I have just gotten around to reading the Nashville Statement, issued Tuesday by the so-called Coalition for Biblical Sexuality. Call me inattentive, but I was distracted by local pastoral concerns and national events like Hurricane Harvey, the devastation it leaves in its wake and the courage and love folks are demonstrating in response. Anyway, though I usually shrug off such manifestos on the theory that the less attention paid to them the better, this one offends so much of my understanding of God and of human sexuality that I feel compelled to state, here within my own parish family, just where I believe it goes wrong.
First, though, I suppose I should affirm the values I do share with the authors. If I thought they got nothing right, I would not consider them worth responding to, after all. It is precisely the attractiveness of these shared values that makes such statements dangerous. So, I agree that God has given us marriage as a life-long covenant that reflects to us the covenantal love both between God and individual human souls and between Christ and the Church. I agree that emotional and sexual fidelity within marriage is a significant characteristic of that reflection. I agree that all humans are “created in the
image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers.” I even agree that “sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant
and toward sexual immorality— a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.” I agree that we are called to speak the truth in love to one another, even about sexuality, and I agree that “the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” I agree with the authors on all these points, yet I fear that what I mean by them and what they mean by them differs widely.
Let’s start with God giving us marriage, since that gift is at the heart of the matter. In Genesis 2, God makes Adam, takes stock of the situation, and then says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (2:18). God then presents each of the animals in turn, but Adam names and rejects them. God goes along with this, indicating that God wants us to have choice in the selection of our partners. Recognizing who is and who isn’t suited to us as a helper and partner is important to the formation of marriage as a particular type of covenant relationship. When God presents Adam with Eve, however, Adam recognizes her as both kindred—”This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”—and as other—worthy of receiving a name different from Adam’s own.
It is true that this first relationship is between one man and one woman. The Genesis account doesn’t give us enough humans at this point for polygamy or polyandry. It is, shall we say, a procreative relationship of necessity, because humanity would have died out had it not been. We humans have adapted the examples of Adam and Eve in many creative ways since then—for better and for worse—and the Scripture does not call us to follow them exactly. Part of being human is coming to some kind of terms with—in different ways that may include changing—the bodies into which we have been born. Thus there are many different expressions of masculinity and femininity and all the other “inities” between and around them that are all different reflections of the image of God.
Acknowledging in each other both our kinship and our differences, loving both the kinship and the differences, is our primary task in the covenantal relationship we call marriage, whether the kinships/differences are between our sexual organs, our mental ones, our emotional outlooks or our family histories. In marriage, we are called to speak the truth to one another and to the world about these matters. That truth is the foundation of the beloved relationship we are called into with our God who both is and is not like us. Likewise it is the foundation of the beloved relationship we are called into with another person who both is and is not like us.
Those two beloved relationships are primary while providing a model for our various secondary and tertiary relationships (and so on). Precisely because these relationships may resemble our primary relationships, we set boundaries around our primary relationships—”forsaking all others”/”no other gods”—in order to clarify what fidelity might look like. What that fidelity actually means on a day-to-day basis is part of what makes both marriage and religion such a wonderful adventure.
It is that adventure—that multiplicitous working out of what it means to be faithful to the command to love God and our neighbor with all our heart, soul mind and strength—that brings God the greatest glory. This is the purpose for which god has made each and every one of us. If God wanted slavish obedience to one and only one expression of God’s will, creating humanity was an awfully strange way to go about it. No, God created us because God wanted relationship with something both kindred and other than God’s-self. Thanks be to God for that!