Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us

Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, in her latest article, Sex and the Single Minister, commends the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for their recent action that removed barriers to ordination for individuals in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

Then she writes:

All of this is excellent news for same-sex couples, of course, but the emphasis on "committed, lifelong relationships" leaves out the single minister, the divorced minister, the widowed minister -- whether gay, straight, or bisexual -- who must still adhere to a standard of celibacy unless their partner status changes.
Thank you, Rev. Haffner. We are not just talking about clergy or lay leaders in the church. The question is sexual ethics. The inherited (and largely unexamined) ethic is that all sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and sinful.

This is hardly an ethic. It is simply a rule. It says nothing of the quality of sexual activity within marriage including issues of power and consent, and it says nothing to the millions of people who are not married but (believe it or not) have sex.

There is no guidance for them from the church except be celibate or be silent.

The church can and should do better.

A book that I have been recommending for many years (in fact I can't find my copy as I must have lent it to someone) is Marie Fortune's Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us. She writes:

As a society we have all but abandoned the responsibility to equip people with the skills to make serious ethical choices. The right wing continues to promote "family values" as the answer to every problem. This is only a thinly veiled code phrase suggesting that whatever happens in heterosexual marriage is good. This underlying presumption only works if one is never confronted with real problems and choices. The so-called Christian right also presumes that the only real Christians are those who are anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-feminism. This is not true, but they succeed in their propaganda campaign because they are filling a vacuum left when many of religious and community leaders, lacking courage and imagination, have remained virtually speechless in the face of critical ethical questions about sexuality and relationships.

This book is about "family values"--the values we bring to and derive from our intimate relationships: values like respect, honesty, love, loyalty, safety, acceptance, and support. It is about how we can make some difficult decisions that are consistent with these values. It is also about religious values--the values we derive from our religious traditions and experiences such as courage, faithfulness, justice, and hope....

...This book is for those of us often left out of the discussion because we don't parrot an orthodox doctrine. It is for the rest of us who live in the real world and are faced everyday with hard choices in relation to those we love. pp. 15-6.
Parents have found this book helpful to have read before they talk to their children about sex. High school and college students will benefit as well. It is also a good book for a class.

In addition to Dr. Fortune's book, Marvin Ellison's Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality is excellent. The Religious Institute has a number of resources as well.

We need to have discussions about what is good, ethical, just, and life-affirming. As Rev. Haffner points out in her article:

The Religious Institute has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional "celibacy until marriage, chastity after." This new ethic is free of double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender or marital status. It calls for sexual relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable and protected, whether inside or outside of a covenanted relationship. It insists that intimate relationships be grounded in communication and shared values.

And it applies to all adults -- even those of us who are called to ministry.
I have endorsed this ethic as a religious leader. You are invited to as well:

Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing

Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear, and respond to the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth seeking, courageous, and just. We call for:

  • Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.

  • Full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same sex unions.

  • Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.

  • Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denomination.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society. We call for:

  • Lifelong, age appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries, and community settings.

  • A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment.

  • Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.


  1. Thanks Rev. John for telling your readers about the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing! and for your support!

    Rev. Debra W. Haffner

  2. Thank YOU, Debra. I appreciate your speaking out!