New Year’s is my favorite holiday of the year. I love the feeling of a new beginning — as if a cosmic reset button just got pushed. I love that it’s a time to take up new decisions. That said, New Year’s Resolutions have never worked for me and I think it’s because taking on a new project/commitment for an entire year is too big of an ask.
This year, I’m going to try something different. Instead of making a new year’s resolution, I’m going to try on monthly resolutions. It feels less daunting and I’m able to scale or change the commitment as needed.
All that to say, my resolution for January is to get back into blogging. And I intend to begin by finishing up a bunch of old multi-part blog post series that I never closed out. They include:
- rethinking sin and salvation (part 1)
- an open, honest admission (part 3)
- language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?
- 388 the spiritual lottery (part 2)
I plan to go in reverse cronological order so this week, I’ll be finishing a post I started almost five years ago about the problematic nature of what I called “transaction theology.”
Happy New Year, y’all and to paraphrase one of my favorite songs, “it was a long December but there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”
I began this series talking about something I called transaction theology — the idea that God works in a quid pro quo fashion. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z. This is a dynamic often seen in the way some Christian leaders talk about tithing. If you tithe then God will bring blessing into your life.1
In the next post, I showed how this theology sometimes leads to an unfortunate cycle:
The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.
And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.
And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.
So if transaction theology is unhelpful, if not outright harmful, then what’s the alternative? This question, I think, points to the root question: how is it that God is at work in the world and how do we fit into that?
Thus, the problem with transition theology is that it’s a grossly inadequate response to the question of how God is at work in the world and our part in that. Transaction theology suggests that God is at work in the world as a merchant trading our good actions for good blessings. And if the blessings aren’t coming then something must be wrong with what you’re offering up.
But again, what’s the alternative?
Near the end of my time in grad school, I found something called Process Theology which is a subset of something called Open Theism.2 The basic (and highly controversial) distinction between more traditional theology and open theism has to do with the relationship between God’s omniscience and the future. Open theism agrees that God is omniscient in that God does know all that can be known. However, because the future hasn’t happened yet, it’s not with the realm of what can be known and likewise is something that God cannot know.
In other words, God knows all there is to know about what has happened in the past and knows all there is to know about what’s happening in the present, but as for what lies in the future, that’s outside the realm of God’s knowledge because it hasn’t happened yet. Because the future is open.
This is a radical (some might say heretical) reworking of the idea of God’s omniscience, but it brings with it some real strengths and, of course, some (admittedly significant) weaknesses. And some of these strengths/weaknesses are related.
For example, one of the strengths of this theology is that it gets us around the problem of free will. In traditional understandings of God’s omniscience, God knows everything including the future. And that means God must know each and every action we will take before we make it. But if God knows what we’re going to do when how can we have free will? How can our choices be our own when God knows what they will be?
In contrast, open theism believes that because the future is not something that God knows (because it hasn’t happened yet) so our free will is real. Our choices really are our own and not in any way predetermined.
One of the big problems though is that if God doesn’t know the future, then how can we know that God is moving us towards a better one? How do we know that the loving, just, peaceful, reconciled world that the book of Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) suggests is what God wants for creation will actually come about?
And yeah, that’s a pretty big problem, but again, I point back to the strength of the open theism: our choices matter.
A theology where the future is guaranteed is one that we technically don’t have to participate in. God’s future will happen whether we participate in it or not. We might do our best to make good choices and to live as examples of God’s promised future, but that future would happen even if we didn’t.
But in a theological framework where such a future is not fore-known (and therefore not guaranteed), our choices are of grave consequence. We do our best to live as examples of God’s proposed future because that’s how it comes about. If we don’t participate with God in living out and striving towards God’s future, that’s one less resource that God can use to bring it about. Thus, our role in God’s creation truly maters!
Here’s the thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this Openness/Process Theology stuff and, as I’ve pointed out, there are lots of troubling aspects to it but also many promising bits. I don’t have the space to unpack all of that here and as I wrote in the preface, there are other hanging blog post series that I want to finish. Writing about God’s omniscience and the promise/problems of open theism is deeply nerdy and, I suspect, uninteresting to most people. And I want to focus my writing on matters that people are actually interested in.
