“Be Ye Not Conformed to This World”

Welcome Guest Blogger: Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12: 1-2)

I do not remember ever using or hearing the word sexuality until I was in college. Oh, I heard about sex, and not having sex and not getting pregnant and how my life would be stalled if I did get pregnant. I might not even be able to do the things that were important to: college, graduate school, etc. I would be bitter. You get the picture: Do not have sex.

When I was fifteen years old a neighbor girl and I were discovered kissing by her mother who, though probably a little confused and a lot worried, “said, girls it’s almost dinner time so come on and set the table.” Later, when our summer of not actually dating, surely, but being-together ended because, in my view, she wanted to “go to the prom,”  I sobbingly told my mother “Abigail” wants to go the prom . . . she’s all made up . . .” I saw and heard that she grasped my pain. She said, “Phillis, you do not have to conform to these people.” No other memory of her can surpass the appreciation I experienced in that brief exchange.

I did not know exactly what Abigail and I were. We could not claim to be girlfriends. We did not identify as lesbians, and in fact, probably had not heard the term in our small town. Regardless of label, we spent a summer of togetherness unfettered by the normativity that said that girls who like girls couldn’t go to the prom. Abigail’s transformation from a care-free spirited sixteen year-old girl to the girl sitting very properly on the bus preparing to be asked, by a boy, to go to the prom has stayed with me these many years. Not because my heart was broken beyond repair but because in the separate moments that our mothers became more fully aware of us and our desires, neither ran from the truth—nor did they embrace it, but, they offered responses that that made me experience “us” as regular teenagers in the throes of an adolescent crush.

My mother’s response in many ways undergirds my faith: I am convinced that being faithful to who God calls me to be is to not be conformed to this world that wants to regulate, censure and reject sexuality except when it is locked behind doors fear.

Embracing my sexuality, the loving and embodied expression of it, and prayerfully integrating it into my spiritual and public life is part of living a life of worship and offering thanks back to the God who created me. Living gratefully for my sexuality is to be in the of process of resisting the “pattern of this world.” Living gratefully as a black woman; Living gratefully as a black lesbian; Living gratefully as a black lesbian woman of faith is a daily spiritual practice. This spiritual practice is a counter-practice to the demands that I mimic conforming to the world that limits the face or label of sexuality.

Not being transformed to the patterns of this world means that I have to notice that I am not the poster child for the models of sexuality, womanhood, or race most often are mirrored in the broader society. Being not conformed to the patterns of this world means that I have to make it plain that God’s patterns are many, varied, beautiful and acceptable in all their forms, and that, I too am of one the patterns. The pattern of this world is to resist the powers that make sexuality, sex, and spirituality split off from the transformation of our minds and our lives. If I am to offer my body as a “living sacrifice”–created as acceptable by God, then I cannot reject parts of myself.

I am convinced that God wants us to embody all of who we are not only for the good of our own lives but also for the good of world. Such a radical embrace of our selves—in the service of God’s mission to transform the world into a community of love—is in the service of all God’s people.

Dr. Sheppard teaches religion, psychology, and culture at Vanderbilt University. She is a leading womanist scholar and author of Self, Culture and Others in Womanist Practical Theology. Her next book Tilling the Sacred Ground: Explorations in a Womanist Cultural Psychology of Religion builds on her first. Most importantly, Phillis is a dear friend and source of support in the intersecting work we share in academia and church life. Theoloqui is grateful to have her contribution this week. Thank you Phillis! Michelle



15 thoughts on ““Be Ye Not Conformed to This World”

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  1. I am confused by the purpose of this article. It seems to me that the message is that the authors’ homosexuality is affirmed by God. I do not find this to be biblical, and I question why a blog written by Evangelical Covenant women leaders/pastors would endorse this guest writer’s use of the verse “Be ye not conformed to the world” to fit her own view, and not a biblical view. Or have I misunderstood that these writers are associated with the ECC and represent the denomination?

  2. Thanks Jan for commenting! I believe you read the authors message to us correctly and I thank you for presenting your biblical challenge. I love wise thoughtful discussions.

    The writers of this blog, except some of the guest bloggers of which Dr. Sheppherd is one, do all happen to be Covenant Pastors and academics. The purpose of this blog, however, is not to present a “covenant” view but to engage all in a wise dialogue on Covenant thought and many other topics.

    Specific to the topic of sexuality we felt it wise and warmest to welcome someone from same sex orientation to speak from their own perspective, rather than us speaking for them.

    We always welcome the “other” into the discussion so we may learn from one another. From there we respect, disagree, agree, dialogue and challenge. But there is always great love.

  3. Friends, One of my favorite paragraphs in the Covenant Resource Paper on Scripture is this: “A faithful reading is self aware. We each come to the Bible with a lens—a set of assumptions or presuppositions—through which we see and understand. This lens is formed by cultural context, gender, geography, language, our understanding of life, and the personal and historical baggage we all carry. As the Evangelical Covenant Church becomes more and more diverse (which we believe is a movement of the Holy Spirit), we must be attuned and sensitive to the various lenses through which we read the Bible. We must ask ourselves what our respective lenses might be and how a given lens might hinder or help our reading. We must be sensitive enough to listen well to others’ reading with lenses different from our own.”

