Sexuality and the Holiness of the Church


Luke Timothy Johnson

Woodruff Professor of
New Testament and Christian Origins

Candler School of Theology, Emory University

November 6, 2004

Thank you very much for asking me to be here with you. I am honored to be with you this morning, although as I stand before you to talk on the subject of Sexuality and Holiness in the Church, I don’t know whether this is an act of stupidity or valor. These are three of the most important and difficult subjects imaginable.

The issue of sexuality doesn’t need to be advertised in order for us to regard it as important. That is one of the reasons we have come together. It is in the headlines. It is in the elections. It is in our church controversies. And it is just interesting!

But sexuality is of importance for us right now, I think, because it intersects these other two realities, namely Holiness and the Church. And whether or not sex was on our minds, the Church and its holiness remain the most important, disputed questions facing Christians today, as they have faced earlier generations of Christians; and we are obliged to grapple with them as were previous generations of Christians.

I want to begin with the difficulties of each of these subjects, taking them in turn – not that you are unaware of them, but so that we can have a kind of a shared framework as we move forward in our conversation, which I hope it will eventually turn out to be, and to keep our expectations realistically low.

To begin then with Sexuality, it seems to me that we have five kinds of issues here. The first is (and I think we always need to begin here) that our emotions are involved. And I’m not simply talking about our sexual feelings and our sexual passions and the unexpected leanings and longings of our hearts and our bodies, but I’m talking about powerful emotions of fear and of anger, of guilt and shame, whether imposed on us or interjected by us, and a widely pervasive distrust. I think that we need to begin and acknowledge the fact that none of us are free from emotion as we approach the subject of sexuality today.

The second issue is that each of us is subjective. Each of us brings a story to this topic. No one comes to the subject of sexuality in the church either neutral or innocent. We are all implicated. Some of us have abused. Some of us have been abused. Some of us have used. Some of us have been used. Some of us should be ashamed, and some of us have had shame put upon us. We all bring these tangled stories. Each of us has a tangled story to tell with regard to sexuality, which is, by the way, not entirely perspicuous even to the person whose story it is. None of us, I think, knows ourselves that well. If we were as honest with each other as we would like to be, I think that many of us would want to say that sexual identity is not a fixed point but rather a sliding scale of sexual expression, feeling, and desire that never stands still until we die.

The third problem with sexuality is that it is not a problem. It is a mystery. Here I mean that human sexuality is a matter of embodiedness. It is not, therefore, as Gabriel Marcel has reminded us about all things in which body and spirit touch, a problem to be fixed like a broken carburetor. It is, rather, a mystery which is to be at once celebrated and suffered. We cannot detach ourselves from our own sexual embodiedness without distorting the subject. We are implicated in our sexual bodies. In this respect, sexuality is very much like our relationship to our bodies with regard to being and having possessions, only more so. We are at that delicate place in human reality where bodies express Spirit, and Spirit needs a body in order to express itself, and the spirit is implicated in the dispositions of the body.

The fourth reason why sexuality is complicated today is that all of us have a sense of disordered forms of sexuality in our culture. We would be fools to deny this: pervasive voyeurism, pornography, prostitution, the sexualization of the media, of advertising. The victims are above all among our children and among the youth of this country, and we are quite rightly deeply anxious about the way in which the distinction between “selling sex” and “sex sells” is almost indistinguishable.

And finally, fifthly, all of us certainly in this place recognize and are angry at the phenomenon of scape-goating — the focusing in the church and in the culture on homosexuality, that wonderfully abstract term, as a form of disorder that can be othered, and therefore can be considered outside the pale and allow the church and society not to look at the pervasive disorderedness of sexuality across the board. It is a massive form of deflection from what needs paying attention to. I find it fascinating, for example, that we have all of this stuff about homosexuality, and churches meeting in conferences and convocations and gatherings and so forth, while the church seems utterly silent in its inability to speak about the reality of a multi-billion dollar pornographic industry. Yet by the simple process of deduction, the promoters of that industry are male Christians, presumably mostly heterosexual.

Our thinking about the Church is equally complex and conflicted. Here also we have individual stories and attendant emotions. Some of us have a sense of grief at the loss of a church that we once had, or fear of a threat of change in the church, or anger at the church’s refusal to change. Some of us come as immigrants from other traditions seeking a saner place here in this communion, and others of us have been made to feel as strangers within their own place — I think the technical word is “alienation”

But beyond those emotional reactions and those multiple stories is the plain fact that we don’t share an understanding of Church. That’s the real difficulty. We are not on the same page in our understanding of what Church is.

