A couple of days ago Ms. Bekah Mason who serves as the Executive Director of Revoice asked me to take a look at the Revoice movement’s Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience (and some of the other faith position documents) and explain where I think Revoice may have erred. This afternoon I finally had the chance to read and consider the Statement on Sexual Ethics and Christian Obedience (SSECO) and my comments are below. I will review the other documents when I have more time.
The first section of the SSECO, “Creation and Design,” is quite good and I happily commend the authors for their work. The second and third sections, however, are much more problematic. The second section is entitled, “Christian Obedience and Sanctification.” The second paragraph of this section reads:
“We believe that theological dialogue about the nature of sexual orientation is necessary, and that continued conversation regarding the discipleship and spiritual care of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians is especially important. While discussions about terminology can be fruitful, we believe they can also cause unnecessary division within the family of God and needless pain for many non-straight Christians. Whether individuals choose “gay” or “same-sex-attracted” to describe their orientation and experience is a matter of wisdom and liberty, and should not divide believers who otherwise share a commitment to historic Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality. (2 Tim. 2:14)”
Disagreements over terminology usually do not, I agree, rise to the level of essential doctrine. That being said, I do not think the issue is as harmless as the authors seem to suggest. If I were to be unwillingly sexually drawn to animals (which I am not to be clear) I would recognize that aspect of my personality as fundamentally disordered and, even though I did not choose it and would not act on it, morally reprehensible. As Article 9 of the 39 Articles states, “…although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.” I cannot imagine, in such circumstances, identifying myself as a Bestial Christian. I would, knowing my temptations, be wary of forming a community with those Christians who share the same desires even if they shared my commitment to chastity. I would not be interested in finding the redemptive aspects of the orientation or castigating the church for “marginalizing” those who have it. While I might never be free of the desires, I could never make peace with them. Calling one’s self a “gay Christian” risks, as the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America put it, “skew[ing] how scripture identifies Christians in the direction of orientation or attraction, whereas the Bible places identity in Christ, faith in Him, godly commitments and communities, and in service.”
The authors of the SSECO do affirm in the very next paragraph that, “…all Christians have been given a new spiritual identity in their union with Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of their adoption by the Father as sons and daughters in God’s family.” But this confession seems at odds with the preceding paragraph’s ambivalence regarding how one describes one’s self and the subsequent discussion of, “Relationships and Christian Community,” which is the title of the third and final section of the SSECO.
The third section begins with the following paragraph:
“We believe that the Christian tradition celebrates deep, committed relationships between believers that are marked by spiritual intimacy, emotional connection, and even chaste, non-sexual expressions of physical affection. Such expressions of intimacy and affection should be ordered according to the patterns and principles of spiritual kinship that exist within God’s family. As modeled by Jesus and his disciples, we believe that the pursuit of intimate, rich, platonic friendship is consistent with the biblical witness and Christian tradition and that such relationships can be marked by varying degrees of permanence, affection, and a shared sense of partnership in life and ministry. (John 13:1–20; 21:12; 1 Sam. 18:3, 20:17,42)”
There is no glaring theological error here but there is a significant moral naivete that borders on pastoral malpractice. One purpose of Revoice and of the Spiritual Friendship movement is to cultivate “intimate, rich, platonic friendship[s], consistent with the biblical witness and Christian tradition…marked by varying degrees of permanence, affection, and a shared sense of partnership in life and ministry” with members of the same sex. Ron Beglau writes movingly of this here. The project, with God’s help, is to properly order and direct the non-erotic aspects of homosexual desire so that genuine intimate but chaste friendships might emerge. I do think it is important to do this. A person who feels sexually drawn to animals can simply choose not to buy a pet. But human beings need friendship with other human beings. Friendship, especially for the single person (and I was one until 29 years old), is like oxygen.
That said, there are good reasons I do not pursue “intimate, rich, platonic friendships” with women to whom I am not married. Before I was married, if my friendships with women were to be platonic, they had to be less intimate and rich. Our fallen desires do not, when set into the context of intimacy, even friendly intimacy, tend to behave. To actively pursue such intimacy with a desirable person is to play with fire. It would be as dangerous and foolhardy for two Christian men with homosexual desire to “take vows” of friendship (as Wes Hill suggests) and cultivate intimacy as it would for me to do the same with a woman outside of my marriage. The paragraph above from the SSECO should have included strong cautions about the pursuit of intimate friendship and the authors do add warnings in the following paragraph (see below), but one of the primary reasons Revoice and Spiritual Friendship exist as movements seems to be to immanentize a kind of non-sexualized friendship that will only be possible at the eschaton.
The authors do go on to provide some good and necessary warnings:
“We believe that Christians should seek wisdom and prudence when entering any relationship marked by greater intimacy, and that believers must exercise care and resolve to avoid all forms of temptation. We believe that Christians must actively resist and turn away from every thought, action, desire, or behavior that does not align with God’s revealed intentions for human sexuality, since we are not our own, but belong—body and soul, both in life and in death—to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 8:12–13; Col. 3:5).”
This is all good and true and I am thankful for the warning, but caution and the avoidance of temptation would seem to demand more distance and less intimacy with members of the same sex. In other words, it seems more often than not that following the warnings of this paragraph would mean not pursuing rich intimate relationships with members of the same sex as described in the preceding one. I suppose one might strike up a friendship with a person for whom there is no sexual attraction, but eros is volatile and unpredictable and intimacy often excites it. I do wonder why there is not more emphasis on men with same-sex attraction seeking to form close friendships with women who have same-sex attraction and vice versa? That might help to avoid the difficulty altogether for both parties, less temptation and more intimacy.
The SSECO is a problematic but not overtly heretical document. It is written, however, to serve a movement that more and more seems to equate morally disordered desires with the morally neutral categories of sex, race, and ethnicity (see especially the section entitled, “Public Life and Justice), building a community bound together by common sinful longings that they acknowledge cannot be fulfilled and the sense that they have been corporately marginalized and hurt by the church. I think this kind of community building will do more harm to those who struggle with homosexual desire than good. When the ACNA bishops released their statement on sexuality and identity raising some of the issues I have raised above, a number of platformed Anglicans and evangelical leaders behaved as if the statement represented an act of oppression. Many expressed feelings of pain and hurt. This, some said, was supposed to be a pastoral statement instead you have added a great burden to those who are already suffering. Pastors sometimes do need to say things that hurt, especially when some of those they pastor are headed toward spiritual danger. Words of this sort, however gently uttered, usually do feel burdensome and difficult, but heeding them, I think, brings peace.