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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Judging not lest we...

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.

From Jacque:

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.

Jan says:
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!


  1. Hmmm, am I just early or is no one willing to touch this topic?

    As an over 60 life-long celibate, I don't think I am the one to ask. But I would suggest asking someone who is sleeping around, what is the meaning of fidelity? And how do they plan to manifest fidelity when they do find the right one to marry?

    Sisters, I do need prayers, however. I am afraid I have come down with pneumonia and I have annual meeting on Sunday. Toss a few up there for me, please?

  2. Muthah+--it's not that you're early--I was late!

    Prayers your way. Pneumonia is serious and scary. Get better soon!

  3. As a woman who found herself in the dating scene in her late 30's after an early marriage, I could have used the sort of wisdom shared by our matriarchs. I stumbled my way through; mistakes were made!
    In talking about these matters with my young adult children, and with my 12-year-old, too, I stress living within the bounds of the Love Ethic laid down for us by Jesus: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves. Would an intimate relationship they might be considering be loving for themselves and for the potential partner? That's the standard I hope they will hold for their behavior toward others and their care for themselves.

  4. Dear muthah+ -- Please don't take that pneumonia lightly. The gospel will not perish if you have to reschedule your annual meeting.

    If the person who brought up the behaviour and implicitly asked "if it's OK" or implicitly challenged me to say it's not...if that person draws insight and understanding from reading things, I would recommend Rowan Williams' "The Body's Grace" -- an essay in Charles Hefling's book (he's the editor): "Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies."

    That's my instinct and also my weakness, I think -- when in doubt, throw a book at the question. When I had a comparable conversation with a woman who DOESN'T respond to text with the same kind of trust, I tried to take a kind of Ignatian tack. How does this arrangement, this behaviour, make you feel about drawing closer to God? and if it makes you unwilling, or uncomfortable, what are you going to do about it?

    Does anybody else have any thoughts on how to pastor the "LAT" group -- "Living Apart Together" -- often retired folks, who maintain both residences but are sexually intimate and unwilling to marry? I'd like to hear ...

  5. OK, so I'm the noob. I feel a little silly but here's what I'm thinkin...

    When Jesus confronted people with vehemence, it was those who were trying to look holy on the outside but were far from it in their hearts. His harshest words were for the religious elite. (dunno about you, but that makes me kinda shiver...)

    So I guess I would take a step back and ask myself... is this person doing spiritually overall?
    ...what has your church set as a biblical standard for leaders? We all sin so the standard can't be Ivory soap pure.
    ...are they acting at odds to their beliefs?? ...if they are saying they believe one thing and are acting another way, that's hypocrisy.
    ...if they are coming to you for advice or commiseration ("he loves having sex with me but doesn't want to commit to marriage") then you have license to address it as a gentle "well duh" moment
    ...are they moving towards Christ in their actions, knowledge and response to others or away? Do you see more or less of them these days? are they hungry to know the Gospel or trying to hide?

    There is an issue of purity and holiness and their understanding of it.

    And since I am among the least experienced, you can toss this whole comment. I won't be mad. ;)


  6. P.S. muthah+
    praying for healing

  7. Deb, I like what you say here.

    There seem like a lot of "it depends" going on here and you're asking good questions.

    That said, I think your question gets at a larger issue of Who We Are as church folk these days. For fear of being un-hip, he mainline church of my childhood (1970 and 80's) was so wishy-washy on behavior and sexual ethics that I came into early adulthood thinking the adults around me EXPECTED me to be sexually active. I knew a lot about being safe during sex, but not a lot about making good decisions about how to get there, and I dont think my experience was all that unusual.

    All a long way to say, it's important for us in the church to question behavior that the culture says is ok - not just sexual but in regards to other things, too, like consumerism and violence and etc. We can ask questions, like Deb has modeled for us here, in a way that is not judgemental but opening to the leading of the spirit.

  8. oh no muthah+, will be praying.

    I am kind of a prude myself, on this subject.

  9. Juniper
    There's another aspect of this here that you kind of touched on. I get a little heated when I see the sexed up images that represent "woman" in the media. That air-brushed buxom no zit woman bears little to no resemblance to the young women in the 20s that come to me with their hearts broken.

    Safe sex (i.e. no disease transmission) is one thing. But emotional safety is something else. And how to guide and suggest self-reflection and self-examination on this is quite a challenge...


  10. This is a thorny topic, but one we need to address for the 21st century- I am in agreement with Ann here, sex between committed and consenting adults is between them and God, she rightly points out that marriage via ceremony etc has not always been the cultural norm in Christianity. In previous centuries in the UK the marriage ceremony was conducted at the baptism of the first child!

    Like Deb says we need discenment and wisdom over how to speak about such issues, and compassion and concern need to be our motives. Mercy over judgement.

    Why are we so afraid of sex?

