Following the opportunity to explore what it might mean to do theology in the local church, Amy and I have just finished two terms of trying to facilitate and lead some worthwhile conversations. The first term involved gathering questions and laying foundations – on the first week we spoke about what it might mean to be a theologian and do theology, on the second week we talked about how to read the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) without switching off our brain, whilst on the third week we reflected on how Kingdom Theology might give us a sense of how to respond to the problem of pain and suffering. Over that first term we gathered a range of questions – some of which we attempted to answer in the sessions on the Bible and on suffering.
One of the biggest areas of questions, however, was around what the Church thinks about sex. So, for our second term, that is the topic we attempted to address. In week 1, we considered what it means that Jesus is rarely mentioned or involved in conversations around sexuality. For week 2, we tried to summarise the teaching of the whole Bible around sex and sexuality. Week 3, which we jokingly called ‘practical sex’, attempted to close off the series. As ever, I reproduce the script below, and would welcome comments.
Good Evening London! It’s great to see you all here, at this the third and final theology themed evening service of the term. This term we’ve been talking about how the sexual aspects of our identity and culture relate to following Jesus. This is of vital importance to think about because of the dire reputation of the church, and because it affects the way we think about all sorts of things, including ourselves. We want church to be a place where we can talk about these things without shame and awkwardness, so you are all incredibly welcome whether you’ve been here before or it’s your first time.
Our culture is rather interested with questions of sexuality and identity. Whether it was the story back in 2014 that Facebook would let you choose from over 50 gender options, the prevalence of romance and sexuality in tv and film, or the sheer volume of results that come up when you google ‘sex’ (which I wouldn’t normally recommend). The answer, yesterday evening at least, was just over 5 billion.
Questions of sex and sexuality are important, but are not the heart of, what it means to be human.
Our hearts are a vital part of us. And we often link them to the language of love. Last night Amy and I listened to a really helpful, if occasionally zany, talk from Jenn Johnson (a worship leader at Bethel Church), and she opened with a powerful picture of prayer:
“Put your hand on your heart…
Father we Love you, and I ask that you would give us clarity and conviction as we speak and pray and minister to one another. Holy Spirit, we love you, and we ask that you come in power this evening, leading us beyond our expectations and deeper into God’s presence and purposes. King Jesus, we love you, and we thank you for your sacrifice and the Kingdom you invite us in to. As we look to you to lead us, please give us soft hearts and open ears to pursue you. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen”
It isn’t a stretch to define the culture that we live in as a sexual minefield.
In a war, a minefield is a piece of land that looks relatively innocuous – yet buried just under the surface, triggered by the slightest touch or movement, are mines. Mines explode, disfiguring their victims in ways that would shock us all. Discussion of issues like this are vital, but also dangerous. People carry wounds, which be triggered by certain language and memories. Compassionate Christianity recognises this, and wants to engage, gently, crossing the minefield and defusing things where possible. Last Sunday, our Pastor Neil spoke about the difference between following a guide and following a map. A map might be accurate – but things could have changed. A guide, on the other hand, regularly traverses the terrain, knows what is going on, and the safe path’s through.
I believe that Jesus is our guide, and the Bible is a bit like a map.
In the first week we chose to focus on Jesus because ultimately everything that truly matters is found in him and has to be understood and interpreted in the light of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Now the risk when talking about sexuality is that we talk about it as Christians without talking about Christ.
We unpacked a little bit about what it means to understand Jesus as a sexual being. The son of God is fully human and fully divine and that means that part of his identity includes the desires and so on that we refer to as sexuality. Jesus engaged with and spoke to men and women of all ages and stages; children and also eunuchs, which is a biblical term that helps us to understand a little bit about people who may have been born in uncommon bodies or been castrated for various religious or political purposes, including intersex people. Jesus’ sexuality was not the most important part of his life but was certainly part of it and so it’s important for us to be mindful of it.
