Today’s sermon is the second part of a series of three sermons on sexual ethics. Last week, Su-Lin looked at sexuality and its meanings, including our historical inheritance and evolution of today’s understanding and approach to sex. If you missed the session, I would encourage you to read the transcript or get a copy of the recording that will be available on our website.
To start things off today, I would like to look at why are we looking at sexual ethics in the first place. Let’s start with sex. Sex is an integral part of being human. Sex also affects all of us profoundly – physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually. So sex has its consequences.
Sex in church is often a taboo subject – it is more often than not, associated more negatively with guilt than positively as a gift from God that can be shared and celebrated. Unfortunately, most often sex in the church is often associated also with scandals in church leadership – the extra-martial affairs of church leaders, the double lives of pastors who on the one hand condemn all gay sex, but on the other hand are found out to be intimate with their male
“companions”, and then there are the reports of pedophilia amongst priests in the Catholic Church.
So what is sexual ethics? Put simply, it is to stop, reflect and ask ourselves, “what am I doing?” When we ask ourselves this, it runs counter-culture to the values of the world, which is “If it feels right, (like Nike’s slogan) – Just Do It!”
Margaret Farley gave us the starting point on which we based our framework today, and the way she describes sexual ethics is “with what kind of motives, under what sorts of circumstances, in what forms of relationships, do we render our sexual selves to one another in ways that are good, true, right, and just?”
So why are we doing this? What is the basis or rationale for sexual ethics?
For me it stems out very simply in living out the Great Commandment to love God and to love others. Loving God is not just about what we SAY, it is also about how we ACT. Worship is what we do as an expression of our love for God, and it is not just about singing songs of praise, it is about how we live our whole lives.
Rom 12:2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
So God calls us to be transformed by renewing our mind, to understand what is God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.
Loving God also calls us to respond as disciples, which is simply “following Jesus” in the way He acted. And in order to act in the way He acted, we need to have our minds renewed away from the patterns and culture of this world, to base our lives and follow the principles that Jesus Himself followed.
Jesus said in John 15:5-12, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
So ethics is essentially the right actions that come from right decisions that come from the right relationship principles based in the call to imitate Jesus.
Eph 5:1-2 says, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”
So today, we will be sharing the Christian sexual ethics framework that FCC as a community is using to guide our community life and to provide some pastoral guidance and rationale of these principles. The framework has been provided for you in the handout.
Sources of Sexual Ethics – The Quadrilateral
I would first like to draw your attention to the outer border of the framework, where you see the words “Scripture”, “Community & Traditions”, “Reason”, and “Experience”. This is known as the “Quadrilateral”, and is based on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that is used by many churches in the way we have identified as the sources that we can draw on for Christian sexual ethics; they are the four sources that we can use to help us make the right decisions.
Let’s look at each of these four sources briefly starting with “Scripture”.
2 Tim 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So scripture should be our starting ground as a source of making the right decisions. But more often than not, when we go to scripture “on its own” for sexual guidance “on our own”, what to do or not to do can become hazy and can lead us to make poor choices.
For example, let’s look at the area of masturbation. If you go to the Bible to look up the topic of masturbation, you will really find that it doesn’t say anything specific about the act of masturbation – some of us read about fornication and we try to apply it to masturbation, since some leaders believe that fornication refers to “fantasizing” and think that you if you are
masturbating, you are also fantasizing. Some of us try to find guidance through the stories on masturbation and if you go through the whole of scripture, there is only one sort of related one related story about Onan in Gen 38, and in v9 instead of obeying God and sleeping with his brother’s wife, he jerks off, cums on the ground and gets smited by God for this action. So does this mean that we should interpret this that God forbids us to masturbate?
If we proof-text scripture, extract the words right off the page, yes! We would have to stop masturbating, close all abortion clinics, stop using contraception, and all homosexual sex would certainly need to stop.
