Recovering the Christian Sexual Ethic

When it comes to sexual activity, what is moral and what is immoral? Where do we draw the boundaries? (We all draw the boundaries somewhere.) And, just as importantly, how do we decide? What are the principles that inform our sexual ethic?

The Cultural Sexual Ethic

While it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on something, I think it’s realistic to speak generally about the sexual ethic of our non-religious culture. As I see it, there are four principles that inform the Cultural Sexual Ethic: Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice. I’ll try to describe each of these briefly.

Autonomy is the belief that I have the right to make decisions for myself. My body belongs to me, and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am, so to speak, my own master, free to do as I see fit.

Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is the primary (only?) limiter of my autonomy. When others are involved in the sexual act, they must be willing participants. Sexual coercion is immoral because it violates the other’s autonomy. But as long as all parties are willing, anything goes. 

The four principles that guide the Cultural Sexual Ethic are Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice.

Pleasure, or enjoyment, is basic to the sex act because that is the primary intended result. All parties are seeking to derive some kind of pleasure from the activity, whether physical, emotional, or both. Sexual preference and taste are important factors in achieving a pleasurable experience.

Justice, in this case, is the pursuit of fairness in sexual activity, particularly for those whose preferences or tastes have been shamed or criminalized in the wider culture.

If I could articulate the Cultural Sexual Ethic, I would say it like this: All humans are in charge of their own bodies and therefore have the legal right to pursue sexual pleasure by whatever means they desire, without shame or discrimination, insofar as all partners are willing participants. I’ve tried to state this as clearly and fairly as I can. My hope is that those who generally take this stance would agree, at least in part, with my statement.

The Christian Sexual Ethic

For nearly 2000 years the Church has upheld a standard of purity called the Christian Sexual Ethic. Obviously, not all Christians have kept to this, and none have kept to it perfectly. But it remains the standard to which we must call each other. The Christian Sexual Ethic is based on three things: The theology of creation, which we find in Genesis 1-2; the theology of the body, which we find in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; and the theology of marriage, found in Ephesians 5:21-33.

The Theology of Creation

When Jesus was asked about divorce in Matthew 19, he appealed to the theology of creation in Genesis 2:24. Jesus was talking about divorce here, but this would have been the text he referred to for all issues of sexual morality. The order of creation is bedrock for the Christian Sexual Ethic. It is not for nothing that God created humanity male and female. The vastness of his image could not be borne in a single man–the man needed a complement in order to accomplish his God-given task. Each sex brings elements that are vital to create a good society in which humans and creation can flourish; Adam and Eve each bear one part of the complete image-of-God-on-earth. To forsake one gender in the most basic and important of human social units–the family–whether through divorce, death, or gay marriage, is to throw off the balance of creation and create environments that are adverse to human flourishing. One of our most basic needs as human beings is to have both a father and a mother.

God designed sex to achieve a purpose, and contrary to popular teaching, the purpose of sex is procreation, not to be the ultimate demonstration of romantic love. When sex becomes about the gratification of sexual desire, or merely a demonstration of romantic love, it becomes disconnected from its created purpose. Like anything else, when sex becomes disconnected from its created purpose it becomes a caricature of itself. Sadly, many of us have embraced the caricature.

The Christian Sexual Ethic is derived from the theology of creation, the theology of the body, and the theology of marriage.
But the truth is that God has fenced sexual activity in order to create healthy families, which in turn create healthy societies. In this sense, what appears to be a great big “NO” to human desire and happiness is actually one resounding “YES” to human flourishing and joy. Purity is an engine of “NO” pulling uncountable cargo trains of “YES.”

So when we talk about the theology of creation, we’re talking about the way that God established things from the beginning. God made us male and female. The man will leave his parents and start a new family with the woman, and the two – just the two – will become one flesh. At no time did Jesus or any other early Christian authority say, “We’re not going to do it like this anymore. We’re throwing off certain constraints. We’re going to allow some things that haven’t been allowed before.” When it comes to the Christian Sexual Ethic, the theology of creation found in Genesis is consistently and thoroughly affirmed by Jesus, Paul, and the early church.

The Theology of the Body

This brings us to the theology of the body, which Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. In this passage, Paul lays out six propositions that form the Christian theology of the body. They are:

1. The body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord is meant for the body. You have one body in which you can serve the Lord and through which the Lord can bless the world. After we die, the Lord will raise us up and give us new bodies, resurrection bodies, that are as far superior to these as an apple tree is to an apple seed.

2. Your body is a member of Christ. The Church is the body of Christ. What Jesus wants to do on earth he does through his people. We are his hands and feet. Your body is a part of that.

3. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. God is no longer found in buildings made of brick and mortar, but in bodies made of flesh and bone. When you come to Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters your body and fills you with the presence of God. You are a living temple of the living God.

4. Sexual immorality is a sin against your body. Sexual immorality is not just a sin against God, but also against God’s house.

5. You are not your own – you were bought at the price of Christ’s body. You don’t belong to you anymore. You also don’t belong to your sexual urges and desires. Like Potiphar bought Joseph, God has bought you with the life of his Son.

6. Therefore, honor God with your body. Because the body is meant for the Lord; because your body is a member of Christ; because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; because sexual immorality is a sin against your body; because you are not your own, therefore honor God with your body. We honor God with our bodies by pursuing and committing to purity.

The Theology of Marriage

And now we come to the third theological foundation of the Christian Sexual Ethic, which is the theology of marriage, found in Ephesians 5:21-33. Paul is going on and on about marriage, even quoting from God’s blessing upon the first marriage in Genesis, but then he makes this strange statement: This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. He was talking about marriage, but he was really talking about Christ and the church. The relationship between Jesus and the Church is the theological and cosmic reality that explains flesh and blood marriage. In other words, human marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Our marriages are but shadows of the ultimate relational reality, which is founded on the greatest demonstration of agape love the universe has ever known.