We need to be mindful of Jesus’ humanity. We focused quite a lot in the first week on the link that this has to our own experience, that when we wrestle with the human experience, including sexuality, we have a God who knows what it feels like and is with us. especially amidst a culture obsessed with sex. This is actually very like the culture that the early church found itself in. Michael Kruger who’s a scholar and New Testament studies writes :
“as Christianity emerged with a distinctive religious identity, the surrounding pagan culture began to take notice. And it didn’t like what it saw. Christians were seen as strange and superstitious—a peculiar religious movement that undermined the norms of decent society. Christians were, well, different… While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because they refused to engage in these practices.”
We need a resilient and informed faith, full of the Holy Spirit. We do that by looking to Jesus. It’s often and rightly said that the earliest expressions of the Christian faith like the Apostles Creed don’t mention things like sex and marriage. But they firmly stress Jesus humanity and this should challenge us to think slightly differently. The difference of course is that Jesus lived without sin. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that Jesus was tempted in every way but did not fall. When we say look to Jesus this has to involve the whole of ourselves. In Colossians Paul talks about Jesus as the perfect image of the invisible God.
In the second week, we dug into what the Bible actually says about sex.
We see in Genesis 1 that man and woman are made in the image of God. In those early chapters of Genesis we see the biblical picture of marriage between a man and a woman, the one flesh coming together in a joyful union. Jesus himself affirms this in the New Testament. He engages with people he meets with, and he also includes and affirms the humanity of those of us who are not married. We are all made in the image of God, but we know that the world is not perfect. People listen to the serpent instead of to God the Father and things go wrong. People who do not easily conform to the image of God, male and female, continue to exist – to be queer or intersex is not to be human, but, rather, to be human is to be fallen.
God’s people have had a strange relationship with sex distinguishing them from the world around them since the earliest times. It is important to state that God is not sexed. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is not male. God is not female. And this means a multitude of things. I can provide Bible references for these on demand but as I say this is by way of introduction. Gods people do not involve sex in their worship. If they’re being obedient, Gods priests do not involve sex as part of their job. God‘s people are invited in excruciating detail to honour him with every aspect of their lives.
The Old Testament, as a radical library of truth, offers us some clear teaching and it also gives us some beautiful poetry. We’ve got the earthy subtext of some of the Psalms, imagery in the Prophets, wisdom in Proverbs. In terms of the Bible itself being obsessed with sex there is actually an entire book in the library devoted to it. The Song of Songs is a 18+ adults only description of the relationship between a man and a woman loving each other!
Last time, we approached the tricky texts in places like Leviticus by watching a clip from the West Wing challenging how Christians apparently selectively interpret the Bible. I like this summary from Tim Keller of how we as Christians read the Old Testament:
“In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament. If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.”
I have recently found it interesting that Jesus and his disciples were actually ministering in a context with the expectation was that people would get married, perhaps like our own culture where sex seems to be a part of everything. So it comes as a surprise at various points that the disciples raise the idea that perhaps it might be better not to marry. And this is where the Bible gets really radical. In Jesus we find someone better than sex.
There was a brilliant story in Mark 12 where Jesus asked whose wife a woman will be who used to be married to seven different men. “Jesus replied, ‘are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in haven.’”
There is a hint here, again, of something better than sex, a more perfect form of love, that marriage points towards but is replaced by. It is a kind of love that will include every lover of Jesus, whatever our experience has been in life.
Christian prohibitions of adultery, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marriage are rooted in God’s good design for the world – rather than being from a few random verses with no wider principles.
Sex, and our sexuality, ultimately point towards our great love, Jesus. The Bible tells us the story of how creation begins with the wedding of a man and a woman – and it promises that the new creation will be ushered in by a wedding of a bridegroom, Jesus, and his bride, the Church.
These were the two main areas that we looked at. Firstly, putting Jesus back into the conversation, as centre of our lives, and a human who understands what it is to wrestle with sexuality. Jesus is an excellent guide through the minefield. Secondly, by considering what the Bible actually teaches, trying to challenge confusion over context and hermeneutics. I’ve tried to summarise in 8 minutes but if you think I’ve missed something, then do check out the scripts from the last two sessions.
