Context for this talk
1. The issue of homosexuality, civil partnerships and gay marriage. It is an issue with which I have been wrestling ever since theological college when some students boycotted the communion service we had with members from other theological colleges because one of the students at one of the other colleges was in an openly gay relationship.
2. The ground has shifted seismically in the last few years. Most people under the age of 40 cannot see what Christians are going on about. To them it seems that we are ungracious and intolerant. It has meant that a whole generation has written off the bible without really knowing what is written in it.
And I have struggled with the fact that we preach grace, and yet on this topic appear legalistic.
Sexuality raises profound questions
There is the question of identity:
Who am I? We identify ourselves in contrast to others. I am this and not that. And our sexuality is one of the strongest factors in helping us to form our identity. I am male not female, or female not male.
There is the question of motivation:
What makes me do what I do?
What makes me do what I do?
Our sexuality is one of our strongest drivers. Freud would say that it is the strongest of our drivers (it is interesting that Freud argues this. Pre-Renaissance man would have argued that fear of God was the greatest driver, but once you remove God from the picture .. ). But if we don’t go as far as Freud, we have to admit that sexual attraction, finding another person attractive or desirable, has a significant impact on how we relate to them.
Gordon MacDonald writes, ‘Not many men can remember the exact moment that new kind of awareness of connection between a boy and a girl began. I am one who can remember. It was the first day of school in the fall, sixth grade. I was sitting on a bench near the school's main entrance waiting for some friends to arrive. A girl named Barbara approached me. She was quiet for a moment, and then with one finger she pushed back the front edge of my very blond hair and said, "You have the most beautiful hair." I have never been the same since that moment. I was without words. Her touch to the top of my head and her comment about my hair ignited something inside me. I lost all interest in waiting for my friends. Something magic had occurred. But if there was something profound that I should have said, I missed it, and soon the magic moment was gone and Barbara skipped off to other things. From that day forward, my mother never had to speak to me again about my appearance as I left for school’. (from When Men think Private Thoughts)
Yet if we look at Jesus we see someone who, at least on the surface, seems remarkably untouched by sexuality
1. He talks easily to the woman at the well (John 4)
2. There is the woman who anoints his feet and then wipes them with her hair. It could have been profoundly erotic, but Jesus receives it as it is meant to be received (Luke 7:36ff)
3. Or what do you make of the fact that in John’s gospel, we are told in John 13:23, ‘One of the disciples whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him’. The ESV translates it, ‘was reclining at table at Jesus side’. The Greek is far more direct. It says that John was reclining at table ‘in the bosom of Jesus’.
It seems that Jesus looks beyond a man or woman’s sexuality and sees the person beneath.
It is tied in with the vision that the NT seems to give for the future Kingdom of God: It is a place where we will be beyond gender
Jesus talks about the future kingdom where there will be no marriage, ‘for we will be like the angels’ (Matthew 22:30)
And there is the key verse: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
One of the goals of the Christian life is that we become so Christ like that we see people as Jesus sees them.
The world looks for physical beauty and desirability. He looks at people beyond beauty and beyond sexuality. In this sense political correctness is absolutely correct – its problem is that you cannot command this from outside. It has to come from inside. We need to be able to see a 97 year old woman with exactly the same eyes as we might see a 27 year old woman.
And there is some very liberating teaching in the bible about the beauty of women being not in their appearance but in their inner person (1 Peter 3:3-4).
There is a story told from the desert fathers and mothers. The general maxim of the monks was that they were to flee emperors, bishops and women. Emperors – offer wealth; Bishops – offer status in the church; Women – because of sex. But one story is told of some monks walking on the road, seeing some nuns and fleeing. Mother Sarah, one of the nuns, challenges the men, ‘If you were truly monks you would not see us as women’.
And when we look at Jesus identity and self-understanding: he knows himself as a child of his heavenly Father (eg. John 13:3)
And Jesus’ motivation is love – delight in the other in who they could become; desire that they might become that person so that we can enjoy full union with them – not at physical level but at a deeper soul level.
HOW SHOULD WE USE OUR SEXUALITY?
1. Welcome the fact that you are a sexual being
Don’t try and run away from it. It may not be part of the future order, but it is part of the current created order.
