Having lamented conservative Christian’s tendency to overemphasise sexual morality, it is only fair to share the reasons I think Liberal Christians don’t talk about it nearly enough.
For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe.This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.
To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.
A common misconception about Liberal Christianity is that it is less interested in the bible than more conservative traditions. Instead, it does for Protestantism what the reformation did for Catholicism. Whereas the reformers tested the explicit traditions of Catholicism against what the bible actually said, Liberal Theology does the same with the implicit assumptions of the protestant tradition. The problem is that the bible is not actually a massively helpful guide. As this rather tongue in cheek infographic illustrates, the bible is not exactly clear on such things:
The mainstream view derives in no small part from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthions 7: “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command.” But this is about as clear as mud. Marriage is not Paul’s ideal but a compromise for those who can’t manage abstinence. Which is hardly seems like a secure basis for a moral absolute.
So what does “love thy neighbour” mean in the context of sex and relationships? Is it a modified version of the mainstream view opened up to sexual minorities and with more compassion for those who fall short? Is it a free for all? Is it just decided on a case by case basis? Does it involve some new standard?
So what do I think? I don’t know, I’m a Liberal Christian after all. This is the problem. What I do know is that a faith that does not give it adherents – especially the young people raised in it – the resources to think about these questions is endangering its relevance.