Chapter 5: The Christian Life, Spirituality, and Sexuality
The quality of love experienced in a family or a congregation can be limited by the way members think about the meaning of Christian faith. Where the family is believed essential to faith, a breach of moral or social values is perceived as an offense against the family and against God. Since the nineteenth century, the sexual ethics of “the family pew” have been conceptualized in Old Testament terms without much reference to modifications introduced by Jesus’ law of love. This is seen in the tendency today to think about abortion and homosexuality in terms of moral absolutes assumed to be biblical.
Many conservative Christians today have attitudes about abortion and homosexuality similar to those of ancient Israelites. In both cases, the act regarded as sinful is related to procreation. Abortion is a choice not to procreate. A homosexual couple cannot procreate.
Their attitudes are similar to the way “shalom” — spiritual wholeness and well-being — is associated with family life in the Jewish tradition. The spiritual well-being of a man depended on becoming the father of a son so that his bloodline and the religious tradition would continue in the future. Countless Old Testament stories reveal that any status a woman had in the religious community depended on becoming a mother.
The Jewish covenant community was most defensive about religious and ethnic identity during times of exile. According to Isaiah, the “eunuch” was cast out of the Temple because he was a “dry tree” (Isa. 56:4-5). The Israelites were more likely to exclude the foreigner and the childless eunuch from their fellowship when the future of the people of God was threatened.
The teaching of Jesus that those who follow him have eternal life means that spiritual wholeness does not depend on marriage or on becoming a parent. The spiritual well-being of Christians depends on membership in the church, not membership in a family. Continuing life and the future well-being of Christians depends on fellowship with God, not generativity through procreation. Jesus’ promise that eternal life is given to those who follow him does diminish the importance of the family status of all believers.
The writer of Matthew reports that Jesus shocked his disciples by commending the single life (Matt. 19:1-12). Asked about divorce, Jesus replied that if a Jewish man divorced a wife and “had” another woman, that made his first wife an adulteress. He meant that Jewish divorce laws, designed to guarantee fatherhood to Jewish men, were unfair to Jewish women. The disciples quickly concluded that “it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 19:10). That was the point!
According to Jesus, procreation was no longer essential to spiritual well-being; he added that remaining single is not for everyone. Here, as elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus challenged Jewish law concerning women and procreation. His point is similar to the Pauline teaching that being single is desirable because it frees Christians from the distractions of family life (I Cor. 7:32-35).1
According to the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus reversed Jewish belief about spiritual status. First, he granted equality to women in marriage; then he commended the status of a eunuch as having special promise for spiritual well-being (Matt. 19:12). In both cases, Jesus challenged the belief that it is necessary to marry and have children to experience God’s blessing. According to him, the blessedness of salvation does not come to people by virtue of their family affiliation.
In Jesus’ teaching, the last who shall be first are people who, by virtue of life circumstance, have very little social or spiritual status according to traditional religious practice — women, children, and eunuchs. He adds that the rich will have a very hard time entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:24). The first who will be last turn out to be men with social and religious status in the eyes of the world. Finally, the astonished disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” His response was radical then; it is radical now.
Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or fields, for my names sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt. 19:29-30)
To love family members or family life more than God is exposed here as an idolatry that makes it difficult to follow the way of Jesus. This teaching raises questions about the loyalties associated with “the family pew” in Protestant churches. If Jesus gave special status in his day to persons who do not procreate, on what grounds do churches today treat modern eunuchs — single people, homosexuals, and childless couples — like outcasts?
Theological Dualism and Sexuality
One of the contributions of biblical scholarship to the life of faith lies in the knowledge of ancient cultures now available to the church in new ways. Understanding the Hebrew perspective on human nature is crucial to any attempt to comprehend the teachings of Jesus and Pauline theology regarding sexuality. The Victorian sexual ethos relies on a misunderstanding of biblical views about human nature. The misuse of the terms spirit and flesh has been so pervasive that it is difficult for many people to think of spirituality as inclusive of sexuality in a positive way.
The extent to which sin is identified primarily with “sex” is an index of the continuing influence of Victorian interpretations of Scripture. During that period, most pastors identified the biblical term flesh with the “animalistic” or “lower” tendencies of persons. It was assumed that the stronger erotic impulses experienced by men could easily become compulsive and uncontrollable. Christian morality, especially for men, came to be identified with sexual purity through willed, deliberate, sexual self-control.2
Among nineteenth-century evangelicals, there was a conviction that God’s revelation was progressive. Pastors took it as a sign of progress in their understanding of the Bible that they had come to regard sin primarily as the lusting of the flesh against the spirit. In this moral interpretation of sin, more corporate and relational interpretations of sin found in traditional Christian theology were disregarded.
