How Badly Have Traditional Christian Sexual Ethics Failed?

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I was molested at an overnight lock-in for my church basketball team by the most conservative Sunday school teacher I ever had. For almost three decades, this truth was buried deep inside of me while I burned with a visceral rage that I didn’t understand. For a long time, I hated all men who reminded me of my abuser. I’ve tried to repent of that hate now that I’ve realized more fully why it’s there. It seems to be a long process. I also believe that God has put a call on life because of what I went through.

It’s been a heavy couple of days seeing so many women post online about the sexual violence they’ve suffered. What has been particularly heartbreaking is to see how many of my female clergy colleagues who were sexually harassed by senior pastors, district superintendents, and lay leaders in their congregations. Why has so much wickedness taken place in the one space that is supposed to be a spiritual sanctuary? Why have Christian sexual ethics failed so badly?

In Sunday school growing up, we learned that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19. It’s an incredibly radical claim. Paul is saying that the divine presence that is supposed to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple actually dwells inside of us. Such a claim ought to establish the beautiful dignity of each person’s body. Such a claim ought to be incredibly empowering to anyone who meditates on it.

But the terrible thing the Christian sexual purity culture of the past three decades has done is to turn an affirmation of human dignity into a tool for shaming girls into wearing extra-large t-shirts over their one-piece bathing suits at youth group pool parties in order to avoid the possibility that any boy might get an erection. Girls learn that the sacredness of their bodies is something to hide, lest they cause boys to stumble, a toxic teaching which makes girls responsible for controlling boys’ sexuality. God’s temple is something fragile to be protected rather than something mighty to be empowered and unleashed. I’ve hypothesized elsewhere that the reason for this distortion of God’s word is at least partly because the past four decades have been filled with a racially sublimated backlash against the civil rights movement through the idolatry of white female purity.

Still since the Bible was written in the context of patriarchal culture, it’s not surprising that a straightforward reading of scripture would result in a disempowering ethics of the body for anyone other than cisgendered straight men. Patriarchy’s core assumption about sexuality is that women and children need to be protected by men from other men who would exploit and harm them if they were left vulnerable. Under patriarchy, all social stability is held in place by this gendered order. When gender roles get blurred or sexual relations happen outside of the patriarchal order, everything falls apart. This assumption is the core of traditionalist thinking about gender and sexuality.

In the absence of any concept of consent, patriarchy might have been the best humanity could do to provide a stable social order that somewhat protects vulnerable people from the kind of mayhem we see in Sodom in Genesis 19 and Gibeah in Judges 19. Unfortunately it fails to provide full protection; it just keeps the violence behind closed doors. Throughout the Bible, we see stories about horrific sexual violence in which the patriarchal response completely fails. When Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped, his sons kill all the men in Shechem and “make prey of” (i.e. rape?) their wives and children not out of love for Dinah but because she had “defiled” their family honor. When King David’s daughter Tamar is raped by his son Amnon, the solution Tamar herself proposes is to marry Amnon so she won’t be disgraced. David himself doesn’t do anything to intervene because he forced himself on another man’s wife and had him killed. In multiple stories, wives force slave girls to sleep with their husbands like animals used for breeding babies they can’t even claim as their own.

While the Bible read according to its plain meaning never seems to show any self-awareness about the horror of sexual violence under the patriarchy its authors took for granted, tiny glimmers of hope seep in through the cracks in verses like Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The hard historical truth that Christians need to face with sober honesty is that our ancestors have fought kicking and screaming against every advancement beyond patriarchy that has been won over the past several centuries. Our present moment is just the latest battlefield line in the cultural trench warfare whose previous trenches have become unimaginable to us even though much of the Christian doctrine that was used to support them has been passed down without any nuance or modification. There may have been Christians who stood up for the equality and empowerment of women, but they were Christians who went against the grain of the plain meaning of biblical teachings about gender and sexuality by extrapolating their ethics from the character that Jesus exhibits in the gospel stories, the vision of the Old Testament prophets, some aspects of Paul’s teaching, and other resources.

