Jesus — and five basic assumptions that inform dialogue on sexuality

The other day a distant acquaintance accused our church of not talking about sex enough  (in the neighborhood gossip column, at least). It was right after we enjoyed an open forum about our theology of sexuality attended by over 100 people! It never ceases to surprise me that the more one does something, the more excuse it gives a few people to criticize you for not doing it!

If anything, Circle of Hope has been a good place to work through the trauma of our over-sexualized society. As our forum uncovered, a lot of people have had painful sexual experiences, and not just because the powers that be limit their sexual expression (since they don’t really do that anymore). Sex is painful because they are confused. And it is painful because they get run over by the wave of immorality that is surging through the culture. (Maybe using the word immorality even made you uneasy, since who could say what that is?). It is painful because sex has become an incessant demand and a constant source of scientific study. And it is painful because a lot of people can’t figure out what Jesus says about it.

He wept over it
Enrique Simonet, 1892

Listening to people lately has helped me collect a few of the assumptions I often share when people want some spiritual direction about what to do with what they feel and how they are acting. When you only have your own impulses and a lot of societal pressure to work with, things can get confusing – and painful. So here are five things about Jesus that I think should inform how we have a dialogue about sexual behavior (among other things, of course). These five things will not solve everyone’s problems, and I’m not speaking from a place that has been processed by the leaders of the church, but I hope to name some basic things that guide life in Jesus and that apply to how we continue the dialogue about sexuality.

1) Jesus was not organized by sex.

We tend to be. I am often loathe to say it when I am listening to someone struggling with how they are going to have sex, but it has to be part of the process: I don’t think Jesus cares that much whether we have sex at all. He obviously thinks there are more important things in life. Paul’s logic leans toward seeing sex as a distraction to joy; it certainly is not the source of all joy. Some people take that fact to be a prescription. I just see it as a reality that should inform my reality.

2) Jesus did not exercise his rights, much the contrary.

We are tempted to think gaining and asserting our rights is a solution for most things. In this era, feeling justified about where one falls on the spectrum of sexual orientation, or justified about indentifying as, for instance, queer or pansexual is something of a crisis for a lot of people. But human rights are not a basis for salvation. God did not exercise God’s rights, quite pointedly, when submitting to being a human and then a slave to humans. Paul boasts of giving up his rights so he can have the experience of being free from them and having a larger purpose. Rights are important within oppressive contexts, which are most contexts. But having freedom in Christ is more important than having it granted by the powers that don’t follow Jesus.

3) Jesus’ resurrection proved that he was, surprisingly, on the right side of history.

We are tempted to suspect that Jesus might be old-fashioned. But being on the right side of human history is not a Christian concern. If there is anything we have always been on, it’s the wrong side of history – at least a view of history based on humankind’s capacity to get it all right in the end. We’re participants with everyone else, but our view is based on God’s capacity to bring it all to right in the end. Jesus showed up the foolishness of human understanding concerning how one’s personal history works out by rising from the dead. Paul clearly teaches that we are already living in the first days of our eternity. Our participation in history will not define us, but God’s participation in it already has. The world may be evolving in a certain direction without God, but we are moving in another with Jesus.

4) Jesus is an outcast; he is not just kind to outcasts.

We tend to think love is being nice to people others are not nice to, since that is certainly part of it. But people who see the world from a position of power often feel that their best love is shown by their kindness to outcasts. They want to include people in the empire where everyone has a bit of the police and rescue squad embedded in their character. Their empire will save the world (like the U.S. did in Iraq). Having that outlook makes it difficult to follow Jesus — because Jesus is not just kind to outcasts, he actually is one. We are enjoined by Paul and the writer of Hebrews to embrace being the “scum of the earth” so we can embrace our dependence on God, not rely on our own power or the power the godless domination system deigns to give us. This condition does not mean we are not kind to outcasts but it does change what we think kindness is: more solidarity than inclusion.

5) Jesus offered an open, positive approach and got killed.

We tend to save ourselves with avoidance. Even so, I think we, and many other believers, have overcome that and have been practicing an open, positive approach to the dialogue on sexuality (and sexual morality). That openness may not be noticed or even welcomed by someone bent on making us look bad. But take heart, a quick scan of the gospels will show Jesus offering the bread of life and people accusing him of being demon possessed and of trying to overthrow the government. Paul and John appear to feel they are getting treated the same way. If you are doing the best you can to not let truth kill or love lie, it still may not be enough to satisfy some people. I think we should suffer not being enough, not write unsatisfied people off, and keep serving. Our imperfection is no surprise. If we have trouble dealing with each other that seems normal — it can’t be easy for Jesus to deal with me, either. Besides, none of us knows everything we think we know, so someone’s dissatisfaction with us may have something to teach us.

