Following Jesus in a sexular age | Listening (1/5)
‘If our culture cannot form people who can speak with both conviction and empathy across deep differences, then it becomes even more important for the church ...
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, Dave Benson, LICC’s director of culture and discipleship, explores how to communicate the gospel as a better story for good and loving human sexuality.
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.
It was the question I’d expected over months as our friendship grew. I’d even prayed it wouldn’t come up, so we could carry on as usual as they gradually got to know both us and the Lord we serve. But there it was:
‘So, you know that Jane and I are now engaged. We’re wondering if you and Nikki will come and celebrate with us at the wedding ceremony?’[ii]
Such a joyful question in many ways – but it carried a sting. Just a week earlier these delightful neighbours had vented over drinks that some of their especially ‘religious’ family members had rejected their invitation. Apparently God wouldn’t approve, so they wouldn’t go.
What, then, to say? And how to make sense of Christians responding so differently, amidst a culture war that threatened Sarah and Jane’s joy at this maturation of their love?
I’m guessing this isn’t a hypothetical question for you, either. As Christine explored in Part 1 of this series, the 2004 recognition of civil partnerships developed over a decade into same-sex marriage equality in the UK. Chances are you have friends and colleagues who identify and practise their sexuality differently than your church crew.
The LGBTQIA+ community are not seeking someone’s approval. Rather, as autonomous people with a painful history of being pushed down and kept in the closet, they’re demanding respect.[iii] Sarah is proud of who she is as a thirty-something lesbian woman, and wants us to celebrate her desires, her choice, and even her sense of calling, with her.
In this final two-section piece in our series, having listened to and respected our neighbours’ agency, imagined a better story of God’s mission as an epic romance that brings genuine freedom, and created a better and honest conversation where there’s room for Sarah and Jane around our living room table over late-night drinks, it’s time to explore how to communicate the gospel as genuinely good news to my neighbours.[iv] Prompted by this potentially awkward question, how might I point them to Jesus, without putting my foot in it?
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all apologetic. No clever messaging can equally engage a teen dealing with gender dysphoria, a bisexual twenty-something trying out polyamorous relationships, and a thirty-something heading to the altar with her wife-to-be. Just as Christ took on flesh in a particular time and place, being a wise peacemaker in this cultural moment means finding the right ways to express the gospel, so that it makes sense to the person with whom you’re speaking. This first section sets the scene for our chat.
Also, there’s no generic ‘Christian’ position. While I’m hoping to offer an orthodox response, I can only ‘give the reason for the hope that I have’ (1 Peter 3:15). While I’m building on what Christine, Ed, and Steve have shared, this can only ever be my particular response within the web of relationships where God has called me. If you’re convinced that God’s revelation in the Bible allows for same-sex marriage as a monogamous and life-long union, then you’ll take some different lines than I do in what follows.[v]
One final caveat before jumping in. Questions and conversations that bring us up against potential disagreements rarely come when expected. They always catch you off guard. Which is why 1 Peter 3:15 begins by telling us to revere Christ as Lord, and ‘always be prepared’. So, what follows obviously isn’t word-for-word what I would say in a live conversation. But it is my prayerful preparation in the presence of Christ. The footnotes suggest places to go so you and I can plan even better for the ad lib, when we have a couple of minutes to offer a timely thought, ask a question, and then see where the Spirit leads. Practising ‘scales’ now sets you up for some jazzy and faithful improv when the moment arrives.
We begin, then, by looping back to listen to Sarah and Jane’s particular story, what this wedding question means to Sarah, and the longings underpinning the question she asked.
Let’s paint a fuller picture of Sarah, emerging from many conversations over time as I’ve prayerfully sought to hear her heart and let it shape my response in this moment. I’m paying particular attention to six ‘H’s, in bold below, which tap into the gospel themes that emerge from our chats.[vi]
Sarah feels most happy – switched on and alive – when she truly knows others and is known. ‘Love is love’, and getting married to Jane feels like the next exciting step of their serious commitment. She’s also pretty social, enjoys a good laugh, and sparks up when telling stories from when she was part of the women’s rugby team at university, before injury ended her playing days. The camaraderie and goal-oriented team-work in a physical contest was a natural high.
