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Channeling Desire: A Theological Vision for Celibacy and Sexuality

Celibacy. No sex. At all. Talk to most people today about celibacy and you’ll probably get one of two reactions, possibly both:

  1. It’s impossible. Anyone who claims to be celibate is lying, or will be soon.
  2. It’s unhealthy. Sex is an essential part of being human that you shouldn’t just give up.

And, to support their convictions, many will appeal to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. “See,” they’ll say. “Those priests tried to give up sex and they failed because it’s just not possible.” Or they’ll argue, “Look what happens when you try to give up such an essential part of being human. It’s just not healthy.”

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Protestants seem particularly fond of such arguments, pointing at clerical celibacy as one of the more absurd aspects of Catholic dogma.

But, as Sarah Coakley points out in her article, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Church,” a real theology of desire requires much deeper reflection. Coakley argues that if we look at how people respond to both clerical celibacy and homosexuality, we’ll find several, deeply-rooted problems.

1. There is both a widespread pessimism that celibacy is even possible and a shared consensus that certain forms of sexuality should never be expressed. So, we maintain that (clerical) celibacy is impossible, and at the same time we tell “sexual deviants” that they should remain celibate.

2. There is a focus on issues surrounding homosexuality and a corresponding neglect of the problems that plague so many heterosexual relationships. So, we spend considerable time discussing gay clerics, but devote surprisingly little attention to divorced clerics.

3. There is a tendency to view celibacy and marriage as opposites: one involving no sex, and the other as much sex as possible.

Coakely uses these three to demonstrate that popular sexual thought is deeply conflicted.

She then turns to an interesting discussion of Freudian sublimation. Unlike the common notion that Freud viewed all sexual sublimation as repressive and unhealthy, she points out that Freud’s more mature thought saw sublimation as a necessary channeling of energy toward other ends. So, even Freud could be a champion of celibacy, as long as it was a healthy redirection of energy and attention toward worthy goals.

Having dispatched the supposed anti-celibacy champion, Coakley turns her attention to Gregory of Nyssa as an example of a Christian thinker who saw sexuality as something that could be channeled toward a greater purpose. Referring to Gregor’s “On Virginity,” she says:

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory’s treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise (“ascetical,” of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one’s body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory’s treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

So, she argues that “Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God…represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.” Placing the discussion in a much broader theological framework, we can see that sexual desire is not an end in itself and break free from the constraints of modern sexual discourse.

When it comes to specific ethical issues, I’m sure that Sarah Coakley and I would differ significantly. But, she has done a great job here identifying the weakness of our modern notions of sexuality. We consistently reduce it to particular forms of sexual expression/repression. Instead, we need “to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.” She is well-aware that this will not make the arguments go away, they are too complex for that, but she’s right to argue that this is a necessary step forward.

If you’d like to read further on some of the issues involved in developing a theological vision of sexuality, here are a couple of other posts on the subject:

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Flotsam and jetsam (4/28)

  • Jerry Bowry argues that the modern seminary system is broken and we are facing The Seminary Bubble. Although his criticisms focused primarily on mainline seminaries, I found this comment particularly interesting:

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark finds that the historical pattern fits the current one. Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Admittedly, Austen’s world is idealized, yet consider this: who would you prefer your daughter to bring home? 1) a young man whose sexual imagination has been formed by Jane Austen along with Homer, Virgil, The Song of Solomon, Dante, and Shakespeare or 2) a young man who has spent the last ten years of his life fantasizing about women whose images he has objectified and consumed through pornography?

In light of this reality, Warren is only capable of talking about such social relationships and the nature of social injustice as sin in terms of the abstract.  The concrete reality of unjust relationships does not become part of his discussion because his theological language is not apt to describing relationships in terms of power.  Warren’s silence on the issues of racial and economic justice is indicative of the silence of many European-American churches that choose to remain quiet while instances such as the hanging of nooses in public spaces continues to occur; thus, churches with predominantly minority members are left to shoulder the burden alone in confronting domestic terrorism.

