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.
In the previous piece, I introduced the need to ‘get personal’ when we communicate the gospel. It’s not just good news in general. It must be contextualised to fit the other person’s life. So, enter Sarah.[ii] She’s my neighbour, with a moving back-story worth reading if you haven’t already, before getting into the details of how I might tell a better story of sexual identity and practise.
As Sarah and her partner, Jane, approach the altar, they’re asking with some apprehension whether my wife, Nikki, and I, might celebrate their marriage with them. What, then, to say?
We pick up the conversation with the first of five acts that together share the biblical narrative, centred on Jesus. Rather than a word-for-word account, this is my prayerful preparation for a conversation that could come any moment, seeking the Spirit’s lead for what questions to ask and stories to tell, as a winsome witness…
This epic story is about us, but it doesn’t start with us, for we didn’t bring ourselves into existence. The truth is we are not our own, but belong to God – body and soul.[iii]
So, our story starts with a good God who loves all he made. Everything is a gift – our breath, our bodies, our relationships… and by studying how this world and life works, we give God thanks and learn how to flourish. When we live with the grain of the universe, we’re truly free.[iv] For everything was designed for good.
You might remember from Mass as a kid that prayers end with ‘in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’. It’s trippy to get our mind around, but at the heart of the universe isn’t some impersonal power, but a community – one God, in three persons, called the ‘Trinity’. Like how you loved being part of a rugby team of different players all working as one, this whole cosmos is the energetic overflow of a divine scrum. Or to change sporting analogies, God is a union-in-difference; as love danced in delight, creation was birthed, and humanity was placed in the Garden of Eden to reflect the nature of the Creator and extend joy to the ends of the earth.[v]
We were made from and for community. It’s not good to be alone. So all kinds of relationships were blessed as ways of finding companionship and purpose when we work together. But ‘marriage’ was a particular kind of blessed relationship.[vi] When one male and one female come together in a life-long commitment, they become ‘one flesh’, a union-in-difference out of which is birthed new life that binds this couple together to multiply, spread out, and give a stable base for humanity as a whole so all can grow up and extend this Garden of Delight for the good of everyone.
When you and Jane are together, I see and celebrate this overflowing life, this feeling of delight. And when you desire to seal this relationship in a lifelong commitment to each other, wanting to make a home for children, you’re reflecting the good God planned from the beginning of time. But the gift of life has a shape, where you and I, and every child, is naturally born when two different bodies become one flesh – sperm and egg unite in the dance of DNA, making for new life.
So in this epic story, matter matters. ‘Marriage’ honours our agency and free choice, but involves more than our hearts.[vii] Love is an unconditional commitment to the good of our partner, and takes in our whole being in a ‘comprehensive union’. We image God by working with the bodies we’ve received, using this gift to better love God and each other.[viii] In this story, both books – revelation and nature – affirm love as love, but suggest the male–female difference isn’t arbitrary. Instead, it’s a pointer to transcendence – a synergy that generates life for holistic flourishing.
The tension you’re sensing for us is that we celebrate your love for each other, but believe that it’s missing an essential aspect to be a ‘marriage’ in the eyes of God. It is made whole by biological difference to procreate and honour our Creator’s gift.
I recognise this may be offensive, which is the last thing I want to be to dear friends. It might seem I’m singling out homosexual sex as ‘unnatural’ while leaving the rest of society and its countless ills – the greed, abuse, wars, and more – as kosher. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Because on this side of what we call ‘the Fall’, nothing is ‘straight’. Everything, including everyone’s sexuality, has bent inwards to serve our own satisfaction above the love of God and our neighbour.[ix] It’s not that everything’s as bad as it could be. Rather, everything’s warped and misses the total good which God intended in creation.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The pain of our human propensity to screw things up is palpable.[x] As you’ve vulnerably shared, partners cheat, dads walk out, divorce rocks our world. People we should be able to trust abuse us, and prey upon insecurities. Pornography is a symbol for our problem – we’ve taken the good gift of sex, meant for pleasure in the context of commitment, and made it a self-serving experience to arouse a chemical romance. We’re all addicts of sorts. We get our love fix, but often we’re left emptier than ever and distanced from our loved ones.
