Shared Belief: Ethics and Sexuality

Part of Shared Belief, a series responding to Alisa Childers’ article on progressive Christianity and atheism.


In the previous post, we examined Alisa Childers’ claim that progressive Christians ignore Scripture and instead focus on their own preferences to create an ethical framework. We examined the role of Scripture, reason, experience, and Church Tradition in shaping a distinctly Christian ethic. We further considered the distinction between a holistic approach to Christian behavior — that is, a concern for the impoverished, the oppressed, and the marginalized — over and against a narrow focus on what my colleague termed “pelvic issues,” or matters pertaining to human sexuality.

Let us turn now to the elephant in the room.

Progressive Christians do care about matters of human sexuality. This is precisely why progressive Christians have been so vocal during the rise of #ChurchToo.

At some point, the debate over sexual ethics became limited to same-sex relationships, gender identity, abortion, gender roles, and premarital sex. (This overly-narrow interpretation is not unique to fundamentalists; it pervades much of mainline Protestant and Catholic discussion as well.) This is a mistake, and reducing sexual ethics to this handful of points has grievously wounded the Body of Christ.

In the ELCA, we lost hundreds of congregations following the 2009 human sexuality decision. While the primary splinter denomination, the North American Lutheran Church, claims that the decision to leave resulted from a pervasive theological liberalism in the ELCA, it is telling that they did not formally separate from us until after 2009. Moreover, the same situation has torn apart the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and is currently brewing in the United Methodist Church as we speak. These ecclesial secessionists may blame other theological issues, but they uniformly draw the line at LGBTQ inclusion. Across the Church, we’ve divided ourselves into specific camps, reduced ecclesial disagreements to a debate between progressives and traditionalists, limited those discussions to matters of sexual ethics, and further limited those matters to a handful of divisive topics.

In reducing ethics to a handful of sexuality issues, we are allowing the Church to be ripped apart.

Such a narrow focus has led the Church to ignore abusive and problematic behavior. We ignored the dynamics at work in clergy sexual abuse. We ignored, disbelieved, or blamed victims of clergy sexual abuse. As a result, we now live in a world in which predatory priests and pastors have been bounced from town to town, recreating the same cycles of abuse and faux-repentance. We have told women to be ashamed of their bodies, that they are responsible for the sexual desires of their brothers in Christ, that their value is determined by an ill-defined concept of sexual “purity,” and have raised a generation of women scared of their own sexuality. In the worst of scenarios, we have told women that they are to blame for the sexual violence inflicted upon them. We have ignored the testimony of children abused by congregational volunteers, allowing abuse to permeate in youth groups and church nurseries.

All of these are sexual sins, all of these transcend the imaginary lines we try to draw between fundamentalist, mainline, and progressive, and all of them must be addressed head on.

Historically, the Church has put forward an ethic of sexuality that condemns sexual violence. When Saint Paul writes about sexual immorality (πορνεια), he’s not talking about signing a True Love Waits™ pledge. Rather, he’s condemning the Greco-Roman culture which facilitated the rape of slaves, the sexual abuse of young men, and the use of concubines; he’s also condemning the Near Eastern practices of polygamy. To discuss Christian sexual ethics, then, one must consider the Pauline imperative to prevent sexual violence and to protect society’s most vulnerable members.

Progressive Christians have led the charge in calling out the sins of sexual abuse, molestation, and rape, especially when such sinful crimes are ignored or even covered up by the Church.

Fundamentalists like Childers may disagree with our conclusions about sexual ethics vis-a-vis LGBTQ inclusion or gender roles. God knows that progressives disagree with other progressives about what matters of sexual ethics. Disagreement is normal within the Church; indeed, it is healthy for the Church to be able to disagree well with itself. What fundamentalists must recognize, though, is that this is not merely a sexual ethic rooted in societal norms. Rather, it is a broad approach to understanding human sexuality and sexual immorality that focuses on more than a handful of hot-button issues.

Childers overly simplifies the situation on the ground. She claims progressive Christians have abandoned traditional teachings, but she is only able to point to acceptance of the LGBTQ community. But progressive Christians affirm a much more robust ethic, rooted in the ancient Traditions of the Church and proclaimed by prophets. Even on matters of sexual ethics, progressive Christians still hold firm to the Church’s historic stance of protecting the marginalized.

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