Here some of the elements that are up for grabs. Where is the church? Is the church in the local assembly, primarily, where two or three are gathered, and the Spirit moves in acts of worship and of healing; or is the church more powerfully present in the denomination and its organizational mechanisms; or is it, perhaps more importantly, found ecumenically? That is a matter of place.

But what about our sense of the church? Here, I think, we have really widely differing views. Do we regard the church, as so many Christians in America today do, as a voluntary association, a place of services that are offered, a place that we join because of its market niche, or because it agrees with us, or because it offers us services that we can’t find somewhere else? With that understanding of the church as a voluntary association, we can expect the church to ask very little of us. We can just go down the street to the other club that will accept us on our own terms. Or is our church more properly Reformed in character? Do we understand the church in strongly covenantal terms, that we have been called by God into covenant, and that covenant places upon us real and deep obligations to God and to our neighbors, and that therefore we can, both in private and public, expect our neighbors to support us and to challenge us when we fail to keep covenant as we also are obliged to challenge and question our neighbors when they do not meet the covenant? Or do we have a sense of the church which is ontological: the mystical body of Christ, the place where the resurrected Jesus is powerfully present among us?

Those are three very different visions of what we are about in the church. We don’t agree, I expect, in this room, on the marks of the church and how important they are: One, Catholic, Apostolic, and Holy. Above all, I don’t think, we agree on what the politics of those four marks of the church should be. Is the church One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic in terms of an eschatological hope only; or is there a manner in which holiness, oneness, Catholicity, and apostolicity can be expressed politically and visibly within the communion?

This brings us, finally, to the subject of holiness, which is, perhaps, the hardest of all. Again, here are individual stories, and our emotions are frequently running in opposite directions. People of my age tend to be running in fear and some relief from a heritage of holiness which can roughly be identified with the Puritan or Jansenistic past, in which holiness was set against witchcraft and godlessness of all sorts. But as we are running (my folks) in one direction, we are meeting our children running in the opposite direction from the moral relativism of the Sixty’s and all that represents — namely us. I am not sure, especially within the Reformed tradition, how much it’s allowed to talk about holiness. There are some very substantial kinds of issues, it seems to me. One is a connection between the religious reality in which we find ourselves and moral behavior. How do faith and virtue connect? Secondly, once more, is it personal and individual, or is it public and political?

Now, on the personal side, it seems to me that one of the reasons why “practices” is now such a buzz word in Protestant theology — that is the practicing of our faith, the practice of prayer, the practice of hospitality, the practice of fasting, the practice of alms-giving, the practices of chastity and modesty, even of the custody of the senses — the reason why Protestant theologians far and wide are beginning to try to think about practices and shared practices is that we don’t do them. That’s why Protestant theologians have been looking to us Catholics and saying, “Teach us about these things.” That would have been great if we had not given them up just a couple of decades ago, too. I think it is safe to say that most of us do not have a highly structured notion of what personal holiness looks like in terms of the practices of faith.

We also have a difficulty with regard to the public dimension. I think all of us will sort of acknowledge that the Eisenhower era was the one of very clear private virtue which was comfortable with various forms of public vice, and the Clinton era, in opposition, was one that was very deeply committed to public virtue (this was the generation of the Sixties), but was also equally comfortable with private vice; and in each case, you see, sex was a player. For the Eisenhower era, private, domestic sexual morality counted entirely. Issues of gender didn’t matter. Issues of segregation, issues of repression didn’t matter. Certainly those of us who came from the Sixties were all about non-discrimination, were all about gender issues, power issues, and egalitarianism. But it is not quite clear how we connect that with things that are going on with our bodies, that is to say in private (if anything is private). And none of us have a very clear sense of what should be regulated and observed and open and is anybody else’s business! So we exist in a society in which it is possible for abortion not to be a criminal action, but in which a mother who brings a child to term but has taken cocaine or is drunk and bears a damaged child can be subject to criminal charges. None of us want to be regulated, but all of us want to regulate — at least on the issue of carcinogens, and so forth. This is a very confused time in which we’ve got all of this stuff going on.

So, what do we make of the fact that holiness is a mark of the church? What do you and I understand by that? That’s our challenge, and once we understand something about it, what are we going to do about it?