Sarah carries some serious hurts – disappointments, scars, and pain – over her dad leaving when she was young. A sense of insecurity was exacerbated when a predatory uncle showed her pornography as a kid, trying (and thankfully failing) to groom her for sex.[vii] Also, Sarah is sensitive to rejection, which started when her tomboy image was teased by schoolmates, and escalated when she came out as a late teen. Her nominally Catholic family first joked and name-called, then mocked, before finally accepting her, albeit with reservations about her current relationship.
When needing guidance, Sarah looks for someone wise to hear – and that’s Jane. Jane is a criminal prosecutor with a penchant for justice, and ten years’ more living under her belt. Her straight talk helps Sarah get her bearings when she’s confused, and her confident demeanour infuses courage to be authentic without shame.
As for support, Sarah turns to her mum for help – despite their earlier fall-out over her sexuality, they’re now as close as ever, and Sarah knows the sacrifice she made as a single-parent to raise her with love despite their relative poverty. Sarah visits her every week and helps out practically, because her mum has a degenerative disability. She fears the day when multiple sclerosis will finally take her life. Loneliness looms large.
All of this motivates Sarah in her work to bring healing to vulnerable children. She’s a dedicated social worker in family services, seeking to protect kids against abuse, and help those who discover they’re queer to come out well and avoid some of her pain.
Sarah also carries big hopes – her picture of the good life is to marry Jane and build a loving home together where they can adopt or have their own child through IVF, being part of a community that accepts them as they are. While not religious, Sarah wasn’t antagonistic when she discovered I worked for a Christian charity, and was even open to prayer when going through a tough season at work. She occasionally speaks of her ‘destiny’ as guided by a cosmic force of sorts, trusting all will eventually work out well if it’s meant to be.
Of course, no person can be summed up by six themes – happy, hurt, hear, help, heal, hope. And yet, listening well with God’s heart for my friend helps me see her as the beloved creation she is – and opens up paths to sensitively share the hope of Christ within me. I want to tell the good news in a way that makes sense and might be received as a gift that speaks right to Sarah’s heart.
How, then, might I respond? The next section outlines the particulars of what I might say. But first we need to consider the overarching approach we will take and why.
Ed’s piece was so helpful on this point. His re-reading of John’s Gospel centred on one particular story demonstrating why Jesus is good news to so many in the LGBT+ community. Our Saviour meets us like the woman at the well with sexual integrity, respectful empathy, and wise advice for a flourishing life. He can do so as the ‘one good sexual being’ who knows us, and can be known by us, if we respond to his loving advance.
So, I’m definitely seeking the Lord as to what stories from Jesus’ life might connect with Sarah, where a simple telling may connect with her childhood Catholic catechesis and open the way for sharing a fuller gospel of God’s loving reign.[viii]
I’ll centre my response on questions of identity and the ‘image of God’.[ix] It’s told from my heart, bound to the Bible’s epic story of divine romance. My main purpose is to offer a bigger gospel within which our smaller sexual stories might make sense. It’s a frame-embracing-frame of how we were each designed for good, and yet have been damaged by evil. Thankfully God enters into our experience through Jesus and restores us for better, sending together those who align with his way to help heal the world as a foretaste of when God sets everything right.[x]
By listening in to my prayerful preparation, seeing how I connect Sarah’s story into the gospel, perhaps you’ll find inspiration for how you might respond to people on your frontline when they ask you a question to which the best answer is Jesus himself. At this point, I’ll write directly to Sarah. Eavesdrop away, and I would cherish your prayers for her and our future interaction when we find a time and place for a healing conversation, as Steve Elmes encouraged in Part 3.
The Big Story. Artwork by Deb Mostert (2011). Adapted from the 4-circle diagram found in True Story by James Choung. Copyright (c) 2008 by James Choung. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, USA. ivpress.com. The 5th circle, ‘Set everything right!’ has been added to the original 4 circles.
‘Sarah, I’m so honoured to be invited to your wedding. And I appreciate your courage in asking, as you know I’m a Christian, and some of your religious family members were pretty brutal in the way they said no.
