Sex in the City on the Hill (Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars… cont’d)

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

Previous Posts in the series “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars”:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

 

Finding An Alternative to Partisan Politics…

If the politicizing of family values is no longer an option, if legislative battles for moral issues is deemed outdated and offensive, if the church should silence its public outcries that reinforce the stereotype of bigotry, then how should we promote an alternative ethical vision in society?

For the most part, I agree with the outcry within the church against the church’s public outcries.  That is, I agree that the church must rethink its public discourse when it comes to sticky social issues (homosexuality, abortion, immigration rights, et. al.).  Jonathan Merritt has written at The Atlantic that the decline of Christianity in America is to be attributed to the church’s past few decades of partisan politics.  The factors are probably a bit more complicated, but that Christians should find other means of relating to the public square strikes me as absolutely true.

But how?  Those of us disappointed with the way Christians have conducted public discourse on cultural controversies should make some constructive effort toward alternative approaches, right?

Jesus charged his community of followers to exist as the “light of the world,” like a “city on a hill” (Mt 5:14).  The church is called to public visibility.  Jesus’ interpretation of his own charge is this: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

The best way to offer an alternative moral vision in the public square is to live it out.  Demonstration by practice is the most fundamental means of conveying our values.  This approach is less vocal… but not necessarily quieter.  In terms of communicative effectiveness, embodying our values in our daily practices can be quiet loud.

This is not to say that the church must refrain from verbally articulating its moral vision.  But the most basic means at our disposal for publicizing an alternative ethic is to live it out with quiet consistency.  Shouldn’t this be where we start?

So when it comes to issues related to sexuality, celibacy and marriage, is the church a gleaming city on the hill broadcasting a compelling vision of purity and beauty?

Marriage

If we claim that marriage is between a man and a woman, then how well are we displaying a tender concern for the lofty holiness of heterosexual union?

The Barna Group offers evidence that the Christian divorce rate is as high as the non-Christian divorce rate in America (roughly 33 % of adults have been divorced).  Their numbers, however, have come under sharp scrutiny—sociologist Bradley Wright argues that there is actually quite a disparity between the divorce rates of committed, regular church attenders (38%) and those non-aligned with a religious entity (%50).  (But let’s not rejoice too heartily—38% is not exactly a triumphant stat).

The divorce rate is not necessarily the best way to gauge the quality of Christian marriages in our society, of course.  Some Christians may stay married not because their marriage is healthy, but because social pressures coerce them to keep quiet, even in dangerous situations.   And conversely some Christians may feel compelled to leave marriages on legitimate moral grounds because of their strong and rightful convictions.

I suppose one key element demonstrating a compelling theological vision of marriage is how hard Christians strive to preserve and strengthen their marital relationships.  This daily striving is not very quantifiable, but the folks next door (and the kids at the dinner table) will likely see and admire it over time.  Fighting hard for marriage as opposed to fighting hard against one’s marital partner, may be less vocal on the street and in the bedroom… but it is the noble sort of fight that may gradually and quietly inspire others in a society in which divorce is so commonplace.

If marriage between a man and a woman is the biblical ideal the church intends to communicate in society, then it is incumbent on us to do marriage well.  Exceptionally well.  And that takes decades of daily, hourly striving in sacrificial (and joyful!) love.  It is much harder than the newly married or the dreamily single would suppose.

Sex and Emerging Adulthood

If younger Christians are eager to adopt demonstration by practice instead of partisan politics as the primary means of publicly conveying an alternative sexual ethic, then how is that project faring?  How do the sexual practices of Christians emerging into adulthood qualify them as refreshing new harbingers of the church’s moral vision?

Not very well, I’m afraid….

Relevant Magazine’s important article “The Secret Sexual Revolution” compiles statistical evidence showing that younger Christians are almost as sexually active as their non-Christian peers.  Among emerging adults 18-29 years of age, 80% of unmarried evangelical Christians have had sex.

There is a lot of sex in this city on a hill.

Again, the data is complex (for more surveys, see Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults).  But if we are going to criticize older generations for ruining the Christian witness by promoting our faith’s alternative sexual sexual ethic through politics, then we should become drastically more serious about our own personal sexual practices.  What we do in private has public import.  It may not seem that way… until CNN opens an article with “True love doesn’t wait after all” based on that survey you filled out between classes one day.

What is at stake in those moments of sexual temptation is more than personal piety or our own personal track record for saying “no.”  What is more urgently at stake is the capacity of the church to publicly declare beautiful vision of sexuality as a shining city on a hill.

Singleness and Celibacy

Adhering to the church’s teaching on homosexuality is to ask our gay brothers and sisters to adopt the sacrificial path of celibacy.  I would agree that this is not a plea that should be made in society through political propaganda.

But if younger evangelicals are not very keen on heterosexual abstinence as the figures above evidence, then how can we ask gays to embrace the celibate, single life?

Furthermore, whereas the Protestant church has promoted the goodness and holiness of heterosexual marriage, it has not done a very good job promoting the validity and holiness of singleness as a way of life.  I used to work as as Singles Pastor, a title that can make many a single cringe (especially when said Singles Pastor is married!).  I know that many heterosexual singles feel somewhat of a “life-stage persecution” within their local churches—it is as if singleness is simply a transitional phase to be briefly endured before true adulthood ensues with the exchange of wedding vows.  This disparaging perspective must be awfully acute for gay believers who feel perpetually consigned to a life-stage deemed only transitional—and therefore inferior—by their faith community.

Richard Hays writes,

Surely it is a matter of some interest for Christian ethics that both Jesus and Paul lived without sexual relationships….  Within the church, we should work diligently to recover the dignity and value of the single life. [1]

In Sum…

The church is called to serve as a city on a hill, brightly broadcasting a compelling ethical vision grounded in the Gospel and in the identity of our Triune God.  The prominent positioning of this city in Jesus’ metaphor demands public engagement for the church.  Partisan politics may well be a dangerous path, forged perhaps haphazardly enough by our recent forebears that public repentance is required.

But if younger Christians are going to adopt a demonstration by practice approach in offering an alternative understanding of sexuality, marriage and celibacy in the public square, then we have some serious repenting to do ourselves….

 

[1] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 401.

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