Start with a question: Where in the deliberations of synod–Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)–was attention given to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)? I realize that synods, whether CRC or any other denomination, are focused on their own stuff and rarely bring up anything happening in other denominations, but this was a synod focused on human sexuality, and just as the synod began its deliberations, a major sexual scandal broke in the SBC.
Or, rather, broke again. In late May, the SBC released a report from the independent investigative firm Guidepost Solutions documenting the systematic coverup of sexual abuse among clergy, church staff, and volunteers in the denomination. The list, covering a little under 20 years, named 380 offenders and over 700 victims. Most of the victims were children. Although the story had been out there since 2019, when the Houston Chronicle did a series of investigative articles, the release of the Guidepost Solutions report was explosive. A Guardian headline dated to June 12, 2022 called it a Southern Baptist “apocalypse.” The stories that appeared in the press described how a secretive patriarchal power structure worked to sweep allegations of sexual abuse under the rug, even or especially when those allegations implicated denominational leaders.
Here’s the strange thing: I don’t remember the SBC scandal being mentioned at all at Synod 2022 of the CRC. I may well be wrong about that, but even if it was mentioned, it was only in passing. It was not the focus of the discussion at any point that I remember. What was a point of focus was a single CRC congregation in which one deacon was in a same-sex marriage. No scandal attached to her. Those who know this deacon testified at synod that she was of good character, long a leader in the congregation, and much loved by the church in which she serves. Yet, strong outrage was expressed in written communications to synod and by delegates from the floor of synod about this congregation and its unwillingness to remove the deacon from her office.
So why the focus on the one (the deacon in a same-sex marriage) and not on the other (the SBC scandal)? It’s true that the one was something happening in the CRC and the other something happening in another denomination, but I think something else was also going on. While Synod 2022 was much focused on matters of human sexuality and how sexuality has changed in our time and culture, it missed much of what was and is going on. In addressing some issues, it missed others, and the issues it missed are of great importance.
Perhaps a little background is in order for those who are new to this blog or this discussion. Synod 2022 of the CRC was all about sex. It had before it a 175-page study report on human sexuality (the report now known as the HSR, the Human Sexuality Report; check it out in the Agenda for Synod 2022:313-487, available at www.crcna.org online). Along with the report, by my count (if you have a better count, let me know) there were another 355 pages of printed communications to the synod from churches and classes (regional judicatories). Added together, that’s 521 pages of material about sex. Many topics, of course, were covered in this avalanche of material: pornography, gender identity, homosexuality, premarital sex, polyamory, divorce, and sexual desire, just to list some of the headings in the HSR. But here’s the point: much also was not covered.
What was missed especially was a sense that with regard to sexuality some changes in our culture have clearly been for the better. It’s easy to see why they—the HSR committee and the synodical delegates—might have missed this. They weren’t looking for it. They were looking for the ways the culture has gone off the rails. Consider these comments in the introduction to the HSR:
Perhaps nothing in North American culture has changed more rapidly and dramatically than sexual mores. The now common language of ‘hooking up’ and ‘friends with benefits’ testifies to the common occurrence of casual sex between friends and acquaintances. The use of pornography by younger people is assumed, couples who marry without having sex are deemed unusual, and most couples live together before marriage, if they marry at all. Gay relationships are accepted, and nearly everyone has friends or family members who are gay. Gay, lesbian, and transgender characters in TV and film are standard. Adults and children identify as transgender. Even the vocabulary describing sexuality and gender has changed from biological sex, to sex and gender, to gender only, with biological sex negotiable. New federal laws permit same-sex marriage (Canada, 2005; United States, 2015) and prohibit discrimination based on gender expression or identity (Canada, 2017). News constantly breaks regarding school policies, local laws, and personal stories from and about transgender children and adults. (6-7)
A page later, in a section on “The church’s response,” they add:
Tragically, the church’s response to the confusion, questions, and sexual turbulence of a desperate world, and even of its hurting members, has often been silence. (8)
It’s an odd list. Note how the list lumps together “casual sex between friends and acquaintances” and same-sex marriage, or couples living together before marriage and issues of sexual identity. These are quite different things, occupying different places in the cultural conversation. But in the view of the HSR, they are all of a single piece: evidence of cultural decline. The HSR will go on from those introductory remarks to condemn every item in the list from “hooking up” to same-sex marriage to children identifying as transgender.
