Needed: A Continuing Sexual Revolution

by James B. Nelson

Dr. Nelson is professor of Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 1, 1988, p. 563. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The church continues to be silent, timid and negative about sexuality.

Samuel Johnson reportedly once told an aspiring author, "Your manuscript is both good and original; unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good." The danger in reflecting on the eight articles in The Christian Century’s sexual ethics series is in producing just such a manuscript. It is tempting to repeat many of the good things already said; and to the extent I offer my own comments, I suspect -- especially judging from the letters sent to the Century during the series -- that I might be regarded as either too radical or not venturesome enough. Nevertheless, I want to conclude the series by drawing out from the diverse articles what I see as five general theses. Though their topics were diverse, series writers revealed much more in common than otherwise.

(I) It is crucial that the church confront more forth-rightly a whole range of sexual issues. John J. McNeill told us that "the AIDS crisis . . makes it clear that churches do not have the luxury of time in dealing with homosexuality." Karen Lebacqz said that despite the growing numbers of single persons, the church has given little attention or support to their sexuality, and a new ethic is desperately needed. Mary Pellauer observed that pornography is a huge and flourishing industry, one that oppresses women and children in particular, and that the churches have not discovered how to disentangle healthy forms of sexuality from sexual violence. In an epidemic of teen-age pregnancies, mainline churches, intimidated by the religious right, have lost their nerve, according to Allen I. Moore; they provide neither leadership nor support to teen-agers in the area of sexuality. Lois Gehr Livezey reported that sexual abuse and violence are commonplace, underreported and increasing, and she argued that the church needs to break down the wall of silence on the topic. Charles E. Curran reflected on how the discrepancy between official Catholic teaching and Catholic sexual practice has raised deep questions about the credibility of the church’s teaching office. Finally, Merle Longwood maintained that distortions of male sexuality complicate many parts of our lives, and that the movement for change among men must be a vital part of the church’s mission. A note of urgency is clearly sounded throughout the series, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

(2) Despite some important movement on certain issues, the churches have not been able to deal creatively and forthrightly with sexuality in virtually any form.

Homosexuality is a prime case in point. Though it has been more than a dozen years since McNeill wrote his groundbreaking book The Church and the Homosexual (Sheed Andrews & McMeel, 1976) , he laments that the serious moral debate about homosexuality that he hoped his book would open up has not taken place. The response of his own Roman Catholic Church "was to try to silence the messenger rather than debate the message.

Viewing the churches as a whole, the picture is somewhat more varied, thanks in no small part to McNeill’s courageous leadership. The past dozen years have seen more serious and open debate about sexual orientation in North American churches than during any comparable time in history. Though the substantive changes have not been earthshaking, at least some congregations (called "Opening and Affirming Churches," "More Light Churches," "Reconciling Congregations," etc.) in several mainline communions have declared their support of full gay and lesbian participation. And debates over ordination are vigorous and public in several denominations.

On women’s issues, it would be difficult to deny that there has been significant engagement in some parts of the church with questions of women’s ordination, inclusive language, leadership patterns, theological imagery and reproductive self-control. Change on a number of other sexual issues could be documented as well. So one side of the picture is that churches have been engaged in an unprecedented debate on issues of sexuality.

But the other side of the picture is what I want to stress: churches still have enormous difficulty dealing with sexuality. McNeill is right in pointing to the claim in Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah et al. (Harper & Row, 1985) that the therapeutic mentality of the liberal middle class renders it uncomfortable with moral argument. We "embrace pluralism and the uniqueness of the individual, and conclude that there is no common moral ground and publicly relevant morality," says McNeill. Actually, our problems in confronting sexuality extend much further back in history than to the emergence of the therapeutic mentality. Inherited sexual dualisms (spirit regarded as essentially different from and superior to body, and -- the patriarchal counterpart -- male regarded as essentially different from and superior to female) continue to have a formidable grip on our personal lives, our communal ethos and our institutional structures.

