A New Sexual Ethic? Part 4

This is part 4 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow.

Third, Heyward claims that Christianity is isolating and denies community. By setting rigid boundaries concerning sexual behavior and then consequently excluding those who refuse to live by those standards, Heyward states that Christianity is proving itself dated, close-minded, and supportive of “compulsive heterosexuality” (Heyward, 12). Historically, Heyward claims that women were isolated from the Christian community by being declared “as evil, ‘the devil’s gateway’” and then systematically used as scapegoats for the sexual sins of the men around them (Heyward, 14).

What is so interesting about Heyward’s quick dismissal of all things “christian” is that God’s moral law, especially his guidelines concerning sexual relations in general, create and then reinforce exactly the sort of relationality that Heyward claims she is attempting to achieve. Relationship, community, unity in diversity, profound oneness and even wholeness are recurring themes throughout Scripture. Heyward is attempting to achieve the end of spiritual wholeness through the means of sex. Scripture teaches that even the most holy sexual relationship is but a picture of the unity and wholeness experienced in being a member of the bride of Christ (Eph 6.22-33). The foundation of Christianity is found in the words of Christ Himself when He stated, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).

Throughout the epistles of the New Testament, believers in churches across Europe and Asia Minor are exhorted to live as a unified, healthy body (1 Cor 12), as a well jointed building (Eph 2); they are told to lay aside petty differences (Phil 4) and to pray for one another and for their common goal (1 Thes 5). These instructions for community are plentiful, and they center on the common love of God and the common call of spreading His glory among the nations. There is one part of living in community that Heyward seems to miss—justice and love are not relative terms that can be interpreted to mean that believers should turn a blind eye to those things which Scripture condemns as going against the nature of God. Justice and love are characteristics of the nature of God, and God declares to His people, “For I the Lord do not change” (Mal 3.6). If God does not change, the characteristics of His nature are fixed and unchanging as well. Therefore, the principles of spurring one another on to love and good deeds (Heb 10) and of confronting one another when fellow believers are entrenched in sin (Mt 18; Gal 6; 1 Cor 5) apply to all things described in Scripture as moral laws which reflect the character of God. So long as desires are allowed to reign unchecked and people continue to seek fulfillment in things other than a relationship with God through Jesus, true spiritual wholeness will not be realized.

C.S. Lewis described this spiritual wholeness of Christ as Joy, and upon contemplating this matter of desire and pleasure made the following observation: “Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” Heyward and her intellectual companions have attempted to substitute pleasure for Joy by completely freeing human sexuality from all encumbrances of law and discipline, but they have yet to achieve the wholeness and fulfillment for which they so desperately search. The struggle to find wholeness through the creation instead of the Creator (Rom 1. 25) is a confirmation of Lewis’ belief that physical pleasure is an unsatisfactory attempt to fill the “God-shaped void” in the lives of people.

This God-shaped void brings Heyward to the natural end of seeking God in God’s created order—Heyward describes sex in divine terms, completing the move from a supposedly “christian” sexual ethic to a glorification and worship of sex that is essentially pagan sex worship. In her discussion of this new christian ethic of sex, Heyward draws upon the work of Freud, who described the eroticism of sex as the “life force.” Heyward also quotes Audre Lorde’s description of the erotic as “the source of our creativity, the wellspring of our joy, the energy of our poems, music, lovemaking, dancing, meditation, friendships, and meaningful work.” For the Christian believer, this description could very well be used to describe God. In the Psalms, it is the glory and worship of Yahweh that inspires David and the other psalmists to write and dance and meditate. The entire book of the Song of Songs describes the fruition of a sexual relationship between a husband and wife when that relationship is rightly focused upon God and upon one another. Paul tells the church in Corinth, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10.31).

The focus of the life of the believer is not self pleasure or self glorification. Rather, the believer is to focus on the glory and worship of God. To give creative or inspirational credit or worship to anything other than God Himself is to commit an act of idolatry. Heyward attempts to explain this usurpation of God by declaring, “Theologically, we are speaking of our power in right relation; from a christian perspective, the power of God” (Heyward, 15). She claims that the power of God is reached and realized through the act of sex, but God himself prohibits worshiping him through sex acts (Lev 18, 20).

