Preacher – Su-Lin Ngiam
23 January 2011
(Sexual Ethics Sermon Series Part I)
Good morning church.
Today’s sermon kick-starts the first of three sermons in a series on sexual ethics. Next week, you’ll be hearing from Gary, and the week after Chinese New Year, on 13 Feb, from Jorg. Just to provide some context for the newcomers today, we as a church have been having conversations about sexual ethics over the years, but it was only late last year that thinking about this became more crystallized. A proposed sexual ethics framework containing principles to work through when making decisions about sex was presented and discussed with the church, for feedback and further working. This sermon series is part of the process of explaining the sexual ethics framework further, deconstructing it, discussing it further in our cell groups, and then coming together again to see if the framework needs further work, before finally putting it out there.
Some of us might be thinking what is all the fuss about sexual ethics, why is it so important and why does this church keep talking about it – aren’t there more important issues to tackle? The truth is, sex is an integral part of human living that affects us profoundly, and on all levels, not just the physical, but also emotional, psychological, social and spiritual. Perhaps we are often uncomfortable talking about it because of the social and religious taboos surrounding this topic, sex often being linked to emotions like shame and guilt. Sometimes, we have also been falsely taught that sex is just a physical act, for release, or procreation and there is nothing to talk about; we reduce it to the lowest common denominator.
However, I think most of us know intuitively this is not true, that there is more to sex than meets the eye; it is more complex than it seems, especially since it usually involves other people, which means relating, or relationships, in whatever form. In fact, I think we often don’t talk about sex enough (and I don’t mean techniques), about its meanings, about why it’s important, our own understanding of it etc. There is a lack of proper, well-informed, balanced sex education in Singapore, which only alienates young people and sexual minorities like most of us here.
And I think the Church as a whole does not talk about sex enough and instead of understanding, also alienates its members who are struggling; I think we’ve familiar with sex scandals in churches, involving leaders, members with extra-marital affairs and so on. Often, the Church closes one eye and doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to deal with it; or having dealt with the immediate situation, doesn’t engage its members further on issues to do with sexuality, and everyone remains the poorer for it.
So I’m glad that FCC is facing this challenge squarely, thinking and talking about sex as Christians, and making decisions when it comes to sex, or doing sexual ethics. I told council during this whole process which started again towards the end of last year, that I’ve never thought so much about sex in my life but I thank you for this opportunity! Because brands like Nike would like us to believe, “just do it!” but there are consequences to our actions that we should think about before – to others, and ourselves. My hope is that our explorations and discussions on sexual ethics at FCC can ultimately be a real contribution not just to our lives as a church, but to the wider LGBTQ community, as well as society as a whole, where currently there is a dearth in terms of these conversations. This could be one of our contributions as a community.
So what will this sermon cover today? I have chosen to start at the beginning i.e. what are the meanings of sex? How has the church understood this? How does Christianity understand this? How can we make sense of this for ourselves?
Before this, I would like to say something about doing ethics. This is simply making decisions about living that we think is good, good for ourselves and good for others. Each of us is responsible for doing our own ethics; we each need to make decisions about lots of stuff, and take responsibility for this. Hopefully, our decisions are well thought through, resulting in responsible ethics.
Related to this is the idea of Christian liberty, or our freedom in Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: 12:
“ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”
This means as Christians, we are free to make decisions; we are not bound by the Old Testament laws and commandments, save the greatest commandment to love God, ourselves and our neighbours. However, we should note that when deciding or choosing, not everything is beneficial for ourselves and we should not become enslaved by anything.
Thus, as Christians, we need to make our own decisions about Christian living. Our church and Christian community can provide us with inputs, feedback, wisdoms and converse with us, but ultimately we have to make our own decisions, and do our own Christian ethics. As such, this sermon series is not about telling you what to do when it comes to sex, it is meant to hopefully guide us along and broaden our conversations, and personal and communal reflection. We each will still need to discern, with the help of the Holy Spirit, how to choose, and what decisions to make that will result in sex that we believe is good.
Sexuality and its Meanings – Tradition
Let us firstly turn to the tradition we have come from in terms of its understanding of sex, and its legacy to us – seen in Judaism and then the Church.
Margaret Farley in Just Love (2008) tells us that “the history of Jewish thought regarding sexuality is complex and marked by profound tensions”. The sexual instinct is considered a gift from God and a natural part of human life. The Jews “believed in a God who is beyond sexuality but whose plan for creation makes marriage and fertility holy and the subject of religious duty”. Procreation was necessary for their survival as a chosen people, especially given the tumultuous circumstances they lived in. Theirs was a patriarchal model for marriage and family, bound by covenants and laws.
