When it comes to sexuality, we need boundaries and we want them. But often in our church relationships, we don’t know how to communicate appropriate boundaries:
- A pastor is dismayed to find herself visiting with a male parishioner who seems to assume delightedly that sexual possibilities are attached to the special interest and time she has given him.
- A Sunday-morning worshiper, receiving a hug during the “passing of the peace” before communion, suddenly feels the other worshiper’s hand sliding and rubbing in ways that seem sexually suggestive.
- A senior patient in a nursing home craves a gentle, loving touch instead of the rough, impatient handling she receives at the hands of the busy attendants who change her sheets or check her temperature. She wonders if she could ask her pastor (who visits regularly) for a hug—or will the pastor misunderstand what she wants?
- A gay pastor must hide his sexual identity and his relationship with his life partner or be ousted from the ministry to which God has called him. He wants to give a comforting hug to the teenager who has burst into tears after coming to confide problems he’s having at school. But the pastor hesitates, worrying that certain people might raise accusations if he even touched the young man on the shoulder reassuringly.
Pastors and parishioners who find themselves in these kinds of everyday encounters may long for established, appropriate sexual boundaries. Either they want to communicate those boundaries directly to a church lay or staff member, or they wish that a set of rules were in place that church leaders and members had already agreed upon. Church people long for a trusting faith community whose participants all assume that the agreed-upon rules about appropriate sexual boundaries apply in all church interactions, and they behave accordingly.
Let’s Talk About Sex
In many situations we find it difficult to discuss the topic of sexuality. When we are in a romantic situation—for example, being out on “a date”—sexual communication tends to be nonverbal. We send complex “signals” to let the other person know whether we feel any sexual attraction. In a romantic situation we generally let the other know in a nonverbal way whether we want to be touched or kissed. However, even in dating situations we can get into trouble by relying on nonverbal communication about sexuality. We can misunderstand “the signals” and behave disrespectfully, violating the other’s trust.
In church settings not designed for a romantic purpose, such as Sunday morning worship, business meetings, or pastoral counseling sessions, we can definitely get into trouble by relying upon nonverbal signals to convey messages about sexuality. We have to talk about sexual boundaries in church. We need to clarify our expectations of one another, starting from our theological understandings of how God calls us to care for each other. Can we develop guidelines about ethical sexual conduct for the whole congregation? In light of the unique power and authority vested in clergy, what is appropriate sexual conduct for the pastoral staff in relating to parishioners? How should parishioners treat the staff in terms of ethical sexual conduct? How should parishioners treat one another in church? Most churches wait for a crisis—for example, when an already-committed breach of trust becomes widely known—before setting up such guidelines. Even when congregations have adopted formal guidelines about appropriate conduct, they rarely have ongoing discussions about how to keep that covenant with one another.
Identity: The Unfamiliar is Uncomfortable
Ironically, the fact that we need sexual boundaries is often precisely what makes some of us uncomfortable with people in our communities who identify themselves as bisexual or transgendered. Some, who may be gay or heterosexual, find it impossible to believe those who describe their sexual orientation as including sexual attraction to both males and females, as bisexual individuals do. (For example, on several occasions, I’ve heard the derisive comment: “Bisexuals are just gay people in denial.”) Similarly, possessing a sexual orientation that uniquely combines sex (biology) and gender (male/female) identity, as transgendered people do, may be unfamiliar to some—in which case, bisexual and transgendered people in our communities introduce unfamiliar ways that God has formed human creation.
Therefore, for some, when familiar classifications of people’s sexual makeup are broadened in this way, we have to expand our understanding of God’s creative power, and that is an awesome spiritual challenge. How do we find ways to talk about what makes us fearful about individuals whose sexual identities cross the boundaries of categories that are the most well known to us? How do we find approaches, rooted in God’s call to us about how to treat one another, that break the silence and end the hurtful shunning of people who have boundary-crossing sexual identities?
Some More Vulnerable Than Others
On the one hand, when negotiating sexual boundaries, we are often unable to talk about our fears and other feelings related to sexual attraction and sexual identity. But on the other hand, the topic of sexuality is being discussed incessantly in our society, especially in the church. Issues of sexuality dominate discussions in church life across many Protestant denominations. Because of this current climate, some of the people present (or who should be present) are more vulnerable than others in the discussions of sexuality that I recommend. Certain social labels attached to our identities create boundaries between us. These boundaries include moral characterizations of our identities that label some as superior and others as inferior. These boundaries protect some and invite attacks on others.
If we are heterosexual, we are usually pretty clear that our own sexuality is an intimate and vulnerable dimension of who we are. More important, we don’t have to worry that our sexuality will be debated at some denominational gathering or state legislative session. We don’t have to fear that, however partial or distorted the depiction of our sexuality might be at such a meeting, rules based upon that demeaning depiction will be enacted about our basic rights as church members or as citizens. If we are heterosexual, a basic ingredient in the boundary surrounding our sexual identity is protection. Our sexual identity is not stigmatized, shamed, or used as an excuse to discriminate against us or to beat us up. We don’t have to enter into self-revealing dialogues to persuade people not to hurt us in these ways. (I had a friend who was willing to discuss her lesbian sexuality with Christians who condemned her or felt they did not understand what it meant to be a lesbian. She was asked by one group member: “What exactly do you and your partner do in the bed together when you have sex?”)
If we are heterosexual, married, parents of children, and economically advantaged, we have no stigma attached to us—unlike the poor single mothers who need welfare assistance, especially black and Latina women in poverty. Their sexuality has been openly discussed by politicians and policy-makers at hearings in Congress and on op-ed pages of newspapers. Many of those opinion-givers labeled them as immoral women who seek sexual liaisons to have babies and to live off welfare payments. The current punitive welfare policy is based upon such erroneous, insulting characterizations.
Can we find a way to be especially concerned with welcoming God’s people who are cordoned off by these kinds of assaultive boundaries?
Sex and God
We urgently need more conversations about all of these boundary concerns. But most important, we need
theological reflection and more ethical practices.
Is it true that sexuality is a good gift from God and that our appreciation of this gift can strengthen our relationship to God? Or is sexuality a shameful, dirty, sinful aspect of our humanity that creates a boundary separating us from God?
If it is a precious gift of God, as I believe it to be, honoring God means honoring the preciousness of this gift in myself and in my neighbor. To honor this gift, we need to maintain sexual boundaries that foster respectful treatment. This means establishing sexual boundaries that will exclude and discourage coercion, violation, and exploitation. It also means tearing down institutional boundaries focused upon sexual identity that prevent a genuine welcome and full inclusion in Christ’s church. Making sure that we incorporate the right to privacy, dignity, and respectful treatment, we can create permeable social boundaries; that is, social boundaries with definitions and labels for sexual identity that are flexible and expansive. This approach allows for the possibility of intimacy without any sense of personal or political threat, and permits an awareness of God’s holy presence to thrive within that intimacy. It also allows recognition of the amazing variations in the unique imprint of God on human identity.