Marriage, according to Scripture, isn’t the inevitable, relational conclusion with the person you “love” most. Rather, it is a flesh and blood demonstration of the agape love of Christ for humanity, and the Church’s reciprocating agape love for Jesus. Biblical marriage is a parable of God’s great love for humanity.

Marriage is a flesh and blood demonstration of the agape love of Christ for humanity, and the Church’s reciprocating agape love for Jesus.
Now that we’ve laid the theological groundwork for the Christian Sexual Ethic, let me just state it in clear, practical terms. The Christian Sexual Ethic is for one man and one woman, upon covenanting with one another in the presence of God, to enjoy sexual union together, in the hope of bearing and raising children, and doing so exclusively with one another, as a living metaphor of the eschatological marriage between Jesus and the Church, and with pure hearts toward all people, for as long as both of them live.

The Christian Sexual Ethic has, historically, been a hallmark of Christian witness and mission. N.T. Wright notes, in Resurrection of the Son of God, that the great Roman doctor Galen knew two things about Christians: They believed in bodily resurrection, and they didn’t sleep around. Wright goes so far as to call this non-negotiable. The Ethic is a distinctive of Christian witness and mission because most cultures tend toward sexual libertinism. (The video below from my friend Joel Esala gets the tail end of my question and the whole of N.T. Wright’s response, in which he says that I am “absolutely right.” So I pretty much have my epitaph.)

Mission & CSE from Andy Holt on Vimeo.

I’ve written about these issues before, so you can read these posts for more information: Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage, The Scriptures and Homosexual Practice.

Points of Resonance and Dissonance

These two Ethics seem to be completely at odds with one another, but is there some overlap? I believe that there is. The primary point of resonance between the Christian and Cultural Sexual Ethics is on the matter of pleasure. Christians believe that God graciously designed sex to be pleasurable, and that we are meant to enjoy it within proper boundaries. Pleasure, however, is part of the design of sex, not its purpose. The purpose of sex is to create children (that is, after all, the only natural way to propagate the species). That it is pleasurable is a gift, and perhaps God’s way of ensuring that we didn’t die out after a single generation!

A second point of resonance is consent. Consent plays an important part of informing the Cultural Sexual Ethic, though I take it to be self-evident in each of the various theologies that form the Christian Sexual Ethic. However, as we’ve seen from recent rape cases that have garnered national media attention, consent can be complicated. If a person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they may say “Yes” to something to which they would otherwise say “No.” Consent can be manipulated, demanded, or twisted. As it turns out, consent makes a rather poor ethical guide when applied by itself, but it is perfectly suitable when attached to a more robust principle, like the theology of creation.

The primary point of dissonance is on the issue of autonomy. When laying out the theology of the body, Paul explicitly states, “You are not your own. You were bought at a price.” In the next chapter, while giving some very practical advice on sex and marriage, Paul makes this remarkable statement: “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” For Christians, autonomy is surrendered to the spouse. This is one practical way of walking out the command from Ephesians 5, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

The Issue of Justice and the Way Forward

The issue of justice, however, is where things get very interesting, and I think it’s here that we evangelicals are getting tripped up and beginning to fight with one another. For some of us, the issue of justice causes us to rethink the Christian Sexual Ethic. For others, the Christian Sexual Ethic causes us to ignore the issue of justice. On the one hand, we have sought for ways to reinterpret the Scriptures so that certain sexual behaviors can be included into the Ethic, going so far as to support legislation legalizing gay marriage. On the other hand, we have gracelessly shunned and ostracized both believers and nonbelievers over the practice (or sometimes even the dormant presence) of homosexuality, going so far as to pursue legislation against gay marriage. Could there be another way?

How does the cross of Christ shape my thinking and action on the issue of sexual morality?
Perhaps there is no more important question that we can ask about this, or any other issue, than this one: How does the cross of Christ shape my thinking and action on the issue of sexual morality? As I reflect on this question, I have to confess that I have done a lot of cross-less thinking and acting on the issue of sexual morality. Maybe you have, too. But the way forward is always through the cross and into resurrection. We are, after all, new creatures in the pursuit of new creation.

It is not for us to force an unbelieving world to adhere to our sexual ethic. There’s no point in demanding that people who don’t know God honor God with their bodies. However, it is for us to call one another to obey it more faithfully, and to extend (and receive) gracious rebukes and corrections when we fall short (which we all do in many ways). We must neither abandon grace nor Christian morality. Though our culture may know more about biology than our ancestors, we know as much (or as little) about sex as did the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews. Let us not get caught up in the chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis warns, that tempts us to redefine ancient teaching, whether about grace or morality.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” God will judge them, and in fact already has in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The grace that we Christians have taken hold of is available to every human being on earth. Let us, then be messengers of this grace in word and deed. But let us also be wise. Can we advocate for a right (gay marriage, polygamy) that Jesus has asked his disciples to set aside? The message of the cross is that God has borne the weight of our sin so that we can become reconciled to him and to one another, not so that we can become autonomous sexual beings.

The Christian Sexual Ethic is worth recovering. In it, as in all of God’s ways, there is life and newness of being. There is, also, a witness that, when proclaimed graciously and lived humbly, speaks a profound testimony to an oversexed culture full of souls grasping for an identity determined by their sexuality rather than by the God who gave them his own son to woo them home. It points not to an oppressive and puritanical life, but to a life unencumbered by the slavery to sexual desire, a life defined by God’s agape love demonstrated in Jesus, and a life lived in the hope and power of the resurrection.

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