I’m a student at an evangelical seminary. One of the classes I’m required to take is a course on sexual ethics. We recently had a class discussion about the following case study: at a youth group meeting, one of the students-a young woman- was asked to share some words regarding her personal beliefs about God and sex. So, in front of all the other youth, she stated that she was sexually active with her boyfriend. At first, she said, they fought through guilt and sought forgiveness from the Lord. But eventually they came to the decision that since it felt good and made them happy, then it must be what God wanted for them. And so they planned to keep having sex.
We were asked, as a class, to analyze and discuss the ethical framework and worldview that undergirded her words. We were also asked how we would respond if this young woman came to us for moral guidance.
A twenty-something male student raised his hand and gave the following answer:
“When counseling this young woman, I would start by telling her that her behavior is totally outside the Christian worldview of sex.”
The discussion continued and class eventually ended. I went on with my day and returned home that evening. But, even after several hours, I still couldn’t get this statement out of my head.
It occurred to me that this statement represents a common attitude among Christians, one that is pervasive but also problematic. The statement made by my colleague reflects, not just a flaws in his approach to ministry, but amendable flaws that exist within the evangelical brand of Christianity.
The first flaw is that this approach begins with telling, which is neither helpful nor Christ-like. A Christian should be quick to listen. So often we hastily arrive at a spiritual diagnosis and immediately move forward with our prescribed course of treatment that we forget we are dealing with a human-being. In my social work education, we were continually reminded that the core conditions that must be present in order to help anyone are empathy, genuineness, and respect. If you aren’t willing to start there, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you can’t get anywhere. I wondered if that girl would have access to any of those in an evangelical church.
An analogous biblical example is the woman at the well. Empathy is seen in Jesus’s thirst. He begins his interaction by asking her for water. The great and powerful Messiah has humbled himself to the point of relying on another to provide for one of the most basic human needs. If sympathy is feeling for, then empathy is feeling with. “We’re both humans living in the desert. It’s hot. Care to share a drink together?” That’s empathy.
Jesus goes on to speak frankly with her about her marital relationships. The conversation is open and honest, or shall we say, genuine. He offers intimate parts of his own self as he requests the same from her. His authenticity doesn’t mean that he avoids the real truth issues. Far from it, his genuineness helps creates a context in which transformative communication can occur.
The second flaw in the student’s comment is the notion that Christians exist to give answers. This superiority complex is pervasive and damaging. We hide behind the assurance that walking someone through what the Bible says fulfills the responsibility we have to them. Our primary motivation becomes not helping but ensuring our viewpoints have been adequately expressed.
In the professional world this is called “covering your ass” and the attitude is all-too prevalent in the church. But we like to spiritualize it: “I told her what God thinks. Now it’s on her. My hands are clean and I’ll sleep easy tonight because I just scored another truth point for the gospel.” Walking someone through what “the Bible says” falls short of our full and true ministry calling, which is to walk with others through life. When we sacrificially offer ourselves to others, then we can hope that they will trust us enough to listen to what we are called to teach.
The final flaw with the statement the idea that, as Christians, we are authorized to speak to whomever about whatever, provided that it’s “in the name of Jesus.” At times it is neither prudent nor tactful to address a situation. And there are often other people whom are better equipped to speak into someone’s life. Is it even appropriate for an adult male to address and educate a teenage female on sexual matters? As Christians, I hope that we can instinctively call such circumstances into question.
Because we all play certain roles in the lives of those around us. The role of a parent has greater permission to speak into someone’s life than the role of a neighbor. And Christians need- especially when it comes to issues regarding sexuality- to discern how to identify and best operate according to the limits of the role we have in another’s life. We don’t need to play the prophet and intervene in every situation, especially when socially unwelcome or inappropriate.
As Christians, we carry a message of truth. But, being followers of Christ, we should be weary if not entirely avoidant of using this truth as a means of casting shame upon those around us. Jesus calls us to be as wise as serpents yet as innocent and gentle as doves. Discussions on personal matters of sexuality demand such a posture. When we lose our gentleness and wisdom, our truth does nothing to help people. Instead, we inadvertently heap burdens of shame where we should be pouring grace.
Let us not be known as those who spread shame in the name of truth; rather, let us be known as those who freely grant grace in the name of Christ.
Burton is a Master of Divinity student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. His educational and professional background is in social work and he intends to bring that experience to future ministry within the church. His passion is to see the church fulfill her role of being a place where those on the margins of society can find their true home. He can be followed at: instagram.com/burtola