We’re all broken, body and soul. Take Nik and I. We tried to have children for a decade, all to no avail. Meanwhile, it’s ‘normal’ for childish adults to beget then neglect their kids. The structures underlying sex and marriage in this world may still be good, but the orientation and function have become skewed. Injustice abounds.
Or take gender and religion. We’re gifted with a relatively stable biological distinction between male and female [xi] upon which we’re free to construct gender identities that bring out the glories of each sex. But instead of reflecting God – who is neither male nor female, but a union-in-difference – cultural Christianity has instead made narrow categories of what it looks like to be masculine (strong) or feminine (nurturing), making life hell for people who don’t fit the mould – which you’ve experienced as a simultaneously caring social worker and yet fiercely competitive sportsperson.
Even worse, we’ve then twisted our good story of a loving Creator and an ordered creation to make those whose sexual desire is for the same-sex less than, ‘other’ than, fellow human beings.[xii] Families split, and pain multiplies. In our bigotry, we’ve forgotten that everyone – irrespective of gender identity, orientation, and practise – is fundamentally a person to be loved, worthy of respect.[xiii] What’s needed is mutual giving and receiving of love in a diverse community, not gender stereotypes built on artificial identities. The church and the LGBTQ+ community alike have taken false pride in our status, and to use old-school religious language, we need to ‘repent’.[xiv]
The reality is we’re each broken, and we each break others, when we try to build a way of life apart from our Creator, making an identity by taking a part of creation and treating it as absolute.[xv] This goes equally for gay and straight relationships, where we lean our whole weight on romance, or the security of a partner. However great they are, they can’t bear the pressure of playing God, and will disappoint and fail.[xvi] Sex and marriage are good things, but are bent out of shape when they define us.[xvii]
Both sociology and Scripture converge in their assessment: when we rebel against the way things are meant to be, and build our identity on something less than solid, everything starts to fall apart. We reject God, hurt our neighbour, and damage the planet by squandering our gifts for selfish ends. And this is what we mean by sin.
I suspect that what we’re all really looking for is ‘simply to love and to be loved’ as Saint Augustine said a long time back.[xviii] But to get there, we have to take the brave step of rethinking our self-making projects, and trust that our Creator is the ultimate object of our affection, who alone can fully satisfy our desires. When love of God is the Sun in our life, every other planet-like identity orbits rightly without colliding.
I’m not here suggesting some kind of superficial and damaging ‘conversion therapy’, where if you responded to the Creator’s call you would suddenly like men and settle down with 2.4 children. Rather, I’m saying that every person is ‘queer’ in their own way, and when we align with the one true God, we progressively die to our countless false ‘selves’, and begin to come alive, body and soul, to our authentic self only discovered as a child of God.[xix] And whatever that means for our sexuality, God’s strength and nurturing is sufficient to address our loneliness and meet our needs, bringing us into a family that runs deeper than loving feelings and sexual attraction.[xx]
But how do we undergo this deeper re-orientation when we’re addicted to ourselves?
That’s the heart of the epic story of creation. That our Creator truly knows us, loves us, and sees that we’re all ‘stuck’ in our own way. But rather than judge us from afar, God steps into our story and, if we’re willing, restores us for better. It’s what we celebrate at Christmas time, that Jesus is God in the flesh – fully human, yet showing us what God is really like by the way he related to others, especially those on the margins.
Jesus lived with the slur of being illegitimate. People questioned who his dad really was. He was familiar with the pain we feel. Uniquely, though, even his enemies recognised he lived a perfect life, sin-free in every way. But rather than making him holier-than-thou, as though he was better than us addicts, he was known as ‘a friend of sinners’ – eating and drinking with sex-workers, corrupt tax collectors for an occupying political force, disturbed outcasts with tragic mental health, and ill folk everyone else avoided. And everywhere he went, he made the sick healthy, and strangers into friends.
This might seem like a long way from your upcoming nuptials, but we see God’s agenda in Jesus’s first miracle at a wedding (John 2:1–11). Imagine if you’d planned your reception to flow freely with wine, but countless gate-crashers come and you run dry as the party is just getting started. In his culture, this meant huge shame – showing they weren’t worthy hosts and the family was stingy. Jesus’s mum, being close to the couple, came to her son to cover their embarrassment. ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ she advises everyone in earshot. So Jesus takes water meant for religious ritual purification – like the water you touch when entering church, making the sign of the cross on your forehead to protect you from sin – and blesses it, sending it to the wedding planner. In a moment, they go from embarrassment to amazement, because common water has become Grand Cru. The wine flows, and the party rages on.
