A Christian Feminist Ethicist & Pastor on Sex and the Patriarchy

I was recently contacted by a journalist who was writing a piece about sexuality in the context of religion, and she reached out to me in particular as I identify as a feminist and a pastor. She asked me to respond to questions listed in italics below. In writing my response, I realized how much I’ve been thinking of this all or a long time and it was really fun to see my own words on paper, so I thought I’d share them with you! Enjoy!
Oh- and if you want to engage with me in conversation, I’d love to hear from you!
Warmly,
Sara WG

1. Why exactly is sex considered a sin in Christianity? What’s the official Church explanation/philosophy about this? 
Depends on who you ask, right? I don’t think there’s any legitimated mainstream vision of Christianity (minus some more periphery sects) who would argue that sex writ-large is a sin…though many branches of Christianity argue that particular types of sex are sinful. Why is this the case? Well, IMO (in my opinion) at it’s best this is because at the heart of both the Jewish and Christian visions of sex are a particular vision of what it means to be human and to be in the world and relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and this earth. For me, I tend to not talk about any type of sex in terms of sin (by which I mean that I never use that word) because the word SIN is so problematically laden with meaning in our times. What I instead would talk about in framing up an ethic of sexuality is a central ethical commitment that Christian sexual activity and expression of all kinds must be rooted in a way of being that honors both 1) our personhood and that of any others with whom we engage and 2) is rooted in an ethic in line with the greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Inside of this particular ethical framing,  this makes things like non-consensual sex “bad” or “harmful” or “wrong” sex, because it violates and refuses to honor the personhood of the other, rendering them objects of my own power or desire to control. Inside of this framing, things like affairs inside of a monogamous relationship are also not ok because they violate the relationship code of commitment that I’ve made to another person.
Of course, I’m in a minority position here in framing up how I think of sex in view of the Christian tradition and legacy….I think this is the case because fundamentally Christianity has long been rooted and practiced within patriarchal societies and the theological perspectives are reflective of this and that 99% of the history of writing about sex has been written by cis-gender heterosexual (white) men. Much of the ethical discourse here then is rooted in language of what is holy, and steeped inside of anti-body interpretative norms.
While I can have some grace and understanding for those who are earnestly seeking to be Christian and are unaware of how much patriarchal interpretive legacies shape their thoughts about sex, there are also some threads inside of the Christian faith that are more overt at naming that their thoughts about sex are rooted in a belief that women are merely meant to make babies and serve men.
Fundamentally: The shadow operator inside of the (dominant) Christian philosophy is absolutely about patriarchy, power, and control of women’s bodies and then is applied to any other “deviant” bodies…but you won’t hear many people admit that’s what they are arguing for. Thus I eschew these norms and language and instead would ask people who are striving to embody a Christian sexual ethics to root themselves in 1) an affirmation that all bodies are a gift and are beautiful; 2) any sex must be rooted in respecting of personhood and imago Dei of all (including oneself); and 3) any Christian sexual ethic must be built upon an ethic of love (love God/love neighbor/love self). This opens fecund space for us to wrestle together about what is “sinful” or not and even more so…to argue for what good sex and sexuality of life and love rooted in Christ might affirm positively…

2. Is there something immoral or unethical about having sex in the Church’s eyes?

It depends on which “church” and which tradition…most Christian traditions would say that sex inside of monogamous marital relationship between heterosexual people is OK, but to this day the Catholic Church official dogma and social teaching argues that it should be predominantly for procreation (which is critiqued by a LOT of Catholic feminist theologians and ethicists, amongst others).
Much of the church around the world though doesn’t quite know what to do with sex. Even more liberal denominations like the ELCA have an outdated (IMO) sexual ethic required of their ministers. Some groups like the UCC or the Disciples of Christ have much more open and positive views of sexuality (the UCC has an amazing curriculum “Our Whole Lives”).

3. As a feminist, wouldn’t you say it’s harmful or stigmatizing to talk about sex as a “sin”?

I’d say it’s unhelpful and wrong to do so. And as a feminist ethicist and pastor, I’m doing a lot of work to try and deconstruct the harmful aspects of our view of sex, women, and all marginalized persons so that all bodies can be human together.

4. Is there a way to view sex positively (and enjoy having sex!) and still be a “good” Christian?
See above. Also, YES!
Central to the Christian message is the view that God became a HUMAN and as I said in my most recent sermon on the Body, the gospel of Jesus Christ better be good news for our actual lives in our actual bodies or else what are we wasting our time for??

5. I’m also working on a related story that I’d love for you to weigh in on—this one about the teaching that “wives should submit to their husbands.” What is that supposed to mean?

As in what is that supposed to mean to people who ascribe to that belief? Or what is it supposed to mean in the context of that passage actually?
I’ll go with the second notion (which I say more about below)…if you go back to the Greek, the verb submit is actually applied to the two subordinate clauses:
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (dominant clause)…
……”wives to your husbands” (subordinate clause)
….”and husbands love you wives like Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” (subordinate clause)
Fundamentally then, the idea is that everyone is supposed to submit to one another (e.g.- don’t be a jerk and check your ego and live in love) AND the idea that at that time men would be told to give up their power like Jesus did to submit himself to be in relationship with us…well, even today that is revolutionary! Imagine a world in which all of the men who were nominated for Best Director at the Oscars were like; “umm…no, men have had too much privilege for forever, so I’m not going to accept this until you nominate all women one year.” REVOLUTIONARY. THAT is the gospel message…a revolution of love where we get to all be equally human to one another…for one group (men) that means they need to lower themselves, and for the other (women- I get I’m being binary here, we can also talk about this in terms on gender non-conforming or queer people, but if someone is operating inside of the question if women are actually equal people to men then I know we have a long way to go until we can open their imagination to that ALL people are equal) are then, through submission of themselves, raised into the fullness of their humanity and being. THAT is the power of the good news…that power doesn’t win, but the world of the Spirit does where we all get to have enough air to breath, freedom, love, and life. 

6. No matter how you spin it, the word “submit” strongly implies that husbands are the leaders and authorities, while women are definitively supporting cast (or worse). Isn’t this outdated and even toxic to continue to preach today?

Oh goodness- it’s worse than toxic, it’s abusive and dehumanizing. It has no place inside of Christian faith in our time. Anyway, the vision of the early church and it’s baptismal creed even textually is 1) One where inside of this new way of being fully human, old binaries and distinctions no longer have any power (or at least they shouldn’t) and 2) even at that time they were arguing for mutual submission, and I’m all about us all checking our egos so as to participate in full humanity as full people in-equal relationship with one another. Anything less than the full affirmation of ALL (yes, I mean all) humans as bearers of the divine and equal for all the rights and privileges afforded to humans is anti the Christian message.
7. Any other advice for Christians trying to figure out how to interpret and act on either of these teachings today?
Take a breath.
Love.
Get curious.
Be humble.
Be open to the possibility that you could be wrong.
Start with equality. Start with freedom.
Wonder; “What if the gospel could actually be good news for every body?”
Love.
Breathe
Repeat.
Warmly,
Sara WG

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