Summing up big thoughts in little paragraphs is never enough. Each of the five things above probably deserves the question, “But what about…?” I am just going for underlying assumptions, not trying to figure out all their applications. But we need starting points for making decisions. In all the dialogue about sexuality and morality, there are a lot of “”But what abouts…?” to work though. I pray that we continue to be a safe place in Christ to explore them.

More dialogue:

The both/and of our ongoing dialogue of love

Dialogue, Rights and Why It Is Hard to Build a Safe Place (1999)

The difference between acceptance and agreement

New birth through confict

I still want to talk

10 thoughts on “Jesus — and five basic assumptions that inform dialogue on sexuality

  1. Hi Rod!
    I just wanted to make sure those people knew that this is not a summary of the meeting, but your reaction to it the conversation (as I understood by the bold sentence in the third paragraph). If you were not at the meeting and want to continue the dialogue, seek out someone who was there! It was such an hopeful time to see and hear the Spirit move among the body.

    1. Good call Jill. Who could summarize that meeting? I did not intend this to be a compilation of all my thoughts or reactions, either. Not at all. I was moved to offer some biblical basis for the ongoing “third way” we are making between somewhat conflicting thoughts. So thanks for causing a clarification.

  2. I am leaving a comment because I am concerned that this blog is becoming an echo chamber, and I’m worried about what that means for the Circle community. People that agree re-post it. People that do not agree seem to steer clear. I think we’re missing each other along the way.

    Speaking as a huge fan of Rod’s teaching, I am disappointed in this post, as well as others related to the City Paper and PGN pieces. Just some quick points: 1. The PGN piece was not a gossip column. 2. I don’t think one could reasonably expect the PGN author to know about a totally unique meeting that only covenant church members were aware of. 3. The PGN author was not accusing COH of not discussing sexuality; he was making a case that COH is discriminating against and silencing gay people (whether we agree or not).

    Of course, I don’t think either the CP or PGN articles were entirely fair to Circle. Much of the tone feels like lashing out; it’s true. But I think it’s time we seriously discerned these articles as a community, rather than writing blogs attempting to repackage the anger and pain of the authors/subjects of these pieces. Is there really NOTHING we can learn from them? Do we really feel they raised ZERO fair concerns?

    A last point: I don’t think the purpose of Jesus giving up his rights was to encourage us to tell others to give up their rights — especially when we are currently enjoying those very same rights.

    1. You make good points, Bruce, as usual.
      1. Letters to the papers were gossip in the generally accepted use of the word: “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”
      2. That being said, I don’t think I need to condemn the authors and I do think they have good points.
      3. I think I agree with your point on the rights. Telling someone that the rights you exercise are rights they can do without is oppressive, right? I think the consistent teaching in the scripture is dealing with just that starting place. Whether the world deigns to give us rights/power or not, we are free in Christ and have all the rights of a citizen of heaven. This gives us many more choices about how to exercise our “worldly” rights. Paul teaches about this extensively, Jesus demonstrates it dramatically.

    2. Bruce — I happened upon this comment again. 1. I still say the papers reported gossip, not corroborated facts — prejudicial and detrimental. 2. I agree. He spoke without awareness. 3. I agree.

      I think we have learned a lot from the conflictive situation. This particular post was not all new learning caused by it, but it was re-emphasized understandings applied to a new situation. I like where we have come. And while I am distressed about being perpetually slandered on the internet by a couple of people. I feel good about how Jesus has turned the slander into truth-telling and community-building for us.

  3. Thanks, Rod. I really do think Jesus gave up his rights to save us. I’m following his example. How does Jesus free us? He dies for us.

    Also, I think Jesus’ resurrection did prove he was on the right side of history, but for me, I think Jesus IS the right side of history. I want to be on his side even if the world accuses me of being ont he wrong side of history. Jesus shouldn’t and can’t fit into our philosophical constructs, and if he does, we should really reconsider our thinking.

    1. Just so we remember what many people are saying when they talk about the “right side” is what King was saying when he quoted a Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker: the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I am not sure King and Parker are right, but I have to respect the sentiment and the hope in what they said. People who want to make the world better are on the side of people who are persecuted for merely being different or disempowered — whether they follow Jesus or not.

  4. RE: #1., Yes, that’s very true, but to not get the wrong idea: he wasn’t indifferent about sex, and did have some significant things to say about it. And similarly, I don’t think you are indifferent either.
    Also, to add a “But what about…”: something I personally assume, when talking about Jesus and sex, is that covenant will be part of the conversation; covenant with God, with church, with partner. Even if it’s just to say that there is or isn’t a covenant at work in the mix.

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