Another aspect of the church’s quandary over sexuality is its tendency to react to sexual problems rather than taking constructive initiatives. Like the medical system, the church is much more oriented to disease than to health. In its own way the Century series illustrated this point by focusing on sexual problems.

The combination of a continuing immersion in sexual dualisms, a middle-class therapeutic mentality, a fear of division, reactive tendencies and the very complexity of sexuality itself make the church an uncertain trumpet. One letter-writer responded to several of the series features with these words: "Taken all together, these articles demonstrate the tremendously complex nature of human sexuality. I have great sympathy for the authors, and I agree much more than I disagree with them. But it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the church to teach along such ambiguous lines. I would like to see a little more courage and a lot more clarity." I would extend that wish beyond the authors to the church at large.

(3) The appropriate sources of and authority for sexual theology and ethics remain unclear, and are a matter of contention (and here the authors themselves expressed differences) Is Scripture a basic and viable source? What about the church’s tradition? McNeill wrestled critically but hopefully with both on homosexuality. Pellauer was skeptical about the usefulness of a tradition fixated on procreative sex in helping us to sort out healthy from unhealthy sexuality. Regarding sexual violence and the violation of women, Livezey found much in Scripture and tradition that must be rejected because they are actual accomplices in these oppressions. Lebacqz argued that a tradition condemning all genital expression outside marriage is unhelpful in developing an ethic for singles’ sexuality, and she contended that we must add to the traditional norms of procreation and union another norm, "appropriate vulnerability," as a major divine intention for our sexuality. Moore did not appeal directly to Scripture and tradition for teen-age sexual norms; rather, he appealed to an ethic of social justice and fulfillment. Curran wrestled with how sexual questions have raised the most significant issues of ecclesiology and churchly authority for Catholics, arguing that tradition supports a plurality of specific moral convictions. Finally, Longwood proposed Jesus Christ as the "model of maturity" for men’s sexuality and urged a sexual ethic of social justice and the common good. Obviously, there was no unanimity among these authors about the relevance of Scripture and tradition for human sexuality today, at least insofar as their particular topics were concerned.

Significantly, most of the authors strongly insisted that in formulating a sexual ethic we must deal seriously with actual sexual experience. The refrain was compelling: we need to listen carefully to women’s stories; we need to hear of the actual experiences of those who have been oppressed by sexual violence; we need to listen to the gospel speaking profoundly through gay and lesbian experience; we need to hear the voices of men struggling for a richer and more just sexuality; we need to pay attention to teen-agers yearning for the church to stand with them; we need to heed the voices of single persons who feel both avoided and condemned by the church in their struggle for responsible sexual expression.

In my introduction to the series I argued that the sexual theology we need is different from simply a theology about sexuality. The latter tends to be argued in a one-directional way: what do Scripture and tradition say about our sexuality and how ought it to be expressed? This question is important and should never be neglected -- but it is not enough. We need to ask also (after the manner of various liberation theologies): What does our experience as human sexual beings tell us about how we read Scripture, interpret the tradition and attempt to live out the meanings of the gospel? The questioning must move in both directions.

A number of Century readers objected to this approach. Perhaps the most consistent charge in readers’ letters was that the series authors had elevated subjective sexual experience over scriptural authority. Let us then ask the question directly: Can we find a clear, consistent and authoritative sexual ethic in Scripture and tradition?

At various points the Bible endorses sexual attitudes and practices most of us would now reject: women are regarded as the property of men; menstrual blood and semen are unclean"; intercourse during menstruation is proscribed; and polygamy, levirate marriage, concubinage and prostitution are accepted. On these matters some would argue that the cultic laws of the Old Testament are no longer binding, and they must be distinguished from its moral commandments. But such arguments fail to recognize that Scripture treats most of the sexual mores mentioned above as moral, not cultic, issues.

