Newcomers to the [Religious] Society [of Friends]… find that the testimonies are what Quakers stand for. They are religious, ethical, collective, demanding, developing—and vague.
—John Punshon, Testimony and Tradition: Some Aspects of Quaker Spirituality (1990)
Let’s face it: we don’t like to talk about sex. Most people don’t, but Quakers are especially reluctant.
We also need to face this: some Quakers are certain homosexuality is a sin, and others are just as sure it is not. How can each side be so certain, however, if none of us wants to talk about sex? How can we can know that some sexuality—or sexual orientation—is right or wrong when we don’t know how to think or what to believe about sexuality in general? What should we do about our sexuality? That is, what does God expect of us? Do we think that God would rather we did not engage in sex? Or is sex—like work, art, sport, friendship, and much more—something we do, using and celebrating the gifts we have been given by God?
With those questions in mind, I think that we should develop a “testimony of intimacy.” By intimacy, I do not mean a euphemism for sex, but am referring to those relationships of unusual closeness and commitment that allow us to know another person deeply and well, relationships in which we invest unusual care for one another. It is in such relationships that the possibility of sexual activity can arise. A testimony of intimacy would provide guidance for our behavior in those relationships that might involve sexual activity. Such a testimony would help us see when and why sexual activity is right. We might even find our way to seeing homosexual relationships in a new light.
Let us start with the Bible, which is often a good place to find our bearings, though I doubt that we can find ultimate, final clarity there.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:34-40 NIV).
Of course, the Pharisee’s question was a trap. Everyone present knew there were Ten Commandments, with no other priority than the order in which God gave them to Moses on the stone tablets. As Jesus does so often in similar encounters, he turns the conversation in an unexpected direction. He says something that is at the very heart of his ministry by giving two commandments, neither of them among the ten, nor stated negatively in “Thou shalt not” terms. The two commandments given by Jesus are stated in positive terms, and both are directions to love: to love God and to love one another.
Especially striking is the link that Jesus makes between the two: “And the second is like it.” What can that possibly mean? How can loving one’s God be the same thing as loving one’s neighbor? Loving our neighbors means loving those who are our equals (we are to love our neighbors as ourselves), and it means loving a great many others. Loving God means loving just One, and One who is in no way our equal. How can these two commandments possibly be alike? For me, that is a huge puzzle, probably one Jesus meant us to explore.
And there is another puzzle in his answer, as Jesus makes no mention at all of the intense and enduring kind of love that forms families: the special love between partners in a marriage or the special love that binds parents and children. You might say, he jumps over that kind of love; he jumps over relationships of intimacy.
In different ways, intimacy is like each of the two kinds of love that Jesus does mention. Like loving our neighbors, intimacy is love for others. On the other hand, like loving God, intimacy is a singular love, a love for a particular person, not just anyone.
The question of what we should aim for in relations of intimacy is hardly settled with precision in the New Testament. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus was not married, and Paul tells us clearly that he was not. Paul counsels against marriage, adding grudgingly, “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).
In the gospels, there is just one episode in which Jesus speaks of marriage (Matt. 19:1-9, also Mark 10:1-9). Here again the Pharisees are out to trap Jesus:
They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replies, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:3-6).
Some want to make this passage a declaration that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman, but it is clear only as an emphatic statement against divorce. And so is marriage a good thing?
The Hebrew Testament scarcely makes matters clearer. Running through it are many instances of polygyny (one man, multiple wives), approving references to concubinage, and stories that involve pre-marital sex. Marital relationships depicted there are much more about property and patrimony than about love or partnership or commitment. A complex book of books, the Bible presents a bewildering array of portraits of marriage.
We need a deeper, clearer teaching about marriage and intimacy. That is why a testimony of intimacy might be useful to Friends. Testimonies help us see clearly how our beliefs should find expression in our daily lives. “Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceive it—truth known through relationship with God. The testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light.” That excerpt is from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Similar statements can be found in the faith and practice documents of most yearly meetings.
We feel a need to formulate testimonies when we believe what God asks of us is not immediately clear or—this may be the same thing—runs counter to common sense. For example, we do not have a testimony of honesty because everyone agrees that honesty is a good thing. Similarly, we don’t have a testimony of generosity or about every good life practice, only about those where we think we could use additional guidance.
That Jesus taught us to be peacemakers and not to engage in war may be clear enough to Friends, but it is apparently not clear to the vast majority of other Christians. And so we have the peace testimony. The testimony of equality may guide our behavior in ways now shared by many other Christians, but when it was first formulated by Friends, the vast majority of other Christians simply did not believe equality among human beings was what God expected. The testimony of simplicity directs us to disciplines in daily life that even most Friends find elusive and that many Christians do not accept. The case for a testimony of intimacy begins with the recognition that what God asks of us with regard to sexuality and marriage partnerships is not clear: not clear from Scripture and increasingly murky from what is seen as acceptable belief and conduct in the world around us.
