Sexuality is one of the touchiest subjects in the church today. From same-sex marriage to the transgender phenomenon, the issues can threaten to overwhelm our pastoral and theological resources. In the midst of this turbulence, Todd Wilson, pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, wants to seek out the solid ground of the Christian tradition. His book Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality invites evangelicals to see the theological and moral significance of humans being created male and female. Derek Rishmawy, a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and CT columnist, spoke with Wilson about this vision.
In a world that recognizes so many variations of sexuality, what does it mean to champion “mere sexuality”?
The “mere” is a play on C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It’s not Baptist, Presbyterian, or Anglican Christianity, but the convictions most Christians at most times have believed. I’m trying to capture what most Christians at most times have believed.
In my time as a pastor, I’ve been confronted with the reality that your average, Bible-believing Christian lacks a deep understanding of the theological vision of sexuality given in Scripture. We don’t see male and female sexuality as theologically significant in their own right. And as a result, their moral significance in the context of marriage is not obvious. But there really is an aesthetic beauty and coherence to the logic of male and female in marriage. And while I’ve seen a number of books giving the “biblical response” or the “pastoral response” to our sexual controversies, it struck me that the theological response was missing. We can’t simply review the verses anymore; we need to see the logic of “mere sexuality” behind the verses and have it take hold of our imagination.
Why have evangelicals lost appreciation for the deep logic of “mere sexuality”?
First is the loss of functional biblical authority. It’s not that evangelicals don’t affirm the authority of Scripture. But sociologist Christian Smith talks about the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism”—the suspicion that the Bible doesn’t speak decisively on some important issues. That erodes people’s confidence in the Bible’s ability to shape Christian ethics.
Second, the younger generations of evangelicals have essentially had their basic moral intuitions radically refashioned. Ever since the sexual revolution, we’ve had those intuitions about sexual intimacy—and especially same-sex intimacy—rewired. What was instinctively wrong for our parents’ generation seems perfectly normal to someone in their teens or 20s.
The creational, procreative logic of male and female is at the heart of Mere Sexuality. Are you trying to make a kind of natural law argument that evangelicals can embrace?
I’m less interested in a direct appeal to natural law and more interested in a Protestant appeal to the goodness of creation and embodiment. My argument is in keeping with what the theologian Oliver O’Donovan says in Resurrection and the Moral Order, about how Jesus’ resurrection dignifies embodiment. When we take the fact of our bodies seriously, we’re forced to consider what it means to be sexually differentiated creatures. We come to see why being made male and female is both theologically and morally significant. It’s a way of affirming creation that has characterized Christian teaching down through the ages, since at least Augustine down to the 1960s.
Why is it important to emphasize that Jesus lived, died, and rose as a biological male?
We need to understand the theological importance of Jesus’ embodiment before moving on to human embodiment. It’s not just that Jesus was a male, as though this makes males more significant than females—it doesn’t. But insofar as God embraces male flesh, he affirms all flesh—male and female alike. Jesus didn’t come asexual. He didn’t come as an angel. In embracing male nature, he embraces female nature by definition, because the binary of humanity is captured there. To affirm one is to affirm the other.
In the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth, we also see Mary’s embrace of God the Son in her body. That the female body brought God into the world is a powerful theological reality for both male and female to grasp. If you take Jesus seriously, you must take male and female seriously.
How can the church make lifelong celibacy for same-sex-attracted men and women seem plausible and compassionate?
We need to recover the significance of friendship in the church. Friendship has been on the decline in both church and society, as all relationships are subsumed under the erotic and romantic. We use the language of “bromance” for deep, male friendship, while husbands and wives have supposedly married their “best friend.” If marriage is just formalizing an agreement with your number-one person, then friendship loses its distinct dignity and grace.
Recovering friendship will require turning to the person of Jesus. We need to see him as he was: a contented, celibate male, whose life was in no way defective. And we need to hold up this way of life as a privilege, not a burden, just as Paul did (1 Cor. 7). But then we need to turn to Jesus’ teaching. Here we find a fairly substantive critique of this “focus on the family” suburban evangelicalism, where the nuclear family is the central thing in God’s economy. Unless we change this, same-sex-attracted people who want to walk the road of chastity will always be falling short of the ideal, and they won’t be included in the central culture of our churches.
What does it mean to have a “vocation” as a man or woman?
I would think about this from two angles: There is a gift to being male or female, and then there is a corresponding responsibility. As best as I can tell, we’re pretty confused as to the responsibility, because we’re skeptical that being made male or female is actually a gift. I know, for women, there are all sorts of pressures and reasons to begrudge the gift rather than receiving it joyfully. There’s this ideal of the woman who can compete with a man in any area—athletics, work, wherever. It’s as though you’re supposed to be a man, but you weren’t given the body for it. But that’s just unfair and confusing.
Instead, the church needs to recover the beauty of the distinctness of men and women before God. Then, having received this gift, we need to reflect on the particular responsibilities we have, as men and women, to love other people for God’s glory.
What is the “good news” of mere sexuality for both single and married Christians?
Whether you’re single or married, mere sexuality is good news but not easy news. It’s good news because it points the way to human flourishing, contentment, and, ultimately, joy. But it does this by pointing to the path of discipleship, which is marked by self-denial and patience.
Chastity and fidelity are tough. But following Jesus in this path, while hard, is life-giving. Because as you follow Jesus, the truly human one, you find yourself flourishing as a human being—this is true for singles as well. It leads to the deep life that Jesus offers.
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