But is the way we should approach scripture? Today, we have learnt from history that taking the Bible literally can be very dangerous – it has led to the subjudication of women, endorsed slavery, and justified the crusades. We need to recognize that the Bible isn’t a rule book, an encyclopedia or an instruction manual. But so often, we use it like one. We cannot proof-text
scripture. Scripture needs to interpreted this “in its context”, “in our context” and “in community”. So to do this, we must add to this the other sources of sexual ethics to help us interpret scripture – our “Community & Traditions”, “Reason”, and “Experience”.
So let’s first look at “Community & Traditions”. When we interpret scripture in community, we recognize that God can speak to us in our time and our community, in the same way that God has spoken to the prophets in their time and to the early church in their time. There is a lot of beauty and revelation of God in the stories of scripture, and we need to recognize that scripture is not just engaged in the situation of the people of the Bible, but is wrapped up in
our stories as well. But we must not also forget traditions – there is a lot of wisdom that we can get from how the Bible was previously interpreted – even if today we think that it is not the correct interpretation for us, but in that time, in that community, we should ask ourselves “how was their interpretation of the Bible relevant for them in their practices and daily lives?”
There are today 19,000 official denominations globally – and each professing to hold the truth – to have the right interpretation of scripture. You will never find a denomination that will admit, “I think we might have got it wrong!” And if you stand back and think about it, for each of these 19,000 denominations with their different interpretations of scripture, they will get some interpretations right, and some wrong. I can tell you that with our humanity and fallen-ness,
we will never ever always get it right, otherwise we would be our own gods and would have not need for God. And that’s why we must study tradition to guide us, and always interpret scripture not on our own, but within community, so that we can together wrestle with the appropriate understanding or reunderstanding of scripture that will be relevant to our community. So the first source we must add to scripture should be “Community & Tradition”.
The second source that we must add is “Reason”. Reason is us using our minds, our thinking, logic, the findings of philosophy, biology, sociology, anthropology and medicine to shape our beliefs. Do you know that not too many years ago, there was a time when people believed that masturbation would lead to blindness, causes impotency, infertility and mental illness? All of which have been debunked by science! So reason is not incompatible with faith. When we engage scripture, we must bring our minds to it. When belief is not informed by reason, then belief becomes warped and damaging.
The final aspect of the quadrilateral is our “Experience” – this can range from the lessons we have learnt walking with God in our own lives, listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the Word that has been spoken over us or given to us from time to time. But also, we need to recognize that we are not impervious to culture. And sometimes, culture can work against us – we need to recognize and be healed from the experiences that have been inflicted upon us by culture, that we then go on to inflict on to scripture. The Bible has very clearly stated repeatedly and unequivocally that you must not divorce. But today in many churches, the way a divorcee is treated and related to is very different for the way LGBT people are treated.
So when it comes to sex, sometimes sex is experienced as evil precisely because it has been culturally interpreted as evil. Sex is experience as deviant because it has been identified and experienced as deviant. Sex has been experienced as not open to Communion with God because it has been interpreted without this possibility. And we need to recognize that we absorb the social and cultural influences around us, and it can be especially difficult for LGBT Christians to discern same-sex relations in any other way than bad unless you recognize that you are letting your response to sex be shaped by what others tell you about sex.
That’s the reason why when you come to FCC, we will unashamedly affirm you every week that God loves you regardless, that same-sex relationships can be good and Godly when lived out in love and justice.
So we now have the quadrilateral – the sources to help us form the right ethical choices, and now we go to the framework itself.
Eight Principles of Sexual Ethics
These eight principles presented in the framework are not arbitrary – they are eight distinct but interconnected areas. They are also not exhaustive, nor are they specific to all situations. They have been formed as the eight distinct and major principles to help guide ourselves in implementing a Christian sexual ethics framework for our faith community – to help us make right decisions to follow Jesus, to live out our faith in action in our sexual lives.
