The question this week is hard to distill into something catchy because it's a fairly serious issue. when you find yourself at theological odds with someone over a sensitive issue, how do you minister to their needs without getting hung up on the bigger issue? In other words, how do you keep from preaching when you should be pastoring?
I have a question that is bothering and, because my church has far more men in ministry than women, I am at odds as to who to turn to and am hoping that you have something to offer.
Recently I have had two conversations with women at church who are having sex with their boyfriends. Both have been committed Christians for some time and both know the biblical basis for why this is not acceptable. In fact, I had difficulty telling them that they shouldn't be as I have never considered myself a prude but feel prudish for saying it. I am concerned that saying anything to them gives away more about me rather than their choices. To put it bluntly, I don't know if I should say anything to them and, if I do speak to them, what do I say? How do I support them in continuing their relationship but within safe parameters? - even that questions sounds trite. What right do I have to tell people how they should choose to live their lives? After all, they have made a personal choice after weighing up the biblical facts so do they need me coming along and rehashing it all for them?
Your instincts are serving you well, here. You know you have your feelings on it, but that's not going to help the person in crisis or even the person who's just concerned.
The matriarchs agree that your best course of action is to find out what's going on in their hearts, and talk about their relationships in the context of their relationships with God.
it is certainly hard when we believe something strongly and feel that it may get in way of our pastoral relationship with someone. Or it seems that the essence of what you're asking is "What is my pastoral responsibility and appropriate response?"
Though the issues may differ, I know what it is to strongly disapprove of something that someone in the congregation is doing. I try to bring myself back to the very heart of our faith. Is the issue that threatens to separate us TRULY the core of the gospel of Jesus the Christ? For me, the core of the gospel of Jesus the Christ is the love, compassion, and forgiveness that transforms lives. Therefore, the issue that drives me crazy must be approached from that perspective. Understandings, interpretations,and actions can only be formed and transformed through love, compassion and forgiveness.
Second, I most often find that if we are going to talk about an issue, a discussion of our faith perspectives, of what God is doing in our lives is more productive than MY telling someone that their behavior is unacceptable. There are, of course, exceptions—for instance, the issue of abuse. In the situation our sister describes, it could be very helpful her to hear how these parishioners experience God in their relationships. And for them to think about what constitutes a healthy relationship for them.
I always though I was crazy liberal about sex until I met the parishioner who told me she was sleeping with four different guys. I felt like a humongous prude just saying, "Do you think that's a good plan?"
I would ask these Christian women if their relationships are glorifying God. (How's that for sounding conservative?) Seriously, that is the big issue. I frankly know that sex before marriage is not necessarily the sin-of-sins that many of us have been taught in certain circumstances. Maybe this is one of those situations. Or maybe not. Do they feel closer to God in these relationships?
Does this relationship make them the people God created them to be? Or do they pretend God's not in the know?
There are really good reasons why premarital sex can be scary (pregnancy, disease, etc.). You are their pastor, and it's okay for you to say this if necessary/possible.
Ann, who in the true sense of matriarch often uses some week's questions to engage in a conversation with her 30-year-old daughter, got this from her discussion:
Sex between consenting adults that is not abusive is a private matter. The women know what your church teaches and have made their own decisions. The Bible is unclear on rules for sexual behavior. You often hear "no marriage, no sex" but throughout the history of Christianity practice has varied. For most of history marriage was only for people of property - as the woman was a part of that property and the church was the guardian of the community property. e.g. The rogation rites of "beating the bounds" was a way of communal remembering property boundaries.
As to marriage - often people just lived together with no church blessing. Sometimes, once children were born - people got married. Marriage was also a way of protecting the male's bloodline since he could not be assured that the children were his until recently with DNA testing. (Here is an interesting sidebar that talks about the history and the future of marriage.)
If the woman comes to you with questions or concerns about her relationship then I would listen and try to determine what she needs and what sort of help she needs - referring her if necessary to people who can help - doctors, domestic violence experts.
Overall, it is good if the church has courses or workshops on healthy relationships, safe sex and concerns about promiscuity: to start the conversation. It can help them guard against the state of being overwhelmed by attraction in the moment. It also allows you to be seen as someone trustworthy to talk to about these issues. These kinds of programs can also help model to young people—who are often overwhelmed with their feelings and drowning in questions about sexuality—that adults should take relationships that involve sex seriously, and that intimacy with another person is a gift not to be taken lightly.
So, RevGals, what say you? There are infinite issues on which we might have strong beliefs and discover that a parishioner in need of pastoral help that requires us to set aside that belief--at least until we get through the situation. Share your thoughts with us in the comments!