of the story, while recognizing we are a people of this story. How does that part of the story speak to us in our part of the story?   

(There are other issues as well, but I would like to keep this somewhat brief. For example, we take care to read it according to its genre, so we don't read poetry as if it was a newspaper article.)  

For some they will try to “look behind” the plain meaning of the scripture towards the divine motivation that brought about the text. For example, marriage was extremely important in ancient Israel. It was the means by which one produced children which would inherit the land. To not produce children was a shameful thing. The expectation was that everyone would marry and have children. Perhaps homosexuality was viewed as an extramarital issue. A man or woman was having a sexual relationship outside of the marriage, which was adultery. Could it be that biblical warnings about homosexuality are really warning against adultery? If this is true then monogamous life-long same sex sexual relationships are really not what the Bible is talking about. Presumably what lies "behind" the commands of Scripture is God's safeguarding of His people. What is God protecting His people from? The lack of clarity around the motivation for the prohibition regarding same sex sexuality makes this very puzzling.  This is a dangerous game in some ways. It is speculation. It can be that we have already arrived at our conclusion before we ever begin seeking the Divine will on the topic and then try to interpret the scripture in a way to agree with the conclusion we have already brought to the text. It may be that the Bible is universally negative towards same sex sexuality because it is considered to be contrary to the created order. Sexual organs are meant to fit with other sexual organs. Sperm and egg are joined to produce children (often this is called Natural Theology). It is not a culturally popular interpretation, but are we prepared to accept it if it is the most honest understanding of Scripture within the best hermeneutic? How do we determine the ‘best’ and ‘most faithful’ hermeneutic?

This issue is complicated by past controversial decisions. For example, remarriage of divorced people. The Bible plainly condemns divorce and remarriage (with a few exceptions made for sexual unfaithfulness). In our culture we have a massive divorce rate. Often clergy don’t blink when asked to marry people who have been divorced. If a question arises in their mind it usually has more to do with psychological factors relating to the potential success of the proposed marriage, rather than the biblical ethics of such an action. The church felt it was unfair to “condemn” divorced people to a life of celibacy, and that divorce was a “forgivable sin”. Concession was made for that population in the face of the Biblical text (the plain sense of Scripture makes divorce and remarriage very difficult- Matt 19:1-10). Of course hermeneutics allowed for a reinterpretation of the text. Our culture is different from that of the Bible’s. If we “look behind” the plain reading of the text we might see Jesus’ desire to protect women who could be divorced for any reason and were often then doomed to live in poverty. Condemning divorce in Jesus’ culture was good for women. In our culture, divorce is sometimes good for women, especially if they are living in an abusive relationship. Again, we are on shaky ground here because we are looking “behind the text” and making assumptions about motives. It is speculation.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship refers to the text where Jesus tells the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to follow him (Mark 10). In referring to the way in which we try to wiggle out of obeying a command he says,
            "When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'".

So while we might cleverly come up with a motivation behind the plain words of the Bible, we should also be careful that we are not attempting to merely make the Bible submit to our will. We need to think seriously about our basis for making ethical decisions. In this particular case we are often trying to argue backwards from a gut feeling (positive or negative) regarding the experiences we have had with people attracted to the same sex. Shouldn’t we, rather, argue from a holistic sexual theology that can help us make decisions not only on this issue, but on other sexual and relational issues as well?  

We should recognize that we are called to be countercultural. We are people of the kingdom rather than people of “the world” (Jn 17:16; Rom 12:2). So there are times when we will stand against the decisions of the broader culture. There are also times when the people of God walked off the path set by God and prophets were sent to call them back before disaster fell on them.    

            We should also recognize that the Holy Spirit can guide us into unexpected places. It would have seemed obvious that for Gentiles to become Christians that they should also become, in a sense, Jewish. Gentiles should be circumcised (as Jesus and all his disciples were). To be welcomed into the covenant of Abraham meant to receive the mark of that covenant, and also to follow the guidance of the Law of Moses. Surprisingly, Gentiles were invited into the church without requiring them to receive the mark of circumcision, or following much of the Law (Acts 15). So the Holy Spirit often can act in unexpected ways.     

We should also recognize that the Bible says we are in a “fallen” state. We are not as we should be. Our hearts can deceive us (Jer 17:9). John Calvin once said, “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” In some ways, from a Christian point of view, we should be highly suspicious of our desires. However, we have to be careful with this too. What do we do with our desire for God? Or a desire to read the Bible? Or a desire to help those in need? Surely not all human desires are wicked, though we should be discerning and suspicious of our desires at times.         
That being said, all are agreed that there are people in pain. People who feel same sex attraction have been mistreated. It is painful to be rejected. It is painful to try to resist such desires, especially in our sex saturated culture. The response of the church needs to be a loving response, even if disagreeing with particulars of sexuality. Christian truth cannot be spoken in a hateful voice. Having this discussion means we are talking about people not abstract concepts. We should take it seriously that this feels like an established fact about their identity that is not deniable nor changeable.     

My hope would be that what I’ve written will provide some talking points. Of course everyone and anyone is welcome to disagree with what I’ve said. I hope that doesn’t get in the way of our relationship.  

1 comment:

  1. Chris, this is an excellent work and very fitting for this time on our church's history. Thank you for this.


Follow @RevChrisRoth