I recently added a morning conference entitled Human Sexuality: Discerning a Biblical Vision, hosted by the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association. It was a good morning with three different speakers talking about various issues – theological, pastoral, and practical. One speaker was Lis Goddard, talking about the pastoral issues involved. Of the three sessions, I probably found hers the most practically helpful and thought-provoking.
One of the complaints I often hear from the LGBT community when discussing this issue is that the church’s traditional position is nothing but ‘bad news’ for gay people. Why would you turn a gospel of good news into a gospel of bad news – forcing people who are attracted to those of the same sex to a life of celibacy? How could God ask anyone to do that, surely it’s impossible for anyone to actually manage?
I’ve been thinking about this issue recently. What I’ve been beginning to see more clearly is that you can’t simply articulate the traditional, Biblical vision of sexuality without saying anything positive. Let me try and explain.
I think many people have a vision of the traditional Christian ethic on sexuality as a list of rules: “don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this – and DEFINITELY don’t do that…” It’s an overwhelmingly negative picture. But that’s not the whole story: I don’t think the Biblical understanding of sex and sexuality is negative. It’s negative about the distortions we have of sex, after the Fall – lusts and desires of the ‘flesh’, as the New Testament often calls them – but it’s overwhelmingly positive about sex in its rightful context of marriage – that is, a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman.
Last year, at college I studied the Wisdom Literature. I wrote an essay about Proverbs and marriage, and one of the things that really struck me was how Proverbs argues for fidelity in marriage: it doesn’t just say “unfaithfulness is a bad thing for reasons x, y and z” and leave it there. It says, “rather than being unfaithful to another woman, be faithful to your wife and enjoy your relationship with her. Pour your energy into making a good relationship with her, and you will not desire unfaithfulness.” In other words, the command to faithfulness is not simply presented as the negative (don’t be unfaithful to your wife), but also positive (do love your wife and enjoy the relationship you have).
So what does this have to do with the matter in hand? Isn’t that, in fact, rather unhelpful to people who cannot enter into marriage? On its own, maybe, but I’ve been thinking recently whether this “negative-positive” kind of thinking may be applicable elsewhere as well. This is where Lis Goddard’s session from the conference comes in. One of the things she said was that the church has bought into worship of marriage and the nuclear family: marriage is held out as the ideal, and if for some reason you are not in that ideal, you are made to feel excluded from the church. She went on to say, “in worshiping marriage we have forgotten how to do friendship”. As I reflected on this, I felt particularly convicted: too often I think churches ‘family’ without emphasizing the fact that the church is called to be family.
Let me mention only two examples from the New Testament, one from the gospels and one from the epistles:
“[Jesus said] Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34)
“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:11)
The church is supposed to be a family, a family centred around Christ Jesus. The ‘nuclear family’ may be important, but so is the wider church family.
Following on from this, I do feel that friendship has been somewhat neglected in our culture. In an era where Facebook has made it common to call people you barely know ‘friends’ – is it really surprising that friendship has been somewhat devalued? Our culture makes an idol out of sexual fulfillment, and closely associated with that comes the idea that intimacy and closeness can only be found within a sexually active relationship. Unfortunately I think the church has somewhat bought into this lie – that friendships are valued less within the church than perhaps they ought to be.
But I believe that the Bible gives a different picture. I believe the Biblical picture is that closeness and intimacy are not something which require a sexual relationship. There is something unique about the marriage relationship, this is true, but are brothers and sisters in Christ supposed to be distant from one another? At college one lecturer in particular talked about the ‘one-another-ness’ of the New Testament. The New Testament continually exhorts the church to love one another, and how that love works out in the building of a Christian community. Surely that includes deep and meaningful friendships?
In her talk, Lis Goddard gave a few examples of people who had tried to embody this teaching in the church. There were a number of people she knew who lived together – shared their lives, went on holiday together, cooked together, etc. – without sleeping together. They sought to live out an orthodox Biblical vision of sexuality, while living in true Christian community. Although this particular path may not be open or desirable for everyone, there is no reason why celibacy should equate to loneliness in the kind of community which Christians are called to. (For a good read on Christian community, by the way, may I recommend ‘Life Together’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – wonderful book).
All this has been a long way of saying that, in our culture today, in our churches today, it’s not enough simply to give the cold orthodoxy of a Biblical vision of sexuality. We must be prepared to do the hard work of caring for people who are massively swimming against the tide when it comes to what our culture thinks about sexuality. The church is called to community, the church is called to love one another, the church is called to support each other and pray for each other and bear one other’s burdens. In other words, those of us who are orthodox on this issue need to put our money where our mouths are – we need to be prepared to back up orthodox Biblical teaching with loving pastoral care.
It’s about offering the positive side of living out the BIble’s vision for sexuality in all areas, rather than simply assuming everyone will follow one path (i.e. the nuclear family). It’s about investing in deep Christian friendships as part of genuine Christian community, rather than laying all the relational burden on marriage. It’s about giving people hope and a vision for their future, rather than a vision of despair and loneliness.
Finally, having said all this, we must bear in mind the eternal perspective. it’s important to remember that all struggles we have in this life point Christians forward to their eternal home with God. Jesus says in Matthew 19:29, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Whatever we give up now, whatever dreams we sacrifice in this life for God, are not meaningless. God sees. Any hardship now is a preparation for future glory, which is a good place to finish this blog post. There will come a day when we will be able to say, along with the apostle Paul as he looked back near the end of his life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:7-8)
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
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