Sexuality and gender identity can be highly polarising issues, with little constructive conversation to guide us forwards.[i] We’ve assembled a diverse group of Christians to contribute towards this series to have such a conversation, practising ‘triple listening’ – to the word of God, the world, and one another. In doing so, we learn to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus in our contemporary culture.
In this piece, Revd Ed Shaw, Living Out’s Ministry Director and Pastor of Emmanuel City Centre Church, imagines the topic of sexuality within the big story of God’s mission in the world.
This five-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Following Jesus in a Sexular Age, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
I’ve just finished binge-watching Netflix’s hit series Sex Education. As ever in life, I was late to the party, but quickly consumed the first three seasons on the unlikely recommendation of a vicar friend. She’d told me I needed to watch it if I wanted any real sense of where younger generations are coming from on sexuality, marriage, and gender.
Once I’d got over my middle-aged shock on the range of experiences honestly and graphically portrayed, I found myself sometimes wishing my own sex education back in the 80s and 90s had been as wide-ranging – and entertaining.
Anyone who’s followed the sexual (mis)adventures of Sex Education’s Otis, Maeve, Eric, Aimee, and co., and read Christine Woolgar’s opening article in this series will know she’s listened incredibly well to our culture. She writes:
I would summarise the current landscape, particularly as it relates to sexuality, in the following way.
First, there is what people want for themselves. They want to ‘self-actualise’, to be their full, authentic selves, and to not be harmed and not be a cause of harm.
Then there is what they want from other people. They want their desires affirmed and their account of their own experience – internal and external – to be believed.
And lastly, people are searching to understand how they can best fulfil these desires. They want affirming principles that can guide both them and others towards their respective goals. Or put another way, they’re looking for a shame-free framework of life choice and calling, and consent.
This is exactly the cultural landscape that Sex Education maps, the world its characters inhabit. Christine has provided an incredibly helpful summary of where the younger generations I pastor are coming from. I’ve heard this from others too – just never put so clearly.
To put my own spin on it: people today are seeking integrity (being true to themselves, in healthy ways), empathy (knowing they are understood and accepted), and advice (they want help in successfully and happily navigating their sex lives). Sex Education would illustrate this again and again – as would my pastoral experience and personal story (see the footnote for more on that).[ii]
What have Christians and churches often given in return? The very opposite. We have displayed hypocrisy: too many of our leaders have preached one thing and done another, not told the truth about themselves, and harmed vulnerable people in their care. We have performed judgmentalism too well – especially when it comes to sexual minority groups – just telling them what they have got wrong without bothering to understand where they are coming from. We have also managed to combine all of this with an ever-increasing silence – especially when it comes to conversations with children and young people. We are so baffled by cultural changes, so bruised by the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of the past that we’ve decided to say nothing even when younger people are crying out for our help.[iii]
My job in this article is to imagine a different response when it comes to sexuality, marriage, and gender – from within a biblical, Christ-centred worldview. I do so as a gay/same-sex attracted,[iv] celibate man who has both been on the receiving end of Christian hypocrisy, judgementalism, and silence – and been guilty of them too. Where have I gone on my own search for integrity, empathy, and advice?
Well, embarrassingly (I’m also a pastor), it’s taken me a long time to turn my attention fully to the Bible and Jesus. For too long I’ve thought of them as largely irrelevant to any contemporary discussion and experiences of sexuality, marriage, and gender – rather than the key text and figure who could most help me. Here are the two things that have especially helped change my mind and reimagine my life:
1) Re-reading the Bible
I used to see the Bible as a strange mix of a rule book (strict on sexual ethics) with some adventure stories (oddly lax on sexual ethics) thrown in – that was how I was often taught it as a child. I now primarily read scripture as an epic romance that cannot be properly appreciated without seeing the importance of sexuality, marriage, and gender to the cosmic drama of the beautiful love story it tells.
