406. who redefined marriage? (hint: heterosexuals) – a heterosexual response to The Nashville Statement

[PREFACE]

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.

[END PREFACE]

A Heterosexual Response to The Nashville Statement

NashvilleNope

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.

Article One

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.

The word I want to focus on in this article is “procreative.”

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.

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.

For this article, the phrase I want to focus on is “sexual intercourse before or outside marriage”.

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.

In Summary

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.

  1. …specifically a cisgendered, Asian, male, demisexual. ↩︎
  2. Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz is a great resource if you want to know more. ↩︎
  3. The best example in the Bible is the story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. ↩︎
  4. In contrast, one of the primary social arguments for arranged marriages was the idea that marriage was far too important a decision to be left to the whims of an emotion as unpredictable and irrational as love. ↩︎
  5. As with marriage, there isn’t enough space here to walk through this change. Theologian Christine Gudorf’s book, Body, Sex, and Pleasure, covers this topic brilliantly. ↩︎
  6. …with enthusiastic consent, of course. ↩︎
  7. The vagina is actually located within the inner and outer labia so rubbing the head or shaft of the penis across the lips of the vulva and even pressing a bit beyond would be fair game. ↩︎
  8. pegging, sounding, teabagging, rimming… I could go on and on. ↩︎
  9. …looking at how the articles related to heterosexual Christians/relationships. ↩︎
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405. …the swing back around again

[PREFACE]

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.

[END PREFACE]

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Photo by: Dave Ferguson

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.

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Photo by: Karl Hutchinson

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.

404. Rethinking Sin & Salvation (Part 1) – The Good & the Prodigal Sons

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 contrast, picture the Good Son, back at home on his bed, alone with the fury of his imagination spinning endless narratives of his brother’s infidelities. Imagine him simultaneously titillated and inflamed.

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.

  1. I think this is both sin and salvation, but that’s too much nuance for one blog post. ↩︎
  2. “Salvation” is probably too strong of a word, but it does get at the idea I’m trying to covey — that there are elements of life-giving good in the Prodigal’s choices. ↩︎
  3. And yes, I realize I have to address Romans 6:15. More on that in a future post, but for now, one of the points I’m trying to make is that the Good Son also sins by hoarding virtue alongside envy. ↩︎

403. an open, honest admission (part 3): sex and scripture

[PREFACE]

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.

[END PREFACE]


So here it is, my explanation as to why, as a Christian who goes to church regularly, takes the Bible seriously,1 and does his best to live a live pleasing to God,2 I don’t have a problem with having sex with someone outside of marriage (henceforth referred to as being a “sex-positive” Christian).

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)

Notice that word “fornication?”4 That’s a translation of the Greek word pornea,5 and fornication is typically understood to mean sex with someone you’re not married to.

[SIDEBAR]

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]

Photo by: Johan Karlborg

Photo by: Johan Karlborg

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.

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.9

Photo by: Heather Kaiser

Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer

The 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.

[POSTSCRIPT]

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.

[FOOTNOTES]

  1. MDiv from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. ↩︎
  2. Instead of listing all of these qualifiers, I wish I could simply refer to myself as a Christian, but I’ve had (more than) enough interaction with people who disagree with stances I take to know the first thing they go after is how seriously I take my faith. ↩︎
  3. As a cis-gender, heterosexual male. ↩︎
  4. Also translated “sexual immorality” (NIV and others). ↩︎
  5. And it’s not at all clear that the most accurate translation of the word pornea is fornication. See Malina, Bruce J. “Does porneia mean fornication.” Novum Testamentum 14, no. 1 (January 1972): 10-17. ↩︎
  6. Well, to be more accurate, biblical adultery is commonly understood as sex with someone who’s not you’re wife. Let’s not forget that the cultural context of the Bible is unwaveringly patriarchal — wives were more property than autonomous person. ↩︎
  7. And the phrasing here is very intentional. Marriage was something that was done to women, far more so than something that they entered into by choice. And let’s not forget that for most of history, marriages were arranged by parents or the community, not by the persons getting married. ↩︎
  8. Of course there are other reasons — patriarchy and the importance of paternity — but there’s not enough room to lay all of that out in the scope of this post. ↩︎
  9. As a preview, my proposal is that instead of teaching dogma, the church should be equipping people to discern what God is saying to them through scripture. More on this in a future post. ↩︎

402. a qualified coming out (part 2): inadequate answers about sex

[PREFACE]

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.

Enjoy! 😉

[END PREFACE]

The Key Question

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?

Two (Inadequate) Answers

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,

  • What if a man just rubs the shaft of his penis against the outer lips of a woman’s vulva?
  • What about anal sex?
  • What about oral sex?
  • What about mutual masturbation?
  • And what about lesbian/gay couples for whom either penises or vaginas are not involved at all, thus precluding the entire PIV paradigm?2

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.

venndiagram

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?