However, the impression given is that the early Jews had more positive views of sex than went beyond the purposes of procreation. This can be seen in the book of the Song of Solomon, an achingly beautiful love story full of passion and exhilarating love, sex included I believe.
There is also a certain amount of ambivalence however, or tension towards the understanding of sex, for example, sexual transgressions like David’s adultery are taken up into God’s plan for the future of Israel, or the existence of purity laws that are indifferent to women’s perspectives on rape. These tensions grew with rabbinic Judaism in the first and second centuries after Christ, when Judaism was influenced by Hellenistic philosophers such as the Stoics and their suspicion of sex, such that the sexual instinct was still seen to be a gift from God, but it was also named an “evil impulse”, needing control.
Such thinking impacted early Christian thought, and was an influence on the apostle Paul, as well as early Church thinkers. The Stoic understanding of sex was in response to the sexual practices taking place at that time – temple prostitution, concubinage, married spouses (usually men) entering into sexual relationships with their slaves, older men having sexual relationships with young boys. It was a sexually liberal environment, and often one of unequal relationship. The Stoics held strong views on the power of the human will to regulate emotion and on the desirability of such regulation for the sake of inner peace. Sexual desire was considered to be irrational, disruptive, liable to excess and needed to serve a rational purpose – one they located in procreation.
The latter sat well with Judaism, which was also a great influence on early Christian thinking. Thus, with Judaism, the early Christians “shared a theistic approach to morality, an affirmation of creation as the context of marriage and procreation, and an ideal of single-hearted love; and with the Stoics they shared a suspicion of bodily passion and a respect for reason as a guide to the moral life”. It was thus quite a schizophrenic kind of understanding – sex and its desires are bad and evil but if used for procreation, is good. I think we can still see the influence and legacy of this sort of thinking today, although the force of it is less perhaps less strong.
This understanding of sex became the tradition of the early Church, passed down. An example of this stance affecting the life of the early Church was Saint Augustine’s prohibitions of certain forms of sex such as oral and anal sex, masturbation and certain positions thought to be departures from the procreative norm. We can see how this kind of thinking influenced our penal code, leftover by the British, where till recently, any form of sex that didn’t result in procreative sex, or penile-vaginal sex was unconstitutional. Furthermore, during the early Church, sex was only to be had within a heterosexual marriage and the couple could only engage in sex for the purposes of procreation.
Another influential mode of thinking on the early Christians, along with Judaism and Stoicism, was Gnosticism. Like Stoicism, the Gnostics were dualists who believed in the importance and superiority of the mind, of knowledge (Greek = ‘gnosis’), and viewed the body and its desires as inferior. Both Stoicism and Gnosticism viewed the body and sex as suspicious, which also gave rise to the virtue placed on virginity and celibacy. Thus, the early church also had examples of men and women cohabitating, having spiritual marriages where supposedly no sex was involved.
There are also passages in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul seems to be advocating for celibacy, for the followers to remain unmarried, as he is. This is to be able to serve God without distractions, to be single-minded and focused. Some theologians add that Paul’s understanding of eschatology, that Christ was coming back very soon made it more urgent that the good news was spread to the Gentiles, and God’s work be done. However, Paul does acknowledge that everyone has different gifts, and not everyone has the gift of celibacy. Thus, early Christian teaching could thus “both affirm procreation as the central rationale for sexual union and advocate virginity as a praiseworthy option (the ideal option) for Christians who could choose it”. The latter’s influence and legacy has been passed down the Catholic church, seen in the vocation of their priests.
As a related aside, one can understand how celibacy is a gift and choice, but enforced celibacy, which the Catholic church and some Christian denominations place on us who are lesbian and gay is just bad theology. In fact, Paul advocated for those who could not remain celibate to get married so they could have an outlet for their sexual desires!
It was only from the 15th century onwards that Church thinking started to view sex as the union of two people, and where marriage could be the basis of a maximum form of friendship. There was also talk about the integration of spiritual love and sexual pleasure. The Reformation in the 16th century also challenged celibacy as an ideal, seen in its widespread nonobservance, and instead placed marriage and family life as the ideal, demanding marriage for almost all Christians.
From hereon, although a procreative intent still remained a significant factor in the understanding of sex in both the Catholic and Protestant Church, perhaps more so for the Catholic Church (seen in their stance on contraception), “new understandings of the totality of the human person brought about a radically new vision of sex as an expression and cause of married love, fostering marital union”. Thus, sex between married couples could be had for purposes other than procreation.
