Last week I was asked to speak to a group of church leaders on the above title. I suspect I was asked to do this on the basis that I seem to speak (or blog?!) about nothing else these days! However I understood the dilemma. We are conscious that Christian sexual ethics are regarded with suspicion in modern society. Furthermore we can feel reticent to speak on the subject when we are aware of failure, even if only at the level of our thought lives. And there is the awareness that we don’t know the issues that may be facing the people in front of us which gives the sense of walking on egg shells. So it is easier to find something else to talk about.
I made six points in a slightly haphazard “here are some random thoughts” way. Here are the first two:
1. We must talk about it.
I was struck by this whilst reading Glynn Harrison’s book A Better Story a couple of years ago. He noted that Christian young people faced a “double jeopardy of shame.” They are aware that they are out of step with the attitudes in the playground or common room on sexual issues. Inevitably they are tempted to feel ashamed of this. But they can also feel ashamed in church. They have developed sexual desires and often that can bring a sense of shame when they don’t know what to do with them. If they are met with a chorus of silence from the church the result will be either ongoing private discomfort or they will go back to, say, social media to get advice on handling their sexuality. We must do better than silence.
I mentioned in a previous blog how thankful I was for the application that one preacher made on the subject of sexuality when I was young(er). It was one of a series of applications he made in a conventional sermon on Ephesians 1 but it was utterly life changing for me as a first year student and I still recall the impact of it 24 years on. There is lesson here for preachers: when talking about issues such as identity, suffering or perseverance it is good to mention sexuality as one area where these themes will be relevant. Perhaps it could even be a potential area of application when homegroups study the Bible? After all, it won’t simply be young people who carry silent shame.
2. Connect the Gospel and sexuality
One of our problems is that we have tended to hive off sexuality into ethics or contemporary issues. That means that some people have been able to claim that they still love Jesus whilst casting aside a Christian ethic on sexuality. Others have stayed faithful but with a sense of “I know it is in the Bible but I don’t like it”- making God like the parent who makes us eat sprouts. Looking back a number of my early talks on sexuality ended up being true but not very emotionally compelling. On other occasions sexuality has been used simply as a case study in how the country/church has wandered from the truth- which may be right but doesn’t make the Christian position inherently attractive. In response to this I want to campaign to bring the Gospel in whenever we talk about sexuality.
In part we can do this by always offering the forgiveness of Christ for sexual failure. That is relatively easy to do as Jesus Himself does it often enough in the Gospels.
Furthermore we can do it by reminding people that Jesus Himself taught on sexual issues. I am slightly bored of the argument that Jesus has nothing to say on the subject of marriage. In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked a question about divorce and responds by defining marriage. He goes back to God’s plan at the beginning in Genesis. “‘The Creator made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh’”. In other words, Jesus defines marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman and this is the appropriate context for a sexual relationship. If you argue with a traditional Christian ethic on sexuality your problem is actually with Jesus. I never talk about sexuality these days without Matthew 19 being my main text.
But that can still leave us with a sense of “Maybe but I don’t like it.” At which point I want to say that human sexuality is a signpost to the most wonderful reality in the universe. The Bible starts and ends with a wedding. Human marriage points forward to the ultimate marriage of Jesus and the Church. The Creator chooses to marry creatures. We might be married to a human being for about 0.00001% of our actual existence but, if we are Christians, we will be married to Christ for 99.99999%. Our problem is that we start with human marriage and then say heaven will be a bit like that. But we would be more biblical if we started with all our focus on the divine wedding day and proceeded to think about human sexuality from that.
This has massively rich potential. When somebody asks me these days why Christians have a particular approach to sexuality my answer is “Because of the love story at the heart of the universe”. That means I get to talk about Jesus and the Gospel- which is what I actually want to talk about.
And it has vast potential for good in terms of discipleship. It encourages the Christian to live as one who is engaged. It helps those who are married to see their goal as pointing towards ultimate reality rather than loading more weight on their passing marriage than it can reasonably bear. And it means that though singleness will be painful it is not ultimate disaster- for the best wedding of all is still to come.
Occasionally I have to explain briefly our position on marriage as a church. I have made it my policy never to talk about it without a using a phrase something like this- “We believe marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman because it is a picture of Jesus and the church.” I would commend that- perhaps particularly to those who are fighting denominational battles on the subject. This is not peripheral: it goes to the heart of the Gospel and it is good news.
And speaking like this means I also get to use my favourite phrase- The Christian’s future is to have a leading role in the greatest royal wedding in the universe. It will be good.
Never speak about sexuality without speaking about the Gospel.
I’ll aim to write up the remaining four points next week.