At the Q Christian Fellowship annual conference in early January 2021 (which was totally online), I attended a breakout session entitled “Finding Our Way: Centered Set Sexual Ethics.” I was excited about the session for two reasons. The entire reason the Sex and the Gay Christian project launched was to help Queer, Christian men (myself included) develop a personal, healthy, sex-positive, sexual ethic centered on Christ. Also, I have found the thoughts of the presenter, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, on Christian sexual ethics to be not only clear, but liberating and grounding at the same time.
I first encountered VanderWal-Gritter through a video, in which she talked about sexual ethics in a way that was both expansive and comforting. [Unfortunately, I can’t seem to locate the video or I would have linked to it here.] VanderWal-Gritter is the executive director of Generous Space Ministries, a Canadian organization which “works to dismantle religious-based harm, pursue intersectional justice, and celebrate LGBTQ2+ lives in both the church and our world.”
Although I learned many other lessons, I was especially struck by VanderWal-Gritter’s definitions of sexuality and sexual ethics, her discussion of group dynamics and belonging, and her presentation of a method for clarifying our values around sexuality and relating.
Defining Sexuality… and Sexual Ethics
In “Finding Our Way,” VanderWal-Gritter offered two important definitions which are crucial to helping us understand where to begin thinking about sexuality and sexual ethics. She defined sexuality as “Our drive to overcome our aloneness,” and sexual ethics as “the way we understand and evaluate our decisions and behaviour in interpersonal relationships and sexual activity.“
Sexuality is “our drive to overcome our aloneness.”Definition from Wendy VanderWal Gritter.
This definition of sexuality precisely captures what we find at the heart of the matter while embracing all of the various aspects sexuality can encompass. Although sexuality sometimes has something to do with what we do with our genitals, and can include such activities as penetration, sexuality is much broader than any set of activities, and may not involve any particular activity at all (other than thinking). Furthermore, the definition encompasses the very personal sense that it is who we are as individuals that pulls us into a desire for relationship with others. Thus the definition invites us to take into account our gender, our orientation, our social location, and all the other factors that make each of us unique.
Sexual ethics are “The way we understand and evaluate our decisions and behaviour in interpersonal relationships and sexual activity.”Definition from Wendy VanderWal Gritter.
As a consequence, sexual ethics are not defined so much as what activity happens to whom, but in a more holistic sense how and why we make the decisions we make. In fact, VanderWal-Gritter suggests that sexual ethics are best developed not as rules coming down from authority figures “on high,” but as the fruit of a conversation (in which we all participate) about balancing the values we hold and our own individual and collective needs. She spoke of the need for a both-and approach as opposed to either-or situations, such as the desire to balance individual agency and mutual accountability in community, the tension between freedom and protection, and discovering shared values while allowing space for diverse applications. VanderWal-Gritter suggested that these conversations are best held with an aim towards empowering people to flourish in an atmosphere of trust instead of control, “energized by a secure belief in our belovedness rather than fear.”
With these understandings of sexuality and sexual ethics, we can turn to a consideration of the difference between “bounded set” sexual ethics and “centered set” sexual ethics.
Bounded Set Sexual Ethics v. Centered Set Sexual Ethics
You may not be familiar with the terms “centered sets” and “bounded sets,” but you’ll recognize the concepts behind these terms. They’re two different ways of looking at how one belongs to a group, and we’re way more familiar with the one than the other.
Bounded Set Sexual Ethics
We recognize bounded set groups. They’re all around us and clamor for our attention. According to VanderWal-Gritter, bounded sets are characterized by rules and regulations, a sense of who’s “out” and who’s “in,” and a sense of “us” vs. “them.” In the case of Christianity, a Christian would be defined by a set list of criteria of what they do or do not do, what they believe or don’t believe, ensuring that everyone in the group maintains a particular similarity of belief or activity.
Reflecting this dualistic approach, a bounded set sexual ethics focuses on being the right kind of person doing the right kind of thing to the right person at the right time. It’s one-size-fits-all. And there’s little room for individuality.
One of the most common misconceptions about bounded set sexual ethics is that if communities and individuals do not belong to a bounded set that chaos reigns and anything goes. But this is not necessarily true. Because there are also centered sets, and, like them, there are centered set sexual ethics.
Centered Set Sexual Ethics
Centered set groups differ from bounded set groups because group identity is not dictated by fixed rules or adherence to a certain level of conformity. Centered sets are characterized by a common direction direction in which people are being drawn. In the case of Christianity, one would define the set of Christians as those being drawn to Christ or espousing the principles of Christ.
