A Brief and Loving Sexual Engagement

Colin Coward has responded to my challenge to explain what he means by a “brief and loving sexual engagement”, but the answer just leads to more questions.

Within the post he makes a point that I wouldn’t disagree with:

Conservative evangelicals seem to be obsessed with gay male sexual activity. When sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage is considered, they only seem to think about gay men, rather than the majority of heterosexuals who enjoy sexual activity without being married.

Conservative evangelicals also seem obsessesed with penetrative sex. This is not an obsession shared by gay Christians. There are many ways of being sexual and sharing sexual pleasure and intimacy that do not involve penetration.

Quite right too Colin, but that’s not the point at hand. I was trying to get at how the report posted on his website seems to suggest that a one night stand might be a good thing, regardless of the specific manner of sex involved. Of course, Colin is quick to disavow ownership of the report:

The Sexual Ethics report was published by Changing Attitude on behalf of the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation. It is their document, not ours. We published it as a thoughtful contribution to the process of formulating a Christian sexual ethic for LGBT people – it is not the final word.

The problem I find with this explanation is that it doesn’t make sense. Clergy Consultation have their own website, but you can’t find the report there or even a link to where to get it. In fact, there isn’t a mention anywhere of the report’s existence.  The report itself has a back page that is full of details about Changing Attitude and how to join, with no contact information whatsoever for Clergy Consultation. The front cover has a massive Changing Attitude logo. The subtitle is “A Report of the Lesbian and Gay Clergy Consultation Working Group” but there is absolutely no indication that this is not a Changing Attitude working group but rather an entirely independent organisation. Only inside do you begin to get an indication that the Working Group and Changing Attitude are not the same.

But given that Changing Attitude published the document and host it on their website, one cannot but assume that they support the content. It might not officially be their report, but it is badged with their logo and produced under their banner. There is a degree of ownership in the content that cannot be disavowed, and indeed, Colin Coward is clear in this by the lack of any attempt to reject the more controversial elements of the paper.

So what is Colin’s response to my challenge?

In answer to Peter, the example of a brief and loving sexual engagement that comes to mind is that between an elderly heterosexual couple, widow and widower, who meet in old age, choose not to marry for a number of reasons, form a close and loving relationship and share themselves sexually. This may not be the kind of example Peter was thinking of. The report doesn’t specify age or sexuality in suggesting that a brief and loving sexual engagement may not always be taboo.

I admit, that’s not what I was thinking of, but most traditional Christians would agree with me that such a relationship was clearly one of sex outside of marriage and therefore not what true disciples of Jesus would want to do. What Colin is offering us is a couple having sex outside of marriage. The fact that they have been married before and are both widowed is irrelevant (unless someone can point me to a passage in Scripture that suggests otherwise). The fact that they are old is irrelevant (again, unless someone can point me to a passage in Scripture that suggests otherwise).

Of course, when I pointed this out some of the more liberal commentators were eager to jump in to explain why this sexual relationship was a good thing:

Well, if you take a couple of pensioners, he drawing his own pension, she that of her deceased husband – if they married, she would lose her widow’s pension. But as his second wife, if he then died, she would be stripped of his pension and suddenly find herself pennyless.

They would be really stupid to get married.

What does Erika’s argument actually boil down to? She’s basically saying that since the law of the land would financially penalise the couple trying to live a Biblical moral, they shouldn’t bother. The money is more important than honouring God. That seems such a perverse way of thinking, arguing that the statute book trumps the Bible that I don’t think I need to even give the example of a Roman slave owner who be financially out of pocket by freeing his slave to show how ludicrous that line of thinking is.

The commenter David has a much better go:

What actually constitutes marriage?

1. That a couple go to the state and pay the fee and get a license and then exchange vows of matrimony?

2. That a couple go to the church and exchange vows in the rite of matrimony?

3. That a couple make commitments to one another and live together honoring those commitments?

There is no legal religious marriage in Mexico. There is only legal civil marriage in Mexico. Civil marriage is expensive and so beyond the means of the majority of Mexicans, who are poor. The vast majority of Mexicans who are coupled, live as number 3 above. Are the majority of Mexicans immoral and bound for hell?

The flaw in David’s argument of course is that option 2 is open to Mexicans, I won’t cost them an arm and a leg. It is perfectly possible to get married in church in this country at least for a minimum of cost (I for one would never charge beyond that which I absolutely had to if a couple on income support came to me asking for a wedding, in the same way that we waive fees in other circumstances – e.g. funerals for children) and the issue again for David ultimately isn’t whether a certain action is Scripturally right but whether it makes financial sense.

So I’m definitely not selling that slave of mine.

Colin cuts to the chase on this (and as usual has a better thought out position than many of the commenters):

I do believe that a loving sexual engagement, permanent, faithful, stable, outside of marriage, as any gay relationship must be, can be holy. The implication of this is that permanent heterosexual non-marital relationships can also be holy. Inclusive means that what applies to one group applies to all.

This then is the underlying issue. As Christians, should we make public, visible committments to each other (marriage) before entering into sexual unions that are explicitly “permanent, faithful and stable”. Does the Bible have any clear guidelines on what sort of sexual unions are permitted to Christians as signifying the work of Christ? This question is an ongoing work for me, but I fear that Colin and his liberal commenters aren’t beginning from the same basis (the Scripture will tell us what we need to know) to have any reasonable part in the debate.

Erika commented:

The holiness of a relationship lies in its quality, not in whether there’s sex involved or not.

God isn’t half as sex obsessed as most of his followers.

The problem of course is that Erika will have a hard job convincing me of what “quality” is without a Scriptural basis to her suggestions. Such an approach though might lead her to discover that God has plenty of things to say about sex after all.

