What Christians think about sex

University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus reports on the attitudes of several groups regarding various sexual norms. The survey includes categories for church-going (at least 3 times a month) Christians who support same-sex marriage and those who do not.

The findings are interesting.

It is worth reading Regnerus’ entire article as he is careful not to overstate the interpretation of his data and cautions against some easy mistakes we might make in reading the numbers above.

Biblical morality without the Bible

Victor Paul Furnish does not want us to use the Bible poorly. He wants to steer us clear of interpretations that have no credibility in the eyes of the world and ethical arguments that are based on flawed conceptions.

Biblical statements about the nature of the universe afford a useful analogy. Insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture, that creation is a gift of God and that we are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given, they may and must be constantly affirmed. However, we would be irresponsible in our stewardship of creation were we to rely on them for specific judgments about the morality of, for example, strip-mining, clear-cutting the earth’s rain forests, or colonizing other planets; for what was presupposed in antiquity, and therefore in Scripture, about the physical properties of the universe is demonstrably wrong.

This interesting little argument from the opening chapter of the book The Loyal Opposition will be used by Furnish in the next few sentences to makes some arguments about sex, but before we read those, I wanted to dwell for a few moments on this passage.

A few things strike me as interesting here.

First, Furnish posits the existence of something called “the fundamental witness of Scripture” and then goes on to provide a summary of that fundamental witness. What is not at all clear is how this witness was arrived at and who has declared it the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding creation.1

In Wesleyan theology, we do have something called “The Analogy of Faith,” which does summarize a grand framework for interpreting the Bible.

For John Wesley, that “sense of the the whole” was reflected in how he understood the way of salvation: humans have a problem that God overcomes in Jesus Christ, so that our sin is forgiven and we are able to live a new life of inward and outward holiness.

I suspect Furnish has some sort of similar encapsulation of the whole message of Bible, but I am not sure exactly what it looks like or if it is compatible with a Wesleyan theology.

Second, Furnish appears to believe that it is dangerous to make moral judgments about colonizing Mars based on the teachings of the Bible about the nature of the universe. He says, indeed, it is irresponsible to do so. I’m not sure, however, what the concern is. Certainly it would be a bad idea to use the Bible as a technical or astronomical manual for planning a trip to Mars. The planet Mars is not, in fact, a light in the firmament that encircles the Earth. But the engineering challenges of travel to Mars is something quite different from the moral questions about whether we should invest time, talent, and energy into making the trip. It seems to me that the Bible has a lot to contribute to that discussion.

In short, I do not understand why the Bible’s statements about the windows of heaven and the pillars of the Earth matter at all in any morality of creation stewardship. Scientific knowledge is quite useful, but does it tell us anything about the morality of strip mining that we could not say if we knew nothing about geology?

These questions repeat as I read the next few lines of Furnish’s paragraph.

Similarly, we may affirm the biblical statements about sex, insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture that sex is part of God’s good creation, for which we have continuing moral responsibility. But scriptural counsels about sex that are based on discredited presuppositions can be of no specific help as we consider what it means in actual practice to be faithful stewards of our God-given sexuality.

Here we see the same issues. Who, exactly, determined the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding sex? The Bible does speak of sex quite a bit, but I’m not aware of any place where it is discussed as a generic thing for which we have some undefined moral responsibility.

And what do the debatable historical conclusions of scholars about the nature of sex — which Furnish argues discredit the biblical texts — really tell us with any certainty? Our “knowledge” about sexuality today or 2,000 years ago bears little resemblance to empirical science. An operational definition of the term “sexuality” that permits observation and measurement of the phenomenon has proven elusive, to state just one major problem with treating the topic of sex like a science. If biblical statements about sex have been discredited, it is because biblical notions are out of fashion in gender studies and sociology departments at universities, not because there has been an empirical breakthrough with regard to the meaning of the word sexuality and its attributes. We have no Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo when it comes to sex.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way we are urged to be morally responsible and to steward faithfully the God-given gift of sex in a context in which the term “morally responsible” has no meaning. If the witness of the Bible on sex reduces to the claim that it is good and we should be morally responsible in our sexuality, then we have to look outside the Bible for guidance on what it means to be morally responsible with regard to sex.

Indeed, in the end, our “biblical” ethic of sex ends up looking exactly like the ethic of sex we would adopt if the Bible had never been written. The Bible has been reduced to a vague “fundamental witness” that provides no independent teaching on the will of God or moral behavior.

All of this is my way of saying that the proposals of the sexual progressives in the United Methodist Church about the way we should use scripture in our theological discernment strike me as incoherent from the point of view of our theological heritage and task. What Furnish and others appear to be advocating is a sexual ethics that looks exactly like the sexual ethics devised by the world that does not read the Bible or call Jesus Lord.

I suspect Furnish would argue that he is merely using the best understanding of modern science and scholarship to inform his reading of Scripture. He is using reason. But other than saying the word “God” I don’t see how his ethics of sex is in any way distinguishable from the consensus opinion that center-left upper middle-class America would come up with independent of the Bible.

Which may explain why our ethics around issues such as the use of money also bears almost no resemblance to the biblical conversation around money. Indeed, it may be that our successful efforts to exclude the Bible from our economics may have set the stage for the argument that Furnish would have us make with regard to sex.