The fact is, there never was a golden age of the church. The New Testament church was just as messed up as the 21st century church. And I take that as an encouragement rather than a rebuke from the past. The early church was full of greedy, bickering, sinful people who did not get along with each other, did not listen to their leaders and even split off from one another when disagreements became too heated. And sometimes their leaders said bad things about each other. Let’s not forget that all of Paul’s opponents were not non-believers, but followers of Jesus who happened to disagree with the apostle. Not unlike what we experience today.

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren’t gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Are we silencing half the church?

My wife is a gifted woman. She has a passion for discipleship and a desire to see God’s word taught clearly and transformatively. My oldest daughter is creative, sharp as a tack, and has a Master’s in communication. My youngest daughters are both gifted in so many areas that I can’t even keep track. I am surrounded by amazing women and girls.

Are we silencing them?

I will never forget one experience that I had while visiting a church. We had just moved back from Scotland and we were really hoping that this church would be our new home.

After one service, I already had some questions. There were no women involved in visible ministry anywhere. Greeters, ushers, worship leader, preacher, even the person who gave announcements…all men.

Now, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. There could be lots of reasons for what was going on that Sunday. I’m certainly not going to judge a church on that basis alone.

Then we talked to the pastor.

It was painful. Through the entire conversation – it lasted about five minutes – the pastor never addressed my wife. Not once. Every time he spoke, he spoke to me. She was standing right next to me, but her presence didn’t seem to matter. For whatever reason, she barely registered on his radar.

But wait, it gets worse. My wife was the one asking all the questions. During the entire conversation, I actually said very little. He would turn to her while she asked the question, and then look straight at me while answering it. Every single time. He never spoke to her.

Message received. We haven’t been back.

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe we rushed to judgment. Maybe we should have given it another chance. I don’t know. But, what we saw was enough to raise serious questions about whether this church was fully committed to supporting the giftedness of the whole people of God – not just the male half.

Are we silencing half the church?

That’s a question that we should all be concerned about. And, it’s the question that Carolyn Curtis James wants us to think through in her new book Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Vision for Women. And, even more, she wants us to recognize the whole range of issues (cultural, global, social, and economic) that often contribute to silencing half the church. According to the publisher’s description,

The Bible contains the highest possible view of women and invests women’s lives with cosmic significance regardless of their age, stage of life, social status, or culture. Carolyn Custis James unpacks three transformative themes the Bible presents to women that raise the bar for women and calls them to join their brothers in advancing God’s gracious kingdom on earth. These new images of what can be in Christ free women to embrace the life God gives them, no matter what happens. Carolyn encourages readers with a positive, kingdom approach to the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing women throughout the world today.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reflecting on some of these ideas to consider whether we really are silencing half the church. To that end, we’ll be hosting a couple of reviews on Half the Church from different perspectives. Todd Miles, Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary, will offer a review of the book from a complementarian perspective. And Brad Harper, Professor of Theology at Multnomah University, will engage the book from a more egalitarian perspective. Along the way, I’m hoping that we will all gain a better appreciation for how we can all, regardless of theological perspective, strive to encourage and support the ministries of all God’s people.

Stay tuned for more information and discussions on this subject.

Perspectives on Women in Ministry 3 (NT Wright’s Turn)

Out of Ur has posted the third installment in their series of videos offering different perspectives on women in ministry. In this video, N.T. Wright explains how he reads 1 Timothy 2 in light of other biblical texts.

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Preaching about Sex

A seasoned pastor that I know preached a sermon this weekend on a biblical vie of “sex.” And he mentioned that whenever he preaches on sex, people come up to him afterward and comment on how hard it must be to preach on sex. Somewhat bemused, he usually comments that it’s a whole lot easier and more fun that preaching on a lot of other issues that he needs to address.

