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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Combining Caution and Compassion--A Pastoral Perspective on Sexuality

Should Christian congregations and institutions affirm and support gays and lesbians in intimate relationships?

This simple question, affecting the lives of real people among us we should all love and care about, is threatening to tear us apart.

But the issue isn’t simple. Rather than it dividing us into just two opposing camps, I note at least seven different positions people are taking, on the following continuum:

1.  Condemn and ostracize all lesbians and gays, keep them “in the closet”.

2.  Advocate acceptance of gays and lesbians but expect them to undergo a change of orientation (“healing”), with heterosexual marriage or a life of celibacy as their only options.

3. Openly welcome and accept all believers into membership without making sexual orientation a barrier, but support sexual relationships for only one man and one woman in marriage.

4.  Support the above approach as the church’s official position, but make pastoral exceptions for faithful same-sex relationships where no other option seems viable (similar to Paul’s “better to marry than to burn with passion” counsel, an approach many churches have applied to divorced persons seeking to remarry).

5.  Celebrate and affirm all monogamous and faithful relationship equally--heterosexual or homosexual.

6.  Encourage monogamous relationships, but make questions of exclusivity and fidelity matters of personal conscience.

7.  Leave all questions about sexual behaviors up to the individual.

Advocates of positions 4, 5 or 6 sometimes stereotype those who disagree with them (e.g., who take positions 2 or 3) as reactionary and without compassion, and judge churches who are unwilling to change as having legalistic church leaders concerned only with maintaining the status quo. But the fact is, the majority of lay members of most of our congregations are probably even more conservative on this issue than are their leaders. And most church assemblies, for better or for worse, are careful to follow democratic procedures in making church decisions.

Having said that, it may also be unfair for those who hold to the Genesis-old position of “one man and one woman for life” as reaffirmed by Jesus, to write off everyone else with differing opinions (for example, as in #4) as totally lacking in Biblical or moral values.

So along with the need for gaining some badly needed compassion, doesn't wisdom also call for a good dose of prudence and caution here? After all, churches are being asked to consider changing a position (#3) that has millenia of Christian tradition and the majority of Christian believers worldwide behind it, and that should never be done lightly.

My biggest concern, however, is not about the current homosexual debate, per se, but how the increased acceptance of positions 6 and 7 may affect the moral thinking and behavior of all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation. We might ask what happens to our ability to maintain some kind of community stability and accountability in the sexual arena when only the rights and wishes of individuals are considered? What happens when our sexual needs, regardless of gender orientation,  are seen as having somewhere near the same urgency as our need for oxygen, or when the idea of celibacy is dismissed as a near impossibility for anyone--of any age, life stage or sexual orientation?

I’m raising a broader and deeper question here, whether we are already on a slippery slope that may result in our losing our sense of shared community mores and values in this very important area of our lives. Are we being influenced by an individualistic mindset that has resulted in a social experiment in which everyone is pretty much on his or her own?

In the heterosexual arena, the results of that kind of thinking are sobering:

1. A growing number of kids, as young as elementary and middle school age, are engaging in oral sex (usually unprotected). Young girls wanting to gain popularity with guys are especially vulnerable.

2. According to an article in “O” magazine, less well supervised “morps” (“proms” spelled backwards), are becoming more popular among teens, with some of them featuring “freaking” (dances simulating sexual intercourse).

3. Bi-sexual sex is “in” among heterosexual teen and young adult women, according to popular magazines like Cosmopolitan, read by millions as the Bible of Cool.

4. A majority of teenage boys now admit to accessing internet porn on a regular basis, and many are becoming addicted to it at a time when both their brains and their personal values are still very much in formation. What kind of faithful fathers and lifelong lovers will they be?

5. Randomly “hooking up” at bars and weekend parties is increasingly accepted as a norm on university campuses, often seen as risking less commitment than actually asking someone out for dinner and a movie.

6. Cohabitation, a form of “premarital marriage,” is replacing dating and engagement as the normal step toward formal or legal “marriage,” in spite of cohabiters being at greater risk for divorce when they do marry.

7. Divorcing and remarrying, hooking up and breaking up, are becoming more and more common among adults, resulting in serial polygamy with numerous partners and untold and unforeseen long term consequences that are potentially destructive to adults and children alike. True, actual divorce rates are not increasing, but that is largely because marriage rates are declining.

So while the church is busy guarding the back door against allowing gays and lesbians (perhaps 3-5% of our members at most) to have sex with whomever and whenever their conscience allows, we’d all better be watching the front door and dealing with the hard question of where some of our own underlying assumptions about individualism and moral relativism are already taking us.

For me, this is not a simple matter of "us" versus "them," or of gay versus straight. We all have a stake in the well being of future generations, and we all need to talk--together.
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