That said, if I’m wrong about people’s interest in this topic, if there are people who are curious about and have questions about open theism, ask in the comments and I’ll respond as best as I can.
Funny thing though. While I do want to move away from nerdy, inside baseball writing, the next blog series I intend to finish is almost as geeky. It’s about the fuzziness of language and the effect that has on how we talk about God.
It’s a done deal, Kavanaugh has been confirmed, and as much as that bumms me out (for a whole host of reasons), the rancor and dischord that the confirmation process stirred up troubles me even more.
E pluribus unum. It’s on all of our coinage and it’s commonly translated, “out of many, one.” It represents the American ideal that though we are an intentionally diverse nation, we are still a single, unified country. The idea is also there in our Pledge of Allegiance: “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Of the many things I love and appreciate about America, it’s this commitment to holding unity amidst diversity that I love the most.
But sadly, that theme is in short supply these days.
In the midst of all the conflicting Kavanaugh news and commentary, it’s like we’ve completely lost sight of the humanity of people, especially people we disagree with. On social media platforms, we make assumptions, we lob insults and accusations, sometimes at strangers, sometimes at people we love. And then they retaliate. Or they disappear or block or unfriend.
It’s shitty and ugly and I hate it. Especially when I participate and replay this dynamic myself.
But here’s a strange segue.
I’ve been tempted to leave Christianity many times before. And even now, I would describe myself as barely Christian.1 But one of the reasons I remain committed to the faith is because of Jesus’ commandment to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39). It’s a core ethical principle and while I know I could live by that ideal without the associated religious accoutrements, the thing I can’t find apart from Christianity is a community centered around this principle. Of course I’m speaking here about the church.
And yes, there are many Christians who are driving precisely the sort of rhetoric that I abhor, but because of the authority that scripture holds in the church, there is a shared source to which I can appeal. This idea of a primary, shared, centering text is something I haven’t seen in any secular communities and is one of the big reasons I still claim Christianity as my faith.
I’ve written before about how I feel it’s part of God’s calling on my life to model the sort of unity amidst diversity that should be a key feture of the church, and circling back to where I started, I’m super bummed about Kavanaugh. I think his confirmation is going to have a devestating effect on many of the causes that I care about2 — it’s probably going to shift the political/ideological center of the court for decades — but there’s nothing I can do about that.
But what I can do is get back to God’s calling on my life, doing my best to dialogue with people I disagree with in a way where I try to love them as I try to love myself. Thing is, I don’t think I’m called to anything unique or special. I think this way of being in the world is supposed to be the hallmark of Christians — in John 13:35, Jesus says that people will know that we are Christians by how we love one another. I don’t know that engaging people with respect on Facebook threads is precisely what Jesus had in mind, but it’s one of the ways that I’ve chosen to live out that call.
Perhaps you’ve seen the news about The Nashville Statement — released by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood whose mission is “to set forth the teachings of the Bible about the complementary differences between men and women”
There’s been a ton of response to the statement, both supporting and rejecting it, so I’m late to the game, but I still want to share my thoughts, but I want to do so in a specific sort of way. I want to respond to The Statement as a heterosexual1 Christian speaking primarily to the heterosexual church.
Note: I’ve intentionally avoided appeals to scripture because that’s the approach that The Nashville Statement took.
One of my main points in a talk I gave last year at The Seattle School, was that the LGBTQ community isn’t trying to redefine marriage because redefining marriage is something the heterosexual church did decades ago. It would take too long to go into all the details,2 but basically, for almost all of Jewish and Christian history, marriages were arranged by parents on the basis of pragmatic concerns like property rights, financial ties, or power/peace.3 But starting around the 1800s, things started to shift. People started to find their own marriage partners through a process we now call dating. And they based their partnership choices on things like attraction, compatibility, and love.4
And the church accepted the shift, with nary a comment or protest.
Today, it’s difficult to grasp how radical of a shift this was, but think of it this way: imagine the outcry, today, if two families tried to force their son and daughter to wed against their wills because the families saw the wedding as a way of sealing a mutually beneficial business arrangement. No church would stand for that, and yet, that was the traditional form of marriage for almost all of the church’s history.