Another very difficult issue is, how we bring Scripture to bear on these questions, as a resource for trying to think together as church — about church, about holiness, and about sexuality. And once more we find ourselves in disputed and troubled waters. Let me say immediately that I simply reject the usefulness of two forms of modernity with regard to Scripture, named Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism. Fundamentalism distorts the witness of Scripture by paying no attention to the context of language, either in the past or in the present, and assuming that the past can speak directly to the present without remainder, and the traffic moves only in one direction. Fundamentalism is, in effect, a denial of the Living God. But so is Historical Criticism. Historical Criticism distorts the witness of Scripture because it keeps the text simply in the past and deprives Scripture of its prophetic force, and so equally denies the Living God.

We need a more complex form of conversation with Scripture. Let me recommend two things for our consideration. The first is that we need to work hard to cultivate theological imagination. One of the worst things that happened in the Enlightenment is that the imagination was banished to the epistemological attic. The only thing that counted was the empirically verifiable. We all became Positivists. We all became, in Brooks Holifield’s wonderful phrase, “Baconian evidentialists.” (We did, but you may not have noticed!)

We need to recover and embrace a Scriptural imagination, to imagine the world as Scripture imagines it, not looking for proof texts, not trying to do an archeological dig, but trying to recover the sense of Scripture as a living city in which we are citizens and whose language we know and whose byways we know, because we live there.

The second thing we need to cultivate is a loyal and critical engagement with the imaginative world of Scripture. I emphasize both things because they go together. You can only be critical if you are loyal; and the deepest form of loyalty is criticism: the criticism which doesn’t simply question the ancient text but questions the ones who approach this text. And that means listening to Scripture together with the other formative sources of our life — tradition, reason, and the experience of God and the world, above all the experience of God as discerned in real human lives today. Theology is an inductive art. Its business is trying to catch up with what the Living God is doing in the world. We begin there; and then we try to figure out how Scripture can speak prophetically to it.

So, what I want to do this morning with you is to recommend that we engage Paul in a conversation about Church, Holiness, and Sexuality, briefly, to be sure. This is a conversation opener, not a closer.

Paul is a good place to begin to prompt our thinking on these subjects, for three reasons. First, Paul has the most powerful understanding of this new thing that has happened in Jesus. For Paul the resurrection is not a historical event of the past that is adequately understood as the resuscitation of Jesus. For Paul, the resurrection affects all of us. Jesus, the last Adam, has become life-giving Spirit. The resurrection reality is the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh, and therefore the reality of Jesus as Lord, not in the past but in the present, in whose name we have gathered today, affects and determines all other relationships through time and space, and all other bodies through time and space. For Paul the resurrection is not simply a new covenant, it is a new creation. “If anybody is in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) kaine ktisis, it is a new creation. Ta archaia parelthen. The old things have gone away. Idou gegonen kaina. Behold, all things are new.”

But second, Paul is important because he understands that these new and eschatological and creation-renewing experiences of the living God find embodiment, have to be worked out, in bodies of the first creation, and that we are not in the end time totally yet. And therefore there is always going to be stress and tension between the first creation and the new creation, between the new human and the old human, between flesh and spirit. To make matters more complicated for Paul, he knew that these forms of embodiment had to be worked out among urban Christians of the first century who were multi-cultural and came from very different understandings of how bodies should mean in the world, whether coming from the side of Judaism or coming from the side of Greco-Roman culture. Different cultures, different traditions, different perceptions.

And Paul had to try to figure out what these new realities meant in terms of an ecclesia, a church, which met in a household, and so we always find a stress and a tension in Paul between the utopian ideals — in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek — and the social realities of the household, in which gender and social status meant a great deal indeed. The reason why Paul is so valuable to us is that he shows us both poles of that tension without reducing them. That is his great gift to us, because the same tensions exist today. No matter how profoundly egalitarian our ideals, we must always come up against the hard intractable elements of bodies and cultures and different perceptions of how societies should work.

Thirdly, Paul is important for us to engage because his characteristic demand of his communities is that they think. [A pause for reflection.] Let’s face it. It’s why we don’t like Paul. It’s not his personality. It’s the fact that he’s a thinker, and he asks us to think. We don’t want to think. It doesn’t matter what side of the debates you are on. Most of us (let’s be honest) would rather put it on a bumper sticker and drive off. Thinking is hard. Thinking demands stuff of us. So Paul asks them to discern, to think about the connections between the power of the resurrected Lord poured out on this community, and specific ways of being embodied, specific ways of acting in the world. And he provides for them a measure for that thinking that he calls “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) or the pattern of the Messiah (Galatians 6:2). That ought to be, as well, the measure of our thinking.

