Thoughts on LGBTQ+, Porn, Promiscuity, Community, and Christian Faithfulness
I am one of those Christians who sometimes gets labeled “too conservative” by liberal friends and “too liberal” by conservative friends. In the past, I was bothered by such labels. But over time I have come to believe that in most instances, this “hard to figure out place” is the best—and dare I say most faithful?—place that folks who want to follow the whole Jesus, the whole time, can be.
I hope that the following will make my case. I wrote these words in 2014. My views have not changed since that time. Now as much as then, I hope that Christians—as well as those who do not identify as Christian at all—will find my words compelling, persuasive, and, above all, congruent with the grace and truth of Jesus.
What if the church were full of people who were loving and safe, willing to walk alongside people who struggle? What if there were people in the church who kept confidences, who took the time to be Jesus to those who struggle with homosexuality? What if the church were what God intended it to be?
—An anonymous Christian who experiences same-sex attraction
One Sunday after a church service, a young woman introduced herself to me as a first-time visitor. After the usual “Nice to meet you; how did you hear about our church?” conversation, the woman wanted to know if she could ask me a direct question. “Of course,” I said. “Fire away.”
Before getting to her question, she offered a short speech. She said that she was single, sexually active, and frustrated with Christians who, according to her, were culturally regressive on the subject of sex. “We don’t live in Leave It to Beaver land anymore,” she continued. “I have gay and straight friends, including many who are not married, who like to have sex, and who feel fine about it. In today’s society, my friends and I are not alone. If churches want to stay relevant, if they want to reach the modern person, churches will need to catch up with the world on the subject of sex.”
She never asked her question.
Not too many weeks following this encounter, the New York Times came out with a piece about the hookup culture at Harvard University called “Students of Virginity.” In the article, a student who values sexual experimentation and having sexual encounters with multiple partners summarizes her viewpoint:
For me, being a strong woman means not being ashamed that I like to have sex. . . . To say that I have to care about every person I have sex with is an unreasonable expectation. It feels good! It feels good!
These are just two examples that indicate how the tide has shifted in Western culture on the subject of sexuality. Whether it is Saturday Night Live teasing Jimmy Carter for confessing that he lusts sometimes; Woody Allen flippantly saying, “The heart wants what the heart wants” when pressed about his affair with his teenage stepdaughter; or sex-advice columnist Dan Savage advocating for open marriages because he thinks it’s unreasonable to expect people to be monogamous2, all indications are that, indeed, we are not in Leave It to Beaver land.
Historic Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other major world religions have always believed that God gave us sex for two reasons. First, sex is for procreation. The only way for new life to be formed is through the uniting of sperm and egg. Second, sex is a way for men and women, specifically husbands and wives, to give and receive pleasure through the uniting of two bodies into one. The one-flesh union renews and solidifies marriage vows. It serves as a reminder that husbands and wives are no longer independent but belong to each other, body and soul. The union of two naked bodies affirms every other form of nakedness—personal, emotional, and spiritual.
Yet negative reactions to the biblical vision for sex abound in modern Western society. The blogosphere and general public conversation reflect a variety of opinions on the subject of marriage and sexuality. Even within communities of faith, intramural debates and divisions abound over this single, heated issue. Is the “sex is only for marriage between one man and one woman” view too limiting? Worse, is it insensitive, unloving, and oppressive because of how it prohibits consenting adults who love one another—single, gay, straight, monogamous, and polygamous—from enjoying the same freedoms that husbands and wives do?
The church visitor’s Leave It to Beaver comment made me wonder if she was familiar at all with the biblical vision for sex. Neither the modern hookup nor the Leave It to Beaver culture reflects a biblical view of sexuality. Instead, the Bible puts forward a vision for sexuality that is both chaste and free.
God Is in Favor of Chastity
Modern people often agree that as long as there are two (or more) willing parties, there really shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to a more open or “adventurous” approach to sexuality. So why does God make such a big deal about sex? Why would he spoil the pleasures of variety and experimentation by limiting sex to marriage between just one man and one woman? When there is mutual consent, nobody gets hurt. It feels good! It feels good!
A warm fire also feels good, until we stop recognizing that it can hurt us. Like fire, sex can be incredibly life giving, comforting, and healing when handled with care. It is among the most delightful of all human activities. It is also among the most dangerous. Like fire, when sex is taken outside its natural and created boundaries, it becomes destructive, leaving burn marks and scars. That’s why God is in favor of chastity, or sexual abstinence, for those living outside the covenant of marriage.