Let’s begin to get a feel for this ourselves by looking at each of the Bible’s four great acts:
God created our world good: with sexuality,[v] marriage, and gender[vi] in it. Take a moment to re-read, or just recall, Genesis 1—2 and how all three are introduced – I love how Adam’s poem in Genesis 2:23 implicitly celebrates each of them. But why did our good God give us these three precious gifts? That’s the key question we often don’t ask or answer imaginatively enough.
Yes, they’re meant to lead to marital union, the joy of sex, and children (for most), as they do for Adam and Eve. But at a far deeper and more inclusive level, they’re designed to give us all, married or not, the feelings (sexuality), illustration (marriage), and physical differences (gender) we need to both feel his passionate love for us and see where this world is heading: to a union in difference, a marriage between Jesus, the bridegroom, and God’s people, his bride. In other words, opposite-sex marriage is a picture in this creation of what the final reality will look like in the new creation. Every wedding since Adam and Eve’s in the beginning has given a foretaste of the ultimate wedding human history will end with.[vii]
The full horror of the fall, of what’s gone wrong with this world, is most powerfully felt when God uses the language of adultery: of how his people, his bride, have rejected his perfect love and provision and slept around in a desperate search for the lasting satisfaction that only he provides. I’ve most grasped the full horror of my sin or idolatry when I have seen it as spiritual adultery – when God portrays himself as the cuckolded husband to help me grasp the full pain my rejection of him brings. It is my sexuality, my capacity for sexual feelings, that he has most used to help me feel the amazing grace of his continued love for me despite my continuing sin.
How do we understand who Jesus is once we see the importance of sexuality, marriage, and gender to the Bible’s unfolding story? The one person we all most need to complete us. He became flesh, became a man, a sexual being, just like you and me, with the dual purpose of demonstrating perfection to humanity and making humanity perfect. He’s the bridegroom searching for his bride, wooing her, lovingly laying down his life to save her from the greatest danger she is in, we are in.
We are on the receiving end of the greatest act of self-sacrificial love ever shown in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the God-Man Jesus, the lover of our souls. Our lives are now to be driven by life-giving love for others, as his is driven by life-giving love for us.
One day soon God’s people will get married to God’s Son forever. The end of the Bible portrays the consummation of all things as their wedding – the union in difference of bridegroom and bride, heaven and earth. No sexual union, no marriage, in the here and now will be as permanent, faithful, stable, blissful as the ultimate thing. Which means that those of us who don’t get married, don’t have sex, in the present age are not missing out on the genuine article, and those who are enjoying them now are just getting a tiny foretaste. The Bible is the only romance that can and will accurately end with the phrase ‘and they all lived happily ever after’.
2) The Bible as the epic romance
Re-reading the Bible as the epic romance has helped me re-imagine my life.[viii] My sexuality is no longer a curse, my single state a tragedy, my gender a misfortune. Instead, I have seen the use for, even the good in my sexual feelings, my marital status, and my gender identity: all help me know and feel the power of the gospel story. All help me know I am loved, understood, and accepted rather than alone, misunderstood, and rejected. Reading the Bible as a rule book did not do that; re-reading it as a love story has.
But how does it help the likes of Sex Education’s Otis, Maeve, Eric, and Aimee? How does this connect with the current cultural landscape Christine Woolgar so helpfully describes in her opening article to this series? I think re-reading the Bible in this way helps Christians make sense of traditional ethics when it comes to sexuality, marriage, and gender – stops them feeling like random rules and instead part of a story that both explains them and makes them feel worth it. But how do they connect with the contemporary non-Christian’s desire for integrity, empathy, and advice? Here’s how re-reading John’s gospel has helped me address these questions:
Re-reading John’s Gospel
John’s Gospel is different – right from its famous opening lines it contrasts with the three other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. John is doing something different, deeper: there is more symbolism and allusion in what he writes, and huge significance to the order he follows and the things he includes and excludes.
Re-reading John’s Gospel with the help of New Testament scholar Andy Angel has helped me see how John’s portrayal of Jesus is incredibly relevant to any discussion of sexuality, marriage, and gender. In his Intimate Jesus: The Sexuality of God Incarnate, Angel has opened my eyes to how John is deliberately showing that Jesus has a sexuality, is the bridegroom seeking his bride, and is the one perfect man.[ix] As a result, as current generations go searching for integrity, empathy, and advice on sexuality, marriage, and gender, the best thing we can do is point them to the Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel.
