I am working on writing up some thoughts on human sexuality that have been percolating since earlier this summer, but have miles to go before I can pull them together. For now, I would just like to share these excerpts from statements on human sexuality from the Episcopal (TEC) and Lutheran (ECLA) Churches. The first, is from the Episcopal House of Bishops Theology Committee, issued in 2003 (full text here). The second is the original April 2009 proposal to be considered by the Lutherans at their assembly this August (full text here).
As a caveat, I am not endorsing either one. Nor am I attempting to address the particular political contexts in which they arose, the persons involved in their drafting, prior or subsequent statements by other persons and entities within (or without) those institutions, or proposed legislation concerning same-sex marriage, blessings, or relationships. The point I want to make here is simply the focus on sexual conduct and particular "expressions" of physical intimacy in the Episcopal document and the much broader biological, psychological, and social context attempted by the Lutheran document. While the latter is not perfect, by any means, (it, for example, leaves room for various "traditional" views on same-sex relations and does not appear to adequately address the needs and experiences of single persons), it seems to go much further than many Episcopal discussions (at least those I've seen) in addressing human sexuality across the board, not just across the spectrum of sexual orientation and identity but also in terms of the broad range of circumstances and relationships in which sexuality may be implicated.
Please note that I am NOT faulting excellent work done by some (not at all -- more about Tobias Haller's Reasonable and Holy later -- one of the best discussions I've seen anywhere). What I am saying is that in at least some forums, it seems to me that discussion among Episcopalians often pays too much attention to sex acts and erotic desire and their relationship to marriage and what that has to do with ordination and the episcopate in our church - mainly due to the way our conservatives keep trying to frame the issue - instead of thinking more broadly in terms of what sexuality is for individuals and society as a whole. Sexuality take away procreation amounts to something much more diverse and significant than "erotic desire" - homosexual or heterosexual or otherwise. And at some point I think we need to look beyond the virtue and ideal of long-term partnerships, same-sex or mixed-sex, and look at where the values implicit in that ideal plays out in everyday lives, among children, teens, adults, and the elderly, among friends, lovers, spouses, and acquaintances -- also what role civil law should play in all this, recognizing that social and cultural values and institutions are not and should not be church-bound.
In short, I think that at least in terms of these two particular documents, the Lutherans are much more grounded in the real world, as well as further along in terms of a theological understanding of current realities (at least in Western culture). (And yes, I know there is another committee -- membership only recently disclosed --- working on a new statement for the HOB due to be issued in 2011).
The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective
Report of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church - 2003
4. The Complex Gift of Human Sexuality
[4.0] Sexuality is a fundamental and complex aspect of human nature, which we bth use and abuse. As Christians we believe it is part of God’s good creation and intended to be a source of blessing and joy for human beings. We also believe sexual desire and behavior can be an occasion of sin leading to personal unhappiness and social disorder.
[4.1] The links between love and sexual pleasure testify to the way in which sexuality blesses human intimacy. Sexual intimacy has a public and social dimension as well. When healthy and well-ordered, our sexuality and sexual expressions contribute to the health and stability of individuals and society. Levels of sexuality and intimacy are factors in all human relationships and receive a range of expressions along a spectrum of relationships, from friendship to family in its various configurations. Within the context of marriage healthy sexual intimacy supports the couple and the possibility of children and their care and nurture.
[4.2] Yet this great and mysterious gift is often the cause of pain to individuals and suffering throughout society. Human beings are most vulnerable in sexually intimate relationships. Our sexual lives can be very fragile and complex. When disordered, sexual behavior can destabilize human society and become a means of exploitation and damage. The staggering divorce rate in the United States, the proliferation of serial marriages, and the increase of promiscuity, especially among the young, attest to the varied struggles many experience around sexuality.
[4.3] Why did God give humankind this wonderful and often overwhelming gift? If we thought it was solely as an aid to intimacy and pleasure, we might come to a particular set of conclusions. Alternatively, if we believed it was solely designed as a means of procreation, our conclusions might be of quite a different character. Our conviction is that God’s gift of human sexuality embraces all of these goods, which are perfected in a yet higher reality, namely, making present in creaturely life a self-sharing and mutual fidelity that images the divine life and nurtures and protects both partners involved and the well-being of the social order.
[4.4] Holy Scripture teaches that God gave sex as one of the means for married persons to share themselves with each other (1 Cor. 7:3-5); for procreation (Gen. 1:28); and to be an icon, on the human level, of the relationships between God and the people of
Israel, and Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:25-33).
