Joel Watts shares his thoughts about human sexuality and the United Methodist Church.
Watts is a nominee for General Conference in the West Virginia Annual Conference. His answers to other questions can be found here.
The dominant non-religious attitude in America toward sex is something like the attitude Americans have toward commercial transactions. So long as both parties are fully informed about what they are doing and agree of their free will, whatever they want to do is fine with most people.
The standard is the same whether you are standing in a pawn shop or cruising Tinder looking for a hook up.
Because this is the American attitude toward sex, it makes much of what the church says seem silly or reactionary or bigoted. What does God care if two people — or more — enter into a sexual encounter with open eyes?
That is the question.
And the problem is that it is impossible to answer without back-tracking pretty seriously.
You see, Christians historically have not accepted the idea that we own our bodies. We are created by God and redeemed by Christ. Our body — like everything else — is placed at our disposal for a span of time, but belongs to God. So, the notion that we can do whatever we feel like with it is a bit like the teenager who trashes his parent’s house when they leave town over the weekend. He was left in charge of the house, but he was not given license to do whatever he wanted.
Paul gets at this to a degree in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
This idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit gets into another issue.
Some people will ask why anyone should care about what another person does so long as “no one gets hurt.” The problem for Christians is that sin hurts someone. It hurts the sinner. It profanes the temple of the Holy Spirit.
By the time we go back this far, of course, we’ve totally lost non-Christian conversation partners. It is nonsense and foolishness to them. In truth, it is nonsense and foolishness to a lot of Christians because we have largely adopted the secular attitude about our own bodies.
I’m not sure how to combat this within the church. How do you get to the point where those of us who follow Jesus and read the Bible can see the way a biblical view of who we are is at odds with the commercial view? The commercial view gets so much more time to make its case, and has spent a lot more time crafting its message and delivery. I’m not sure how we get heard, even inside our own sanctuaries.
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.
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.
I’ve been reading Colossians this evening. Paul’s words about the new self we put on in Christ and the death we have died to flesh and earth and elemental spirits resound in my soul as I continue to struggle to see how the leaders of my church would have me read Scripture and live out a life of holiness.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Colossians 3:5-8, NIV)
On a purely exegetical level, what do we think Paul meant by the concept the NIV translates as “sexual immorality.” The NRSV uses “fornication.”
I’m trying to follow the advice of my biblical studies professors here. I’m not asking what we should make of this today. I’m just asking what Paul most likely had in mind by that litany of vices: sexual immorality, impurity, and lust?
My New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says the first, “sexual immorality,” is “a broad term denoting general sexual immorality that is also used more particularly of adultery and intercourse with prostitutes.” The word translated “impurity” “is usually associated with sexual sin.” The word translated as “lust” is primarily understood as “uncontrolled sexual appetite.”
While this helps some, it still leave unspecified what sexual sins are for Paul or what broadly falls under the heading of sexual immorality or manifestations of uncontrolled sexual appetite.
The commentary, written by Andrew Lincoln, reflects on these issues this way:
For example, it is because Christians want to celebrate the goodness of the sexual expression of human love in committed, lifelong relationships and to affirm the option of a healthy celibacy that they will be concerned, with the writer of Colossians, that the distorted practices of an uncontrolled and exploitative sexuality be rooted out or “put to death.”
I note that Lincoln equates Paul’s list of sexual sins with “uncontrolled and exploitative sexuality.” That looks to me like a narrowing of the ideas in Paul, but perhaps not.
I wonder what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words.
*Of course, many scholars dispute Paul’s authorship, but I’m going to go with tradition for the moment.
Paul in 1 Thessalonians calls on the church to live in a manner that will please God.
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, NIV)
This is not by any means a unique passage in the New Testament.
So, how do we interpret Paul’s words here? What does it mean to control our bodies in holy and honorable ways?