Thoughts on Human Sexuality

Thoughts on Human Sexuality

The Church of the Nazarene recently passed a resolution to rewrite the Covenant of Christian Conduct section under Human Sexuality. The vote was 97 percent affirmative on the resolution.

Purchase your copy of the ebook here.

Several friends have asked for a copy of the resolution, so I have placed it below, in its entirety. It was my privilege to work on this for three years with a group of international scholars, psychologists, pastors, and theologians. As we were doing this work, I was simultaneously working on curriculum for the church. It is now available in ebook format as Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians. The first hard copy volume by the same title is out of print. The second volume has several new chapters and has been re-edited to be more current. The book has discussion questions at the conclusion of each chapter for group conversation.  

Human Sexuality and Marriage

The Church of the Nazarene views human sexuality as one expression of the holiness and beauty that God the Creator intended. Because all humans are beings created in the image of God, they are of inestimable value and worth. As a result we believe that human sexuality is intended by God to include more than the sensual experience, and is a gift of God designed to reflect the whole of our physical and relational createdness.

As a holiness people, the Church of the Nazarene affirms that the human body matters to God. Christians are both called and enabled by the transforming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to glorify God with our bodies. Our senses, our sexual appetites, our ability to experience pleasure, and our desire for connection to another are shaped out of the very character of God. Our bodies are good, very good.

We affirm belief in a God whose creation is an act of love. Having experienced God as holy love, we understand the Trinity to be a unity of love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are made with a yearning for connection with others at the core of our being. That yearning is ultimately fulfilled as we live in covenanted relationship with God, the creation, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Our creation as social beings is both good and beautiful. We reflect the image of God in our capacity to relate and our desire to do so. The people of God are formed as one in Christ, a rich community of love and grace.

Within this community, believers are called to live as faithful members of the body of Christ. Singleness among the people of God is to be valued and sustained by the rich fellowship of the church and the communion of the saints. To live as a single person is to engage, as Jesus did, in the intimacy of community, surrounded by friends, welcoming and being welcomed to tables, and expressing faithful witness.

Also within this community, we affirm that some believers are called to be married. As defined in Genesis, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The marriage covenant, a reflection of the covenant between God and the people of God, is one of exclusive sexual fidelity, unselfish service, and social witness. A woman and a man publicly devote themselves to one another as a witness to the way God loves. Marital intimacy is intended to reflect the union of Christ and the Church, a mystery of grace. It is also God’s intention that in this sacramental union the man and woman may experience the joy and pleasure of sexual intimacy and from this act of intimate love new life may enter the world and into a covenantal community of care. The Christ-centered family ought to serve as a primary location for spiritual formation. The church is to take great care in the formation of marriage through pre-marital counseling and teaching that denotes the sacredness of marriage.

The Scriptural story, however, also includes the sad chapter of the fracturing of human desire in the fall, resulting in behaviors that elevate self-sovereignty, damage and objectify the other, and darken the path of human desire. As fallen beings, we have experienced this evil on every level—personal and corporate. The principalities and powers of a fallen world have saturated us with lies about our sexuality. Our desires have been twisted by sin, and we are turned inward on ourselves. We have also contributed to the fracturing of the creation by our willful choice to violate the love of God and live on our own terms apart from God.

Our brokenness in the areas of sexuality takes many forms, some due to our own choosing and some brought into our lives via a broken world. However, God’s grace is sufficient in our weaknesses, enough to bring conviction, transformation, and sanctification in our lives. Therefore, in order to resist adding to the brokenness of sin and to be able to witness to the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes for our bodies, we believe members of the body of Christ, enabled by the Spirit, can and should refrain from:

  • Unmarried sexual intercourse and other forms of inappropriate sexual bonding. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe that these practices often lead to the objectification of the other in a relationship. In all its forms, it also potentially harms our ability to enter into the beauty and holiness of Christian marriage with our whole selves.
  • Sexual activity between people of the same sex. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy falls short of God’s will for human sexuality. While a person’s homosexual or bi-sexual attraction may have complex and differing origins, and the implication of this call to sexual purity is costly, we believe the grace of God is sufficient for such a calling. We recognize the shared responsibility of the body of Christ to be a welcoming, forgiving, and loving community where hospitality, encouragement, transformation and accountability are available to all.
  • Extra-marital sexual relations. Because we believe this behavior is a violation of the vows that we made before God and within the body of Christ, adultery is a selfish act, a family-destroying choice, and an offense to the God who has loved us purely and devotedly.
  • Divorce.  Because marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment, the fracturing of the covenant of marriage, whether initiated personally, or by the choice of a spouse, falls short of God’s best intentions. The church must take care in preserving the marriage bond where wise and possible, and offering counsel and grace to those wounded by divorce.
  • Practices such as polygamy or polyandry. Because we believe that the covenantal faithfulness of God is reflected in the monogamous commitment of husband and wife, these practices take away from the unique and exclusive fidelity intended in marriage.