Consider the current impact of pornography. According to Frank Rich of the New York Times, in 2001 Americans spent between $10 billion and $14 billion each year on pornography. Current statistics indicate that US spending on pornography is still hovering around $14 billion. Additionally, a staggering $97 billion per year is spent on pornography worldwide, which means that the annual revenue for porn exceeds the revenues of the world’s top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and Earthlink. Frank Rich also contends that pornography as an industry has outgrown all major league sports and possibly even the Hollywood film industry. Porn is “no longer a sideshow to the mainstream,” he says. “It is the mainstream.” The psychological and physiological impact has been devastating.
In a featured article in New York Magazine, Naomi Wolf observes:
Pornography works in the most basic of ways on the brain. . . . If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on. The ubiquity of sexual images does not free eros but dilutes it.
Gary Brooks says the following about “soft-core” pornography:
Softcore pornography has a very negative effect. . . . Its voyeurism . . . teaches men to view women as objects rather than to be in relationships with women as human beings. . . . Pornography gives men the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely divorced from relationships. . . . Pornography is inherently self-centered—something a man does by himself, for himself—by using other women as the means to pleasure, as yet another product to consume.
Consumers of pornography are not the only ones affected. The objectification of both men and women has transformed the way many people measure their own attractiveness. For example, nowadays it is common for a beautiful woman to have no concept of her beauty. She feels pressure to measure up to the airbrushed images she sees in magazines. She exhausts herself by under-eating and over-exercising, paralyzed by shame because she cannot fit into a size two. How will she ever compete with the hard-core porn goddesses on pay-per-view and the Internet, or the soft-core porn goddesses on network television and in the Victoria’s Secret catalogs? I will never forget hearing the actress Kirstie Alley comment on pictures of herself, saying that she saw herself as “hideous” and “disgusting,” contending that being overweight makes “you loathe yourself.” This is tragic, and a deception of the highest order.
What we need is a culture of true progressives who affirm the dignity and beauty of all women, not just the skinny and sexy few. We would be wise to stop deifying the Victoria’s Secret and GQ bodies and rethink the meaning of “sexy.” Biblically, the most interesting and attractive women and men are those whose hearts are at rest because they know that God loves them. Their beauty is from inside and is not fixated on cosmetic perfection, but on substantive character, driven by a reciprocal love for God that also frees them to love their neighbor.
A strong case can be made that casual sex and objectification—self-centered lust for people in general versus self-giving love for one person in particular—are chief contributors to unparalleled divorce rates, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, body-image depression, teen suicides, terminations of life in the womb, and little girls being trafficked and sold into prostitution. Our culture of casual sex has led to outcomes that are anything but casual. Until we learn to see people as people instead of things, as image bearers to be loved instead of objects to be used, sexuality will only become more confused and broken.
God Is in Favor of Sexual Freedom
God puts protective boundaries around sexuality just as good parents give their children protective boundaries. Our heavenly Father does not want us to hurt ourselves. However, it is unhelpful to become reactionaries and swing the pendulum to Ward and June Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver, who slept in separate beds, more like college roommates than husband and wife.
Some people are surprised when they find out that the Bible promotes and even commands sexual pleasure. God is in favor of sexual freedom—within the bounds of marriage, as we saw earlier. In the earliest chapters of Genesis we see God creating sex and commanding Adam and Eve to fully enjoy each other’s naked bodies:
A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
The theme is continued in Proverbs, where husbands are told, “Drink water from your own cistern. . . . Rejoice in the wife of your youth. . . . Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” Song of Solomon consists of eight erotic chapters in which a husband and wife sing and recite poetry about each other’s naked bodies while playfully scheming about how they are going to ravish each other. God, who inspired the writing of Song of Solomon, smiles from heaven at this. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, invites and even commands spouses to freely give their bodies to each other and to do so often.
What kind of God would command such a thing? Yet this is precisely what the biblical God does. Anyone who thinks the Bible is stuffy about sex either hasn’t read the Bible or hasn’t been paying attention to what it says.
People who understand the Bible’s vision for sex also understand that the physical union of a man and a woman is more a sign than it is a destination. It is not an end in itself. Sex is symbolic as much as it is real. It represents a holistic approach to nakedness, full and reciprocal transparency in which man and woman are fully exposed yet not rejected, fully known yet completely embraced.
