Saturday, May 11, 2013

Deconstructing a question about Christian attitudes to sexuality.

Recently a question came up as to why Christians receive very little flack for their negative views of sex before marriage, and a much greater and more virulent amount for their disapproval of  homosexuality. Before answering this question I want to unpack the assumptions in the question.

The first point to make is that a question addressing both sex before marriage and homosexuality can lead us to reduce homosexuality to just sex in order to compare the two as similar moral acts. In fact, I think the question unfairly implies that this can/should be done. No-one is suggesting that heterosexuality before marriage is disapproved of in its entirety by any Christians. Indeed, as the father of a young girl, heterosexuality is something which has been creepily put upon her from infancy by all sorts. People suggested within twenty-four hours of her birth that she will break boys’ hearts. Certainly dating, courtship, enjoying romantic stories, admiring others and enjoying admiration in ways that are consistent with heterosexuality are tolerated, if not celebrated, before marriage by people who still disapprove of (heterosexual) sex before marriage. People who disapprove of homosexuality seldom wait until the pants come off before the disapproval applies.

An exception to the above might be found in the celibate orders of the Catholic church. There and only there have I ever encountered a general acceptance of heterosexual or homosexual attraction equally and a separate and distinct objection to the practical rubbing of genitals together or heavy petting. (I am deliberately avoiding making any reference to sexual abuse by Catholic clergy here. It’s too serious to overlook or to glibly joke about.) In fact the Catholic Church officially considers homosexual sex to be wrong in common with oral sex, anal sex or mutual masturbation in a heterosexual married relationship. All are non-procreative. That rather rarified view of sexual sin is not a generally held one even among Catholic laity.
The second point to make is that Christian views on sex before marriage and homosexuality are diverse (as the above distinction drawn between Catholic clergy and laity shows). Definitely in regard to homosexuality there is vocal support for loving and committed homosexual relationships among a growing number of Christians. I would suggest that Christian opinion on homosexuality is about as pluralistic as Christian positions on birth-control or euthanasia. (I would appreciate any links to research on Christian attitudes to homosexuality if readers can suggest some).

Similarly there are many non-Christians who share a disapproval of both sex before marriage and homosexual expression, married or not. Christians don’t own the conflation of these disapprovals which the original question might suggest. However this blog’s bias is that I know Christianity far better than any other faith or even ethical system. Therefore when I answer this question I’m going to be thinking foremost of the Christians who hold both views, rather than the Muslims or Buddhists. I’d be happy to receive comments from others with different experiences.

Before attempting to answer it I’d like to tidy up this question to account for the above problematic points. At first it seems easy to just clarify who we are discussing by referring to “those Christians who disapprove of homosexuality and sex-before marriage” rather than just to Christians. However when we consider people who hold both views in question we are really just drawing a convenient category. Some people who disapprove of homosexuality and sex-before marriage are going to disapprove of them in the context of also disapproving of divorce and contraception, others are not. It’s somewhat arbitrary to treat homosexuality and sex-before marriage in isolation. For some people we will have missed the point of their views by doing so.

There are also some people who would disagree with sex-outside of marriage who might only disapprove of homosexuality on that basis too. I think my mother might well fit that space. My mother is not inclined to view homosexuality as immoral itself despite that being the attitude of her upbringing. She holds now, I think, that God makes some people that way. She has a problem with promiscuity however and she would encourage people to make a marriage commitment to be together for ever before shacking up. (Mum, please comment if I have your views wrong by the way). Now she is in a position of feeling like homosexual sex is somewhat wrong for occurring outside of marriage but she would say that this is hardly gay people’s fault seeing as we (wider society) are not allowing them to get married. I’m also arbitrarily excluding such views as these when answering this question.

It’s even harder to adjust definitions in the question for the difference between the moral acts being discussed. One is about the act of having sex and the other about a whole range of romantic and sexual expressions.  One way to resolve that difference is to consider a point at which people who disapprove of sex-before marriage and homosexuality would encounter a more similar test of their approval. That’s the point when people in some form of solid unmarried straight or gay relationship might want recognition. Now we are comparing a bit more apples and apples.

Even there can we really say that any community, other than the exclusive aforementioned catholic ordained, has a common disapproval of de facto heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships? Hypothetically it’s possible but practically does it exist? I live in a de facto opposite sex relationship and in circles where that is frowned upon I still feel I have to additionally and dramatically come out as someone who doesn’t disapprove of homosexuality. By comparison my de facto status is barely ever an issue.

I think that despite my lack of directly experiencing it, there are people who do have a kind of sameness to their attitude towards sex-outside of marriage and homosexuality. You can see something of it in such writing as by Vaughan Roberts. Practically they may not express it in the same way however. That’s about power and privilege as much as anything. Gay people are a minority and, living in a regional town as I do, it is often just presumed by people that they are nowhere around. Statistically speaking more often they aren’t - just ask any gay rural people trying to find partners. That makes it less confrontational to condemn them than the obviously in-the-room pre-maritally fornicating heterosexuals. It’s a case of politeness… sort of.

Note: I am reflecting here on my own repeated personal experience. Evangelical Christians are regularly inviting me to events were homosexuality is presumed to be absent. Evangelical Christians are regularly holding discussions about gay relationships and “the homosexual question” with me but are much more muted about the unmarried nature of my own heterosexual relationship. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt that this is borne of some kind of politeness.

It should also be noted that an unmarried heterosexual relationship just isn’t the same kind of upset to heterosexually organized churches as a gay relationship is. My partner has been invited to attend conservative Christian mothers’ groups. Realistically the lack of a ring on her finger just doesn’t have to come up that much, unlike if any invite had to go to her and her partner as well. So there is a pragmatic basis for the different expression of moral disdain for my relationship and for a gay relationship. It’s less of a challenge to people’s own relationships.