Moving on to more contemporary times, 20th century Protestant sexual ethics has developed more dramatically than the Roman Catholic Church, with the former being deeply affected by biblical and historical studies that questioned the foundations of Christian sexual ethics, by psychological theories that challenged traditional views, and by the voiced experience of church members. Does this sound familiar? Yes, it is the quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, not unlike what we’re doing now in this sermon series. We are basically continuing the tradition of reflecting on sexual ethics for our times.
I hope that tracing the tradition we have emerged from and its understanding of sex will help throw light on some of our own understandings, or perhaps baggage we may carry to do with sex. Sex is not just for procreative purposes, and it doesn’t mean any sex had outside of this is therefore bad or sinful. Celibacy is a gift and choice, and should not be imposed on anyone; our sexual desires and bodies are not intrinsically bad or evil, they are natural and a gift, to be used in beneficial ways.
Sexuality and its Meanings – Scripture
Perhaps a quick survey of some of Scripture will help to throw more light on this.
In Genesis 2: 18a, it states:
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone ..”
Virginia Mollenkott in Sensuous Spirituality (2007) says, “so much does the Bible center in relationships that the only pronouncement on ‘not good’ in the Genesis creation stories occurred when God evaluated human aloneness; we need companionship”.
I think for most of us when we think of the meaning of sex in Genesis, we often remember the procreation bit, “to multiply”. But we are told God created another human being for Adam for relationship, for union, “they become one flesh”. Thus, sex contributes towards building union and relationship. When the creation story is repeated in Genesis 2, the procreation part in chapter one is omitted.
This is not to say that procreation is not important, and it definitely contributes to the meaning of sex but it is not the only meaning, and it is not necessarily the purpose of sex, perhaps being more of a consequence of two people coming together in union – a physical creation and being is sometimes created, following in the footsteps of our Creator.
The significance of this union and relationship, of this “one-fleshedness” is put forth strongly in 1 Corinthians 6: 15 – 17
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
This passage is rather disparaging of prostitutes but some feminist theologians point out however, that the status of the prostitute is elevated when one is united with her, and that Jesus was affirming towards them. I think Scripture has a complex relationship with prostitutes but never mind, we won’t go into that here.
What is interesting about this passage is that our union with God, is like our one-fleshedness in our human relationships. Put the other way, our sexual union with another is like the way our spirits are one with God’s Holy Spirit. This one-fleshedness with another is not just about bodies coming together, but has a much deeper significance – it can convey the sacred, the spiritual.
It is interesting and thought-provoking to also note that in Matthew 1: 25 which is part of the account of Mary and Joseph, and Luke 24: 35 which belongs to the account of Jesus encountering two disciples on the road to Emmaus uses the same Greek verb for ‘known’. Joseph who has not ‘known’ Mary, in other words has not had sexual relations with her, and Jesus who became ‘known’ to the two disciples in the breaking of bread. The meanings are interchangeable, and here we see clearly the potential contained in sexual union, it reveals spiritual truths and conveys the divine.
William Phipps (Recovering Biblical Sensuousness, 1975) says that “this suggests that both … coitus and the Eucharist afford participants a means for getting a deeper psychophysical revelation of one another”. Doesn’t this just throw new light on receiving communion?
Since we have been talking about spirituality, before I go further, I would like to offer you a definition of spirituality put forward by Virginia Mollenkott:
“[Spirituality is] the experience of the Sacred within ourselves, within our relationships, and within our entire environment. Spirituality refers to our ways of believing, belonging, and responding to the power and presence of Divinity, Holiness, the Higher Power, the All-Inclusive One who connects us spiritually to one another and to the whole ecosystem.”
So sex is about union and relationship, which can be sacred and spiritual. It is also about intimacy that strengthens the union or bond between persons, and is also meant to be pleasurable.
In 1 Corinthians 7: 3 and 5a, Paul says:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. .. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again ..”
Here Paul talks about sexual union being a right in marriage, and where partners should not deprive each other of this pleasure and intimacy, except to put time aside to pray but they are not to stay away from relating sexually for too long, less they are tempted to stray. Mollenkott highlights that procreation is not mentioned in these passages but instead sex with the meaning of building intimacy and bonds, and as bringing pleasure is highlighted. Moreover, this is a mutual right for both in the marriage.
So from Scripture, we can clearly see how the meanings of sex are not just about procreation, but go far beyond that. We see the meaning of one-fleshedness playing a role in the quality of our relationships, providing intimacy that leads to deepening bonds, and how sex is meant to be pleasurable, and should not be denied our partner.