Sex also signifies our nakedness before God. Having been united with Christ, believers live in the awareness that God knows everything about us—warts and scars and all—and still loves us. God knows our secrets, the skeletons we hide in the closet, the things we are most ashamed of. He is fully aware of our worst qualities, yet tenderly says to us, “I will betroth you to me forever” and, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Through Christ, God carries us back to Eden where we are naked without shame, where we are received and cherished as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband on her wedding day. Sex between a husband and wife points to this ultimate union: the union between Christ and his bride, the church. It also points to the wedding feast promised to believers in the new heaven and new earth as well as the “happily ever after” we will enjoy with Jesus the Bridegroom.
Homosexuality—Yes, No, or Maybe?
In recent years in the West, there has been a growing movement supporting monogamous, committed same-sex relationships. Even within Christianity, some wish to revisit the long-held Christian (as well as Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu) belief that marriage and sex are for one man and one woman only. Is it fair to say that only heterosexual couples can enjoy God’s gift of sexual intimacy and lifelong partnership? Have we been reading the Bible wrongly on this issue for all these years? People used to think that the Bible was pro-slavery and oppressive to women. But now, after more careful study of the Bible on these matters, we know that the opposite is true. Is homosexuality a similar issue? Is it time for a reformation? Self-identified “gay-affirming evangelicals” such as Justin Lee, Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Vines, and more recently, Jen and Brandon Hatmaker, are suggesting in their books, blogs, and Twitter posts that it is. Many are listening, and many are convinced.
There are also those who, based on a careful reading of the entire Bible, remain opposed to eroticizing same-sex relationships inside the church.
I recently told a gay friend who identifies as a Christian that, sadly, I was not able to affirm his romantic involvement with the man he calls “the love of his life.” This was incredibly painful to do, but when a friend asks a direct question, one must of course answer it truthfully. While unwilling to depart from the historic Christian sexual ethic, I also spoke from a place of grief and sadness because I want my friend to enjoy deep companionship and intimacy.
Thankfully, my friend was kind enough to listen to my reasoning as both of us held back tears. I think he is still processing what I said to him, which was this:
To affirm his union with the love of his life would mean I’d have to deny the Love of mine.
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Hitler regime, said that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Christ, the love of my life, bids me come and die. He bids me to have and to hold him for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, forsaking all others, for as long as I live and into eternity.
Jesus says that anyone “who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” I am irresistibly drawn to him. I must be his disciple. So I must renounce all that contradicts him and that contradicts things that he has clearly said. But it’s hard. Sometimes it puts me in a position that grieves me.
I grieve because I want my friend to be able to share life and be romantically involved with another person. I do not want him to be lonely or alone. Yet as a Christian I am bound to yield my personal feelings and wishes to the sacred words of Jesus, who affirmed that in the beginning, God made them male and female, and the man was united to the woman, and the two became one flesh.
As the biblical proverb says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” In both the Old and New Testaments, all the direct references to homosexuality echo this proverb with a tone of sober warning, with no affirmations to counter them.
The issue of slavery, often cited as an apples-to-apples comparison to homosexuality, is actually an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Bible itself was a chief reason for the abolition of slavery. Texts such as Galatians 3:28 and Paul’s letter to Philemon (a first-century slave owner) put a spotlight on centuries of flawed, self-serving biblical interpretation. Here, Paul insists that as a Christian, Philemon must begin treating his servant, Onesimus, with the highest esteem—no longer as a slave but as a brother and an equal. According to Bible scholar F. F. Bruce, Paul’s New Testament letters “bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die.” History has proven Bruce correct, with abolitionists and civil rights leaders such as William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. opposing racism and slavery not in spite of their belief in the Bible, but because of it.
Though there is still progress to be made, similar gains have occurred on the matter of women’s equality. Based on Jesus’ treatment of women and the many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that elevate the dignity of women, one simply cannot make a biblical case for women being inferior to men.
Injustices such as slavery and the oppression of women have been fought against in most developed nations, largely due to a strong scriptural counter-voice that puts flawed interpretations to rest. Yet no such counter-voice can be found in the Bible that suggests a favorable view of homosexuality. For people like me who have same-sex-attracted friends, and especially for my same-sex-attracted friends themselves, this can create layers of difficulty and grief and loss and sadness. And yet the God of all comfort promises to meet us and abide with us precisely in those places. He does not invite us to censor what he has said. But he does invite us to find rest in the good that we cannot see.
This is not easy.
