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Church can teach society about sexual ethics


7:00 A.M. EST March 22, 2011

A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
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“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14, NRSV)

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

What can society learn from the church about sex? This question might elicit shock, confusion, laughter, wincing or any number of other responses. You might be asking yourself, “Can a church that is so ______ (fill in the blank: conflicted, conservative, liberal, out-of-touch) teach society anything useful about sex?”

U.S. society is awash with sexually explicit messages and images, both condoned and condemned. This is a society voyeuristically obsessed with what people are doing with their bodies and censoring, censuring or incarcerating them for it — even as these same activities are avidly marketed and voraciously consumed as entertainment. This is a society so hungry for intimacy that online dating has now surpassed pornography as the largest revenue-generating industry on the World Wide Web. Yet, churches are notoriously silent about human sexuality when they aren’t decrying it as sin.

The church is still learning about God’s good gift of sexuality to all people.

The church is learning to talk about sex. The church’s most important contribution to society’s understanding of sexuality is to provide an alternative space for discussing this most social, personal and political aspect of our human existence. In learning to love well, vital congregations can model for society how to be faithful stewards of our bodies and the love we share through intimate, physical relationships with others.

Evangelism, discipleship, mission

Here are just a few things churches are learning about sex (in concert with the Call to Action proposed Ministry Plan) as we strive to make disciples for the transformation of the world:

Vital congregations are learning that faithful evangelism reaches out to diverse people with diverse expressions and experiences of sexuality. Radical hospitality, in which we welcome all people (Galatians 3:28), brings to the church single people, divorcees, married people, prostitutes, virgins, transgender people, heterosexuals, registered sex offenders…. The list goes on.

Darryl Stephens
Darryl Stephens
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Whether a person comes circumcised or with a breast implant, intersexed or having had a hysterectomy, sterile or sexually addicted, vital congregations are learning to reach out in love. How a congregation learns to embrace all of God’s children teaches society a great deal about Jesus’ new commandment “that you love one another.”

Vital congregations are learning that making and becoming disciples of Jesus Christ requires different changes in different people. The biblical witness attests to a staggering array of demands in the life of faith. Often those on the inside are the ones required to change: Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery; Paul’s advice to the community regarding a man in an incestuous relationship; Jesus’ teaching “to give up all your possessions”; Peter’s revelation to baptize uncircumcised gentiles.

The church must continually discern between behaviors that build up the faith community and those that tear it apart, to “let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). How a congregation learns to build up the beloved community teaches society a great deal about “the message of reconciliation” entrusted to us as ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).

Vital congregations are learning that serving like Christ through justice and mercy ministries is strengthened by working together. Just as Paul collected money for the church in Jerusalem, our United Methodist connectional giving enables ministries far beyond what we could accomplish on a congregational level.

Connectional resources

Congregations do not have to go it alone. United Methodist resources can help congregations devise policies and procedures to make “Safe Sanctuaries,” develop sexual education curricula, write a behavioral covenant with a registered sex offender, accredit and train ministerial leaders in healthy interpersonal boundaries, handle a complaint of misconduct of a sexual nature or work to eliminate domestic violence and abuse.

People also can sign up for the UMSE Monthly Bulletin to receive resources, announcements and news about United Methodist sexual ethics.

Our connectional resources, through general agencies and conference offices, provide structures of accountability and resources drawn from our collective wisdom as United Methodists. Ecumenical cooperation broadens this base of support. How a congregation learns to support and rely upon the resources of the church beyond itself teaches society a great deal about “bearing with one another in love” as a witness to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:2-5).

Yes, society can and does learn from the church. The church has a constructive and transformative message to teach society about sexuality — if we are willing to have frank and open conversations about our embodied existence in relation to our incarnate Savior. A church relevant to our sexual selves will incorporate our whole bodies into the Body of Christ without shame.

Churches can learn to talk about sexuality in terms of evangelism, discipleship and mission. Whether churches engage in a witch-hunt, a Jerusalem Council (Acts 10-11) or that means of grace John Wesley identified as holy conferencing — this will determine what message society learns from the church about sex.

*Stephens is the staff executive who oversees advocacy and sexual ethics for the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, with offices in Chicago. He is a deacon in full connection with the Texas Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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