Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach (Fortress Press, 2013)

[1] With this collection of essays “for and about ministerial leaders,” Jung and Stephens have provided the church with a practical, much-needed, and easily accessible handbook on professional sexual ethics for those called to the Church’s public ministry. Many enter into this work, Jung and Stephens suggest, “unprepared to handle issues of professional power, intimacy, and interpersonal boundaries.” The book utilizes a conversational and sympathetic style; “we are merely people…called to sacred roles,” challenged by the sometimes “murky waters” of parish life. Written for church leaders “striving to be true to ourselves, our communities, and God,” “professional sexual ethics” is defined here as “the intentional practice of reflecting on, deliberating about, and acting on the right use of…power and authority”–the very activities that this book is designed to encourage.

[2] The “holistic” sexual ethic, which Jung and Stephens champion, begins with the “sexual health” of the minister. Arguing that the sexual lives of clergy have not been sufficiently examined in the past, a new sort of “sexual competency,” they suggest, “is an essential part of maintaining professional relationships in ministry.” Given the ongoing challenges that ministerial intimacy continues to pose for church leaders, this book is a welcome addition to the resources available for those who teach practical theology.

[3] The book is well-designed to meet its goals. A collection of pieces reflecting an impressively broad range of perspectives and traditions, these 20 individual essays are organized under four general sub-categories, titled respectively, Ethical Landscape of Ministry, Sources of Wisdom, Practices of Ministry, and Pastoral Leadership. While one might quibble with the arrangement of a few selections, particularly with regard to sections III and IV (which inevitably overlap), and while the sophistication and style of the various contributions is somewhat uneven, this is by no means a weakness, given the wide diversity of readers the book is intended to address.

[4] Some possible uses for this collection suggested by the editors include preparation for a leadership training event, or to introduce a ministry course, or as a common text for formation. Clearly, Jung and Stephens have parish ministry (and seminary preparation for that ministry) in mind, given the inclusion of discussion questions that follow each essay, as well as lists of recommended readings. Likewise the many concrete examples included in these essays—stories about people caught up in sexually ambiguous or emotionally difficult situations makes the articles easy to read and to grasp. These examples provide hooks to stimulate the conversations that Jung and Stephens hope to provoke. One might also choose to use some of these essays for a general college religion course, a class in sexuality, Christian ethics, or church history, for example.

[5] Rosemary Radford Reuther provides a fine overview of Augustine in her piece, Sexual Ethics in Church History, which goes well beyond the often oversimplified rejection of Augustine’s teaching on sin. Reuther’s article distinguishes between the Augustinianism taught by Thomas Aquinas, and the “rigid Augustinian view of sexual ethics revived in the 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae.” Not only does she cover a good deal of difficult material, but she does it in a very accessible way.

[6] Another particularly apt reading for an ethics class might be Stanley Hauerwas’s essay, Sexing the Ministry. Noting that “we will not have a sufficient ethic about the sexual behavior of those in the ministry by focusing on sex itself,” Hauerwas calls into question the very language that shapes the overall project in which he is participating, i.e., the language which shapes this book. A phrase such as “professional sexual ethics,” Hauerwas suggests, only makes sense when considered in light of that “determinative behavior that gives purpose to our lives when it comes to sex.” Without grasping the larger context that makes sex meaningful, we cannot construct an ethic that is honest. Because a course on Christian ethics can so easily collapse into a legalistic sorting out of distinctions, with “universal natural law” on the one hand, and the particularist claims of scripture and tradition on the other, Hauerwas’s piece, with its larger theological frame, might well serve to theologically recontextualize the discussion.

[7] Hauerwas’s challenge enlivens the theological landscape of this collection, given the somewhat predictable theological themes woven throughout these essays, including, for example, the affirmation that creation is good, human beings are both relational and responsible, and power corrupts. Though these claims are derived here primarily from the Biblical narrative, they are, nevertheless, recognizable to all persons “of good will” whether Christian or not. The universal (and arguably universally recognized) obligation to treat others as one would oneself, wish to be treated, takes us a very long way along the path of virtue. Thus, if one thing seems clear after reading these essays it is that the ongoing problem of sexual exploitation is a temporal issue that can and should be addressed through civil law. Yet, as already noted, Hauerwas reminds us that there is another way to address the matter, a way that moves well beyond the universally acknowledged claims identified above. Human sexuality can only be understood, we recall, in the context of “determinative behavior…[that] gives purpose to our lives,” thereby leading us back to God.

