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Eros - Icon or Idol?

By Malcolm Goodspeed.


The unforgivable sin of the late twentieth century is prudery. The church is most guilty of this sin in the eyes of the media, the oracle of the person in the street. Yet, a recent survey completed in a large American city denies this. It suggests that married Protestants are almost twice as likely to enjoy the delights of physical sexuality than any other social group. Two similar reports question the proportion of humanity assumed to be homosexual. These large and separate surveys, one in North America and one in Britain, indicate that this proportion has been overstated by 100%. This flies in the face of the promotion of gay life styles and serial sexual relationships which has come to dominate the media presentations.

Ministers like all others are on the receiving end of this stream of subtle propaganda and have needed to establish their identity as humans within this flow of mind-setting ideas that are often presented as established truth. Biblical revelation and Holy Spirit sensitised consciences sail over this current and point to a uniquely different understanding of humans as sexual beings, and the relationships that arise out of this nature. For the pastoral leader, self-knowledge and self acceptance in this very inclusive aspect of humanness is vital. This is because our work takes us into relationships, some of which are at dis-ease in the sexual realm.

Fundamental to Humanity

The beginning of a Christian understanding of human sexuality is located in the doctrine of creation and in particular the imago dei. We cannot think about ministerial sexuality apart from the race as a whole. The created human community is bipartite, male and female. It is not tripartite, that is male, female and ministerial. There is no distinct sexual way of being for ministers.

The seminal sentences at the beginning of Genesis are womb-like (I balance the metaphor). They bring into the world a lively, delightful theology of the person. They introduce gender and sexuality as essentially present in the state of innocence, before the Fall, where the image of God is manifest in human life. The nature of God that includes life in community was imparted to humans in the image. As with relationships within the Godhead, unique identity for person is essential for community wholeness. The Genesis passage implies that the image is seen in separated maleness and femaleness. Any confusion of these differentiated natures confuses the image of God in humanity. Physical creation embodies this distinction between male and female with different organs and physiques. It affirms the wholeness of the single person but with its natural drives and energies demonstrates the creation dictum that the image is expressed in the community of male and female. The complementary differences matter in bearing the image of the triune God.

The Fall broke creation and so the icon of God's nature in the community of male and female became distorted. Paul outlines this process (Romans 1:22-25) as the exchanging of one image for another that leads to the creation of idols. The sentences that follow in Romans 1, including those that describe homosexual practices, illustrate the outworking of this brokenness.

Shaped by Relationships

Each human is born with a sexuality corrupted by Adam's sin. This does not imply an essential sinfulness in sexuality. It has and can come to a holy and purposeful expression in what Paul calls the natural relationships between women and men. They are natural in that they affirm the uniqueness of each gender in the different embodied physical forms. Sin comes to expression in the use, abuse, and denial of complementary identities in behaviour that extends the impact of Adam's disobedience.

The environment of relationships into which people are born hedges them about as their sexual identity develops. What seem like free choices are shaped by the models and pressures of family and wider community. In affirming this social culture or in reaction to it, women and men develop an appropriate ongruity or an incongruity with their bodies, learning, absorbing and adjusting the norms to their already partly shaped preference.

Expressed in all Relationships

Each person takes maleness or femaleness into all relationships. Sexuality with all other aspects of the person shapes these relationships. Because sexuality is essentially present in being a person, its impact is not limited to physical relationships. Each interaction of mind, emotion and will has some element of sexual response within it. Inevitably some bodily reaction is part of or follows the transactions, to use Berne's terminology. The person chooses to embody the emotions into appropriate or inappropriate actions. Biblically physical sexual activity is appropriate within a heterosexual marriage. In other relationships the sexual energies contribute to the affirmation of identity for the people involved, and to the wholeness of community, by the observation of the boundaries that arise from the keeping of God's commandments.

The pastoral leader lives and works in relationships where all this applies. At home, leading worship, and in all pastoral contacts, female and male encounter each other as person meets person. To pretend that sexuality is switched off at any point is to shut the eyes to powers at work which have, like all human powers, suffered in the Fall and can therefore malfunction and skew the outcome of an encounter.

