If it’s synod assembly season, it’s time to debate homosexuality ad nasueum. Even though this summer’s 2007 Churchwide Assembly does not have a major sexuality study or vote on its agenda, be sure that delegates will try to make their voice known on both sides of the issue. But for a minute, let’s put homosexuality aside. A different sexual issue impacts a much larger number of church members and leaders – sex outside of marriage.
It is widely assumed and accepted in the church that sexuality – particularly sexual intercourse – is reserved for the marriage relationship. The church has long taught that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA, the church’s statement on pastoral expectations and conduct, reinforces this. From Section III. The Ordained Minister as Person and Example, section Sexual conduct:
Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful.
Of course, V&E also has the infamous homosexuality sentence ("Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships"). On account of this sentence, many in the church – particularly seminarians – reject V&E as an unjust, unfair, even oppressive document. By citing this sentence as just cause to do away with V&E, many critics of V&E sidestep the much broader issue of marriage and sexuality.
But if we take homosexuality out of the equation, how do we really feel about V&E? What do we really believe about marriage and sexuality? Is pre-marital sex wrong? And if so, what does "wrong" mean?
FACTOID: A Center for Disease Control study published in 2005 reveals that about 20% of men and about 30% of women in a 2002 survey reported having zero or one sexual partners over their lifetime (see pages 28 & 29 of Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 14-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002 – click for abstract, full study linked from abstract). The other 80% of men and 70% of women reported having two or more sexual partners during their lifetime.
I’ve lived on three seminary campuses – two Lutheran and one Presbyterian. Given the statistics above, it should come as no surprise that some (many?) unmarried seminarians are sexually active. Some are conflicted about it, some are not. Some are sexually active within committed relationships that lead to marriage. Others are sexually active within less-than serious relationships. Same goes for unmarried pastors. Are you surprised? How should we feel about this?
I believe this is the sexual elephant in the room that no one in the church wants to touch with a ten foot pole. For most people, the homosexuality debate is about someone else’s life, someone else’s sexuality, someone else’s role in the church. But the discussion of sexuality and marriage touches nearly everyone in the church. That’s why it is so darn scary, why our church is much less enthusiastic to discuss it than homosexuality or any other issue.
SIDEBAR: At recent pro-immigration rallies in cities throughout the country, hundreds of illegal immigrants marched down city streets wearing t-shirts proclaiming their illegal status. What were the police going to do, arrest all those illegal immigrants on the spot? Of course not. It was a provocative statement forcing us to confront the issue in an intelligent and constructive fashion.
What would happen if pastors (and lay delegates, too) wore t-shirts to synod assembly saying, "I’ve had sex outside of marriage." I imagine that a large number of people would be wearing the t-shirts – 25%? 50%? 75%? What would that do to the assembly and the church’s attitudes toward sexuality? At the least it would capture our attention, and lead us to conversation.
Is sex outside of marriage wrong, a sin to be confessed? Or are we willing to change current church teachings on this issue? Can a committed, serious, non-married relationship be a proper place for sexual expression?
And most importantly, are these questions even worth asking? Is this too much about nothing? Sexuality is not atop my list of concerns or priorities of Christian living. Vision and Expectations also calls on church leaders to be an example of generous giving, to pray daily, to take car of one’s health, to be collegial . . . . How does sexuality rank or compare with these other issues of Christian living?
I’ll look forward to the upcoming discussions on sexuality in our church as part of the study entitled, Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor: Lutherans Talk About Human Sexuality (I haven’t yet read or discussed this study). The discussions that flow from this study will lead to a draft social statement on human sexuality by February 2008, and a final statement sent to Churchwide Assembly in 2009. I hope congregations and people throughout the church enthusiastically participate in this dialog.