  11. Sally, it's interesting. I think American values are influenced by both that extreme freedom described by juniper and by a throwback to the first time period immortalized and idealized on TV: the 1950's. In the backs of our minds is a more "peaceful" time, in black and white, with no room for questions or expression of strong feelings. See the movie "Pleasantville" for a great exploration of that contrast.
    Sex *is* scary because it's so powerful, but it is also beautiful because it's so powerful.
    I don't think it's anything new for couples to have sex before being legally or religiously married. It's just that we live in a polarized society, and the control of other people's bodies, in one way or another, has become a point of polarization. A parishioner expressed shock over the movie "Juno," which she had not seen, and neither have I, but I said to her, "I feel pretty sure it does not PROMOTE teen pregnancy." If you've seen it and disagree, please let me know!

  12. Here's a another wrench to throw in the pile. In most states gay couples cannot get legally married. Also not all church's are willing to bless gay unions. Just wonderin'

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  14. Well, since we're getting personal, I was taught to wait and never considered doing anything else, and sex was an issue throughout and to the end of my first marriage. I did everything "right" and it turned out very wrong. I don't think there are any guarantees in human relationships.

  15. I come to this discussion as both "concerned party" and "object of concern."

    As many of you know, I am in a committed relationship with a partner. Because my denomination currently forbids its pastors to conduct weddings or even blessing-of-union ceremonies for gay folks, and we don't want to get our supportive pastor in hot water, we're left out in the cold. (Although we are seriously considering "leaving the reservation" and getting married/ by a clergyperson in a simpatico denomination.) So I know what it's like to know that the disapproving eyes of my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ are locked on me, and on my partner, for our supposedly inappropriate relationship.

    On the other Lutheran theology, marriage is not seen as some sort of state of being magically bestowed on a couple by church or by state, but rather a partnership that a couple enter into together -- the clergy's role in the proposition is speaking the faith community's blessing over the committed relationship that's already there. I certainly understand that dynamic to be in place in the case of what a previous poster described as LATs -- which many older adults must do for financial reasons, so they don't lose benefits and that's not an issue for me at all, and I don't really understand why it should be an issue for anyone.

    On the other hand, I certainly understand that casual/multiple "hookups" can be physically, emotionally and spiritually hurtful to people...and if children or the risk of pregnancy are involved, the potential damage to lives goes up exponentially. If I were speaking to someone who confided to me that this was what was going on in her/his life, my response would be a variation, "And how is that working for you?" Because, as my pastor notes, people whose lives are a mess usually understand, on some level, that they're in a mess, and just need some guidance understanding the why.

    In other words, "It all comes down to cases."

    I'd also point out that people who do engage in casual relationships, multiple relationships at once, etc., do so because they're longing for love and intimacy and meaning; because they're afraid of being alone; because perhaps they've never had an opportunity in their lives to live completely independently -- rather than understanding themselves as independent agents in the world, they understand themselves purely in terms of being part of a relationship; someone's daughter or girlfriend. So rather than condemning them, it's more helpful to understand their behavior in terms of what needs in their life are not being met, that lead them to engage in risky sexual behaviors/relationships.

  16. Here's my controversial point: I believe one can be a practicing Christian, moving towards Christ, and be having premarital sex (or committing some other activity deemed sinful). The point being that our relationship with God is not governed by rules; it's governed by relationship. If the women in question are willing to pray to God about their sex lives then it's up to the Holy Spirit to deal with them, not a person. A person may discuss relevant points of Biblical teaching, but it is not our place to convict. We are not free from certain laws: we are free from all the law. We abstain from doing certain things because God teaches us personally to do so, not because we are following a list of certain relevant laws from Leviticus.

    Here's my non-controversial point. We need to teach people about what true sex and true celibacy is. The book Real Sex is a fantastic book on this issue. I agree with points already made about emotional safety, glorifying God, loving others as ourselves. A discussion about how premarital sex affects those issues is valuable. And it never hurts to just honestly say to someone, "Hey, I know you're having sex with your boyfriend, and I don't think that's morally correct. But I love you and I trust you to be honest with me and with God about this." I have a friend who believes in God but not Jesus, and she has premarital sex. She knows that I think it's wrong. I know that she thinks it's perfectly right. And we're both ok with that.

  17. I have a parishioner in her twenties that is lving with a man. She is not married and has a child by this man and another child by another man she never married. This parishioner is my daughter.

    This has caused me to look at this type of behavior with love, even though I don't believe it is in the best interest of my daughter, my grandchildren or anyone else for that matter.

    It has made for interesting conversations with other parishioners. They are hesitant to say much to me, but it is obvious some have problems when my daughter takes part in the life of the church, such as helping with VBS or singing in church or serving on a committee.

    I believe that anything that
    separates us from God is sin. If sex before marriage separates us from God it is sinful. I don't think I could be in a relationship that included sex outside of marriage, because I believe it would cause me anxiety and that would separate me from God. If this is not a problem for a woman (and she can honestly say that it is not a problem)then then it is not an issue for her. But there are still those who will judge- and judgement is not always done in love.