These major themes—the role reversals of men and women, the search for false community, the replacement of God with an idol—work together to show that while Heyward claims that her work, heritage, and ideas are Christian, she is actually committing the very sin that she exposes in the Church; she is further removing herself from the authority of the Bible and establishing her own ethic based upon tradition and personal experience. Heyward has taken Wesley’s quadrilateral of interpretation and reversed it; instead of beginning with Scripture and clarifying it through tradition, philosophy, and personal experience, Heyward begins with personal experience and reinterprets or discounts philosophy, tradition, and Scripture. Those ideals and absolutes which go against personal experience and desire are laid aside and explained away as being culturally irrelevant. This is precisely the place that Heyward envisions: “A historical perspective on sexuality is important… because such a view enables us to envision and perhaps experience our own possibilities…. We are involved in shaping our own dreams.” By using sex as a means to channel the power of God, Heyward argues that personal, sexual realization enables humanity to make its own destiny—humanity becomes god.

A New Sexual Ethic? Part 3

This is part 3 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialim,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One and Part Two are here.

The second premise of Heyward’s work is that Christian tradition has been “antisexual” in its teachings. Heyward places the behavior of sinful, fallen, and fallible man as the standard by which Scripture is judged. Rather than declaring that mankind has been wrong in its portrayal of women, especially when such behavior is judged through the glaring Light of the Gospel, Heyward seems to make the assumption that, because church tradition allowed such behavior to occur, then such behavior must be condoned in the Bible as well. Much time is spent by feminist theologians pointing to Old Testament passages concerning the ceremonial uncleanness of women after childbirth or menstruation as examples of men writing oppressive religious codes against women. The apostle Paul is accused of being a homophobic misogynist. Heyward actually goes so far as to declare the Bible as “antisexual” because its supposedly antiquated rules set up a sexual ethic completely unrelated to today’s society. She states:

The christian church plays the central formative role in limiting and thwarting our sexual phantasie, or sexual imagination. Most historians, sexologists, and others who are interested in how sexual practices and attitudes have developed historically seem to agree that in the realm of sexual attitudes, Western history and christian history are so closely linked as to be in effect indistinguishable. That is to say, the christian church has been the chief architect of an attitude toward sexuality during the last seventeen hundred years of European and Euroamerican history—an obsessive, proscriptive attitude, in contrast to how large numbers of people, christians and others, have actually lived our lives as sexual persons (Heyward, 12-13).

Even though Heyward repeatedly calls herself a “christian,” such a statement can only be made by one whose sexual ethic is not grounded in the concept of God as the Holy and Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Instead, such an ethic can only be grounded within one’s self. Heyward’s above observation of the church and human sexuality is correct—the church has been the guardian of the holiness of God, and in an attempt to keep the church holy as God is holy, certain sexual behavior has been limited by that same holy God. This limitation and thwarting of sex is not the work of close-minded men who wrote Scripture of their own accord. This limitation instead is the good work of God for His creation. These boundaries are, in the very words of God, for our own good (Deut 10.13).

Heyward would have her reader believe that the Bible declares all sex to be sinful. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

Modern people are always saying, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” [If they mean,] “there is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself a certain way , nor in the fact that it gives pleasure..” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. … I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked that as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. They were wrong (emphasis mine).

There have indeed been many “muddle-headed” Christians who have declared sex to be inherently sinful. Church father Augustine said of women that “it is a shameful thing to intend to use one’s husband for passion.” He went so far as to say that all Christians should desire to remain chaste because the sooner humanity died out, the sooner Christ’s reign on earth would begin. Those who marry only do so because they lack self control. Early church fathers nearly unanimously claim that sex is solely for the purpose of procreation. Justin Martyr said, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children.” Lactantius made the bold statement, “There would be no adulteries, no debaucheries, and prostitution of women if everyone knew that whatever is sought beyond desire of procreation is condemned by God.”