[4.5] We also recognize there is a range of sexual identities among human beings, and a portion of the population experiences itself as having a homosexual orientation. As Christians, we affirm that persons of all sexual orientations are created in the image of
God, and they are full members of the human family. The Church vigorously denounces discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, and we call upon all members of our society, and especially members of the body of Christ, to honor their baptismal vow to respect the full humanity and dignity of every human being (BCP 305).
[4.6] If we have correctly discerned God.s purpose in giving us the gift of human sexuality, and if there are those both within and outside of the Church who experience themselves as exclusively homosexual in their sexual orientation, difficult questions inevitably arise as to what patterns of sexual intimacy are most congruent with the holiness of God’s self-giving life. In particular, many are asking, with attendant pastoral concern, whether some forms of homosexual activity might be open to God’s blessing in ways the Church has not previously recognized. Does the Church remain persuaded that all expressions of homosexual intimacy are sinful, or are there conditions under which we might be able to recognize that intimacy as a source of God’s blessing, just as is true in some, though not all, expressions of heterosexual intimacy?
[4.7] If some, though not all, expressions of homosexual intimacy might be open to the blessing of God, might they also be open to the blessing of the Church? If so, which ones? Under what conditions? Would the Church.s blessing be considered in any sense a marital blessing? Parallel or analogous to marriage? Or something else? And if something else, what?
[4.8] If some, though not all, expressions of homosexual intimacy might be open to the blessing of God, and the blessing of the Church, is it thus appropriate for the Church to ordain as .wholesome examples. certain non-celibate homosexual persons? Again we would have to ask: which ones? And under what conditions?
[4.9] These questions are controversial in part because they challenge the Church’s traditional understanding of human sexuality which can be summarized as follows: Holy Scripture nowhere condones homosexual practice; in fact, a few passages of Hebrew Scripture and of letters of Paul explicitly proscribe homosexual acts; marriage is defined as the joining together of a man and a woman; marriage is the only appropriate setting for genital sexual intimacy; the norm for singleness, as for marriage, is chastity; but in the case of singleness that norm means abstinence.
Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust - April 2009
Recommended proposed social statement for action by ELCA Churchwide Assembly August 2009
III. Trust and human sexuality
God loves human life so much that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). We know, therefore, that God’s love embraces us totally, including our sexuality. We also know that God created each of us not only as individuals, but also as people who live in a variety of social communities and contexts. In response to God’s love for us, we seek life-giving relationships with others and create social structures and practices that support such relationships.
The complexity of human sexuality
God created human beings to be in relationship with each other and continually blesses us with diverse powers, which we use in living out those relationships. These include powers for action, reasoning, imagination, and creativity.
Sexuality especially involves the powers or capacities to form deep and lasting bonds, to give and receive pleasure, and to conceive and bear children. Sexuality can be integral to the desire to commit oneself to life with another, to touch and be touched, and to love and be loved. Such powers are complex and ambiguous. They can be used well or badly. They can bring astonishing joy and delight. Such powers can serve God and serve the neighbor. They also can hurt self or hurt the neighbor. Sexuality finds expression at the extreme ends of human experience: in love, care, and security; or lust, cold indifference, and exploitation.
Sexuality consists of a rich and diverse combination of relational, emotional, and physical interactions and possibilities. It surely does not consist solely of erotic desire. Erotic desire, in the narrow sense, is only one component of the relational bonds that humans crave as sexual beings. Although not all relationships are sexual, at some level most sexual relationships are about companionship. Although some people may remain single, either intentionally or unintentionally, all people need and delight in companionship and all are vulnerable to loneliness.
The need to share our lives with others is a profound good (Genesis 2:18). The counsel to love and care for the neighbor is not a command that is foreign to our created natures; rather, reaching out in love and care is part of who we are as relational and sexual beings. Even if we never have sexual intimacy, we all seek and respond to the bonds and needs of relationships.
Sexual love—the complex interplay of longing, erotic attraction, self-giving and receiving defined by trust – is a wondrous gift. The longing for connection, however, also can render human beings susceptible to pain, isolation, and harm. The desire for sexual love, therefore, does not by itself constitute a moral justification for sexual behavior. Giving and receiving love always involves mixed motives and limited understanding of individual and communal consequences.
The sharing of love and sexual intimacy within the mutuality of a mature and trusting relationship can be a rich source of romance, delight, creativity, imagination, restraint, desire, pleasure, safety, and deep contentment that provide the context for individuals, family, and the community to thrive.
