This Denver Evangelical Lutheran Pastor Is Calling For A Sexual Reformation

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Photo: Nadia Bolz-Weber 1 HV 20190226
Nadia Bolz-Weber.

As a Lutheran pastor, it's no surprise that Nadia Bolz-Weber is quick to invoke Martin Luther.

That includes when she writes about sex.

"The thing that sparked the Protestant Reformation was that Martin Luther saw that the teachings of the church were harming the people in his care," Bolz-Weber said. "I saw in my life with my friends and with my parishioners that the teachings of the church around sex and gender and sexuality were causing harm directly to the people in my care."

In her new book, "Shameless," she calls for a new Christian sexual ethic. “One that’s based not on a standardized list of 'thou shalt nots', but on concern for each other’s flourishing.” "Shameless" is rooted not only in Bolz-Weber's own experiences, but also in interviews with parishioners from her Denver congregation, the House For All Sinners And Saints.

Bolz-Weber talked to Colorado Matters about this new sexual ethic, the difference between holiness and purity, and why churches are experiencing so many allegations of sexual abuse.

Interview Highlights

On why she believes repressing sexuality leads to sexual misconduct:

"All you have to do is look at the Houston Chronicle story that they broke a couple weeks ago about all of the sexual misconduct and all of the predatory behavior in the Southern Baptist Church.

I believe that the more sexually repressive the teachers are in a particular Christian tradition, the more likelihood there is of sexually predatory behavior. If you repress things, and if you say, ‘God’s will is for you to shut down who you are, develop to be, and how your body is developed to respond,’ it comes out sideways."Photo: Nadia Bolz-Weber Shameless Book Cover

On the "new Christian sexual ethic" expressed in her book:

"Instead of it being this list of ‘thou shalt nots,’ these things that you have to avoid to know that you’re good, I would steal a page again from Martin Luther. He said it’s not just 'don’t murder,' it’s that you should do your neighbor no harm, and you should also be involved in aspects of their well being and make sure that they thrive in their lives. To him, it wasn’t just the absence of harm, it was the presence of good.

What I’m suggesting as an alternate Christian sexual ethic, rather than saying here’s this tiny circle everyone has to fit into, is to say consent and mutuality are what the World Health Organization says are a baseline ethic in terms of sexual health. What I’m adding to consent and mutuality is what I call concern, so it’s not just an absence of no and an absence of harm, but it’s the presence of good."

On the difference between holiness and purity, and where sex fits in:

"I think that, on some level, both what we are seeking in religion and spirituality and what we’re seeking in sex, is sometimes this alleviation of existential aloneness, that tapping at the window that so many of us feel. I think that through union with another person or union with God, there’s an alleviation of that aloneness in a sense. There's union. And we don’t have that existential angst, it’s just alleviated that moment, both with religion and with sex.

But then it made me go, ‘Ok, then what is holiness?’ To me, holiness to me is union. It’s when one thing is unified with another thing and it becomes a third thing. So, singing in harmony, breastfeeding a baby, collective bargaining, dancing, there’s so many aspects of what I think as holiness, which is always about union WITH.

But purity is different. Purity delivers our drug of choice, which is knowing who we’re better than. So in a way, purity is about separation from, and holiness is about union with. But we pretend they’re interchangeable because purity is just easier to regulate than holiness is."

On how to talk about casual sex in the church:

"I guess that’s something I’m asking people to honestly engage a conversation around, rather than having the church giving you an automatic answer for it. I think there's more to be had in exploring the conversation around it than by just deciding what the answer is right away. I would be curious to see what those conversations sound like! In our congregation, we spent a long time having these conversations very openly and sort of discussing them with each other.

What I’m uninterested in is heaping more shame on top of people who have already been so deeply shamed by the church’s teachings around sexuality. Anybody who doesn't fit in this very black and white scheme of thinking the church seems to hand down is excluded."

On having "The Talk" with her own kids:

"It was so hard because I had so many of my own hang-ups and shame and sadness around this topic, and I just didn’t know how to not have that get in the way. I wanted them to have a freer view and I wanted them to have a really healthy view of sex.

Doing all the work for this book, and dealing with some of my own issues, I sort of worked through my own stuff. I didn’t want my kids to have to step in my stuff to get to me around this topic. I was able to have really very non-anxious conversations with them. I really wanted to give them the message that I want you to love sex, I want sex to be a good and positive and beautiful thing in your life. I think that is a message our young people also need to have.

It might be hard to think about telling them that, but just take a moment and think about what it might mean for their lives. For that to be a really beautiful, healthy, joy-filled part of who they are, instead of secret and shameful and shutdown and twisted."

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.