Let me try and demonstrate this…
Christine rightly says of our prevailing culture:
[People] want to ‘self-actualise’, to be their full, authentic selves, and to not be harmed and not be a cause of harm.
They want integrity: to be true to themselves, and to do good to others. This is demonstrated by the characters in Sex Education: they want to discover who they really are; they are most saddened when damaged by others, or when they become aware of the damage they have done to others as they try and work out who they are.
I want to introduce them to the Jesus we meet in John 4, meeting the woman at the well.[x] Because here is someone with complete integrity, who knows who he is, who has been portrayed by John as a man, a sexual being, but who does no harm, only good, to a woman who seems to have been harmed by plenty of men in the past.
The biblical context is a romantic one: in the Old Testament, wells are where future wives are met, and John has been setting Jesus up as the bridegroom in his narrative so far (it’s how John the Baptist describes him in 3:29, drawing on Old Testament imagery). The social context of their meeting is a sexually ambiguous one: they are alone, she is a woman with a sexual history, he is a man who is disobeying cultural norms in spending any time with a woman. But in breaking the first century equivalent of the ‘Billy Graham Rule’,[xi] Jesus does not damage himself, or her, in any way. Instead, he sacrifices himself, potentially destroying his reputation, to talk to her and help her. Throughout that conversation he takes her ‘agency’ seriously: that word which Christine helpfully returns to again and again. Jesus answers her profound questions, and gives her a choice to make.
For anyone looking for true sexual integrity, Jesus is the only human being to point to. He lived his ‘full, authentic’ self and never harmed anyone in the process. We have no-one else like him. Scholar Ephraim Radner writes this about the rest of us: ‘…the fact of original sin tells us that we do not really have any clear standpoint of experiential purity from which to figure the topic of sexuality out.’[xii] The #MeToo movement has demonstrated this again and again. Only Jesus offers us the integrity we seek.
Christine correctly points out how people today:
…want their desires affirmed and their account of their own experience – internal and external – to be believed.
They want empathy: people who see them, listen to them, and respond with attention and care, who get and affirm their desires and needs. Amid all their sexual confusion, this is what each of the characters in Sex Education are looking for and most respond to: someone who is willing to meet with them, who ‘gets’ them and responds with grace.
The Jesus we meet in John 4 is such a person. He reaches out to a Samaritan woman, initiating a conversation with her, giving her his time and attention. He instinctively seems to understand what she is looking for: something, someone who will satisfy her completely and permanently. He patiently deals with her spiritual confusion and speaks into her deepest longings and desires. He knows her history but does not condemn her – just points her in the direction of what she’s been looking for all her life: himself. When she misunderstands something, he speaks the truth to her – but in love. Her ‘gets’ her and because he gets her, she gets him. A man has treated her as a person, perhaps for the very first time in her life.
For anyone looking for empathy as they seek to satisfy their deepest desires, as they live with sexual histories that demonstrate their failure to find that satisfaction again and again, Jesus is the one person to turn to. He knows how thirsty we are, he’s seen how we have attempted to quench our thirst in vain, and he gently offers us the only relationship that will fully satisfy us – but doesn’t force himself on us (affirming our agency again). There’s not a hint of judgementalism with him, he provides us all with genuine empathy, and yet he still speaks his truth with love into our messy lives, giving us the help we all need.
Christine perceptively notes how:
…lastly, people are searching to understand how they can best fulfil these desires. They want affirming principles that can guide both them and others towards their respective goals. Or put another way, they’re looking for a shame-free framework of life choice and calling, and consent.
Put most simply, people today are desperately on the look-out for good, life-giving advice on sexuality, marriage, and gender. This pressing need is central to the plot of Sex Education: its main character, Otis, sets himself up as a sex therapist to his fellow school pupils – trading on the advice he can pick up at home (his mother is a professional sex therapist) and elsewhere. Shame-free approaches to sexuality, relationships, and gender are consistently what every character is looking for most – although shame is sadly inescapable for each of them as they fail to avoid harming themselves and others.
