Sexuality and Ecclesiology

The United Methodist Church will gather bishops, clergy, and lay delegates from around the world in St. Louis this week to decide how to adjust its church structure to accommodate deep differences among its members about non-heterosexual identities and relationships. At the same time, the Pope has expelled Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood  for his decades-long sexual predations and called for a meeting of church leaders to set a future course for the Church to deal with clergy sexual abuse. Concurrently, Southern Baptist Churches are struggling with an extensive expose of sexual abuse in many of the independent congregations constituting the Southern Baptist Convention. The tangle of sexual crime and ecclesiastical order seems unending, mirroring analogous perversion and destructiveness in politics, sports, business and beyond. In the midst of the media torrent of sensational tawdriness many of us are struggling to make some sense of this relentless scandal. In the Methodist case, the mere fact of vast differences in sexual beliefs and practices is threatening the continued existence of the United Methodist Church as it has existed since the mid-twentieth century. The same has been true of Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational and other denominations in recent years.

As I continue with writing and re-writing my memoir about my own intellectual journey, I see how the relation between sexuality and ecclesiology has been one of the threads running through my professional work since the beginning. My interest in ecclesiology first surfaced in my senior honors thesis at Wesleyan University on some leaders in the American Baptist Churches. In my graduate work I became fascinated with the body metaphor for social and ecclesial organization, leading to a dissertation on “body thinking.” Why do we transfer the thoughts and emotions connected to our own bodies onto much larger social relationships, endowing them with bodily metaphors of incorporation, mind, and personality? How can we reconcile this strong connection of sexuality and organizational vitality with our longing for a civil republic based on reason and law?

First of all, it becomes clear that large organizations and nation states require deep commitment, indeed, self-sacrificing commitment, in order to function and survive. The mutual self-giving known in marriage, where, as Genesis states, a man and a woman become “one flesh,” becomes extended to a sense of identification between our individual bodies and the greater “body” of the organization, including the nation. As in the marriage described by St. Paul in I Corinthians 7, we give to the other body authority over our own. We have to be socialized in some way into believing that the survival of our own body depends on the survival of the larger body of which we are a part. The love of our own sexual pleasure and procreative power is one of the most powerful sources for this social commitment.

In a world that often claims to be constructed out of beliefs, agreements, contracts, covenants, and constitutions, we often come to think that the sworn oath contains enough emotional power to knit our own welfare to that of the larger organization. Our world of lawful order is built on a belief that we are a “nation of laws rather than of men (or persons).” In the United States, as in some other countries, this belief in an order of law is being tested mightily in the face of attempts by “strong men” to rule the body politic by sexually powerful decrees (or tweets) of shame and attraction. In the church we have often recognized that the sexual charisma of the leader, whether through the image of virgin self-control or open personal charisma, is a powerful source of personal motivation that can easily lead to corruption of the ecclesial order and its professed message.

In short, sexual bonds and desires have always been one of the most powerful forces for creating social orders larger than the household of conjugal union. Figuring out how to channel and constrain this powerful force in the service of a wider public based in reason and law has always been essential to an enduring public philosophy. The work is never done.

Second, sexual bonds create very powerful paradigms of social order. These sexual bonds are formed in our earliest intimate relationships of the family. Most of the large-scale organizations of earlier times were magnifications of the father-child relationship into patterns of boss-worker, lord-vassal, king-subject, and priest-parishioner. Deep sexual longings, what Freud called libidinal drives, are the engine of this pyramidal paradigm of power and authority. It was this paradigm that was attacked by the early English republicans and the founders of the American republic. (See my earlier blog on “Patriarchs, Republics and our Present Travail.”) It is this paradigm that has been overlaid rather than erased by the civil and bureaucratic orders established in the last two centuries in Europe and America. Its recrudescence in scandal and personal destructiveness forces us to remember not only how precarious this civil order is, but how easily it can be subverted by the manipulation of these primordial sexual desires.