12 Comments on “A Brief and Loving Sexual Engagement

  1. If a brief, loving etc sexual encounter led to a sexless but close friendship (these things happen) would that count? Struggling to think of examples myself. Are you getting at the idea that the theological basis of pro-homosex Christians differs so significantly from the Biblical (Ephesians) conservative model that promiscuity is (if they follow their logic) made possible? Do recall that Gagnon frequently claims that homosexuality breaks so significantly from what the bible teaches on sex that all sorts of things are made permissable (aside from his central point, which I gather you'd agree with, that regulating a sin through monogomy hardly sanctifies it).

    • Ryan,

      Are you suggesting that there is at first a sexual encounter but then it becomes non-sexual?

      I think I'm suggesting that any model that says that sex outside of marriage is going to have a really hard time even beginning to find coherent Biblical support. At least writers like Jeffrey John support sexual relationships within committed monogamous relationships that mirror the Ephesians 5 heterosexual model. Colin Coward's position doesn't seem to do even that.

      • Yes; I'm guessing that – similar to the malokoi arsenokotai disputes – some argue that "fornication" doesn't necessarily mean all sex outside of marriage? Have read some Queer Theology but would guess that you (and evangelicals) generally would find its radical rereadings of Scripture such a departure from traditional interpretation as not to constitute genuine biblical support.
        Also thought the changing attitude report used the phrase "means of grace" when referring to said casual sexual encounters, which I didn't read as meaning "holy" necessarily.

  2. I don’t think Colin Coward is necessarily going against Jeffery John’s model of committed, monogamous relationships but perhaps aware that real human situations are sometimes more complex. Two examples were cited: the elderly couple who for various reasons didn’t want to get married and the large numbers of Mexicans who have long term relationships outside of marriage ( and whether this means they are going to hell.) What about the situation, which occurs in many churches, of  couples who are married but one or both were previously divorced? I have a friend in such a marriage and I certainly don’t go saying that her marriage is “adulterous”, even though by strictly scriptural reasoning this could be claimed by some. Would you tell this couple that they must be celibate as the marriage is not valid in God’s eyes – or that they should separate? I personally wouldn’t do either – yet that doesn’t make me some kind of advocate of adultery or divorce any more than Colin Coward’s response makes him an advocate of promiscuity.

    • Let’s take those in reverse. A couple that have remarried, whether I approve or not, are making a public commitment to be monogamous. I don’t think that divorce is an unforgivable sin, but I think divorcees need to re-enter marriage aware of the mistakes the previous time.

      The issue with the Mexicans is misleading. The cost of marriage in Mexico is around 200 Mexican Pesos in a registry office or 500 to 600 elsewhere. That is not prohibitive to native Mexicans and comes out as less than $50 US. This website suggests the cost might rise to $200 US once you include all the paperwork and blood tests, but that is still not an unreasonable sum.

      • I thought it wasn’t a question of “whether you approve or not” or of what you think is an “unforgivable sin” or a “forgivable sin” but rather what is laid out in scripture?

        • Well I’m suggesting to you that Scripture indicates clearly that divorce is not an unforgivable sin. We’re not meant to get divorced, but then we’re not meant to steal or murder. That doesn’t mean that we can’t confess such sins and move on from them.

          I personally would have to be convinced that a previous marriage was utterly finished with no chance of being redeemed before I would remarry someone, and then other factors would have to be taken into account.

          • But -  you can’t confess and move on from adultery ( if divorce and remarriage is scripturally adulterous) if you are continuing to have sex in the new relationship/ marriage. It is not the divorce I am questioning but the continuation of the sexual relationship in the new marriage. Where does scripture say that you can remarry if the first marriage is “utterly finished with no chance of being redeemed”? Obviously adultery of a previous partner is scripturally cited, as is death  – but other than these cases?

            • Let’s look at what Jesus says about divorce.

              Matt 5:31-32 – Here Jesus is clearly speaking against the practice of simply divorcing someone because you no longer want them to be your spouse. This is a reference to Deut 24:1-4 where a man could divorce for any reason he wanted, even just for the sheer hell of it. In this case Jesus says very clearly that unless there is adultery involved, the one who divorces himself becomes an adulterer if he remarries. But note, that doesn’t mean the adulterer cannot repent of his sin, but Deut 24 clearly states that if his wife has married another he cannot at that point seek to have her back. The marriage is over.

              Matt 19:1-12 clearly has Jesus being tested. The question that is asked is ludicrous (and presents a position that is not true). Jesus replies and re-emphasises the position that divorce but for adultery is sinful.

              Now think about the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned. Jesus’ final words are “Go away and sin no more”. I take this as a clear sign that there is forgiveness even for adultery.

              • I can’t believe that you are looking for “clear signs that there is forgiveness even for adultery” – surely Christ died for ALL our sins , 1 John 1:9 says we can be cleansed from every wrong. What is this sudden introduction of  “forgiveable ” and “unforgiveable” sins ( unless you are thinking of the  unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit, which I’ve never fully understood.)
                I’m still not convinced by your arguments ( if one was to take a strictly fundamentalist biblical view) from the point of view of compassion for human complexity and fallibility, I wouldn’t argue with your decision to allow remarriage after divorce in certain circumstances.

                  • Maybe we don’t. If you look at my original post I was suggesting that my acceptance of, or at least my willingness to reserve judgement on, second marriage ( even when the divorce has been due to factors other than adultery) doesnt’ make me an advocate of adultery or divorce. In a similar way, Colin Coward’s acceptance of relationships outside the bounds of marriage in special circumstances ( and he did say he is unhappy with the word “brief”) does not make him an advocate of promiscuity or one night stands.

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