Christian Sex, Christian Ethics – By Marvin M. Ellison

Marvin M. Ellison on Jung and Stephens’s Professional Sexual Ethics

Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Fortress Press, 2013, 244pp., $24
Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Fortress Press, 2013, 244pp., $24
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When it comes to sex and sexuality, Christians are often at their worst: fearful yet fixated, discomforted by difference, reactive and punitive, rigid and judgmental, shaming, blaming, and, alas, unforgiving. Over the long haul Christianity has displayed a robust sex-negativity and an equally tenacious patriarchal bias. A patriarchalized Christian morality of love-as-control only thinly masks abuse. The entire conventional Christian ethic of intimate and social relations is in need of a major overhaul, given both Christians’ general dis-ease with bodies, women, and difference and the fact that the Christian legacy is thoroughly infused with hierarchical presumptions of (white, affluent) male entitlement.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Spirit continues to “trouble the waters.” At various moments communities of resistance and alternative consciousness have emerged and lifted up prophetic critique and visions of hope and possibility. Ours is such a moment. From the cultural margins, world-majority communities, along with their First-World allies, are engaging in faith-inspired resistance, challenging multiple forms of injustice, and embracing a liberating spirituality that places justice-making and community renewal at the center of the faithful, good life.

The editors of Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach are no strangers to these spiritual movements of renewal and transformation and, in fact, have helped to shape Christian feminist theological discourse about sexuality, sexual abuse, and integrity in ministerial leadership. More to the point, both are spirited veterans of the church’s ongoing “sex wars,” no matter whether the locus of battle has been women’s leadership, LBGTQ equality and inclusion, or clergy sexual abuse scandals. Patricia Beattie Jung, who teaches Christian ethics at a United Methodist seminary, has co-edited and contributed to Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions and co-authored Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge among other publications. Her colleague Darryl Stephens has served as a national staff person for the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, during which time he was that denomination’s point person for dealing with ministerial ethics and clergy misconduct.

As working ethicists with academic and practical interests, Jung and Stephens recognize the need for a “holistic approach to ministry” that pays attention to the place of sexuality in personal, professional, and community life, both when things go well and when things go awry. They are also familiar with, appreciative of, and determined to expand on the best literature in the field on ethics, ministry, and sexuality. As a Christian social ethicist who also writes about sexual justice as an indispensable component of a comprehensive social justice, I have much appreciation for their work, including this latest effort to deepen the conversation about ethical leadership in Christian faith communities.

When opening this edited collection of essays, I was heartened by the fact that the contributors include pastors “on the frontlines” as well as scholars. Further, the scholarly disciplines represented by the nearly two dozen essays cover the scope of theological education from pastoral care and preaching to biblical studies and ethics. I had also hoped that the contributors would employ a critical, even feminist and liberationist justice framework in tackling issues of sexuality and ministerial leadership. While those justice sensibilities are present in many of the essays, I find an overall lack of coherency in viewpoint and strategy. Without such coherence, how will the church ever acquire a deeper understanding of sexuality or confront its complicity in sexual suffering?

Initially, I thought that the book might lack coherence because the editors had taken on such an ambitious project: nothing less than rethinking sexuality, sexual ethics, and sexual education, especially for ministerial leaders. Granted, the scope of the project is wide, but the mishmash derives from elsewhere. Unfortunately, the contributors do not share a common social analysis of sexuality or sexual abuse. One tipoff is that they do not use the same language to identify the problem. Most authors name the problem as unethical professional conduct, more specifically as sexual exploitation and the misuse of professional power and role by the ministerial leader who sexualizes the pastoral relationship and takes advantage of congregants or staff, especially at times of vulnerability and stress. The sin is not sex, but rather sexual abuse and the exploitation of the less powerful. But there are others who name the problem as if it is sexual immorality, especially the sin of clergy adultery when pastors and other faith leaders engage in “extramarital affairs” and succumb to the “lure of sin” by failing to handle the “sex drive.” For these contributors, the problem is sex.

As a whole the book could also offer more guidance about how to discern and adjudicate carefully among diverse sources for Christian ethical analysis. In their Introduction, the editors point out that Christians have customarily turned to multiple sources of moral wisdom: Scripture, tradition, traditions of interpretation and reasoning, and “an ethic arising from the experiences of the disenfranchised.” So far, so good. Rightly they recognize that when it comes to moral knowing, it’s wise to consider the source.