Heyward gives the example of the Council of Elvira in 309 A.D. as an early indication of the “church’s antisexual preoccupation” (Heyward, 13). At the fall of the Roman Empire, Heyward surmises that the church sought to establish some amount of control over the ensuing chaos. Heyward uses Historical theologian Samuel Laeuchli’s work as support for this belief. According to Heyward, “Laeuchli…[suggests] five reasons why the church’s elite became preoccupied with sexual control of the clergy and, to a lesser extent, the laity.” These five reasons were: 1) the transition from contending with the state to vying for control of the state; 2) a “new sociopolitical context” that centered church power in Rome; 3) the exacting task of becoming true members of Roman culture, 4) the increasing urbanization of Christians, and 5) the widening gap between the religious mythologies of both pagans and christians (Heyward, 13).

Later in the article, Heyward proclaims, “Understanding sex historically might enable us to also experience sexual pleasure as good, morally right, without need of justification…. We do not need to justify pleasure” (Heyward, 15). Again, Heyward, is correct; pleasure should not be justified or explained away. Heyward’s subtle destruction of the truth occurs in the fact that she equates all sexual pleasure with biblically correct, God-honoring, holy and good sex. By making a sweeping claim that Christians declare sex to be bad, Heyward seems to echo the oldest lie told to mankind: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen 3.1). Heyward’s twist of truth has caught many a Christian in the trap of sexual license. By asking for this one “clarification” of facts, the serpent is shifting the focus from the plethora of blessings showered upon man by his Creator to sudden desires that seem unfulfilled.

C.S. Lewis explained this lie best when he stated: “Like all powerful lies, it is based on truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself… is “normal” and “healthy,” and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal.” Lewis is correct in assessing that sexual pleasure and desire are not inherently sinful. In fact, these things are, when practiced within the boundaries designed by God, good and right. Sex in God’s perfect design is pure and holy and pleasurable. Sex outside of God’s design is ultimately none of these things.

A New Sexual Ethic? Part 2

This is part 2 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One can be found here.

First, Heyward correctly points out that there is an abuse of power often evident between people in relationship with one another. Throughout the article, Heyward describes the relationships between men and women as being dominated by men through the power they hold over women in the sexual relationship. She observes that “advanced capitalism literally feeds off of men’s control of women’s bodyselves…. Sex pays, and… coercive sex—involving pain and humiliation—pays best” (Heyward, 15). There is an evident power struggle between the genders that can be seen even today as women continue to struggle to prove that they are just as capable as men in fields ranging from the military to business to athletics. It seems to be assumed that women can only achieve empowerment and wholeness through fulfillment in areas in which men have traditionally excelled and dominated. Heyward contends that this domination is fulfilled only because of man’s control over women through sex.

“The place of women in this chaotic world” is one of toil and trouble, scapegoating and violence, hatred and trivialization, poverty and despair. Economically, under global structures of late capitalism, women are kept in poverty. It is the way profit is maximized. Women’s bodies are kept in the service of heterosexist patriarchy–as wives, whores, fantasy objects, and as a vast, deep pool of cheap labor (Heyward, 14; emphasis mine).

Heyward implies in this statement that women who are married and work in the home, those women who have espoused traditional gender roles as wife and mother, have been enslaved by this tradition, or are nothing more than hired help who exchange sex and housekeeping for room and board.

This view of marriage and the arrangement held in such disdain by Heyward is justifiably detested by liberation and feminist theologians. It is indeed an incorrect and sinful model of marriage and family. The fallibility of Heyward’s argument lies not in an incorrect assessment of the problem but instead in an incorrect solution. It is true that for centuries, women have been used and abused by men. They have been treated as property, relegated to second class citizenry, and even treated as the source of man’s sin. This treatment has occurred even within the very church that claims “there is neither… male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28). Early church fathers taught that, like Eve, women especially carried within them “the degradation of the first sin and the hatefulness of human perdition.” Women have been blamed for the fall of man since the fall of man (Gen 3.12), and this has led to a deeply ingrained tradition within the church as well.