    If I were to council someone considering taking the step to become that intimate with someone outside of marriage,I would caution them...

  18. Songbird I agree that there is a cultural difference here, European laisse faire? I'm not sure...certainly in mor evangelical circles sex outside marriage would be considered very wrong. My daughter lives with her partner, they are in their mid twenties and very committed, they certainly live as if they were married but see no need for the legal bit of paper- ( there are also issues of independence tied up with their feelings, Em is a feminist- I wonder why!!!?)

    I do believe that we must seek to love first, and make sure that any judgement is tempered with mercy second.

    This deep subject can and does become emotional- and so it should :-)

  19. I hate to back up the train on this conversation, but...

    "Recently I have had two conversations with women at church who are having sex with their boyfriends."
    Were the conversations about their sexual relationship or how do you know this? If the conversations were about their sexual relationship, or the development of their relationship, there is a path to further conversation. If you learned it elsewhere-WHOA!
    "Both have been committed Christians for some time and both know the biblical basis for why this is not acceptable." Do they?
    "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." What is the biblical basis for you telling them not to?
    You say "had" so it sounds like something was said? OR
    "I am concerned that saying anything to them gives away more about me rather than their choices." Have not said anything. They told you and you.. did not engage.
    Good to keep the conversation focused about the other person and not your story, but then again there are times when people need to know that we all make mistakes, but is this a mistake to you?
    " 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."
    If they have shared with you this development in their relationship, are you concerned for their safety for other reasons, like violent or dominant behaviors? Or are we just talking about sex? How is their relationship overall and does the boyfriend also attend? Is this a 2 week boyfriend or a long term relationship?
    "What right do I have to tell people how they should choose to live their lives?"
    Pastors are supposed to model and encourage the godly life. What does that mean to you?
    "After all, they have made a personal choice after weighing up the biblical facts"
    DO you know this?
    So do they need me coming along and rehashing it all for them?
    The lawyer side of my brain wonders, if they know what the Bible says, and if they made a point of telling you- why? For permission, for guidance?
    There is a distinction between preaching and pastoring.
    If the revelation came from them they may be looking for one of these. You might be able to talk about whether your assumption is correct, that they have thought this through and prayed about it. I guess maybe I am slow, but I just don't know enough. But these are all of the things I would be thinking about so that in the end, pastoral and not preachy is the result. Muthah+ prayers for your recovery.

  20. This deep subject can and does become emotional- and so it should :-)

    Well said, Sally.

    As a young-er adult, I had my position as a youth group leader challenged based on a disagreement on a particular choice I'd made with my life. It got a little nasty for a while (the person who had the issue wouldn't come to me, instead complained to other parents and the clergy).

    The most important support I got was from another woman who I knew perfectly well didn't agree with the choice either. She simply said, "You know, I have a hard time seeing how this arrangement works for a disciple of Christ. But I've known you for years, and I trust that you have thought through the implications, and have made this decision in the context of your Christian life."

    And she was right - I had. And her acknowledging that was SO important to me - and opened the door for us to talk about what I had and had not considered.

    I think its important to be able to talk about intimacy, sex, and a bunch of other things. Opening hard conversations from a place where we respect the person enough that they may have come to a thoughtful and prayerful decision can get us to a place to help them in case they haven't done that and wish they had!

  21. Susie, exactly. She challenged your decision in a loving, Christian manner.

    As L&G implies, not saying anything implies acceptance of their choice (even if you don't understand the situation). Asking questions to get them to think about it and the implications -- how do you see the relationship, have you spoken to other about how they view it, is this an appropriate behavior for someone trying to walk as a disciple... These are not "judgmental" but they are pastoral. they do attempt to force the person to think through, but not to force a behavior.

  22. Asking questions is important, but first we need to answer our own deep questions concerning this, or we will be shown for being hypocrites which helps nobody. I suspect that amongst the revgals there are varying opinions just as there are on other matters.
    What I really value about this community is that it is a community of grace, and one where this can be discussed openly.
    Thank you for the space.

  23. It is now Sat and I feel somewhat better--not pneumonia but bronchitis.

    But I do know that sexual ethics have changed since I was young. I am a product of pre-pill era.

    I have a niece who has daughters from 2 different boyfriends and is now married to a 3rd. But they are good people and the kids have grown up well. I refuse to condemn them.

    I do know that sex means less to people today. It does not have the binding effect that it did 40 years ago.

    I don't believe that sexual ethics can be extrapolated from the Bible--marriage meant something different then. But I do believe that the law of love does demand that there is parity in relationship and respect in relationship.

    Most of the kids who come to me for marriage are living together. I prefer it because I can speak of their love in more intimate terms when I do counseling--but

    I really wish the church was out of the marrying business. I don't like doing them if I can't do blessings too.


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