Dr. Aimee Patterson, a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, recently gave an interview to Faith Today about sexual ethics in the church, what pastors need to watch for and the #MeToo campaign. (Photo: Thomas Fricke Photography)
What is a Christian sexual ethic?
Aimee Patterson: Like any other kind of part of who we are and what we do, our ethics come from our faith. Among the other sources we use, our faith is made up of what we believe Scripture says to us and what our community of faith says to us. When it comes to sexuality, there are particular things we need to consider. It’s important we know we are called to be embodied creatures. That is a significant part of who we are as created beings. It’s also about relationship. We are in relationship together. It also concerns the rules around relationships and what it means to engage with another person in a sexual way. What kind of ethics might surround that relationship?
Ethics aren’t there to just provide constraints. They are also to inspire creativity and generate new opportunities for us to live well together. When we talk about sexual ethics, we tend to talk about what we shouldn’t do, or mustn’t do, but we don’t engage very often about what is good about sexual relationships.
Let’s unpack that then. What do we believe is good?
Often in the church context when we talk about sexual relationships, we are very much oriented around procreation and providing a family environment. That is not insignificant, of course, but when we focus on this, we might forget that sex has other good purposes, too. We can receive and give pleasure, we can receive and give gratification, but also a sense of intimacy and a bond between the person we are intimate with. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be engaged sexually, of course. We value people who choose to be celibate and what they bring to relationships.
We can talk also about things like what it means to respect the other person. What does it mean to balance your desires with those of the other person? What does it mean to nurture in a sexual relationship? There has to be an internal sense you are trustworthy, but also that the other person believes you are trustworthy. That’s why it’s important to have relationships that last over time. The sexuality part of the relationship has to be introduced gradually and hopefully in the context of marriage.
Ethics aren’t there to just provide constraints. They are also to inspire creativity and generate new opportunities for us to live well together.
So right now, in our culture and society, we are dealing in a very widespread way with people in power acting badly in sexual ways toward those who might be vulnerable. How might this play out in the church?
In the church, as well as in our culture, we are called to respect each other, and certainly in the church we are called to respect people because they have intrinsic dignity by virtue of being created in the image of God. This is part of the reason why our relationships have to be attended to in very careful ways. We know egregious acts of sexual impropriety disregard human dignity, but the church fails to pay sufficient attention to the more nuanced ways sexuality comes into the mix in our churches.
It is really common to experience a sense of discomfort when the person who has caused the discomfort has not intended that. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to ask ourselves, “What just happened here? Am I interpreting this correctly?” I think this may be why a lot of men have responded to the #MeToo campaign with questions like, “But what have I done wrong? I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.” There was also a #NotAllMen campaign going around.
How can the church help us sort through these things?
I think what is not helpful is when we read Scripture and don’t look for the voice of Scripture that says men and women both have important roles in the kingdom of God. We’re not always reading it aware that both partners have to make contributions to the relationships, and those contributions are not to disempower one person, but to build them up.
Nothing is more important in marriage than that it is meant to mirror a kingdom of God image. Christ did not come to make us more vulnerable. He came to make us the sons and daughters of God. Those are the kinds of things we look for in Scripture when it comes to marriage.
Can you speak to us about how pastors and church leaders sort through these things, and avoid making big or even small mistakes that hurt people?
I teach cadets in the Salvation Army tradition, and then it’s a different kind of conversation. The conversation then is about the people in their care. We also talk about the nuances of being in an intimate kind of pastoral care relationship and that is where complexity lies.
We are all called to be trustworthy people. We are supposed to live in a community where we trust other people to help us become more Christlike. We should not be living in an atmosphere of distrust, or [an environment where] we feel we need to be wary.
That is especially important for the pastor who is held to a higher standard. Being trustworthy is central to who they are and essential for their ministry. Even a small slip-up can destroy the sense the pastor is trustworthy. Even the perception of untrustworthiness can destroy that. In Scripture, leaders are called to be blameless, to test and prove themselves before they become leaders. That is non-negotiable. That is part of what I think seminary is for.
By virtue of the fact the pastor is leading a community, there is a power imbalance. Pastors are not called to exploit that, but they do have an authority within the community. They are more at risk when it comes to perception. But their role requires them to carry out intimate relationships with people. People share with them things they would never share with anyone else.
There are reasons why we have those straightforward boundaries pastors can engage. They protect the relationship as well as the integrity and reputation of the pastor. But we still don’t do a good job of exploring the subtler risks. With intimacy comes the potential for a natural attraction to the other person. It may not be something either party anticipates. It might even be unclear to people if the attraction is sexual. And this is where things have the potential to be murky or unclear.
Say the pastor thinks that a person in need, needs a hug. I remember being a counsellor at summer camp and we had rules about hugging. We ministered to campers who were socially marginalized. It was not uncommon for counsellors to want to give the kids a big bear hug. You want the kid to feel the love of God. And yet the rules were for a side hug. And so are those rules good or bad? Is there a place for a big bear hug? The person receiving the hug might say, “This is just what I needed.” Or they might say, “I’m sure the pastor doesn’t mean anything by this.” Or they might say, “This is uncomfortable.”
There are a lot of situations where you just don’t know.
And that’s where a lot of the discussions need to be. We can put windows in our office doors, we can make sure our conversations are in the open, but it’s in those moments when a person needs an experience of Christ’s love, that’s where the murkiness can come in.
So we have to ask ourselves, “Where is the problem here? Is it with intimacy? Should we forbid intimate pastoral relationships?” Most of us would say no. We need to build relationships with those who are vulnerable. So we ask ourselves, “Where can we locate the problem?” I think it’s in a lack of self-awareness and a lack of awareness of the other person. That awareness only comes through self-examination, a concept as old as Plato. It is about holding ourselves to account, testing our motives. Why are we giving someone a bear hug? Is this person likely to misinterpret this hug I’m giving them?
As Christians we are called to serve the best interests of other people, and to help people in need, and recognize that when we do have desires, we need to respond appropriately to them.
Pastors can practise this kind of self-examination through having an accountability partner. If you are in a relationship of confidentiality with an accountability partner, the aim is to create openness. You are more likely to be able to confess something. You are more likely to be honest in your intentions. You might ask, “How can I respond to this desire? Am I taking advantage of how they are feeling? Do I need to pass this relationship onto someone else?”
We are just not used to talking about these things openly. The church talks to teenagers in a youth group about what you can and can’t do, and why you shouldn’t have sex outside marriage, but the conversation in the church seems to end there.
This article first appeared in Faith Today’s January/February 2018 issue. Used with permission.