Though sexual love remains God’s good gift, sin permeates human sexuality as it does all of life. When expressed immaturely, irresponsibly, or with hurtful intent, then love—or its counterfeit, coercive power—can lead to harm and even death. Too often lust is mistaken for love, which in turn becomes the rationale for selfish behaviors. When infatuation, lust, and self-gratification take the place of the responsibilities of love, cascading consequences result that can be devastating for partners, children, families, and society.
In recognizing the many ways in which people misuse power and love, we need to be honest about sin and the finite limitations of human beings. We also recognize the complexity of the human and societal forces that drive the desire for companionship, for intimate relation with another, for belonging, and for worth. The deep interconnectedness of the body with the mind and spirit suggest the complexity of such situations. The biblical narratives both rejoice in the splendor of sexual attraction (Song of Songs 4) and are candid about the harm that can result from human sexuality (2 Samuel 11; 2 Samuel 13; Matthew 5:27–30).
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IV Sexuality and social structures that enhance social trust
Marriage: shelter and context for trust
Trust is a quality of relationship that, while never perfected, is nurtured and reinforced over time. The trust and mutuality afforded by marriage can make marriage one of the most beautiful, abiding, and transformative forms of human relationship. Depth of care, matched to an intimacy of touch, creates relationships much stronger than simple and momentary erotic interest. Sexual intimacy, together with promises of fidelity and public accountability, nurtures bonds that allow people to thrive and provides a rich context for the care and support of children.
Marriage is a covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by the state and blessed by God. The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, reflecting Mark 10: 6–9: “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Jesus here recalls Genesis 1:27; 2:23–24.)
Lutherans have long affirmed that the public accountability of marriage, as expressed through a legal contract, provides the necessary social support and social trust for relationships that are intended to be sustained throughout life and within changing and often challenging life situations. In this country, pastors carry both legal and religious responsibilities for marriage. In carrying out these responsibilities, pastors hold and exercise pastoral discretion for the decision to marry in the church. In the community of the church they preside over the mutual promises made between a couple seeking the lifelong, monogamous, and faithful relationship of marriage.
Marriage requires constant care and cultivation. It is intended to protect the creation and nurturing of mutual trust and love as one foundation of human community. It is a binding relationship that provides conditions for personal well-being, the flourishing of the partner, and the possibility of procreation and the nurturing of children. It is also intended to be a blessing to the community and the world. Because of promises of fidelity and public accountability, marriage provides a context of love, trust, honesty, and commitment within which a couple can express the profound joy of relationship as well as address the troubles they encounter throughout life.
Christians believe that marriage is not solely to legitimate physical sexual intimacy, but to support long-term and durable communion for the good of others.23 It is a communion within which the play and delight of physical love are crucial expressions of the depth of trust, and in which lovemaking can be a tender and generous act of self-giving that tends to the joy and pleasure of the other.
The public character of marriage also implies a civil responsibility. Marriage is intended not only to protect the people who are married, but to signal to the community their intention to live a peaceful and mutually fulfilling life, even as they endeavor to strengthen the community in which they live. The public promises of marriage between a man and a woman, therefore, also protect the community by holding people accountable to their vows. Fidelity to promises blesses all who depend on this trust within and beyond the marriage.
The Christian commitment to marriage recognizes that sin enters all relationships, both within and outside the institution of marriage. All marriages fall short of intentions and difficulties are inevitable, both because of the different needs and desires of the two individuals, and because of sin, which places the anxious concern for self before the needs of the other. Infidelity to marriage promises betrays the intimate trust of the partner, the security of the family, and the public trust of the community.
Precisely because marriage is the place where deep human trust and needs abide, it also can be a place of great harm. Many experience neither love nor trust within marriage. Harming another emotionally, physically, or spiritually, including through the misuse or abuse of power, is a profound injury. It is also a betrayal and violation of the shelter and trust that are intended within the marriage relationship. Particular care must be taken to support and find safe haven for all who are at risk within a marriage. This includes those whose sense of self is destroyed or damaged within the marriage relationship and, therefore, whose ability to act or advocate for their own health and safety may be inhibited or lost.
This church recognizes that in some situations the trust upon which marriage is built becomes so deeply damaged or is so deeply flawed that the marriage itself must come to a legal end (Matthew 9:3–12). This church does not treat divorce lightly nor does it disregard the responsibilities of marriage. However, in such situations, it provides support to the people involved and all who are affected. Divorced individuals are encouraged to avail themselves of pastoral care, to be assured of God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing, and to remain in the communion of the church, recognizing the all-encompassing mercy of God.
