Thursday, April 23, 2009

Southern Baptists and Sex

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.


Bob Cleveland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Cleveland said...


Good for you, tackling a tough subject.

I can say one thing from the perspective of 70 years: every earthly pleasure gets old. We've traveled more than I ever dreamed, owned more and nicer houses that I thought possible, had more new cars than most, and am retired in a better position that I'd have believed 20 years ago. And it's all gotten old.

But day after day, week after week, Spiritual things never ever lose their thrill, and they are unique in that respect.

On this earth, sooner or later, we'll get tired of anything and everything. Except for the Spiritual things, and I think it has something to do with "new every morning".

Dave Miller said...

Have you actually read Merritt's article? You said he was "announcing a softening of the Southern Baptist position on homosexual activity and all-but-endorsing homosexual civil unions."

He simply did not do that. He specifically said that homosexuality was a sin and that he did not support a redefinition of marriage.

I believe that you misrepresent what he said.

Dave Miller said...

While I think you misrepresented Jonathan Merritt, I appreciated the post.

mike fox said...

good post; i didn't get the sense that merritt was saying what you think was, but perhaps i'm influenced by the fact that i'm hoping he wasn't endorsing homosexuality. still, i thought he opposed the act but sort of endorsed the fact that we christians must somehow demonstrate love to the people.

still, i like what you're saying about sex dominating our verbiage. good grief, baptist megachurch pastors will do anything to get people without preaching the gospel.

Tim G said...

Great job. You always take discussions to new heights! You are appreciated!

Baptist Theologue (Mike Morris) said...

Maybe LifeWay will determine how many hours the average Southern Baptists spends watching television. My assumption is that the world has adversely influenced our pulpits and Sunday School classes because so many of us watch so much TV and browse the wrong things on the computer. Satan could not have invented better tools to infiltrate our homes. I have no statistics in front of me, but I sense that many TV programs that our folks watch promote sexual fulfillment (usually outside of marriage) as the ultimate goal of life. I think we need to stress that Christianity is a 24/7 commitment rather than a one-hour commitment on Sunday morning. I was hoping that the economic downturn would be a wake-up call that would spur revival among Southern Baptists as they sense God's judgment on
America, but such has not yet happened. We have squandered the financial resources of our nation, and we have also squandered the relatively high moral standards that used to be prevalent in our nation. I confess to being pessimistic about the future of America. Even professing Christians seem more interested in sex than Jesus. That's idolatry, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Our culture and many of our churches have become over sexualized.

I appreciate the discussion and candor of our current generation. I do not at all want a return to Victorian standards. But I don't care for the obsession with this topic.

Augustine may be one of the best human examples from whom we can learn.

The C.S. Lewis quote was excellent, too. As was Bob Cleveland's comment.


Chris Gilliam said...

Thanks Bart.

Bart Barber said...

If I read him correctly, he was not endorsing same-sex marriage, but was endorsing the major line of argumentation for civil unions, viz., the acknowledgement of homosexual couples as couples with the same probate status or HIPPAA status as a spouse.

Bart Barber said...

For some reason none of these comments came to me by email. And I've been out of town. So I apologize for not responding at all until now.