Again, I want to point out how the Jesus of John 4 is on hand to provide us all with the best advice available. He knows we were created to worship someone and that until we find him our worship of other people, in other places, will not work for us, fulfill us in any lasting way. And so, his simple advice is to put worship of our Creator God at the centre of our lives, in the ways he, our loving Father, has asked us to worship him. We don’t need to make up ways of worshipping him – we just need to follow his Spirit, guiding us from within, and his truth, his word spoken to us in history. We are encouraged to choose to take his advice (we have agency again) because he is the chosen one, the Messiah, who our Creator has sent to guide us back to true worship of him.
If anyone is on a search for the best of advice when it comes to their sexuality, relationships, and gender, Jesus is the adviser to turn to. He knows what we desire because, as our divine creator, he gave us our desires and, as a fellow human being, he shared and expressed them perfectly. His life and teaching make clear that the only truly satisfying goal in life is to join the community at the centre of the universe – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Throughout John’s Gospel, this communal life together is advertised as open to all who believe in Jesus. In John 4 Jesus names himself as the entry point into lasting fellowship with God. And the Samaritan woman’s response to him is one that is now shame-free – no longer isolating herself from her community by going to the well in the midday sun, she rushes back to her neighbourhood to encourage others to meet the person who has brought life-giving clarity to her life.
Jesus as the one good sexual being
Re-reading John’s Gospel as a portrayal of Jesus as the perfect man, the long-promised bridegroom that God’s people are longing for, has again been life-changing for me. My sexuality is something the Jesus understands because he was sexual also. He too was single in a context where most got married. He had to contend with damaging societal expectations of how he should behave because of his gender. He knows what it’s like to be me or you. But, crucially, he has the advantage of that knowledge without having made any of the mistakes we have – which is the ideal combination when you need real help from someone.
But have you ever heard Jesus talked about in this sort of way? As the person it’s best to turn to for sex education? Imagine churches where this was said and done. That built up a reputation for being the best place to turn when people are looking for help with their sexualities, marriage, and gender. That is the dream – but one that will only be realised if we re-read our Bibles, and re-read John’s Gospel in particular, with our eyes opened to how they are, in many ways, all about sexuality, marriage, and gender. We have, in them, in Jesus, all the help we most need.
Living Out’s Ministry Director and author of Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction
[i] The portmanteau ‘sexular’ was first coined by Australian theologian and cultural commentator, Stephen McAlpine: ‘A Sexular Age’ (July 11, 2015). Riffing off Charles Taylor’s celebrated work, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), McAlpine uses ‘sexular’ to refer to the dominant cultural story/feeling that who we are sexually (our gender, identity, orientation, and expression/practice) is the bedrock of our reality and who we are in essence. The dominant culture of our day holds that this idea is universally given and thus unchallengeable. (Source: personal correspondence with McAlpine, 1 November 2021.)
[ii] More of my back story can be found online here, or in my book, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction (Nottingham: IVP, 2015).
[iii] Rachel Gardner’s The Sex Thing: Reimagining Conversations with Young People about Sex (London: SPCK, 2021) highlights this increasing problem.
[vi] Many see gender as a purely human construct and certainly many of the perceived differences between men and women are culturally determined (as evidenced by how they change as you travel back in human history or across our planet today). But I believe that Genesis 1:27 (‘male and female he created them’) helps us understand that what has become known as gender was a divine construct from the beginning. God created men and women with different bodies and reproductive organs, with both biological and theological implications.
[viii] For more on this see my book, Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction (Nottingham: IVP, 2021).
[ix] See Angel’s book for his careful working on these. I don’t agree with everything he writes but have been massively helped by his refeshing reading of John in the wider context of chapters 1—3, and their Old Testament background. My friend Andrew Sach is thinking in similar, if not exactly the same, ways, as seen in his sermon at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate on John 4:1–26 here.
[xi] The American evangelist (1918–2018) famously avoided being alone with any woman apart from his wife.
[xii] Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 44.