Paul, then, is most important not because he solves or creates our problems, but because he gives us exactly what we need to struggle with. And so the point is not learning Paul, and the point is not dictating to Paul. The point is thinking with Paul.

Now very quickly let me touch on the three topics here that we have selected for today: Paul’s view of the Church; Paul’s view of holiness; and finally Paul’s understanding of sexuality. On one side Paul’s view of the church as you know is extraordinarily strong and high. He falls into that Body-of-Christ ontological understanding of the church. We have all drunk the one Spirit, he says, and therefore we are the one body of Christ. If you were to ask Paul, “Where is the resurrected body of Jesus?” he would say, “Look around.” The church is the body of the resurrected One. We are “in the Lord.” We are “in Christ,” that characteristic Pauline language of the deepest kind of intimacy between the risen Lord who, because he shares the life of God can be more intimately present to our body than we can be to each other’s body. So that all relationships are defined by this relationship to the Lord.

At the same time, Paul recognizes how astonishing fragile his actual communities are, so we have this ideal of the church as the body of Christ; and yet he recognizes sociologically his communities are these fragile, intentional communities that are parasitic on Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures but don’t belong to either one. They are sort of free-floating household churches that have absolutely no basis for continuation in the world except their shared collusion in understanding that they have been called out from the world to be together in the power of the Lord. So, for Paul, one of the most important elements in the life of the church is what he calls oikodome, edification, building the community. Over and over again when Paul asks what should be done in the community, his answer is, “Does it build the community in its own distinctive identity?” This is going to be so characteristic of Paul. “It’s not about me, it’s about the community.” Interesting, you see, that for Paul, even gifts of the Holy Spirit might not build the community. This is the case of glossalalia or tongues. Speaking in tongues is perfectly fine. You can pray it, you can sing it, you can do all this stuff; but unless it is translated and can build the community, it has got to be kept under control. The test is not spirituality but church. What builds the church in its distinctive identity? The point is not, what makes me feel good? The point is what supports and strengthens God’s presence in the world?

Again, on the subject of holiness, Paul’s view is, first, amazingly strong. They have been sanctified. They are the saints. They have been given the Holy Spirit. They are the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The church is holy in its very identity. Holiness is a gift to the church because the church lives and breathes by the Holy Spirit of God.

But, Paul says, holiness is also a mandate. You have been called to holiness. This is God’s will, he says to the Thessalonians, your sanctification or your holiness, so the gift bears within it a mandate. I think Paul shared the Jewish understanding of holiness as being other in the world, of being different in the world. The Holy Spirit is holy because we can’t generate it. It’s God’s, and God is utterly other than us. When God said to the Israelites, “Be ye holy as I am holy,” what this meant is that they were to be different in the world as God is utterly different from the world. So, the way they signaled the holiness of God was through the various ritual and moral commandments they kept. Paul retains this sense that to be in the church, to be the holy ones, to be saints, means to be other than world. There is a very real question as to whether the church can authentically be church if it is not counter-cultural, if it is not in some way other than world.

For Paul, such holiness is a matter of behavior. In this he agrees with the Pharisees. Paul does not think that the church can maintain its holiness by having a completely separate existence as monks. You cannot go out of the world. So holiness doesn’t consist of having a Christian education system, Christian poetry, Christian literature, Christian rock music, Christian cocaine, whatever! It is a matter of being in the world as a community and yet somehow being markedly different within that community. That’s very much Paul the Pharisee.

But unlike the Pharisees, Paul does not regard this as a matter of ritual, but a matter of moral behavior; and here is where it become complicated for Paul. At one level Paul is able to quite blithely identify the difference between the world and the saints in terms of virtues and vices. So, in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11, he says – Y’all used to be, you know, all these things in the past, and now y’all are this way; and he gives a list of virtues and vices as understood by ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish culture. So to be holy appears to mean simply being good.

And yet there are two complications of this in Paul. The first is this. Paul is able to call a pagan vice a Christian virtue. In pagan thought, tapeinophrosynen was regarded as a vice. It was the mark, not of a good and virtuous person, but of somebody who was craven. In fact it was identified with slaves (there’s your class issue), because it was lowly-mindedness. So, the only way Paul could get from a pagan vice to a Christian virtue called humility or lowly-mindedness was through the crucified Messiah. So holiness in the church is not simply a matter of being good by the world’s measure of being good or philosophy’s measure of being good. It also means something about being marked with Christ.