Developing Sexual Wholeness in Ministry

The person who serves

Pastoral leaders are called into the service of Christ so that fellow servants can grow into wholeness. They will therefore try to meet the needs of others as a matter of priority. Their own needs may or may not be met directly in any interaction with another. Taken as a whole, however, being in the service of Christ may be the most satisfying of all experiences. The offering of service will involve the sexuality of the minister which is thereby put under the rule of Christ. Ministers can, in service, love God and do what they like, that is, please him. Ministers cannot love God and always do what they feel like, since this can easily be a partial response to others apart from the mind and will enlightened by the Spirit of God. The subtle gratification of sexual desire in inappropriate ways cuts across the law of love.

God's truth shaping thought and practice

The truths and examples of Scripture educate the enlightened conscience and shape thought and practice for spiritual leaders. Society's affirmation of these truths varies although in the course of history, most fundamental Christian concepts have been part of the structures of communities. There are no laws against married faithfulness and a high sexual morality. The behavioural requirements of the teaching of Jesus and the exposition of them in the remainder of the New Testament will be practised as well as taught by pastors. They will want to live in the things that are affirmed, deny and avoid those that are prohibited and take delight in the holy sexuality thus modelled.

Self knowledge

All will acknowledge that achieving this is a struggle and a journey. An acute self-awareness is required if all the opportunities as well as the pit-falls are to be recognised. In matters sexual the pastor needs to be conscious of what provokes and arouses and to be aware of how his or her behaviour touches and triggers others. The pastor, preacher, father or mother in God is always in a position of power in relation to the seeker for help. Those with more authoritative styles or charisma have powers which frequently exploit other people. This may be done consciously or unconsciously. Leaders are therefore vulnerable to the positive responses that encourage them to believe they are wanted for all of themselves, including their sexuality., Even when people have been led to love God there is the danger that they love God through the leader who has made God real to them. The most effective pastors face real dangers in this situation.


Clear boundaries are therefore necessary between the pastor and others. This does not mean an aloofness but the recognition of where one person ends and the other begins. The most dangerous situation in which personal definition is vital occurs when it is most difficult to see it as an issue. This is when another boundary, that between pastors and their work, is not clearly defined. When identity is in being a pastor, and not a man or woman or spouse, the internal rationale is easy: 'This person is part of my work and as I am my work, this person and I are merged so that I can touch, hold and treat them as I would myself. They will be best served if my needs are met'. The confusion is obvious but the power of the unconscious reasoning will remain unchecked unless the pastor will draw the boundary lines with the indelible pencil of mind and will instructed by truth. God be praised that pangs of conscience and fear of exposure have saved so many from sexual shipwreck even when the boundary issue was not recogninsed.

Appropriate relationships

God be praised also that he has provided appropriate sexual relationships that serve his servants. 'It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion', if that is the nature of the sexuality in which the servant lives. The context of the quotation (I Corinthians 7) clearly indicates that there is another appropriate way of being sexually, that is celibacy. Both celibate and married sexualities are ways of being which are appropriate to serving God, and each is a gift to the individual concerned. Both recognise the uniqueness of the individual. Marriage models the mutuality of love, and together they hold the model of community that echoes the image of God. There are no other appropriate relationships for human sexuality. In sinfulness people distort these gifts and invent new ways of being that are contrary to God's pattern. They are not his gifts, in view of which the pastor cannot experiment with them or affirm them as appropriate for other servants. As those whose own sexuality is marred and vulnerable they speak Gospel to those ensnared within these ways and travel with them to find God's better ways.


Paul's general charge to the Ephesian leaders to 'take heed to themselves' as well as to all the flock has a particular application for today's leaders. These days the sexual mores have drifted from the once generally accepted Christian morality. What is normal is different from the givens of the faith. The need to question practice is constantly present. Being accountable to God requires leaders to take themselves in hand. Acts 20, and much more within the New Testament, illustrates that this responsibility was shared. Mutual accountability was and is a positive safeguard that protects the reputation of Christ, his church and its leaders. In many ways the Ministerial Recognition Rules of the Baptist Union of Great Britain are an expression of this accountability. Other traditions of churchmanship have similar codes and procedures.

