First, let me say a word about what I mean by using the term “Wesleyan.”
There is some latitude (in my view) in what it means to have a “Wesleyan” perspective. No one is likely to follow Wesley in everything he said. I’m quite willing to settle for a rather open & relaxed characterization of Wesleyan theology: it is a theology that takes its cues from the teaching and ministry of John Wesley.
And, in light of this, I ask the following.
Is there something distinctive about Wesleyan teaching that can give Christians guidance as we think about human sexuality? I think there is.
Because the Wesleyan approach to the Christian life speaks of the possibility of a the life of perfect love, I believe that a Wesleyan approach to the issue yields some important insights. Human nature is not inherently sinful just for being human. It is the power of love (devotion to God’s will and devotion to the best interests of others) that frees us from our sinfulness. This alone, and not legalisms or ascetic efforts, can set the heart free from its (otherwise) sinful intentions. It is a supernatural love: inspired in our hearts by God’s Holy Spirit through faith in Christ.
Specifically, let me begin with this excerpt from Wesley’s Sermon “On Perfection.” He poses the following question:
“‘But surely we cannot be saved from sin, while we dwell in a sinful body.”
And, answers it in these words:
“A sinful body? I pray observe, how deeply ambiguous; how equivocal, this expression is! But, there is no authority for it in Scripture: the word, sinful body, is never found there. And as it is totally unscriptural, so it is palpably absurd. For no body, or matter of any kind, can be sinful; spirits alone are capable of sin. Pray in what part of the body should sin lodge? It cannot lodge in the skin, nor in the muscles, or nerves, or veins, or arteries; it cannot be in the bones any more than in the hair or nails. Only the soul can be the seat of sin.”
— Sermons on Several Occasions, Vol. 2: “On Perfection.”
I feel this quote is especially significant, because it identifies human sinfulness as a spiritual, rather than a purely physical issue. This (I think) puts Wesleyans on a different path than much of the Augustinian tradition, which is more inclined to see the human sexual drive as itself a component of Original Sin. It also sets us on a different path than the NIV translators, who identify our human drives and tendencies (that is, what Paul calls our “flesh”) as being our “sinful nature.”
It becomes possible to give a positive account of human nature. It becomes possible to agree with God in pronouncing the human creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Yes, human drives need to be disciplined. There are times (many times, really!) when we are called upon to say “no” to some human capacity for enjoyment. But, the ability to enjoy the things of life is not evil. It is good.
Most of our temptations arise from human appetites and drives of various sorts. We have the capacity to enjoy certain things. As long as we have that capacity we will be tempted to gratify these capacities and appetites in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others — and to our walk with God. As long as you love the taste of chocolate you will be tempted to indulge your love for chocolate in ways that are destructive to yourself: to your body, your teeth, etc. But, what a horrible thing it would be to lose the ability to enjoy chocolate! It would make life less enjoyable.
Most temptations are simply proof that we’re still alive and well and healthy, with the capacity to enjoy the good things of life.
And, how does insight this help us to give a theological account of human sexuality?
What I’m suggesting is a view of human sexuality which sees it as a capacity for perceiving wonder and beauty in human beings. As such, it is a good and wonderful thing.
My ability to perceive this is limited — by my sexual attractions and tastes (which are often a mystery even to myself) — but what I perceive in this way is true.
People really are beautiful. And, what I see only very selectively must be what God sees always and more generally. This sexual capacity is, at bottom, a pro-creative urge — and it is good that there is a relationship between affection, admiration (both physical & personal) and sexual attraction. This relationship exists (I think) to benefit the human race over-all.
But, the capacity to see wonder & beauty in human beings (legitimately recognized) does not authorize any particular actions on my part. No one was ever put on this earth to meet my needs or desires, and my desires must be subservient to what I believe is the higher good — as it relates to all people and all life.
“Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” (Romans 6:12, 13 NRSV).