Now what does all of this have to do with The Nashville Statement?
My point is that heterosexuals are the ones who affirmed the move away from an arranged-marriage model to a compatibility-based, dating-to-marriage model. And once that move has been made, the onus is on the heterosexual church to explain both how they justify this shift in marriage models and, given the emphasis on compatibility, why two people of the same gender who are more compatible with one another than with someone of the opposite gender are the exception to this change.
I’ll have more to say about this at the end of this post, but for now, I want to address two of the articles from The Statement from/to a heterosexual perspective.
WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.
WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.
I’ve done a lot of writing about how I grew up around really conservative Christian teachings around sex, and while they talked a lot about sex, masturbation, dating, and desire (always in negative terms), I never heard them talk about married sex as inherently procreative. Come to think of it, in all 30+ years of my time in various churches, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything critical about the use of contraception in the context of a married relationship.
Similar to the shift from an arranged to a compatibility-based marriage model, the protestant wing of the church has tacitly accepted the use of contraception as a means of preventing pregnancy. So it’s surprising to see the CBMW state that procreation is a part of God’s design for marriage. But it makes sense because The Statement is trying to base their denial of same-sex marriages on the fact that such partnerships lack the procreative component.
The problem is, no protestant church that I’ve ever encountered applies this standard to heterosexual marriages. In other words, the Nashville staters are not applying their theological principle consistently. If procreation is an inherent part of God’s design for marriage, then the use of contraception should be out of bounds in heterosexual contexts because it counters the procreative aspect of God’s design.
And yet for all practical intents and purposes, the heterosexual church has affirmed the use of contraception, thus radically changing the nature and purpose of sex itself.5 The implications of this change are made clear in an examination of Article Two.
WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.
WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.
The Nashville staters are saying that it’s God’s will for people to not have sex before/outside of marriage, and that seems to be clear and consistent with church teaching and tradition, but in the compatibility-based marriage, post-contraception world we live in today, this phrase is far too vague to be of any practical use.
In the dating process, some level of physical intimacy is almost always involved. Given that, if they’re going to say, “don’t have sex before/outside of marriage,” they need to be very clear about what they mean by the word “sex” so couples can actually know what they’re not supposed to be doing before/outside of marriage.
Of course the assumption is that sex equals penis-in-vagina intercourse, but there’s a big problem with defining sex that way because when that assumption is read back into the prohibition, you wind up with “don’t have penis-in-vagina sex before/outside of marriage.” And that implies that as long as the penis stays outside the vagina, everything else is fair game.
In other words, all of the following are not sex and thus, permitted:6
So unless the heterosexual church is willing to say that things like oral and anal sex are not violating God’s design for non-married relationships, they had better come up with a better definition of what exactly is prohibited before/outside of marriage.
The Nashville Statement begins with this line: “Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition.” But the writers of The Statement either ignore or are unaware of the role that the heterosexual church played in laying the groundwork for the transitions they are now critiquing. Said another way, by affirming the radical transition to a compatibility-based, dating-to-marriage model, the onus should be on the heterosexual church to explain why same-sex compatibility is out of bounds.
But after looking at articles one and two through a heterosexual lens,9 it seems clear that the scope of their Statement is conveniently narrow. They address concerns that relate to LGBTQ persons while failing to highlight or speak to the way their articles pertain to heterosexuals.
And that does harm to both LGBTQ and cisgendered heterosexual persons.
During my last year in grad school, I was given the honor of being one of the speakers at the annual Spring Banquet. The theme of the banquet was Swing: There and Back Again and I was tasked with giving a five minute story, poem, song, or other sort of presentation.
Here’s what I shared.
I don’t know if any of you saw it, but a couple months ago, about halfway through the lenten season, I sent in a prayer request to the weekly Community Prayer Letter. In part, it read:
…as I work (frantically) to finish work for my last year as an MDiv, I find myself looking back and realizing that my first few years in grad school were spent identifying, dismantling, and debunking theologies, relational patterns, and paradigms that had been so harmful for so long. I also look back and see that the past year or so has been a time of rebuilding and repair.