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Although we live in a sex-saturated society, we still find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about sex in church. One of my greatest frustrations in my years as a youth pastor, was the number of parents who would grow outraged if I spoke too directly about issues of sex and sexuality to their children. I always wanted to say, “Look. You’re kids are already talking about sex. Wouldn’t you prefer for them to talk about it in church?” Sadly, I’m afraid that some of them would have said “no.”

Brandon Smith recently posted the following promo video for a series on sex. And it certainly presents a number of compelling reasons that we need to learn how to speak openly about sex in church. You may not think that it’s appropriate to do so from the pulpit or in mixed audiences. Fine. Where are you talking about sex with the people in your church? Because I guarantee that they’re talking about it and struggling with it in other contexts. So, why not face it head on in the one place where they can learn to understand sex h way God intended?

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If you have preached or taught about sex in your church, I’d be very curious to know how it went. Any insights or lessons learned for others?

Perspectives on Women in Ministry 2: Women Can’t Be Elders

Continuing the series on providing different perspectives on women in ministry, Out of Ur offers the second installment with a video arguing that women can’t be elders. Here’s the video. If you want to participate in the discussion, head over there and offer your thoughts.

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Perspectives on women in ministry

Like it or not, the role of women in ministry continues to be one of the most hotly debated topics in evangelical circles. And, the reason it remains a debated issue is because people have strong perspectives on both sides. So, for the next several days, Out of Ur will be posting videos on both sides of the issue.

Here’s the first video in the series from Rose Madrid-Swetman, co-pastor of a church in Seattle.

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Flotsam and jetsam (evening edition)


As I mentioned a few days ago, I had to put flotsam and jetsam on hiatus for a while so I could focus on some other projects. But, after several appreciative comments and emails, I’ve decided to try a few evening editions. I still won’t be putting these out on a daily basis, but hopefully this is better than pausing the posts altogether.

Ordinarily when we speak of “the Bible as literature” we mean the literary nature of the Bible itself.  My venture in this essay provides another angle on the concept of “the Bible as literature.”  I have explored what the biblical teaching on justification looks like when it is transmuted into works of imaginative literature–the Bible as literature, that is, as imaginative literature composed by extrabiblical authors.

  • Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article on Baylor University’s decision to open up more of its board to non-Baptists. (See also Al Mohler’s comments on the secularization of religious schools).

While a number of Baptist colleges and universities in recent years have loosened or ended ties to state Baptist conventions, the move by Baylor is notable because it is widely considered the flagship university of Southern Baptists. The move came despite opposition from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which last year voted down a similar proposal by Houston Baptist University to permit the election of a minority of non-Baptist trustees there, with church leaders arguing at the time that allowing non-Baptist trustees would dilute the university’s religious identity.

Thousands of defiant protesters in Iran‘s capital have clashed with security officials as they marched in a banned rally. One person was reported killed, with dozens injured and many more arrested.

Push-up bras, pedicures, hip-hop dance classes: These are now the social currency of the under-10 set. What happened? And how can we help our girls stay girls for longer?

Are men inherently better leaders?

Many people are going to read the title to this post and dismiss the question as absurd. Of course not. But, I often encounter people who assume that the answer to this question must be “yes” based on their conviction that God has ordained men to be leaders in the church. I’d like to address this latter group.

The question, then, is this: If you are a complementarian – i.e. if you believe that God has ordained men to particular leadership roles in the church – do you need to believe that men are inherently better leaders?

Let me make this easy….no.

The logic that seems to convince complementarians otherwise runs (loosely)  like this:

  1. Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.
  2. God ordained men to be leaders in the church.
  3. God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.
  4. Therefore, men have the requisite qualities/attributes for being leaders in the church.
  5. God wouldn’t limit these leadership roles to men unless they possessed the necessary qualities/attributes of leadership in unique ways.
  6. Therefore, men inherently possess at least some of the necessary qualities/attributes in a way or to a degree that women do not.
  7. And, therefore, men are inherently better leaders (at least in the church).