Since it was claimed that God’s “truth” could be known intuitively, it was possible to claim that any belief was “new light.” Recognizing these assumptions about theology and epistemology helps to explain why Protestants in the United States keep repeating traditional ways of thinking about “truth.” Many have amnesia about church history! As in the Victorian period, many still read Scripture as a source to reassure them that what they already “know” is “true.”
When sin is defined in terms of sexual purity, the focus of the Christian life shifts away from expression of love for God and neighbor to an obsession with internal conflict between “higher” and “lower” impulses. There is less concern with evil forces in “the world” and more concern with the battle to achieve moral purity. In popular preaching and theology, spiritual power was associated with Jesus, or with the God within, who inspires and motivates Christians to overcome temptations of “the flesh,” so they can do the good they know.3
This description of the Christian life was attractive during the early decades of the nineteenth century. It served the needs of the American democracy for self-disciplined, moral citizens. It fit well with the individual striving fostered by a fledgling capitalist economy in the early years of industrialization. Victorian use and understanding of Scripture supported a theology of the American Dream. Their misuse of Scripture is part of the folk theology of “the family pew” that still influences Protestant attitudes about sexuality and sexual ethics.
If immorality is associated primarily with sexual “sins,” a dualistic psychology of “higher” and “lower” faculties is probably at work. This theological anthropology flourished in the nineteenth century partially because of the need to distinguish human beings from animals, a need created by evolutionary theories. At that time human beings were distinguished from “lower” animals by virtue of the human capacity to think and make moral choices. Hence, the association of “flesh” with the body and “spirit” with mind and will-power. When the body is implicitly associated with “lower” animal nature, it is almost impossible to think of the human body as a part of God’s creation that was pronounced “good.”
It is characteristic of the Hebrew tradition — and of Jesus’ teaching — to think of human personality as a unity. Flesh can mean the body, or the skin that covers the bones. But it is also a metaphor for person, or personality. In Scripture this is expressed in many ways: Persons think with their hearts, feel with their bowels. Most important, the flesh longs for God. In Jesus’ teaching the word flesh is used only when he quotes Hebrew Scriptures, such as “the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). It is much more typical of his teaching to refer to human life, meaning life that has the possibility of being eternal.
The Pauline letters are one of the sources of confusion about spirit and flesh. However, there is little in Pauline theology to indicate dualistic thinking about human nature. He thinks in terms of the unity of personality. His analysis of personality contains a wide range of language: soul, spirit, body, flesh, sin, reason, death, law, heart. There is no sense in which the body is essentially sinful or separable from mind and will. The source of all sin is the knowledge that death is inevitable. Sexuality — the fact that God created male and female — is not the primal sin.
In Pauline theology, flesh, body, and desire are all used to connote sin. But desire as it is used in Scripture always means all the desires of the heart, all the loves of a person; it never means only sexual desire. Desire is necessary to Christian spirituality because it leads the restless spirit to God. But it can also lead into preoccupation with other loves, including sex.
Human nature in the biblical perspective has qualities of intelligence, freedom, responsibility. The Pauline uses of flesh and spirit to connote life orientation contrasts the quality of life lived “in the Spirit” with a life lived in bondage to the fear of death. Flesh and spirit do not usually mean that the body sins against the soul — or spirit. Paul usually means that “the law of the Spirit of life seen in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). The subject of Christian spirituality is life lived in faithfulness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
When flesh and body are seen as holistic references to human beings it becomes obvious that many biblical references are unabashedly sexual in a positive way. For instance, to say that “two become one in marriage” is not physical or spiritual. It is both. It describes sexual union as a union of two persons just as the union of Christ with the church has visible, physical dimensions in the sacraments. The joy of the new life in Christ includes a very sensual pleasure in life that accompanies freedom from fear of sin and death. In this sense, the freedom of new life in the Spirit is almost the antithesis of the Victorian obsession with the sinful power of erotic desire. Victorian anxiety about sexual desire, the lust of the “flesh” against the “spirit,” is an unhealthy preoccupation that betrays a fear of sin and death.
