Reflections on Discerning a Sexual Ethic

A reflection by Lindsey

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of reminders that I’m getting older. I teach students who were born after 2000. I have passed my 10 year high school class reunion. Graduates of colleges next May will comprise the Class of 2015. I’m at the upper age limit for events geared towards young adults. If I’m getting my personal timeline right, I’ve been navigating my own journey of faith and sexuality for 17 years. I empathize with so many people just getting started on their own process and want to do what I can in order to help them along their ways. I have sat in a lot of uncomfortable “middle” seats between contrasting life ethics where I have been shoulder-to-shoulder with other people who think about these questions in different ways than I do. Along the road, I’ve developed a surprisingly profound respect for people who have a wide range of convictions.

It can be tricky to talk about how other people craft their personal sexual ethics. On one hand, convictions about sexual ethics are individual because of how deeply they inform a person’s manner of living his or her life. On the other hand, sexual ethics are necessarily communal because they draw us into relationships with one another. No one forms his or her sexual ethic in a vacuum. Equally, most consider it respectful to leave what happens in an adult’s bedroom a private matter. Many feel attacked when others express ethical convictions that run counter to their own ways of life. It doesn’t help when people with traditional sexual ethics absolutely reject the idea that progressive sexual ethics can have some kind of organizing logic. Similarly, meaningful conversation stalls when people with progressive sexual ethics deny that traditional sexual ethics have any potential to be life-giving. It seems to me that often, people on both sides rely on the exact same sources when trying to discern their convictions on sexual ethics.

When I first got started on my journey of reconciling faith and sexuality, I would have told you my convictions were rooted entirely in Scripture. Now, after 17 years of searching the Scriptures and trying to live in accordance with my ethical sensibilities, I see that things are a bit more complicated than “the Bible tells me so.”

If I were to ask my friends what Scriptures have the most substance in informing their sexual ethics, I would probably get a wide variety of answers. I’m sure I’ll shock some by saying that my sexual ethic has been shaped largely by Luke 10:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

I have been reflecting on this particular bit of Scripture since 2003. It’s a huge part of the reason why I was even open to the idea of being in a celibate partnership with someone else. I can’t help but see vulnerability, radical hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment running through this passage. I love this Gospel account precisely because it helps me pattern my way of life towards serving the world.

I’ve come to believe that a sexual ethic serves as a pattern for one’s life. As I see it, my sexual ethic informs how I interact with everyone I meet. I look to see how other people around me live into their vocations. I rejoice to be invited to attend weddings; I cannot help but note how Christian traditions have varied wedding customs. I have investigated the marriage service in my own tradition in an effort to understand how the prayers that bless a marriage provide a foundation for visioning the Kingdom of God in this vocation. I love looking for examples of faithful Christians throughout history; I never know who is going to inspire me to follow as closely to Christ as I can possibly manage.

But really, my point is that everyone draws upon a wealth of sources to develop their sexual ethics. Nearly every LGBT Christian I’ve ever met has wrestled with the Bible verses that specifically address homosexuality. Many see problems with proof-texting the Bible and try to discern the wider narrative arcs that describe marriage, sexuality, gender, and God’s love for everyone created in God’s image and likeness. I know others like me who embed particular passages of Scripture into their consciousness and ask for God’s grace to live these passages out. Because sexual ethics must be lived and embodied, questioning how particular sexual ethics are bearing fruit in one’s life is important. Also, it’s impossible to create one’s sexual ethic without considering the experiences of other people one knows.

I don’t know many people outside my own Christian tradition who study the marriage services in their Christian traditions to shape their personal sexual ethics. I have found doing so immensely helpful, and I would encourage any Christian in any denomination to consider this approach. At the same time, I can appreciate the experiences of people who would say, “My Christian tradition resolutely encourages two individuals to craft a customized wedding service. In my tradition, it seems like marriage means whatever two people want it to mean.” In such cases, I think Christian traditions ought to consider how they guide people towards discerning vocation. Learning how my Christian tradition prays for people on their wedding day has been so formative in my own journey. Speaking selfishly for a moment, I’d love a chance to compare notes with other people who have undertaken this kind of study in the context of their own Christian traditions.

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7 thoughts on “Reflections on Discerning a Sexual Ethic

  1. My ethic is about what God told me in my heart. It shouldn’t matter to no one else. God told me in my heart and it doesn’t matter if the Bible is wrong and every person in the world is wrong about me. My ethic is that my wife is just like a man to marry. I don’t see it any different.

    • Hi Belinda, thanks for your comment here. My point about sexual ethics being communal is that they draw us into relationships with one another. Your sense of sexual ethics drew you into your relationship with your wife.

  2. Within the Disciples of Christ tradition, I found the liturgy for the blessing of a friendship to be deeply meaningful, reflecting the type of relationship I feel called to. I wish I had the worship book here to share it.

  3. I think it is profoundly beautiful that you find inspiration for your sexual ethics and practice in a celibate partnership from the marriage liturgy and it makes me think that we married folks should likewise study liturgies of commitment to celibate religious life for deeper understanding of our own vocations. I personally love the Benedictine vows of stability, conversion, and obedience, and have professed them in temporary vows with two modern monastic communities (in the past) but I always meditate on them in relation to my individual vocation so thank you for inspiring me to broaden this to my marriage relationship.

    One thing I love about the RC marriage liturgy is that it has never had the two most sexist features of most Protestant and general culture/movie ones, rooted in common descent from the old Episcopal Book of Common Prayer: the “giving away” of the bride as patriarchal property and the pronouncement that they are now “man [person] and wife [role].” Of course when I do a wedding for a couple that chooses these I pronounce them with enthusiasm and a smile — just as I do in introducing them as Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname–cause it’s their/her sacred moment and not mine.

    It did not occur to me till you asked this question the most hurtful thing about the RC wedding vows–asking if the couple will accept children from God and raise them in the faith (omitted only if couple is elderly and this is physically impossible–never because they have discerned themselves called to a childless marriage–in fact that latter would mean refusal of the sacrament by every RC priest which is why I am grateful my OC/IC orders allow me to be more honoring and hospitable to a wider variety of couples, including LGBT ones of course). I didn’t mind it a bit at our wedding since we are definitely called to the vocation of parenthood and were eagerly anticipating it. But now I know very holy Christian couples who exercise life giving and nurturing–to which all adults are called–in other ways than physical parenting. And now I am aware of the poisonous fruits of the overly physical emphasis in the sexism that so harms women, the homophobia that so harms LGBT people in so many ways (since RC antigay theology is rooted in this perversion of natural law ethics rather than in Scripture as it is for conservative Protestants) and how both have so harmed our own marital sexuality, my own healing from abuse, and my own self love and affirmation as the bisexual woman in a straight marriage that God created and called me to be. So I grieve that the RC church has yet to affirm the great value of bearing and raising children in a more diverse, balanced, nuanced, and communal way.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’d like to see more services related to the celibate vocation myself. I can find some monastic services, but I’m always looking for more. When I dug into the marriage services in my own tradition, I definitely found myself gravitating towards the designated Scripture readings and the prayers offered throughout the entire service. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many friends write their own vows to consider the vows the central part of the marriage service. -Lindsey

  4. Thanks for all the comments on this post, everyone! Lindsey has had a particularly busy week at work, involving having to teach a class that’s twice as large as usual. We both respond to the posts we write together, but when we write individual reflections we generally like to let the one who wrote a given reflection respond to the comments personally. Lindsey will get back to your comments soon. Hope you’re all having a lovely Friday. 🙂 -Sarah

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