This argument, though, has a number of key problems, and several of them arise with the very first statement: “Being a leader entails having certain qualities/attributes.” Right away you’re faced with a number of challenging difficulties:

  • There is no agreed upon set of qualities/attributes necessary for being a leader. Just read the literature. Everyone who studies the question seems to have their own definition of what it means to be a leader.
  • There is no research to support the conclusion that men disproportionately manifest the qualities of being an effective leader (whatever those are). Here you realize that even if you manage to identify the qualities necessary for being a leader, you simply have no evidence for concluding that men possess these qualities any more than women do.
  • Even if you could find research to support the conclusion that men exhibit some leadership quality disproportionately more than women, you would still need to determine why that is the case. For example, let’s say that a study concluded that men are more decisive in decision-making than women. (I’m not aware of any such study, but let’s pretend.) That still would not prove your case because it’s entirely possible that the difference comes from societal expectations of how boys and girls should behave, how they should be raised, the kinds of decisions they should be involved in, etc. So, even a statistical variance would be a far cry from proving your case.
  • Descriptions of “leadership” are often driven more by culture than theology. If we change the picture and focus on the qualities that Jesus exhibited during his earthy ministry – for example, compassion, patient suffering, gratitude, humility, gentleness, nurturing, etc. – would we still be trying to argue that men exhibit these qualities disproportionately more than women? Good luck with that.

I could probably add other arguments, but these seem sufficient to establish that the first step in this argument faces some significant difficulties.

Skipping past the second assertion since I’m only focusing on people who believe this to be true, there are also significant problems with the third assertion: “God wouldn’t ordain men to be leaders unless he had given them the requisite qualities/attributes.”

Really? What would lead us to believe that this is necessarily the case? Throughout the Bible God apparently delights in calling people into positions of leadership who seem obviously unqualified for the position: Moses, David, Saul, etc. These were deeply flawed individuals who often serve as better examples of how to sin effectively than how to lead appropriately. Indeed, God’s grace is often displayed better by accomplishing his plans and purposes through the outcast, the lowly, and the ungifted. Viewed from this perspective, then, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the complementarian to assume that men may actually be less gifted in leadership than women, but that God has called them into leadership anyway and that he will graciously empower them for and support them in this calling? Why presume that people must be gifted before God calls them to a particular task? Did the donkey have the gift of speech before God called it to speak to Balaam? (Yes, I did just compare Christian men to a talking donkey.)

And, once you’ve called into question the first and third assertions, the argument really has nowhere to go. (You could also pick on the fifth assertion if you really felt the need to destroy this argument a bit more.)

Now again, none of this has anything to do with whether it is correct to believe that God has ordained men to specific leadership roles in the church. That is a completely separate issue. I just want to point out that there is no necessary connection between complementarianism and the belief that men inherently possess some quality or qualities that make them better leaders. Leadership is a function, not an attribute. The real question is not whether you have the essential/inherent qualities necessary for being a good leader, as though God depended on our capacities and abilities to accomplish his purposes. The real question is whether God in his grace has called you to be a leader in his church and how you will do so as faithfully as possible with everything that he has given you.

The latest issue of ATI looks outstanding – check it out

If you’re not following the American Theology Inquiry journal (ATI), you really should. It’s a free online journal that just seems to be getting better with each issue. The latest issue of the journal just came out and it looks great. I’ll definitely be digging into some of these as soon as I get the chance.

Here are the articles in this issue:

  • “Reassessing the Relation of Reformation and Orthodoxy: A Methodological Rejoinder”, Richard A. Mueller
  • Discovering the Sacred in Secular Art: An Aesthetic Modality that ‘Speaks of God'”,  Christopher Evan Longhurst
  • A Match Made in Munich: The Origin of Grenz’s Trinitarian Theology,” Jason S. Sexton
  • “The Best Man Is Only a Man: Reflections on Some Enchantments and Disenchantments of the Grail,” Charles M. Natoli
  • “There Is No Sex in the Church,” Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov
  • “The Parable of the Budding Fig Tree,” J. Lyle Story