A biblical appreciation for sexuality, with a candid acknowledgment that sexual desire can be a force for good or evil, avoids some of the more extreme responses to the modern sexual revolution. On the one hand, there are modern libertines who claim that unbridled sexual expression causes no harm. They say that recreational sex is only play that is not significantly different from expressing other physical appetites, like eating or drinking. This perspective fails to appreciate that recreational sex can be a force destructive to the human spirit.
On the other hand, conservative anxiety about unbridled sexual appetites fails to appreciate the sheer delight of sexual union as a force for good. In general, a biblical perspective on the power of physical intimacy suggests that the sexual bond between two persons can be a force for good or evil because it is full of mystery, grace, and the fascination of the unknown.
There is an ambivalence about sexuality in some modern psychology that makes it difficult to understand the Christian attitude that sexual self-discipline can be an expression of love. If sexual self-discipline is regarded primarily as repression, then guilt and shame may be identified primarily with sexuality. Popularized versions of Freudian theory sometimes lead to a reversal of Victorian dualisms; when the values are reversed, the “worst” sin becomes denial of sexual desire! According to the biblical view of human nature, guilt and shame are related to the larger issue of alienation of the human spirit from God, self, and others.
Liberated attitudes about sex today are similar to some of the attitudes from Greek culture that found their way into the lives of early Christians. Biblically conservative Christians today rightly reject recreational sex as a psychologizing of Scripture if undisciplined sexual behavior is justified by conclusions drawn from modern theories about sexual repression. Early liberal responses to the new sexual freedom of youth had a tendency to present sexuality as the good gift of God without exploring general biblical guidelines for responsible sexual expression.4
Although biblically conservative Christians look to Scripture for guidance on sexual issues, most continue to read the Bible assuming a negative valuation of the term flesh. Their reading of biblical teachings about particular kinds of sexual activity often fails to account for the cultural setting and circumstances in which each book of the Bible was written. As a result, a biblical reference to sexuality is treated as having equal validity for Christians today. The general principle that seems to govern this reading of the Bible is the sinfulness of all sexual activity outside of marriage. Those who quote Bible verses that condemn the “sins of the flesh” are quick to point out that anyone who is immoral “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9).
Where a dualistic approach to the Christian life is operative, people continue to associate “sins of the flesh” with animalistic behavior. For instance, people who believe that sin refers primarily to sexual perversions are likely to associate homosexuality with promiscuity.
Homophobia refers to an irrational fear of homosexual persons. It is also a fear of being perceived as being homosexual, especially among men.5 The fear of being perceived as gay usually begins in elementary school when “girl,” “sissy,” or “fag” are the worst put-downs a boy can hear. Although the connection is subtle, the intensity of fear or hatred of homosexual persons may be linked to the fear that anyone could be overcome by their own unbridled passions. Homophobia may be the most powerful remaining legacy of nineteenth century attitudes about sexuality.
It is characteristic of dualisms to rule out options for anyone who is different. The structure of thought associated with the moral values of “the Christian home” leads to an ethic that depends on an intolerance of variety. Why else would so many people believe that the future of “the church” depends on what the church says about homosexuality, unless they cannot imagine that there might be some options available?
Biblical Perspectives on Sexuality
Liberals and conservatives are both influenced by dualistic habits of thought. Both reduce sexual ethics to an issue of individual choice, though for different reasons. Liberals are concerned with “rights” of individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with the “righteousness” of individuals. However, it is unusual to find concern with the way the sexual behavior of pastors and church members affects the life and morale of their congregation. Yet the effect of behavior on a community of Christians is the major issue for New Testament ethics.
In the New Testament, every ethical issue is a theological issue. Questions regarding sexual ethics are by definition questions about the relationship of believers with God. Body and spirit — or soul — are not separable aspects of human nature. Because the human spirit is embodied, to harm the body is to harm the spirit. Put positively, to respect the body is to respect the spirit.
From this perspective, the ordering of commitments is of great importance. Although man and woman were intended to delight in sexual union with each other, any love can become excessive or idolatrous. If the satisfaction of sexual desire becomes the primary objective in a relationship, the desire can be enslaving because it diminishes the spirit (I Cor. 6:12-20). Or, if a husband and wife live only for each other, their capacity for friendship with the community and with God will be diminished. It is not uncommon for a parent to become so obsessed with the welfare of a child that this becomes an enslaving love, harmful to the spirit of both.
