Caution: This post contains some language more explicit than my standard fare.
Until I sat down and thought it through, I hadn't realized how much the topic of sex has dominated the online conversation of Southern Baptists in recent months. In a speech in Scotland Mark Driscoll promoted fellatio to the status of Christian ordinance, to which John MacArthur reacted recently, drawing the attention of Southern Baptists. MacArthur in the same series of articles took aim at the daily sex challenges promoted by people like Ed Young, Jr. Jonathan Merritt finagled an op-ed spot in USA Today ostensibly announcing a softening of the Southern Baptist position on homosexual activity and all-but-endorsing homosexual civil unions. Southern Baptist blogs reacted to that, as well. Sex, sex, sex! If we could just inaugurate a good reprise of the alcohol debate (drugs) and follow on with some wrangling over styles of worship (rock-and-roll), then we could have a blogging trifecta.
On the one hand, it is good that Southern Baptist voices are up-in-arms against Merritt's half-baked essay, but on the other hand, I don't know why anyone is at all surprised. Merritt is merely applying to homosexuality the arguments that long ago entirely defined the position of his father's generation toward divorce. And what has the outcome been? Divorce rates within the church have skyrocketed. From ignoring the implications of divorce upon spiritual health and church membership we've moved to an impending compromise of biblical limitations upon divorce in church leadership. Merritt's philippic against past Southern Baptist intolerance indirectly broaches the subject of divorce, reminding us that Southern Baptists already fall short of God's design in marriage. He rightly sees that the widespread acceptance of divorce as no big deal in Southern Baptist churches puts us in the place of the hypocrite when we dare to raise our ire against those engaged in homosexual acts. Not that divorce and homosexuality are biblically equivalent—Moses authorized no certificate of sodomy in the Old Testament. But specific exegetical questions aside, our general laissez-faire attitude toward carnality in Southern Baptist pews makes it disconcerting when we find our collective backbone.
Merritt's argument amounts to a call for us to treat homosexuality the way that we've been treating divorce. I think we might be well advised to do the converse and treat divorce a bit more in the manner that we've been treating homosexuality. Certainly any objective analysis would reveal that the de-facto Southern Baptist policy toward divorce has been an abject failure (unless one's entire goal is accomplished in the mere seduction of people to attend).
Driscoll, Young, and Merritt are the vanguards of an SBC that will talk exponentially more, and more freely, about sex and yet say all of the wrong things. In the midst of a culture full of people who so desperately need to find their solitary hope of genuine identity and fulfillment in their spiritual potential for a relationship with Christ, we're busy about showing the world that we, too, are capable of obsessing over our genitalia just as well as the next person. At least Augustine knew enough to pray for chastity, on whatever timetable. It would be better, I think, for us to look down at the ground around us and see where 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 might have fallen when we excised it from our Bibles. We should paste it right back in there and ponder a moment to see whether it doesn't offer us some important truth to balance out our mirthful contemplations of Hebrew 13:4 and the Canticles.
A healthy Southern Baptist attitude toward sex, I think, would make us neither Arthur Dimmesdale nor Larry Flynt. I'm impressed by the treatment of sexuality that C. S. Lewis gave in his autobiography Surprised by Joy:
One thing…I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it [Joy] is not a disguise for sexual desire.…I learned this mistake to be a mistake by the simple, if discreditable, process of repeatedly making it.… I repeatedly followed that path—to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a “lower” pleasure instead of a “higher.” It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. The hounds had changed scent. One had caught the wrong quarry. You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. I did not recoil from the erotic conclusion with chaste horror, exclaiming, "Not that!" My feelings could rather have been expressed in the words, "Quite. I see. But haven't we wandered from the real point?" Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.
We need to show the world that sex is not a bad thing, but neither is it the thing. There is something more important than sex! Paul apparently thought that the highest and most fulfilling aspirations of life could be had without sex at all—an heretical statement in our culture and in a great many of our churches today. But it is a statement that needs to be made not only in words but in action. Depraved and perverted souls all around us need not so much to learn how Christ relates to their sex life as to be led away from the poles of Asherah and introduced to something more eternal and more real…to be called to discover something so high and pure and beautiful and joyful that they would gladly abandon sex altogether, if needs be, just to have it in their lives.