Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

World Vision, gay folk, Cedarville University and women

This past week two Christian institutions both made the news in regards to some interesting decisions.

World Vision, the huge Christian aid and development charity (huge as in, a one billion dollar budget – the country budget for Somalia alone this year was around $40 million), decided it would not refuse to hire people who were involved in same-sex marriages. (With 1,100 employees at headquarters, they figured they had some who were gay, and this, among other things allows for their partners to have health benefits). They claimed they were trying to do three things: “First, to focus on the aspects of the biblical mandate that are non-negotiable: caring for the poor, victims of injustice, and especially children,” said Dearborn. “Second, to contribute to the unity of the church around those things, at a time when the church is fractured. And third, to contribute as a result of that to the credibility of the gospel and the church in the eyes of American society.”[1]

But wait. A firestorm of response (and cancelled child sponsorships) from evangelicals caused WV to reverse course, publicly apologize, and withdraw the provision. My college age son asked me what I thought, and it’s this: To be sure, I certainly desire legal rights for all people. I like living in a free country. I cherish our freedoms as precious. (Leave my guns alone, by the way). In this free country, someone doesn’t have to share the sexual ethics of my religion for me to want legal protections and rights for them. Alongside this, in this free country, religious organizations are allowed to follow their conscience about ethical issues, including sexual ethics.

Christian organizations are in a tough spot here, potentially balancing health benefits to a few handfuls (or even a few hundred) employees vs. say, feeding tens of thousands of children. Even those organizations who really want to grant access to excellent health benefits regardless of someone’s sexual orientation, have to balance that with accomplishing their larger mission. I think if I were a gay person working for them, I might say “feed the children; I don’t want hundreds of thousands of kids potentially losing the sponsorships by which they survive so that I can get my partner health benefits… I’ll get insurance some other way.” Or I’d work for someone else, but that’s just me.

During this same week, Cedarville (Baptist) University in Ohio seems to have abolished co-ed theology courses. I say “seems” because alumni are reporting this, but official statements from the school don’t say it explicitly. What IS clear in school documents is that all but one of CBU’s female theology profs have left, women are not allowed to take the pastor track major, and they have officially banned men from taking classes on women’s ministry taught by a woman. Alumni are claiming that, since women shouldn’t teach men according to the Bible, male theology students can now only be taught theology by male professors. Many of us evangelicals will roll our eyes, shake our heads and laugh saying What next – the burkha? We will say things like “How can they stick with these views of women – this is crazy. What are they afraid of?”

But my point is the way we treat Bible verses about women and homosexuality. The irony of Cedarville’s woman question and the gay question at WV during the same week is not lost on me. My friends to both the right and the left of me theologically will both say to us evangelicals, “You’ve exegeted your way around the verses that say no women teaching men or speaking in church, what’s stopping you from exegeting your way around the 5 verses in the Bible about homosexuality?” My more conservative friends will mean that women should sit down and shut up in church. My more liberal friends will mean we need to drop our prejudice against homosexuals just like we have against women. Both will accuse us of speaking out of both sides of our mouths.

And it’s easy to see why they would say this. They’re right: we have a handful of verses against women in ministry leadership, and we’ve successfully built exegetical and Scriptural arguments against and around them. We have a handful of verses about homosexuality and some Christians have built similar exegetical arguments against them, saying they don’t refer to the kind of monogamous same-sex marriages we see today. They will also remind us that 150 years ago people used the Bible to defend slavery, and had very strong, reasonable arguments that the Bible never condemns slavery, accepts it as normative, and instructs masters how to act – explicitly endorsing it! So it’s not hard to see why some of our friends will accuse us of not being consistent with how we handle these two issues.

I will watch with great interest to see how this discussion of the exegesis of bible verses regarding homosexuality unfolds for evangelicalism in general, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, in the coming decades. What happened at World Vision is not going to go away. Hopefully what happened at Cedarville will, but religious freedom should, and does, give them the right to make those decisions. I just find it curious that anyone wants to be part of that.