Some may say to a same-sex-attracted person, “Aren’t we all challenged by scriptural truths that confront our deepest desires? What makes same-sex attraction such a unique struggle? Why can’t you just accept this as your cross to bear, your unique calling from God, to remain single and celibate?” Asking this sort of question in this sort of way fails to appreciate the depth of a same-sex-attracted Christian’s struggle. When I was a single man and had no romantic options and wanted so much to be united to a woman, surrendering to Jesus meant remaining celibate . . . for a time. Even though abstinence and purity were difficult, there was always the possibility of uniting my life with someone else’s. No such prospect exists for a same-sex-attracted Christian, whose surrender to Jesus truly feels like a form of death, a lover’s version of Gethsemane. If I am going to have anything meaningful to contribute to this discussion, it must begin with a recognition that temporary celibacy pales in comparison with what many same-sex-attracted people feel is a lifelong prison sentence of suppressing libido and romantic feelings. For those who are not same-sex attracted, this conversation needs to begin with compassion and maintain compassion as its foundation. We must never presume to understand what it is like to walk in shoes we will never wear.
Yet the Scriptures remain, and the truth remains. All children of God, Jesus says, must deny themselves daily, take up their crosses, and follow him. Some people’s crosses are much weightier than others’, but all must bear a cross. In my world, the lesser crosses include my inclination to worry and my anxiety-based insomnia, both of which contradict God’s invitation to trust him. There is also my greed, which contradicts God’s promise to fulfill my every need. And there is my craving for people’s approval (even as I write this, I am fearful of how my gay and gay-affirming friends will receive it), which contradicts the favor that God has freely given me in Christ.
But God did not create me to live this way. He did not create me to accept the invitation that these confusing and broken impulses, instincts, and desires extend to me. Rather, he extends to me a different invitation: to surrender all my impulses, instincts, and desires to his lordship. Rather than entertain the idea that God created me to be fearful, greedy, and emotionally needy, he invites me to the higher ground of trusting him—trusting that his thoughts are higher than my thoughts, that his ways are higher than my ways, and that his wisdom is higher than my desires and longings. He invites me to trust that it will someday all make sense, this surrendering business, when Jesus returns to make all things new and to redeem all things confusing and broken—including my confusing and broken desires.
None of my struggles compares in weight to that of a man or woman living with same-sex attraction who surrenders, even for a lifetime if necessary to remain true to a biblical sex ethic, all romantic longings to Jesus. I have known several same-sex attracted men and women to make that surrender. I also know several same-sex-attracted people who are faithfully married to members of the opposite sex, and for whom such faithfulness is a regular but noble struggle. I am currently pastor to several of these men and women. For many of them, the surrender was heartbreaking. But it is a surrender that each of them has considered worthwhile, not because Jesus is a roadblock to love but because Jesus is love itself.
In addition, there are others in my life who have remained married and celibate for similar reasons. These people have chosen to remain true to spouses who are relationally difficult, to spouses who have sustained a brain injury or have Alzheimer’s, to spouses who are paralyzed from the neck or waist down, to spouses who are no longer physically able to have intercourse. Some of these friends are very young and are facing unique emotional, relational, and romantic challenges for the rest of their lives. And they are doing so not because Jesus is a roadblock to love but because Jesus is love itself. According to their own testimonies, these men and women have found in Jesus a love more sure, solid, enduring, and safe than any other love that would presume to compete with him.
It Is Not Good to Be Alone
If Christians are going to call their fellow Christians to heterosexual monogamy within marriage and celibacy outside of it, we must not stop there. It is necessary to go further to ensure that those who heed Jesus’ sexual ethic have the support not only to succeed but also to thrive. It is not enough to say that sex outside of marriage is wrong or that erotic same-sex relationships are off limits for those who wish to follow Jesus. “The Bible says it; that settles it” is a lazy and unthoughtful approach that alienates people who long for companionship yet bear the burden of unwanted singleness and celibacy.
Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. . . . They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Those who are serious about following Jesus must do more than lift a finger to alleviate the burden of aloneness in our midst. Every person—married or unmarried—must have people in their lives for support, companionship, intimacy, and human touch. We must ask the radical question of what it will take to ensure that every unmarried person has access to friendships as deep and lasting as marriage and as meaningful as sex. We must also ask what it will take for our communities to effectively cultivate such friendships.
As meaningful as sex? Seriously?
Yes, I really mean that. Have you read about David and Jonathan?
Friendship as Deep as Marriage, Community as Deep as Family
Centuries before Jesus and Paul, David and Jonathan shared a friendship that was so deep that David said, “My brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.”
Some, in an effort to defend homosexuality with the Bible, have taken this single statement from David to mean that he and Jonathan were gay lovers. There is no evidence in the Bible that suggests an erotic connection. But there is evidence of a friendship as deep and committed as that of a married couple.
