Thoughts on Christian Sexual Ethics

I enter this conversation with many questions, very few answers, and a non-traditional (but common) experience of sex and marriage. Over the past few years I have deconstructed my initial understanding of sex and sexuality and just recently started to recreate my sexual ethics. This collection of thoughts is a work in progress and, honestly, will continue to evolve as I learn more.

Human bodies are important.

It’s a common misconception that our souls or spirits are more important than our physical bodies. Flesh is given a bad reputation as something that constantly tempts or deceives. (Have you ever heard the phrase, “…die to the flesh” or something like “that’s just my flesh talking”?) And yes, while we do live this side of the garden in a fallen world, the body does not lose inherent value.

Our bodies are created in the image of the divine and therefore how we use them and share them is important to God. Our physical senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste are all means by which we receive revelation from God and may also share God’s love with others.

“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others, it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship… The body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement. And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life.”

— Alexander Schmemann

The Incarnation also draws our attention to the importance of the body. Jesus came to earth through the body of a woman and he grew from an infant to young man. He experienced all the normal fluids, indigestion, fatigue, hunger, adrenaline, pain, excitement, etc. that we do. He could touch and be touched, savor food, and hear the seagulls. He was fully God and fully human.

Christ came as human and also ascended as a human to demonstrate the body, not only the soul, has eternal value and meaning.

“We cannot fully understand our bodies outside of grace; our bodies meet their true nature only as they are taken up into grace, as they are transformed in relationship to the risen Christ whose body still bears the wounds of crucifixion. The resurrected body, available to us in Jesus Christ, begins even now to make our bodies holy.”

— Beth Felker Jones,

Even now, your body is very good and self-hatred has no place. Christ welcomes you, in your body, to commune with him.

photo: Annie Spratt

Sex is spiritual, too.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are spiritual. Throughout church history people have abstained from sex with a goal to become closer to God, and likewise many have understood sex and marriage to also reflect divine intimacy.

And yet we are not only bodies. To believe this would inappropriately objectify humankind. What we think about sex and sexuality ultimately connects to our beliefs about gender, personhood, and God. These areas are intimately intertwined with each other. For example, if we believe women are inherently the weaker party, this will shape how we treat them and what we expect from them. Or if we believe God is male, this will have implications on how we view leadership and power. The list goes on.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus addresses many things in the Sermon on the Mount. The act of murder and hateful thoughts, as well as adultery and lust are equal in God’s eyes. The invisible things matter just as much as the visible. To disregard our souls, in my opinion, would keep us from a holistic experience of sex or abstinence. I don’t mean to say our salvation is dependent on our sex lives. Far from it, I believe both body and soul, the visible and invisible, are practically inseparable as one learns and discerns how to become closer to God.

Compassionate dialogue over legalism.

Have you ever asked questions like “where’s the line?” or “how far can I go?” and received all different answers? Me too. Different religious groups have more rules than others, but to my knowledge gray area isn’t popular.

In an attempt to be “clear” and draw a line between “pure” and “impure,” many have defined sex as penetrative sex. Translated, this means as long as the penis has not entered/penetrated the vagina, sex has not occurred. And while this does offer a boundary, it does not consider the range of sexual acts that many experts still consider sex. Simply put, sex is the stimulation of the genitals, either with other genitals or with a hand or mouth, thus you have sexual inter- and outer- course. (Did you know? Sex does not require an orgasm to occur.)

Although not everyone may have sex in their lifetime, everyone has a sexuality. Conversations on sex are not simply a pep talk for engaged or married couples. Guidance that assumes marriage is a reality or goal for everyone is sorely mistaken. Unmarried people, young people, LGBTQ+ people, those who are no longer married, differently-abled people, and those crowned with gray hair, are necessary participants in the conversation on sex and intimacy.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are individual and communal practices.

Individual or communal? Private choice or public discourse? I struggle with the binary of either/or and would rather say sex, chastity, and celibacy are the business of both the individual and the community. They are deeply personal things, yet a community’s dialogue (or lack thereof) has significant impact on the private activity of individuals and families. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements revealed the imbalance between the individual and community. Many churches neglect(ed) to protect the survivors of abuse and use(d) narratives of fear and condemnation to “educate” their members on sex and gender.

Individually, one’s choices on sex, chastity, and celibacy are incredibly personal. Consent, by nature, must be an individual choice. Whether consent is given or not, it must be a choice freely made by the individual. People are also entitled to privacy in this area and should not feel obligated to share things like how often they have sex or why they choose to abstain from sex. Many other details surrounding sex and sexuality, including personal preferences or healthcare choices, may be kept private as well.

Communally, we have a responsibility to protect our neighbors from sexual assault/rape, child marriage and pornography, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, human trafficking and exploitation, and incest. To do so requires self-restraint or the enforcement of laws created to impose restraint on behaviors considered dangerous to others. Additionally, is it very important for us to support sex in safe contexts and advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive, sex education for all people. All of this requires prioritizing the subject amongst families, churches, and local/national groups.