We must remember where we’ve been from, where we are, and where we are going. Jesus isn’t calling us to flee back to a 1950’s vision for society – we are looking forward to the redemption of all creation, which includes a restoration of God’s good design in creation, before the fall. We cannot talk about this apart from a discussion of Jesus – otherwise our ethics and theology are not Christian.
So, this evening, we are going to try and wrap up this series by taking some of what we’ve thought about by applying it to our lives.
Firstly, though, we’ll break for discussion.
[For anyone reading this, the image below is the discussion questions we offered. We’d love your reflections in the comments!]
For the remainder of this evening, what we want to look at is the practical application of what we have thought about – because ultimately all of what we have talked about in the last two sessions is pointless if our actions don’t reflect our beliefs.
So we will start by looking at ourselves, then the society in which we live in, and lastly the church. When we look at ourselves, what might we easily label ourselves with, or find our ‘identity’ in?
It might be what stage of our career we are in, how popular we are, how intelligent we sound, how attractive we are or even our background. What is it that, when challenged, we are particularly sensitive about? That might be a clue about particular areas of our life that we are putting too much of our identity into.
In the society we live in, our sexual experiences and sexuality play an overwhelmingly big part in how we are rated and how we might rate ourselves. I am sure most of us will have heard of the film ‘the 40 Year Old Virgin’ – it went ahead and got an MTV movie awards and a Critics Choice movie award. I went on the IMDB website to get a summary of the plot and this is one of the summaries given:
‘Andy at the age of 40 still hasn’t had sex. He lets his secret slip at a poker game with his buds from work. After the revealing all his friends are on a mission to help get him laid. Along the way Andy meets a nice mom, Trish, and they fall head over heels for each other.’
Now I know it’s supposed to be a light hearted film and we can’t take things too seriously, but actually this is very normal way that society views sex. It means a huge amount. Think of the majority of the films coming out of Hollywood – sex is a huge part of the film, having a sexual partner, huge part of the narrative – important to the plot. So much of our identity is wound up in how sexually active we are and how we identify ourselves sexually.
As a Christian, one of the key things is realising that our identity is not something that we discover in ourselves, nor is it something we create. It’s something we receive and are given by the only person who can know our actual identity, which is the God who made us.
When we look at a painting, we know the painter created it – the painting didn’t create itself.
In the same way, when we look at ourselves, we aren’t the ones to create our own identity – we look to our creator, Jesus. So my identity as a Christian comes from the fact that I’ve been created by God and redeemed by him through the saving work of Jesus, not by my sexual activity or preferences. What freedom there is in that! That our identity is beyond the things around us, and our own feelings towards ourselves.
Our culture sometimes seems to say: “You are your sexuality,” that the sexual feelings that you have are the most you — that is, the real you. For Christians, that’s just not the case.
It’s a part of us, but not all of us.
The real ‘us’ is that we are made in God’s image and are loved with the most powerful, overwhelming and unconditional love we can ever imagine. A love so big that meant Jesus died for us. Philippians 2:15 reads: ‘So that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ We might feel like we need to be a particular way, to fit in, feel a particular way or have a particular view… but we are supposed to stand out like stars! Our lives have a different standard – we live on the rock of God, not the rock of our society.
We live for God, and for nothing else. When we talk about sexuality we want to use language that can describe an aspect of what is going on our my lives, but that doesn’t label/define us.
You might have noticed Tom and I have stayed away from talking about ‘gay’ people, ‘lesbians’, or ‘straight people’ for example. We have instead used the phrase ‘sex-same attracted’ or ‘opposite sex attracted’. There are two deliberate reason for this:
1) It takes away the label of ‘being’ straight or gay. We don’t need that label, because our identity is in Christ, not our sexuality. We might have sexual preferences… but this doesn’t define us.
2) No-one is ever referred to in the Bible as being gay, lesbian, straight, or bisexual – they are quite new terms. God’s word speaks only of sexual practices, because God sees past our sexuality. The Bible is God breathed – God puts sexuality in its rightful place.