God made men and women. He also gave us differing degrees of those things that we call masculine and feminine in each of us. I’m not even going to try and define those things, because they have been redefined by every culture at every time. Each society has its own definition of what it means to be a true man or a true woman.
In Genesis 2 we are told that God created man, that he did not find a suitable ‘helper’ for him, so he took a rib and made the woman. In other words, he takes one and makes it two, in order that the two would desire/love each other and become one. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’
It is a critical passage which is quoted several times in the NT.
Jesus quotes it as a reason for the command against divorce (Matthew 19:4)
Paul quotes the passage in 1 Corinthians 6 as an argument for showing that when you have sexual intimacy with a person you become part of them and they of you – at a deeper level than the purely physical.
He also quotes it in Ephesians 5:31, where he adds the words, ‘This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.’
In other words, what Paul is saying is that this union of the two, this ‘one flesh’, this physical sexual intimacy is a reflection of a more profound relationship, between Christ and the Church.
So at its very highest, the image of man and woman together, face to face, desiring and being desired by the other, as complete equals (in 1 Cor 7:4 Paul writes that the wife’s body belongs to her husband and that the husband’s body belongs to his wife; in Eph 5:28 he tells husbands to love their wives bodies as if they were their own), delighting in and being delighted in by the other, possessing the other and belonging to the other, part of each other, complete together – is a glimpse of the greater reality, the bigger picture of the relationship between the Father and the eternal Son of God, and is a glimpse of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his people.
That is why the early thinkers of the church were right to see the Song of Solomon both as a celebration of sexuality and also as a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church.
In other words, our sexuality and our sexual attraction to one another is a reflection of the deep desire that God has for communion, union, with us. And it is why so many men and women of God will say that there are moments when time with God can be more intimate, more affirming, more peace giving, more ecstatic (in the original sense of the word: 'ek-stasis' – taking us out of ourselves) than even the act of making love.
So see your sexuality as a gift – see your being drawn to another person, your finding another person attractive – as a picture of the greater delight that God has in you and of the delight that you can find in him, of his desire for you and your desire for him.
And for those of us here who struggle with same sex orientation. Yes, you may wish to pray that God will take it away, but very few people testify to that prayer being answered in the way that they wish. And if that is not the answer, then treat this as we are called to treat all things: treat it as a gift from God that is given now that can be used for his glory and through which you can grow in intimacy with God and love for others.
And what can be seen as a trial can be turned round to be an immense blessing.
One woman who has a same sex orientation told me that one of the advantages that she has is that she sees the world in a different way to the majority who are attracted to people of the opposite sex. Adverts, which often use sexuality to sell items, don't work for her. And I wonder whether that is a reason why so many people who have same sex orientation often think out of the box and can be so creative. And because many have struggled with the demons of despair and rejection, I wonder whether that is why some are so aggressive and others are so compassionate.
So whatever your orientation, and wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of what we see as masculine or feminine – it’s OK. Give thanks to God for it.
2. Do not turn sex into a God
Our society, like many primitive societies, has bowed down to the God of sex. It has removed the living God and all that is left is the body and the desires of the body. It is not, like earlier societies, concerned about sex as a means of procreation. It is more concerned with sex as recreation. You can do what you like with your body, providing that you do not infringe the liberty of others (or you do not end up costing the NHS too much).
So sex and your sexuality has become the new God: Live for your desires; don’t have inhibitions. If you desire someone, have what you desire.
And that, of course, is disastrous.
If I live like that, then I begin to see and treat others as objects that exist to satisfy my physical desires; and I begin to treat myself as an object. Outward appearance becomes everything – and that leads to a tyrannical sense of self-identity. I am only worth something if I look good. It will lead to self-loathing: however good you look now, you are not going to look like that in 30 years times. Film stars appear so glamorous on the screen or in photo shoots, but when you see them in real life they are very ordinary. And what does sex on the screen have anything to do with sex in the real bedroom? We are presented with an unreachable God.
And when we make the satisfaction of our sexual desires our God it does lead to abuse – self abuse, abuse of others – and destruction and heartbreak. It also leads to the marginalization of those who are older, because however many massages or face lifts or implants you have, you are never going to look like a 25 year old.