Testimonies often begin with some point of clarity but commonly end with queries, rather than a rote formula for conduct. That pattern gives a shape to testimonies that affects the way Friends find and live out their faith. The initial clarity may come from Scripture or it may come from some well-phrased insight of a revered Quaker—George Fox or John Woolman or Lucretia Mott—reflecting an understanding of God’s will. From that starting point, a testimony will usually provide, in a teaching voice, some ways of thinking about the matter at hand. Guidance is given but only of a general sort. (Friends are wary of one-size-fits-all specific directives.) With this guidance, we formulate queries that are used to search our personal and corporate conduct, questions worth asking and answering regularly. In this way, testimonies help us pick a path through tricky terrain where simple, mechanical dos-and-don’ts won’t suffice.
So how might a testimony of intimacy be formulated? It certainly cannot be done by one person. Remember: “Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceive it.” A testimony of intimacy would need to be developed in community by monthly or yearly meetings. A testimony of intimacy might consider relations between parents and children, as well as relations between close friends. Of special concern to me is the guidance for those enduring relationships among equals—such as marriage partners—in which sexual activity is a possibility.
One possibility for a testimony of intimacy is a pronatalist position that is focused on the imperative to have children. This is a long-standing position of the Roman Catholic Church and a teaching that has considerable sway among many Protestant Evangelicals. The pronatalist position is grounded especially in the Hebrew Testament scripture passages, one starting point being found in Genesis:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28).
In this teaching, marriage is the normal state for men and women. Sexual activity is permissible only within marriage, and its main purpose is procreation, or more specifically, having children who are clearly the legitimate offspring of their father. Adultery and divorce are both wrong, as is same-sex sexual activity. For these teachings, there are supporting scriptural texts. In this pronatalism, masturbation is also wrong, as is contraception, but there are no clear scriptural texts against these practices. Their prohibition is taken to follow from the central teaching that the purpose of sex is the creation of legitimate offspring. With human beings living longer, the pronatalist view gives no guidance at all for sexual activity beyond childbearing years. What are the purposes of intimate relationships when procreation is no longer a possibility?
For several reasons, Friends are likely to feel uncomfortable with this pronatalist framing of the morality of intimate relationships. Polygyny is allowed, and there are Hebrew Testament Scriptures that speak approvingly of it. There are also several scriptural texts that require—not just allow—levirate marriage, in which the brother and the widow of a deceased man are obliged to marry. More broadly, this pronatalist teaching is fully consistent with a conviction that wives should be submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22).
For many Friends, the most serious objection of all, however, would be pronatalism’s steadfast focus on increasing the population. With seven billion human beings alive today on planet Earth, further population increase should hardly be the predominant emphasis informing relationships of intimacy. Yet the central warp thread of this teaching is the urgency of procreation: yes to marriage, but only between men and women; no to adultery, divorce, masturbation, and homosexuality; perhaps no to abortion and (for some) even no to contraception; and perhaps (once) yes to polygyny. The logic of these positions may have made sense two and three millennia ago for a small desert population struggling to survive, but not today. Though these positions can be woven out of Bible snippets, they are not grounded in the deeper current of the Bible, a gospel of love.
An alternative to pronatalism as a basis for a testimony of intimacy is one grounded in a biblical and spiritual understanding of love. (Pronatalist teaching finds much less support in the New Testament.) To find that teaching about intimacy, however, we need to turn away from many of the Bible snippets on sexual ethics, passages that say next to nothing about love. We should see these snippets not as the deeper truth of what God asks of us but as cultural dross of bygone centuries.
Basing a testimony of intimacy in love is supported by many writings. One useful point of departure is a short book Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood wrote in 1949, titled The Common Ventures of Life: Marriage, Birth, Work and Death. Trueblood anchors his discussion of marriage not in the Bible (surprising, since Trueblood turned often to the Bible) but rather in a sermon called “The Marriage Ring” by seventeenth-century Anglican preacher Jeremy Taylor. Here is an excerpt:
Marriage is a school and exercise of virtue; and though marriage hath cares, yet the single life hath desires which are more troublesome and more dangerous, and often end in sin…Here is the proper scene of piety and patience, of the duty of parents and the charity of relatives; here kindness is spread abroad, and love is united and made firm as a centre: marriage is the nursery of heaven.
“Marriage is the nursery of heaven”: what a lovely phrase. Taylor focuses not just on the commitment that two people make to one another, but also on what such an enduring and loving commitment leads to in our relationships with others—our relationships with children, with parents, with friends, and with neighbors. “Here kindness is spread abroad.”
In this view, marriage tames our sometimes troublesome sexual desires and points us to faithful, lifelong caring for the well-being of another, loving that person as much as oneself. Sexual activity has a place in such a relationship, binding us closer to a chosen partner.
This understanding of relationships of intimacy—that they teach us lessons of love—fits well between Jesus’s two great commandments (Matt. 22:36-40): to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Relationships of intimacy help teach us both to love our neighbors better and to love God better.
No doubt Taylor and Trueblood understood marriage as solely a relationship between one man and one woman, but the understanding of intimacy they articulate provides no basis for privileging heterosexual love over same-sex love. The key ingredients are love, caring, commitment, and fidelity, not a culture-bound conception of appropriate sexual identity.
“The nursery of heaven” is a far better basis for a testimony of intimacy than the long-standing pronatalist logic that has dominated Christian ethics around sex and marriage. I hope Friends will talk more about these matters in building a testimony of intimacy within their communities. Any such testimony should lead not toward fixed rules of conduct, but rather toward queries to deepen our understanding of what God asks of us.