‘We’ve only known each other a year, but hopefully you and Jane know that we love hanging out, and really enjoy your company. Actually, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from how thoughtful you are with each other, helping make me a better husband
‘You’ve picked up that there’s a bit of tension for us in this, so I’m glad we’ve found the time to sit and chat and explain more of where we’re coming from – and why you’re getting such different responses from people who all claim to follow the same faith. To not keep you hanging, though, and if you’ll still have us attend after this conversation, we’d love to come. Seems to me Jesus was a fan of wedding parties, and you are special friends to us, so count us in![xi]
‘Okay, so where to begin? Well, we see life as a kind of epic story in five acts, helping us know who we are and how to live in a way that’s good news for all people and the planet we share. Marriage is part of this story, which we learn about from two books: the Bible, revealing God’s take on the world he loves; and the “book” of nature, telling us about the kind of world he made and into which we’re placed.
‘So, let’s start there – with what it means to be human, and why God gave us life…’
Well, no spoilers for what’s to come! Read on to the second section if you’re after insight that might help you share with someone you love in the LGBTQ+ community. Because it’s truly good news, offering abundant life whatever your sexual identity, orientation, and practise.
[i] The portmanteau ‘sexular’ was first coined by Australian theologian and cultural commentator, Stephen McAlpine: ‘A Sexular Age’ (11 July 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/practise) 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: the editor’s personal correspondence with McAlpine, 1 November 2021.)
[ii] To protect those in this story, and preserve our relationship, I’ve changed their names and fused a few people’s lives into this one account. Even so, all the details are true to life, and the questions are ones I’ve grappled with in real time. Note, also, that by modelling how to engage an everyday story, in all its particulars, I’ve largely addressed a single issue: same-sex marriage. However, I’ve tried to show how this intersects with identity issues that speak to the broader concerns raised by those in the LGBTIQA+ community.
[iii] This demand for respect on equal footing with everyone else, with resentment resulting when it’s not given, is the heart of what’s come to be known as ‘identity politics’. See Francis Fukuyama, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (London: Profile Books, 2018).
[iv] For a generic template to work through this process on any issue, see bit.ly/WisePeacemaker. And for a detailed process of theological reflection tailored to questions of sexuality, see bit.ly/LICC_SexTalk.
[v] See, for instance, David P. Gushee, Changing Our Minds: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics (Canton, MI: Read The Spirit Books, 2017).
[vi] This section applies Step 2 ‘Hear People’s Hearts’ from the Wise Peacemakers series here, where each of the six key areas of people’s lives align with the big story of God’s mission and a way of contextualising the gospel.
[vii] I’m not suggesting that abuse was causal for Sarah coming out as a lesbian, but it is part of her story.
[viii] For one of the most helpful attempts to map both the dominant cultural story, and the gospel story as arguably more true, good, and beautiful, see Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (London: IVP, 2017), 50–51, 180–182. For Glynn’s summary of his book in public talks, see Part 1 here on ‘Understanding and Critiquing the Modern Ideas of Self and Identity,’ and Part 2 here on ‘Re-Imagining a Biblical Culture of Sex and Human Relationships.’ And for a related telling of how ‘a biblical vision for human sexuality is good for individuals, the church, and society as a whole’, see the Church of England Evangelical Council’s [CEEC] video, ‘The Beautiful Story’.
[ix] For a related talk I delivered for the Association of Christian Teachers to make sense of issues of identity in education today, see here. For a helpful theological framing of identity, see Michael Allen, ‘Sources of the Self: The Distinct Makings of the Christian Identity,’ in Reformed Faith and Practice 5, no 1 (May 2020), 19–36
[x] For the broad contours of this epic story, see ‘Wise Peacemakers: Communicating on Your Frontline – Part 5 of 5’. And for examples of this narrative in practice, see my blog pieces on Wonderingfair.com, especially ‘What’s So Good About the Gospel’, and ‘The Epic Story’ Parts I and II. For further resources on the Epic Story, see here.
[xi]My response here is just that – my response. I think there are also faithful reasons, following the Lord’s lead, to not attend, as I’ll touch on in the next section. We must each seek what the Spirit would have us do in every particular instance, and what is wise may change depending on the context. We have the twin-call to radically identify with a fallen world (being a friend of sinners as Jesus modelled, beginning with the incarnation) and simultaneously be radically different in seeking first the kingdom (remaining salty and light in a bland and dark world). What isn’t faithful, however, is to isolate ourselves from the lives of people on our frontline, keeping distance to preserve our faux-holiness whilst neglecting to love the world Christ came to save.