It’s like I’ve spent much of my life as an airplane that’s been weighed down by baggage and faulty engines. And now much of the baggage is gone and the engine has been radically rebuilt and I’m looking at this thing wondering if it’s actually going to fly.
One thing that I forgot to mention in that prayer request: it often feels like my airplane and its rebuilt engine is held together with little more than duct tape and twist ties.
That process of dismantling and rebuilding, I’m sure many of you know and can relate, is not a linear one. It’s cyclical. You lose some old, foundational idea, and then you feel lost for a while. But then you find something new and that seems solid and so you use it as a new conceptual framework to help you navigate and make sense of life. But then a reading assignment, a point in a class lecture, a comment on a paper from a professor, a question from a friend – something reveals some fatal flaw in this new idea and then there you go again, floating away, untethered.
It’s like being on a playground swing. When things make sense, when our theologies and psychologies are working, it’s like swinging forward – there’s the rush of wind in your face and the thrill of ascent. But then you reach the end of your arc and soon you’re hurling backwards, away from the familiar, into the unseen, unknown.
Part of the fun of playground swings is the rhythmic regularity of it all – back and forth, back and forth. We can trust and enjoy the backwards arc because we know that before long, we’ll be swinging forwards again.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t have such a sense of rhythm. In my time in grad school, there have been a number of disruptions, a number of times when I’ve been in the terrifying backswing. And because there is no rhythmic regularity to the swings of life, I never knew when or even if I’d ever find a way forward again.
And here’s a bittersweet bit of truth that I’ve picked up along the way: some backswings never bring us back.
But here I am and here many of us are – looking at some crazy airplane that we hope will fly – whether that be flying through the next school year or flying into a new career. And we look at the duct tape and the twist ties and we wonder if they will hold. And we’re right to be wary, if not outright terrified, because at the end of the day, flight worthiness isn’t tested on the ground. It’s tested up in the air.
There’s a lyric from a Tori Amos song that goes:
Is there trouble ahead
for you the acrobat?
I won’t push you
unless you have a net
And I think of the faculty and the staff here and how I believe they push us as hard as they do because they know that we do have a net. We have the grace of God to catch us when our engine coughs out a piston or when our tail falls off mid maneuver. They push because they trust God’s grace for us, but more importantly, they push us because they believe we can fly.
And so here’s to flight, here’s to trust, here’s to falling, here’s to grace and to the swing back around again.
You probably know the story. Two sons. One of them asks his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still alive. He goes and spends this inheritance on a life of partying and delight. And when the money runs out, he goes back to his father who lovingly takes him back, welcoming him into the family with a lavish celebration.
The Good Son seldom gets any attention, and when he does, it’s often negative, focusing on his hard-heartedness, on his lack of ability to forgive and love as his father does. And the attention to the Good Son usually stops there. But there’s so much more.
Because here’s the thing. I don’t think the Good Son’s refusal to welcome his brother back is the worst of his sins. Not by a long shot. That’s the response of someone who has been harboring a much deeper, more profound sin — a sin that seldom gets addressed in church, a sin that has likely festered within him well before his brother went prodigal.
The Good Son’s fundamental sin? Forsaking God’s (and his father’s) gift of life.
It’s obvious that the family was wildly wealthy. The fact that the father could give the Prodigal half the family’s inheritance and still maintain his farm for however long his son was away; the fact that he had hired servants who could take up the work abandoned; the fact that he could afford to throw a party upon the son’s return. All of these point to a household that didn’t have to worry about money, even after giving half of it away.
The Prodigal Son recognizes the wealth available and the opportunities latent therein and decides to take a huge fucking bite out of the bounty to see what there is of life out there to be lived.1 Yes, it’s an act of profound selfishness and disregard, but my God, what a life he lived for a while.
Thing is, I think we so often focus on the sin of his acts that we miss the salvation2 aspect.