The heart of this epic story is that if we recognise our lack and shame, and turn to God to ask for forgiveness and help, then Jesus picks up the tab and transforms our watery constitution into fine wine, overflowing in abundant life to anyone who’s thirsty. It’s what you used to celebrate at Mass, in the Eucharist. It’s a graced meal for a wedding, where the wafers are Jesus’ body broken for us, and the wine is his blood spilled for us, standing in to pay for all the ways we’re broken and break others. He carries our sin, covers our shame, and tells our guilty conscience and anyone who accuses us that we’re now part of the family, so the party can go on.
So Nik and I feel like we’re following Jesus by joining your wedding celebration. We can see signs of God at work in the way you care for each other, are committed to each other, and want to celebrate someone who makes you feel special and gives you the courage to simply be.
These are good things. But I truly believe the best thing is discovering who Jesus is, and that he’s at your wedding, too. Learning how to love and be loved by your Creator. We’re each invited to take our identity and our sexuality and bring it to the only one who can save us, saying, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me’. As I said, it’s not ultimately about sexuality. Jesus was the most fully alive person who ever was, and yet by all accounts never had sex and was single for life. He was a truly sexual being, his desires directed fully outward to love God, his neighbours and even enemies who hated him, using his gifts so everyone and everything would flourish.
As a friend of mine said about his own same-sex attraction and wanting to find a soul mate, ultimately it was ‘a war of loves’.[xxi] His desire to be married was a pointer to a transcendent intimacy only found in God, which is made possible by Jesus dying on the cross to pay for our sins, and then rising again to show that we no longer have to fear rejection, loneliness, and even death. The question Jesus asks is, ‘Do you want me?’ When my friend said, ‘yes’, he found the overwhelming acceptance by God re-ordered every other love, bringing a freedom and joy he had always desired. He was thirsty for eternal life, which Jesus happily gave for free.
Learning to love and be loved by God is the most important thing. But this isn’t some psychological salve or solo panacea. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, he adopts us into a family filled with the same Spirit who brought delight and order to creation in the beginning. And now, Christians believe that this Spirit animates our lives and forms a community, sending us together to bring healing to a broken world.
It started on the cross, as Jesus hung in excruciating pain, yet still took the time to bind his widowed mum, Mary, to a single man and the disciple he loved, John (John 19:26–27). Initially strangers, they were sacrificially knit into a new family where every person was defined by this wider web of relationships – together they discovered new identities as husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother.[xxii]
Nik and I are part of this story; through our church we practise being parents in faith, though we have no kids of our own. It’s like God is the ultimate social worker, bridging divisions, protecting the vulnerable from abuse, and yet reconciling enemies to weave disparate people into one tribe.[xxiii] By covering our shame on the cross, Jesus declared Heaven’s dinner table open for all kinds of guests, queer one and all, to come and be fed. Together, we learn how to be a family where all are welcome.[xxiv]
I’m not talking about our false worship of the nuclear family, whether gay or straight, where we look after that special one and a kid or two, but largely ignore or exclude everyone else.[xxv] No, I’m talking about expanding the circle. This inspired community, centred around the way of Jesus, grew by going out of its way to seek those who’d lost their way and wrestled with loneliness.[xxvi] Widows. Exposed infants left in the streets to die. The hungry and poor. The sick and destitute. Divorcees, single people, straight and gay – while the early church then, and the contemporary church now, wrestle with precisely what this means, our calling is clear to live together in love and faith, a more expansive union-in-difference, as a sign to a divided society that all have a place here.[xxvii]
It’s bringing social justice home. Precisely what Rosaria Butterfield, a former professor of English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University, discovered when she went to deconstruct a Christian couple’s faith as part of a research project. Surprisingly, she discovered there was room at their table for this outspoken lesbian activist. As she experienced radical hospitality, to receive love without strings attached, she came to follow Jesus. In turn, she budgeted a weekly shop to make space for strangers and stragglers to come for dinner, cohosting with her Saviour.[xxviii]
I’m still talking about marriage here. But there are only two at the altar: Jesus the bridegroom, and the church as his bride. This again reflects the unity-in-diversity God intended from the beginning, where this divine community’s love is seen when male and female come together as one flesh. They each reflect and add beauty to each other. But the inner life of the church holds spiritual friendship as the highest ideal, even above marriage, where all the odd bits of this one body cling together by the way they love each other.[xxix] The Spirit breaks down all these hostilities across intersectional lines – between male and female, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, black and white – turning divisions into life-giving difference that makes a beautiful multi-coloured home for anyone attracted to this cosmic wedding.
