Today we are joined by author, speaker and the president/co-founder of Authentic Intimacy, Dr. Juli Slattery. We’ve asked her to share some wisdom from her new book Rethinking Sexuality: God’s Design and Why it Matters. For our context, we wanted her to share her heart into how the church can be better equipped to teach about, preach about, and do tangible outreach to those who have been hurt in the past by the church’s actions surrounding the topic of healthy sexuality. Let’s dive right into the great insight she provides.
How does the church restore a safe place for people to engage/learn about healthy sexuality?
The modern church has perhaps never been known as a safe place to engage/learn about healthy sexuality. This is important to recognize because it means that we need build something new, rather than restoring something that once was. The first churches in cities like Rome and Ephesus likely talked quite a bit about sexuality based on Paul’s letters to them. However, the Christian tradition with which most of us are familiar has been that we don’t openly talk about sexuality in church. For the church to be a safe place to learn about healthy sexuality, we have to resolve to begin conversations that our parents and mentors didn’t have with us. Making church a safe place means inviting people to bring their questions and pain without fear of being judged or marginalized. It means having humble leaders who model Christ’s on-going work in their own sexual struggles. It means consistently referring to God’s unchanging truth, regardless of the waves of culture.
(Talking about sexual issues understandably doesn’t feel safe for many Christian leaders. After all, we regularly hear about accusations of inappropriate behavior within churches and parachurch ministries. Creating a safe environment to address sexuality requires healthy accountability and discernment to protect both church leaders and those they are called to serve. It may seem easier to just avoid these topics, but silence is likely to create even more problems as secrets and shame grow in darkness.)
How do you counsel a couple who are not comfortable talking about sexual hurts from their past?
Sexual issues are sensitive and often tap into deep feelings, vulnerabilities, and fears. It may help to acknowledge and normalize the discomfort by saying something like, “This isn’t a topic most people are used to talking about. It can be a little awkward.” It’s also helpful to give reassurance about the confidentiality of your discussion (also explaining limits to confidentiality). Ask good questions that give the couple permission to share. Here are a few questions that will facilitate sharing:
- How has sexual intimacy been a blessing in your marriage?
- What has been the most difficult barrier to sexual intimacy in your marriage?
- What strategies have you tried to address that difficulty?
After asking a question, listen. Allow for silence if one or both are having difficult answering. Give reassurance rather than jumping right to advice. Couples want to know that what they are experience is normal – that other couples have similar struggles.
How can the church begin to reclaim the story of sexuality from the culture around us?
This begins by understanding the power of story or “narrative.” Traditionally, God’s design for sexuality has been presented as a list of do’s and don’t’s (with the emphasis on don’t’s!) The story of God’s design for sexuality is much more compelling than a list of behaviors. This is what I call “the biblical narrative” on sexuality. In the book Rethinking Sexuality I explain in depth this narrative and how it gives us context for why sexuality matters so much to God. Here are four key components to the narrative of sexuality:
- The Purpose: God intentionally created our sexuality as a powerful metaphor of covenant love. Our experience of sexuality was intended to teach us about our need for God, the passionate celebration of His love and the importance of His faithfulness.
- The Problem: Sexuality is continually under attack in the spiritual realm. Satan wants to destroy holy sexuality.
- The Pandemic: We are all sexually broken. Sexual wholeness is not simply the absence of symptoms but a call to steward our sexuality in light of its metaphor of covenant. We all fail to do this at various levels.
- The Promise: Jesus came to redeem every aspect of humanity, including sexuality.
For the church to reclaim the story of sexuality, we have to know it, live it and be missional about passing it on. Rethinking Sexuality presents a model I call “sexual discipleship” that challenges the church to do this.
If reducing the “sex talk” to a five-week course doesn’t work, what does?
A five-week course about sexuality is certainly better than silence, but will prove to be ineffective in light of the aggressive cultural approach to sexuality. Here’s why. The five-week course uses an “educational approach” teaching what to think about certain sexual issues like pornography, homosexuality, or purity. It doesn’t train people in how to think about sexuality from a biblical perspective. The larger culture, in contrast, has relentlessly trained us in how to think. Consequently, we think about sexuality from a secular humanistic mindset even if we can quote a few Bible verses about “keeping the marriage bed holy.” We don’t know how to think about sexuality from God’s perspective, so we get stumped on questions and experiences that fall outside of what the five- week course covered.
Can you explore the topic of sexual discipleship for us? What does it look like? How will we know when it’s accomplished?
Sexual discipleship is the answer to several of the questions above. Instead of addressing sexuality within a five-week course or forming a group for those struggling with pornography or some other sexual problem, it is a comprehensive approach to integrating biblical sexuality within the larger context of becoming Christ followers. It requires that we understand and teach the biblical narrative of sexuality and then apply that narrative to all of life. Sexual discipleship encompasses every stage of life and development, addressing sexual questions and experiences out of a framework of biblical sexuality. Instead of teaching people what to think it trains them how to think. We will know we have accomplished sexual discipleship when the church and Christian family have become the “go to” places to get help, perspective and healing in every sexual issue.
Entering into the pain of broken sexual history is hard, where do we start?
I love this quote, “All progress begins with telling the truth.” Sexual sin and brokenness often carry a stigma of shame that causes us to pretend, deny and minimize. Christian leaders can feel even more pressure to hide sexual brokenness; for fear that honesty might disqualify them from leadership. This isolation in sexual secrets gives the enemy fertile ground to reinforce lies like, “No one would ever love me if they knew what I’ve experienced.” In I John we are reminded that God is light and truth. We live in fellowship with Him when we expose ourselves to this light and truth – no hiding. While the journal of sexual healing and freedom can be arduous, the most important step is the first one: Telling the truth about what we’ve experienced, the sins with which we struggle, and the help we long to receive.
You raise an interesting question in your book: “What would it look like for pastors and church leaders to be committed to defining, living, and passing on a godly sexual worldview?” Can you give us an idea of what you think that would look like?
I think it would mean a shift in the Christian culture represented by three words: authenticity, boldness and grace. Leaders would authentically seek our own healing, forgiveness and accountability related to sexual issues. We can’t pass on what we ourselves have not embraced. We would boldly integrate the truth of God’s Word with the real-life issues people are dealing with today. We wouldn’t shy away from the difficult conversations about homosexuality, pornography, sexual abuse, harassment and gender confusion but welcome and initiate these questions and discussions. We would be gracious in our approach to all people, whether they agree with us or not, engaging them with gentleness and humility as Paul taught Timothy.
Rethinking Sexuality: God’s Design and Why It Matters
This ground-breaking resource challenges and equips Christians to think and act biblically and compassionately in matters of sexuality. Sexual abuse, sex addiction, gender confusion, brokenness, and shame plague today’s world, and people are seeking clarity and hope. By contesting long-held cultural paradigms, this book equips you to see how sexuality is rooted in the broader context of God’s heart and His work for us on earth. It provides a framework from which to understand the big picture of sexual challenges and wholeness, and helps you recognize that every sexual question is ultimately a spiritual one. It shifts the paradigm from combating sexual problems to confidently proclaiming and modeling the road to sacred sexuality.