Those who argue that since Christ is the end of the law, the Old Testament law is irrelevant must, if consistent, deal with the New Testament pronouncements about sexual issues, including Paul’s various declarations. Even on such a major issue as sexual intercourse between unmarried consenting adults, neither the Old or New Testament contains an explicit prohibition (which John Calvin discovered to his consternation). Indeed, the Song of Solomon celebrates one such relationship. Our best biblical scholarship reaches Walter Wink’s conclusion: "There is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period" ("Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality," The Christian Century, November 7, 1979)

Nor does the postbiblical Christian tradition provide unambiguous guidance. Selective use of tradition is

almost as common as selective use of Scripture. Most of us would fully agree with the tradition’s endorsement of monogamy and fidelity as consonant with the gospel. Many of us would endorse the movement toward affirming love as the governing sexual norm. Some of us would celebrate those parts of the tradition that not only tolerate but actually affirm gay and lesbian Christians, including clergy. But few of us would endorse those elements of tradition that baptize patriarchal oppression, endorse violence against women, oppress lesbians and gays, exalt perpetual virginity as the superior state, or declare that heterosexual rape is a lesser sin than masturbation (on the view that the latter act contradicts nature while the former act, while also sinful, is in accordance with nature) The postbiblical tradition, like Scripture itself, does not provide one coherent, consistent sexual ethic. We are left, whether we like it or not, with unfinished business. This leads directly to the next theme.

(4) We must continue to work on developing our sexual theology. A viable Christian sexual theology for our time will affirm that sexuality is always much more than genital expression. Sexuality expresses the mystery of our creation as beings who need to reach out for the physical and spiritual embraces of others. It expresses God’s intention that we find our authentic humanness not in isolation but in relationship.

Under such a theology, sexuality will be understood as intrinsic to the divine-human connection, as one of the great arenas for celebrating the Source of Life. Sexuality will enter directly and consciously into our understandings of every major Christian doctrine -- God, human nature, sin, salvation, church, history and eschatology. Our sexuality will be understood as expressing our created destiny for freedom, creativity, joy and shalom (Livezey) It will embrace appropriate vulnerability (Lebacqz) Sexual ethics will affirm only those sexual expressions that are respectful and nonexploitative (Pellauer) , and which treat persons nonstereotypically and with a fundamental commitment to equality (Longwood) Such ethics will evaluate sexual acts and expressions in terms of how they contribute to social justice and the fulfillment of all in community (Moore)

We need, too, a more erotic spirituality. To our impoverishment, much of the heterosexual, white, male tradition has banished eros from Christian theology and spirituality. We have been prisoners of an agape reductionism, of theologies that have vilified or devalued the erotic, often confusing it with the pornographic. We have been prisoners of theologies in which hunger. desire, passion and yearning have been relegated to the pagan world. Dante found eros in the kind of love that moves the sun and the other stars. Perhaps we, too, will come to see eros as intrinsic to God’s energy, God’s own passion for connection, and hence also as part of our yearning for life-giving communion and relationships of justice.

When we move in this direction, we shall embrace a more incarnational theology. The church has much to learn here from lesbians and gays, for when they affirm themselves in the face of social oppression they affirm the basic goodness of human sexuality and of our embodiedness. Many Christians still learn to fear, despise, trivialize and be ashamed of their bodies. If we do not know the gospel in our bodies, we may not know the gospel. When we find bodily life an embarrassment to so-called high-minded spiritualized religion, we lose our capacity for passionate caring and justice. We lose the sense of the holiness of the bodies of starving children and the bodies of women and men torn by violence and torture. Instead of confining the incarnation to one person 2,000 years ago, forgetting Jesus’ message of the indwelling God as the reality and destiny of all people, we might embrace the scandal of incarnation more radically.

(5) We need a continuing sexual revolution. As I attempted to argue at the beginning of the series, the sexual revolution is not over. In a deeper sense it has just begun. Beyond our need for a more adequate sexual theology and ethics, numerous specific issues cry out for reassessment, change, revolution. The authors of this series have probed a number of them, to our great benefit; let me suggest a few others.