According to Heyward, this dynamic between men and women is bound up in the relationality of mankind. In speaking of relationality, Heyward observes, “…relationality… presupposes relativity: all of us, and all of everything, is relative to everything else—changing, becoming, living, and dying in relation. There can be nothing static in a personal identity or relationship formed in such a matrix” (Heyward, 11). Because people change due to their interactions with one another and with the world around them, it is concluded that one’s sexuality must also be open to such change. Heyward declares, “Sexuality is socially constructed” (Heyward, 11). Therefore, it is through one’s environment, life experiences, and interpersonal relationships that a person ultimately finds the center and sexuality of her “bodyself.”

This first major premise of her article, that the interrelatedness of male and female is ultimately sexual and that this relationship has been demeaned and undignified throughout history, leaving women without dignity and self-worth, can in some cases be legitimately supported. From Scripture to early church writings, to popular work such as plays and poetry, all the way through modern days, women have indeed been mistreated and used as sexual toys by men. But to say that this occurs only in heterosexual relationships, or that it occurs in all heterosexual relationships, is very far from the truth. To claim that such behavior is actually the biblical mandate for the relationships between men and women would be grossly incorrect and indeed heretical. Yet, throughout this article, Heyward draws a nearly indistinguishable line between church history and biblical doctrine.

A cursory look at Scripture shows that God’s plan for the relationship between man and woman is to be something other than domineering and abusive. While there is a set standard of man as the head of the relationship, this is not a directive for man to rule over woman in a domineering, militaristic manner. Nor does this somehow declare man to be of more intrinsic worth than woman. At the consummation of the first marriage, it was explained that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2.24). The study notes for the ESV Study Bible further explain that “the term ‘hold fast’ is used elsewhere for practicing covenant faithfulness (e.g. Deut. 10.20; see how Paul brings these texts together in 1 Cor. 6.16-17). The idea of covenant faithfulness implies love, protection, loyalty, unity; nothing of overpowering abuse and forced labor as Heyward would have her readers believe.

While the above passage in Genesis is a prescription for how marriage should function, the curses passed down by God following the fall of man in Genesis 3 give an accurate description of how relationships between men and women are adversely affected by sin. Part of the curse placed upon woman states, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3.16). This statement accurately describes the role reversal Heyward is proposing as the solution to man’s ruling over woman. Before the fall, God appointed Adam as the head and leader of the human relationship. Eve was created to be a complementary helper for Adam, not a lesser being created to be ruled over. Each was equal in the sight of God and both were fully created in the image of God.

But after the fall, sin deeply affected the relationship between Adam and Eve. Their fellowship with God was destroyed as well as their fellowship with one another. The sin of Adam and Eve was a desire to reverse roles with God so that they would become like God. The relationship between Adam and Eve was likewise reversed through sin. Eve now would taint her helpmate role by having a desire to take leadership away from Adam, and Adam would pervert his leadership role by dominating and ruling over Eve. According to Scripture, both of these are sinful responses to equally sinful choices. Heyward is not proposing anything near a Christian solution to the sinful issue of men wrongly dominating women. Instead of exposing and correcting wrong behavior in the light of the Word, Heyward is suggesting that women should respond to the sin of men by sinning in return, and completely reversing God’s intended relationship between man and woman. This rebellion against men is a physical, external symptom of a deeper issue which ultimately is a sin of the heart—rebellion against God.

A New Sexual Ethic? Part 1

This is the first in a series of five posts responding to Carter Heyward’s essay, “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism.”

The work Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James Nelson and Sandra Longfellow was collected and published as “a revision of much Christian understanding of sexuality…” (Nelson and Longfellow, xiii). This collection of authors and theologians has rightly assessed that much of Christian tradition regarding sex has, indeed, been incorrect. Where each of these authors has gone, however, is not a return to a correct biblical sexual ethic. Rather, each has strayed farther from true biblical morality to a self-based understanding of sexuality. This paper will focus on the call of Carter Heyward, who, in her article “Notes on Historical Grounding” declares, “What is required is more than simply a ‘reformation.’ I am speaking of revolutionary transformation. Nothing less will do” (Heyward, 16). While still desiring to call herself “christian,” [Heyward herself does not capitalize the word “christian” anywhere in her writing. This appears to be a deliberate attempt to minimalize the faith itself through the subtlety of grammar] Heyward states that a return to biblical sexuality, a reformation of traditional Christian sexual ethics, is not the correct move at the current time. Instead, a completely new understanding of human sexuality must be conveyed if Christianity is to continue being a viable religious option for self-respecting people in the twenty-first century.