And then there is this other thing. When Paul says that in Christ is neither male nor female, slave nor freed Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28), everybody recognizes that Paul has here relativised the three great status markers of antiquity — namely ethnicity, social location, and gender — and has said that in this Christian community, these distinctions are not to separate and divide and put one over the other, but they are to become opportunities for gift giving. That also is part of the holiness of the church, the otherness of the church for Paul, because the world doesn’t operate that way. In the world, status is what matters. So this business of egalitarianism in the community is not a matter of political correctness. It is a matter of theological correctness. It is a matter of gospel.

But then you’ve got the problems of sex. Here we come, finally, to Paul’s understanding of sexuality. Paul’s understanding of sexuality, I think we have to understand, is both strong and subtle, extraordinarily subtle, and extraordinarily strong. Paul does not view sex the way that Graeco-Roman philosophers viewed it, as a matter either of self-care, as Foucault has pointed out, or as a matter of self-control and anxiety. Nor does he view sex simply in terms of marrying the right girl and maintaining ethnicity, as in Judaism. Paul regards sexuality as personal engagement. This is quite distinctive in antiquity – it’s really unparalleled. It’s not that Paul diminishes the significance of sex. Paul heightens the significance of sex. Why? Because he heightens the significance of bodies, as communicators of spirit. So, sexuality is personal and relational, and if we want to treasure those aspects of sexuality we have Paul to thank, because that is where it comes from.

Now, in terms of how to act sexually, Paul doesn’t tell us a great deal in detail. He has a very definite boundary. Sex cannot be involved in porneia, which is broadly and correctly translated as sexual immorality. Now what Paul understood by sexual immorality, I think, is fairly clear. He did not think that men should sleep with men or women should sleep with women. He did not think that people should engage in prostitution. He certainly did not think that people should commit incest. He did not think that people should be violent in their sexual acts or that they should be adulterers or that they should be fornicators. All of these things for Paul fall under the sort of boundary line of sexual expression called porneia, and for him all of these modes of sexuality, in one way or another, did not adequately reflect the body and our bodies’ relationship to the Lord.

Two things must be said about the positive expressions of sexuality, for Paul. First, they are multiple, so that one can marry, one can be a virgin, one can be a widow. And, more importantly, one’s sexual status does not determine one’s standing before the Lord. How one is sexually at one level is among the adiaphora,

But everywhere in Paul, agape trumps eros. Generally the New Testament is the world’s least erotic literature, you will agree? I don’t mean by that it simply doesn’t have many good stories. It’s simply that eros does not register. We have to go somewhere else besides the New Testament to find eros. But agape trumps eros. Alterity trumps egoism. Adulthood trumps childhood.

Okay, final stage of this presentation. Once we have imagined the world that Paul imagines, we must also engage it with loyal criticism, taking into account the continuing work of God in our world. Here is my basic premise: The Living God continues to disclose Godself in the world, and Scripture does not contain everything that we need to learn about God, the world, our bodies, our sexuality. So our loyal criticism is one that must take as an equally important voice our discernment of what God is up to. So we have to read Paul through the lens of the new creation as it has continued to unfold and disclose itself in human life, in the world that God brings into being at every moment.

So I think we need to ask, not whether we are fitting Paul’s understanding of church, but how do we understand church? I am putting down these challenges to you as conversation points. How do we understand church? — because holiness will mean something very different if we are a voluntary association to meet my spiritual needs, or if we are the body of the resurrected Christ in which the relationship to the risen Lord deeply affects every other relationship. How do we understand edification? Which means that we have to come to grips with what we consider private and public.

So before we can talk coherently about holiness or sexuality, we need to talk about church. But whatever we decide about church, I want to propose to you, it must include holiness, and not simply the holiness of the individual but the holiness of the church corporately. We must not diminish holiness to sex, as though that were all of it. Holiness involves every dimension of life, and as many folks have pointed out, another wonderful form of deflection represented by the scape-goating of homosexuality has been our willingness to ignore the way in which Christianity has colluded in a view of the economic world in which no scrap of the Gospel is detectable.

So, what for us are the implications of the resurrection of Jesus, of the lordship of Jesus, of the new creation, of our bodies being Christ’s Body? You see, here is a fundamental difference for us. I don’t think we can be Enlightenment people with regard to the body and still be Christians. I don’t see how we can do it. I don’t see how we can think of the body simply as an assembly of eyeless monads who happen to be colliding together here or gathered here or agreed to meet this morning. If we don’t have an understanding of church and of holiness which somehow involves the presence of the resurrected Lord, then why should we bother? Why should we bother with what we do individually and privately with our bodies? We could fool everybody, including ourselves, if we are not answerable to the Lord. It is a big issue. I want to add, how are we corporately other than the world? And is personal holiness to be defined totally by conventional virtue, or can it mean a witness to a life outside the bounds of social acceptability? If it does, how do we discern that witness?