Picture a boy, raised on a farm, now in the bed of a temple prostitute who has been trained, from a young age, how to pleasure a man. Picture the hard, trembling edge of inexperience enveloped in the soft, warm contours of fleshy bliss — her tenderness dulling the perimeter warmly, precisely, gracefully. She lulls, nudges him playfully towards surrender. And he complies. And it’s a revelation.
Imagine him pursuing the boundaries of human experience, testing the limits of ecstasy, extending each of his senses as far as his substantial fortune can stretch them — a deep study of his God-gifted body and the world through which it moves. And yes, there is much depravity there, but isn’t there also a kind of salvation? Because isn’t part of the allure of decadence the taste of paradise it both teases and fulfills, even if only for a moment?
And yes, his choices eventually lead to ruin, but the experiences — both bliss and desolation — will live in his body forever. When he returns, he is money-poor, but the stories! The sensate memories endure. He is both haunted and enlightened by them. The Prodigal returns with breadth and depth in him. How is that not a kind of salvation?
In those moments, imagine him asking the question that terrifies him most: is there any for me? Because if the answer is no, then what the fuck is he doing here anyway? And if the answer is yes, then where is it?
But the Good Son resolves; tucks his envy away into hidden, overstuffed pockets of denial. Instead, he stores grains of honor, integrity, and loyalty into his storehouse of virtue — an endless room that never fills, his personal holy of holies.
Imagine night after night, weeks into years, this unwieldy dance of fondled desires and blunting righteousness. Every night, another dour deposit.
And then one day, out in the fields again with the servants and the livestock, the heat and the soil, he hears music. He hears laughter and celebration. He turns his head toward the house and sees smoke, smells meat stewing. He is confused. He looks again at the field before him, at all the work yet to be done. Last year’s harvest was slim and they need to make up for it this year. And yet, what the hell is going on over there?
He begins the long walk back home.
As he nears, he sees someone dancing at the center of the festivities, someone wearing his father’s ornate, ceremonial robe.
And then a jolt of recognition, a terrible epiphany. His brother is a thief yet again. His storehouse of virtue, his holy of holies has been ransacked. Consciously or not, he had been hoping to one day leverage his surplus of faithfulness for a concrete sign of his father’s love. But there, right there in front of him, his bastard brother: laughing, dancing, showered by the very attention and affection that should have been his.
Blood and betrayal reigns.
But while the Good Son is still a long way off, his father spots him, waves him over.
The son stands still. The father intuitively understands the weight of this (non)response and runs over to him, begs him to join the party.
But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
He was never given a meal or a celebration.
And while it’s not explicit in the text, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he never asked for one. Life, joy, food, festivities were all there to be had in abundance, but they had to be pursued, requested, the want made plain.
So if the Prodigal was guilty of asking too much, the Good Son was guilty of not asking at all. Both sins, and yet, only one son finds forgiveness and salvation.
And it’s important to remember that the father granted the Prodigal’s wish, probably with a good idea of what he intended to do with it.
And yet, scripture does not record any pushback or plea. The text moves from the Prodigal’s request to the division of the family’s fortune. And if the father personifies God in this parable, is it too much of a stretch to say that God allows us, even empowers us, to go out and experience all of what there is in the world? Is that too scandalous an interpretation? 3
In contrast, the Good Son lives a life of jealousy and resentment — refined by his brother’s departure, weaponized upon his return. His is a joyless, spiteful, trivial life, an insult to the boundless gift that life can be. This is his sin.
Now what am I saying — that the Prodigal Son’s debauchery is salvation? That the Good Son’s “good” life was a life of sin?
Yeah, kind of.
More on this in part 2.
Sigh. You know, I really did intend to wrap this series with this post, but here’s the thing about my writing process. I may have a clear idea in my own head about what I want to say, but when it comes to putting what’s in my brain into words, sometimes it takes far more words than I thought it would. All that to say, it may take a few more posts to fully lay out my ideas regarding how the church talks about sex outside of marriage.
And yeah, I’m altering the name of the series. Explanation in the postscript.
In my previous post, I made the point that the church has never clearly defined what they’re referring to when they talk about “sex.” So let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with engaging in the full range of sexual intimacy that I and another person consensually agree to, up to and including penis in vagina intercourse.3 At the same time, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about who I have sex with and when in the course of a relationship that takes place — it certainly does and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.
