This morning I was visiting a church (not in Eastbourne). The man leading the prayers said "Lord, we thank you that you love us all here this morning, whether we are young people, parents or grandparents, your love is for everybody." I looked along my row. There was a woman in her 30s with Downs Syndrome. She's out. What about her carer? I might be wrong but I don't think she fit the bill. And there's me. I'm out of the club too. Pretty much the whole front row was disenfranchised by that categorisation of "everybody."
And so let me bang this drum one more time... In the current clashes between church and culture over sexuality, it's the church that really needs to repent. This is not just an application of 1 Corinthians 5:12 - although that text should be tattood on the inside of our eyelids. Neither is it the call to refocus attention from gay marriage onto 'our own heterosexual marriages.' Actually there's every danger that focusing on 'heterosexual marriage' is itself part of an unbiblical vision of sex and sexuality.
Travel back in time to the first century - you are now surrounded by many competing visions of sex, marriage and the family. In lots of ways you could characterise the Empire's vision as more conservative than the Christians'. The message of Jesus and the Apostles crashed down into that world like an asteroid. But it didn't merely confront the sexually liberal, it also led to liberalisation of the marriage laws from Constantine onwards.
Biblical ethics were not seen by the Greco-Roman world as particularly pro-family. Actually the high honours given to singles by the bachelors Jesus and Paul (Matthew 19; 1 Cor 7) were massively threatening to the contemporary culture. It was unheard of in the ancient world to say: "You don't have to get married, in fact it's better if you don't." That was almost seditious. The culture was all about family. Matrimony is about finding a mater - a mother - for your heirs. If there had been a pagan pressure group advocating for the sexual ethics of good citizens they'd probably call themselves something like "Focus on the Family." The Christians seemed to be doing something different.
You see biblical sexual ethics confront the licentious and the conservatives. The bible offers the world something radical - a way of life that is not about experiences and romantic love but neither is it about securing progeny. Here are a people who see a future for the world that is not tied to their offspring - it's tied to Christ. And so Jesus says:
‘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.’ (Matthew 19:11-12)
Can we accept this? Can we accept this ordering of things with a clear privilege for those who embrace singleness? Or will we simply be known as those who privilege the family and hetero-normativity? Are we going to sit with this unbiblical categorisation of the world (Straight / Gay / Bi / etc) and insist on converting people to our end of the spectrum? Or are we seeking to convert the spectrum itself?
This was brought home to me when Paul Blackham wrote his wonderful article for this blog: "Legal recognition of marriage and the Way of Jesus." It's a fantastic piece about participating in the revolution of Jesus (including his revolution of sexual ethics). This revolution will occur not by lobbying parliament but by living out the way of Jesus in local churches. It was received very well except for two sentences:
Jesus’ preference is, of course, that we don’t marry at all and are able to say ‘no’ to all our sexual desires and give all our passion and desire to the life and work of the Kingdom of God. Yet, if any of us cannot do that, there is this one possibility of a totally exclusive, lifelong, sacrificial marriage between a man and a woman.
Nothing else in the article caused as many questions as that statement. Some thought it was an unfortunate blunder that prevented the post being shared more widely. But I wonder whether our resistance to that paragraph (which seems a pretty decent summary of Matt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7) reveals our blind spots. We think of the bible as challenging pomo-sexuality, we don't think of it as challenging the unrivalled pre-eminence of "the family." But it's both. And those who use the Bible to challenge the former while capitulating to an idolatry of "the family" are open to the charge of hypocrisy.
More than this, they're closed to the riches of a truly biblical view. I really appreciate spiritualfriendship.org as a place that explores what is neglected when "the family" is idolized. Ron Belgau describes the purpose of the site like this:
Growing up as a gay teenager, the only messages I heard from the church were negative. Most in our culture—including many Christians—uphold romantic and sexual love as the most important form of love. But God forbade the sexual and romantic love I desired. Was I just to be left out in the cold?
[I've been helped] to see that obedience to Christ offered more to me than just the denial of sex and romance. Christ-centered chaste friendships offered a positive and fulfilling—albeit at times challenging—path to holiness.
Through groups like this, gay Christians are proving a tremendous gift to the church. We should all have been exploring the meaning of true friendship but some of us were too busy romanticising romance. These guys have been forced to wrestle with something every Christian should treasure: spiritual friendships beyond questions of sex and marriage. But if the whole church does not recover these categories then we'll all be the poorer for it.
It seems to me that these guys - even those who identify as "gay Christians" - are not capitulating to the world's view of sexuality (side B Gay Christians aren't anyway). Surely it's "Straight Christians" who are in greatest danger of adopting the world's categories - for they have never come to question their own default prejudices.
In my view, the best of all worlds involves abandoning entirely the "Gay/Straight" labels but perhaps such revolutions lie down the track. In the meantime it's folks like those at Spiritual Friendship who are most likely to recover what Jesus (and Paul and David and Jonathan) have been offering to the world - deeply connected discipleship that is beyond the erotic. It's true that we may have missed the glory of this through distractions about sexuality (and the sexualisation of all things). But another distraction might well have been an overblown focus on the family.
I'm not saying family is not vital. I am saying that Scripture upholds another calling - celibacy - even higher. And if we aren't tuned into that I suggest it's because our sex ethic is not as Christian as we might imagine.
Christians who take a conservative view of Scripture (and I'm one of them) must do more than proclaim the biblical sex ethic. And we must also do something else than simply "upholding Christian marriage" in the face of redefinition. We must let the Bible confront both sexual liberalism and cultural conservatism. We must see both as errors to be repented of. If we don't, we will lose our gay brothers and sisters, we'll isolate our singles even further and we'll be blind to the riches of true discipleship that transcends these culture wars.