Thus, I see the attack on marriage between Gay and Lesbian persons not as attacks on the behavior of specific persons but as efforts to defend the hierarchical paradigm generated by the man-woman household of our human history.  The father-child model of divine and ecclesial order is challenged by the revelation of the destructiveness of the sexual forms through which it drew its power. Exposing the destructiveness of sexual relationships within this male-dominated paradigm can move churches to structures of greater mutual accountability and integrity within the publics of the church.

In short, what these conflicts are saying to me today is that we can never lose sight of the connection of sexuality to our ecclesiology, our spirituality, our politics, and our economic life. Moreover, we must continually struggle to form and reform these sexual drives around relationships of equality and mutual dignity. At the core of the reshaping of our public order of civility is our reframing of marriage as the companionship of sexual beings longing to give and receive each other in love.

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In the small town where I live it is not unusual to hear people say in parting “I will pray for you.” If not “you,” then it might be your family member, friend, or someone suffering in the neighborhood. I heard it in the bank the other day as we waited for our long-time front desk friend to finish with another customer. In a small town relationships overlap, criss-cross and go beyond the formal lines. They lead us to a periphery of commitment we might not otherwise entertain. Words like this expand our world.

It made me think how limited our vocabulary is to give expression to such sentiments. I have Quaker friends who use the phrase, “I will hold you in the light.” I like it, but aren’t there many more? From that wondering emerged this musing, complete with the famous line from Julian of Norwich, “All will be well.” Maybe you could add your own.


“I will pray for you.”

All will be well.


I will blow God’s breath across your waters,

Wash God’s ocean on your shores,

Draw the water of God’s well to wet your lips.

I will shine God’s light within the darkness all around you,

Call your name out in the night,

Hold your pulse within my heart,

Beat your drum in empty streets.

I will seat you in the midst of Easter lilies,

I will plant you in the flood’s black loam,

I will water your roots with care.


I will pray for you.

Well will be your all.

Posted in Poetry and Songs, Worship and Spirituality | 3 Comments

Patriarchy, Republics, and our Present Travail

As I, like you, struggle with the constant torrent of chatter, lies, and consternation that fills our life these days, the words of Machiavelli (yes, Machiavelli!) rise out of the slumbers of my lifetime of reflection on public life: “To insure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles.” Hannah Arendt, whose influence courses through my thought and work, cites this passage from his Discourses, Book 3, somewhere in her On Revolution, as she unpacks the meaning of the American Revolution and the founders’ subsequent creation of a constitution for a Novus Ordo Saeclorum — a new order for the ages.

 We are, it seems to me, once again at one of those points where attacks on our Constitutional order and the cultural foundations for our republic drive us back to our first principles in order to find a way ahead. I am not sure what you might see as the Original  Principles of our American constitutional order, but for many years I have gone back before the events of our founding to the principles forged in the controversies of the civil war in England in the seventeenth century. In particular, I return to John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690), which he wrote to refute the claims on behalf of patriarchal monarchy set forth by Robert Filmer in the 1630s and published posthumously in 1680 as Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings.

In Locke’s dispute with Filmer we find both the origins of much of our political thought but also its unfinished business. Filmer argued that rule by one man as the source of law, justice, and government is grounded in the unitary dominion granted to Adam in the creation. So much for elections, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary! He appealed not only to Scripture but to the creation of the natural order itself for his support of absolute monarchy, just as earlier in the century, James I of England had argued for the divine right of kings. Locke attacked both his scriptural claims and his appeals to “nature” and set out the lineaments of a theory of republican government based in the common agreement of the citizens. The republican order we know arose in a struggle against the claims of patriarchy and monarchy.

However, Locke did not dispute that men legitimately ruled in the home over women, children, and domestic slaves. He only argued, against Filmer and the monarchists, that this household model should not be a model for government. In a republic, men ought not to be ruled like children in a household but according to mutual covenants created among equals. The liberation of the enslaved and of women to participate in public life came only after enormous struggle and bloodshed in the next two centuries. Our present calamitous controversy recalls us both to the unfinished work of the Constitutional founders as well as the defense of the work they accomplished, in spite of its imperfection.