Now we live in a world that has one foot in patriarchal sexuality and one foot in consent-based sexuality. It needs to be said that much of the sexual violence in our world today has nothing to do with the church. It shouldn’t be surprising that a party culture filled with drugs and alcohol where men measure their self-worth according to sexual conquest is the same thing as rape culture. Young men are operating under the cultural assumptions of patriarchy that continue to be passed down without the taboos of a patriarchal society to somewhat police their behavior. So it’s the worst of both worlds. When the church reinforces these patriarchal cultural assumptions as a given state of humanity, we are causing as much damage to the development of young men as internet pornography.

In such a context, Christians need to decide whether we will continue to try to revert the world back to a patriarchal sexuality defined by the taboos of a gendered order or whether we can translate the many important and life-giving teachings of Christianity into a sexual ethic that both recognizes the dangerous idolatrous potential of sexual lust and also embraces the complete dignity and empowerment of women and sexual minorities. God has shown us time and time again that patriarchy fails to fulfill its promise to keep everyone safe. Why do Christians keep ignoring the truth that God is revealing through every sex scandal that the most rigidly controlling, patriarchal churches have gone through? Hypermoralistic authoritarian communities cannot prevent sexual violence from happening. It’s been proven to fail over and over again.

By making sexuality about conformity to a gendered order, the church has lost its credibility with younger generations that cannot see feminism or LGBTQ identity as anything other than common sense human rights. We absolutely need to preach sexual holiness, but it needs to be a holiness that proclaims the beauty and glory of our body’s temples rather than making bodies taboo and shameful. The reason to practice self-controlled, chaste sexuality is not because there’s a gendered order to conform to but because human beings are beautiful icons of God and deserve to be cherished as temples rather than treated as pieces of meat to consume. A post-patriarchal Christian sexual ethics should be built on human dignity rather than gendered order.

What if the church actually repented of its patriarchy? What if we showed the world a holy way to live in which holiness is not self-justifying scorn but the grace of a people who live their sexual lives with dignity, trust, and respect? That absolutely does not mean degenerating into an “anything goes” hippie commune. It means living with intentionality and devotion to the glory with which God inspires people who honor each other and honor his love. There are valid reasons to put limits on our sexual desires. There are valid reasons that not every consensual sexual arrangement is compatible with building God’s kingdom. But conformity to a gendered order for its own sake is patriarchal logic that must be abandoned as part of our repentance.

Sigmund Freud wasn’t the first person to say that taboo doesn’t work. The apostle Paul made this point in Romans 7:7-8: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” This is why I think the way forward must be mystical rather than moralistic. What if instead of focusing our spiritual teaching on all the moralistic don’ts, the church exposed its youth to the mystical wonders that have always been the core of the spirituality of many of our saints?

Paul also wrote about profound mystical experiences that he gained because of his deep connection with Christ:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. [2 Corinthians 12:1-5]

The early Christian saints were not inspired to make patriarchy great again through zealous rule enforcement; they had heard tales of the wonders of divine mystical connection with Christ and they threw their lives into chasing it. To this day, Eastern Orthodox spirituality is built upon the premise that the Transfiguration Jesus exposed to his inmost circle of disciples is the true state of the world which we cannot experience until God purges us of our sinful idols. The most mystical of the beatitudes sums up the reason to pursue holy living: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall God.”

What I have learned is that I cannot see God if I am owned by the sick idolatry of objectifying female anatomy through pornography. I cannot see God if sex is reduced to a dopamine fix instead of an intimate joining of souls through whom God’s glory is most exquisitely unleashed. Because God has healed me enough of these idols that I have experienced glimpses of his transfigured eternal reality, it’s become everything that I live for.

So the basic truth of the Westminster Catechism is true for me. My core life purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I just think that patriarchal sexuality is a gross caricature of the far richer beauty that Christian holiness can reveal. I don’t doubt that there are people with different views who have tasted the glory I have. I just want to talk about these things in whatever way will minimize the stumbling blocks so that every variation of God’s image will be treasured and glorified whether straight or queer or otherwise.

The point is to become God’s glory together. We cannot do that under patriarchy. Here is how the apostle Paul wants us to become:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. [2 Corinthians 3:17-18]

May we have the courage to stand with the survivors of sexual violence and be known for our solidarity with them rather than our victim-blaming and self-justification. May we have the courage to be transformed rather than settle for idols and caricatures of what God has in store for us. Amen.

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