Joining vigorously in the fight against AIDS and in compassionate ministries to all affected by this scourge is crucial. As the AIDS crisis worsens, it has the capacity to bring on an antisex hysteria. Beyond anything we have ever known, AIDS has linked in our consciousness the two greatest fears in our society -- sex and death. For the church to allow the fear of death to govern its sexual ethics would be an unholy capitulation. We need to help our children to understand and feel good about their sexuality, even in a time when sex seems almost synonymous with fear and death.

The sexuality of the aging, the infirm and those with handicapping conditions needs to be affirmed. Sadly, church-related institutions still commonly both deny and punish the sexuality of their residents, and clergy routinely ignore the sexuality of such persons in their pastoral care and counseling.

It is also time for the church to begin reflecting on sexual rites of passage.. The church has found ways of liturgizing other major life and death events, but, aside from the wedding ceremony and infant baptism, it is typically silent about other important sexual occasions of our lives. To that extent the church fails to bring Christian resources of support, guidance and care to deeply significant aspects of its members’ experience. Is it too bold to suggest that we consider ways of naming and celebrating the onset of a girl’s menstruation? Or the coming of age for boys -- in the face of the currently destructive secular rituals of naming and achieving "manhood"? Or the affirming of one’s sexual orientation? Or the commitment to a new relationship of intimacy other than marriage? Or rites of abortion which convey faith’s healing resources after agonized choice? The church is losing countless teen-agers and young adults, not to mention older persons, because it continues to be silent, timid and negative about sexuality.

The hegemony of the nuclear family, and the resulting temptation to police the sexuality of everyone who does not fit that mold, need to be challenged. In elevating a relative, historical social structure to ultimacy, we have enforced a sexual model which excludes and devalues countless persons. Accordingly, we need to rethink our theology of marriage. It has been 300 years since Protestants began to understand that God’s primary purpose in creating us as sexual beings is not procreation but giving us the desire and capacity for intimacy. We have generally adopted this conviction as it pertains to heterosexuals, but not to homosexuals. Further, we have too frequently assumed that the church and its clergy have the power to "marry" couples in the wedding rite. Not so. Only a couple has the power to create a marriage through their covenanting together and with God. The wedding ceremony celebrates and supports that reality; it does not create it. So responsible theology ought to insist that the question is not whether the church should "marry" same-sex couples but whether or not such covenanted relationships do in fact exist. Where they do, the question is whether or not the church will publicly recognize and celebrate the reality that, by God’s grace, exists.

We must also confront homophobia, which has effects beyond gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Rooted as it is in male sexism, homophobia undermines male friendships, bolsters the oppression of women and contributes fearsomely to our social violence. Though its varied dynamics are complex, the root cause of homophobia is always fear, and the gospel has resources for dealing with fear.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s convinced some of the dubious notion that making love would prevent man war. That bumper sticker dictum did, however, contain the hint of a more authentic reality: our major social ills do, in fact, have profound links to the sexual dualisms that split spirit from body and establish patriarchy. The feminist movement has pointed to the buried connections between militarism, urban violence, racism, economic exploitation and ecological abuse on the one hand, and sexual distortions on the other. The infant movement of a new men’s consciousness holds enormous promise for addressing the distorted masculinism that contributes so much violence and peril to our fragile planet.

A continuing sexual revolution is urgently needed. That patriarchies, a fear of sexuality and a desire to control others continue to exist throughout the church is reason enough for a sexual revolution. Positively put, the reason is in the gospel: the Word made flesh, and the Word still becoming flesh (Christ is risen!)

Robert McAfee Brown recently noted Martin Buber’ s response to S¢ren Kierkegaard’s broken engagement (Spirituality and Liberation (Westminster, 19881, p. 104 f.) After years of courting Regina, the Danish theologian decided that this human love would distract him from the "higher" love of God, so he abandoned her. Buber commented that this was "a sublime misunderstanding of God." Creation, far from being a hurdle on the road to God, is that very road. God draws us to the divine self by means of loved ones, not by renunciation of them. Buber’s remark should remind Christians of their call to a deeply incarnational spirituality. God, working through another earthy Jew 2,000 years ago, tried to impress that call on us. And is still trying. The revolution is not yet over.