Starting Assumptions for Sexual Ethics

This winter I’ll be teaching about sexual ethics and intimacy in the church I lead in Seattle.  The sermons and study questions will be available the church website here.  It’s an important series for our time and place because cultural factors, both in and outside the church, have conspired to create a sense of what might best be described as sexual and relational anarchy.

Churches that offer a clear ethic for sexuality are often more gnostic than Christian, with the result that young people are taught to fear their sexuality and any sexual expressions.  Sexual issues are elevated above other issues in such a way that any failure or disagreement in this arena leads, functionally, to a sort of shaming.  This of course often drives sexual addiction and dysfunction underground, both among youth and adults.  You can confess your anger, greed, credit card debt, drinking problem.  But if you slipped sexually, you keep quiet for fear of repercussions and reputation.

Further, the church has often offered weak rationale for chastity and fidelity, elevating fear of pregnancy, “you’ll feel guilty” and the risk of disease as primary drivers.  These reasons miss the mark utterly, at least if we’re trying to understand what our creator has offered us in the Bible as rationale for a sexual ethic. The cocktail of fear and a gnostic distrust of all things physical not only fails to provide a robust and healthy ethic, it does just the opposite – leading to a sort of “sex is dangerous, unhealthy, destructive” mindset.  This unhealthy caricature has become the “Christian view” in the eyes of culture, and as a result, the church continues to lose its moral authority in culture.  We desperately need to recover a sound and robust sexual ethic that’s pro-body, pro-sex, pro-intimacy, and pro-joy, because our creator is all of that and more.

The world, on the other hand, has reduced humanity to mere animals, whose sexual appetites are amoral, a driving evolutionary force.  The evolutionary deconstruction of monogamy reaches its apex in “Sex at Dawn”, a favorite book of local Seattle sexologist Dan Savage who writes:  Sex at Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948. Want to understand why men married to supermodels cheat? Why so many marriages are sexless? Why paternity tests often reveal that the “father” isn’t? Read Sex at Dawn.

Savage quotes his favorite new authority often as for example in his response to this woman, who wants to commit to her boyfriend, but also sleeps around with both other men, and women.  Savage’s “Dawnish” response:  “And what are you really into? Variety. And don’t feel bad: You didn’t fail monogamy, monogamy failed you—as it has failed so many others (Clinton, Edwards, Spitzer, Vitter, Ensign, et al.), and will continue to, because monogamy is unrealistic and—this is not a word I toss around lightly—unnatural.

This all sounds wonderful to those wishing and hoping that all the pleasurable sensations of sex could be available on demand, so to speak, with anyone at anytime, making sex a super form of recreation – like skiing or climbing or tennis, only better!   But “Dawn” is, according to the excellent book which deconstructs it’s premises, bad science.  Written from a biological, but not a Christian perspective, “Sex at Dusk” agrees with “Dawn’s” premise that the animal kingdom is filled with polygamy and polyamory.  But it challenges, with ample documentation, the notion that the polygamous animal kingdom provides sexual bliss for all.  Jealousy, competition, winners, losers, and the strong overcoming the weak is much more what the animal kingdom offers (as anyone who’s seen male elk clashing, or watched National Geographic knows).  If we’re just animals, then sex is just  competition to spread our seed and get laid by the best seed out there.  That hardly sounds like an afternoon of tennis to me.

“Dawn” though, isn’t just bad science – it’s terrible theology, and this is what matters for framing our sexual ethics series.  Paul’s articulation of sexual ethics in I Corinthians is offered in chapters 6 and 7 especially.  These elements come on the heels of his articulation in 3:1 that this particular church was stuck at the “fleshly” level.  Though it’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack this fully, the import of what Paul’s saying there can’t be overstated.  One translation (I believe it’s the French Bible) translates “men of flesh” in I Corinthians 3:1 as “animal man”.  This is the perfect translation in my opinion and brings us to the crux of the issue:

Humans have been given spirits and this makes us, unique among creation, “image bearers”, called to display the character of God in our living, loving, and being.  If we’re just animals, “Dusk” (not “Dawn”) is right:  we’re destined to sexual struggles in the prowess of our youth, using wealth, seduction, and good looks, to enjoy the pleasures of our sexuality until we slip out of our prime and find ourselves, somewhere in our 30′s cast aside, as suitors in the animal kingdom will always favor youth and beauty.  After all, it’s not about love – it’s about evolution.

