Making all kinds of churches nervous

TrueLoveWaitsI’ve been wondering, tmatt — in question (3), are you trying to get at the homosexuality question, or something else? If something else, can you say more about why that question in particular? If homosexuality, why phrase it in such an indirect manner? (Since it is often the definition of the marriage sacrament that is contested.) Just curious.

Posted by Liz B. at 10:28 pm on September 27, 2006

This is an excellent question, since battles over sexuality have dominated the religion beat for a decade or two.

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, religion-beat profesionals began to see signs that the progressive wing of the mainline Protestant world — led, in this case, by the Presbyterian Church (USA) — was seeking theological language to declare sexual intercourse, in or out of marriage, a sacrament in and of itself.

Of course this was linked to the gay issue, but the issue is much bigger than that. Some liberal theologians — in a burst of candor — began to say that adultery was not always a sin and that the Holy Spirit might, in some cases, lead a person into adultery. “The wind blows where it will” and all of that. I have searched the World Wide Web and I cannot find a good summary of the crucial document, which was the 1991 report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality in the PCUSA. The chair was a United Church of Christ intellectual named John Carey.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church was arguing about some similar topics, led, as always, by the candor of Bishop Jack Spong of Newark. A key moment came in 1991 with the defeat of the “(Bishop William C.) Frey Amendment,” which simply stated that Episcopal clergy should not have sex outside of marriage. This was too controversial to pass.

But the events on the left were only part of the story, in my opinion.

In the typical “conservative” church, pastors were falling strangely silent on the sins that beset their own flocks, mostly sex outside of marriage and before marriage, while they were often trumpeting their churches’ beliefs on the sexual activities of gays and lesbians. It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue.

I thought it was interesting that I was told, while working on one of my earliest columns about the “True Love Waits” movement, that some of the strongest opposition to the concept came from adults, not teens. The problem was that pastors could not offend divorced deacons or other adults in the church who were having sex before marriage or outside of their marriages.

When it comes to sex, the typical conservative pastor is much more afraid to talk about premarital or extramarital sex than about homosexuality. There is a story there, I think, and it’s an important story.

The emphasis in Christian tradition is on sex and marriage. A journalist who asks religious leaders this question — “Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?” — will disturb many on the left and the right and, I have found, will almost always gain new information.

Again, my goal in creating the tmatt trio questions was journalistic, not theological. I was trying to find out what questions would get me past that old political left vs. right divide.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Hmm, pastors afraid to tackle that “sex outside/before marriage” issue, eh. And we wonder why divorce is as bad, if maybe not worse, than with society as a whole. And if that trend keeps up, it makes a mockery of the “preservation of marriage” plank trumpted by conservatives. We do have to tend to our own house and have respect for marriage before we accuse others of not respecting it.

    I remember growing up in the 70′s and attending college in the 80′s and the refrain was against marriage because “[we] don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love.” Now suddenly that “piece of paper” is worth something. Go figure.

  • brian orme

    It’s a valid q, for sure. The plank-in-the-eye motto is an apt description. I thought about it during the election and all the campaigns against gay-marriage from the religious right, but I didn’t see any campaigns against divorce or to help marriages within the church…it made me think.

    Also, tmatt, I didn’t make the connection until now, I’ve read this blog for a while and I picked up your book “pop” and I’m enjoying it.


  • Alexei

    Well, it seems to me that there are many different positions within Christianity on sex:

    1) It’s dirty, and should be avoided at all costs. Only procreation (within marriage) can sanctify sex.

    2) Anything goes. I think this is closely linked to the ‘spiritualization’ of sex. (Which is baffling to me.)

    3) Get married first; then, anything goes. (More baffling.)

    4) Sex is neither good nor bad in itself; the sacrament of marriage is necessary, but not sufficient, for sanctification.

    Hopefully #4 is a good paraphrase of Orthodox doctrine.

  • Jay

    Living in California, and having attended several tradionalist parishes, there are a lot of planks around.