As for how I justify this stance, let’s start by looking at scripture. The passage that comes closest to specifically prohibiting sex outside of marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-7:2. This bit begins with Paul talking about why it’s not cool for Christians to be having sex with prostitutes
The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (NRSV)
Fornication — sex with someone you’re not married to — is generally thought to be distinct from adultery (moicheuo) — sex with someone else’s spouse.6 The Bible talks a lot about adultery, but next to nothing about fornication, and there’s a good reason for this. In the time of the Bible (and for most of history, really) women typically got married in their early teens (and the men whom they were married to7 might be similar in age or up to a decade older). And marriage was the cultural norm of the biblical world — everyone was expected to get/be married. In other words, there really weren’t very many unmarried people around who would have been able to have sex before they were married. Thus the ubiquity of adultery (rather than fornication) language in the Bible.8
[END SIDEBAR]So from 6:13b-20, it’s clear that Paul is referring to having sex with a prostitute when he uses the word that gets translated “fornicate.” But when Christian pastors/teachers talk about sex before marriage, they usually look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (NRSV)
See that word pair, “sexual immorality?” In the Greek, it’s the exact same word that got translated as “fornication” at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 (pornea). So it’s possible that Paul is still referring to sex with prostitutes in 7:2, and not sex before marriage. However, things aren’t that clear cut. Paul begins chapter 7 with the phrase, “Now considering the matters about which you wrote…” suggesting that Paul is making a break from his previous train of thought and is now talking about something new. So it might be the case that Paul is indeed talking about prohibiting sex before (or outside of) marriage.
But we can’t be sure. And even if someone can make a strong case for the idea that Paul is no longer talking about sex with prostitutes here, it’s not at all clear what specifically Paul is referring to. Paul is obviously addressing something the church in Corinth wrote him about in a previous letter regarding sex, but we don’t know what that letter said — what specific question Paul was answering. That bit of information is lost to history so (barring the miraculous discovery of that lost letter) we can never know for sure.
One of the core principles regarding Christian teaching is the idea that you don’t base Christian doctrine on ambiguous scriptural passages. And I think it’s evident that this passage in 1 Corinthians is clearly ambiguous. There very well may have been a bunch of people in the Corinthian church having sex before marriage, and that might be what Paul was addressing here, but the inescapable reality is that we don’t/can’t know for sure. And if that’s the case, then the church shouldn’t be preaching the no sex before/outside marriage as definitively as it does. Rather, they should be honest about and and acknowledge this ambiguity.9The bottom line is, the Bible has nothing specific or definitive to say about sex before marriage, at least not as we think of it today (and this bit of nuance desperately needs to be unpacked, but that will have to wait for the next post). The Bible does specifically prohibit sex with prostitutes and sex with someone else’s wife/husband, but has nothing specific to say about sex outside of marriage as it’s practiced today.
In this post, I talked about scriptural translation/interpretation. In my next post, I’ll talk about the radical (understatement) cultural/historical shifts that have taken place in the past two or three centuries regarding how we think about relationships and marriage today compared to just about any other time in recorded (Western) history.
As for why I’m changing the name of the series from “a qualified coming out” to “an open, honest admission,” it’s because equating my disclosure as a sex-positive Christian to that of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer is frankly offensive. So I’m not going to do it and I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my irresponsible co-opting of the phrase.
In my previous post, I (sort of) came out about being asexual — a sexual orientation broadly defined as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” In that post, I said that I also wanted to state, in writing and in public, that as a Christian who has studied the Bible,1 attends church regularly, and strives to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I don’t have a problem with engaging in sex before I’m married. I was hoping to unpack how I justify this stance in this post, but while writing it, I realized I needed to set a bit more background/context first. So the explanation will have to wait until part 3.
Sorry about that.
A bit of fair warning: I get pretty sexually explicit in this post, and it’s not just to be provocative or to titillate. On the contrary, this specificity is necessary because I believe that it’s this very lack of precision around talking about sex in the church that’s at the root of many of the problems the church has when it comes to talking/teaching about sex.
