A NAKED CONVERSATION ABOUT SEX – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
I sat quietly in the back seat of my parents’ limo-like Oldsmobile 98, pea green with a black vinyl roof. I stared at the embroidered dark green upholstery of the inside door panel, glancing up to watch my dad turn left onto Northgate Way, off Seattle’s Interstate 5. My mother, in the front passenger seat, turned and handed me a small booklet, about four by six inches, maybe fifty pages, with a dull-mustard-colored, textured cover, on which was inscribed, in shiny gold leaf, something like For Boys, and the author’s name, E. E. Kardatzke. As I took it from her hand, she said, “Dad and I would like you to read this little book; if you have any questions after looking at it, we will be glad to talk about it.” She smiled sweetly but, I think, a bit awkwardly. I was thirteen and in the eighth grade; it was January 1966.
I said nothing in reply, and we shortly drove into the garage of our hillside home on the dead-end street, hugging a wooded ravine. I walked through the kitchen, passed by the foyer, moved down the long hall and into my bedroom, last door on the right. In the privacy of the moment, I devoured the Kardatzke booklet, an unusually explicit (for its time) description of human sexuality, in general, and male sexuality, in particular, written for kids like me, on the cusp of manhood. Oh, and did I say, illustrated? Yep, it had illustrations of important body parts (no pics! just drawings) and a lot of other stuff relevant to the “conversation.” Not only did Kardatzke give a complete overview of the, er um, shall we say, mechanics of sexuality, but also a biblically-grounded moral framework for healthy and whole sexual experience. E. E. Kardatzke, as some of my readers may remember, was then one of the most prominent pastors in the Church of God, serving in Wichita; our pastor, Wilbur Skaggs, had invited him to hold a seminar for parents of teens; all of the parents were sent home with mustard-colored booklets (some for boys, others for girls), with which to engage their unsuspecting adolescents. The secular world around us was set aflame by the “sexual revolution,” the Rolling Stones signature “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was rocking the charts, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood invited the nation to “put a flower in your hair” and take off some clothes (with some drugs, just for fun), Woodstock was around the corner, established sexual norms were being challenged and discarded; our churches were anxious for their children, uncertain what to say or do; Kartdatzke stepped into the void.
If my memory of this intersection seems especially vivid, well, it is. It was a signal marker in my journey to becoming an adult. I read the book. Several times. And, I never asked my parents any questions. No one brought it up again. But, sex was on my mind before I was handed the booklet—and has been, ever since. It is a subject of limitless interest, it seems.
Back in those days, it was uncomfortable to talk about sex—about, well, you know, er uh, um, well (this is when you move your eyes away from direct contact with anyone and look at the floor), something so personal and, like, I mean, that we just don’t talk about it. It still is. Certainly, we don’t talk to our parents or other people in generations ahead of us about, well, you know; that’s too weird. And, after all, younger generations have new, fresh takes on this department, don’t they?—not like the old-school dinosaurs of another age, represented by dads and moms and grandparents, too.
And, talk about sex at church? Whoa. That’s the last place on the planet I would have considered engaging in a conversation about sex. Too embarrassing. And besides, the church—the Bible—it’s kind of an open-and-shut-case, isn’t it? Just don’t do it or, at least, don’t do it until you get married. What’s to talk about? Case closed.
Kardatzke’s book wasn’t the first of its kind in the Church of God, though. At the turn of the last century, the Gospel Trumpet Company published Private Talks for Men and Boys. This blue-covered tome also tackled the birds and the bees, reflecting the age in which it was written (no illustrations in this one), but proffered some unusual advice. For instance, it admonished single “men and boys” to tie bedsheets in knots around their waists and abdomens before laying down to go to sleep, to “prevent nocturnal emissions” (believed to be evidence of an unsavory and corrupted imagination); I suspect sleep was denied more often than the dreaded wet dreams.
The book’s author, D. Otis Teasley (of Church of God hymnody fame and business manager of the Gospel Trumpet Company) knew something of male sexuality; he was driven from our publishing house in 1919 after being accused of, and ultimately admitting to, serial sexual affairs. Tall, dark, handsome, charismatic and brilliant, Teasley left a string of women injured in his wake, all the while a married man and dad. How a clarion voice proclaiming the Holy Spirit’s power to sanctify the believer (he wrote, after all, lyrics like, “Back to the words of our Savior, loving, obeying them all, never in sects to be scattered, never again to do wrong”) could succumb to such mischief, over many years, was not then discussed. We in the Movement have tended to relegate honest dialogue about sex, and its power to bless and to curse, to hushed whispers and one-dimensional platitudes.
The 21st-century world in which we now walk is, once again as it was in the 1960s, stretching the envelope of sexual ethics and norms. The last century closed with debate about President Clinton’s famous, “I did not have sex with that woman” (referring to intern Monica Lewinsky), and has been followed by a furious debate about the definition of marriage. Caitlyn Jenner has now walked onto the public stage, dramatizing yet another turn in our sense of sexual identity and conduct. Polygamy has found its place on reality TV.