Thank God we’re not animals.  We’re humans, endowed with spirit, and invited into covenant relationships in order to reflect the character of a covenant making, and covenant keeping God.  In this construct, sex is a glorious expression of God’s nature as life giver, lover, promise keeper, and nurturer.

The challenge, of course, is that though we’re made in God’s image and thus made for intimacy and covenant relationships, we’re also part of the physical world, which means that there’s an animal drive too, whatever you call it (flesh, instinct, etc.)  And that’s where it gets tricky.  So the foundational question as I begin teaching on these matters is this:  Who am I?  Who are we as a species?

God’s answer to that question is pro-sex, but not just pro-sex.  God is pro-intimacy, pro-community, pro-covenant.  If we miss this foundational truth, we’ll forever fall off the fence, defaulting to either gnostic fear or animal indulgence.  Thank God there’s a better way!  I hope you’ll join me for periodic posts, and contribute to the discussion of this important topic.  I welcome your thoughts.


About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Roy

    This conversation needs to happen but I’ve grown skeptical that it can be had in a healthy and helpful way in the church. I look forward to be proven wrong :)

  • TL;DR

    We have a animalistic sexual instinct and humanistic sexual morality.

  • James Williams

    Very well said, Richard. The 3rd paragraph in particular is stellar. Looking forward to what’s next.

  • James

    Richard, thank you so much for articulating this. The church has our work cut out for us as there’s a lot to account for in the way we have so often poorly framed sexuality. I love this post, and I am stoked to hear the sermons to follow! Hopefully this kind of thing can contribute to a conversation and an understanding that grows exponentially!

  • Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD

    I am so glad you are going to tackle this Richard! The critical element (in my thinking) is to concretely attend to WHY God is pro-sex, pro-intimacy, pro-community, pro-covenant.
    Here is my attempt at looking at the WHY – I’d love to be in conversation as you navigate this important journey! Thanks for being YOU!

  • Molly Franklin

    Great topic!

    This video from Recycle Your Faith raises some excellent questions:

    “Susan presents a challenging dilemma within Christianity. What has been your experience with how the Church communicates about sexuality? Have you found it challenging to express your sexuality as a Christian?”

  • Wallace

    According to “Sex at Dawn” pre-civilization humans used sex to not only seal bonds between long-term mates, but also to strengthen bonds of the community. A community that was most likely free of conflict arising from jealousy because everything was shared, everyone belonged. Wise up Dahlstrom. God is “pro-intimacy” and “pro-community”? Then he is not pro-monogamy. Look at most marriages these days! In most cases intimacy fades before grey hairs start to show! Sex can be used many beautiful and beneficial ways in the community. Break out of your mind prison.

  • Hilary

    This sounds interesting, but I can’t help feeling a little sceptical – because there are plenty of gay and lesbian relationships that are, as you put it, “pro-intimacy, pro-community, pro-covenant” and yet such relationships are often demonized the most by conservative / Evangelical Christians. So good luck not falling into the same tar pit.


  • Ryan Hofer

    It’s not just the caricatures around sexuality that have degraded the moral authority of the church; it’s also the propensity to draw caricatures that makes church authority dubious; in this post the contrast is between utter naturalism without empathy, and a covenant based on a spiritual nature. People who don’t totally agree with the spiritual nature you will articulate are not all callous animals, doomed to unhappiness beyond age 30, just as homosexual people are not all hedonistically casting aside the values coming from this nature.
    In Corinthians 7, Paul is telling readers to get married only if they can’t control themselves, because the time is short, and the world is passing away. In chapter 6 he places homosexuals together with swindlers, drunkards and thieves. So, I mean, doesn’t that make us question this author? I’m sure readers and listeners other than me are wondering how this can be unpacked as a foundation.