They are based on the principles of love and justice, and we need to learn them and implement them by letting it help us make the right decisions so that we can be His disciples, or imitators of Christ. We also hold all in this faith community, whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered to these ethical principles.
There are firstly 2 broad areas in this framework – the first area is based on the concept of “minimal justice”. This means that if any of these principles are violated, FCC as a church body may intervene to protect those who are weakest and most vulnerable in our community. This includes scenarios such as an outsider coming in to sexually prey on our youth; or a ministry leader using his or her power force a member into sexual relations; or if someone lies about his or her HIV status to another and proceeds to have unprotected sex.
The two principles under this area of “minimal justice” have been labeled with the words “ALWAYS” and they are “ALWAYS Do No Harm” and “ALWAYS Honor Free Will and Consent”.
Now, if you also look at these principles, some of them cover two horizontal blocks and some of them three. The ones that cover two blocks relate to ourselves – i.e. ALWAYS Do No Harm to myself, and also to our partners as well – i.e. ALWAYS Do No Harm to my partners. There are two principles that also relate to a third block which includes our community beyond our partners as well which we will go into later.
So principle number #1 is “Always Do No Harm” to myself and my partners. This means if you are HIV+, you are obligated to tell your partner and you must practice safe sex. This can mean that if you are in monogamous closed relationship that you don’t cross the line with a third person in a way that will harm your partner. This means that if you know that having sex with random strangers is only going to intensify your loneliness, then you don’t do it to hurt
yourself further. On page 4 onwards of the notes, you will find some questions that will help you in your own reflection, self-awareness and decision making.
Principle number #2 is to always honour our own free will and our partner’s free will and understand that sex is only ever ethical when one’s partners is able to truly give free consent. This means no rape, no coercion, no threatening and no “tricking” people into bed using drugs or alcohol.
So those are the first 2 principles. The rest of the principles are what we call “maximal justice” principles or relational ideals. They should be what we always aspire towards, even if sometimes our relationships will fall short.
The second area contains six principles that are also based on love and justice that we should be reflecting on and working out in our relationships. And although these are placed above the first area, they are not ranked in priority. Instead, each area is distinct and reflects the principles of love and justice.
The “Value Mutuality” principle is about learning to mutually and actively give and receive when we are having sex. Sex is fundamentally an activity expressed in the relationship between people – so good sex should embody mutuality in the relationship. Good sex is not about one person getting off or fulfilling his or her needs without the other’s need being met at all.
The next principle is to “Ensure Equal Power”. Mutuality alone is not enough, we need to also ensure that there should be an equality of power. This means where possible to minimize the inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity (e.g. boss and subordinate). Why? Because if you don’t manage inequality, it can lead to unequal vulnerability, unequal dependence and in more serious cases, can disempower your
partner and reduce your partner from a beautiful human being into a piece of property or commodity.
Next, “Be Committed and Intimate”. This principle can be drawn from the Christian life that there should be a form of commitment with relations that include a sexual dimension. With heterosexual relationships since the Early Church, this takes the form of a marriage covenant. Today, these same principles should apply in all sexual relationships – are we being or moving to greater commitment and intimacy? One of the biggest issues with gay men that I frequently hear of in the area of relationships is becoming “jaded”. This often stems from disappointment and disillusionment when expectations of commitment and exclusive intimacy that some of us attach to a sexual relationship is violated. One way is to clearly set the boundaries – if all you
are in this is for a “one-night stand”, you should make that known upfront and let the person know that the both of you are going to be together and intimate only for tonight and ask, “do you still want to go ahead with this”?
But the better way is to incorporate sex into a shared life and enduring love. One-night stands and hook ups are not without value, but there is more than enough evidence that pursuing this can lead to us eventually isolating ourselves from others or even ourselves – and end up being jaded about love and relationships.