    For the Baby Boom and younger generations, chastity outside of marriage seems an idea that’s rarely achieved. The pressures of the culture here in California are such that there are few 30-year-old virgins. Is it better for people to get married at 20 or 22 (with a high risk of divorce) or to not get married but (in many cases) not be chaste?

    This seems a small part of that whole sin thing — sin is such a downer when trying to fill the pews, which is why the megachurches tend not to emphasize it. Couldn’t we all get a NEW new covenant that just rips up that part of our responsibilities? Pretty please??

    We all fall short of divine perfection. What sins are worth mentioning? Which is worse, to hold up an ideal and not achieve it (as many traditionalists do) or to say “that no longer is a sin”? I wish I had an answer.

  • Kristine J

    “When it comes to sex, the typical conservative pastor is much more afraid to talk about premarital or extramarital sex than about homosexuality. There is a story there, I think, and it’s an important story.”

    Yes, it is – but, of course, nobody wants to read or hear that story. In the past 15 years, I’ve had 7 pastors, 5 of whom had been divorced, and one who was having an affair with the church secretary. I wonder if it’s difficult for pastors to preach against the very sins they themselves can’t claim victory over? Or, as the adulterer said before he was asked to leave our church, “I’m not really sinning, because I was divorced from my wife before I started having sex with my secretary.”

  • Alexei


    Dosteovsky once wrote that, at some point, people began to justify their own sins. To him, it was the shibboleth of the modern world.

    I’m not sure it’s necessarily a modern thing…I dunno. But I think we’re far better off if we at least know we’re committing evil. One saint said that if you can see yourself for what you really are, it’s a greater miracle than raising the dead.

  • Rathje

    Growing up a Mormon, I’ve always heard the evils of extra-marital sex emphasized and re-emphasized in every official and non-official church context imaginable. “Chastity” is a pretty key thing in our faith. To a lesser extent, it’s the same with divorce (although I suppose you might debate whether that issue is being soft-pedaled or not).

    I guess I just assumed that our Protestant neighbors were taking the same stance. Apparently they aren’t as much as I thought. That’s too bad.

  • Jeff

    Nope. Mainline/oldline Protestant church leadership has been on, as TMatt says, a four decade long march from a) stopping the virtual banishment of divorced clergy (a step i supported for what i thought were proper reasons) to b) the affirmation of sex in and of itself as, if not a sacrament, at least as a redemptive act turning flesh to spirit. The more mean-spirited (such as me, on a bad day) would note that when more than half of all your denominational leaders are divorced, they want to get post-facto approval of their lifestyle choices, and the support of the homosexual agenda develops a rather interesting subtext.

    Now we have clergy cohabiting in parsonages, and only the “old fuddy-duddies” have a problem with that. I believe that much of the energy supporting gay/lesbian persons in the church has sprung from straights with issues of continence and chastity, which — may i also note — isn’t the fault of gay/lesbian persons. It does make the debate tough, but i am fairly conservative in my denomination, and i’ve never felt uncomfortable or the focus of anger and rage from homosexually oriented persons discussing their views with me . . . with heterosexuals who are “affirming” alternative lifestyles, almost always the exchange gets very tense very fast. It took me years to figure out why; i may be wrong, but it has explained a great deal and helped me sort through some tense conversations.

    Peace, Jeff

  • kerner

    “Is it better for people to get married at 20 or 22, or…not be chaste?”

    Society today is not set up to promote chastity. We have so heavily weighted the criteria for “readiness” for marriage (college, graduate school, home ownership) that nobody is “ready” for marriage at an age when they are likely to still be a virgin. Expecting a significant percentage of any generation (especially in this cultural environment) to maintain chastity until age 30 seems pretty unrealistic to me, yet how many upper-middle class Christian parents want their children to consider marriage at age 18-22?. Is there any movement among Christians to encourage young people to be emotionally mature enough to marry at an early age? (this would involve confronting this culture, not following it). We are simply getting what our prioities are.

    “now suddenly that piece of paper is worth something. Go figure.”

