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Focus on the Family?

1991, THE ADDAMS FAMILYRecently I stirred the hornets nest with "I choose not to be straight". I then followed it with "Why go after straight Christians.". Here's my last sexuality post for a while. I think.

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.

9 thoughts on “Focus on the Family?

  1. Howard Nowlan

    A few thoughts... There's much to consider when it comes to "issues" of who does and does not get noted/valued/respected in a Christian environment (and there's nothing new here - Acts 6:1 shows such matters have troubled us from the earliest days of the Apostles), but to consider the current issue for a moment - Christ calls us to deny self (sexual relations with another) in service for the Kingdom (as shown in Matthew 19 and other passages), but Paul requires 'elders' to be husbands of one wife and have children who believe so that they 'may not be open to any charge against them' (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6. I'm not saying this to open a pointless controversy - Christ or Paul - but only to touch on your point, Glen, about how married socialization and family-orientated groups, needs and events can so often become the focus of church life and activity, and thereby leave many 'outside' of the local expression of Christ's body). Such a requirement as Paul's is to express something other than the doctrinal (and sexual) abuse which has become the focus of another fallen evangelical case in America this week, but what we see so very often is, clearly, human failure, whatever role or label we chose to employ, or however 'wise' we might be (who cannot read 1 Kings 4:20-21 in contrast to 1 Kings 11:4 and not be struck by how easily we can fail). The intent is indeed for something more. Genuine redemption of life will frighten us - call us to 'jump off a cliff' - because of the scandalous nature of the love which calls us and it will baptize us into a life beyond all our well-intentioned 'religious' demarcations. Grace is truly about a greater, deeper, more ravishing passion than we so often make room for in our lives, let alone in our churches and offices. When we begin to understand why the Song of Songs is at the heart of our Bibles and not a banned piece of literature, then we might begin to at least consider a more helpful and meaningful approach, at least, to this issue. That day, I hope, may be drawing a little closer.

  2. Robert Graham

    Glen, I think I understand what you wrote regarding marriage, but has your approach neglected practical holiness? Can we omit, "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." Christians are are called, born of God and children of God, so we are not blinded by what Paul calls "deceitful desires." They should not deceive us. Habitually licentious desires seem to say, "Life doesn't matter as much as my pleasures do." Paul said, "I will not be enslaved by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12). Sexual sin in more than a "distracting" discipleship issue, it is sin, the heart of why Christ died for us.

  3. Cal

    Robert:

    How is holiness ever not practical? What are you even asking?

    The desire for family and lineage can also be deceitful desires that promise the pleasure of immortality through vicarious kinship. Jesus, offensively, blew off His mother to make the point that true family is defined by those who obey the will of His Father, not bloodlines.

    Being an American, I'm grateful for this message Glen.

  4. Glen

    Hi Robert, welcome to the blog, thanks for engaging.

    It's difficult to respond before I know which particular part of the post might neglect "practical holiness"?

  5. Howard Nowlan

    OK - more thoughts. Something you wrote in this piece, Glen, has certainly caused me some pondering. To quote:"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". If we go back to Eden, God says it isn't good for Adam to be alone, and makes Eve as a 'help meet' (2:18). This clearly relates to Eve being a companion and helper (in a very profound manner when we consider the role of women in regards to continuing and sustaining each generation), but also - clear from Adam's response - with regards to her being a wife (2:24). Now sin and rebellion malign not only our relationship to God, but to one another, and how those relations unfold (3:7,12,16). When Christ calls us to service (Matthew 19 & 1 Corinthians 7:29-40), it is a call to be like those other messengers, who do not share such relations (Mark 12:25) - something which, according to what Jesus says here, will be the normal state come the resurrection. If bodily life, currently, for believers, is supposed to be about 'exploring' a form of friendship which is meant to be marked by spiritual friendship, why, especially in the light of Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 7, do we still have such an emphasis on Marriage (husbands, wives and families) within Christianity, and what do we think about what was established in Genesis 2 - was sexual union in marriage merely a means God provided to bring about the growth of humanity through such companionship, or was it meant to be a cardinal part of our being human, of our 'knowing' (4;1) of a significant other, and if it was, why does Jesus teach us that it will not exist in the new creation? Any thoughts?

