Something momentous is happening in the larger culture right now to which the church of Jesus Christ really needs to be paying attention. I have long been haunted by something that Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision wrote in his 1975 book What do You Say to a Hungry World? (Word).
It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church: the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up the final plans to overthrow the czarist regime. (31)
“Let the church take care!” Stanley Mooneyham warned. “A church preoccupied with trivialities (or its own institutional well-being) soon becomes blind to the basic needs of the age.”
It seems to me that one of the basic issues of this age is just now coming into view in the avalanche of troubling accounts of the sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and crimes that have been perpetrated by highly public people – celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Louis C.K.; entertainment industry executives like Harvey Weinstein, James Taback, and Ray Price; media leaders like Mark Halpern and Michael Oreskes of NPR; and politicians like Roy Moore, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. These stories are just beginning to surface. There will be more.
Just like the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism a decade ago that snowballed from what were originally said to be a handful of “isolated” incidents into a full-blown and widespread scandal that shook the Church right down to her very foundations and that has had consequences with which she is dealing still, so the curtain is just now rising on the patterns of sexual abuse that permeate our society in all of its different sectors. The surface of this story has just been scratched.
The scope of this scandal will only grow in the coming days. The sheer number of “Me too” notices that have been posted by victims of sexual abuse across the various platforms of social media is stunning anecdotal evidence of the staggering scale of this moral crisis in our society, a crisis to which the church must neither be silent nor stupid in response.
It was the theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) who said that culture poses the questions that the church then needs to be able to answer cogently and compellingly, and I’m quite sure that this was the case in his day, in the twilight of Christendom when culture was the dissenting voice that challenged the church’s spiritual and intellectual hegemony in Western Civilization. Those days are gone.
Culture doesn’t care what the church thinks anymore. These days the roles have been reversed. Today the church is the dissenting voice to an increasingly secular cultural hegemony that has largely removed God from the equation, except maybe as a mascot. Culture may no longer care what the church thinks, but I believe that when the world that it has constructed without reference to God begins to teeter on its shaky foundations, as it appears to be doing at this very moment, then a church that can speak clearly to that culture about the difference that God makes to personal and social well-being will get a hearing from people who are frightened and frustrated. And so the church needs to start thinking and talking about sex.
This is going to require more from us than just a recitation of our rules in a scolding manner. If we are to engage the larger culture in an intelligent conversation about the meaning of human sexual identity and behavior from our distinctive perspective as Christians, then we are first going to have to become reacquainted with that distinctive Christian perspective ourselves. When we aren’t conversant with the church’s historic perspective on human sexuality, then we default into posturing as Christians instead, and there’s a fair amount of this going on right now.
Since the dam on sexual abuse in our society broke flooding the nightly news with one outrageous story of sexual misconduct after another, some Christians I know have begun to exude a certain air of moral and spiritual superiority with a smug “I told you so” look on their faces. They know the rules and so they have concluded that this breaking sex abuse scandal is a pretty simple matter of culture just reaping what it has sown.
Sexual abuse is part of the toxic harvest from the destructive seed that was sown during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elevating the pursuit of physical pleasure and the right of personal self-expression to the highest good while at the same time eradicating the traditional moral and spiritual boundaries that helped to channel human behavior and control powerful human urges has created a climate of sexual permissiveness in which all of our fallen instincts have been allowed to thrive. And so some Christians see the solution to this current crisis in our society in a pretty straightforward sort of way – just restore those boundaries, just rebuild those barriers, and everything will be fine. But it’s too late for that, besides, it never really worked anyway.
Simply knowing the rules has never been enough, not even for those of us who are Christians. The fact is that there is little appreciable difference between the sexual attitudes and behaviors of Christians and the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their counterparts in the larger secular culture. We have premarital sex in virtually identical numbers. We have children out of wedlock in virtually identical numbers. We have extramarital affairs in virtually identical numbers. We use pornography in virtually identical numbers. We get divorced in virtually identical numbers. The only real difference between us seems to be guilt.
We who are Christians are familiar with, at least in principle, the traditional rules about sexual expression, and so we tend to feel some real remorse when our sexual behaviors deviate from the standards that come with the territory of faith. This is actually how it’s supposed to work. As Paul explained in Romans (3:21-31), the Law prepares our hearts for the Gospel. God’s word of grace is a word best received by people who know and who are troubled by the moral and spiritual poverty that they find in the depths of their spirits.
The Gospel is a word of healing spoken to our injuries. The Gospel is a word of hope spoken to our despair. The Gospel is a word of forgiveness spoken to our sinfulness. The Gospel is a word of transformation spoken to our shattered lives and worlds. When God’s grace in Christ finally breaks through to us, in that moment we discover who we were always meant to be, we see just how far short we have actually fallen from that identity, and we are set on the path of a gradual restoration of that true image in us. And it’s this pattern that creates the basic frame for the distinctive Christian perspective on sex.
The late Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at the Seminary where I began my graduate theological education in Southern California, in his book – Sex for Christians (Eerdmans 1976) – addressed the distinctive Christian vision for human sexuality under three broad headings – “its created goodness, its sinful distortions, and its redeemed potential.” Every question of sexual identity and behavior must be pushed through this grid. What was originally intended for us and our sexuality by the God who made us? How has that intention become distorted by the rebellion of our sin and the ensuing brokenness of our world? And how does the healing work of God in Christ take hold of us and change us sexually?
Dr. Smedes noted the very real complexity that’s involved in this for us –
Christians must forever pick their way between delight in creation’s gifts and sorrow for sin’s distortions. We want to rejoice in everything God has given; we want to change all that has gone wrong. Our problem is that we are often hard put to tell the difference between what God has made and what we or nature has bungled.
What God wants, how we’ve made an absolute mess of it, and what God is doing now in Christ to fix it is the theological frame through which I believe that we as Christians need to view what’s happening in us, to us and all around us sexually, and out of which we need to speak to culture with clarity and grace. DBS +