There’s unreserved acceptance to join this family. But God’s unconditional love means that he draws us into a community of character to transform progressively into the best version of ourselves, together becoming a glorious bride ready for the big day.[xxx] Rather than absolute affirmation that imprisons us to remain as we are, God commits to us and we commit to each other to discipline our desires and sexual expression to better reflect our spouse-to-be – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.[xxxi]
It’s painfully true that the church has failed miserably at times to count everyone in, in a Christlike way. But we’re oriented toward this ideal, and with the help of the Spirit, are stumbling onward rejoicing to become this kind of school of love which looks like the Son and stays in step with the Father, practising for the bridal dance when God sets everything right. Which brings us to the climax of this divine romance, and why we’re so keen to celebrate as you and Jane head to the altar.
It seems to me that you’re in pretty much the same place right now as all of creation – love has been promised, but you’re engaged and eagerly anticipating the exchanging of rings, the sharing of vows, and the merging of lives. You’re looking forward to the marriage ceremony and walking down the aisle with the sentiment of Melissa Etheridge’s song playing in your ears:
It’s a simple love that holds us together
It’s a simple truth that sets us free
There’s a place we’re bound and they call it forever
It’s a simple love between you and me.
These are good hopes, drinking from heaven – that ‘all manner of things shall be well’, as Mother Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love. Your desire to love and be loved is partly met in Jane, but I believe it points to how all our desires are truly and fully met in God, from whose love you were given life.
This goes beyond an optimistic destiny given by impersonal cosmic fate. It’s a gift paid for by Jesus’s loving sacrifice so we can be forgiven. It’s freely offered by Father-Son-Spirit so we can join the celebration, and life can birth new life. For the truth is that Jesus and his church, the bridegroom and the bride, are presently betrothed, and yearning for the day when the two will become one complementary whole… when justice and peace kiss, and heaven and earth embrace.[xxxii] And just as you’ve invited us to your wedding, God invites you both to this ultimate celebration.
One day the longing will be over, and the consummation of all things will begin. For the best sex now points toward the total intimacy and connection to come, if we so desire.[xxxiii] The graced meal – Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday, with its high point at Easter – will one day be swallowed up in a full on feast where God himself promises to serve us, delighted to play host at the Son’s party.
In this life, even the strongest marriage will end in death. But the truth Nik and I believe, which sets us free, is that Jesus’s love is stronger than the grave. When our human romance fades, and this age’s marriages are snuffed out, our deepest desires will be rolled into the one union-in-difference that’s bound to never end. The craving of the unwed in sexual fidelity shows that the wait is worth it. And the temporary bliss of the marital union is but a foretaste of a feast that will last forever.
One day I hope that we will all take on the name of our spouse and Saviour, Jesus Christ. But until that day, I leave judgement up to God, and choose instead to celebrate any advance sign of what is good, true, and beautiful while we wait for the wedding. So, after all that’s been said, and if you’ll still have us come, Nik and I would love to join you and Jane for your big day. For like I said, Jesus was a fan of wedding parties, and you are special friends to us, so count us in!
Well, thus ends my prayerful preparation to give a reason for the hope I have within. It’s my best attempt to communicate the gospel as a better story than our culture offers, grounding our desire for good relationships and loving human sexuality. It’s tailor made just for Sarah, though in the dynamic of ad lib conversation, I would ask the Spirit to help me improvise by listening well and sharing perhaps a story or key point from each act in this epic tale that ultimately points to Jesus.
Who might God be nudging you to share this hope with? And how might you tell this good news in a way that makes sense to them, in their particular time and place?