And then add to that what they, the HSR committee, consider tragic in the church’s response to this list: what’s tragic, they say, is that the church has failed to speak to these issues. The HSR, of course, is happy to make up the lack. They speak to all of these issues and speak again and again for all those 175 pages. But what if the tragedy is not that the church has failed to speak, but that the church has failed to listen? Failed, that is, to hear what is going on in the culture.
In the North American culture of the past, say, 50 years (since the 1960s), there has been, giving the HSR committee its due, “confusion, questions, and sexual turbulence.” But there have also been new insights, new answers to old questions, and new directions. And over all those years there has been a continuous conversation about human sexuality, a moral conversation about what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad—a conversation little noted in the HSR report. This cultural conservation centers on personal agency—the power to make sexual choices—and consent—the power to say yes and no. By missing this complex conversation, the HSR has missed much of what is going on in the culture.
I am not in a position to do much more than offer an impressionistic sketch of the current state of the conversation, but it’s lively and it’s important. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a long review by Elaine Blair of a new book by Amia Srinivasan in the New York Review of Books (September 22, 2022, 44-47. Srinivasan’s book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2022) is a collection of essays that cover such topics as “sexual assault and workplace harassment; pornography; professor-student affairs; the haves and have nots of the so-called sexual marketplace; and the negative consequences of relying on the police and the justice system for enforcement of laws against sex crimes,” in Blair’s description of it. Srinivasan takes an approach to these issues that often questions the standard cultural wisdom. She raises questions, for example, in a way familiar to those who have read theology, about human desire. Could what counts as personal desire be infected with much that didn’t come from within but from outside sources? Quoting Blair, “Srinivasan asks us to consider whether there might also be such a thing as being overfond of your desires—so ready to elaborate your likes and dislikes that you don’t hear the Hollywood-casting-call conventionality and their potentially hateful resonance.” A thought worthy of Augustine.
I hold no brief for Srinivasan and her views. I hold her up only to illustrate that a conversation is going on in the culture apart from the church and that this conversation is deep and wide. For another example, in the past few weeks, the New York Times put out three podcasts in their “The Argument” series, hosted by Jane Coaston, each considering feminisim “After Dobbs.” In the last of these, Coaston inteviews Michelle Goldberg, a Times columnist, and Nona Willis Aronowitz, author and sex and love columnist at Teen Vogue, on “What Is Feminist Sex?” Again, I hold no brief for any of their views, but I note that the subtext of their discussion is the way that expectations burden our choices and that burdensome expectations can come equally from the left or the right.
At the heart of these discussions are the nature of desire, personal agency in sexual matters, and, especially, consent. If anything has changed “rapidly and dramatically,” to use the language of the HSR, it’s this: the idea that sex should be consensual. Over the past several decades, the culture has been carrying on a discussion about consent: when is consent truly consent and when is what appears to be consent not in fact consent?
As a result of this discussion, there has a been sea change in workplace ethics. It’s no longer acceptable for a boss to hit on an employee in a subordinate relationship. We all now know that the differential of power compromises consent. It’s hard to say no to someone who holds your career and perhaps your economic life in their hands. The same is true for other such relationships. The CRC has been discussing for years how relationships in the church become toxic and abusive, in cases involving, say, pastors and counselees or youth workers and their charges. We understand this. We take it for granted. But in fact this change in sexual ethics is new. And, in part because it’s new, there is much to be discussed.
