The first headline from The Guardian surprised me—“Sex is for married heterosexual couples only, says Church of England”—not because of the stance taken, but because somewhere someone thought this was news.
The Christian church’s teaching on human sexuality goes all the way back to Jesus, who skipped past all the fallen expressions of sex and marriage we see in the Old Testament in order to reaffirm God’s original design for sex and marriage as described in the opening chapters of the Bible. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been surprising to hear a church reaffirm that any sex outside of marriage “falls short of God’s purpose for human beings.”
Also not surprising was the mockery that followed the release of the statement. People on social media derided the church for its outdated beliefs, its unwillingness to bow to cultural pressure, to bring its morality up to date with the times. Some of the comments focused on the church’s rejection of same-sex marriage, but many commenters were scratching their heads wondering why the church would reserve sex for marriage at all. In the public imagination these days, sex has been severed from both procreation and the covenantal union of a man and woman, and this changed imagination makes the church’s teaching look implausible at best and ridiculous at worst.
Just days later came another headline, and this one, sadly, didn’t surprise me: “Church sorry for saying that sex is just for married heterosexuals.” Leaders in the Church of England said their initial statement had “jeopardized trust” and caused “hurt and division.” Nothing in the follow-up statement retracted the substance of their earlier pastoral guidance, which made their subsequent apology something like this: We’re sorry we told you what we believe.
Road of Reluctance
In recent years, it’s become commonplace to see Christian leaders take an apologetic stand on a controversial issue. Not apologetic in the “defend the faith” sense of the word, but “apologetic” as if to say, I wish this was different, but here’s what we believe. Usually, this fretful posture comes from a deeper desire to appear respectable to society.
- A century ago, many intellectuals in the church felt embarrassed by Christian teaching on miracles.
- In other times, church leaders looked askance at Jesus’s teaching about power and turning the other cheek.
- In medieval times, the Bible’s teaching about wealth and poverty led the entrenched Christian leader to downplay the radical words of Jesus.
Today, traditional Christian morality is the sticking point. Not surprisingly, some Christian leaders say they still adhere to the Bible’s view of sexuality, but even in the word “still,” you can sense reluctance in their voice, almost as if they’d rather it be otherwise. They maintain a commitment to biblical authority that hangs by a thread of willpower.
This will not do.
When it comes to controversial Christian doctrines, the road of reluctance is the road to irrelevance. The churches that go down this road are the ones that empty the fastest.
Why? Because what the world needs most is a church full of gracious confidence in the goodness and beauty of our King’s commands.
Why would we assume that we are more relevant or appealing to the world when we present the teachings of the Christian faith in the most tortured way possible, almost as if we too are as uncomfortable with our religion’s teaching as others are? This lack of confidence—obeying Scripture only out of a sense of reluctant obligation—communicates to the world that we lack faith in our own confession.
Be Full of Passion and Faith
I understand why Christians today may feel blindsided by the backlash to even the barest statement of traditional teaching on sexuality. The plausibility structures of society have changed. The norms are different. Fornication is “normal” and “purity” strange. I have friends in their 20s who tell me people are shocked to find they’re waiting until marriage to have sex.
But if we take a cue from Christian history, here’s where we have our biggest opportunity. The times when the church has been most relevant in its witness is when believers have countered the world by lifting up something more beautiful in its place. Read Kyle Harper’s historical work on early Christian views on sex, or Larry Hurtado on Christian exclusivity, or Tom Holland’s demonstration of how Christianity flipped upside down traditional notions of strength and power while laying the foundation for laws based on the truth that every human is made in the image of God. Look at how in eras of wealth and complacency, the saints who took to the desert—like Francis of Assisi—appeared on the horizon like a blazing streak across the sky.
In these cases, we don’t find Christians embarrassed by Jesus’s teaching on riches, or the Bible’s matter-of-fact treatment of miracles, or the upside-down nature of power, or the radically out-of-step view of sexuality. We find believers whose obedience is passionate, not reluctant; whose roots go deep and whose faith is full; who see through fads and fashions not with a Pharisaical attitude of dismissiveness, but with a commitment to following the gracious commands of King Jesus and a willingness to sacrifice cultural respectability out of fervent faith that God is good, and his ways are unchanging.
Perhaps we owe an apology to the world not for saying what we believe, but for not really believing what we say.