Moral knowing, like other modes of knowledge, is situated knowledge, grounded in and reflective of particular histories. Moral knowing is also interested — that is, invested in altering or maintaining current social power. Many argue, and I agree, that when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, it is feminists, abuse survivors, and LBGTQ persons, among others, who have indispensable moral insights that the church at large desperately needs for its own recovery from a sex-negative, patriarchalized legacy. Scripture and tradition remain valued resources, but only as they are interpreted with a justice lens. In this instance, the experiential wisdom of feminist, LBGTQ, and others who actively resist Christianity’s racist, patriarchal captivity provides that lens. But here’s the rub: for many Christians, there is a tendency to distance from, discount, and even dismiss those who show anger, demand justice, or “flaunt it” by acting differently — that is, anyone who is too feminist, too queer, and too Other.

Reliable moral knowledge about sexual abuse has emerged precisely because survivors of sexual violence, harassment, and exploitation, including child and adult survivors of clergy misconduct have spoken out and demanded justice. Those suffering sexual abuse at the hands of clergy have bravely come forward to express their moral indignation, share their stories about struggling against moral evil, and insist that church as well as abusers be called to account. So, too, feminists and LBGTQ persons of all colors, as well as their many allies among clergy and congregants, have pressed for a debunking of patriarchal Christianity’s sex-phobia and demanded that the church develop a sexually sane, communally articulated Christian revaluation of sex, sexual difference, and ethically principled intimate relationality.

Many of this book’s contributors are in sync with these justice-oriented voices, but not all. The editors would have done readers a good service by tipping their hand in their Introduction and explaining why they had chosen this particular sampling of diverse, even clashing theological — and ideological – perspectives. Left unspoken, the rationale for their design seems unclear and puzzling.

If readers randomly select certain essays, they will find encouragement to adopt a sex-positive appreciation of how sexuality is intrinsic to life, including the lives of clergy and other faith leaders (Kate Ott, “Sexuality, Health, and Integrity”), and also intrinsic to ministry (Cristina Traina, “Erotic Attunements: Rethinking Love Across Pastoral Power Gradients”), such that “to minister well, we must resist the impulse to repress [the] pleasures of deep connection. . . . Instead, we must embrace them.” The volume ends with Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s “Sex and the Pastoral Life,” in which she smartly encourages faith leaders to “get a life – a sexual life,” but to do so only with the proper partner in the proper place. “In a nutshell,” she writes, “one must know one’s desires and one must learn to express them openly and appropriately.”

Many authors emphasize that sex should be pleasurable. Miguel De La Torre begins his essay with “Toe-curling, earth-shaking, climax-reaching sex is great!” Moreover, good sex is good because it is both erotically powerful and ethically principled, that is, when it is experienced “in its proper place: intimate, committed, just, mutual relationships outside one’s place of employment.” Other authors, however, express their doubts about this framing of sexuality and of ethical sex. Stanley Hauerwas argues that “to try to develop a sexual ethic on the basis of what makes sex good will never work,” or again, when it comes to clergy sexual misconduct, he writes, “But I have never been convinced it is merely a matter of power. It really is a matter of sex. That it really is a matter of sex, moreover, is a reminder that sex, whether between strangers or those who have been long married, can be and often is a very violent physical act.” He concludes that “part of the problem is that the church no longer knows what it wants to or needs to say about sex.”

Confusion may abound, but I suspect the problem is not that Christians are confused so much as they are conflicted, deeply divided between those who link sexuality and justice and those who continue to link sex with purity. On this score, educator Boyung Lee’s “Teaching Sexual Ethics in Faith Communities” offers a helpful differentiation among the church’s explicit curriculum (the formal content taught), the implicit curriculum (taught by the way teachers interact with learners), and the null curriculum, what is intentionally left out and withheld from students. The lesson here is that for many, the pervasive silence in their congregations about sexuality and sexual abuse can be as harmful as any negative sex-talk. Without language, without the capacity to name reality and express their truth, people are disempowered and left unfree. On this score, I appreciate F. Douglas Powe’s willingness to critique clergy abuse within African-American congregations and for his case study of Bishop Eddie Long’s abuse of multiple congregants. The “null curriculum” present in his chapter, however, blocks out any explication of the telling fact that the congregants whom Bishop Long abused were men or analysis of how heterosexism creates additional barriers that prevent congregations from offering victims/survivors justice and healing.