In the Introduction to Part One of Sexuality and the Sacred, Nelson states that two current schools of thought are represented in this work. The first, social constructionism (or historical grounding), “…emphasizes our active role as human agents deeply influenced by our social relations in structuring or ‘constructing’ our sexual meanings and values” (Nelson, 3). The second school of thought is essentialism, which emphasizes “the objectively definable reality of sexual and bodily meanings. The body, they claim, has its intrinsic and given meanings, quite apart from whatever we happen to believe about it” (Nelson, 3). Heyward writes this article with the purpose of supporting a historical view of sexuality.

This teaching is dangerous to the Christian church precisely because the call for change is legitimate. There is much within the Christian tradition that has been blatantly wrong in teachings concerning sex, especially concerning the woman’s role in sex. Much has also been incorrectly taught concerning the relationships between men and women, particularly in the areas of sex and marriage. Heyward does an excellent job of identifying specific areas within Christian tradition that are incorrect concerning the human sexual experience. The point at which this writer diverges from Heyward is on reaching a solution for these issues. Instead of desiring a reformation of tradition that will realign “Christian” teaching with Biblical teaching, Heyward calls for the aforementioned “revolutionary transformation.” According to Heyward, a return to biblical foundations is not enough; a completely new ethic is required. This paper will attempt to point out Heyward’s correct observations concerning the traditional Christian sexual ethic while responding to the corresponding unbiblical “corrections” she makes concerning tradition. Biblical strategies concerning a correct reforming of Christian tradition toward a biblical sexual ethic will also be presented.

Window Shutters and Keeping up Appearances

I was sitting in my car yesterday with one of the girls from my Sunday school class. We had gone to lunch and were now waiting for her mom to get home because she had forgotten her key and couldn’t get in the house. As we were waiting, she started telling me about her neighbors. She pointed at one house and said they didn’t take very good care of their house and the shutters kept falling off. I looked at the house and, sure enough, two shutters were missing on the second floor. I wondered aloud why we even bother putting shutters on houses since we don’t actually shutter our windows anymore.

Hannah replied, “Because we all think they’re supposed to be there and it just looks wrong without them. We all know they don’t really do anything, but they used to, so we keep them. Houses without shutters just look funny.”

So we put shutters on our houses to keep up appearances. While they originally were designed to protect a home from the elements and storms, they now serve no functional purpose. This brief exchange got me thinking about how I keep up appearances in my own life. I am definitely guilty of seasons in my life when I have done the right things only because my life would look funny without them. I didn’t go to church because it was my lifeline of worship and community and spiritual growth. I went because I didn’t know what else you did on Sunday morning. And besides, if I wasn’t there, people would talk, and that would just be awkward. Just like shutters were originally meant to protect a home from the damaging elements of the weather, the disciplines of the Christian life are meant to protect us from the damaging elements of this world. We are to read Scripture because the Word brings life, not so we can check it off our “Good Christian To-Do List.” We are to go to church to participate in corporate worship and to build up and be built up by our brothers and sisters in Christ, not so that we can be seen and keep up the appearance that everything in our lives are A-Ok.

I began wondering, what disciplines have become shutters in my life? When do I go through the motions to keep up appearances? Is my Christian walk really useful and protective, or is it just decoration that will prove worthless when the times of testing arrive?

Picture two houses with shutters: one with genuine, useful shutters that will close to protect the windows in a storm, and the other with decorative shutters nailed to the house. On a cloudless, sunny day, they are identical. But put those houses through a violent storm, and they will look quite different.

Jesus gave a similar illustration in Matthew 7 about foundations. He said that those who keep up appearances, those who hear His words but don’t obey them, are like the man who builds his house on the sand. His home may look just like a house built on a rock, but when the storm comes, the house built on sand collapses.

So how would you describe your walk with Christ? Is it genuine and functional, fulfilling its purpose to make you both winsome in your walk and safe in the storm? Or is it merely window dressing you use to keep up appearances but will tragically serve no purpose when the winds of life blow around you?