Pastor Note #17–Sexual Discipleship
“When Christ calls a man [a person], he bids him come and die.” That is a powerful statement made by a man who died because of his faith in Jesus Christ and Christ’s calling on his life. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor and theologian, and he was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenberg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, several days before Allied forces liberated the camp. He was 39 years old.
He had been studying in the United States in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power in German. Bonhoeffer recognized early on the danger that Hitler and the Nazi party represented to Germany, its people, and the church there. In 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in German, Bonhoeffer left America and settle in London to pastor two German-speaking congregations there. By 1935, the Nazi threat to the church in German had become more urgent, and so, over the objections of his American, English, and German friends, Bonhoeffer chose to return to German to do what he could to oppose the Nazis and to strengthen the church. He was arrested twice – first, for his involvement in efforts to help Jews escape to Switzerland, and then when the Nazi authorities discovered his involvement in the famous July 20th Plot to assassinate Hitler.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story is a compelling and power witness to what discipleship means not only in words but in actions. It’s an important story for all Christians to know. But, as I suspect Bonhoeffer himself would be quick to point out, his story is not especially unique. Christian people in many parts of the world today face the choice between faithfulness to Jesus Christ or suffering, even death, for themselves and their families. Many thousands choose to follow Christ and to accept the suffering and death that goes with that decision.
It really should come as no surprise to us that our faith brings with it such costly decisions. Ours is a Lord, who amid tears and bloody sweat, surrendered in prayer, saying, “Not my will but your will be done.” Ours is a Lord who called his disciples with the words, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
Christ calls all of us to discipleship. It’s not a calling for a few powerful, saints. “Discipleship” is synonymous with the life of Christian faith. I’ll quote Bonhoeffer once more: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” Reflecting on that quote, pastor and author Bill Hull writes, “Unfortunately non-discipleship ‘Christianity’ dominates much of the thinking of the contemporary church. In addition to sucking the strength from the church, Christianity without discipleship causes the church to assimilate itself into the culture.” (The Complete Book of Discipleship, pp. 15 & 16) That description of the church as “assimilated into the culture” is pretty well on target. Christians in secular, modern America are almost indistinguishable from their non-Christian, unchurched neighbors. We want to fit in. We don’t want to move against the current.
Christ’s call to discipleship almost never confronts us American Christians with the threat of death or the loss of home or possessions. For most of us, the call to discipleship confronts us by constricting our choices. We live in a consumerist culture in which we are accustomed to having our wants satisfied, our desires fulfilled. Our preferences become the measure for us of what is good and right. Conversely, to be deprived of what we prefer, to have our preferences constrained is to experience evil.
I realize that most of us would not say it quite so bluntly, but in a consumer-oriented culture, that really is how we begin to think and interact with our world. More and more features of modern American culture are aimed at satisfying our desires and preferences. It all becomes very seductive and filters deep down into our way of looking at life and the world. It seeps down into our way of thinking about God and understanding his purposes for our lives.
And so we begin to ask ourselves quite seriously, “Is it really conceivable that God would actually try to deprive me of things that make me feel extremely happy and fulfilled? Can it really be true that God would deny me the satisfaction of my deeply held desires?”
As you can, no doubt, understand these questions have real bearing on the matter of our sexual lives. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been addressing issues involving our sexuality. It is certainly the case that there are few aspects of our lives that reach so deeply into the core of our being than sex. Sexual desires, longings, and drives run strong in us, which should not be surprising to us both from a biological/psychological perspective and equally so from a theological perspective.
We are sexual beings because that is exactly what God intends us to be. As I explained in Pastor Note # 16, “Sex With a Purpose”, our sexual nature is an integral element of what it means for us to be bearers of the image of God. But our sexuality like all other aspects of our nature has been profoundly damaged by our fall into sin. The sexual desires, longings, and drives that well up from deep in our being are in many and various ways distorted and disordered. That is true of all of us, not just some segment of us. Our sexuality is prone to go astray in all sorts of ways.
Discipleship is the process whereby God, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, begins to heal our broken and disordered lives and desires. It is a sort of partnership. God uses our trust of him and our submission and obedience to him as the means for transforming us more and more into the people he wants us to be, the people he designed us to be.
Jesus wants to be Lord of our sexual lives. Jesus wants to make our sexual lives his disciples. Jesus and four thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition are really quite clear about what that looks like. The full expression of our sexuality is to take place only in the context of marriage between one man and one woman. It is only within that context of marriage (one man and one woman) that sex can be a faithful expression of Christian discipleship. Outside of the context of marriage sexual intercourse is an act of unfaithfulness to Jesus.
Mind you, there are lots of other ways to be unfaithful to Jesus that have nothing to do with sex. Sexual unfaithfulness to Jesus is not at all worse than other forms of unfaithfulness. Our crass and unrestrained consumerism is just one example of ways in which we Americans live unfaithful lives. We spend and spend and spend on baubles and fancies. We are passionate about filling our lives with comforts and conveniences and toys, while children in their thousands die every day because they don’t have clean water, enough food, or safe homes. We can look at our shoeless neighbors in their poverty and tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Selective discipleship is not discipleship at all. Jesus calls us to bring our whole selves into discipleship, our sexual selves and our economic selves, our public and private selves, our vocational selves and our leisurely selves, our whole selves!
To elevate sexual issues to the forefront of discussion is in some ways a distortion of the gospel and can temp us to ignore other equally important areas of life. In fact, I can see a series of articles coming to these pages before long that deals with the rampant consumerism of American life. In recent years, however, some in the church, and in the Presbyterian Church USA in particular, have tried to argue that the plain teaching of Scripture and four thousand years of tradition are wrong, that we now know better. They argue that deep-seat, powerful, and persistent sexual desires and drives (homosexual, bisexual, non-monogamous heterosexual) must be given equal weight with Scripture, that somehow it is inconceivable that the Jesus who calls his disciples to follow him to the cross would actually call them to deny themselves the fulfillment of their sexual longings.
Jesus has called us to surrender to him the very deepest longing and desire we can ever experience, the longing for life itself. Every other longing is fair game. The gospel calls us to nothing less than the abandonment of our whole selves to the redeeming, transforming power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Anything and everything else is a false hope for a broken and sin-sick world.
© 2010 Gary A. Chorpenning