  • What about heavy petting?
  • What about French kissing?
  • What about holding hands?
  • What about looking deeply into the other person’s eyes?

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?

  • What about cuddling?
  • What about holding hands?
  • What about spending extended time alone together, even if no physical touching takes place?

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.

Groping in the Dark

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

Conclusion

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!

[FOOTNOTES]

1. MDiv from The Seattle School. ↩︎

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. ↩︎

401. a (qualified) coming out (part 1): nature, nurture, or numb

[PREFACE]

I don’t always blog these days, but when I do, it’s totally TMI.

As I was writing this, I realized that there are actually two things that I need to be out and open about. One is the focus of this post, and the other is something I mention but don’t go on to explain — the fact that as a Christian who reads the Bible and does his best to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I have no problem exploring sex before I’m married. And so that will be the focus of part two. (How’s that for a teaser?)

[END PREFACE]

I recently read an article about asexuality. And while the topic is something I’ve casually researched (particularly via these videos and this blog), I think it’s finally time for me to out myself as asexual — an orientation broadly defined as someone with “a lack of ‘sexual attraction’ or ‘lustful inclinations’ towards others…”

A couple of caveats.

AceSymbol144First, asexuality is just another point on a spectrum, which is to say, it’s not that there are sexual persons, asexual persons, and people are either one or the other. There are a variety of designations within the ace community and if I am asexual, I’m not sure what sort I am yet.1 And while I can say that I do long for a physically intimate, monogamous, romantic relationship with someone, having actual penetrative sex is not something I’m particularly drawn towards. It’s not something I think or even fantasize about. That said, I do find pleasure in touch and cuddling and making out (and OMG, kissing is the best thing ever!), but I just don’t consider actual intercourse as something mandatory or, speaking for myself, desirable.

That said, I’m totally GGG — good, giving, and game. If PIV intercourse is something my partner wants, I’m totally up for providing it (consensually negotiated), but it’s not something that I’m likely to pursue on my own initiative.

Related to this is the fact that I have a pretty low sex drive.2 That white-hot, almost animalistic hunger for sex is something I just don’t experience in life or in relationships, even after it’s gotten to the point where we’re making out. I do enjoy conversing in the warm, buttery language of touch, but even that isn’t something I feel compelled to pursue. Rather, it’s something that’s nice if it comes along, but I don’t feel the need to go after it. It’s deep conversations — sharing the scarred bits of our lives and reveling in joyous memories — that I truly enjoy about being in a relationship.

Second, I just can’t help but wonder if the toxic purity/shame messages that got ingrained into me as a teen and young adult plays a part in my low sex drive and disinterest in penetrative sex. I was 41(!) years old before I got into my first serious relationship, and I’ve done a lot of writing about how it took years of therapy to realize how deeply rooted those teachings had become and how they played a large part in why I found myself sabotaging so many previous almost-relationships.

This post in particular speaks to this pattern. I wrote about how an especially strict Christian leader in my life led to me developing an extreme fear of vulnerability and authenticity. I wrote about how his brutal, relentless shaming techniques (under the guise of discipleship) taught me to put up a front — a surface that looked authentic but was actually masking my deeper, more honest self.3
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As for how that affected my dating life, I wrote that…

… the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lockdown mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses, because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.

It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from someone who longs to make my shields unnecessary.

In another section, I made this observation:

Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real, unfiltered self is reserved for the ones we love deeply, the ones who love us deeply. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive bits that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).

That last parenthetical is key. As hard as it can be for me to be open and vulnerable, relationally and emotionally, it’s SO much harder to do so bodily — to progress towards being butt neked with someone. Of course not all of this difficulty stems from the church. The experience of exposing all of one’s body to another is awkward and frightening for almost everyone when a relationship reaches that stage. But in my case, the weight of what I was taught in those early Bible studies exponentially compounds that awkwardness and fear.

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And I can’t help but wonder how/if all of that relates to my low sex drive and/or asexuality. Is there a causal connection or is it merely coincidental or something else? In other words, am I an ace because of nature or nurture or because I’m just still numb from all of that old, religious shame? I don’t know, but I’m planning on finding a new therapist soon to help me figure that out.

See, this is the thing that the purity message does in so many people’s lives. It teaches people to deny their desires, even the mere thinking them! They give us techniques like bouncing eyes in the hopes of squelching desire well before it even starts. They use shame as a stick and a perfect marriage as the carrot, but there are many who find that even after doing things “right” (saving themselves for marriage), that the smoking, blissful sex and relationship that was promised was a ruse.

It’s my contention that “Christian purity” as it’s commonly defined these days, is not necessarily the same thing as what God wants for us. And yeah, I fully realize what an inflammatory, controversial statement that is, but there it is.

And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in part 2.

Stay tuned!

[FOOTNOTES]
1. The designation demisexual is a likely candidate.

