The church I belong to, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, has been studying David Gushee’s After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. Today’s lesson focused on two chapters: politics and sex. Quite a combination, right?
The consensus seemed to be that it continues to be very difficult to get church people to open up about either topic in a congregational setting. There is probably more agreement in our congregation on these subjects than was once the case. That is partly because our culture has been self-segregating into conservative and liberal congregations. Broadway remains diverse, but has moved in a decidedly progressive direction in recent years.
Although people wanted more conversation about politics, sex and other crucially important issues, there was little desire for politically partisan sermons. Nobody wanted Broadway to be joined at the hip with the Democratic Party in the way that many evangelical churches are identified with Republican politics. But class members did want to hear our pastor addressing ethical issues from the pulpit.
Do we need guidance? That’s the question. Liberals sometimes treat “guidance” as a dirty word. Each individual must be free to construct a life code from scratch. That appears to be the assumption. But is that realistic? Moreover, progressive types typically assume an ethical standard without admitting as much. We like to dictate morality as much as the fundies! It’s human nature.
Churches with a high degree of political diversity (a lot of Mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations fall into this category) don’t get much ethical instruction from the pulpit. Pastors and priests talk about personal morality a lot; but avoid the hot-button moral issues of the day. When they break this rule, its inevitable that someone will accuse them of “preaching politics”.
We talk about “respecting diversity”; by which we mean enforced silence.
As a consequence, Christians are either indoctrinated into a highly partisan political vision or they are left to their own devices. When churches are silent about things that matter, the resulting vacuum will be filled with something. It might be FOX News, it might be MSNBC, it might be a conspiracy theory like QAnon. Others form a moral vision by reading Facebook posts. What a frightening prospect! How does a congregation establish a rough-and-ready consensus, theological, moral or otherwise? Any position can be supported from scripture. Maybe not “any”, but almost.
One thing is clear; it won’t happen without talking, listening, and flexibility.
Still, we want to get as close to consensus as possible. Gushee uses the example of Catholic social teaching. Can progressive Christians develop something of the kind? It might be helpful if, as Gushee has done in After Evangelicalism), some of our thought leaders would throw out a few concrete proposals. We wouldn’t have to swallow anybody’s ideas whole, but we need a starting place.
The class also had mixed feelings about sexual instruction. Most admitted that the education they received from their parents was inadequate, at best. Some entered marriage with very little understanding of human sexuality.
David Gushee spends several pages of his book talking critiquing “purity culture”, a form of popular evangelicalism that used shame and disgust to keep the kids pure until marriage. Purity culture had no impact on sexual behavior (evangelical kids are pretty typical in that regard), but it was very effective at undermining self-esteem and messing up marital relationships. They didn’t see this as a good thing.
The class agreed that there should be a sexual bottom line (no sex apart from enthusiastic mutuality) and an ideal (covenant faithfulness), with the realization that real life experience is complicated and unpredictable. But with as much as twenty years separating the onset of puberty from marriage, how realistic is it to expect consistent abstinence outside of marriage? Factor in the economic and social challenges real people face and a strict legalism becomes unworkable and unkind.
The important task is to give our kids relational tools to work with. Young men and women must possess a strong sense of self-worth and efficacy. We want to teach them how to avoid being pushed around. We want them to understand why its wrong to manipulate and manhandle others. We want to emphasize the virtues of kindness and mutual respect.
But all ethical issues must be considered in a kingdom context. If Christians can agree on that much, the conversation can begin.
Sex and politics are messy subjects. In both arenas, the ideal (whatever we conceive it to be) is difficult to attain. Sometimes it’s impossible. But we need to be sharing our personal and community stories. We need to be encouraging one another. We need to make a start. Because, let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.