[8] Ironically, despite a great deal of talk about Augustine, sex, and sin within these pages, Augustine’s recognition that the sin which spawns all others, including most notably sexual sin, which caused Augustine to suffer such bitter remorse, is the sin of failing to recognize God as the only true end. It is this theological insight that gives meaning to those “determinative” activities which shape our lives. Hauerwas, if I understand him correctly, is with Augustine drawing our attention to a world characterized as meaningful in light of God’s loving embrace, thus giving hope to the faithful, as well as a context that makes ethical sense of our sexuality “in a world of despair.” This seems a welcome Augustinian insight in the midst of these “theological” themes that are largely indistinguishable from humanistic insights. That being said, I want to reiterate the importance of this book, which offers a tremendous new resource for the ongoing education and formation of the church.

[9] Having passed through seminary in those days before issues of clergy sexual misconduct had emerged, I learned little about these complications of parish life on my way to ordination. Though internship is always an opportunity to discuss the kinds of situations addressed in this book, the clarity and format of this collection will undoubtedly help supervisors and interns to shape those conversations more effectively. I applaud the courage with which difficult issues are raised in these essays, and I appreciate the inclusion of discussion questions, which will help to bring sexual matters, often treated as private, into the light of public discourse. I am grateful, as well, for the lists of suggested readings that the authors have included, and recognize among these suggested titles many that will flesh out the theological dimensions of the various essays included here, beyond what is possible in their short 12-15 page format.

[10] In an interesting article entitled, “ Orthoeros: A Biblically-Based Sexual Ethic,” Miguel A. De La Torre asks whether “relationships that are love-making [can also] prove to be justice-making.” He proposes a sexual ethic that spurns both the “legalism” of the conservatives and the individualistic “utilitarianism” of liberals. Both, he concludes, “are indicative of a dominant, Eurocentric, hyper-individualist culture, and as such, both…share a tendency to reduce the Christian faith to a personal piety [dictating] which acts should be or should not be permissible.” Sex thus becomes a private rather than a communal activity. Building on liberationist theory and praxis, De La Torre develops a set of five “biblically-based” principles that he argues will strengthen a faithful sexual practice, which he refers to as “orthoeros.” “[S]ex must be safe, consensual, faithful, mutually pleasing, and intimate,” he argues. Such practice supports individual flourishing and familial relationship, where family is understood, “not so much [as] a set of rules to be followed as a way of being.”

[11] Most compelling is De La Torre’s suggestion that the transformation of society begins with this reconstructed sexual ethic. “If our interpersonal, intimate relationships function in accordance with a hierarchical structure based on an active-passive oppressive model, why then are we surprised that this model is echoed within [the] public sphere?” he asks. Rather, De La Torre suggests, “by providing an ethical pattern for our most intimate human relationships [orthoeros] attempts to remedy these public injustices.” “Seeking justice between the sheets” thus becomes an ethical act when “in this intimate space power-sharing becomes the paragon upon which other social relationships are based.”

[12]Though not every author in this collection of essays would be likely to agree with De La Torre’s rejection of traditional marriage boundaries, it seems likely that they (and others “of good will”) would happily consent to his five principles norming sexual practice. And if De La Torre’s theory of societal transformation is even marginally correct, then a book such as this one is to be welcomed with open arms. Committed to increasing the sexual competency of those who are striving to be true to themselves, their communities, and to God, this collection of essays might well become an instrument of De La Torre’s “orthoeros.”

[13] As this book aims to transform a church riddled with sexual injustice by carefully and thoughtfully fostering an education in sexual self-awareness, could it be that, beginning quietly with those called to the church’s ministry, this handbook for transformation within the parish might just strengthen and serve the vastly wider God-pleasing purpose that De La Torre envisions? If such transformation is as God-pleasing as these authors suggest, one might just dare to hope.

Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.