In another sense, I believe the marriage relationship is a small community. Spouses commit their bodies to each other and also choose to not have sex with others. There are certain periods where abstinence is appropriate, after childbirth, during illness, perhaps in a bout of grief or traumatic experience. (This is not an exhaustive list.) If the couple choses to have children, their union increases the impact they have on their nuclear community and the broader community they live in.

Was Mary actually a virgin? And other hard questions.

Did the Levite’s concubine sin? Did God actually condemn Esau, Jacob, David, and Solomon for their sex lives? Can we be sure the couple in Song of Solomon were actually married? And does it matter?

Perhaps this deserves another post, but since researching purity culture last year, I get a lot of good questions. Especially on premarital sex. I have so many questions on this term alone. What exactly is marriage? What is marriage when women are considered property? Economic contract or covenant? How have our definitions of sex changed?

Our English translations of the Bible are historically the interpretations of white men, for the most part. Translations are always interpretations. And these interpretations have shaped our theologies and language for God and God’s people.

Food for thought, for now.

photo: Priscilla Du Preez

FAQ: Is premarital sex wrong?

Before you jump to a yes or no answer, consider these questions instead.

  • What is this situation teaching me about God?
  • What about this situation gives life to me? Where do I feel life is being drained from me?
  • Am I able to see and honor the other person as imago dei? Am I able to see and honor myself as an image bearer? What does this mean to me?
  • Am I being coerced or attempting to exert my own power over another?
  • How am I prepared to address the potential emotional and physical outcomes of my choice, whether it’s sex or abstinence?

I am not able to answer these questions for you. I trust you to answer them honestly and make your own decisions. What I can tell you is that you, body, mind, and soul, are created as good. You are loved. You may ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and reveal more of God’s love for you.

Safe sex is, in my opinion, a non-negotiable. Consent between parties, understanding of applicable contraceptive options, and comprehensive sex education are foundational elements. The more specific definition of healthy sex will differ based on who you ask, but it should not exclude the elements of safe sex.

Wherever you find yourself, I’m with you and I’m for you.

Read (or listen) more:

5 Things that Made My Heart Sing

Lately, I’ve been asking myself how to cut back on my social media consumption and still share meaningful, not-so-serious bits of my life. The result? A fun new collection of occasional curiosities posted here for our mutual enjoyment.

01.

I saw the new Little Women movie twice last month. I cried both times. I enjoyed the director’s combination of Louisa May Alcott’s story and her writing. The costumes were so beautiful and the familiar scenery made me fall in love with New England all over again.

“Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty, and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But… I am so lonely.”

— Jo March
Historical Prettiness — Little Women (2019) dir. Greta Gerwig
photo: pinterest

And, just in case you’re obsessed with the hair styles in the movie like I am, I found this video with several tutorials inspired by the movie.

02.

Liz Vice’s song It Was Good. This was inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem, The Creation. Here’s a little excerpt,

“Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.”

03.

Palm prayer has been a simple style of prayer I’ve been using lately. I was introduced to it through my spiritual director training program. Wondering what it is? You start with your palms facing down. You bring your worries and the not-so-pleasant thoughts to the front of your mind with the intention to release them to the Lord; you let them “fall” from your hands. After you feel finished you turn your palms to face upward. In this position you are ready to “receive” from God.

You can use this prayer practice in bed, at the office, or a before dinner — it can be very subtle and versatile for all types of settings.

04.

I’ve just recently finished (binged) the three seasons of the series, Anne with an “E”. I was skeptical but almost immediately found it very, very delightful. I was impressed it does not turn a blind eye to the challenges of racism, homophobia, colonization, classism, sexism, and other crucial issues. These issues are intertwined with identity, romance, legacy, grief, friendship, and imagination. I was pleasantly surprised to see these topics thoughtfully presented. A must see!

photo: pinterest

“It’s not what the world holds for you, it’s what you bring to it”

— Anne Shirley-Cuthbert

05.

The last Saturday of 2019 I woke up before sunrise (on accident) and realized I really wanted to drive straight to the beach and watch the sun come up. I woke Aaron up and thankfully he went along with it.

It was a beautiful morning for the two of us. We watched a handful of dogs chase each other and saw some people taking a chilly dip in the water. This small adventure cost a bit of sleep but gave us time together and a new memory or two. Now I’m wondering why we don’t do this more often.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to my quarterly note. It’s like this, but better.

What is Spiritual Direction?

Although this may be your first formal introduction, you may have already received or given spiritual direction. Perhaps you’ve consulted a pastor or spiritual leader for advice. Maybe you made time and space to listen to a friend. “Spiritual direction”, in my opinion, is a fancy term for something we do or look for all the time: companionship.

Spiritual direction is spiritual companionship, not clinical counseling.

Spiritual direction is holy listening, not a bible study.

Spiritual direction is meant to be nourishment for your soul, not a one-size-fits-all formula.

This chart is a very helpful comparison between spiritual direction, discipleship, counseling, and other similar relationships. There is no universal solution to life’s questions and therefore no superior approach.

