For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #4 most read post of 2014. Last June I tried to keep our conversation about sexuality going by publishing a variation on the theme of our statement we made after our lively “Doing Theology” session in the spring.
All year we have been trying to get out of the congress-type polarization of the Church’s dialogue about sexual expression and get into the grace of staying focused on everyone’s redemption. I think we are doing a good job. The pastors came up with a statement on marriage in March and taught it to the cell leaders. I think it is a good summary of where we have come so far. This post is based on that statement. What follows are three big points about marriage and sexuality and some basic ideas that might help apply them.
The apostle Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit is making the body of Christ out of the Lord’s followers (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), which he could have easily done. The placement is important to note. Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation, but it is not equally important in the new creation.
In Christ, we are all bigger than the traditions that used to make up our identities. For instance, when Paul is talking to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).
When we are talking about the new traditions people are making and legislating about marriage and sexuality in our era, it is important to remember that what counts is the new creation. How I relate to everyone who is finding their way: relationally, sexually and otherwise, is based on this kind of thought: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
There is more to you than your marriage or lack of one
Making families is great, but the ultimate in family comes from relating as brothers and sisters in Christ and respecting God as our true parent. That is a reality that takes the work of our Savior and the power of the Spirit to experience.
Jesus affirms the oldest teachings in the scripture about marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). Elsewhere in the New Testament we are taught that marriage is to be honored by all; all the Bible writers assume they are talking about a relationship between a man and a woman, lifelong and exclusive. At the same time, marriage is not considered the ultimate expression of love and commitment; love and commitment come from Jesus and are most fully realized in the body of Christ. Within that inspired and diverse body, composed of everyone who can name Jesus as Lord, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Every Jesus-follower is honorable and must be honored because each is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:5-7).
Our relationships with God through Jesus Christ are what define us. Our ultimate identity is not about how we are married or how we have sex, just like it is not about where we live or any other labels the world may slap on us.
The Church has slapped some labels on people, too.
Circle of Hope’s way of responding to our era’s new approaches to sexual expression has been based on the spirit of the preceding teaching from the Bible. At the same time, we know that the church has rarely been a safe place, historically, for sexual nonconformity. Many people have been oppressed and injured. One of the reasons people are deserting the church in vast numbers these days is not just because the members of the church do not live in the Spirit or do not express new creation life, it is because the church is even more oppressive than the world!
Because of this reality, we have tried to be even more careful to welcome every person as they are, no matter where they are on their journey, and have been committed to walk with them as they discover the fullness of what God has for them. We don’t do this just because people won’t like us if we don’t; we do it because Jesus is doing the same thing with us! Especially in regard to how people experience marriage, we don’t need that to be a big issue when we first meet someone. After all, we think that the best place to find fullness as one’s true self is as an honored member of the body of Christ, not in a sexual relationship, married or otherwise. So we try to keep our focus where the focus should be.
Some people might prefer a detailed policy statement
Our approach requires a great deal of love and personal commitment, not just careful adjudication or implementation of regulations. As Jesus-followers we need to love real, complex people with an unfolding future, not just organize identities as if we were the Social Security Administration. We want to have faith that requires our best — and loving people as they are will require our best. Being personally gracious and hospitable takes a lot of time and patience, but the commitment it takes to work out our love in the ways we are directed is worth it.
Here are some basic applications of the scripture that answer questions people have about what we are talking about:
What about the pressure to choose a sexual identity? Sexual arousal is a characteristic of a person, not their identity. How we respond to our arousal and the feelings themselves tend to be fluid and are subject to the same temptations and maturation as are all our ways. Jesus is Lord of all our feelings and ways. We seek to honor each person as they experience their feelings and find their way along their unique journey as a member of the body of Christ.
What about the increasing experience of living together as sexual partners before marriage? Generally, sexual expression should happen within a relationship founded in a marriage covenant. Couples who cohabit as sexual partners without a public commitment should consider themselves married. Likewise, if they break up, they should consider themselves divorced. The rights the nation gives or withholds regarding marriage and other relationships are superseded by our life in faith as part of the new creation.
What about same sex attraction? Jesus followers who have same sex attraction are no less honorable than anyone else. They are going to work out their sexuality in a variety of ways, as they are convicted and gifted.
- Some will choose celibacy and struggle alongside Jesus and Paul.
- Some will choose to have a committed relationship that is like the marriage described in the New Testament; it will not be the same as marriage between a man and woman (except in a legal/political sense, as legislated), but it can be a faithful response to desiring a moral sexual expression.
- Some will marry a person of the complementary gender and not express their other attractions, as all married couples are called to do.
- Some may struggle with what to do and others may cause struggles with what they do.
There does not need to be one approach to marriage and sexual expression that supposedly meets the needs and aspirations of all people. All approaches to marriage do not need to be seen as equal in value or validity. The key to unity in diversity is the work of grace that enables disparate people to manifest the Spirit for the common good. We all experience brokenness, sin and loneliness in our loves; so we will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). What counts is the new creation.