    I see this blog as a place populated by Covenant people desiring to reflect creatively in community on Scripture as it shapes our lives (as our page “Commitments” suggests). This means we humbly listen to the different perspectives we bring and embody. Jan, I encourage you to engage Phillis in dialogue directly.

  4. Jan, the purpose of my contribution on sexuality to the blog is really to share a little of my journey in faith. I do think what and how we all think matters. One of the gifts of this blog is that multiple voices and perspectives are able to be expressed so that we might engage each other in the service of bringing about a community of faith that is grounded in love and hospitality. Hospitality and love require of me transparency and authenticity. This engagement on my part comes out of the knowledge that I am created in the image of God and I try to reflect in my life the Goodness I have experienced.

    I hope that this blog continues to invite prayerful dialogue about the gift of sexuality and the other theological concerns raised in my piece (i.e., race, gender, oppressive beauty “ideals”, ambivalence toward the body).

    As for my relationship to the ECC–what can I say? The wonderful variety that makes up the denomination never fails to inspire me even though I have too felt disappointed. At the end of the day–this is a community with whom I choose and feel called to remain in prayer and dialogue.

    1. You are a beautiful gift to the body of Christ, Doc. Grateful for your voice, your life and your wisdom here on the blog!

  5. Scripture is a living text that ought to “read” through our transformed lives. That’s what renewal movements such as the Covenant have always stressed. What I did not quote in the resource paper was the next few paragraphs (trying to spare y’all too much quoting!) that talk about when we miss the intent of Scripture. Christians have done that throughout history and the examples the paper lists are missing the intent on women, slavery, etc. What is the best way to discern intent? One, to keep reading Scripture (as you suggest Jan) and let no question, especially those about applying Scripture to humans, be off the table. Second, to keep reading. Third, test new readings and see what fruit of the Spirit emerges (love, patience, kindness, gentleness, etc.). We trust that if we are faithful, God will work in and through us – Scripture is a mediator between God and humans. Indeed, Jan, it matters what you think because you/we are all children that God is transforming.

  6. Dear Phillis, thank you for sharing a part of your story with us and weaving in how significant this Romans text has been for you and your identity – your whole identity, including your sexuality – as beloved. You voice and story matter to us!

  7. To All Contributors on this Blog: For the record, I love this blog and am grateful for the feminine voice of theology and reflection here and in the Covenant. Considering the femininity of God I think what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her popular TED talk reflects the needed balance to historic patriarchy in the church: “We should all be feminists.” To Dr. Sheppard: as a white straight male pastor living and doing ministry in downtown Minneapolis I have had the unique opportunity to nurture Christian community and discipleship through the lens of what you are getting at here: identity. There is a paragraph in the 2007 systematic theological reflection paper (that was referred to in this comments section) that says this: “Much good can come as congregations confess their failure and begin to dialogue with and support individuals and families where a member experiences homosexual or lesbian attraction and desire. Conversations with such individuals based on honesty and accurate information will guide the church into being more redemptive and helpful.” Thank you for articulating your personal story and presenting the matter of identity in a way that invites everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, to pursue transformation to Christlikeness. Blessings to you! Dan Collison, Senior Pastor, First Covenant Church, Minneapolis.

    1. Dan, I am in agreement that “Much good can come as congregations confess their failure and begin to dialogue with and support individuals and families where a member experiences homosexual or lesbian attraction and desire.” It does not say that we are to affirm acting on that attraction, just as no congregation should affirm, condone, endorse, celebrate, or promote anyone’s sexual sin, or any sin. We are all sinners, but we are called to die to sin daily.”

      More importantly though, is keeping true to what God intended, no matter how much support is given to help individuals whom are living with unrepentant sin, with a hope that God search our hearts, my heart, and make them clean. No compromise will do that.

      Dan, I assume you did not hear Dr. David Larsen, a predecessor of yours at First Covenant, as he gave biblical and timely messages this past weekend at Plymouth Covenant Church. He is a very wise man, and his messages were timely and relevant.

      After exploring some related efforts on the part of the authors of this blog, I see now that the purpose of this blog is to go beyond a simple discussion. The intent, it seems to me, is eventually change polity within the ECC, and initiating discussions like this are first steps to achieve support for this, going the way of many mainstream denominations.

      My prayer is that through your “respectful” discussions, God’s Perfect Will be be completely evident, and done, no matter anyone’s individual will.

      Jan Serumgard

      1. Jan, I need to clarify that in no way is this blog intended to change polity within the ECC. I, for one, cherish ECC polity – it is what has breathed life into our church(es). We are also committed to respectful discussions (no scare quotes necessary). And finally, we are interested in going beyond simple discussions – namely, to more complex, rich discussions. Thank you for participating in that!

    2. Dan, thanks so much for your engagement in this conversation. So important to hear voices like yours–and I love Adichie’s quote!

  8. Thanks for sharing part of your story Dr. Sheppard. Thinking back to my time learning and discussing pastoral care in one of your courses at NPTS, which I also appreciated, I’m wondering how NPTS is now engaging care for LGBTQ people in pastoral care conversations. Michelle, can you speak to this?

  9. re: my comment above, I don’t mean to be vague and general, I’m just curious if this is part of the conversation at all…if there is whole hearted and respectful discussion and openness, especially since so many ECC churches nationwide will vary in approach to the topic, thanks.

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