The Religious Institute, Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary newsletter
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
Good gift, complex reality, relational vulnerability in trusting stewardship, embodied.
Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar and teacher?
I grew up in a United Methodist congregation that allowed room for questions. There were a lot of folks, mentors for me, living out St. Anselm’s motto, “faith seeking understanding.” Nevertheless, we lived in the South, and there were certain things you didn’t talk about at church.
For example, our choir director was gay and in a partnered relationship. He was a beloved member of this faith community, bringing joy and artistry to worship every week. After his death, the congregation named the choir room after him. But no one at that church has ever mentioned his sexuality in my presence, even to this day. So, I was given the tools of theological inquiry and the experience of inclusive love, but I had to go elsewhere to learn how to put them together.
This early faith-formation has shaped my scholarship in ways both obvious and subtle. As the title of my co-edited book indicates, I teach a “holistic approach” to professional sexual ethics in ministry, covering both healthy boundaries and healthy sexuality for religious leaders. I encourage religious leaders to find consistency and connection between their sexuality and their faith. When writing about homosexuality and the church, though, I try to approach the topic less directly, in a way that invites inquiry and exploration. In my book Methodist Morals, I draw parallels between the ways earlier generations of Methodists treated divorce and remarriage after divorce and the ways current Methodists treat homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I ask, what have we learned theologically from these moral crusades? What have we learned about our church and ourselves?
What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?
Theologically, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons.” The United Methodist Church has taught this affirmation for as long as it has denounced homosexuality. I remember attending a training workshop on our Social Principles as a college student and being astounded to learn that my church taught such a positive view of sex.
Historically, Christians have expressed discomfort with and downright hostility toward sexuality since the first century. This hostility to our embodied nature is most destructive when the tension between God’s good creation and our human proclivity to sin is resolved through a patriarchal lens. Patriarchal structures, typically reinforced by misogynistic beliefs and behaviors, make it nearly impossible to live fully into our affirmation of the goodness of sexuality.
How have your students challenged or surprised you in conversations about religion and sexuality?
Many of my theological students are already serving as local pastors. I am often surprised at their thoughtfulness and sensitivity to their parishioners’ needs and perspectives. For example, classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity focuses much less on determining the “right” moral stance and much more on determining how each of us as pastoral leaders can be in ministry with all persons, even those who hold opposing views on the “issue” of homosexuality.
Recently, in an online exchange, one of my students challenged me to honor both perspectives in discussions without either side feeling misrepresented. I had recommended a commentary about “continued discrimination” against LGBTQ persons in the church. She responded that this commentary might “alienate those who favor strict adherence to Scripture in matters relating to sexuality.” My reply, that homosexuals were being scapegoated through church law and a selective reading of scripture, while honest, still causes me to wonder if I provided her the best tools for ministry in her congregational context.
As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” How do you help students make connections between their theological education and their practical lives and ministries?
I try to make connections in both directions. A “practical theology” approach views theological education as a dialectic between theory and praxis. Our practical lives and ministries offer a lot for us to learn from, shaping our theology as profoundly as what we read and study in a classroom.
Many families, individuals, and congregations are struggling to discern God’s will in these times of intense social change, particularly with regard to how to be in ministry with persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Among moderate to progressive churches and their members, there is a great need for biblically-based, fully-inclusive sermons; innovative Bible study materials; and sharing stories of being in ministry with all persons. I believe Christians are hungry for spiritual encounters that encourage our questions, spark debate, nurture our souls, and inspire our hearts.
So, I am currently working on a book that arises from experiences in my congregation. Tentatively titled, Out of Exodus: A Biblical Journey of Open and Affirming Ministry, this book presents in parallel the stories of the Israelites becoming God’s people and this community of faith becoming a reconciling congregation, “recognizing the sacred worth of all people, including those of every sexual orientation and gender identity.” Included are sermons, stories, and testimonies from leaders and members of this congregation. This book is a witness that we can be both biblical and progressive in our faith.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions.
Book, activity, or article you love to teach when addressing religion and sexuality: Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, co-edited by Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens
Favorite self-care practice: Playing trumpet.
What you’re currently reading: I just finished Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele and am reading The Iliad aloud with my son.
The Rev. Darryl W. Stephens, Ph.D. is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Christian social ethicist, and scholar of ethics in and for the church.