By Ken Camp
The fear of offending diverse church memberships understandably causes many pastors to shy away from open discussions about sexuality, said Christian ethicist David Gushee.
“I would fault churches for their silence on these issues, but having witnessed churches melt into horrible conflict over what ought to be solvable problems, I find it hard to fault pastors and other church leaders for not walking into this field full of landmines,” said Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
Still, Gushee said, church leaders need to recognize their silence leaves a vacuum that is quickly filled by others. “What is not talked about on Sunday morning is instead addressed on Saturday night,” he said.
Jim Coston, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, recently preached a sermon series on the Old Testament Song of Songs about the joy of sex within marriage. The congregation responded favorably, and he offered a follow-up message on sex as “a gift from God — a blessing from God within the proper parameters.”
Coston said too often the church has presented sex “more as an accommodation to lust rather than an expression of love.”
“Sex within marriage is beautiful, the most personal act between two people,” he told the congregation. “It is fulfilling even as it makes vulnerable. It is a gift. It is a blessing. Within that context, it is good.”
Coston said the church has a good counterargument to prevailing views in society that treat sex solely as a gratification of one’s own desires and sometimes lacking any emotional content.
“The great societal irony is that in sexualizing so much, sex has lost its sanctity,” he said. “It is not viewed as special but seemingly as commonplace as meeting for a cup of coffee or trying on new clothes.”
Sometimes, cultural change forces churches to confront issues they might prefer to ignore. In the context of debate in the United Kingdom about same-sex marriage, British Baptist pastor Malcolm Duncan preached a widely disseminated sermon on sex.
“If we cannot talk about this here, then where exactly shall we?” Duncan asked in his sermon at Gold Hill Baptist Church in Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire.
Evangelicals who enter the fray on hot-button issues like gay marriage must recognize that in a post-sexual revolution society, traditional views about sex outside of marriage no longer hold moral sway.
“Sexual activity belongs within the confines of heterosexual, monogamous marriages; that should be the church’s position,” said Roger Olson, Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. “But Christians need to become aware that we no longer own the culture.”
Olson said that singling out homosexuality as a special kind of evil is perceived “as simply stupid” by a pluralistic and secular culture, and crusades to “protect traditional marriage” only reinforce the widespread impression that evangelical Christians want to dictate and legislate morality for everyone else.
Gushee, lead organizer of a [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant co-sponsored by Mercer and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 2012, said he sees “a weakening sense of moral clarity related to what exactly biblical sexual ethics” means in the 21st century, as well as social pressures that make marriage unattractive or even unattainable for some people.
“It is not just those with same-sex attraction who lack access to marriage in many parts of the country, but those in their 20s trying to get started in a depressed economy and those in their 70s trying to find love after the death or divorce of a spouse,” Gushee said. “The viability of the traditional Christian sexual ethic keeps eroding from all sides.”
Dan McGee, a Christian psychologist and board-certified clinical sexologist, said sexuality must be understood as “a much deeper mystery” than mere sexual behavior. Human sexuality is interwoven biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually,” he said.
The complexity of human sexuality makes it particularly difficult for Christians to deal with the issue of homosexuality, said McGee, former director of Counseling and Psychological Services for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
McGee sees Christians who support “reparative” or “conversion” therapy for homosexuals as sincere and well-meaning but ill-informed.
“It’s built on pseudo-science that says, ‘Homosexual orientation is caused by overprotective mothers and distant fathers, and we’re here to fix it,’” he said.
Even with the complex nature of human sexuality and shifting understandings of marriage, Baptist ministers, ethicists and mental-health professionals agree on the importance of fidelity and commitment. Gushee advocates what he calls a “covenant fidelity ethic.”
“Emphasizing the well-being of children, parents’ covenant obligations to children and their need for a stable, loving family in which to be raised would be an extremely important part of this ethic,” he said. “And in our culture of easy in/easy out relationships, teaching covenant fidelity to everyone would in fact be countercultural.”