Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In the midst of Indiana Yearly Meeting’s ongoing turmoil about homosexuality, the Bible, and the authority of the yearly meeting, a Friend writes, “it is clear even to the casual reader that God has something to say to his people about their bodies and their relationships.”
What is clear to me is only this: that the many things to be found in the Bible about human bodies and relationships, especially about sexuality, make a complex, confusing and even contradictory pastiche. I’ve found myself thinking we should work together, drawing on the Bible and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to develop a teaching – a testimony – on intimacy.
We often speak of testimonies as how we Friends connect belief to action. But just as much testimonies are clear, coherent teachings we distill out of worship, out of reading the Bible and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are teachings that reach deeper, especially on topics where the world can drag us away from God’s will.
Consider the Peace Testimony. Yes, it provides guidance for action growing out of our beliefs, but it also states clearly how we draw out of the multiple, sometimes confusing things the Bible says about killing and war a strong commitment to “live in that life and power that takes away the occasion for war”.
I’m thinking we need to do the same thing with regard to the multiple, sometimes confusing things that the Bible says about sexuality. I’m lead to think we should put the focus of such a testimony not on sex itself but on the pursuit of intimacy, a special kind of love and commitment two people can achieve that can draw them closer to understanding God’s love.
What I think people mean when they say there is a clear teaching about sexuality in the Bible is roughly this: that sex should only take place within the bounds of marriage, that marriage should only be between one man and one woman, that marriages should not be ended through divorce, and that there should be no sex outside the bonds of marriage (adultery, prostitution). Let’s call this the conventional account.
Yes, you can find Biblical support for these propositions. But you can also find Biblical support for other statements about marriage and sexuality. Polygany is clearly spoken of approvingly in a number of places. So, too is prostitution or concubinage. Marriage throughout the Old Testament often looks more like property arrangements of men over women rather than as partnerships for intimacy. There are approving accounts of sex before marriage (eg. Ruth and Boaz), and there is even the erotically charged Song of Solomon where sexual intimacy is celebrated with marriage nowhere in view.
Jesus says strong, clear things reinforcing the prohibitions on divorce and adultery. What the New Testament adds to the pastiche is a strong note of doubt about whether anyone should marry. We hear this from Jesus in three of the Gospels, and we hear this from Paul.
There is no way to stitch all these varied teachings together, not even limiting ourselves to one Testament or the other. If there is a comprehensive, implicit logic to (most of) the Old Testament teachings about sexuality it is “pronatalism:” adhere to those behaviors that maximize births of legitimate children, that is children with a clearly identified father. If there is a comprehensive, implicit logic to (most of) the New Testament teachings about sexuality, it is this: focus more on your relationship to God and to salvation than on your marriage or other intimate sexual relations, because the end of times is at hand.
Neither of these logics helps us understand how and why we should seek sexual intimacy with a partner. Neither helps us understand how loving a spouse in a special, faithful way is different from or adds to the love we try to fulfill for God or the love we try to fulfill for our many neighbors. The length of time between Jesus’s death and the end of times has proven longer than early Christians imagined. What should we be seeking through intimacy once we recognize that we are likely to live our whole natural lives?
A testimony of intimacy would try to understand and teach our best expectations for sexuality.
Friends have had very little to say about this. We have focused more on what not to do than on what we should be trying to achieve. The 1887 Richmond Declaration, included in all FUM Faith and Practices, barely mentions sex or sexuality. In its brief section on marriage it says that marriage “is a solemn engagement for the term of life, designed for the mutual assistance and comfort of both sexes, that they may be helpmeets to each other in things temporal and spiritual. To this end it should imply concurrence in spiritual as well as temporal concerns, and should be entered upon discreetly, soberly and in the fear of the Lord.” The Richmond Declaration tracks the conventional account, but one would hardly know that that sexual coupling was an aspect of marriage. (Notice, however, it says nothing directly about homosexuality.)
The Faith and Practice of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is more forthright and deviates from the conventional account. It declares, IYM(C) strives to be a community where all Friends can find love and acceptance in their efforts to establish committed relationships regardless of sexual orientation.” It also says, “Deep respect for that of God in each person requires that relationships be free of exploitation. Honesty, respect and empathy are fundamental for all sound relationships. The drive for physical intimacy is associated in human beings with a need for closeness on other levels as well. Loneliness cannot be overcome by sexual contacts lacking love and commitment. Concern for the well‐being of oneself and one’s partner requires mutual awareness of the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.”
This statement is very much in line with the one outstanding Quaker discussion of sexual matters, a 1963 pamphlet written by ten British Friends entitled “Towards A Quaker View of Sex.” Long out of print and difficult to find, that pamphlet would be an excellent starting point for developing a testimony of intimacy.