People who experience intimacy with God through the church are capable of deeper relationships with friends and family. A sense of the presence, or absence, of God affects the way people relate to others, both in the church and in their families. According to this way of thinking, one of the issues for sexual ethics is how the love of two people for each other affects their relationship with God.
Ancient Jewish Attitudes About Women and Jesus’ Teaching
Jewish legal codes varied according to circumstances of the people of Israel in different periods of their history. But laws concerning marriage generally treated a bride like property. Although there is a law recommending punishment by death to any man or woman “taken in adultery,” the punishments prescribed for an adulterous woman were generally more severe than those for a man. Most prohibitions concerning adultery in Hebrew Scripture were designed to protect a man from marrying a non-virgin.
Despite patriarchal attitudes about women, family life was more important in Hebrew culture than it was to the cultures around them. Many of the laws regulating family life were designed to protect wives and children from unfair treatment. This was necessary, in part, because of polygamy. It was also necessary to ensure social stability through family harmony. Customs and taboos incorporated in laws regulating sexuality and family life were one of the important ways the ancient Israelites distinguished themselves from other religions.
Peace and stability in family life were highly valued as signs of the special status of the nation of Israel. Because of the nature of God’s covenant with Abraham, it was incumbent on every man to have heirs to inherit the blessings promised to Abraham and his off-spring. Women were valued for their child-bearing potential. Little status was attached to a woman as a person of worth in her own right. The force of this inequality is obvious in the commandment against coveting. A “wife” is listed like a slave, as a man’s property. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17).
Incidents in the life of Jesus provide information concerning the inequity of Jewish practices at that time. Female adultery was still punished by stoning (John 8:1-11). A man could give his wife a writ of divorce without explanation (Matt. 19:3-9). Men could be required to marry a brother’s widow to insure continuation of the blood line (Luke 20:27-40). Joseph could have quietly divorced Mary when she was found “to be with child” (Matt. 1: 18).
In each case the response of Jesus to these practices indicates that he sanctioned equality of treatment for men and women because God created man and woman to be one flesh (Matt. 19:5) and because God’s mercy extends equally to men and women. Thus, he held that divorce is considered unchastity for a man, just as it is for a woman (Matt. 19:9). Therefore, neither a man nor a woman should divorce.
Instead of condemning the woman “taken in adultery,”Jesus asked about the sins of her accusers; his point is that adultery is one sin among many. It is no more or less serious than other acts that can alienate believers from God and themselves. Jesus’ nonjudgmental treatment of the woman displays the gentle mercy of the God who forgives those who repent and believe. As God is said to have “made garments of skin” for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), Jesus covers the sin of the adulterous woman.
The attitudes of Jesus reveal that there is no essential difference between men and women in terms of their capacity for faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God. God loves and forgives all persons. Compared to attitudes incorporated into Jewish law, this was a departure from his own religious tradition. It was also radically different from the treatment of women in the Roman Empire. According to accounts in the Gospels, Jesus extended equal freedom and equal responsibility to men and to women.
The teaching of Jesus usually restores the intent of the Jewish legal tradition. His attitudes imply that sexual prohibitions should be obeyed, not because breaking the law will invoke the wrath of God, but because they protect the community from temptation.
Jesus treats some prohibitions even more seriously than did the scribes, but for different reasons. His concern is for the spirit of persons rather than unquestioned loyalty to the moral and social values of the religious tradition. In granting moral accountability to women, Jesus automatically called into question the way the role of women, family, and blood kin had been understood in the Jewish tradition.
Pauline Discussions of Sexual Issues
It is instructive to Christians troubled by conflicting attitudes about sexuality in the church today to remember that the Pauline letters were addressed to congregations trying to deal with similar conflicts between cultural values. Differences in Jewish and Gentile attitudes about religious ritual, family organization, and sexual practices form the background of New Testament discussions about the sexual practices of Christians. In Paul’s letter to Christians at Corinth, all discussion of sexual ethics occurs in the context of concern that Christians should not be influenced by the scandalous conduct of the pagans.
Paul warned the Corinthians against sexual immorality in the context of a discussion in which he compares the human body to a temple. As the Jewish Temple was the holy place of God, so also the body of Christians was the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. This refers primarily to practices of the church as the Body of Christ. When Paul elaborates the way in which all parts of the Body of Christ serve one another and are necessary to one another, it is clear that any sin that harms one believer disturbs the well-being of the congregation (I Cor. 12:12-21).