We are told that Jonathan’s and David’s souls were “knit together,” that each loved the other as his own soul. The two made a lasting covenant to always be there for each other, to have each other’s backs, and even to raise each other’s children should the need arise. Just as Ruth refused to leave Naomi’s side, John leaned heavily into Jesus’ bosom, and Jesus promised to never leave or forsake us, David and Jonathan’s friendship was intimate and enduring. Their love for each other was neither marital nor sexual. Instead of naked bodies, they had naked souls.
This kind of “soul-knitting” friendship, while it does not include the pleasures of erotic love, does provide strength, solace, and permanence for unmarried people, whether male or female, homo-attracted or hetero-attracted, divorced or widowed or never married. W. H. Auden, a poet and same-sex attracted man who remained unmarried and celibate out of obedience to Jesus, illustrates this truth in an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a friend, about his friends:
There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear, and if it wasn’t for you, and a few—how few—like you, I don’t think I could.
What if the church became the first place, instead of the last place, that people went looking for this kind of friendship? What if the church were filled with unmarried people but had no “single” people, because married and unmarried people were as family to one another—surrogate brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to the rest of the church? What if the church were the place where people discovered that being unmarried is not a prison sentence but an opportunity for grace and communion with Jesus and service to God’s Kingdom and mission? What if the church were the place where being unmarried was not only accepted, but seen as a high and noble calling as it was for Jesus and Paul? What if it is true that God sets the lonely in families? What if it is true that “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for [Jesus’] sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands”? What if the church were the place where anyone in the world could find refuge and solace from the age-old malediction that to be alone is to be lonely?
This is exactly what God intends the church to be.
Jesus Christ—Single, Celibate, Sufficient—and the Point of Marriage
There are other “what ifs” to be considered. What if the main reason God created marriage and sex is not so we could be married and have sex? What if God has something bigger and more ultimate in mind—something that is accessible to all people, regardless of their marital status?
Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose to be single and celibate? Could it be that he was saving himself . . . for us?
A deeper look into the full biblical narrative tells a bigger story about marriage than marriage itself. According to Paul, marriage is not a be-all and end-all, but a pointer to something bigger than marriage. “This mystery [of marriage] is profound,” Paul says, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Paul is saying that God’s design for marriage is that it is preparatory and temporary. The first and fundamental goal in marriage is for a husband and wife to prepare each other for an everlasting marriage to Jesus. The only marriage that will remain in the new heaven and new earth is the marriage between Jesus and his bride, the church.
What does this mean? It means that whether married, unmarried, divorced, or widowed now, every believer in Jesus is and will be united with him forever in the marriage that will fulfill every unsatisfied longing, every unfulfilled attraction, every missed opportunity for companionship, love, and intimacy.
As Paul says, this is all a profound mystery. But we do know that even the best day of marriage in this life will pale in comparison to the worst day of marriage to Jesus in the new heaven and new earth (as if there could be a worst day). The best sex in this life will seem boring compared to the intimacy that will be enjoyed daily between Jesus and his people.
And there’s more: our deepest aches, longings, and loneliness will be satisfied once Jesus sweeps up his bride into his everlasting arms.
In the meantime, will Jesus be enough for us here and now? Like an engaged couple saving themselves for the wedding night, eagerly anticipating when they will fall naked and unashamed into each other’s arms, will we be able to wait for Jesus to fully and ultimately meet our deepest needs and desires?
May these words from Paige Brown, written years before she got married, be an encouragement to us:
Every problem is a theological problem, and the habitual discontent of us singles is no exception. . . . I long to be married. My younger sister got married two months ago. . . . Is God being any less good to me than he is to her? The answer is a resounding NO. God will not be less good to me because God cannot be less good to me. It is a cosmic impossibility for God to shortchange any of his children. . . . It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. . . . You see, we singles are chronic amnesiacs—we forget who we are, we forget whose we are. I am a single Christian. My identity is not found in my marital status but in my redemptive status. . . . I may meet someone and walk down the aisle in the next couple of years because God is so good to me. I may never have another date and die an old maid at ninety-three because God is so good to me. Not my will but his be done.
Whether homo-attracted, hetero-attracted, single, divorced, painfully married, or happily married, may we find strength, resolve, and hope as we remember that God created us ultimately for an everlasting marriage to Jesus—a marriage that can already be ours now and that will enjoy an intimacy even deeper than the marriage bed in the world to come. If the biblical vision is true, then Jesus is better than sex. His love is stronger than the strongest and deeper than the deepest of human loves.
The essay above is a chapter excerpt from Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides, by Scott Sauls. Used with permission from Tyndale House.
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