I would like to just say a little more about the ability of our sexual unions being able to convey the spiritual and sacred, and this is related to theologies of the human body. Farley tells us that traditionally, there have been two major frameworks in which Christian theologians have tried to think about the human body – the framework of creation, fall, and redemption; and the framework of creation and consummation. It is the latter that I would like to expand on, whose ideas have been developed by theologians such as Thomas Acquinas and Karl Barth.
Essentially, “bodily creation and consummation are located within a context of belief that all things come forth from God with the destiny to return to God – the body is one with the soul in the human person, and the body as well as the soul is engaged by God’s grace”.
Acquinas believed that God destines the human person for ultimate and utter union with God and with other human persons in God; and Barth stated that the human person is “bodily soul, as he is also besouled body”. That is to say, our bodies and souls are one; they may be different components for the sake of talking about them but in actuality, they are a package, just like our heart and mind. There is no dualism, our bodies are not evil and our desires intrinsically suspicious. Our bodies are sacred, temples of the Holy Spirit and we glimpse and experience the divine, our spirituality through our bodies, yearning for that final consummation with God.
And because we as human beings, are not just physical bodies or shells, but have also spirit and are souls, we therefore have the ability to be self-transcendent. We are able to reflect and contemplate, rise above ourselves, seek spiritual union with another, and union with the divine. It is this ability to be self-transcendent in our sexual relationships that embraces the spiritual and sacred.
Sexuality and its Meanings – Reason
There is not enough time to go into this, and it’s best you read Farley’s book if you’re interested, and which will be available in our library after this sermon series. I just wanted to point out that there have been lots of studies looking at sexual desire and our biological and psychological drives, and trying to understand them. The conclusions are while they exist, our sexuality as a whole and sexual desire cannot be explained or understood solely in these terms. Farley states:
“Neither sexuality as a whole nor sexual desire is to be explained solely in terms of an indomitable biological and psychological drive for which love and the object of love have no meaning. Despite the long history of Western ideas that focus on such a drive, and the remaining views that interpret sexuality still in this way (whether because it can be so disruptive in human lives or because sex industries seem to thrive on this view), sexual desire is or can be more than this.”
And so, “whatever the biological aims of sexuality, they can be redirected or transformed into genuine love for another person, as well as sublimated into the larger concerns of civilization”. Thus, sex or sexual desire is more than a biological and psychological drive. It may be experienced or felt that way in our bodies, but its meanings go beyond that. Our needs are not just physical, and the meanings of sex extend into areas not unlike those spoken about in the section before.
Our Intentions and Quality of Relationship
Putting together what we have been looking at thus far, I would like to crystallize and end the sermon with two points, looking at our intentions, and quality of relationship(s).
Firstly, when it comes to sexual ethics, I think it’s important to ask ourselves what is, or are our intentions in relating sexually with another. This on the surface can be simple, but a question like that actually can have many layers. How well we can answer this question for ourselves depends really, on how deeply we know and understand ourselves.
Our intentions are coloured by our beliefs, be they of Scripture, of our culture, of societal expectations and so on. How we understand the meanings of sex, what it means to be lesbian and gay, our need to be accepted, affirmed, loved etc, all influence our intentions, and how we make decisions about sex.
Perhaps before we engage in relating sexually with someone, we should stop, think and ask ourselves, “What am I doing?”
Farley puts this across more meaningfully in her book and poses the question:
“With what kinds of motives, under what sorts of circumstances, in what forms of relationships, do we render our sexual selves to one another in ways that are good, true, right, and just?”
Gary will help us unpack this next week when he talks about the sexual ethics framework we have been exploring as a church, containing principles we can use in our reflection and decision-making process.
But yes, I think the foundation to doing any ethics is self-reflection and hard thinking, and thinking that engages heart, mind and soul. It warrants asking ourselves, “what am I doing”, and I hope today’s survey from tradition, scripture and very briefly, reason can contribute to the self-reflection and thinking process.
The experience part, the fourth part of the quadrilateral, and the final instalment of the sermon series, will be fleshed out in relation to the sexual ethics framework by Jorg in February. This will however only present possibilities of realities, each of us will still need to make sexual ethics real for ourselves. We each need to reflect on our own experiences, and do our own sexual ethics.
As mostly LGBT Christians, we need to be aware of how our experiences as sexual minorities influences and shapes our decisions about sex. What are the meanings of sex for us? As an affirmation of our sexual identities, as a means to hurt others because of our own internalised homophobia, as a means of healing, or escapism and so on. Have we been sold a lie where the wider culture tells us we’re only as good as we look, we’re only as good as how we perform sexually, how many sexual partners we have, how many people we can get to want us, love us; that our bodies are things to be used for power. Do we critique our experiences, and the wider culture which wields influence over us?
