If we don’t bring the Gospel into the present with some flexible, it might break before it bends. For some people, it’s worth it to just ruin the whole movement over some fundamentalized point they make, some teaching that the whole crux of the religion is based on that we can’t compromise on. The war that we can’t afford to lose, the hill we are willing to die on.
Just because we do end up compromising doesn’t mean that God’s plan for us has changed, but I think he ends up being gracious to meet us where we are for the sake of his Kingdom. A few examples before we get to the heart of what we’re talking about today. We don’t think of this much as a compromise, but sin was never part of God’s plan for us. Say what you will about the historicity of the Adam & Eve story, but it’s clear that God’s plan, if you read the first few chapters of Genesis, is for us not to fall away from Him. The basic command is for Adam and Eve not to eat of this tree that will enlighten them to the evil of the world, subject them to do it, and lead to their death.
After humans do, God proceeds to offer alternatives to his perfect plan and it all ends with the sacrifice of His own Son, the Word of God, Jesus. Calling Jesus’ death and resurrection a compromise is odd, but clearly that wasn’t God’s original plan for us, at least according to Adam & Eve.
Paul wouldn’t just say that Jesus’ life and death was an exception to the rule, it was an exception to the rules. Jesus said he came to bring something new. And so something new now we are living out of. Jesus changed the whole world and changed how we think about salvation and it coming through a perfect following of God’s plan.
The era of perfection is over, Adam and Eve took it with them, and now there’s a new way to salvation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for God’s plan; but the church should include people and a society that just has cultural norms that make the idea seem way too out there.
Here is he is on marriage (well, divorce) in Matthew 19. He lays out some basic theology that is, again, God’s ideal plan. The first thought he has is that marriage is ideally between a man and a woman, lifelong, and without adultery. Sex is best had in a marriage. And to those who divorce, his disciples add that it best for them not to remarry. Jesus says that there are certain people called to celibacy and it makes it clear that not everyone is.
Jesus helps us think about how we relate sexually, but he doesn’t overemphasize it. When we obsess about it, we isolate people all the time. People called to celibacy, people who happen to be single, and people who are trying to find a date, but can’t. If we overemphasize companionship, our judgment will preceded us and then people won’t want to respond to God. People have actually told me that they don’t feel comfortable in a church because they aren’t married! When did that become anything? Paul pretty much says the whole thing is a distraction anyway.
But when it comes to God’s perfect plan, we need to help people follow it as best as they can. I think that’s what Jesus is asking of us too. When we make these exceptions for the sake of the Gospel, we need to be left with a Gospel though.
The teachings we have on marriage, sex, cohabitation, sexuality, and all of these things are up for discussion, but from my perspective I want to be an includers, empathizers, and understanders. Too often the church is known for its judgment. Our judgment keeping people from following Jesus is decidedly not what Jesus wanted. If your vitriol and prejudice is keeping people from being convinced of Jesus, you’re guilty of a pretty heavy duty crime.
I want to channel my inner-Paul in his adaptability, and of course, my inner-Jesus in his graciousness. The details of that are best worked out interpersonally, and I think our cell leaders should lead us in that effort. Since we are often talking about people’s personal sex lives, we can’t generalize. But we can agree to be gracious and generous. Understanding and empathic. Offering the benefit of the doubt before judgment. Being soft before being certain. Being gentle, not resolute.
But the thing I want to distill from this whole discussion is that God has a plan for sex and marriage because he cares about it. Here’s what Jesus has taught us in Circle of Hope:
How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
The truth is you can remove sexually from that proverb and still get a fundamental truth out of it. The whole point of the interdependence of the church is that nothing is isolated. What you do affects me. All the time. We have a relationship.
I think we generally can agree to that basic idea, but I think it’s harder to get there when we talk about how we relate sexually. But for us, in a community, I’d like us to work to some basic assumptions.
It’s true that if you don’t live in community and you don’t interact much with people with whom you’ve been intimate after the fact than you can lead a life that seems like sex doesn’t affect anyone else. That’s probably because you are simply blind to its effects, rather than impervious to them. You aren’t noticing other people and might not be self-aware enough to notice them in yourself.
It’s possible that the pain you’ve experienced through past sexual encounters could make us numb enough to really not feel the pain that our sex lives could be costing us in their current manifestation. Furthermore, sometimes the pain of loneliness is so great, that the undisciplined intimacy we maneuver our way through seems like it is less costly than our own pain. Selfishly navigating through our sex lives will not only lead to bad sex, it’ll lead to bad relating with others too.
Not only is that the case, but the more intimate we get (and the faster that it happens), the more potentially damaging the relationship can become for us and for the community. Bad break ups, which are sometimes more like divorces when we are talking about cohabiting and sex, can rip apart communities. This is common knowledge for the most part. People in our society do realize that divorce is hard and can truly affect the lives of others. This isn’t a conservative statement, right?
In the church when people leave each other, they often leave Jesus too. Sometimes the fact that a relationship doesn’t honor Jesus is a reason is to leave as well. The lesson here isn’t about never breaking up or something, it’s just about realizing that there could be cosmic and immediate consequences to a reckless relationship. And of course, most of the time we don’t get into reckless situations on purpose. The leader of the 100-car-pile-up probably thought the way he or she was driving was fine.
So here are a few words:
1) Idolizing marriage violates the kingdom of God. Oh, the evils of Valentine’s Day—romance is the end-all-be-all of our existence. Being single isn’t a curse. But it’s not easy to see it as it a blessing. It’s a painful, difficult, and arduous. Can we agree to be sensitive to individuals are don’t want to be single and are? I don’t think the joy of marriage and raising a family together should be quenched, but please don’t make it your salvation. I’m happily married with a daughter, it’s awesome, but it’s not everything. The church has had enough of that and all we get are kids who rebel against their crazy parents and then deconstruct their dumb rules and do what they want. The nuclear family is overrated. Let’s emphasize our kingdom community first.
2) Let Jesus lead you, not your emotions. Discern carefully. No matter what people say, your loneliness is not as painful as a poorly constructed relationship without good basic agreements and Jesus in the middle of it. When your relationship ends, it’ll hurt worse; when you are bound to marriage, again, it’ll hurt. Keep Jesus centered. Traverse carefully when you are venturing into physical territory. Don’t make agreements when it doesn’t make sense to make them, like when you’re topless already. Immediate gratification is rarely worth it and it’s not as good as thoughtful, decent, vulnerable sex anyway.
3) When it doesn’t work, just do it better next time. You don’t have to fall into the same traps with each relationship. Debrief them, ponder them, and wonder about them. It’s OK to even go out on a few dates with different people before you marry them. Serial monogamy isn’t always helpful. Lower your expectations and enjoy the fun. Enjoy your life all the time, and be discerning about when you care more about happiness then your soul. But when you screw up, just resolve to work it together or by yourself to improve the situation. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t start applying rules to yourself that you can’t be flexible with. I think Jesus wants us to be as flexible with ourselves as He is with us. Be gentle with yourself. There’s only so much anxiety you can bear.