As De La Torre spells out in his essay, the church will not manage to address either sexuality or sexual ethics cogently until it becomes more fully “aware of how sexism, heterosexism, and even racism and classism have influenced past and current conversations on sexual ethics.” I wholeheartedly agree. I also resonate with his appeal for adopting an explicitly liberative methodology. Such an approach listens to and learns from those usually ignored and too often silenced, especially victims/survivors of sexual abuse. It also requires us to ask, time and time again, about the use and misuse of power and resources, including who benefits and who is put at disadvantage by current arrangements. It also pushes for revamping religious and other cultural norms and patterns that prevent people, especially those on the margins, from experiencing an abundant life. “For sex to be liberating,” De La Torre concludes, “sexuality must be understood as relational and, hence, as a justice issue.”

For this volume, a certain difficulty may also lie in the editors’ choice to address sexual ethics of faith leaders under the rubric of professionalism rather than as a wider concern about negotiating relational connections, always a complex and ongoing challenge, in communities, including congregations. As historian Samuel Laeuchli has argued in Power and Sexuality, clericalism and other hierarchical patterns of social power have often relied on sexual control to cement their power-as-control, especially through stigmatizing “heretics” as sexual deviants and imposing rigid rules and severe penalties upon almost everyone. Sexual injustice and clericalism go hand in glove. I would have welcomed reading more consistently that the problem is best defined not as an individualized, psychologized problem of “lonely” clergy or one to be remedied by better “self-care” management. Rather, clergy sexual abuse is a social problem embedded within the structures of clericalism and reinforced by patriarchal Christianity’s use of sexual control to maintain power and resource inequities.

Diane Garland and her colleagues at Baylor University School of Social Work have gotten this right in their study “How Clergy Sexual Misconduct Happens.” They clarify that the problem of clergy misconduct will not be resolved by changing, much less booting out, a few “bad apples,” but only by deeply transforming congregational culture with its codes of silence and secrecy, settled patterns of conflict avoidance, and uncritical deference to power and status. The moral of the story is that educating and enlisting congregations to embrace democratic, egalitarian practices has become the necessary pathway for spiritual and communal renewal.

Moving forward will happen only when those acting in resistance to unjust social practices and power inequities are recognized for their moral authority about these matters. Their perspectives must inform any serious effort to heal sexual alienation and sexual injustice. I was vividly reminded of this when I recently attended a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics and joined a discussion, instigated by a paper given by Karen Guth, about assessing the legacy of John Howard Yoder. Yoder was a Mennonite theologian well known for his writings and advocacy in behalf of Christian pacifism. Also now known publicly is that Yoder, now deceased, engaged over many decades in sexual harassing and abusing women students, colleagues, and members of the Mennonite community. The question placed on the table by members of the Christian Ethics guild was posed this way: how do we uphold the value of Yoder’s theological contributions without discounting his misconduct, which led to the loss of his credentials as a Mennonite theologian?

In light of the wisdom found in Jung and Stephens’s book, that framing is inadequate for two reasons. First, “valuing Yoder” or protecting his reputation as a Christian pacifist is not the primary order of the day. Rather, the central concern should be holding him – and holding us — accountable for perpetuating violence against women by our own missteps that have silenced victims, minimized the harm, and protected the powerful from the consequences of their wrongful behavior. As Jung and Stephens emphasize, our personal and professional credibility depend on our responding to injustice in a timely, constructive manner.

Second, the truly exemplary theologian-activists of Christian non-violence are the women survivors of Yoder’s abuse. Against the odds, they courageously stepped forward, demanded justice not retribution, and called both Yoder and the wider Mennonite community to account. Again as Jung and Stephens help us to see, we should honor the collective power and wisdom of such communities of resistance and alternative consciousness as sources of fresh theological vision and truth telling, not only about violence/violation but also about the requirements of authentic peacemaking and relational justice.

For those seeking to understand and practice sexual health, sanity, and justice within and by congregations, Jung and Stephen’s smart and provocative book, when read with a critical as well as appreciative eye, offers a welcome resource for moving forward on that demanding journey.