Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sex and the Church: A strange historical perspective

After reading a really good book, Untamed, by Alan and Deb Hirsch, on discipleship, I have come to a point in understanding discipleship in a new way--though it really isn't new at all.  It is what Ben talks about here in his article, though his topic is on the validity of the NT Epistles, which is being challenged, unsurprisingly, by Bart Ehrman. I copied the quote because I believe that the issue of sexuality has a bad rap in the church, and frankly, I am tired of it. Why am I tired of it? Let's not go there just yet.

Here's an excerpt from the blog:

"In the second century and later in Christianity we have the rise of extreme asceticism,  asceticism of a form that sexual abstinence is seen as a key to being holy at all, much less be a holy man or woman proclaiming God’s Word.  This certainly did not characterize the lives of the earliest Christians,  especially not the Jewish Christians,  and reflects the growing dominant Gentile ethos of the church in the second century and thereafter.     Unfortunately this deficient view of the goodness of human sexuality and sexual expression in the right context has continued to infect and affect large portions of the church ever since then.     So here it needs to be stressed— sexual asceticism has nothing to do with the NT ideas about holiness, except if we mean by that sexual abstinence in the life of an unmarried person.    The church sadly has long proclaimed a mixed and oxymoronic message about sex—- the message I was given in MYF in junior high school was basically—- ‘sex is dirty, save it for the one you really love’. The Acts of Paul and Thecla sadly perpetuate that sort of view, and go beyond it, even calling for abstinence within marriage."

Witherington, Ben. "Forged: Chapter Three".

 First off, Ben is writing, in the article, about a fictional story (pointed out by Ehrman as a forgery) about St Paul that ascribes, or associates, asceticism in Paul's preaching, so that when folks read 1 Cor 7, they might assume that Paul is preaching that sexuality and holiness just don't mix.  That is quite far form the 1st century historical and cultural reality of the NT letters and Paul. (Paul also appeared to allow women to preach the gospel. After all, in 1st Corinthians, Phoebe was walking around with a copy of the letter, delivering Paul's message of the gospel.) Now asceticism defined, in simple terms, is the understanding that anything associated with the human body or the human/flesh experience somehow limited your spirituality.  In essence, to grow spiritually, one should suppress these annoying human desires, sort of.  I mean there are some rather crazy stories of folks in the 3rd and 4th century who did some crazy things to their bodies to try to extinguish the perceived "problem" of sexual lust; the problem was that no matter what they did that ole curmudgeon "lust" just kept coming back.

As I look the landscape of our culture today, there is a profound problem with how we understand sexuality.  Sexuality is always somehow limited to the act of sex.  This is an extremely narrow perspective on human sexuality, which the Hirsch's discuss in their book (the Chapter on sex is titled, "Too Sexy for the Church?").  They also discuss understanding sexuality with regard to the purpose and function of how God created humans to be.  We are created to be sexual creatures:  we are male and female.  Male and females are different (duh!). Males have a way of relating to one another in  way that is distinctly different from how females relate to one another.  Our sexuality is much more than just the pinpoint dot that is the act of sex.  Because of this lack of understanding, it seems the the problems with sexual addiction, pornography addiction, sexual identity issues, gender identity, etc. all seem to stem from this primary problem.  We don't know what our sexuality really is. It doesn't help that the Church, in the West, simply does not know how to talk about sexuality in a healthy, functional manner. Like Ben notes, sex was either not spoken about, or if it was, sex was bad--unless you were ONLY participating to have help multiply the earth.

So, what can the Church do in this arena?  It is evident that the church struggles in this area. Infidelity in marriages are happening just as much in the Church, as outside of the church.  Pornography addiction is a real issue in the church, as it is outside the church.  If anyone should be talking about sexuality, in today's culture, it should be the Church, right?  I mean, if we believe what we say we believe about Jesus Christ, that this Christian walk is a way of life, a way of living, then shouldn't be we modeling how to live in all areas of our human experience.  That is where the Hirsch's book really speaks to me the most--they talk about the typical areas of discipleship in a missional context AND they include the important issues on self-deception and sexuality within that discipleship framework.  And why not?  I mean, clearly, human beings are sexual creatures.  It is part of our human experience.  God created us this way.  Shouldn't we talk about how to live a holy life with our sexuality?  That sex, in and of itself, is not bad, or wrong, or dirty. That put in the correct framework it is quite good, according to God (See Genesis (-: ).

My  initial statement was I am tired of sexuality getting a bad rap in church, which today usually means its like politics, "we don't talk about that stuff at church".  I certainly don't intend to make a blanket statement that all Churches don't talk about this stuff, but in the educational/discipleship arena, there is a distinct lacking. And yes, I am tired of it, because our sexuality is a powerful human condition.  It can be quite powerful for good, and equally so, if not more powerful, for bad.  If we don't talk about it, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist; it simply means that there is more freedom in its hidden state.  I am passionate about discipleship, meaning walking with folks and truly introducing them to a new way of living in Christ Jesus.  In all aspects of life, not just the spiritual.

Sounds like the gospel to me. What do you think?


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