The Pauline attitude about sexuality regards sexual union as natural and good. His concern is not with genital acts as such, though his positive affirmation of sexual union is associated with procreation. As Jesus used lust in a broad sense to mean any excessive desire, Paul, too, describes lust as a darkness of mind that can lead to lasciviousness, impurity, or greed. Like the writer of Ephesians, Paul is worried about lust — burning desire — that interferes with faithfulness to God.
Individual responsibility for regulation of sexual desire is first associated with the health of the Christian community, though this also implies a concern for the individual. Since Paul considered celibacy a gift, he obviously did not expect everyone to experience sexual desire in the same way. The fact that he did not impose rules about marriage on the Corinthians — “this is a suggestion not a rule”– further implies that he was concerned for differences in individual need and circumstance. He did warn married Christians that an unnatural suppression of sexual desire in marriage could be spiritually dangerous (I Cor. 7: 1-11).
The primary concern regarding individuals is that each find a relationship in which he or she could express sexual desire appropriate to their lives as Christians. This presupposes that healthy sexuality is integral to spiritual well-being. Paul’s attitude means that sexuality did not have to be troublesome to Christians since they were free to choose the kind of relationship that best fit their personality. However, once they made the choice, they were expected to display faithfulness.
In the Gospels, the life and teaching of Jesus personify a law of love. The freedom of the new life in Christ, as Paul describes it, is freedom from the burden of legalistic moralisms; but it is not freedom from the ethical guidelines of the Jewish-Christian tradition. Theologians refer to the Christian ethic of love of God and neighbor as a law of love that signifies the sacrificial quality required of those who, in the name of Jesus Christ, seek the good of their neighbors. To love the neighbor is to respect the intricacies of the human spirit. The primary considerations of ethics are the effect of sexual behavior on the community and the effect of sexual intimacy on the spirituality of the partners.
Spirituality and Homosexuality
No issue tests the ability of church members and theologians to define the nature of the Christian life quite like the question of how the church is to respond to homosexual Christians. There are at least two ways to view homosexuality.6 Some people assume that all homosexual acts are equally sinful. For this reason they believe that the Pauline condemnation of homosexuality as “unnatural” applies to all homosexual behavior (Rom. 1:18-32).
Yet, some biblical scholars point out that this passage can only refer to the homosexual acts of heterosexual persons.7 This is because the writers of the Bible did not distinguish between a homosexual orientation and same-gender sexual acts. If this distinction is accepted, the condemnation of homosexuality in Romans does not apply to the sexual acts of homosexual persons.
The distinction between persons of a homosexual orientation and people who choose to engage in same-gender sexual acts comes from the growing conviction that for a percentage of every population, homosexuality is a given, a life orientation that they did not choose. This is a modern idea, unknown to the ancient world.
Not only the terms, but the concepts “homosexual,” and “homosexuality” were unknown in Paul’s day. These terms, like “heterosexual,” “heterosexuality,” “bisexual,” and “bisexuality,” presuppose an understanding of human sexuality that was possible only with the advent of modern psychology and sociological analysis. The ancient writers . . . were operating without the vaguest idea of what we have learned to call “sexual orientation.”8
This is very likely since the New Testament was written in a time when upper-class members of Greek culture considered a homosexual love to be a “higher” love than that of a man for a woman. As repugnant as it may seem today, the love of a man for a younger man or boy was considered especially noble. A reading of Greek philosophy of the New Testament period reveals that homosexual acts were not considered abnormal in Greek culture. These are quite likely the kind of homosexual acts described in Romans as “unnatural.” These acts were subject to moral choice.
The Greeks, like the Hebrews, valued women primarily as the bearers of their children. But no man reared in the Jewish tradition would have agreed with the Greek assertion that a man could procreate with his wife, yet be in love with another man. It was precisely this kind of pagan behavior that was prohibited among Christians.
The homosexual acts considered perversions by Paul are probably references to the use of boys and young men by older men as “call boys.” Pederasty was then, and still is, prohibited among Christians. But this form of homosexual behavior — an act that is chosen — is quite different from homosexual Christians today who may not remember knowing themselves as other than homosexual in orientation.
Jesus shocked his followers by granting equality to Jewish women in marriage. He commended the single life of the eunuch for its spiritual potential. Condemnation of all homosexual expressions of love in the church today can also be questioned from the perspective of Jesus’ law of love. When seen as a life orientation, the issue raised for the church is no longer that of the sexual behavior of homosexual Christians. If the issue is the relationship of homosexual Christians to God, then the most important question is that of how the church can support the spiritual well-being and wholeness of homosexual people.