Do not turn sex or your sexual desires into a God. It will become a very cruel ruler. And it will never satisfy.
And please do not let your sexuality define your identity, especially if you are a Christian. Galatians 3:28 tells us that you are not first a man or a woman. You are not straight or gay. You are first a forgiven and beloved child of God with a destiny in heaven.
3. Do not become a servant to the power of sex and sexual attraction
Society has always recognised the power of sexuality.
Different societies have introduced different rules to regulate this uncontrollable power.
In some societies, women have to be fully covered up (I note that it is usually the woman who have to take the precautionary measures)
In others, men and women are segregated, ordered so that they sit separately in places of worship
What about the early Christian community?
Interestingly the New Testament does not give much practical advice.
In fact, thinking about it, there is no solid practical advice. Rather there is simply the call to live pure lives, but it is very general.
For instance, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 : ‘that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable’ (v4)
The key principle is love. Don’t use your sexuality to wrong your brother or sister.
Be careful of your sexuality – not because it is wrong – but because it is so powerful. An attractive woman/man can use their sexuality to reduce someone else to a gibbering wreck.
So watch what you wear: in terms of the message you are giving out. There is a place for dressing up when going out, but there is also a place for modesty.
And watch the flirting – even if it is just eye games. The eye is the window into the soul, and when we play a particular kind of eye game we are asking, ‘Would you let me in?’ We may think we would never do it, but …
We do need to be aware of our sexual desires: try and work out where they are coming from – perhaps they point to a deeper need and a deeper desire
When a person allows the Holy Spirit to take control of their lives, they will want to seek to live holy lives, for God. Do you remember the push me – pull you of Dr Doolittle? It was a horse-like creature with two heads. We too are like that. At one end we are facing toward the Spirit of God; at the other end we are facing the world and its desires. If we feed one end of the horse that will grow stronger. And we often feed the wrong end of our horse.
It is so easy to go wrong on this, and to deceive ourselves. Disaster follows.
And please never ever think – not even for one moment - that you stand.
Gordon MacDonald tells of the time when he was asked how the devil would destroy his ministry. He replied, in all honesty, ‘I don’t know, but I do know that it wouldn’t be through my personal life’. Within a year he was having an affair.
Guard your mind. It all begins in those first thoughts and what we then do with them. Submit your mind to the Holy Spirit. Kill the thoughts at the beginning.
4. The place for sexual intimacy is in the context of an exclusive marriage relationship between man and woman.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, speaks about the gift of marriage. The consistent message of the bible is that marriage between man and woman is good, and is the only place for the right use of the gift of sexual intimacy.
Paul argues that one of the reasons for marriage is as a release ‘for those who burn’, who find the desire for sex overwhelming – and, I guess in those situations, who find masturbation an unsatisfactory solution.
That teaching is something that society today finds very difficult to take.
Why can’t I do what I want to do with my body?
But as people who call Jesus ‘Lord’ we can’t do what we wish with our body because
1. We recognize how precious our bodies are. One day they will be resurrected. Your body has an immense dignity. When you sin sexually you sin against your body
2. Our bodies are not our own. In 1 Cor 6:12-17, Paul argues that our bodies are part of Christ. We therefore cannot join them to a prostitute, because that would mean we are joining Christ to the prostitute. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).
If you sleep with someone, I know this might sound strange, but Christ is also sleeping with them. What you do with them in the bedroom, Christ is doing with them. What you allow them to do to you, you are also allowing to be done to Christ.
And in sexual intimacy, it is not just a matter of two bodies becoming one – something happens at a deeper level.
It is like two cards that have been stuck together. You can’t pull them apart without tearing them both.
And I think that in our most intimate relationship there really has to be a mutuality – two coming together face to face to complement each other and affirm each other, and to affirm the dignity of the other’s body. And that is why I would argue that anal, oral, ‘50 Shades of Gray’ stuff, sex do not sufficiently honour the dignity of both human bodies or both human persons – even if both partners desire it. I’m not convinced that mutual masturbation does that either. Nor is using sex as a weapon – whether promising or withholding, forcing yourself on another or having constant headaches.
Rather our most intimate moments need to mirror the relationship between Christ and his Church – that relationship of two becoming one in every way.
