Q & R: Heterosexuality

Here’s the Q:

I read your blog on an almost daily basis, thank you for the continual reflections and stimuli that you bring so regularly. I’ve often wondered who are these people that send in so many questions, and now I know – because I have one of my own.

I will try to keep it brief, but some background might help. I’m in my early 20’s, I’m in a steady relationship with a young lady of a similar age…. I am a youth worker, and therefore a ‘professional’ Christian also. I have been in my relationship for about 18 months, and we’ve not had sex (yet).
Personally, and as a community, we have fairly a liberal or generous Christian ethos; and I have no real strong feelings about the sanctity of sex. While I would like to err on the side of caution when it comes to the extreme promiscuity of our culture, the only reason I am not having sex is because of the reputation I feel I should have as a Christian. I think of the damage it could do to my role as a Christian Youth Worker, and the reputation of our community. It seems ridiculous to me, but I don’t know how to move forward.
In your book, (ANKOC 10 Questions), your sex question goes some way in pointing to the issues at play, but you seem to leave the same silence of changing institutions when it comes to the actual practices of Christians today. Please be careful of offering too direct an answer, as I will fall into the trap of simply legitimising my ‘sin’ through finding an approving Christian voice. Instead, could you give me some advice in moving forward, in making lived-convictions that challenge previously-held conventions, which come with extreme personal risk.
I want to live with integrity. I want to model healthy Christian living. But I’m finding myself slowly being pushed underground by my feelings and the choices I want to make. Marriage is not on the horizon, at least not in the foreseeable future; and I’m committed to community and missional living; but as a couple, we’re struggling with the passion, desires and pressures with no ‘acceptable’ alternative.
Your thoughts would be welcome.

R: Thanks for putting into words a struggle that so many young (and older) adults in your situation share. I know I won’t be able to respond in a thorough manner – partly because of time and partly because I think that these matters are best worked through in a pastoral (private, not public) context. There’s a decision-making process involved … something that goes far beyond “too direct an answer,” as you already realize.
But let me offer a few practical questions in response.
– Professionals in many fields have to limit their freedom because of professional responsibilities. Professors and managers often can’t date their students or employees; politicians can’t continue investing financially in areas where their legislation could affect the outcome of their investments, and so on. If a professor were to secretly begin a relationship with a student, the secrecy would add to the problems when the relationship became public. So, I think it’s very important to consider this question: Would the professional/ethical responsibilities of your position in youth ministry require you to limit your freedom? Or at least to disclose to your employer your decision about sexual activity?
– Would you be willing to lose or change jobs under those circumstances? Would part of “doing to others as you would have done to you” mean, in relation to your employer, that you would disclose your change in “sexual activity status” to him/her privately, since it would be problematic if it became public?
– If you’d be willing to lose or change jobs to maintain your integrity and be sexually active with your partner, I think it’s worth asking why marriage is not on the horizon.
– I think we’d agree that the “profession” of being a Christ-follower carries with it an “emptying” of certain freedoms – such as the option of resorting to violence with violence, slander with slander, and so on. And it’s worthwhile for us to ask what sexual freedoms are also relinquished in professing Christ. I’m thinking of Paul’s prudent words, “All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient.” He seems to shift the discussion from legal/illegal to wise/unwise.
– Speaking very frankly, you seem to want three things: 1. to enjoy a faithful sexual relationship with your girlfriend apart from marriage, and 2. to live with integrity, in community, and 3. to model healthy Christian living as a Christian youth worker. Life is about exchanges – giving up some things for the sake of others. It’s hard for me to imagine maintaining 2 and 3 while you pursue 1.
– As I’ve said elsewhere, I think the two valid options for committed Christians in regards to sexual activity are celibacy and fidelity. My hope would be that, if you’ve grown into a relationship of fidelity, you would celebrate and strengthen that commitment with marriage. The emotional bond of fidelity unleashes exactly “the passion, desires and pressures” you describe … and those pressures will probably drive you, in your context, towards either marriage or a sexual relationship characterized by secrecy. Again, I think of Paul saying, with appropriate frankness, “It’s better to marry than to burn …”
– If you’re reasonably sure you don’t want to marry this woman, then I suspect you’d be kinder to her, and to yourself, to let the relationship end now rather than later, after a sexual relationship develops.
But again, my strongest recommendation would be to find a pastor or counselor who could help you work this through in private. I hope these considerations will nudge you in that direction. As I said in New Kind of Christianity, with all the attention being paid to homosexuality, we’re largely ignoring the complexities of heterosexuality, and your question brings these to light for consideration. You’re in my prayers today.