President Clinton ultimately admitted to having oral sex with Monica, in the Oval Office, but a generation was raised to wonder if oral sex is really, well, er uh, I mean, you know, is that really sex? Does it really matter what gender you are if you are in a committed monogamous relationship? If Bruce Jenner believes his spirit yearns to breathe free as a woman, even though he was (now in the past tense) obviously born as a man, is there a moral or theological bar to transition? If I have been married and divorced, am I free to engage in responsible, consensual, healthy sex with a partner who is not married either, because I have already “crossed the Rubicon” in my first marriage and am no longer a virgin? If a member of my youth group comes out on Facebook as transgender, how should I respond? If the Supreme Court legalizes same-gendered marriage, does that mean I should embrace the idea, as well, as a believer? If the Canadian government labels teaching in the public square that challenges the propriety of homosexual relationships as hate speech, what can I say, living in Ontario? Am I just out of step with the times? Is there a biblical case for such a shift in thinking from previously held orthodox views? If my adult daughter explains she is a lesbian, can it be loving to do anything but accept and affirm her course? If my ten-year-old daughter explains that she is a lesbian, drawn to romance with other girls, should I accept her orientation as-is, or seek to redirect? If my wife has become physically disabled and now unable to meet my sexual needs, is it permissible for me sleep with another woman? My wife understands my dilemma and does not object; does Jesus? What kind of gospel denies intimacy and faithfulness in the name of some fixed and arbitrary, antiquated, moral order? How should I respond to my pastor, who has been jailed on charges of inappropriate touch with a minor child? Should we even be talking about these things in our churches? What will our children think? Shouldn’t church be a place where our kids are protected from such difficult content? Shouldn’t we talk about other, less troublesome, things? Anyone up for a review of Noah’s Ark? Oh wait, that brings us to a rainbow, also redefined. And so it goes.
Wow. The Rolling Stones and E. E. Kardatzke look so tame, in the rear view mirror. If you think the questions above are invented hyperbole, they are not. These are questions actually posed, questions with which pastors and Church of God congregations from coast to coast are wrestling today. And if you have not heard any of them in your local church, it is likely that members of your church family are talking about them elsewhere.
It is not enough to repeat, by rote, answers learned from others, over time. It is not enough to just quote Scripture, without listening to and engaging with those who are not so sure. Jesus listened patiently on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24), as His own disciples explained their (faulty) understanding of the Scripture, before He more accurately shared with them the Way. We must follow in His footsteps, walking on today’s Emmaus road, as well.
We need to talk. About sex. About sexual ethics—the whole continuum of sexual experience, the astonishing gift God has given each of us and the God-given boundaries for maximizing its potential. A conversation—about how we manage our sexuality, how we own biblically grounded truth (our position) and share, living out that truth (our posture), engaging the rapidly changing world around us—must be on the table.
And, it will be: at the ChoG Table, at the Vancouver Church (Portland metro), in April, in tandem with the ChoG Regional Convention 2016.
An outstanding lineup of presenters, designed to help the church understand and meet the contest of ideas swirling around us, has been confirmed. The ChoG Table is committed to a biblical frame; it is the Scripture that will inform us. A group of seven Church of God leaders, respected and Spirit-led, will listen to the conversation and work through the year, studying, praying, and examining the issues, to produce a resource paper for our church family, by year’s end. The questions will not stop coming, but we can be sure-footed in reply. The ChoG Table in Vancouver, Washington, will be a catalyst.
Some have wondered, as the ChoG Table approaches, if it has been conceived to move the Church of God from its historic and traditional understanding of sexual ethics. Some have wondered if my own views, formed as they were by Kardatzke’s little book, the Bible, and life since, have changed. The answer to both questions is no. The General Assembly has several times affirmed orthodox views on the definition of marriage, for example; Assembly statements have subscribed to a traditional view of marriage; no program is in play to overturn them. I published a book (in 2011) titled Go Ahead. Ask Anything (available at my personal website, www.pastorjimlyon.com) which speaks to these themes; I am not trying to self-promote here, but if you’d like to know what I think, you can read all about it; my position has not changed.
I have had to wrestle with these questions, though—as a pastor, as a parent, as a son, as a grandparent, as a church leader, as a Jesus guy. I have had to visit views at odds with my own and give them a fair hearing. I have had to become facile with other approaches to the subject, even as I have been unmoved in my own conclusions. I have learned that no one is persuaded by fist pounding and fiery denunciations apart from a solid foundation of speaking the truth in love.
In Acts 15, the first-century church faced a crisis. The Jewish believers were challenged by an influx of Gentile believers. To what standards should the Gentile believers be held? The Old Testament box of rules and regulations had been part and parcel of the early Christian life, but what of the Gentiles who had no history with the ceremonial law?
The Council at Jerusalem—an original ChoG Table, you might say—heard the pleas, the arguments, the case—and concluded that the church, going forward, would not be bound by the ceremonial law of the Old Testament age. They understood that circumcision was no longer required. The dietary prohibitions that governed so much of Jewish Old Testament life were no longer to be pressed upon the new believer’s brow. But, there were a few boundaries that must still be observed, said James (the half-brother, we believe, of Jesus, then the Council Chair); chief among these was to “abstain from sexual immorality.”
The sexual ethics of the first-century church were the single greatest marker of its separation from the world; no other discipline of Christian life and witness so profoundly set the believers apart from the secular world in which they lived as did their sexual ethics, their sexual conduct. It was so radically different from the social norms of its time, it could not help but distinguish Christ-followers from those who were not.
Most of us have been raised in a civilization formed by those New Testament sexual ethics. However, we now live in an age once again embracing an ancient Corinthian regime. What we believe about sexual ethics and how we live them out—what is our position and what should our posture be–are all front and center in the church’s witness these days. We need to talk. We will. At the ChoG Table. Frankly. Honestly. Biblically. And, in the Spirit. Join us.