As we’ve explored across this series, it’s unfaithful to simply speak the truth without first listening, imagining, and creating as wise peacemakers who closely follow Jesus in this sexular age. But as we keep in step with where he leads, sticking with our friends and colleagues on our various frontlines over the long haul – whether received or misunderstood, accepted or rejected – we may find how to host a better conversation. And in so doing, we will be good and faithful servants who extend the invitation to our LGBTQ+ neighbours to join the best wedding banquet ever seen.
[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] Not her real name.
[iii] Alan Noble, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021).
[iv] Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). Similarly, J. Budziszewski, in On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012), sees as fundamental to sex both difference and transcendence – a unity-in-diversity that results in ecstasy (literally, ek-stasis as coming out of and beyond one’s self) as a signpost and experience of the God who is above and beyond life in the here-and-now, but from whom we are blessed with existence. ‘Procreation and union of complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body’ captures the purpose of sex, rightly bound up in marriage that aligns with our God-given nature. As he argues (pp7–8, also 25–26),
True freedom lies in being true to ourselves … directing our wills in such a way that the meanings and purposes that lie fallow in our nature can unfold. … everything is free only when its nature is unfolding. An acorn is free only when it is coming to be an oak. … Shouldn’t we direct our wills in such a way that the meanings and purposes that lie fallow in sexuality can unfold?
[v] See Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015), 152–156; and Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also my blog post on WonderingFair.com, ‘God on the Dance Floor’.
[vi] See, for instance, Dennis Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), where the purposes of sex are ‘consummation of marriage, procreation, love, and pleasure. These are God’s designs for physical intimacy, and our Maker desires they be held together as a unit.’
[vii] See Andy Crouch, ‘Sex Without Bodies,’ Christianity Today editorial, June 26, 2013; also Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019), 9–46, 155–193, 229–264
[viii] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman – A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012). I recognise that Sarah and Jane are different people, and thus there will naturally be a union-in-difference at points such as personality, age, nationality, and more. However, I’m suggesting that within the biblical story, the male–female complementarity is essential and thus necessary to be a ‘marriage’, by definition. It serves the purposes of shalom for which we were created. We image God whether we are married or not. But there is a blessing that goes with this comprehensive union, making it a means of grace.
[x]Francis Spufford, in his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2014), chapter 2, refers to sin as the ‘crack in everything’, or the ‘Human Propensity to F*** things Up’ (HPtFtU for short). This is everyday language to explain the Reformed doctrine of ‘total depravity’ – not that everything’s as bad as it could be, but that nothing’s as good as it should be, and all is tainted by our sin.
[xi] This is challenged in sociology, and even making this claim in the biological sciences necessitates nuance, beyond clarity for sex-assignment at birth. However, as Georgi K. Marinov – a postdoctoral research scholar at the Department of Genetics, Stanford University School of Medicine – argues in the National Association of Scholars’ journal, Academic Questions 33 (Summer 2020), 279–288, ‘In Humans, Sex is Binary and Immutable.’
[xii] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 167–190. Volf writes, ‘The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine’ (171–173). God is thus a model of our common humanity, not gender specifics. Balancing the church’s historical record, however, Tom Holland has argued that our contemporary concern for women’s rights, the #MeToo movement, and push for equality more broadly, are particularly ‘Christian’ cultural innovations, downstream of a Saviour who lifted up the downtrodden and afforded universal dignity to all persons. See Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 488–542.
[xiii] Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
[xiv] See Matthew James Gray’s trilogy of blogs on Wonderingfair.com, intended to encourage a healthier dialogue between evangelical Christians and the gay community: ‘Woe to the Rich’, ‘The Christian Sodomy Epidemic’, and ‘We Are the Same’.
[xv] I am not suggesting we simply ‘choose’ our sexuality. Nature, nurture, and agency/choice always interact in any human experience. However, as Tim Keller explores in his book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 135–136, comparing an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800 with a young same-sex attracted person walking around Manhattan today, we have multiple and strong inward impulses/desires, often conflicting which together comprise our identity. No one aspect captures ‘essentially who I am’. We sift out feelings through a culturally derived ‘interpretive moral grid’ to ‘decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed – and which are not and should not be.’ Thus, we are ‘choosing’ to be the selves our cultures tell us we may be. The illustrations for this thought experiment make the point clear.
[xvi]See Tara Isabella Burton, ‘The New Perfectionism: Our Sexual Utopias,’ in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Hatchette, 2020), 141–164; David Zahl, ‘The Seculosity of Romance,’ in Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion, and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2020), 17–40.