Sexual sin and brokenness are not only personal, but rather pervades the systems and structures of the world. Therefore, as the church bears witness to the reality of the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes we also believe the church should refrain from and advocate against:

  • Pornography in all its forms, which is desire gone awry. It is the objectification of people for selfish sexual gratification. This habit destroys our capacity to love unselfishly.
  • Sexual violence in any form, including rape, sexual assault, sexual bullying, hateful speech, marital abuse, incest, sex trafficking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, bestiality, sexual harassment, and the abuse of minors and other vulnerable populations. All people and systems that perpetrate sexual violence transgress the command to love and to protect our neighbor.  The body of Christ should always be a place of justice, protection, and healing for those who are, who have been, and who continue to be affected by sexual violence.

Therefore we affirm that:

  • Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. Although the effects of sin are universal and holistic, the efficacy of grace is also universal and holistic. In Christ, through the Holy Spirit, we are renewed in the image of God. The old is gone and the new comes. Although the forming of our lives as a new creation may be a gradual process, God’s healing is effective in dealing with the brokenness of humanity in the areas of sexuality.
  • The human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We affirm the need for our sexuality to be conformed to God’s will. Our bodies are not our own but have been bought with a price. Therefore, we are called to glorify God in our bodies through a life of yielded obedience.
  • The people of God are marked by holy love. We affirm that, above all the virtues, the people of God are to clothe themselves with love. The people of God have always welcomed broken people into our gathering. Such Christian hospitality is neither an excusing of individual disobedience nor a refusal to participate redemptively in discerning the roots of brokenness. Restoring humans to the likeness of Jesus requires confession, forgiveness, formative practices, sanctification, and godly counsel—but most of all, it includes the welcome of love which invites the broken person into the circle of grace known as the church. If we fail to honestly confront sin and brokenness, we have not loved. If we fail to love, we cannot participate in God’s healing of brokenness.

As the global church receives and ministers to the people of our world, the faithful outworking of these statements as congregations is complex and must be navigated with care, humility, courage, and discernment.

Reframing the Alcohol Question in the Church of the Nazarene

Reframing the Alcohol Question in the Church of the Nazarene

 

Every denomination has its hot buttons. Alcohol is one of ours.

When the issue of social drinking comes up, we line up to tell our stories of abuse, destruction, and slippery slopes. And these stories are true. As a result of this passion, we are unable to carry the conversation forward on a meaningful level. I watched, again, as our General Assembly sought to address the issue. My friend, Rick Powers, simply requested that we spend 15 minutes talking about the issue that had been referred. We got no traction on his request. So I would suggest a simple reframing of the question in this way. Rather than asking, “Can Nazarenes drink socially?” what if we change the question to this: “Is our call to abstinence a matter of membership, discipleship, or both?”

I’ll start with where we might gain consensus (and by consensus I mean a majority opinion of General Assembly delegates, not a popular vote of all social media Nazarenes). We might agree on the following points:

  1. From our beginning, the Church of the Nazarene has expressed concern for the abuse of alcohol. We believe it is part of our historic calling to stand with those who suffer its abusive consequences while also opposing a culture that glorifies its use to the detriment of many.
  2. We have chosen abstinence as the means by which we will stand in solidarity with those who suffer, and as our means of bearing witness to the world that our love for the neighbor expresses itself in such a witness. There are also other ways to express the same concern.
  3. We do not believe that God has called every denomination and movement to the same expression of abstinence. While the issue of alcohol may be rooted in our historic origin, other movements were formed around different issues – peace/reconciliation for the Mennonites, helping the poor for the Salvation Army, biblical inerrancy for the Baptists. When these movements discuss these issues, the same passion we see around alcohol emerges among them. So, as we stand among the wider people of  God, it might do us well to admit that this is unique to us and our history. Therefore, we will not make this an issue that is central to Christian faith.
  4. I believe that we should confess a period of legalism in our movement which caused us to view abstinence as a personal badge of holiness. We did it for our own righteousness rather than in love for the neighbor. It became proof of personal holiness rather than a practice of social justice.  If we intend to be honest about the Bible, the only position for abstinence to be made is rooted in love for the neighbor. And a very good case can be made for this.