Honestly based on my experience the only time someone who disapproves of homosexuality and sex before marriage reaches some point of convergence in expressing those views is in the appointment of a church leader or role model. Until that point the two views are expressed so differently it’s not fair to compare them. Maybe they just are receiving different flack because of the difference in their expression; maybe people receive more hostility for saying homosexuality is wrong because they actually say it more often and more insensitively than they make statements about defacto heterosexuality.

Hence I think if we want to properly investigate the question of “why Christians in particular receive very little flack for their views on sex-before marriage and a much greater and more virulent amount for their views on homosexuality” then we have to reserve that for asking about appointing people to Christian leadership positions. I think it’s a fairer question to ask.

Unfortunately it’s also a much narrower question and less interesting question. My first response is that I don’t really care what a church does with its own ministers. So no flack will be received from me regarding views on homosexuality and sex-before marriage that impacts on those appointments. That’s not entirely true as I feel sad and angry when churches exclude women from leadership but so long as belonging to those churches is voluntary I accept a level of it being none of my business.

However I have a problem with schools and hospitals that get public funding discriminating against people based on their relationship status. In fact I think I would be just as appalled at a publicly subsidized school firing an unmarried mother as I would them firing a gay man or lesbian. So in those situations it is equal flack from me in response to views on homosexuality and sex-before marriage that impacts on those appointments.

I’d really appreciate other people’s thoughts on this. I got really excited by the question at the start of this piece because I thought it might finally be the right way to approach something I've wanted to say for a while; that the morality of homosexuality is an issue in which a great many other battles over the nature of sin and god are being fought by all sides. I do think gay people and their lives are being used symbolically for other causes, like biblical literalism for example. I had hoped to come at those points from this question. However I think once I've unpacked the assumptions in this question it ceases to be a very good approach at all.

What do you reckon?


  1. To clarify, (for the sake of readers who may have guessed the "question" referred to was asked by Tony's brother Simon) I did not ask why Christians get flack for their opposition to homosexuality a lot more than their opposition to sex before marriage. I specifically asked the following:
    It's interesting that most Christian pastors would agree with and preach about the teaching in the bible that says sex outside of marriage is against God's design and instruction. Why aren't they also accused of preaching "hate speech" against all those guys sleeping with their girlfriends? Why aren't they labelled as "fornicaphobic"?

    I then clarified it with the following:
    To not skirt around the issue... If a Christian says that they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong the worst they are called is "old fashioned" but if they say that they believe sex between two people of the same gender is wrong, they are called "hateful" or "homophobic".

    I do think that a Christian's position on sexual expression should be based on the basic principle that sex was designed by God as a gift for and an expression of marriage (that is, a life long monogamous covenant between a man and a woman). Same-sex sex is just as "out of the bounds" as unmarried sex, or adulterous sex even if it is consensual, for that matter. There is no difference in the sin. My question is why there is a difference in the reaction from others.

    Upon reflection, I can understand why there is a difference of reaction, which I won't go into right now. I simply wanted to clarify that if this blog addressed a question, it wasn't the one I asked.

  2. Simon, I appreciate your comment. The question you asked is indeed what raised this question for me. I felt the way you put the question just wasn't grounded in reality. Hence I fixed it and so much that I didn't feel it was appropriate to reference you. Your question wasn't this question - it merely raised this question for me.

    You know your own community better than I do however are there really Christians there that object only to same-sex sex but not to the full gamut of homosexuality? I just don't think that's a common view (outside of the celibate orders I mentioned). Heterosexuality sans the sex is celebrated before marriage, homosexuality is not. Basically if we are asking why Christians are called homophobic for their attitudes to sexuality we should address the actual attitudes and the expressions of those attitudes that receives that condemnation.

    That's ultimately the stumbling block I couldn't get past in this piece. It isn't until we get to appointing Christian rolemodels that Christians who oppose homosexuality and sex -before marriage actually start treating the two in the same way. That's been my experience.

    I regret not getting past this stumbling block because I think the two "sins" are different and were someone to genuinely express the same dissaproval for sex -before marriage and homosexual sex in similar ways (outside of leadership appointments) I would have good reasons for reacting differently to those dissaprovals though not entirely. I will have another go at this but I think it is very important to get the approach right or the whole topic becomes prejudiced in some way.

  3. Why do we have to have the "homo" in front of sexuality? The morality of sexuality is the question in my mind when I read this piece. I think you can answer this whole question with the "golden rule" - Do unto others... If we deconstruct our relationships to a human person to person level, gender becomes irrelevant. Greater imperitives such as a persons vulnerability to harm or the abuse of power become the main moral determinants.

    Religions create dogma (and therefor the concept of sin) in an attempt to structure how we apply the golden rule in practice (at best). At worst, dogma is used as a mechanism of control and power. Dogma is essentially bound to fail (or only work part of the time for part of the people) as modus operandii because we are all different and each persons relationship is unique.

    I wonder about encouraging the development of personal ideals and ethics not by dictating them through institutions. Instead they could be developed through a process of active learning and feedback. You quickly learn the benefits and morality of "doing unto others as you would have done to you" if you get the opportunity to really find out how the other party feels as a consequence of your actions. My faith is not in "the Church" but in the humanity (and godliness) of people themselves.

    1. Thanks for commenting Sara, I really share those sentiments. I hope they increasingly become the norm.

      I like how you put the way dogma is used in its best and worst forms. I agree it is best used as a guide to the application of the golden rule - rather than rules upon rules sacred in themselves.

      You might enjoy a much older post of mine on this topic - which I still stand by -