[xvii]See Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011); also Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). See also John Anderson’s interview with Carl Trueman, on the modern self in an age of culture wars.
[xviii]See James K. A. Smith, ‘Sex: How to Connect – What Do I Want When I Crave Intimacy,’ in On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), 123.
[xx] This story is powerfully told in Anna McGahan’s autobiography, Metanoia: A Memoir of a Body, Born Again (Sydney, NSW: Kristin Argall, 2019). For an interview with Anna and video testimony, see here and here.
[xxi] David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018). You can hear David share his story here and here. In his own words, ‘As a gay celibate Christian, I recognize that Christ is my ultimate identity; gay and celibate come second. My identity is first and foremost in Christ, but those other two descriptors tell the redemptive story of God’s grace in my life.’
[xxii] See Scott R. Swain, ‘Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female,’ Reformed Faith and Practice 5, no 1 (May 2020), 54–65; Scott Swain, ‘More Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female,’ Reformed Blogmatics, May 14, 2020. Bringing this into conversation with biological identity for transgendered people, see Andrew Sloane, ‘“Male and Female He Created Them?’ Theological Reflections on Gender, Biology, and Identity’, in Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, Doctrinal and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. T. A. Noble, S. K. Whittle, and P. S. Johnston (London: Apollos, 2017), 223–236.
[xxiii] As explored above, the church, too, is ‘damaged by evil’ and called to repent, especially over its heinous abuse of children. The best response, however, is not to abandon our ideals, but rather to become more conformed to the way Christ cared for the most vulnerable (Matthew 18:1–6; 19:13–15). See Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020); also Victor I. Vieth, On This Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life and Words of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019).
[xxvi] On this practice in the early church, by which it grew exponentially, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).
[xxvii] On the wrestling, see Preston Sprinkle, ed., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016); Vicky Walker, Relatable: Exploring God, Love & Connection in the Age of Choice (London: Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019); also Justin Lee, Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014). And on the Church of England’s process to discern a faithful and shared ethic about identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage, see the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ [LLF] resources online, including their LLF book (London: Church House Publishing, 2020).
[xxviii] Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).
[xxix] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015). From a secular perspective, see Rhaina Cohen, ‘What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?’ The Atlantic, October 20, 2020. Philia – mutual attraction – is the heart of koinonia, being the fellowship of the church which images the loving clinging together as one of Father-Son-Spirit. See Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998). Note, however, that this doesn’t do away with creational difference, for it is still reflected in Paul’s epistles and the ethical ‘household code’ for how Christians are to be rightly related to each other and God, as a holy witness. See N. T. Wright, ‘Communion and Koinonia: Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries,’ online paper, 2002. As for how to interpret the Scriptures faithfully as an unfolding story with an ethical trajectory aimed at the kingdom of God fully realised, see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003).
[xxx] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). Similarly, N. T. Wright, in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), sees virtue as ‘anticipating-the-life-of-the-age-to-come’ (68). Being true to who we will finally become when fully mature is a type of ‘eschatological authenticity’ (107).
[xxxi]Christine Woolgar’s collected ‘Songs of the Spirit’ capture this beautifully, centred around becoming a people who can truly give and receive love, as God’s love moves in us. For the final poem on love, see here. Note that this is not about becoming more masculine or feminine, or straight or gay, in some narrowly gendered or sexually stereotypical way. Rather, it’s becoming more fully human as we freely participate, imaging Christ who is the new humanity and the vision of what our authentic selves perfectly expressed may be, by grace alone.
[xxxii] Ryan Messmore, In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage (Redland Bay, Qld: Modotti Press, 2017). While I’ve focused on the ‘marriage’ theme throughout this piece, there are other equally powerful metaphors – the New Jerusalem coming down in beauty; the wolf lying with the lamb – within which Sarah and Jane’s union may be seen as a genuine and good sign of Christ’s coming kingdom. Thanks Steve Elmes for this reminder.
[xxxiii] Rob Bell, ‘Making Whoopee Forever,’ in Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality (New York: HarperOne, 2012), vii–xiv, 157–168; Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction (Nottingham: IVP, 2021). See this illustrated in the short animation, ‘Marriage as a Trailer’.