You wouldn’t know this from the HSR or from the actions taken by Synod 2022. They mention consent only a couple of times: in the HSR in relationship to pornography (Agenda for Synod 2022:355) and by the synod in a glancing reference to pastoral care (Acts of Synod 2022:909). But it’s in matters of consent both inside and outside of marriage that the issues of human sexuality play out. If there is any place the church should be fully engaged in the cultural conversation, it’s consent.
In 2017, The New Yorker published a story by Kristen Roupenian called “Cat Person.” In the story, Margot, a student working at a movie theater, goes out with Robert. There’s an age differential: she’s 20; he’s 34. The date does not go well, but even so Margot finds it difficult to say no. They end up at Robert’s house, where they have sex. Does Margot give consent? Perhaps, but only because she can’t figure out how to say no.
The story went viral. Young women found that the story named their experience. Here’s the author Kristen Roupenian reflecting on what happened after the story was published: “When the story appeared online, young women began sharing it among themselves; they said it captured something that they had also experienced: the sense that there is a point at which it is ‘too late’ to say no to a sexual encounter. They also talked, more broadly, about the phenomenon of unwanted sex that came about not through the use of physical force but because of a poisoned cocktail of emotions and cultural expectations—embarrassment, pride, self-consciousness, and fear.”
In considering this story, many in the church would quickly point out that Margot and Robert were not married. If they had waited for marriage, the story would have come out differently. Perhaps, but what if they had been married? And what if Margot as in the story had not wanted to have sex with Robert. Could her yes still be the product “of a poisoned cocktail of emotions and cultural expectations—embarrassment, pride, self-consciousness, and fear”? In the contemporary debate as I hear it marriage is not automatically a solution to the issues of consent. It can simply be another form of patriarchy.
The problem as I see it is not with Margot but with how we do consent in our culture. The concept of consent in our culture is infected with individualism. It supposes that a 20-year-old person by herself has the capacity to stand up to that “poisoned cocktail.” And when she does not, we (and probably she herself) put the blame on Margot.
It helps to consider the concept of consent apart from the perils of sex. For us, human as we are, sex is always fraught. So consider another area where the concept of consent has become important over the past few decades: medical consent. For fifteen years, I was a member of an institutional review board (IRB) for a local hospital. Hospitals (among other institutions) are required by federal law to get IRB approval for research carried out on human subjects. One of the requirements for such research is consent.
Consent is usually obtained in hospital settings by using a consent form. Consent forms are supposed to be written in simple language (they’re not) so that people with no medical expertise can understand the choices facing them. And often these choices are dire indeed. They may be faced with cancer or with another potentially terminal disease. Signing the protocol does not even guarantee them the study drug; there’s usually an even chance that they will receive a placebo. And, if they consult the science behind the study, they will discover that the study drug offers only slight hope that it will modify the course of their disease. Faced with all this, how should one choose?
The model of consent implicit in medical research supposes that the decision should be the patient’s own, not that of the doctor or other medical staff. In fact, the process is designed to remove responsibility for the decision from the medical staff and place it on the patient. The task of the consent form is to bring patients up to speed on the risks and potential benefits of the study so they can make up their minds.
But this is hardly how it actually goes. Just as in matters of sexual consent, in medical consent there is a “cocktail of . . . emotions and cultural expectations:” the exhilarating promise of a new drug, even if that promise is mostly in drug company hype; the expectations of the doctor and medical staff (people want to be “good patients”); and the desperate fear that the study protocol may be the last hope. (Who can refuse a drug that could possibly make the difference of life and death, even if the possibility is exceedingly small?) So people sign.
They give consent. But is it actually consent? Or is it the illusion of consent, given by people in situations where they lack the capacity to decide? And if so, is the whole IRB-regulated apparatus of medical consent essentially a sham?