Finally, our understanding of holiness cannot be reduced to sexuality, but must include sexuality. I will conclude with four points here, which I offer to you as my best offering at this particular point.

First, I think we have to level the playing field. I don’t see how the church can make any distinction between these two terms, heterosexual and homosexual, with regard to sexual morality. First of all, I don’t believe in the terms. I have already suggested that. Obviously we hook up with different kinds of bodies, but in sexuality, there really is a very sliding scale, and I think using terms like homosexual, even if we multiply gay/lesbian/transgender and do all that, break it up into eighty kinds of different things, then we have to do the same thing on the hetero side as well, because it is not just A and B. Therefore, if we want to think about chastity, we have to think about chastity on the heterosexual side, and we have to think about chastity on the homosexual side. If we are going to think about porneia, we can’t put it all over on the homosexual side. We have to really come to grips with porneia on the heterosexual side, and I would argue, statistically, there is a lot more of it, and it goes a lot more unattended. So, we cannot obsess about “Gay people aren’t faithful like us heterosexuals.” Look at the statistics! How much fidelity is there on the heterosexual side? Level play field, I think, must be our task in terms of thinking about this. In other words, this is my rendering of Galatians 3:28: “In Christ there is neither homosexual nor heterosexual.”

Secondly, we are obliged, mightily obliged, to rediscover the dimensions of porneia. What does it mean? We can no longer afford simply to work with the biblical understandings of porneia. We need to think through the ways in which our sexuality is disordered — again, on the level playing field, on both sides: the ways in which manipulation, violence, abuse, coercion, promiscuity are on both sides of the plain, and I would argue represent porneia on both sides. I don’t think the church can ever say yes to porneia. If the church is asked to accept, let us say, a gay bathhouse style of promiscuity — the church can’t; but neither can it say yes to a Playboy or Penthouse style of promiscuity.

Thirdly, I think we need to try to begin to think creatively, again with a level playing field, about the expressions of sexuality that are holy. I would like to offer three dimensions of holiness as I see it in sexual life.

It seems to me that holy sexual activity is relational. Here I think Paul is right. Sex can’t simply be recreational. It simply can’t be like eating peanuts — food for the belly, the belly for food. It can’t simply be reduced to bodily fluids, relief of tension. Of course we all know it is. We are not entirely in the new creation. I am very serious about that! I don’t think that we should pretend to theologize our existence – I mean, sex is always going to be out of our control to a large extent. Let’s be honest! But in its highest expression, what the church wants to affirm as holy is not going to be recreational sex but rather relational sex, because it is in relational sex that body expresses spirit.

Secondly, I think the church wants to affirm, on both sides — fidelity, covenantal sexual life. Now, does fidelity fail on the heterosexual side? Yes. Should the church stop affirming it because of that? No! We are not holy. The church is holy. The Spirit is holy. We are drawn into a holy community to be lifted up, not to reduce the community to our lowest common denominator. So, I think the notion of covenantal sexual love is extremely important, bearing in mind the level playing field.

Thirdly, I would like to offer as a test of sexual relations the generation of new life. But I want to do it on a level playing field. Don’t jump to children. That is obviously one way in which sexual love can be generative; but I think if we read Paul in terms of egoism giving way to alterity, of eros being trumped by agape, by childhood giving way to adulthood, I think we are called in the church to have our sexual love embrace others and give life to them. It can involve begetting children or adopting children or caring for others or fostering others or reaching out to our neighbors — there are all kinds of ways that we can do this. But I think it is a test of holiness whether our sexual love is just about me, and just about me and you, or whether it is a good thing for others as well that we embrace each other and bring others into our embrace.

Fourth, how do we find a way of restoring those ancient Christian values without which we are all going to end up in a ditch somewhere? — chastity, modesty, custody of the senses, these practices that help us move away from a pan-sexualization of identity which surely is ruinous. The notion of being disciplined in our sexuality, it seems to me, is an important place to go.

I really do think this is not a problem that we will or can solve. It is a mystery in which we both suffer and celebrate. And I would simply ask of us that we be gentle with each other and with those who cannot see or speak or hear as we do or, rather, as we would like to think that we do.

Thank you for your attention.

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