If it is granted that being a homosexual person is different — but not sinful — then guidelines for sexual behavior found in the New Testament apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual Christians. All Christians, regardless of sexual orientation, are offered the same privileges and the same responsibilities.
Guidelines for Healthy Sexuality
In the Pauline letters, sexual issues are always secondary considerations; his primary concern is the faithfulness of congregations to their calling as Christians. Discussions of sexual ethics are a response to particular situations in different congregations. There are no rules that apply to every congregation in the same way. Then, as now, it was not easy to know what freedom from the yoke of the law means for Christians.
In Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, the principle norm, or guideline, is the gospel itself. As in discussions about new life “in Christ” in Ephesians, at Corinth “belonging to Christ” means conforming life to a new identity which is given to those who confess that Jesus is Lord. “For Paul, the saving power of the cross is nothing else than Christ’s love.” This means that every member of a community has equal status because they are brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.9
In general, Paul warns the Corinthians against participation in any “idolatrous” practice that undermined their ability to be Christ’s representatives in the world. This is most obvious in his discussions of religious ritual, food laws, or any form of unrighteousness that harms “the body.” His point is that Christians need to be alert lest they be enslaved by anyone or anything. Hence, all things are lawful; but freedom from the repressive yoke of the law is not to be abused because “not all things are helpful” (I Cor. 6:12-13). Behavior is considered immoral or unrighteous if it works against “building up” the Body of Christ.
The issue of sexual freedom was not nearly as important in the New Testament as it is to Protestants in the church today. Sexual freedom need not interfere with love of God as the ultimate passion of Christians. Freedom from the moral values of “the family pew” does not leave the church without moral guidelines. Respect and consideration for brothers and sisters for whom Christ died are to guide the behavior of all Christians. Self-control out of consideration for others is not repression if personal sacrifice is necessary to the well-being of all members of the Body. This kind of reverence for members of “the household of God” is an expression of love to God and neighbor.
Spiritual Formation and Sexuality
Frank Senn points out that “spirituality is not a word that has been current in Protestant vocabulary, although it is familiar to Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.”
Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is not lacking in other terms to express what is meant by “spirituality.” But such terms as “godliness,” “piety,” “holiness of life,” “the devout life,” etc., have acquired unfortunate connotations. The word “spirituality” seems a clearer . . . less sentimental term by which to express the subject of communion with God and the way of life which emanates from that.10
Spirituality refers to the way people experience and express the presence of God in their lives. It refers to the way a theology is expressed through religious practices and rituals. Christian spirituality also refers to the way people learn to live in relation to God through participation in the church. In the Protestant tradition, Scripture and the two sacraments have been regarded as the primary means of grace through which Christ becomes a reality of life to believers. The new life in Christ has been interpreted to mean that lives can be transformed — turned around, changed, reclaimed — by the Spirit of Christ through the experience of life together in a Christian fellowship.
Recent interest in exploring the meaning of spirituality among Protestants may indicate a search for a deeper spiritual life. However, if self-fulfillment is the objective, then the new-found fascination with spirituality could be just another self-help fad. From a more traditional Protestant perspective, the sole purpose of spiritual discipline is to heighten awareness of the presence of God’s grace as the central reality of life. The disciplines of regular corporate worship, participation in Bible study, and prayer have traditionally been considered essential to Protestant spirituality.
When members of the Roman Catholic tradition talk about spiritual formation they mean the way in which the whole person is related to God. No aspect of life falls outside of consideration in the process of spiritual formation. Spiritual direction typically includes reflection through dialogue with reference to Scripture led by a spiritual director. The dialogue includes attention to the way sexual desire affects relationship with God. Protestants have practiced corporate spiritual formation, but there is no corporate equivalent to the attention given to sexuality as a part of Catholic spiritual direction. The sexuality of pastors and people is not usually a consideration in Protestant spiritual formation.
The purpose of Christian spiritual formation is growth in grace, or in capacity to live in faithful response to God’s love. It assumes that each Christian has the potential to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body . . . as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15, 16). The central question addressed by spiritual formation is that of the loves — the desires, affections, the appetites — of the heart. It is reflected in Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-19). Nourishing the capacity to love and express affection is the very center of Christian spirituality.