In centered sets, VanderWal-Gritter talks about “a draw to a centered set of nourishment” and “living in alignment with values.”
Moving from Bounded Set Sexual Ethics to Centered Set Sexual Ethics
In order to move from bounded set sexual ethics to centered set sexual ethics, VanderWal-Gritter suggests that we need to “flip the script” entirely. Instead of emphasizing our brokenness and sin management, she suggested that we focus on and emphasize our belovedness by God. Instead of being haunted by shame, she suggested that we be motivated by our inherent human dignity and worth.
Clarifying Our Values in Five Arenas
VanderWal-Gritter offered a non-comprehensive (her words) list of five arenas we can use to think through and clarify our values around connection and sexuality: dignity, fidelity, mutuality, safety, and pleasure.
The arena of dignity focuses on our belovedness and embraces values that “honor ourselves and others as beloved image-bearers of God.” VanderWal-Gritter suggested that we might hold to such values as “respect, honor, and affirmation” to help our partners and the people we relate to feel that sense of dignity of being a beloved child of God.
The arena of fidelity involves “keeping our commitments,” according to VanderWal-Gritter. Values such as “trust, communication, and patience” play a part in this arena. As distinct from bounded set sexual ethics, fidelity requires communication in order for everyone involved to know what agreements and commitments we intend to hold. Not all agreements need to look alike, but in order to maintain fidelity, each agreement must be entered into freely, and consciously, and take into consideration all of the parties involved.
Mutuality encourages us to think in terms of “connection in which power is equitable.” We strive for relationships in which power is equally shared. VanderWal-Gritter suggested that “generosity, humility, and sharing” help preserve a sense of mutuality. Though perfect equality may not be possible, the participants in a relationship remain mindful of power dynamics and make an effort to see that power is shared as equitably as possible.
In the arena of safety, we are concerned about “feeling protected, cared for, and respected.” Values such as consent, honesty, and protecting, allow us to engage with each other in a way that allows us and our partners to feel safe, as well as cared for.
In the realm of pleasure we are encouraged to embrace values that help us experience “our embodiedness with joy and delight.” VanderWal-Gritter suggested such values as presence, fun, playfulness, sensuality, and adventure.
VanderWal-Gritter admitted that values related to pleasure tended to fall lower on her list of priorities due to her cultural upbringing (and most of ours). I felt that was true of me, also, and I think this is an area in which I need to examine and reassess my own hierarchy of values.
What we can learn
Again, these are only a few of the lessons and concepts presented in “Finding Our Way,” So what I came away with was a new way to think about sexuality and sexual ethics, a desire to live in trust and belovedness rather than fear and shame, and a way to clarify our sexual and relational values.
A New Way to Think About Sexuality
To repeat VanderWal-Gritter’s definition, sexuality can be seen as “our drive to overcome our aloneness,” or our passion to connect authentically as ourselves with the people we are, pursuing honestly the types of people we wish to be connected with. Sexual ethics, then becomes more than a list of do’s and don’ts and more an ongoing assessment of how our actions and attitudes align with values that contribute to mutual flourishing.
Living in Trust and Belovedness Rather Than Fear and Shame
VanderWal-Gritter invited us to move from a fear- and shame-based way of relating, characterized by do’s and don’ts, into a life of trusting each other and ourselves as beloved creatures of a God who delights in Creation.
A Way to Clarify Our Sexual and Relational Values
We can move towards more fulfilling and Christ centered relationships when we embrace values which take into account human dignity, our faithfulness towards our relationship partners, an eye towards the mutual good of all involved, an effort to keep everyone emotionally and physically safe, and a desire to enhance pleasure for the good of the whole.
Thank you for spending this time with us, exploring some of the wisdom of Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. My prayer for us is that we might live into the fullness of our freedom in Christ in all areas of our lives, and enjoy the flourishing that God has intended for us as part of God’s beloved Creation.
 According to Micah (2018), the concept of bounded sets and centered sets was adapted from the world of mathematics by Paul G. Hiebert as a way for missionaries to talk about Christian community across different cultures. Hiebert’s application presents a useful way of thinking about Christian community beyond an “us vs. them” mentality towards a focus on what connects us in our relationship with Christ.
Micah. “Centered Sets vs Bounded Sets – 40 Years Later.” The Integral Missionary, 20 Feb 2018. theintegralmissionary.com/2018/centered-sets-vs-bounded-sets-40-years-later.
VanderWal-Gritter, Wendy. Finding Our Way: Centered Set Sexual Ethics. Q Christian Fellowship, 08 Jan. 2021. [Scheduled to be published by 22 Jan. 2021, as per Q Christian Fellowship.]
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