383. best practices (a preview)
At The Seattle School, the MDiv program culminates in what they call the Integrative Project. It’s an opportunity for students to synthesize what they’ve been learning into a topic of their choosing – something related to what they hope to do with their degree after graduation.
I’ve chosen to talk about sex. Well, more specifically, singleness and sexuality in the church.
I’ll post up a lot more of what I’ve been working on after things are critiqued, edited, and finalized, but I am really excited about the direction this thing is taking and I wanted to offer up a teaser.
As always, thoughts, questions, rants and raves encouraged and appreciated.
For two years now, I’ve been working on a series of posts about how really poor church teachings in the area of singleness, sexuality, and dating have brought me to a place in life where I just turned 41 and I’m still a virgin who’s never been in a serious romantic relationship. Ever. And to be frank, it’s been a really awful ride.
Over these past two years I’ve been studying the issues surrounding the church’s teachings on singleness and sexuality, I’ve done a ton of writing on my blog about what I’ve been learning – both what I’ve been learning about my own story and about how the church can do better. On this second bit, I have to say that it hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried and jettisoned a number of proposals as friends have questioned and commented on them.
And now I’m finally at a place where I think I have something workable – a more helpful way of thinking and talking about singlenes and sexuality in the church that encourages healthy relationships – and here I mean intra-personal relationships (a healthy relationship within one’s self), interpersonal relationships (healthy relationships with others, more specifically, romantic interests), and our relationship with God.
But first I want to clarify a few things.
These posts are meant primarily for post-high school, non-married adults in the Christian church who are wanting to know more about how to navigate their sexuality and their dating life. Now I like to think that what I’m proposing will work with any couples, whether they align themselves with the Christian faith or not, but I will be speaking from and to a Christian framework. That is to say, I will be writing with the assumption that my audience shares in the belief that, to some degree or another, the Bible is the revealed word of God and serves as a kind of centering document in the life of the church.
Preliminary Terms and Definitions
Here I mean any unmarried person who may or may not be involved in a romantic relationship. Simple as that.
Sex is a biologically-based need which is oriented not only toward procreation but, indeed, toward pleasure and tension release. It aims at genital activity culminating in orgasm.1
Sexuality… is a much more comprehensive term associated with more diffuse and symbolic meanings, psychological and cultural orientations. While it includes sex and relates to biological organ systems, sexuality goes beyond this… Sexuality is our self-understanding and way of being in the world as male and female… It involves our affectional orientation toward those of the opposite and/or the same sex.2
In other words, our sexuality is a much larger category than sex. It includes the sex act, but it also contains things like the way we think and feel about sex. It includes how and why we act (or choose not to act) on our sexual desires and whether we embrace them or shame and repress them. It also has to do with an awareness of how the culture we live and grow up in shapes how we think, feel, and act on our sexuality.
This way of talking about singleness and sexuality goes under different names – the purity movement is a common one, abstinence-only education is another. Basically it is a way of talking about sexuality that focuses primarily on not having sex until one is married. A common idea in this culture is that all sexual thoughts, feelings, and desires are wrong and/or damaging outside the context of marriage. Because of this, some of these programs go as far as counseling people not to date at all until they have found someone they intend to marry.
(I’ll have a lot more to say about purity culture in a future post.)
Goals and Method
My goal is to outline a new framework for thinking about singleness and sexuality in the church. Much of the popular Christian literature around the topic of singleness and dating are highly problematic and while there are books that I’ve found to be tremendously helpful in laying out healthier, more life-affirming ways for singles to steward their sexuality, they tend to be written for a more academic audience. My hope is to take these academic works and restate their ideas in ways that are more accessible, relatable, and applicable.
I hope to accomplished this through a series of six posts, each no longer than 1,500 words.
Although I will be referencing a number of difference texts, most of my work centers around these three books:
- Embodiment by James Nelson
- Just Love by Margaret Farley
- Yes Means Yes! edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
- An Introduction (this post)
- My Story
- A Critique of Purity Culture
- Embodiment – Finding One’s Self
- Justice – Stewarding the Self in Relation to Others
- A Culture of Communication and Consent
The term “best practices” refers to a series of guidelines that, when followed, tend to lead to successful outcomes.
For example, in the computing world there can be a number of different ways to write a segment of computer code that will produce the same results. Think about this blog post that you’re reading right now. Underlying everything you see and read here are invisible lines of code that tell your computer browser where to put the text and the images, how to set up the columns that divide different parts of the page, and what color everything should be. Now there are lots of different ways to write those lines of code, but here’s the thing. Those lines of code should create web pages that look the same regardless of whether you’re using Chrome or Firefox or Safari on a Mac or a PC. In order to make sure web pages look the same across these different platforms, web designers work under a set of best practices that tend to bring about that consistency.
But here’s the thing.
An inexperienced web designer may write sloppy code that leads to a webpage that looks fine across different platforms. And sometimes even the most seasoned coder, operating well within best practices, will wind up with pages that don’t work as planned.
All that to say, what I propose to do with this series of blog posts is to offer some best practices when it comes to navigating singleness and sexuality in the church. Following these practices will not necessarily guarantee success and not following them does not necessarily mean that your relationships will end in failure. People are unique. Couples are unique. Because of that, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dating. Learning how to steward one’s sexuality in relation to/with another’s is something that takes practice.
One Last Thing
There are a lot of books about singleness, sexuality, and dating in the church. They generally tend to fall into two categories.
- Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Choosing God’s Best, and the Every Man’s/Woman’s Battle Series have a very negative view of sexuality for single people. The basic message is, sexual arousal outside of marriage is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
- Though in the minority, there are books like Rescuing Sex From the Christians that make the case that the Bible never prohibits unmarried couples from having sex.3
I am unsatisfied with both extremes and am hoping to reframe this conversation in a way that does not lead to a wanton abandonment of all sexual norms on the one hand, nor a strict, life-sucking, shame-inducing, sexual asceticism, on the other.
The problem with abandoning rules altogether is that relationships can become self-seeking and exploitative. The problem with the rules-based approach is that the rules often get in the way of a couple’s relationship with one another. To give you a preview of where I hope to land, I want to replace the culture of purity (and the culture of complete license) with a culture of communication and consent – a culture where couples are committed to caring for themselves and the other (in that order) through open dialogue, a culture where couples are surrounded by a church community that helps people in relationship live into the fullness of what God has for them as well as living up to the boundaries that the couple decide upon together.
1.James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburh Publishing House, 1978), 17.
2.Ibid., 17-18. I should state here that while I’ll be speaking primarily from a heterosexual perspective, I believe the principles and practices I outline will be applicable across the Hetero-LGBTQ spectrum. I will not take on the issue of biblical justifications for LGBTQ orientation, but I do operate from the viewpoint that God affirms (and I would even say, celebrates) sexuality in many (though not necessarily all) forms. My hope is that one need not agree with my theological stance to benefit from the practices I will be proposing, but I do want to be open and up front about where I am coming from and what I believe.
3.Clayton L. Sullivan, Rescuing Sex From the Christians (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 87-90.