Pastoral Practice

The press has field days when pastoral leaders fail sexually. Contrary to 1 Corinthians 13, the media seem to delight in evil and gloat over a broken minister. Those who are spiritual will be distinctively different (Galatians 6:1-5). Other factors in society and their implications also force Christian ministers to reconsider the way they function. The protection of children and young people from all kinds of abuse is vital, and the Children's Acts have provided much needed legislation. The more litigious mind-set of the population means that accusations of misconduct fly thick and fast against those in the caring professions. Self-preservation and concern for the reputation of the church therefore require its leaders to make careful adjustments to the way ministry is practised. Many of the dangers lie in the area of sexual relations.

The training offered in theological colleges equips a person to be a pastor. The insights gained into psychology and counselling do not qualify the prospective pastor as a counsellor. That is a different vocation and requires skills and practices to be honed in different ways. Yet in pastoring, many of the basic counselling skills are used. Perhaps this is why many pastors proclaim that they have a counselling ministry. Those who engage in further professional training may so function but will, because of the training, realise that professional practice draws very clear boundaries within which clients are seen. Today, pastors need to adopt similar professional practices for the sake of all concerned.

The Methodist Publishing House has produced a short and very straightforward leaflet which sets out what most would see as good practice for today. It applies to all aspects of pastoring, not least in which sexuality is high on the agenda or subtly manipulating beneath the surface. Anglicans are exploring the widespread adoption of a code of practice which was in preparation long before the allegations in Sheffield of the exploitation of a number of women by a church leader.

Fundamental to all is the issue of trust. Ministers are trusted with a task and have been given privileged access to people's lives on this basis. They are accountable to God and the church for that trust. It is important in the current climate to be able to demonstrate that trust has not been betrayed. This will require the professional practice of regular exposure of a detailed diary to a supervisor. It will probably become necessary for ministers to have pastoral supervisors in the same way as counsellors or social workers. Such a scheme, used well, would bring in its wake a rapid improvement in pastoring which would promote the effectiveness of the whole church. Within such a relationship, many of the sexual dangers can be confronted and managed with grace, courage and creativity.

Particular Issues

There are particular issues for pastors that raise questions and cause difficulties. These will vary from person to person, but often they included aspects of sexuality. Some things cannot be avoided since they relate to the pastor's own person. Functioning alone puts temptation in the way of many, whether married or not. Discussing and working with others when sexual issues are directly involved, confronts the pastor with his or her own sexuality in a context in which it is impossible to deal with it. However comfortable the pastor is with him- or herself, the vulnerabilities remain.

One of the key responsiblities for pastors is to identify the limitations of their power and competences. Even if they are well trained, it may be inappropriate for them to take on the task of helping with sexual matters because of other relationships and because of their normal routine pastoral roles with others. To refer people on is not failure; it often reveals a deep pastoral wisdom. For many this will apply to marital counselling whether of an individual or of a couple. Almost always other team members should be referred beyond the team for the care of their sexual development and relationships. In most instances, homosexuals seeking help with their sexuality, should be helped to find support beyond the immediate fellowship. Those who are referred on continue, of course, to need 'routine' nurture within the local church.


The gifts and calling of God are always held in common clay pots. Sexuality is ever present in minstry. It needs to be owned and given high honour. At the same time, it must, like that little member the tongue, live in the discipline of God's law if it is to be that creative power of love and community it was intended to be. Eros has been defiled and shaped into an idol. Yet it was designed to be an icon, revealing the image of God in creation. Ministers are called to model the recreating of that image.

The Rev Malcolm Goodspeed is Director, the Department of Ministry, Baptist Union of Great Britain.

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You are reading Eros - Icon or Idol? by Malcolm Goodspeed, part of Issue 6 of Ministry Today, published in February 1996.

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