Developing and Implementing a Christian Sexual Ethic: Making the Theoretical Practical

November 28, 2017

The Indispensable Role of Discipleship

Two objections could be offered to the ideas that we discussed last week. First, it could be objected that the criteria that I proposed are irrevocably Christian in their character and therefore are of no use for the pluralistic society in which we live. To the first part of this accusation I plead “guilty as charged.” I have enumerated criteria that are explicitly Christian because I believe that the universe is God’s creation and that the gospel is God’s good news for that creation. Some of what I have argued will only make sense to those who are willing to submit themselves in trust to Jesus. It is our responsibility as Christians to call people into such a relationship and to articulate the benefits of trusting Jesus in an honest and winsome way.

Second, some may object that these criteria are hopelessly impractical. After all, what teenage boy is going to stop and ask whether having sex with his girlfriend is beneficial to the social order and reflects Christ’s self-giving love? To this I say that it is our responsibility as church leaders to help those under our care understand the practical implications of these ideas. More to the point, we need to make these ideas so much a part of our identity as congregations of believers that people are able to work out all on their own how they apply to their lives.

In both cases, we are talking about doing the hard work of discipleship. That work is certainly intellectual in character, and we must stop pretending that it isn’t. But it is also highly incarnational. People will understand what it is that we are talking about when they see it in our lives. They may not accept it, and we need to be emotionally prepared for that eventuality. But at least they will have someone upon whom they can model their own struggle to live faithfully as children of God and disciples of Jesus.

Making the Turn: Identifying the Problem

So, let’s do what we have been talking about. You will recall that we began this journey because we wanted to understand better how we can bless members of the “me too” movement. So, how do the criteria we discussed last week apply to that topic?

For the sake of clarity and brevity, let’s limit our discussion to the phenomenon of sexual harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment can be understood as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Moreover, disparaging remarks or behaviors about a person’s sex can also be construed as sexual harassment.

Now that we know what we are talking about, let’s apply the seven criteria we enumerated last week to this phenomena.

  • Sexual harassment is NOT beneficial to the community in which it occurs, to the human species, or to the created order. No one (except possibly the perpetrator) wins when sexual harassment occurs. Obviously, the victim loses because she (or he) is exposed to hurtful words and/or actions, but the community in which the harassment occurs loses, too, because the harassment (in the words of the EEOC) creates a “hostile” social “environment” and may disrupt the relationship between the victim and her or his community. Communities cannot thrive when their institutional culture is characterized by this kind of sickness and when they lose good people because of it. Moreover, sexual harassment reinforces sexual, racial, religious, vocational, and other stereotypes and erodes the trust that victims have in their fellow human beings. It is hard enough to fulfill our common responsibility to manage God’s creation when we are getting along with one another; it is quite impossible to do so when we learn from experience that we cannot trust one another.
  • Sexual harassment does NOT promote interpersonal bonding. Trust is the foundation of all (healthy) human bonding, and, as we have already noted, sexual harassment undermines trust. Obviously, victims learn not to trust those who harass them, but harassment is itself a form of distrust. The harasser is saying, whether they mean to or not, “I do not trust you to make the right decision for me, so I am going to bully you into giving me what I want.” And that leads us to another point. Interpersonal bonding is a process that has as its goal the formation and maintenance of a relationship between two people, whereas sexual harassment is a phenomenon that is focused on meeting the emotional needs of an individual.
  • Sexual harassment should NEVER win the consent of any community, much less a community that is oriented around devotion to Jesus. The criterion of social consent presents us with some difficulties when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment. Social groups—regardless of whether they are familial, religious, economic, or recreational in nature—have a responsibility to protect individual members of the group from the misdeeds of other members. But not every social group fulfills this most basic obligation to its members. Many victims of sexual harassment have told the world about how the leaders of their company, church, or club looked the other way when harassing behavior was reported. Nevertheless, I think that this is still an important criterion for us to consider. Think about it this way. No one in their right mind would want their daughter to be harassed by an uncaring or predatory individual, and we should have the same concern for the other individuals in our social groups. Therefore, sexual harassment always violates the criterion of social consent. It does not matter whether a particular social group permits members to harass one another; the light of public scrutiny, as well as the inherent obligations placed on social groups, makes harassing behaviors inconsistent with the criterion of social consent.
  • Sexual harassment does NOT presume the existence of something that is existentially or morally superior to itself. Indeed, harassers often act as if they are accountable to no one. Their words and actions presume that their impulses, opinions, and desires are more important than the welfare of those around them. The victims of their harassment are not, in their minds, bearers of God’s image and recipients of God’s love. Rather, the harasser treats his (or her) victim as if she (or he) is simply a means to an end.
  • Sexual harassment does NOT conform to the design of creation and to the expectations of its Creator. For all of the reasons that we have listed thus far, and for the reasons that we will discuss below, sexual harassment does not conform to God’s design for creation. Either the harasser wants something that he (or she) cannot have, or the harasser denigrates the value of an entire sex (often out of frustration about what he or she cannot have). Either way, the harasser shows his (or her) disdain for the Creator’s design by inflicting harm upon his (or her) fellow creatures.
  • Sexual harassment does NOT cohere with the symbolic world of Christian theology. Christ calls his people to a self-giving love that reflects the faithfulness of God. As we have said more than once, sexual harassment is anything but self-giving. Moreover, it manifests a lack of faithfulness on the part of the harasser. He (or she) breaks covenant with God, with his (or her) family, with his (or her) social group, and with the human species by engaging in harassing speech or actions.
  • Sexual harassment does NOT express or produce mutual affection, and it does NOT result from or produce mutual admiration. Sexual harassment is not romantic. It is not cute. It is not harmless fun. It is dehumanizing. It is objectifying. It is humiliating. By its very nature, sexual harassment drives a wedge between people and reinforces differences of power and status.