But that is probably a conversation for another day.


1I also find Furnish’s description of creation as a “gift” of God and also something over which we must exercise good stewardship confusing. I have always understood a steward to be one who has control over something owned or possessed by another. A master does not give his estate to his steward as a gift, but as a responsibility. This may be a minor semantic point, but it does raise questions for me.

We already have a local option

One of the things that rang most true to me in reading Adam Hamilton’s explanation of the document he helped draft, A Way Forward, was his observation that we already do many of the things the document calls for.

Cabinets already make appointments to churches based on the fit between congregations and pastors on theological issues. We already ordain clergy regardless of whether they observe the standards of sexual practice we set for them. We already have clergy conducting wedding services that violate the language of the Book of Discipline. Depending on who you are, where you live, and who your cabinet is we have different sets of rules, norms, and practices that more and more turn a blind eye to the words of our Discipline.

This truth was underscored for me this week when I read of the appointment of Amy DeLong to a church in Wisconsin and the upcoming celebration at the church to welcome Rev. DeLong and her partner Val Zellmer to their new parsonage home.

We already have a local option.

The question is whether we want to endorse and ratify it as Hamilton suggests or try to roll it back. Given those to options, I understand why some are talking about leaving.

 

Welcome to Corinth?

An online pornography site is taking its advertising public.

This story about the ad campaign — which I can’t figure out how to link to without linking to, but it would not be appropriate for reading in church, so be warned — calls the ads tasteful. This is a new meaning of the word “tasteful” that is unfamiliar to me.

This is the culture that tells the church it needs to loosen up about sex.

Understanding the argument on sex & gender

I’d never read the “Welcoming Toolkit 2.0” before Saturday. It is a document that advises those who are trying to organize their congregation to adopt a public stance known as “reconciling” or “welcoming” or “open and affirming” with regard to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, or queer.

It is a really impressive document that rivals anything I’ve seen when it comes to analyzing a congregation and leading a process of change. The Appendix on how organizations change would be useful for any church leader in any setting, for instance. The document is a testimony of the skill, expertise, and funding behind the movement.

One thing that I found helpful in my quest to understand the debates and arguments in our denomination was Appendix Nine (pp. 43-48), which outlines a the way members of the church are invited to understand issues of sex, identity, and attraction. It is the closest thing I’ve found to a comprehensive theological statement about how the movement would have us understand who we are. The statement is not at all theological, of course. It is based rather on the work of Indiana University’s own Alfred Kinsey, who was the son of devout Methodists according to his Wikipedia profile. But it does outline what we are invited to affirm.

The Appendix argues that the idea that humanity was created male and female is a woefully inadequate way of describing us. Rather, we are beings who exist along a continuum of experience between the poles of male and female with no normative expectation that we should treat biological sex, gender identification, gender expression, or sexual orientation as properly understood in either/or terms. (If that is confusing, go read the Appendix for further explanation. One key concept is that sex is a physical biological category and gender is a psychological and social construct that may or may not have anything to do with biological sex.)

The bottom line argument is that since some people do not fit within the binary categories of male and female, the categories should be set aside in favor of a set of four continua: sex, gender identification, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Any individual might occupy any spot on each of these four continua.

What I think the basic move entails is taking description of natural diversity for a norm. So, because there are people who are born with sexual organs that are not clearly male or female, we should reject the notion that the only two normative categories are male and female. Similarly, because some people who are biologically male are sexually aroused by and attracted to other biological males (or people who express their gender as male), the notion that sex should be between people of opposite genders should not be affirmed.

So, for instance, we are invited to embrace the notion that sexual attraction to the people of the opposite biological sex is not normative or God’s intention in creation, but one possible position along a continuum of equally holy and blessed options. (The theological language here is mine not the document’s, but this is a document for the church, so I assume it is not out of place.)

Here is how Appendix reflects on one implication of this melange of categories:

Remember in the graph of the Kinsey scale, the ends of the scale refer to same and opposite gender. How can there be a same or opposite with gender in such a mix? This is why some people who are attracted to people of a variety of genders identify not as bisexual (which still implies that there are only two genders) but as pansexual or queer. For them, these words better reflect their experience of falling in love with a person rather than a gender.

So, here are some of the take-aways I hear in this document.

The terms “male” and “female” provide an inadequate binary choice in defining who people are. We should, rather, teach that people may be male, female, or any combination of the two. Similarly, the gender people identify with (woman or man) has no tie and should have no necessary tie to biological sex. At the center between the poles of man and woman, the Appendix offers a third gender, “queer,” that is neither of the other two. Beyond this, since how people express gender is socially determined, there can be no norm, certainly not a theological one, regarding to the ways people of various genders (or no gender?) act, dress, speak, or otherwise behave. Finally, because of all this, there is no coherent or justified reason to deny that God blesses all forms of sexual attraction and sexual activity between two consenting adults. (The “two consenting adults” part is not stated in the document, but I assume it is implied.)

This may not fairly sketch out the approach to questions of sex and gender being outlined in the document. It is my attempt to do so.

What is clear from the Appendix is that this is not a theological argument. But, of course, it does have theological implications. I’ve not heard any of the public voices for an “inclusive church” lay this all out so clearly. I am glad to have found a place where it is set out for full consideration and reflection.