In his introduction to Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality [see article] Todd Wilson laments the fact that, in recent engagements with the issue of homosexuality, Christians have typically framed matters too narrowly. We’ve either focused on what the Bible teaches on homosexuality, or we’ve asked how we can love homosexuals as we ought. The result has been a loss of the broader theological account of sexuality which Scripture and the Christian tradition present.
Wilson—senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and chairman of the Center for Pastor Theologians—presents us with “mere sexuality,” an outline of the historic Christian consensus on sexuality and an alternative to weak approaches currently much in evidence.
In presenting this consensus, accessibly written for a popular audience, Wilson aims to counteract the undermining of the plausibility structures of historic Christian teaching on questions of sexuality. He identifies a loss of functional biblical authority, as well as shifting moral intuitions through the influence of personal relationships and the media, as chief among the ways these plausibility structures have been eroded.
Created Male and Female
A key dimension of “mere sexuality” is the theological and moral importance of our being created male and female—something that concerns much more than sexual relations. For Wilson, the term “sexuality” carries weight beyond the realm of sexual activity and desire, referring to the comprehensive reality of being male and female. In his second chapter, provocatively titled “The Sexuality of Jesus,” he develops this point, observing that the incarnation involved a male body being formed in the womb of a virgin, thereby manifesting the importance of our sexuality. Christ’s sexuality was reaffirmed at the resurrection, yet didn’t require sexual acts for its fulfillment.
Against the background of various LGBT identities, which place the weight of identity in our subjective desires, self-concept, or forms of attraction, Wilson stresses the importance of the objectivity and givenness of our sexed bodies. These bodies and the “complementary similarities and differences hardwired into our bodies” are essential to our identities, running deeper than our self-identification. He writes:
God’s first call on our lives is to acknowledge rather than deny our sexuality. We are to rejoice in it rather than seek to downplay it. We are to lean into it fully rather than avoid it entirely. (70)
As men and women we discover who we are in relation to each other.
Marriage and Friendship
Recent debates about same-sex marriage, Wilson argues, have been driven by a new social consensus on the meaning of marriage as essentially a companionate union. Yet the biblical teaching concerning marriage—a teaching confirmed by nature—presents marriage as “comprehensive union,” a one-flesh bond with another person in which lives are knit together “mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and—this is the key—bodily” (81).
This character of marriage explains the exclusivity and permanence of its bond. As sexual relations have increasingly been detached from the ends of procreation and union and have become focused on individuals’ pleasure, our sense of marriage as a vocation ordered toward children and the service of God has been dulled.
Churches must be communities of friends, places where the waters of baptism are thicker than the bonds of blood.
Closely interacting with the work of Wesley Hill on “spiritual friendship,” Wilson devotes a chapter to discussing singleness and celibacy, where he emphasizes the importance of “deep, intimate, affectionate, non-sexual relationships”—like the relationship between David and Jonathan. He observes the difficulties produced by a culture of weak friendships, where most of our relational demands are placed on marriage, which makes celibacy considerably harder. In such a culture, churches must be communities of friends, places where the waters of baptism are thicker than the bonds of blood.
Wilson doesn’t present “mere sexuality” as an ideology that will solve all our problems, but rather as a Christian understanding of our calling—one that helps us keep our bearings in a disorienting culture as we patiently await the healing of the age to come. He doesn’t wish to downplay the reality of brokenness and struggle in the present; a lengthy appendix is devoted to a raw and personal discussion of how mere sexuality offers “hopeful realism” to those who struggle with “bent sexuality.”
In Mere Sexuality, author and pastor Todd Wilson presents the historic Christian consensus about human sexuality, and highlights the stunning shift of opinion on issues of sexuality in the evangelical church and why this break with the historic church is problematic for the future of Christianity.
Mere sexuality is a vision that must capture imaginations, not merely persuade minds: “we need to win the aesthetic, not just the argument” (136). This vision is cast with joy, tears, and hope, in the oft-painful practice of faithful Christian discipleship.
Wilson’s presentation of the historic Christian consensus on sexuality is accessible, clear, and broadly compelling. There are some refreshing emphases and discussions within it, not least its honest and sensitive treatment of sexual brokenness. Joel Willitts’s appendix is a sobering yet valuable addition; its honest and deeply personal discussion of the impact that abuse can have on sexuality set this treatment apart from many others in this densely populated genre. I also greatly appreciated Wilson’s emphasis on casting a vision and winning people’s imaginations, not merely convincing minds.
There were a few areas of disappointment for me, mostly relating to Wilson’s failure to deliver on the promise of his approach. His emphasis on the broader “sexuate” character of human existence was a welcome aspect of his method, for instance, yet this important aspect of his thesis was underrealized. What it means to “acknowledge,” “rejoice in,” and “lean into” our sexuality as male and female in actual practice for Wilson is less than clear. Although his theological points on such issues were often well made, their actual practical force often wasn’t apparent.
I had similar reservations about his treatment of the subject of friendship, where his earlier foregrounding of our sexuate existence was abandoned for a vision of friendship for the single and celibate that often seemed more compensatory in character. His treatment of friendship also far too strongly accents dyadic friendships, as a sort of weaker likeness to marriage, while extended families, dense communities, and broader bonds of “fictive” brotherhood and sisterhood were underexplored.
The relationship between David and Jonathan, though frequently appealed to as a paradigm case of intimate friendship, is complicated for such use by several factors, not least the fact that David was young enough to be Jonathan’s son and that Jonathan was the crown prince, while David was the prophetically anointed successor to Saul.
Considering how important friendship is for sexuate existence, I would have appreciated hearing Wilson say more, for example, about the fact that Jesus’s manliness is seen in his being a leader, a friend, and a brother of other men, as he surrounded himself with a circle of male companions with whom he shared his mission. Jesus’s masculinity relates to far more than his possession of male chromosomes and a male body; it’s most immediately seen in the primary company he keeps, the brotherhood he forms around himself.
Friendships and our more general modes of sociality are highly gendered realities and contexts within which we are powerfully formed in manliness and womanliness. While Wilson grants a place for such friendships, it’s more concessionary than celebratory; he places the accent on discovering what it means to be male and female in relation with the other sex. However, the marginalization and stigmatization of our close relations with friendship groups of our own sex has led to the undifferentiating of our sociality more generally, so that men and women both lack a clear understanding of themselves as distinct from each other and are increasingly pressed into the same mold.
Captive to Current Debates
Here, as elsewhere, I think Wilson’s attempt to provide an account of “mere sexuality” suffers on account of his taking current debates about homosexuality as the implicit foil of his discussion. His laudable concern to respond to the needs of those struggling with same-sex attraction often distracts him from the task of presenting the full-bodied positive account of mere sexuality he initially sets out to provide.
While he discusses same-sex attracted persons extensively, Wilson says relatively little on topics such as the rise and spread of extreme pornography, the sexualization of the entertainment industry, premarital sex, the hook-up culture, manliness and womanliness, being a husband or a wife, motherhood and fatherhood, infertility and childlessness, the gender neutralization of society, and so on, which are far more pressing personal concerns for most Christians pursuing something resembling “mere sexuality,” even though they may not be as prominent apologetically.
Despite such disappointments, Wilson’s book is a worthwhile one, with much to commend it. Its fundamental emphases are well placed, and Wilson speaks with compelling clarity and grace where it matters most.