Making the Turn: Promoting Positive Change

By every measure, sexual harassment (to say nothing of sexual assault) stands outside of God’s will for humanity. Our job as church leaders is to live out this truth in our own lives, to teach our people about God’s will for their lives, and to lead our organizations to foster a culture of sexual health.

But how exactly can we model, teach, and lead in the area of sexuality—especially since many evangelical congregations seem to be afraid of the word “sex”? The first thing that I think we need to do is to simply talk about the issues involved. We need to acknowledge that there are a wide range of problems associated with human sexuality, and we need to explain how those problems are addressed by the teachings of Scripture.

Second, we need to ensure that our own behavior reflects the value that God places on the people in our lives. That starts by treating our spouses with respect, and we shouldn’t be in leadership if we do not do that on a regular basis. It does not stop there, however. We also need to treat the people we work with and the people we interact with outside of work with respect—both in public and in private. Obviously, that means eliminating all crude behavior from our lives and adhering to the personal space needs of others, but it also means treating people as complex, creative individuals. For example, we need to celebrate the character and talent of the women we are around, and not just (or even primarily) their beauty. Physical beauty is not a bad thing, but it is just one aspect of a woman’s personhood.

Third, we need to establish policies and procedures in or organizations that codify our values and mechanize their application to real-world circumstances. I know that writing policy manuals and training curricula can be a depressing experience. And we do not want to always live our lives in fear of the worst case scenario. But a little planning can save us a lot of heartache when something bad does happen, and it can help the people we lead see that we are serious about creating an organization where men and women can work together without fear.

Here are some practical suggestions that might help your organization create a healthier corporate culture. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the “Comments” section below.

  • Pay attention to what you think about. Lustful thoughts usually precede lustful actions. The way to keep yourself from doing something that is inconsistent with God’s vision for human sexuality is to think about people in ways that honor God and honor them.
  • Practice “eye discipline.” Football players have to be careful where they are looking. They may miss something important if they are looking in the wrong place. The same is true for followers of Jesus. Our thoughts, our words, and our bodies tend to go where our eyes lead them. So, we need to use our eyes to make genuine connections with others, not to feed inappropriate desires.
  • Encourage substantive theological reflection on Genesis 1-2, Ephesians 5:21-32, and other similar passages. In your preaching, teaching, and private conversations, help people understand that God has some things to say about what it means to be truly human. Help your people understand not only the explicit commands contained within the biblical witness but also the narrative substructure in which those commands are embedded. Don’t let people be satisfied with compiling a list of rules; make them ask hard questions about the nature and meaning of life. And when they do, help them connect the answers they find to how they live every day.
  • Focus on praising your subordinates and co-workers for “the content of their character” and for the quality of their work and not for their appearance. This keeps you as a leader from straying into areas that you should avoid, and it models for the congregation or organization that you lead what a holistic perspective on people looks like.
  • Have at least one woman on your ministerial staff. Not every church has more than one minister on staff, and some churches are uncomfortable employing a woman in this role. But if your church can afford and will allow it, you would do well to have at least one woman on your staff. Generally speaking, women are more sensitive than men to the social implications of organizational practices. They bring a perspective to the workplace that men just do not have. Moreover, having a woman in a position of authority communicates loudly the value that the organization places on women as fellow bearers of God’s image. And, it is worth remembering that victims of abuse and harassment often find it easier to talk to someone of their own sex about what they have experienced.
  • Appoint a wise woman and man to be Sexual Harassment Officers for your church or organization, and make sure that they have the authority and the training that they need to do their job well. Positions like this are more common in the corporate and academic worlds. But I saw a Baptist church in Kansas that has these positions and thought that it was a great idea. It gives everyone a specific person that they can go to if they have a problem, and it takes the burden for dealing with problems away from people who may have a conflict of interest.