“The environment of spiritual direction, then, is affirming and encouraging, but it is also a place of authenticity. In spiritual direction we look at the truth of our present situation and experience. The question asked is not “What should be happening in my life?” but “What is happening in my life?” We look for God here, now, because the place where we are in our lives is the place where we find God.”

Alice Fryling

Who are spiritual directors?

Some spiritual directors are trained through specialty programs or master degrees and others appear in the form of untrained, but sage friends or leaders. Some receive payment for their time and have warm, inviting offices. Others generously offer to listen for no formal compensation in settings like living rooms or coffee shops. Spiritual direction can happen in groups or among individuals. There are all types of combinations.

One common thread in each combination is the dedication of time and space to listen. Spiritual directors listen to seekers. Seekers learn to hear and listen to God, the ultimate “spiritual director.” (Yes, this may sound corny, but it’s true!)

Meetings may begin with an open ended question like, “What is the state of your soul?” or “What has caused life to pour into you, recently?” Some meetings are filled with silence. That’s ok, too. Sometimes (most of the time?) we don’t have all the answers.

“The opportunity to tell our story opens us to hear God’s story more deeply – God’s presence and participation in our lives and in the life of the world. In God all human stories connect and when we participate in spiritual direction, we seem to notice more of the connections.”

Jeannette A. Bakke

Is spiritual direction a new practice?

Spiritual direction is far from new. There are examples in Christian scripture and throughout church history.

It’s also not exclusively Christian and there’s no particular denominational affiliation. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other eastern religions can practice spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they seek to look closely, through the eyes of their hearts, at the guidance and transforming work of God in their lives. It’s a practice that began in the early years of Christianity when people followed the desert mothers and fathers out to the wilderness to ask them how to know God. Over the years, spiritual direction has appeared in many faith traditions. It was kept alive in the Christian faith mainly through the Roman Catholic Church, but today the Protestant church is rediscovering it. People throughout the Christian church, including those of an evangelical orientation, are experiencing again the gifts that God gives to his people through the loving listening and the gentle guidance of spiritual directors.”

Alice Fryling

What does this mean for me?

Have you wondered where God is leading or inviting you? Do you have questions regarding faith or spirituality? Do you feel confident in your faith life, but might be curious for a new approach or perspective? Are you interested in new approaches to prayer or spiritual disciplines? Do you have a desire to nurture your soul?

If you felt drawn to one or any number of these questions, spiritual direction is for you!

Looking for other spiritual formation resources?

This was a brief introduction, so just in case you’re still curious:

What I Read in 2019

This year I read 67 books, thanks to both the last semester of seminary and a summer of job hunting. I listened to a couple through my library’s audiobook app but for most I picked up a “real” copy.

There’s only a few days left in December and I doubt I’ll get around to finishing off the last couple books in my queue and reaching my 70-book goal. Oh well!

In addition to reading many wonderful books, Aaron and I were able to visit the homes of authors I grew up loving, Robert Frost and Louisa May Alcott. Each home was beautiful. The Orchard House, Alcott’s home, was by far my favorite tour; if you’re in the area you have to make time to visit. (Both gave us free admission with military IDs.)

We stopped by one of Robert Frost’s homes in Shaftbury, VT this fall.

A Note on Theology Books

Earlier this year an old friend asked me to recommend a few books on Christian theology. She was looking for an overview, of sorts. I recommended some authors and theologians I liked in that moment, and a book or two. But honestly? Her question stumped me. Did a summary of Christian theology truly exist?

After I replied with my answers, I kept thinking about it. Each author or editor comes with their own set of biases. This means that all theology is accompanied by an adjective. (Western theology, feminist theology, reformed theology, etc.) There is no default theology, no hard answers that can’t be argued a hundred different ways, even in orthodox Christian theology. Therefore, it is difficult to select only two or three books to summarize thousands of years of history, culture, and academic study.

All that to say, if you’re looking to learn more about scripture and the concepts inside without a degree program, pick a book or author you’re already familiar with and read their appendix or bibliography in the back of the book. Read similar authors and definitely read the work of those they disagree with. Go get your toes wet and don’t be scared to make a splash!

A “shelfie”.

My Top 10 Books

Picking favorite books is like trying to choose a favorite dog meme: practically impossible. 10 of my favorite books (in no specific order) of the year include:

We visited Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, MA this summer.

Other Noteworthy Authors

  • Mike McHauge
  • Sarah Bessey
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • John M. Perkins
  • Serene Jones
  • Phyllis Trible
  • Margaret Atwood

Find the whole list here on my Goodreads. I have different categories (or “shelves”) on my profile that might help you find your next read according to the particular topics I frequently read.

As for my 2020 goal, I think I’ll start with 50 books and work upwards if I happen to keep the momentum. One of my favorite instagram accounts made a goal to read more, if not exclusively, women and authors of color in 2019. I’d like to do the same in 2020.

Do you have any reading goals in 2020?

Since this is the last post of 2019, here’s a quick recap of the year:

This year has been a memorable year here on this blog. It will be hard to beat. A big thank you to all my readers over this last decade, either here or other blogs I’ve created. You make me smile!

Happy new year!

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition.