The National Association of Evangelicals has published a new booklet, "Theology of Sex," as part of an effort to encourage dialogue about how to reduce abortions in the U.S. I'm delighted that they are finally taking seriously the Religious Institute's longstanding call for denominations and other religious institutions to talk about human sexuality in the context of their own traditions and values.
And "Theology of Sex" does just that. I couldn't agree more with the NAE's understanding that the Bible teaches that sex is good, that "God established multiple purposes for sex," and that spouses must be committed to one another's sexual satisfaction. And I was surprised but gladdened to read their support of family planning. (This is an intriguing point of difference between the NAE and the Roman Catholic Church, and I wonder how it may affect the effort to forge alliances between evangelicals and Catholics.)
Although the NAE authors and I disagree on many points of sexual theology and the myriad sexual messages in the Bible, we share a commitment to a sexuality that is "joyful, nonexploitive, respectful, and aligned with God's creative intent."
You might even say that the NAE report is "good news" about sexuality -- if you are a heterosexual, married, monogamous adult. Not so much if you are one of the 104 million single adults in the U.S. -- that's more than 40% of the adult population -- whom the NAE believes should only express their sexuality "in a chaste way." The NAE insists that heterosexual marriage is the only context for sexual intimacy, and that cohabitation is still to be regarded as "living in sin."
While some singles may accept this ethic, it does not reflect the lives of most Americans. By age 25, 89% of single adults have had a sexual relationship. According to the largest study of sex in America, more than 70% of single adults in non-cohabitating relationships had sex with a partner last year. And 40% of births in the U.S. last year were out of wedlock.
Regardless of one's judgments on the morality behind these statistics, we must address the reality of them. Preaching a message of abstinence-only has proved to be ineffective in reducing unwanted pregnancies and the incidence of abortion -- both goals that the NAE says it hopes to achieve. As a minister and sexologist, I believe that adults, both married and single, have the right and responsibility to make their own responsible sexual decisions and ethical choices. "Just say no" didn't work in the garden of Eden, and it won't work now.
"Theology of Sex" is not good news if you are lesbian or gay, transgender or intersex. Despite mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, the NAE continues to define homosexuality as a "biological abnormality" and the male-female gender construction as not only fixed, but divinely ordered. The NAE position denies the experience of millions of lesbians and gay men who enjoy life-giving, life-fulfilling sexual relationships. And it ignores the very existence of transgender and intersex persons, who are not mentioned in "Theology of Sex." The NAE position here is not only out of step with contemporary understandings, it ignores sexual and gender diversity in Scripture and dishonors the diversity of creation, as we are only now beginning to perceive it.
Still, I am pleased to see the NAE breaking the silence around this central issue in people's lives. "Theology of Sex" encourages parents to talk with their children about sexuality, and calls on clergy and lay leaders to "teach positively and holistically the scriptural message about sexuality." But we must not stop there. It's curious that "Theology of Sex" does not address the need for congregation-based sexuality education, which would ensure that youth and adults not only cherish the blessings of sexuality, but have the information and skills to make healthy choices. The NAE might want to take a look at any of the more than a dozen faith-based sexuality curricula or at these ideas for implementing a program in their faith communities.
I also welcome the NAE's call for a fresh dialogue on abortion, for indeed we seek to work with all on responsible sexuality education and family planning. Surely the NAE will agree that the sanctity of life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly, and that every pregnancy is wanted and intended. Prevention is an important place of common ground.
The Religious Institute would be pleased to be invited to join the NAE in this dialogue. Just name the time and place.