This church will provide supportive pastoral care to those who are divorced. Further, it believes that those who wish to remarry may gain wisdom from the past and may be assured of the Gospel’s freedom, in the midst of brokenness and forgiveness, to enter into their new responsibilities in joy and hope. This church will tend pastorally to the special concerns of blended families, children of divorced parents, and to the particular tensions that may accompany family breakdown and transition.
Despite its awareness of the presence of sin and failure in marriage, the Christian tradition places great emphasis on the value of marriage for a husband and wife. It is in marriage that the highest degrees of physical intimacy are matched with and protected by the highest levels of binding commitment, including legal protection. It is in marriage that public promises of lifetime commitment can create the foundation for trust, intimacy, and safety.
Both the couple’s intent in their lifelong promises and the civil requirements for marriage are important. Mutual promises of enduring care and fidelity, made before God, allow a couple to open themselves to each other. They permit the sharing of profound and tender affection as well as deep vulnerabilities and anxieties. The legal contract creates a public arrangement within which a couple may safely and equitably share their assets and resources, arrive at joint decisions, anticipate children, protect and nurture them, and plan for a shared future.
The church’s historical experience supports its confidence that solemn promises, made before a company of witnesses who ask for God’s blessing on a man and a woman, have the power to create a unique framework within which two people, a new family, and the community may thrive. Consistent with that experience, this church has confidence that such promises, supported by the contractual framework of civil law, can create a lifetime relationship of commitment and cooperation.
It must be noted that some, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong monogamous relationships. They believe that such accountable relationships also provide the necessary foundation that supports trust and familial and community thriving. Other contractual agreements such as civil unions also seek to provide some of these protections and to hold those involved in such relationships accountable to one another and to society.
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V Sexuality and trust in relationships
Sexuality and self
Both sexuality and trust are fundamentally relational and grow out of the web of family ties and social interaction. Healthy, trusting relationships shape confident, healthy, and responsible people. We bring our failings, imperfections, and sin with us into our relationships, but part of living out the calling and freedom of the Christian in those relationships includes being the best we can be as individuals. This requires appropriate care for all aspects of a person, including the body.
We are sexual beings from the beginning of our lives. The ancient psalmist envisioned the divine mystery of our embodied lives long before science investigated our biological and genetic complexity: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). The realities of our sexual bodies are visible in physical features and powerful in less visible characteristics.
This means much more than that we are born with male, female, or sometimes with ambiguous genitalia. Our cells carry sex chromosomes and our endocrine systems infuse our bodies with hormones. In ways that are still not fully understood, we develop strong gender identities at a very early age. While there is still much to be learned about the biological complexity of human beings, we have come to understand that this complexity suggests a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities.
Sexuality and gender are features of each person’s very being. This is both a discovery and a gift, and a perplexity and a challenge at all life stages and in all relational situations. The medical and social sciences continue to explore how the range of human sexual identities and behaviors are understood, cared for, and regulated in various cultures and religions.
Sexual capabilities and experiences are part of life for all ages and physical abilities. One can experience the sexual in music, art, literature, and the beauty of people and nature. One can take sensual pleasure in food, touch, sound, smells, and activities. One can find expression for the self and for sexuality through the spoken word, touch, dance, music, and movement.
One does not need to be in a relationship to experience one’s sexuality. Bodies do not suddenly become sexual at puberty and do not cease to be sexual when, for example, there are physical or developmental limitations, menopause, erectile dysfunction, or the absence of a sexual partner. This means that throughout our lives we need to find life-enhancing and appropriate ways of giving expression to this complicated dimension of ourselves.
We all have sexual identities that will find expression in our lives. We have sexual feelings that we are aware of and sometimes need to be negotiated when we are interacting with friends, courting a potential life partner, working closely with colleagues, or sharing our lives with another. Moreover, we must evaluate and respond constantly to the ways in which the sexuality of others is expressed. We must respond to sexual stimuli in the environment, including the varieties of human touch, which may vary from casual contact through flirtatious appreciation to invitations to intense physical intimacy.
A healthy sense of sexuality is related to having a healthy body image. This church teaches that caring for the body and following practices that lead to physical and emotional wellness are part of the stewardship of created goodness.41 It recognizes that a positive sense of one’s own body supports a healthy sense of one’s gender identity and sexuality.
Sexually mature, healthy individuals learn to be comfortable with their bodies and are able to entrust themselves to others. They call frankly upon others to respect and honor their privacy, their bodily integrity, and their wishes concerning welcome and unwelcome touch.
Sometimes, it can be very hard to develop and maintain positive attitudes about one’s body. Too many people struggle for a healthy sense of body as a result of experiences of degradation or shaming by others, including family members and intimate partners. This church will support all in affirming and reclaiming a sense of healthy sexuality.
