“We’re two consenting adults. What we do behind a closed door is nobody’s business.” There, in those two sentences, you find the prevailing, public, sexual ethic of western civilization. By “Public Ethic” I mean to say that this is what, collectively, we believe. There are sexual ethics to the left of this that we reject as a culture (pedophilia, rape, abuse) and to the right (“sexual practice should be confined to expression between a man and woman who are married”), but both sides are outside the cultural mainstream that’s been portrayed in sitcoms, film, and music, for the past 40 years. The notion that your sexual ethic is customizable and that “consent and mutuality” are what matter IS the public sexual ethic of America. “Hooking Up”, “Recreational sex”, “serial monogomy”, “polyamory”, “porn instead of women” “menage a trois” are all part of the sexual buffet line offered to propserous, highly individualized westerners. As long both parties, or both couples, or all the couples together, agree to whatever, then whatever is fine. We hear this, see this, read this, over and over again, and as a result it becomes the prevailing value. I can’t begin to catalog the lies, dysfunctions and brokenness that stem from this common view of things, but social dysfunction, sexual addiction, human mistrust, human trafficking, and the reduction of one another from persons to objects all come to mind.
The important thing to see, for the moment, is that every culture has a prevailing public sexual ethic. People will subscribe to it every time because, being public in nature, it just becomes ‘common sense’. So, while, “to each his/her own” sounds individualistic, in reality it’s our collective, public sexual ethic. The problem, though is that lots of things that have been commonly held to be “obvious” and “just the way it is” were eventually exposed as being destructive or reprehensible (think, slavery, subjugation of woman, margarine, DDT, fracking.) We look back on such things (or will eventually), and say “what were we thinking?”
It’s also true that in the midst of prevailing public norms there are often subcultures that “do things differently”. When the default position in Germany was to report Jews living in your neighborhood, a subculture sheltered them instead. When the default position in rural Ghana is to give your daughter to witchdoctor to become his sexual and material slave, a tiny subculture says “enough” and pushes in a different direction. These too are “public ethics”. It’s just that the public subscribing to these things are always a smaller, contrarian subset of the larger community.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthian church, he was intent on clarifying that Christ followers have a sexual ethic of their own, and that it’s different than prevailing cultural norms. Look at what he says:
Food appetites are different than sexual appetites. – You find this here. The prevailing view of sex in Paul’s day was that our hunger for food and hunger for sex are the same thing: appetites we should obey for own good. This is a bit the premise as well in the popular book “Sex at Dawn” which relies heavily on the sex habits of the Bonobos as the exemplary and healthy reference point for what our own sexual ethic should be: poly-amorous, non-monogamous, “if you’re hungry, eat”. The picture painted by advocates of “sex is a thirst; obey your thirst” school of thought, is one of sexual bliss as all this non-monogamous copulation unfolds over the course of our lifetime. Never mind that, even in the animal community, there are sexual winners and losers; our “Dawn” advocates, indicate that all will be well if we trust our appetites.
Paul challenges that view directly, indicating that sex isn’t an appetite that must be fed, like hunger. He goes on to say that something profound and mysterious happens in intercourse; that it becomes the sign of a oneness, the merging of two into a single entity. Paul’s referring, in this, to the oath/oath, sign nature of covenant making, as documented in this book. In order for a covenant to be enacted, both parties participate in the oath (the promises and declarations) and then consummate the covenant by participating in the sign. The marriage covenant, then, is intended to exist along those same lines. There are the oaths declared, (In sickness and health, etc.) and then, at the end of the day. the promises made are consummated with the sign of intercourse, which seals the covenant and makes it real. Sex then, in its fullest expression at the very least, is intended to be reserved for one to whom you’ve made profound and life altering promises. It’s in the context of a publicly declared commitment and a supportive community, that two people are released to enjoy the full vulnerability and interdependency found in sex.
The covenant provides a safe context in which we can, and should allow our sexuality to take us into depths of vulnerability, mutuality, sacrificial love, truth telling, and interdependency. We’ll go deeper, and realize more profound transformation, if we’re convinced the other loves us, and isn’t just using us. And what will enable me to believe that the other loves me? The fact that the other promised to love me deeply, and made that promise in front of my friends and family, that’s what.
Paul has more to say about sexuality, as he’ll swim upstream against some other popular views that make denigrate sex as something evil, something to be avoided. (I’ll post about the glories of sexuality next week). For now, though, there’s one important thing to note:
Paul is challenging Christ followers to deal with the reality that they’re called to swim upstream against prevailing cultural norms. He doesn’t just challenge the sexual ethic. He challenges how we use our money, who we treat the poor, the old, our enemies, how we treat the earth. In summary, he calls us to align ourselves with an entirely different kingdom because the calling of the Christ followers is to, before everything else, see to it that he/she is seeking “the kingdom of God” first, and this means seeking to embody the ethic of Christ’s reign so that it takes root visibly in the real world. When this happens, an alternative is provided. Women needn’t be sold into sexual slavery. Neither need they be reduced to objects that exist for the use and pleasure of selfish men. People needn’t be reduced to objects existing for our own, or even one another’s mutual gratification. Marriages aren’t made to be abandoned at the first, or even twentieth sign of trouble (though there are lines to be drawn in matters of abuse, which I’ll address later). There is, in other words, an alternative ethic.
If you want to copulate, know that you live in a culture that makes it easy to find an outlet for your loins. If you want to shout about the evils of sex, and shame people into either towing the line or giving the church the finger, you can also find plenty of voices in that echo chamber too. But neither of those conversations are helpful in the end, for both polarities misrepresent sex, and fail to deliver on their promises to fulfill our deepest longings.
The third way, though, includes a starting point of knowing that you’re complete and deeply loved, a cross, a high road, grace and forgiveness when we stumble along the way (as we all do), an embracing rather than denial of our sensual selves, and a commitment to stand with a community who have said for millenia that the gift of sex flourishes best when it becomes a crucible for life, vulnerability, blessing, truth telling, confession, and more with the one to whom you’re married.
Any takers? Happily yes