  6. Glen

    Hey Howard, good thoughts. I don't want to downplay marriage or what can be learnt in and through it - it is a mystery proclaiming Christ and the church after all (Ephesians 5:33). Interestingly, Paul draws this conclusion straight after quoting Genesis 2 - so it has *always* had this importance which goes beyond mere procreation.

    I suppose I'd just want to say that marriage provides one embodied experience of the gospel lived out - but "virgins" provide another (Matthew 25) and we need to explore and uphold those callings far more, especially when a Christian sub-culture finds it difficult to even *read* Matthew 19 or 1 Corinthians 7.

  7. Howard Nowlan

    Thanks, Glen. I agree regarding the pivotal role of marriage (though I think there's much to discuss regarding the entire subject when we contrast 1 Corinthians 7 to Ephesians 5), but I'm really trying to nail down something deeper here regarding sexuality and identity. Genesis informs us that we were created in the 'image' and 'likeness' of God as Male and Female (Genesis 1:26,27). Whilst (as Anthony Hoekema notes in 'Created in God's Image') the text does not specifically or explicitly state in what way such a likeness is expressed, there is a relationship to our being made male and female ("Man", male and female, express the likeness - (5:1-3), which I suspect alludes to to fact that we can only be sustained by what comes from outside of ourselves, not only in terms of immediate needs (food and drink), but regarding our deeper needs (of not being alone). Because of the fall, this expression has been marred but not entirely lost (James 3:9), and this essential nature that God gave to us is redeemed and restored through Christ - our life and being becoming conformed to this in the new creation (Romans 8:29). So, come the day of resurrection, we will be raised in our own flesh (Job 19:26), which will be clothed by Christ with immortality |(1 Corinthians 15: 53). Notice here Paul is speaking about how our flesh must be dressed with what is imperishable, which clearly refers to a "spiritual" body (vs 44). Now this appears to be why sex, at least as we currently understand it, ends, yet we are clearly being taught that a deeper, higher form of humanity - and of maleness and femaleness? - will be evidenced by this wonder. Surely, as Lewes Smedes notes in his book, Sex for Christians, what is being talked about by Jesus in Mark 12:25 is a future where the present framework of certain relationships (i.e. marriage) is transcended - where everything that was made 'good' by God in creation is not abolished, but glorified, including our sexuality. Surely, this is what Paul is seeking to convey to us in Ephesians 5 - that what is coming is infinitely richer than we could ask or think. Using ourselves, then, either as those single or married, to speak of the anticipation of 'the day', shows how we live, expectantly, of the joy that is fast approaching. Does that sound in the right ball park?

  8. Glen

    Hi Howard,

    Ok I think I'm getting you more now. You're saying that at the end we won't be *less* than sexual beings but - somehow - *more* than our current experience of sexuality. Is that kind of what you're saying?

  9. Howard Nowlan

    Hi Glen.
    I'm seeking to really unpack what Paul is driving at in Romans 8 in the New Creation. Whilst there are things 'in common' with what we currently see and understand (it is our bodies and this creation that is renewed - even passages like 2 Peter 3:13 are actually about renewal, not removal), there is also a furnishing of something new (heavenly) through Christ - a setting free from the old - the bondage, decay, etc - which also results in a liberty for God's people which is a splendor previously unseen. Now it's clear from glimpses throughout the Bible that this new life will be gorgeously earthy (heaven on earth), so it will no doubt result in us, in Christ, being truly fulfilled in our characters, which must, I'm proposing, include our sexuality. If we think about the potential of what was lost in Eden, then I think we're at the threshold of what will be evidenced in a Redeemed Creation. I'm not sure how that unpacks in detail, but I'd appreciate any thoughts from yourself and others.

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