What would a modern day Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? Did Jesus teach a sexual ethic? I believe that he did, though not explicitly. Biblical fundamentalists who like to claim that the Bible’s teaching is clear about any number of complex issues will find little in the Gospels to support the claim that Jesus is clear on all matters sexual in nature.
What Jesus does say relative to a sexual ethic, however, must be viewed within the broader perspective of that which constituted the critical core of all his teaching. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law, he responded,
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).
And lest we look for some wiggle room in the way we define “neighbor,” Jesus closed that door by teaching (at Matt. 5:44-45) that our neighbor even includes the “enemy” who wants to do us harm :
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
This teaching emphasizes that the love ethic embodied and taught by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that charts the course of God’s will for human beings. Everything Jesus did and said must ultimately relate to this essential demand: love God with the totality of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.
There are two specific passages in the Gospels related to sexual matters where this love ethic does, or certainly should, apply. One is Jesus’ teaching on divorce; the other is his teaching on adultery and lust. Below I’ll address Jesus and divorce; in a follow-up post I’ll address Jesus’ teachings on adultery and lust.
Here, in Matthew 19:3-12, is the whole of what Jesus said about divorce, the parts and purpose of which we’ll then consider:
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
While with the above Jesus argued against divorce, it was not because he considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. On the subject of divorce, I am convinced that why Jesus says what he did is much more important than what he actually said.
In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day, only men had the legal right to divorce, and they could basically divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever. Legally, divorce was permitted on any grounds. Deuteronomy 24:1 was commonly understood by many to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim:
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house. . .
This was disastrous for women. Divorced women in Jesus’ day were considered damaged goods and had few options. Some without family to take them in were forced into lives of prostitution simply to survive.
When Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, he objected, appealing to Genesis 2:24; again:
Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage often argue that Jesus was here affirming heterosexual marriage. Though it clearly wasn’t, even if it was Jesus’ primary intent to affirm heterosexual marriage in that passage, that would not automatically mean that Jesus would also be opposed to same-sex marriage. The condemnation of homosexual love is not inherent in the affirmation of heterosexual love.
Jesus’ appeal to the Genesis text was clearly for the express and exclusive purpose of arguing against divorce. The question of same-sex marriage doesn’t arise here at all.
As we saw above, the men who favored a less restrictive view of divorce raised an objection to Jesus’ quoting Genesis 2:24; namely:
Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?
To which Jesus responds:
It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
The Bible doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation—his critical reading—of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).
In light of his pronounced love ethic, it should be obvious what Jesus was doing. He was interpreting Scripture with a bias toward love—toward the good and well-being of those who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing women, who could not themselves exercise the option of divorce, some leverage. He was trying to level the playing field.
Divorce was simply tragic for women in that culture, so Jesus applied the love ethic to his argument from Scripture. Why? Because what Jesus cared most about was trying to make the situation livable for women trapped in a patriarchal system that often treated them as commodities to be disposed of at will by men who considered themselves naturally superior.
Contrary to what many opponents of same-sex marriage want us to believe, Jesus did not argue against divorce because he was inflexibly committed to some divine law or ideal plan that was encapsulated in Genesis 2:24. He argued against divorce because he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.