It also isn’t as ‘black and white’ as being same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted – we are on a spectrum – it might be that we go through a phase, or become surprised at become attracted to someone we didn’t think we would be… there is no black and white in this area – sometimes there is but a lot of the time it is a spectrum of feelings. We don’t want to box people up: There is nothing wrong with using the phrases ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ – they are used normally in society, but just be aware how you are talking about people, ourselves, and the language we use. Language makes a difference.
So back to my original question… when we look at ourselves, what do we see? What do we easily find our identity in? It might be that our sexual preferences are an overwhelming part of how we see ourselves, what we rate ourselves against. There might be shame, embarrassment or fear associated with this part of our lives, and this might be hindering us from being honest with ourselves and God about how we are actually feeling. If this is you, if you feel shame about feeling same-sex attracted, have other sexual orientations, are embarrassed you’re a virgin, have been very sexually active, watch porn, whatever… we just want to say right now that you are loved by God.
Shame was never the intent for your life. When we stop looking up to God and look sideways, shame tries to attach itself to us. This is where it comes from. It isn’t of God. God was not confused when He created you. He made no mistake. The beautiful thing about the church is that it is full of a load of sinful humans with their own problems. We might have some people that look ‘shinier’ than others, but that’s just a facade.
When we bring darkness into the light, secrets into the open and reveal how we are really feeling about ourselves, it means God has space to fill us with His unconditional love. 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 honour God with your bodies.’ There is so much God wants to do in our lives – but we need to accept ourselves and how we are feeling. We need to stick our head out of the secret place and say yep, I’m going through this. Jesus I want to give this to you. It’s hard but it’s worth it.
Nothing surprises God!
Being honest and being vulnerable is one of the most powerful things we can do as Christians, and it makes the enemy quiver. It enables us to be strong in Jesus and live a life where the world around us, whether Christian or secular, can not stick any shame onto us, it simply falls off – because we can be fully whole from knowing our identity is in Christ and nothing else. If you feel like this could be you, whether this is in the area around the topic of sexuality or any other area where you feel you haven’t been able to be open, we would love to chat and pray with you at the end.
Now Tom is going to talk about this topic within the context of the society we live in.
We want to be a church that doesn’t start talking about sex with a list of rules, but instead by speaking of our great love, King Jesus.
We want to be a church that talks about sex, not as an ultimate expression of our identity but as a part of being human that Jesus cares about, speaks into, cares for, and wants to be involved in.
And we do that so that we can go out into the world, to the lecture hall and the coffee shop, the classroom and the kitchen, the office and the delivery route, we are inviting people to fall in love with Jesus, not drowning them in legalism and shame.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with warm greetings, thanksgiving, prayer, full of passion, and an interesting invitation: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”.
The reason we are talking about sex, and have been talking about it this term, is because we are called to have love that abounds, that we have more knowledge, and more insight, so that we can discern what is best.
So I’ve got three suggested ways to engage with the culture we find ourselves in. By engaging with culture, I mean thinking and praying about how to speak to people, spend time with colleagues, and how we can understand the things that we read and watch. How do we do that in a way that points people to Jesus, balancing truth and grace.
Firstly, we need to know Jesus. This might sound obvious, but there isn’t much point telling people something we don’t know ourself. The Bible is full of examples of Christians being challenged or persecuted – so we need to know the book in order to have a resilient faith. That way, instead of being obsessed with sex, we can show people Jesus, the true object of our obsessions, and person who can and does fulfil all our desires.
Secondly, be equipped and filled. The natural part of this is always the easiest – equipping takes place in the context of church, and I’d strongly encourage you to read the scripts of the last two weeks of this and check out some of the resources. We are always happy to talk or answer questions. That way, when someone at work asks us what we think, we’ve thought about it, and we can give them the truth in grace rather than word vomit or dodging the question. The supernatural part is harder – we invite the Holy Spirit in to our minds, our relationships, the opportunities that we have..