    I’ve been practicing law for 26 years, and one of the things I’ve learned is that if a mutual commitment is important, you write it down and sign it, and if it’s really important, you take the signed commitment down to the courthouse and file it somewhere, so nobody forgets what they committed to. This is just common sense, something greatly lacking in the 70′s and 80′s.

  • Janette

    Just a word about a word: sacrament. Tmatt is Orthodox, and in both the Orthodox and Catholic (note the capital letters) traditions marriage is one of seven sacraments. In Protestant traditions, there are either two sacraments (baptism and communion) or none (just ordinances). So for Protestants, marriage is not a sacrament, it is a civil contract. Whenever we speak from the position of our faith tradition, we should know what our words mean. If you are Protestant, you should not say that marriage is a sacrament, unless you’re ready to convert.

    I am part of the Reformed tradition. I do not recognize marriage as a sacrament, but I do respect its boundaries. I still hear preaching and teaching against pre- and extra-marital sex (actually pre- is extra-), but I have seen a softening on the issue of divorce over the course of my life (45 years). Whenever I have been a teacher I have taught that for Christians sex is for marriage only. I guess I accept remarriage after divorce because one marriage was legally ended and then another could be legally made. However, I do wish Christians were much, much more reluctant to divorce than they seem to be.

    I do not consider chastity an unobtainable or unrealistic ideal even when people don’t marry young, nor do I consider celibacy an impossible standard for people with a homosexual orientation. It’s difficult, but then living out the principles of our faith is difficult. If we think it’s so hard “in our culture,” then we’re too much of the world as well as in it. We might as well say it’s unrealistic to expect Christians not to be materialistic, or not to use profane or obscene language. Pretty soon we say, well, it’s too much to ask that do anything differently from those who do not share our faith.

  • kerner

    Easy Janette, I don’t think I really disagree with you. I did not mean that our culture has made chastity TOO difficult; I meant that our society, by encouraging postponing marriage until later in life, has made chastity MORE difficult. When something becomes MORE difficult, more people will fail at it.

    What I meant was, our culture has placed material prosperity at a much higher priority level than it has placed chastity. I also meant that we Christians, by acquiescing to a culture that is organized in such a way that it makes chastity more difficult to keep, are partly responsible for the failures of those who fail to keep it.

    What I meant was, Christians should do what we can to organize our culture (or at least organize our own subculture) in such a way as make chastity EASIER to keep. And, that probably includes doing what we can to make it a more viable alternative for young Christians to marry at an earlier age.

  • Maggie

    Allowing for the fact that almost 50 years have passed since I took a Jesuit taught theology of marriage course in college, I vaguely remember that the sacrament of marriage is administered by the couple to each other. The priest is only there as the official witness of the church. When not done according to the laws of the RC church, marriages can be either illicit (technically flawed but correctable) or invalid (impossible under any circumstances). The classic example is the man and woman stranded on a desert island, who would be able to enter into a valid marriage if a priest were available, etc. Assuming they make binding commitments to each other, they would be considered married in the eyes of the RC church. This suggests that pre-marital sex by an engaged couple falls into the illicit category but that a gay marriage would be considered invalid.
    Consequently, not all sexual activity outside of marriage is equally sinful. Perhaps someone with more current knowledge of the RC theology of marriage could add to this….

  • Dominic Glisinski

    Strange…I just posted on this topic over on VirtueOnline, under an item written by Dr. Rob Sanders, “A Call to Husbands”.
    I see my singleness as a gift, something from God to be valued. Life as a single man is a hard school of discipline, yes, but I firmly believe the lessons it has taught, and continue to teach me, are obtainable in no other way. I have struggled with loneliness at times, but chastity? Not really. I have no close relationships with women, other than as sisters and friends in the Body of Christ. I do not understand the seemingly suicidal rush that people are in to experience sensual pleasure, whether that be through sex or other means. A day of fasting, prayer, and meditation seems to me to offer more lasting satisfaction, a closer bond with my Saviour, deeper fellowship, stronger devotion.

    Maybe that explains why no women want me? I’m 95% monk ;)