Perhaps we can express it with a ball and socket metaphor. The ball was made to fit into the socket. I realise this is natural theology, and it is not in the bible. But we were made to fit, and if you try and make it fit any other way it is going to do violence to the body.
5. Honour those who, for whatever reason, commit themselves to a life of celibacy.
Jesus talks about people who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.
Matthew 19:10ff: ‘The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 encourages people to take seriously the possibility of a celibate lifestyle: both to save us from this world’s worries, but also so that we can be devoted to God.
I think of some of the really great men and women of God who have made the decision to be celibate: from Jesus himself, and then Paul, down to Mother Theresa and someone like John Stott.
I am struck by a passage from John Stott’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians. He writes, ‘An additional paragraph is needed for those of us who are single and therefore lack the God-given context for sexual love. What about us? We too must accept this apostolic teaching, however hard it may seem, as God’s good purpose both for us and for society. We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God’s standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ’s yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected (‘sublimated’ would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people.’’ (p84f)
I am also immensely grateful for several senior Christian ministers who have had the courage to be open about their same sex orientation but who have also said that they are committed to a celibate life-style.
At the Orthodox monastery I met a monk who was also married. He and his wife took the decision that they would live as monk and nun, in the same community, but in separate houses. I wonder what you make of that?
Whatever we make of that, we need to honour those who, for whatever reason, are single and celibate in our community
I've come to realise that the issue is not about sexual orientation, but how that orientation is expressed.
There is a line between love and lust. It is very hard to draw. But Romans 1:24-27 is speaking about our self-destructive lusts (verse 24 is speaking of heterosexual practices that degrade our bodies; vv26-27 are speaking of homosexual practices). When we surrender to those lusts it is not truly loving because it is ultimately destructive for both partners.
And because the issue is not about sexual orientation, I do not think we need to be paranoid of the love between man and man and woman and woman.
The bible, as we are often told, speaks of the love of David and Jonathan. It describes it as greater than the love between man and woman.
Different cultures express that love in different ways
India – holding hands
Eastern Europe – kissing. In Russia, men in Baptist communities would even kiss each other on the lips. It is quite scary, if you are not used to it, to have a Russian with a big beard bearing down on you!
Football match – players embrace/lift each other up/roll about together on the ground. In any other context it would be treated as a bacchanalian orgy.
Part of the problem is our paranoia over any man-man touching. We’re less hung up about woman-woman touching. The nearest we get is the one arm man-hug.
And maybe expressing same sex friendship in more physical ways may help those who feel isolated because of their sexual orientation - so long as there are limits. Those limits depend on where you know you are, where you think the other person is, and the particular culture you live in. Personally I would suggest that touch is OK, provided that genitalia are not involved. That is when the Romans 1 kind of lusts so easily take over from what previously was love.
But each person needs to know their limits
And if this is an issue for you, I would also suggest that you have one or two people you can trust, and you make yourself accountable to them.
And because the issue is not about sexual orientation, if a same sex couple came to me and asked me 'to bless' their relationship, I am not sure I could do that - because of what society would hear me saying. But I could say that I would pray with them, thank God for their love for and commitment to each other, and pray that God would use their relationship to bless them and bless others, to bring them to Him, and to allow them to grow as Christians in holiness and love.
I do not think that we can expect non-Christians to live in a godly way.
In the past people did because the laws of society demanded it, and if they didn't there were penalties (the laws against homosexual behaviour were introduced by Thomas Cromwell, who wanted something that he could use against the monasteries). But civil society has changed, and people have taken on very different norms.
So I do not think that we cannot expect people who have turned to Christ to be converted in every area of their life immediately they become Christians. Conversion is a moment, but it is worked out in a life time. And that is true in this area of sexuality and sex. For a single person having several sexual partners, for a gay couple or a heterosexual couple who are doing things to each other's bodies that are ultimately destructive – this will be a real struggle. I don’t think they should necessarily leave each other, unless the whole relationship is abusive. But for their sake, their partner’s sake, the gospel’s sake and the sake of the kingdom of God they will need to learn to express their love for each other in more affirmative ways.
I remind you again of 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul writes that each of us, and I stress each of us, needs to learn how to control our body in purity.