Thirdly, be prayerful and passionate. This is a blend of natural and supernatural. Are we praying for issues of identity and sexuality at all? For ourselves? For our families? For our friends? For our churches? For our world? And passion – by this I do not mean that we become obsessed, but rather that, as part of our diet of thinking and praying, we include ‘good food’ on this topic. Then, shaped by prayer and full of the Holy Spirit, we will grow in love, knowledge, insight, discernment and grace, for the glory of Jesus, because he is our first love. Then, we can see people as God seeing them, and be strengthened in persecution.
One of the resources we’ve found helpful is a book by a guy called David Bennett – this short video shares some of his story.
What I love about what David says is that there is no condemnation when we are brought into God’s family – this is the most beautiful thing! So, as a church, how can we support people who are walking a particular sexual journey so they know there is no judgement or condemnation, and know the truths of God’s best for us? There is no ‘correct’ way of doing it, but it is the kind of thing that as a church, if we want to be better at knowing how to approach this area, it might be useful to get our head around some general practical principles alongside doing the Bible reading, research and prayer that Tom talked about earlier. To try and make this memorable, I have linked three practical principles to three words that begin with ‘L’
- Talking about this kind of stuff makes anyone incredibly vulnerable, and they need to know you have their full attention.
- You don’t need to try and answer their questions or how they are feeling, but just listening and letting them talk is powerful – if hard sometimes.
- We see in the Bible that Jesus always started his ministry by listening to people. He never talked over the top of people or tried to solve anything – he listened.
- We see, for example, in the story of the woman caught in adultery – that Jesus saw past her situation and loved her as a person.
- He knew she was more than the action she committed – He saw past that, into her heart, into how God saw her – as a woman who needed to know she was loved and not shamed.
- It’s in this story that the accusers are complaining to him about the sin she has committed – but Jesus writes something in the sand that we aren’t sure what it is – but the result is that the accusers disperse.
- Jesus was not concerned about shaming this woman, unlike the accusers – he was concerned about loving her.
- Jesus always sees past our current state or actions – he knows we are more than that one thing.
- What we go through is important, we don’t want to undermine that, but it isn’t everything.
- No matter what situation someone is going through, we approach with love and listening.
- So listening and loving is something that crosses all situations, and is a general good principle when talking to someone who is opening up.
- The next part is ‘Live’. How do we come alongside that person and help them with their specific need? Listening and showing them they are loved isn’t always enough.
- It might be that someone has come out to you, you have listened to them, shown them love and you do feel equipped to know how to walk with them in this journey.
As Tom mentioned earlier, God gave us the Bible as a map, and there are so many resources out there to help us. Being prayerful and knowing what the Bible says is powerful and can be enough.
- It might be that there is another situation where someone opens up about something very deep-seated and shame-filled which requires more than just you being there for them. They may require extra prayer or people to be there for them.
At SWLV we have an amazing leadership team who are here to help us. When Tom and I first joined the church, we were still reeling from some pretty difficult times in our marriage. We met with the Woodwards and opened up about everything we had been through. Their response was amazing; they just sat and listened, they didn’t show judgement or surprise and made it very clear that they would do anything they could to help us in our walk at that time.
It might be that you trust a house group leader to help support that particular situation.
This is what house groups are for – to give space each week to be vulnerable and open about how we are actually doing.
As a church our aim is to support as best we can, every person in every walk of life – we are a church with no walls and want to embrace everyone no matter where they find themselves or how they define themselves. When we do this, we can help bring life back into hurting people and come alongside them in whatever way necessary, to ensure they feel listened to, loved and encouraged to walk in a way that draws them closer to Jesus.
We intended to share some more book recommendations, but ran out of time. So, with apologies to those who were there, here they are:
- Generally good book about sexuality and Spirituality – Todd Wilson’s Mere Sexuality (I really can’t recommend this enough)
- Important book to read about the wider cultural background – Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story
- Superb book on the interplay of Gay and Christian identity – David Bennett’s A War of Loves (Note particularly N. T. Wright‘s foreword)
- A book for those who are victims of, and relating to victims of, sexual assault – Justin and Lindsay Holcomb’s Rid of My Disgrace (a book I’ve re-read multiple times, and am still recommending)
- An excellent book for considering the practical application and spiritual importance of following Jesus in this area – Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem.