Being Christian and Gay – Part 5: A Christian’ Sexual Ethic

Posted: October 3, 2017 in Being Christian and Gay, Gay Life
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We have considered a context for our conversation—personal experience–and biblical texts that have been used to address sexual orientation; now let’s look at ethics, knowing right from wrong. My ethics are derived from my theological understanding, which is informed by my relationship with Jesus, my reading of Scripture, and my interpretation of the contemporary sociocultural environment. My theology is dynamic rather than static. My ethical position on any subject is derived from my theology juxtaposed against contemporary culture. As a culture evolves, so  does the ethics that guides the culture in determining what is right and wrong. As different, and often new,  issues are encountered, ethical responses require examination and restatement.

The beginning of all Christian ethical statements, including sexual ethics, is love. Love is a foundation for sex. My sexual ethic is no less based on love than any of my other ethical positions. Love is the foundation of all relationships—between the Creator-God and his creation, particularly humankind, and between one human being and all other human beings. This is not a feel-good kind of love, although it does make one feel good. Rather, it is a love that reaches to the core of what it means to be made in the image of God, who, as John states in one of his letters, is love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

Such radical love is experienced between family members; cohorts; community members such as members of churches fraternal organizations, sports teams, etc.; colleagues; and partners in exclusive relationships whether married or not. A Christian love ethic also includes, in the same breath, loving our enemies. Love is radical. It includes loving the unlovely and unlovable, the despised, outcast, and marginalized; and it includes the lovable in all manifestations and the beautiful people, however that is defined.

Therefore, love is indispensable in the most intimate of all activities in which people interact, sexual behavior. Based on anything less than commitment, mutual respect, reciprocity and love, sex devolves into a selfish exercise of personal gratification at best or base animalistic instinct at worst. Love, of the kind that places priority on the other, is the binding force upon which a relationship can move forward. This kind of love cannot exist without self-respect, a self-love if you please, which is all together different from self-centeredness or selfishness.

Sex founded on love precludes “recreational sex,” which could be described as “sex because I want it,” as a feel-good pastime, something to do, an activity for the evening. Such experiences find immediate gratification but such gratification is not love and dissipates quickly.

Nor is such recreational sex an opening to a deeper relationship; rather, the deepening relationship comes first and sex issues out of the existing relationship. Therefore, sex is a response to what is already present: respect and love.

A casual approach to sex does not meet the “mutual respect” principle. It tends to use people as though they are instruments for one’s pleasure. Granted, there are occasions when sex is agreed on and mutually desired; but, devoid of love, it is using each other for one’s own pleasure.

Sex is powerful, and, therefore, must be respected. It can overpower a relationship unintentionally and cloud true feelings and rational thinking to such a degree that decisions may be made resulting in actions not truly desired by one or the other or both partners in the relationship. Thus, the reciprocity principle is abrogated.
Since the basis for sex is love, a natural question follows: Can two men or two women love each other in the same way that a man and a woman love each other? I’m talking about feelings and attraction, desire and joy in each other. If the answer is no, a man cannot love another man or a woman cannot love another woman as women and men love each other, then the answer to gay sex is that it only devolves into selfish desire for bodily pleasure.

On the other hand, if the answer is yes, that gay couples can love each other as same-sex couples in the same way straight people love each other as opposite sex couples, then gay sex is acceptable assuming the foundation of their relationship is mutual respect, commitment, reciprocity, and love. I subscribe to the demonstrated fact that romantic love is not experienced exclusively by straight people; lesbian and gay men experience romantic love as well. Therefore, they can enjoy the intimate experiences of sex reserved for people who deeply love each other.

The question remains whether or not a loving couple, straight or gay, can engage in sex if they aren’t married. I’ll pose three questions and answer each.

The first question: Does sexual activity only reside inside a covenant marriage ethic?
Sex, as relational exploration that connects two human beings at the most intimate level, is a deeply spiritual thing and cannot be treated lightly or in a casual manner. Something done for the satisfaction of a physical urge is a selfish, self-centered activity. A covenant marriage provides the most fertile grounds for establishing a permanent relationship between two people.

The added benefit of marriage, in addition to being blessed by religious ceremonies, which vary among religions and denominations, is the codifying of the relationship in the community, receiving the blessing of the community, acknowledging a responsibility to the community, and being held accountable by the community. This benefit brings greater stability to the relationship. Such formal acknowledgment of the relationship does not precede the establishment of love, rather it follows and is based upon the foundation of love that already exists between the two individuals.

However, a loving relationship does not require a marriage ceremony for it to be covenantal in nature. Sex can be experienced outside of marriage between two individuals who are in a relationship that demonstrates qualities of a good marriage: commitment, mutual respect, reciprocity, and love.

The second question: Can sex be engaged between two people who have a strong commitment of love yet do not plan to engage each other in a marital covenant?
The argument for a relationship based on a simple commitment of love goes something like this: If two people love each other, nothing more is required. With a love commitment, people who subscribe to this ethic feel free to explore sexual activity with each other. Although this is far better than simple mutual consent to engage in sexual behavior of the recreational sort, the inclusion of commitment, mutual respect and reciprocity along with trusting fidelity and a recognition of the deep spirituality inherent in covenant relationships provides a greater foundation for sexual fulfillment.

So, the answer to the question is yes. However, the benefit of fidelity and spiritual depth afforded through Christian marriage, though not a guarantee, recognizes the profound human need for sex and the capacity for love. Such a marriage introduces the community/social aspect, which brings with it commitment and responsibility on the part of the married couple and society at large.

My own story gives testimony to this: Six months after the thirty-fifth anniversary of my marriage to Barbara—a marriage that had taken us around the world three times in Christian mission work and to ministry in four American states—I revealed to her the secret I had withheld about my gay sexual orientation.

Following a great deal of conversation, prayer and therapy, I decided to remain true to the sacred marriage commitment I had made to Barbara in 1967 in front of a large congregation of people in Montgomery, Alabama. For the next twelve years after that self-disclosure, I remained in that covenant with Barbara—they were good years. Had our commitment to each other been less than a sacred covenant, the relationship very likely might have dissolved.

Fidelity and depth of sacredness can both be present without a marriage. Covenant, fidelity, and sacredness can be part of a relationship, gay or straight, within marriage or without a formal marriage ceremony. But a marriage ceremony in the community of believers provides greater strength.

The third question: What is the connection between emotional commitment, sexual activity, and sacred acts?

Sexual activity has emotional content, which may run the gamut from self-directed negativity to selfish pleasure to self-giving generosity. There can be conflicting emotions that may involve a mixture from hate to love. A sexual relationship does not guarantee there is love, nor, as in the case of rape, consent.

Again, I turn to the basis for a fulfilling, sexual relationship being genuine love of a deeply spiritual kind. To be rewarding for both partners, sex issues out of the mutual respect and love each feels for the other. The experience of giving and receiving during sex both evolves from and issues into profound love for each other forming a beautiful union between two spiritual beings. This uniting of two people is not only a physical activity but also spiritual in nature, a fulfillment of the relational image in the Hebrew creation story that God created the female because “it is not good that the man should be alone.” There is sacredness in two people coming together in the intimacy of sex.

When I talk about covenantal marriage, I am including all marriages whether between different-sex partners or same-sex partners. With this understanding, I recognize the human desire and need for sex. I have experienced the human capacity for love. I understand the procreative power of sex. I recognize the need for trusting fidelity. I know about the deep joy afforded in a lifetime relationship. I believe that the sacred covenant forms the medium, the natural habitat, for such a relationship to flourish and reach its maximum potential. I believe the marital covenant brings the greatest joy for both partners and gives glory to God—yes, even the sexual activity within that marriage glorifies Him. This is what I understand about covenantal marriage out of my own experience.

My sexual ethic does not differentiate between different-sex couples and same-sex couples. The basis for sex continues to be a genuine love of a deeply spiritual nature whether the relationship is gay or straight. This depth of love can be experienced and be deeply, spiritually covenantal in nature prior to a formal marriage. Therefore, sex can be experienced outside of marriage. However, sex should not be a kind of litmus test or compatibility trial, and should not issue out of physical appetite alone, but from the depth of genuine love, a deep, spiritual love, a formal sacred covenant. Such a formal marriage covenant brings added strength to the relationship but is separate from a qualifier for sex.

When one considers entering into an intimate relationship with someone, they need to consider how their actions with this person, a human being created in the image of God, are holy and life-giving. There cannot be a fully wholesome relationship with someone without acknowledging the spiritual component. Treating someone as holy is to treat them as the creation of God that they are. My actions within the relationship must not detract from this holy creation but should be a life-giving part of it and therefore embody life-giving characteristics.

To love someone else requires me to be aware of my own motives. I need to examine why I do what I do and examine why and how I am motivated in my actions toward the other person. If my motives are only and always self-directed, I need to know that and discover why it is true. On the other hand, if I am always neglecting myself while seeking approbation from the other person, there is again the need to know that and discover why.

This process for ascertaining motivation is not one sided but requires regularly checking with my partner—current or potential, married, unmarried, or desire to be married—about their needs, hopes, and desires. My difficulty in having this kind of conversation is not unusual I’m sure. The process is not easy. Transparent, naked conversation makes one vulnerable. Yet it must be part of any relationship.

Coupled with this cerebral approach is the need for space to allow for heart-moments for mimicking a free spirit. It is a delicate balance of being responsible while being in the moment at the same time. Both are required for any relationship to remain dynamic and full of life, to demonstrate spontaneity as well as responsibility to each other and to society. There is joy and satisfaction in such a serious relationship, which does not take self or each other too seriously.

What I’ve been talking about describes an ethic that gets at and seeks to sustain truth and that embodies a love that is respectful and reciprocal. This kind of love, therefore, is a key component of any of my ethical statements—particularly one that includes my sexual ethic.

I began this series by setting a “Context for our Conversation” followed by “How We Read the Bible,” then “My Relationship with Scripture,” and last week some “Specific Bible Passages.” We have now been looking at “A Christian’s Sexual Ethic.” The next post will consider “An Understanding of Sexuality.”

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