There is a lack of awareness, if not outright denial, among Protestants about the positive nature of sexual desire. This is the basis of love and affection in a community of Christians. Life in a congregation is often treated as if members and pastors are so “spiritual” when they are in church that they are not also and always sexual beings! The Protestant propensity to deny that pastors are sexual beings like everyone else leads to misuse of power and authority in the church.
Where the positive nature of sexual desire is denied, so is the destructive potential of suppressed desire. This kind of denial interferes with the capacity of a congregation or a denomination to deal realistically with sexual abuse of parishioners by clergy. People prefer to pretend this is not a common occurrence. To deny the importance of passion to the Christian life is to underestimate the human capacity to express desire in ways that can build up or tear down the Body of Christ.
In the church, as in all human groups, sexual attraction plays a role in all group relations. Where people feel and express affection for each other sexuality can be a positive power that helps bind the group together. Christians express love of Cod, in part, through their affection and care for one another. Something is terribly wrong in any congregation where there is no evidence of warm friendship between members.
A dualistic theology of the Christian life inevitably results in a disembodied spirituality. The denial of sexual feelings among church members makes it difficult to experience the power of any presence, including the presence of God. Not all ways of relating to God are equally healthy. Whenever the mode of relating does not involve heart, mind, and body it will be a less vital form of spirituality.
Spirituality is intimately related to sexuality because of the natural human desire to seek union with the object of love. The yearning for completion, for acceptance, for oneness with some “other” expressed in biblical images, Bible stories, in relational theology, and in hymns can reveal the inner connection between the experience of physical longing for union and the search for intimacy with God. Healthy spirituality acknowledges and incorporates the erotic element in our efforts to seek God.
Teens are especially sensitive to the physical aspect of spirituality because they are so acutely aware of their own changing bodies. Due to the power of newly discovered desire in the teen years, there is unusual receptivity to seeking friendship with Jesus through participation in community, dialogue with Scripture, and in prayer.
It is essential for all Christians, but especially teen members of a congregation, to realize that issues of sexual identity and sexual behavior are not separable from their capacity to love God and neighbor. Spiritual formation in the Protestant church can help teens come to terms with sexual identity. It can provide guidance for both heterosexual and homosexual Christians in choosing faithful expressions of sexual desire.
Where the longing for God is satisfied, human sexuality is enriched because spiritual discipline gives form and direction to desire. The mystery of sexual union is heightened for partners who love each other in Christ.” Conversely, exaggerated or compulsive love of any kind is a sign of alienation from God, of a lack of spiritual direction.
Family idolatry is a tragically misdirected form of religious devotion. It involves a preference for the familiar over the unknown, the local over the universal, and treats the familiar and local as if they were absolute. When Christians direct reverence toward love of family without acknowledging the source of that love, they may imagine they are expressing reverence for Christ when they are, in fact, engaging in idolatry.”
1. Although the single life is recommended in light of expectation of parousia, or imminent return of Jesus, this does not negate the effect of Jesus’ sensitivity to the inequality of women on other aspects of sexuality.
2 William G. McLoughlin, The American Evangelicals, 1800-1900 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 9.
3. Liberal theologians, evangelical revivalists, and Princeton conservatives were all fundamentally dualistic in their thinking about human nature. Neo-orthodox theologians of the twentieth century challenged some of these dualisms — though not uniformly — without much apparent effect.
4. A case in point is the treatment of masturbation in the 1970 United Presbyterian document, Sexuality and the Human Community. “Since masturbation is one of the earliest pleasurable sexual experiences which is identifiably sexual, we consider it essential that the church, through its teachings and through the attitudes it encourages in Christian homes, contribute to healthy understanding of this experience which will be free of guilt and shame”.
5. In 1978 the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. officially condemned homophobia. This will make very little difference since the same document acknowledges that homosexuality can be a life orientation but declares that the sexual expression of that orientation is sinful.
6. For a discussion of four theological-ethical positions that represent a continuum in current theological understandings of homosexuality, see James F. Childress, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).
7. See Darrell J. Doughty, “Homosexuality and Obedience to the Gospel,” Church and Society (May-June 1977) for an excellent discussion of what Paul does and does not say about homosexuality.
8. Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed., rev. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), p. 65.
9. Victor Paul Furnish, “Belonging to Christ: A Paradigm for Ethics in First Corinthians,” Interpretation 54 (April 1990): 151-53.
10. Frank C. Senn, ed., Protestant Spiritual Traditions (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), pp. 1-2.
11. Parker J. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 110.