2 I actually got testosterone level checked about a year ago to see if this had some physiological basis. And while my (total) testosterone level was a bit low, it wasn’t enough to clinically qualify as being outside the normal range for men my age.

3 In the post I’ve been referencing, I described our Bible studies this way:

Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.

400. Lent, 2015 (part 2) – getting punched in the faith

In my previous post, I wrote about how I’ve decided to take up the belief that God loves me for Lent and why that’s not as lovely or as easy as it sounds (quite the opposite).

Funny thing. Wanna know what makes believing in God’s love for me especially difficult?

Other Christians, punching me in the faith.
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MatrixPunch
See, I have what can only be labeled as a calling:1 I believe in unity within the body of Christ. And let me be clear here. When I say “unity,” I don’t mean uniformity. My idea of unity does not include getting all Christians to believe the same things. My idea of unity is simultaneously much broader and more modest than that.

In a broad sense, I believe in a kind of unity that celebrates (or, at the very least, tolerates) a wide variety of theological/doctrinal positions.2 Because of that, my goals are modest. At the very least, my desire is for Christians who disagree on an issue to recognize those on the other side as fellow Christians.3 And even that modest goal is sometimes incredibly difficult.

Now how does going after that goal play out in my life?

Christians who disagree with one another usually only hang out with Christians who agree with them. So the only way to get them to move towards this broad/modest idea of unity is for someone to stand in the space between. And that’s where my calling places me.
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To name just one example, the issue of marriage equality is tearing the church apart and I often find place myself in the gap between those who believe that God affirms and celebrates LGBT persons,4 and those who don’t. And let me tell you, in that gap be dragons, fearsome ones.

And I often get my ass kicked because the thing about gap-standing is that one can’t be too defensive. Defensiveness tends to shut down conversation, and I want people to stay engaged, so I keep my guard down. But holding that sort of openness leaves me vulnerable to attack. And some Christians seem to take a perverse sort of delight in beating the shit out of anyone who doesn’t run or retaliate.

But again, I have modest goals.

I don’t expect to win or to change anyone’s mind.

On the issue of marriage equality and the church, I just want Christians who believe that relationships between couples of the same sex is sinful to acknowledge that Christians on the affirming side (like me) are still Christians.5

That’s it.
Denominations

Image by: Saji

 
Yes, I believe that God fully affirms LGBT persons and that one can hold a high view of the Bible and support same-sex marriage. People can disagree with me on this (or any other) issue. I’m fine with that. I readily acknowledge that I may be wrong. But I can’t tell you how often, in the midst of conversations around the issue of marriage equality, I’ve been accused of not being a Christian.6

And that hurts. Every time.

And yet, I keep entering that gap because I believe the church, at its best, is a place where differences are allowed to thrive. The scandal of the early church was that it transgressed all sorts of boundaries.7 It created a community where people groups, who would normally have nothing to do with one another, gathered around a table to eat and drink, to commune. Priests and prostitutes; mystics and magicians; slaves and slave owners; men, women, and eunuchs; rich and poor; Romans and widows and Jews and Gentiles and on and on… This radically diverse group of people passed the bread and the cup to one another and considered each other family.

It wasn’t easy then, and it certainly isn’t easy today.

I believe that my calling/curse is to model and to live into the unity-amidst-diversity of the early church. But it’s hard, especially when, in living out this calling, my Christianity gets mocked (if not outright rejected) over and over and over again.

The people of God, punching me in the faith, for doing what I believe God has called me to do.
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Is it any wonder I question God’s love for me?

It’s a despicable sort of irony. The source of my skepticism regarding God’s love for me turns out to be other people who love God.

Honestly, I’m ready to throw in the towel, but I’ve made a lenten commitment to hold on to belief (despite evidence to the contrary) that God loves me.

Prayers appreciated (I’m gonna need them).


[FOOTNOTES]

1. A vocational commitment that seems inextricably linked with my core sense of identity and passion. Unfortunately, this calling often feels like a curse.
2. In this way, the church is an expansive place, able to take in the new without jettisoning tradition.
3. Said another way, I want to stop hearing things like, “you can’t be a Christian and agree with Rob Bell.” See also: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freedhearts/2015/02/16/has-anyone-said-to-you-i-dont-think-youre-really-a-christian/
4. And the full range of relationships they choose to (or choose not to) pursue.
5. And vice versa. But I find that affirming Christians tend to be more charitable towards those on the non-affirming side.
And yes, I know that there are those on the non-affirming side who believe they are being persecuted. Maybe I’ll address this in a future post.
6. Hint: almost every time.
7. The first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38). Peter was commanded to eat non-kosher foods Acts 10:9-16). The early church promoted women to positions of leadership. And Jesus himself problematizes the binary nature of gender (Matthew 19:12 And Paul does something similar in Galatians 3:28).