The model of patriarchal monarchy, in which even the law flows from the will of the monarch was, for Filmer, intrinsic to the God of Christians and Jews and to the creation flowing from this God. It is this image of a despotic patriarchal monarch that has been rehearsed in most Christian worship in this country to this day. Thus, many Christians in America support President Trump not in spite of his obvious ethical violations, but because he embodies the model of legitimate governance they have worshipped for the past two centuries. At the heart of most of my own work has been an effort to recast this fundamental theological model of power and authority, both in thought and worship, in a way appropriate to the principles of a democratic, federal republic. I am presently working on making available my earlier writings, such as God’s Federal Republic, as a kind of legacy doorjamb to keep the door to this effort open for an emerging generation. Stay tuned.

It has taken over two centuries for the model of government according to constitutional agreement, persuasion, and equality to slowly, very slowly, transform and expand our public life. Today, we are in a new phase of our struggle toward a “more perfect” republic. It is not surprising that resistance to opening up our public life to wider participation reappears in the regalia of patriarchy and despotic claims of monarchical power. The recrudescence of patriarchal appeals to biological identities and male dominion threaten to corrupt and maim our republican form itself. Locke and Filmer could return today and join the fray with only a momentary gasp at the technology around them. Both of them would also be amazed by the way the republican ideals of citizenship, equality, and mutual agreement have reshaped family, economy, and communal life.

Some of our present travail is pure farce. The would-be emperor has no clothes, and Toto will soon pull back the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. But much of it is also a tragic paralysis of our republic before the very real threats of rapid climate change, rapacious concentrations of economic power, and corrupted governments.

As we enter this new year, I hope we can have more chances to return to vigorous renewal of the republican principles of our founding as well as to the patient work of extending its democratic promise to ever-wider circles of citizenship based on promise and hope rather than biological necessity and patriarchal power. This is not merely a political task, for it re-engages us in unfinished challenges to our theology, worship, and patterns of sexual life. As always, I’m interested in where you’re dipping your own oars in these waters.


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Christmas Hope 2018

Passage through the Advent and Christmas season is always jarring for me, with the mighty paeans of praise for a new-born King and stories of God/Fathers and dutiful pregnancies of young women. I groan a bah-humbug at the annual rehearsal of monarchical and patriarchal paradigms of power and look around for some little children eye-bright at lights and ornaments, running laughingly amid the legs of chatting grownups in the shopping aisles or after church. But this year, with real despots strutting through the corridors of power and seated in the places of privilege, the Christmas story has a keener edge. Children really are being killed by the thousands in Yemen and Syria, and fleeing from violence only to be turned away from safety in our own land before our very eyes. Pregnant women still are stumbling toward longed-for places of refuge, people are still selling their souls for money and prestige, greedy for the power they would keep from others. And the very earth is hotter every day in vengeance for our reckless pillage of the fuels beneath our water and our soil, while the wise still seek another way.

And so the Christmas story, not the gloss from Handel, Dickens, and Hallmark, keeps speaking amidst the tawdry tinsel, musak, tired carols, and culture wars. How fitting that we have to dig in stable muck to prise the message from the medium. Herods and would-be despots will always be among us, with their preening lies, self-serving corruption, and pernicious abandonment of the weak, the outcast, the suffering, and the laboring in factories, mines, offices, and birthing rooms. But out of the oppression by the mighty comes from time to time a child who takes on the suffering of the world, sees through the falsehood and the flashiness of fleeting power, and gathers up our longing for Life beyond the deaths that fill our lives.

As a little child evokes our love and awe, we learn again how precious is each life that enters in the darkness of our world. The light of hope within their eyes looks out beyond the heralds of our doom. The emperor is naked once again, and the walls of privilege and power are blown down. The armaments of war are melted by the power of a love that turns the bullets of fear into seeds of reconciliation. If we listen we can still hear the message: Fear Not, for the Creator of All is with you, leading you and us, together, toward peace.  If we get down in the stable’s muck, it’s still possible to find the pearl of genuine peace. It’s enough to make you glad that somewhere in the year, we’re invited to remember this ancient story. In a few days we’ll be asked to get off our knees and start anew on this Great Work. And, once again, a little child will lead us, if only we can hear and reach out our hands. Listen. Reach. Give thanks.

Posted in Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | 2 Comments