All that to say, if you choose to read on, be prepared for some pretty sexually graphic language.
I’ve done a lot of writing, about the problems of purity culture and how that’s affected my own life. In this post, I want to suggest that a lot of those problems (both for me and so many others) stems from one grossly neglected, yet vitally important question: how does the church define sex? To be more specific, in the common Christian phrase, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” what exactly does that word, “sex” signify?
I want to propose that in today’s church, there have been two ways of answering this question, both of which are inadequate at best. I’ll also try to show how this inadequacy leads to harmful effects in the lives of far too many Christians today.
The first answer is actually more of an assumption. While it’s never stated explicitly, it’s generally assumed that sex is what occurs when a woman allows man’s penis to enter her vagina. And at first, that seems like a reasonable definition for sex, but what about sexually intimate acts that don’t include vaginal penetration? For example,
In other words, defining sex as the specific act of a penis in a vagina is incomplete and utterly inadequate. Because if that’s the church’s definition of sex, then a Christian couple engaging in all manner of sexually intimate behaviors is not violating the maxim, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” as long as a penis doesn’t pass through the threshold of a vagina (which would probably qualify as the biggest doctrinal loophole ever). And again, this narrow definition means that Christian lesbian and gay couples will never, technically, be in sin since the church’s Venn diagram of sex never overlaps for them.
In my experience, when posed with specific questions about what Christian leaders mean when they use the word “sex,” they tend to punt to the second answer which is basically, “instead of trying to figure out where the line between sex and not-sex is, why not just stay as far away from the line as possible?” Which, again, sounds good in the abstract, but when subjected to concrete application and real-world scenarios, it just doesn’t stand up. Because if the location of the line between sex and not-sex is never defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?
The logic behind the stay-away-from-the-line idea is this: because (they believe) Jesus taught that even thinking lustful thoughts is equivalent to the sin of adultery, any act that could potentially lead to one or both people in a relationship to feel lust is flirting with sin. But then where’s the line between lust and interest/attraction and what acts potentially lead to a breach of that line?
To resolve this ambiguity, some Christian leaders/teachers take the stay-far-away-from-the-line approach to the extreme — forbidding virtually all acts of physical intimacy outside of marriage. Joshua Harris’ infamous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye takes this approach to its logical conclusion: If any dating scenario leads to the potential for physical intimacy, which could potentially lead to a couple approaching (if not crossing) this undefined “line,” then perhaps it’s best to simply not date at all.
This general lack of specificity in both approaches to defining sex leads to real problems in the lives of real Christian couples, because it forces them to construct their own answers with little to no guidance from the church.3 In other words, couples are left to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating/negotiating intimacy and sex. And this is not some hypothetical scenario, it’s happening all the time in the lives of far too many Christian couples today. And to make things even worse, a lot of the rhetoric around sex in the church is laced with toxic shame, especially for those who stray (intentionally or accidentally) past sex’s fuzzy, undefined lines.
Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul, interviewed students at a number of different college campuses about their sexual experiences. She tells the story of a nineteen-year-old Catholic college student who had committed herself to purity during high school (which at the time she understood to mean not dating until she met her spouse). By the time of her interview, while she had engaged in oral sex with a number of boyfriends, she still considered herself to be a virgin.4
When the only options available to people are unhelpfully vague (“don’t have sex outside marriage”) or as woefully abstract as “stay far away from the edge,” it’s no wonder that the Christian dating landscape is strewn with stories of dead ends, missed opportunities, and damaged hearts.
So what’s to be done? Is there a way of defining and talking about sex in the church that is more useful, practical, and relevant to the lives of Christian couples today? I believe there is, but it requires a rethink as radical as it is overdue.
And that will be the subject of part three. Stay tuned!
2. The church at large (at least in the West) is consistently moving towards the theological assumption that same-sex relationships/marriage are pleasing and acceptable to God. I’m writing from that assumption. If you want to know more about how I justify this position, a good place to start would be Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian. ↩︎
3. Which, ironically, is the very place where they should be able to go for practical, real-world guidance. ↩︎
4. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 83. ↩︎