Why sexuality is such a hot topic in the church [updated]

When the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meets in a couple of weeks, it will consider a proposal to change the definition of marriage thereby allowing same-sex marriages. If the redefinition proposal passes, it will rapidly increase the splintering of the church. Why?

Same-sex marriage is sticky–it has several of the qualities outlined in Heath & Heath, Made to StickSticky ideas get traction and cause action–by both traditionalists and progressives. The image of two grooms being united in a Presbyterian sanctuary is a simple, concrete image that gives credibility to what critics (or advocates) of the church have been saying and is deeply emotionally evocative by its power to capture the story of the church’s decline (or liberation) in a single image. 

Secular people looking at the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the outside often claim that it is obsessed with sex. Progressives within the church often claim our fights are unduly focused on sex. On one level it might seem that there is some merit to these claims. For the last twenty years there has been a steady, rhythmic attempt to alter the way the church thinks about sex and sexual practice. Some of this has come from outside, some from within.

What’s often lost is the deeper conflict that is simmering just below the surface–the fault line where slight movement causes the surface tensions so easily perceived. The thing about theological fault lines is that they tend to be anything but sticky. For the most part they easily escape the attention of many clergy, and the vast majority of parishioners.

Take for example the nature of Scripture. Presbyterianism has traditionally placed the Scriptures at the center of its life and as the source of its speaking about God. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) devotes it’s first chapter (of which there are ten sub-parts) to describing the nature and purpose of Scripture:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation…

In the first paragraph alone the framers of the confession have dealt with at least three weighty topics:

  1. That you can know something of God without the Bible, but that it is an inadequate type of knowledge
  2. That those who never have read or heard the Scriptures are without excuse for their sins
  3. That there is a certain level of understanding required to be converted

This paragraph is full of heady stuff. In the past hundred years, however, consensus around each of these topics has shifted. A simple example of this is the plight of the person who never hears the Bible preached or reads it for himself. Will God hold this person responsible for his sin?

  • Some, with the Confession, claim yes. Ignorance of the law is no defense and nature reveals something of the concept of a right and wrong, which presupposes a law-giver (my view).
  • Some claim no–how could God eternally punish someone for his ignorance?
  • Some claim no, but because of Jesus. God so loved the world that in Jesus God reconciles the world to himself, even those who don’t know it.
These differences produce very real differences in, for example, the way we engage in missions. If the only way that men and women can be restored to a relationship with God is through placing their faith in Christ and turning from their sin, the proclamation of that message will be central to missions efforts. Proclamation won’t be the sole content of missions, but missions will be something other than exclusively humanitarian aid.
This is a real point of disagreement within the church, and has been for a while. However, it is relatively technical and it’s difficult to find fault with missions efforts that do meet the physical needs of the world’s poor.
So, you tell me, what’s more compelling: the picture or the chapter with ten sub-parts?
In reality, the very real possibility of same sex marriages taking place in presbyterian churches serves as an icon, a graphic representation, of the very real disagreements deeper down. So while many may perceive that our disagreements are simply about sex, the truth is it about much, much more.

8 Comments on “Why sexuality is such a hot topic in the church [updated]”

  1. I think the church is focused on sex because it is a reflection of the society. Society is obsessed with sex. Why? Well, because it is sexy! Sex is interesting. From a sinfulness perspective, it’s also easy. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are being charitable or kind or loving. It is not hard to tell if we are fornicating. It’s an easily identified and interesting issue.

    It is also an issue the church probably spends too much time dealing with. In reading the gospels, it is pretty stunning how little Jesus talks about sex. It’s definitely an issue on the periphery of Jesus’ to-do list. He has much harsher words for divorcees than he does for homosexuals.

    I’m pretty sure I know where society is going on this issue. I will be interested to see where the church goes.

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    • Jon – the church exists within society and so its natural that, to some extent, society and the church will influence one another. As to the amount of time Jesus spends on sex in the Gospels, its true there’s not that much. However, clearly since we’re embodied beings how we live in our bodies is significant–hence Paul addressing sexual sin in his letters.

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    • A further point to go off Jeff’s response –

      We need to remember that Jesus lived in a time and culture where homosexuality wasn’t a live issue. None of Jesus’ religious contemporaries would have debated the question at all. Thus Jesus’ lack of addressing homosexual behavior shouldn’t be interpreted as a blanket endorsement (not that I heard you imply that, but it happens often). We could say the same could for his silence on bestiality or incest.

      I think it’s probably significant that when Jesus does address the idea of marriage, he consistently points his dialogue partners back to Genesis 2:24 and the union of husband and wife as the archetypal pattern.

      I do agree with you about his emphasis on divorce. Christian leaders who talk about ‘protecting traditional marriage’ would probably be taken more seriously if they fought against no-fault divorce laws with the same zeal. Just a thought.

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      • Kevin – good thoughts. I’d like to do a series on how the church ought to be involved in cases of divorce. In reality involvement ranges from none to poor involvement. I am fortunate to have been part of more than one church whose session and pastors were wisely involved in a divorce that happened while I was a member. As someone I respect has tellingly quipped about the religious right, “marriage is between one man and one woman after another, after another…”

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  2. Roy said it very well. The true church (God’s Church will survive long after the PCUSA and others have disappeared. I enjoy your writings, Jeff.

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  3. Two thoughts related to this excellent piece Jeff.
    1st – I think the PC(USA) is focused on sex because its avoiding thinking about death – and lets be honest the PC(USA) is dying.
    2nd – There is nothing new under the sun including the concept of gay marriage. Plato idealized the gay relationship long before Jesus or Paul. This is important because so often peole discount the Bible because they buy the modernist myth of progress. Jesus says nothing about homosexuality because his culture didn’t reject the ancient teaching of the law on the subject (though they clearly did look for loop holes on the subject of divorce) but as the gospel moved into the gentile world the subject had to be addressed and very clearly homosexual practice is labeled as sin.

    Beyond this I really appriciated your thinking around how wide the spread is on the issue of simply knowing Jesus as presented in the Bible. I wonder if you could demonstrate the spread on some other key issues?
    Thanks again.
    In Christ,
    Jon

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    • Jon – thanks for your comments. You’re right that there is nothing new under the sun. You mention other things on which there is a range of opinions in the PCUSA: what things would you be interested in reading about?

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