Putting the “Tradition” in a Traditional Sexual Ethic

A reflection by Lindsey

I have a personality that adapts well to things being in flux. I embrace the uncertainties associated with not always being aware of where I’m going and rarely being sure of the best path towards any goal. When I was in college, I thought I could have everything all sketched out in terms of my 5-, 10-, and 20-year plans. But every time I started feeling like my plans were coming together, something major happened to upset my apple cart. Eventually, I stopped trying to pile all the apples together and tried instead to carry one piece of fruit at a time. I feel like my spiritual journey mirrors many other aspects of my life, where it is regularly in a state of flux as I explore seemingly uncharted waters.

I didn’t start my spiritual journey particularly attached to any Christian denomination. Along the way, my spirituality has been shaped by a number of Christian traditions: I can trace significant influences upon my faith to the Anabaptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Quaker traditions. I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I mean when talking about a traditional sexual ethic. There are lots of assumptions about what that phrase means. Many Christian traditions band together in defense of sex being reserved for marriage and marriage existing only between one man and one woman. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I refer to a traditional sexual ethic. What I’m talking about is a sexual ethic strongly mapped to a particular spiritual (or moral) tradition.

I’ve journeyed through enough Christian traditions to know that not all are the same. Each Christian tradition has its own set of emphases and guiding questions. And I earnestly believe that all robust Christian traditions offer people a set of tools for thinking about sex, marriage, vocation, and life in Christ. I find myself wishing that more Christians would leverage the full weight of their traditions to discern how those traditions can more openly welcome, embrace, and guide LGBT Christians into the fullness of life in Christ.

However, as much as I might wish for each tradition to look within its own borders to help LGBT Christians find abundant life, I’ve noticed that many Christian traditions have formed various alliances with other Christian traditions in order to shout down dissenters. As a result, it seems that people have allowed key differences among their traditions to evaporate in effort to find some basic commonality on which orthodox believers in all denominations can agree. The net effect is that Christian traditions write doctrinal statements that hint at vague ideals without showing people the connection between where the tradition is going and where the tradition’s theology came from in the first place.

I think within Christian traditions that consider themselves progressive, it’s entirely possible to have a “traditional” sexual ethic that embraces people who enter into same sex marriages simply because of the way those specific traditions frame their theological questions. I’ll never forget hearing Lillian Daniel speak on the heritage of the United Church of Christ during the 2013 Gay Christian Network Conference. Daniel spoke on how the UCC as a Christian tradition sees itself as inescapably using abolitionist arguments to break down the dividing walls between people and work toward social justice. After the talk, as I reflected on how this Christian tradition views itself I wondered, “In this denomination, is a heterosexual marriage principally about repairing the breach in relationships between man and woman? How would one think about the divide between gay people and straight people? Does one need to have a clear dichotomy in order to have a ‘dividing’ wall? What sort of space is afforded for bisexual and genderqueer people who might find themselves in the ‘middle’ of binaries?” If the United Church of Christ was my tradition, I’m rather hopeful that asking these sorts of questions would help me draw closer to the heart of Christ and pull me into a deeper connection with other people in the same tradition. I’m also reasonably confident that people within the UCC tradition can tell that I have only passing familiarity with their tradition because of these questions I asked.

Looking to the Christian traditions I’ve been a part of, I can see many reasons why these traditions do not affirm same-sex relationships as marriages. Some of these traditions seek to discern how God commands us to live as Christians by offering detailed direction on activities one must avoid. A good number of these traditions also explore gender as a very significant component of how we grow to maturity in Christ. How can a girl grow into a woman of God? How can we raise boys to be men after God’s own heart? In the sacramental traditions, offering the correct ‘elements’ in Holy Matrimony mirrors the pattern of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery. Many of these traditions teach that both marriage and celibacy reveal something about the Kingdom of God, where all vocations are essential. Yet, each of these traditions grounds its sense of a traditional sexual ethic in a different line of reasoning.

In the midst of all my queries, I’ve spent a lot more time trying to figure out what different Christian traditions say about celibacy. By the time I started asking questions about celibacy, I was in a Christian tradition that didn’t say much other than “Sex is a great gift from God, so God opens up the possibility of heterosexual marriage for almost everyone.” I found myself with little choice but to shop around to see what other Christian traditions offered to people exploring celibacy. I found that many Protestant traditions stress the beauty of the single state, discussing celibacy as the opposite of marriage. I found a rich jumble of resources discussing celibacy within the Roman Catholic tradition. I guess it helps that the Roman Catholic Church has spent hundreds of years exploring the various implications of having different kinds of celibate vocations: clerical, monastic, and friar. Within the Orthodox tradition, I found a focus on practically living out one’s vocation and integrating oneself more deeply within the tradition as a whole through the practice of this vocation.

I think it’s absolutely critical to remind Christians that nearly all Christian traditions have a rich theology of marriage, of celibacy, and of sharing God’s love with the world. A Christian sexual ethic needs to be intricately connected within the broader tradition in order to equip people in that tradition for faithful discipleship.

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4 thoughts on “Putting the “Tradition” in a Traditional Sexual Ethic

    • Hi Kay, as we’ve said time and time again, we’re not particularly interested in the question of “Can gay people have sex?”

      The purpose of my post is to say that it’s important to have conversations about sexual ethics within specific Christian traditions. From my own meanderings, I’ve seen people vigorously argue for gay marriage in a wide swatch of traditions. I’ve also seen people vigorously argue that the tradition can be used to support people developing diverse vocations.

      I’m generally interested in what my Christian tradition is saying about these issues. I have a great deal of respect for people who have discerned their vocations within their specific faith tradition, even if that process leads them to a different set of conclusions.

  1. Wow, this is an amazing, thoughtful reflection (not that I’d expect anything less). I can tell I will need to spend time and concerted effort thinking through these questions on my own as well.
    You reminded of the real complexity of Christians (and any humans), and I am much less inclined to feel defensive about the Church and sexuality.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Suzanne, thanks for your comment! I appreciate it. I pray your time reflecting is blessed by a rich sense of God’s presence. Best, Lindsey

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