Being schooled in knowing our intentions also involves learning to evaluate our experiences. What are the consequences of our decisions on us? Do we learn, and hone our sexual ethics, or do we stop renewing our minds and ourselves?
We should also ask ourselves as Christians, what ultimate standard of ethics are we called to?
Rev. Yap recently posted an article by Ralph Blair, a psychotherapist and founder of The Homosexual Community Counselling Center and Evangelicals Concerned, an affirming ministry for LGBT Christians in the US. He says that ethics for Christians can be called “mimethics”, an ethics of imitation. The Greek word in Ephesians 5:1 is mimetai, imitators:
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Blair says this is the ground and goal of ethics for Christians, whatever our sexual orientation. It’s like what we’ve said before in our church discussions on sexual ethics, we should ask what would Jesus do in a situation, how are we reflecting Christ to this person(s)
The second and closing point has to do with quality of relationship.
We have seen how sex can have various meanings, and there are more we didn’t touch on. There are meanings that range from the biological to the transcendent, and perhaps the truth is they interact in complex ways. I think though it is important to know the possibilities that our sexual relating can effect on the quality of our relationships. Sex can be purely lustful and selfish, doing very little in terms of building relationship with the other, or it can be extremely deep and moving, honest, vulnerable and giving, allowing moments of self-transcendence to experience the sacred and divine.
Farley states that:
“ .. only a sexuality formed and shaped with love has the possibility for integration into the whole of the human personality. At its most intense and most exhilarating heights, the experience of sex combines embodied love and desire, conversation and communication, openness to the other in the intimacy of embodied selves, transcendence into fuller selves, and even encounter with God.”
The ideal ethic for sexual relating is love or more concretely, a just love, the title of Farley’s book. This means a love that contains justice, something that will be picked up next week.
When I facilitated a sexual ethics discussion previously with some groups in church, I learnt that some of us have experienced sex as spiritual, and encountered God in our sexual relating. These were in relationships that were longer-term, where love is present, a genuine interest and wanting to know the other person deeply, letting oneself be vulnerable, where there is commitment, complete giving and extreme empathy; some of these words are from members themselves.
And I think relationships like these are very hard work. And sometimes instead of using sex to bond, it leads to the breakdown of relationships. There was an interesting study conducted by John Gottman and Robert Levenson in 2003 about lesbian and gay relationships, as compared to heterosexual ones, and quoted in a TIME magazine article in 2008 by John Cloud, titled, “Are Gay Relationships Different”. Amongst the interesting findings was that gay men are worse than lesbians and straight couples at making up after fights. Cloud writes:
“No one is sure why gay men are worse at making up after fights, but I have a theory: it’s less important for their sex lives. Probably because they don’t have women to restrain their evolutionarily male sexual appetites, gay men are more likely than straight and lesbian couples to agree to nonmonogamy, which decreases the stakes for not repairing. And according to a big study from Norway published in The Journal of Sex Research in 2006, gay men also consume more porn than everyone else, making them more “partner-independent.””
I don’t know whether you agree with this or otherwise, but it’s worth thinking about. What is the quality of our relating, and relationships. What would we like it to be?
So then what happens to those of us who can’t find loving, committed relationships? What about those of us who for whatever reasons, cannot have this ideal situation? It doesn’t mean that whatever sex is had is therefore bad or unethical, it means the quality of relationship is different, and we need to evaluate the consequences it has on us, and others.
“I have no objection to the casual sharing of sexual pleasure and tenderness except to note that people who never get beyond recreational sex eventually report boredom with it. Nor do I have any objection to sensuality for its own sake, except to note that sensualists eventually become bored and somewhat jaded… I believe that every honest attempt to relate to another human being is a good attempt, including recreational sex or sensuality for the sake of sensuality, if that is all a person can achieve. But relational modes that plumb spiritual depths and heights are more lastingly gratifying than exclusively recreational or casual sex.”
She writes that John McNeill, a well-known gay psychotherapist, theologian and former priest who has written quite a bit about sex, once told her to “just be careful never to condemn anybody’s attempt to relate”. I think this is very important for us to take heed and remember too, when doing our own sexual ethic, and in community.
For we are also told, in Matthew 23: 4:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
As a church, when discussing sexual ethics, let us also be compassionate to each other, holding our mimethics of just love in tension with recognising our attempts to relate, within a process of ongoing self-reflection, admitting that today, no less than in the Garden of Eden, “it is not good that the [human creature] should be alone”.