I like the title of Andrew Cameron’s ethics book: The Joined Up Life. What we Christians have to offer to world is a view of life where everything is joined up. Not just everything in my personal life. Everything. A view where we start to see the connection between us and other people and the ‘natural world’ and the turning of the seasons and the structure of time and – everything. A view of life that’s about learning to live in sync with the rhythms of our world, learning to move in the direction of the good that flows in the created order. We have to offer a life that is in the truest sense, ‘natural’.
I reckon we should be talking a lot about what’s natural. There are reasons why we don’t. We’ve learnt a bad theology where we distrust nature, assume it’s corrupted and condemned and has nothing for us. We too often find ourselves trying to live as strangers to the creation, rather than seeking our right place in it. We’re not looking for connections at all. For us, Holy = Disconnected. Bad theology has hidden from us the path of wisdom.
When it comes to sexuality, a particular reason we don’t talk about nature is that that ground has been occupied by the gay lobby (Not all gay people are part of the gay lobby, some of these comments are aimed more narrowly at that movement). The popularisation in recent times of the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ as opposed to ‘sexual preference’ has provided a fairly powerful ethical basis for homosexuality, grounded in nature. The gay gene was a red herring that led nowhere at the scientific level, but it did have the effect of scaring us off from talking about ethics based on the nature of things. By taking that ‘high ethical ground’, the gay movement now often talks ethics more persuasively than we do. We meanwhile have retreated into abstract rulesy morality.
Time to repent of all this, and learn to talk like the apostle Paul. “They have given up the natural good and exchanged it for that which is against nature” (Romans 1:26). “Does not nature itself teach you what is right here?” (1 Cor. 11:14). We need to get talking, and talk a lot, about ‘the nature of things’, about how things are. About the direction, the moral direction, of the creation. And how we can get with its flow. Not just in the area of sexuality: in all our ethics.
“Love builds up, knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1) – that’s an example of Paul talking functional creation-ethics. Acquiring knowledge does not always produce a healthy outcome: it can distort people’s self-perception. Something that definitely does promote wellbeing, however, is loving treatment of our neighbours. So he says, fall in line with reality here, learn this wisdom, and value kindness more than knowledge. The book of Proverbs is full of this kind of functional ethics, concerned with what makes for shalom.
This idea of nature is not some stick for us to beat our neighbours over the head with, however. They don’t want us lecturing them about nature any more than they do about morality. Our talk about this is going to be primarily intramural, within the Christian church, among the people who want to know how to please God. That is the right and normal sphere for Christian living to be taught in. We need to give believers a vision of a good creation, and of a ‘joined up life’ which finds and enjoys the natural created good in every area. Sexuality is merely one of these areas. In this area we need to teach our people, including our young people, a sexual ethic based on God’s desire for our blessedness. To wrongly use sexuality is to miss out on the good, and fall into destructive ways.
However, others outside the church will ‘overhear’ that discourse, and of course at times our neighbours will ask us for our views. When that happens, we’re going to make a lot more sense to them, talking about what’s good than about ‘what’s right’. Because when we talk right and wrong they hear us meaning something quite abstract and ideal. But sex as part of a whole package of living that lines up with God’s world and purposes, that makes for shalom; sex as a way of enjoying ‘the good’ given to us in the creation – that makes a whole lot of sense.
And that’s where Jesus comes into it. Because the good is not that easy to find. There are many obstacles in the way. The ground grows weeds instead of food and we exploit and murder each other instead of helping our brothers, we don’t know the God who made us, and things are generally out of joint. Sin has banished shalom from our lives. But Jesus is the one restoring all that: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Jesus is the healer who comes to us speaking “Shalom!” into our troubled lives (John 20:19,21). In his broken body raised to new life, there is a new beginning for all humanity. In him all things can find their natural good once again, becoming the things they were created to be. Including us.
In Jesus we are invited to set out on the road to health and peace, the path to wholeness and true humanity. We are not there yet, none of us except Jesus. The path may not be easy. But the way is open.
The good of sex is not easy to find, either. For many, this is an area surrounded with pain and misery and fear and shame. The redemption of our sexuality is something we all need, for everyone’s sexuality is distorted in various ways. But in Jesus there is hope. We can be healed and connect with the good in this area also. This is part of what Jesus brings us, part of the good news story we’re telling. Sex can be a powerful destructive force. But with wisdom, it can become a life-giving force, contributing to our blessedness.
When people ask us about homosexuality, we needn’t feel obliged to answer in exactly the same terms they’ve framed the question in. As Christians we will want to start with Jesus, the one who helps us reconnect with reality and live wisely and well, finding and enjoying the good. If people have no patience with our story, and just want a sound bite, perhaps we can’t satisfy them. But we want to tell this story. Calmly, confidently, consistently.
What point is there in passing on the sexual wisdom we have learned, without helping people find the source of that blessing and healing, Jesus Christ? What’s more, if we suspect that people are not ready to accept that wisdom, alienating them with it will not make it easy for people to give us a hearing about what they really need first and foremost – which is Jesus.
We are not called to go and make heterosexuals. We are called to go and bring people to the one who can knit their lives back together, and knit them into the fabric of God’s purposes of blessing for his creation. When we’re talking sex, let’s be faithful to that calling.