Perhaps not. Perhaps it is still better to have the power to decide, even if that power is in the event difficult to exercise, rather than not having that power at all. Personal agency matters. But what the example of medical consent illustrates is consent is not something we can easily do on our own. Instead of isolating people, saying, here, you decide, we should be creating communities of consent. In the case of medical consent, there should be access to medical expertise that would help the patient evaluate the research and protect them from over-eager researchers. In the case of sexual consent, people like Margot should not be left on their own to make their way through a sexual jungle.
To form such communities of consent could be, perhaps should be, one of the tasks of the church. I have in mind here not the denomination but the local church. But for the church to do this, it must be part of the conversation. And the denomination could help the local church be part of the conversation. To be part of the conversation, the church must engage the culture where it is.
The problem is that the church often acts as if the solution for issues of human sexuality (and much else) is simply to go back to an earlier time. A theme heard at Synod 2022 was that we—the church—should do as we have always done. Really? I don’t think we (the church) really mean this. Would anyone want to go back to a time when women mostly lacked sexual agency, when husbands could demand sex as their marital right, when LBGTQ+ people were closeted, when Trans people were doomed to live out their lives as they were born, and when the church quietly moved pedophiles from parish to parish? Do we think that nothing has been learned?
Take that list of changes in “sexual mores” that the HSR includes in its introduction as evidence of “sexual turbulence.” It includes among things that are clearly wrong, say, sex without commitment, such things as couples living together, the acceptance of gay relationships, the institution of same-sex marriage, the discovery that biological sex and gender are not the same thing, new laws against discrimination, and school policies sensitive to children who don’t fit easily into the dominant paradigm of sexual identity. Are these all through and through evil? Even were we to decide that some or all of these are not “biblical,” would we wish to go back to a time before these ways of approaching sexuality were at least on the table? Would we want to go back to a time of shotgun marriages, a time when gay people were forced to meet clandestinely to avoid public condemnation if not prosecution, a time when the only option for people who believed that they were born the wrong gender was to deny those feelings, a time when schools permitted the sort of sexual abuse now so much in the news? Often, it seems, the church wants to complain about what is going in the culture today without taking real responsibility for what would happen if we did go back to an earlier age.
Would not it be better for the church to be part of the cultural conversation in all of these areas? To think hard and deep and biblically about how to bring the insights of the church together with the insights of others into the work of forming communities of consent, communities that enable people to say yes and, equally, to say no?
Take one example, a very common one: couples living together. The HSR points out—before summarily condemning it—that couples living together before marriage is common even among Christians. Why is this the case? Instead of assuming that couples today are less moral than they were in the past, wouldn’t it be better for the church to ask how marriage has changed and how these changes in marriage may have led to different arrangements? And if there were not met immediately by condemnation, would not the church be better able to help couples to negotiate the decisions that need to be made?
The HSR was unable to engage questions about marriage—when, for example, a couple is married and when not—because they act as if marriage has always been the same from creation. But that’s not true. Marriage has changed profoundly from biblical times to our own. Once marriage involved the broader family; now couples are mostly on their own. Once marriage was insinuated into economic life; now, far less. Once one begins to realize that marriage has changed—is still changing—it becomes imperative to consider why couples may wish to delay getting married. In short, perhaps what has changed in our time is not morality but marriage.
It seems often that the church wants to have its moral cake and eat it, too. Or, rather, have its moral cake—the freedom to complain loudly and frequently about the present age—and at the same time, without saying so, accept many of the changes in our culture. So, the church claims that the culture is a licentious mess, but it never admits that under its watch sex was often non-consensual. Thus, Synod 2022 can condemn the sexual culture in hushed tones but never come to terms with what happened at the SBC.
If all we see of the culture around us is that it’s wrong, we will not hear the voices of those involved in a deep moral discussion about sex, about such things as personal agency, consent, desire, and more. We will not hear it because we don’t even understood the terms of the debate. The real tragedy of the church is not that it has failed to speak—it speaks too often—but that it has failed to listen. All around us are the voices of the young discussing how to be moral agents in our time. It’s time we listened to what they have to say.