While many will wish to disagree on some or all of these points, I believe this where consensus might begin.  If so, might we tame our passion a bit and tackle this question: “Is our call to abstinence a matter of membership, discipleship, or both?” I’ll take a shot at each option.

  1. It is a matter of membership. The covenant of church membership is a vow of solidarity with the church. Preparation for membership should include a thorough introduction to what we believe and practice. Those who join should follow the practices of the Covenant of Christian Conduct. Our ethic is based on the concept of the collective Christian conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, which is expressed by a General Assembly of the denomination. Our call to abstinence is found there. We also state that “those who violate the conscience of the church do so at their own peril and to the hurt of the witness of the church.”  This seems to suggest that we recognize the reality that not all members adhere to the corporate conscience of the church and thus, harm our social witness.

So what do we do with this? Is abstinence from alcohol the leading litmus test for membership? Or possibly the lone remaining litmus test? The same Covenant of Christian Conduct also calls for tithing, justice for the poor, education via our Nazarene schools, discernment in movies and dancing, and a lot of other things. Shall we place the same membership emphasis on tithing, engaging social justice for the poor, sending our youth to Nazarene colleges, and not going to raunchy movies or making suggestive dance moves? It strikes me that you can be a member of the church and not tithe, attend, serve, or profess the experience of sanctification.

The conversation we should be having revolves around the difference between calling persons to embrace ethical convictions and making these same convictions essential to membership. Could it be that there are many who wish to join us in our mission to make Christ-like disciples, but who respectfully do not embrace every ethical position that we hold. The millennials, for all their interesting ways, are giving us a gift by calling us to honesty around this issue. In the words of a wise young pastor, “This isn’t about the young person who wants to social drink, but the lifetime 50-year-old members who already do.” They are asking for honesty. Our current practice resembles looking the other way, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Had I chosen to evict the members who were social drinkers from the Nazarene congregations I pastored, I would have decimated the church. Some of the most Christ-like persons I have pastored fit the category. But I would also say that, over time, many of them eventually came to the practice of abstinence as I carefully preached the call and as they observed the ministry of the church to those abused by alcohol. We were able to call people to abstinence without shaming or evicting those members who respectfully disagreed. Which leads me to the second option.

  1. It is a matter of discipleship. I understand the concern of those who believe that removing this as a membership requirement softens our position. I would suggest that a membership requirement ignored by many causes us to play games of avoidance. We become silent, or we wink at known behavior, or we shame people, or we just look the other way. I view membership as invitation to join us in the mission to make Christ-like disciples.  I prefer the requirement that one be baptized to join the church thus affirming that one already belongs to the body of Christ. And in the body of Christ, we believe that God has the right to tell us what to do with our time, money, and bodies. I also believe that a brief statement of doctrinal affirmations is a requirement. If a person understands God in an essentially different way than we do, there are other families they can and should join. Membership is an early association decision. Discipleship is the life-long work we do to call and empower people to live in likeness to Jesus. I prefer to think of the call to abstinence as a matter of discipleship rather than a check-the-box for membership.
  2. It is both a matter of discipleship and membership. This is where many would land. But if we do, we need to rethink membership. It would need to become a long-term, delayed, highly catechism-ed act. We would create a process by which one does not join the church until they are a consistent tither, a servant among the poor, a tee-totaller, a graduate of one of our Nazarene colleges (yes, I’m kidding… but just a little), wholly sanctified, clean movie list, and innocent on the dance floor. Forgive my attempt at over-statement here, but I think membership is either an entry point followed by careful discipleship, or it is an achievement recognized by those who are the walking brand of everything we believe (which begins to sound a little like our earlier legalism).

I am encouraged by the way our church dealt with human sexuality. It was a privilege to help craft that work and to offer curriculum to the church for calling people to a sexual ethic and practice. I hope we can rewrite our whole Covenant of Christian Conduct as a cohesive call to the life of holiness as we understand it. It would serve as an understanding of our specific, historic, and present call, not a litmus test for all believers. And I pray that our welcome to membership could be the beginning of participation in a family with lots of holy practices.

During the General Assembly deliberations, I tweeted the line, “The church is both clunky and wise.” I believe this. We are deliberately slow because global conversations are not easy, because generations matter, and because we always fight our own ghosts. But hope is among us in the person of Jesus. If we keep pursuing his likeness, we will find ourselves in a good place. In the words of a retiring General Superintendent, “The church is a mess, but I love her.”

And I would add, “Jesus is a stretch, but I desire to be made like him.”