This church calls attention to the danger of embracing standards of physical attractiveness that exclude many, including the aged and people with disabilities, and which distort the understanding of what it means to be healthy. The young whose bodies are changing and growing may be especially vulnerable to idealized and commercialized images of a “perfect body” that play on insecurities and destructive self-loathing.
A holistic understanding of the interrelationship of body, mind, and spirit challenges such narrow understandings of beauty. It enables us better to affirm the many dimensions of beauty and to celebrate human variety and particularity. This church is committed to affirming throughout life the value, beauty, and health of the human body and human sexuality. It is mindful that physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual wellness contribute to a lower incidence of at-risk behaviors for all people, including youth.
Gender and friendships
This church also calls attention to the immense value of friendship for people in all stages of life. Human life in relationship includes many different forms of rewarding human companionship. Friendships express our longing for human connection, touch, and growth. They allow space for self-revelation in the shelter of various degrees of mutual commitment and regard. The ELCA encourages and celebrates all situations and initiatives that engage people in relationships of friendship and trust, both inside and outside the church community. It also recognizes the importance of strong social support for friendships.
Many of our understandings of our own sexuality and sexual relationships may be formed or nurtured through conversations and confiding in friends. Friendships may help us develop a sense of our own beauty and the integrity of our bodies. As with parents or family members, we may learn from friends a sense of caring and safe touch in trusting relationships. Friendship, like family life, is a trust that can be betrayed, abused, and violated. It also must be recognized that dysfunctional friendships may be detrimental to health, development, and well-being.
This church calls people to be good, trustworthy friends who support one another in mature self-understanding and healthy companionship. Friends together have the shared power and responsibility to contradict demeaning and demoralizing messages from the media about sexuality and to overcome the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Friends also have the responsibility to respect one another’s physical and emotional boundaries.
Community and workplace relationships are spheres of human life in which friendships and companionship can and do thrive. They are also places where trust and distrust mix in complicated ways.
Sometimes friendships become sexual in the narrower sense of giving rise to overtly erotic impulses and stimulation. Erotic interest between adults open to a romantic relationship can be a desired part of the growth of trust and intimacy. Erotic interest can also create conflicts and danger. These have to be faced honestly when one or both of the people involved already have made promises of fidelity to another. The conflicts and dangers have to be recognized, also, whenever one of the involved individuals does not welcome a deeper and more complicated closeness.
Reintroducing distance into such friendships or breaking them off may entail an acceptance of loss that requires courage and maturity. The violation of trusting relationships for sexual purposes is offensive, unacceptable, and, when criminal, should be punished accordingly. A particularly egregious violation of friendship is acquaintance rape.
Commitment and sexuality
Human beings remain sexual creatures for life. As a result, they must cultivate and manage relationships along a spectrum that runs from casual associations to intense intimacy. The deepening of trust and commitment is a lengthy process that requires deliberate attention and effort. Recognizing this provides a way of thinking about how people come to select life partners and about their sexual conduct in that process.
Couples, whether teenage, young adult, mature, or senior, move from a first acquaintance into a journey of increasing knowledge, appreciation, and trust in each other. This journey involves spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical dimensions of self-understanding. When these dimensions develop at similar rates, trust and entrusting are established and secured. When they are out of balance, trust may either not exist or disintegrate.
As trust and entrusting are established in a relationship, physical expression naturally becomes more intimate. That is, sexual intimacy would be expected to follow the same pattern of growth marked by the other dimensions of mutual self-understanding.
For this reason, this church teaches that degrees of physical intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment. This also suggests a way to understand why this church has taught that the greatest sexual intimacies, such as coitus, should be matched with and sheltered both by the highest level of binding commitment and by social and legal protection, such as found in marriage. Here, promises of fidelity and public accountability provide the foundational basis and support for trust, intimacy, and safety, especially for the most vulnerable.
This is why this church opposes non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. Indulging immediate desires for satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, is to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16–19). Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy.
Such relationships undermine the dignity and integrity of individuals because physical intimacy is not accompanied by the growth of mutual self-knowledge. Absent the presence of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual trust and commitment, such sexual relationships may easily damage the self and an individual’s future capacity to live out committed and trustworthy relationships. Fleeting relationships misuse the gift of sexual intimacy and are much more likely to be unjust, abusive, and exploitative.
Although this church strongly discourages such relationships, it nevertheless insists that every sexual relationship entails responsibility. All sexually active people have the responsibility to protect their sexual partner from both emotional and physical harm as well as to protect themselves and their partners from sexually transmitted diseases and the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy.
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