The next principle is to “Be Enriching”. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself – is the experience enriching for both parties? Is there fulfillment, delight, wholeness? The Hebrew prophets call it “shalom”. The word “shalom” means more than just peace, it is about the goodness that comes out of a relationship that is webbed together between the partners and with God. Does the sexual relations also enrich yourself? I have come to realize the truth of
this in my own life when I realize there is only a certain limit you can grow when you are not in a relationship! Our relationships should ideally help us to grow into maturity, wholeness with empathy, ability to care for our partner and extend to other relationships beyond our partner as well.
The second last principle is to “Be Socially Just and Responsible”. If our sexual lives is about two people on an island with no one else around, this would be irrelevant! But the truth is that, we all live in communities, and we are all connected either directly or indirectly to other members of our communities. We need to be aware and reflect on how our sexual activities
impact others in the community.
One example of this would be if a church leader were to have a sexual relationship that violated these principles, it would not only have the impact of affecting his or her church, it would also impact the wider Christian community and even the way the world sees Christians. We think back at the gay rave parties that have been made illegal now in Singapore – the impression that the public got was that ALL gay people were abusing substances and having unprotected sex. This may have been true with a small portion of the attendees of the party, but the social impact was much more severe. Even in the area of pornography, many feel it is a safe expression of one’s sexuality, but I wonder if we actually can view it from contributing to the exploitation of young people and depersonalizing sex for our society? After all, it is our common shared practices and beliefs that form culture.
So ultimately, I think we need to ask ourselves, “how does my sexual activity form part of God’s efforts to make this world a more just place for each one of us?”
The final principle is to “Be Redemptive and Liberating”. This principle looks at how the redemptive work of Christ expresses itself in our sexual relationships. There are several ways to understand this ethical principle. We need to firstly ask ourselves – how do we understand the original creative intent of sex? Why did sex look like before the fall?
One way of looking it is that humans were pictured as perfectly at home in Eden and completely accepting their bodies and its erotic dimension. The result of the Fall and sin (after Adam and Eve ate of the tree of good and evil) is that they became ashamed of their bodies, creating a “body-soul dualism” and causing sex to become associated with shame, contempt, insecurity and anxiety. Some theologians believe that a central part of God’s redemptive plan in Christ is to redeem our alienation of our bodies and to restore the integrity and playfulness of human sexuality so beautifully depicted in the Song of Songs. So redemption here allows us to be honest and authentic in the accountability of our sexual conduct within community and lead us closer to what we believe is God’s intention for sex.
So those are the eight Christian sexual ethic principles that we have established for our community to help us to ask ourselves – “what are we doing” and we have the quadrilateral to provide us with sources of how we can make decisions around our sexual behaviour and attitudes.
At the very least, we must always remember to ALWAYS do no harm, and to ALWAYS honor free will and consent. But if we are going to look at really using these principles to be imitators of Christ, to live out the Great Commandment in our relationships and in community, we need to also move towards Valuing Mutuality, Ensuring Equal Power, Be Committed and Intimate, Enrich, Be Socially Just and Responsible, Be Redemptive and Liberating.
You know, I wish growing up I had an ethical framework like this that I could base my sexual practices on. I would be the first to admit that I have violated all of these ethical principles in the framework in my life. I used to be addicted to pornography, I dated one of my counselees (violating the equal power principle), I have manipulating my dates against their wish into sexual acts. I believed that if it stops at mutual masturbation, it doesn’t count as sex. I dated
to “acquire” a trophy partner without mutual concern for his person and I tried to turn a straight man gay through manipulating my advances. I withheld sex thinking it is the right thing to do when I was in a prior relationship; and I expressed physical intimacy to friends without empathy about how it affects the person I was in a relationship with; and I have had unsafe sexual practices in the heat of the moment.
But thank God for His grace is more than sufficient for me. Though my sins were as red as scarlet, He has washed it as white as snow and has taught me and led me through my life to reflect on my actions, make better decisions and become a better disciple.
My hope is that for all of us, no matter where we are, that we pause and let God allow the word today to take root in our own heart and reflect on the way we live out our sexual lives.