Does Obedience Matter?: Responses to Readers of “Sex at Seminary”

Does Obedience Matter?: Responses to Readers of “Sex at Seminary” October 31, 2011

I suppose I should not have written a post that referenced sexual promiscuity, and touted “Sex at Seminary” in the title, and hoped that the ensuing conversation would focus on anything other than, well, sex.  The article has been passed around and linked here and there, and it’s essentially served as a bright neon SEX! SEX! SEX! sign to anyone who wants to debate sexual ethics.  And many do — in evangelical circles and mainline circles alike.

My intention was to provoke a conversation over the importance of moral formation and sexual integrity within the context of pastoral training at seminary.  As I made clear in the initial post and a followup, I thoroughly enjoyed Princeton Theological Seminary and learned many things there.  I happen to be an evangelical and a conservative, and so, predictably, people are interpreting (or dismissing) my comments through those lenses.  It probably would have been more helpful to hear these comments from a fellow Mainline Protestant, preferably of one impeccably liberal pedigree — and in the past few days I’ve heard from quite a few of those who do agree with me.

In any case, I wanted to address some of the criticisms.  But let me begin with a positive comment.  A junior at PTS writes me and says, when she read the post:

“I smiled, LOL’d and nodded in agreement. You put to words the overall feel and timbre of my experience here…It’s good to know you made it through three years and even continued with further students…Again, thank you. Your post affirms what is and what is possible.”

Actually, I would say that the responses I’ve received so far have been 7-to-3 positive.  I am, at least, not alone.  Evangelicals, Mainliners with a more traditional perspective toward sexuality and drinking, and even less traditional Mainliners have written to say that they too were surprised by the moral permissiveness they found at seminary and were concerned that this did damage to the spiritual lives of the students.

Now, on to the juicy stuff.  I received a note from a fellow I’ll call D.B., who told me there was “a lot awfully wrong” with my post, speculated on the size of my testicles (let’s just say: he’s a skeptic), referenced the Ku Klux Klan, and suggested I should learn from those Mainliners who can do “the drinking, drugs and sex and maintain a healthy spiritual life.”  However, “as an evangelical that [learning something from them] wouldn’t be a possibility, would it?”  He admonished me to “remember how much shame and sin are cultural constructs that do not necessarily equate with acts that offend God.”

D.B. tells me that he has “spoken at many seminaries” and “edited theological journals” (heh).  Apparently I don’t believe I can learn from non-evangelicals.  Which is obviously why I’ve helped to build a multi-faith website, why I’m a member of Evangelicals for Mitt, why I’ve promoted the work of Bob Roberts at multi-faith bridge-building, why I went to a Mainline seminary, and why I studied religion at two entirely secular institutions (Stanford and Harvard).  And, wait a minute, didn’t I say that I learned many things at PTS?

Anyway, buried amidst the rubbish, he made a substantive point: I am “an evangelical used to holding certain beliefs: drunkenness and drugs are sinful, as is any sex outside of marriage.”  I expect to experience intimacy with Christ through certain means — personal Bible reading, small group study, etc.  I neglect the latter once I get to seminary, my spiritual life suffers — and then I “start complaining about the ‘cultural’ side of things, of rumours of pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol and ‘foul language and unclean talk.'”  This, he suggests, is “self-reinforcing.”

It’s a substantive point, as I said, but it’s not going to win any insight contests, either.  The problem is the stark divide it posits between personal moral behavior (especially as it pertains to sex, drinking and drugs) and a “healthy spiritual life.”  The delusion is that you can have the latter without the former.  It harkens back to several Hellenstic religions and the implication that you can do whatever you like with your body, as long as your soul is attuned with the divine.  It’s fascinating, and it’s tempting, especially tempting to seminarians who might like to think that they’ve gone beyond such mundane matters as abstinence or sobriety.  It’s just not biblical, and it’s certainly not Christian.

This is the whole point.  Obedience matters.  Not because it determines our salvation.  But because it shapes us.  Biblical injunctions against fornication and drunkenness are numerous and clear.  If you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or even a witness to the Word, then you have to take those injunctions seriously.  God has good reasons for the things he calls us to do or warns us not to do.  Over time, they shape our character, our sensibilities, our relationship with God.  We’ll be tempted to believe, but we ought not to believe, that we can do whatever we please with our bodies, that we can ignore the things that God tells us to value and honor and serve, and then we can get a few minutes with God and enjoy a “healthy spiritual life.”  The discipline of daily obedience, of moment-to-moment obedience, brings us constantly into God’s presence and constantly under God’s lordship.  Through obedience we learn more about the cares and the character of God.  So obedience is not a tool of our redemption, but it is a way by which the redeemed express their gratitude to God and come to know God better.

Now, I was not out to blame anyone for the fact that my spiritual life suffered during my seminary years.  I only blame myself.  But I blame myself in part because I gave up on the idea of obedience.  And I suspect that many people I know, evangelicals and Mainliners alike, who found their spiritual lives taking a dosedive in seminary, could have been helped by a culture that more strongly encouraged fidelity to the values and practices that have passed down the stream of generations amongst Christians.

I’ll write a response to Tony Jones in a second post…

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  • Tim, the first time I heard a professing Christian say that evangelicals have it all wrong on the topic of sex outside of marriage, I was very surprised. Since then, I’ve heard it a few more times. I’m amazed, to be honest, that so many bible-believers have come to these sorts of conclusions regarding the topic of obedience considering all that Scripture has to say about it.
    That said, I do want to ask you to help me understand one thing. In one debate I got into (with a well-known author), he came back with (not exact quotes; my paraphrase): “the word translated fornication is the root of our word for pornography. It doesn’t mean all sex outside of marriage, but refers to certain deviant practices which were associated with idol worship and prostitution at the time the bible was being written.” Tim, I’m no expert on original biblical languages. Can you address this point?

    • James,

      The Greek word pornea actually refers to sexual sin, not just fornication. Think about how Jesus said that if you lust after a woman who is not your wife, you have committed adultery with her in your heart. I think that is a clear enough standard to clear up any other discussions on the matter.

  • On another note, I wanted to point to this article, which points to secular research which sheds light on the detrimental effects of sex outside marriage. Its point is relevant in that it helps remind us that God’s commands often are for our good more than anything else.

  • Derrick

    Tim, I just started reading your blog, and I gotta say, great stuff. The first post was good (I didn’t get any of the finger-pointing or judgmental tone from it) and this is great as well. It’s a perfect point that if you believe the Bible to be the word of God, you have to take the injunctions against sexual immorality and drunkenness seriously. Yeah you can debate where to draw the line, but looking for loopholes is something else entirely.

    I’ve been reading through George MacDonald’s _Unspoken Sermons_ and he makes much the same point about the relationship between obedience and spirituality.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent. Thanks for the tip on George MacDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons.” I’ll have to look for that.


      • Derrick

        Available for free at! I don’t entirely endorse his doctrine, but I love his passion.

  • Having read this post (and its predecessor) earlier in the day I just ran across this post on how Christian schools make kids less Christian, rather than more. ( For some I guess the thought (or non-thought action) can be, “Here I am in a safe place, I can do whatever I want since God will be watching over me.”

  • Biblical injunctions against fornication and drunkenness are numerous and clear.

    This isn’t meant to slam you, but does fornication mean no sex before marriage?

    Also, the Bible is also filled with people who didn’t follow what we call traditional sexual ethics.

    I’m not saying that your views are wrong. I am saying that it seems like when it comes to sexual ethics in how you see them, the Bible is not as clear as you might want it to be.

    • Tiff

      James, an interesting point I heard someone make once, usually when people in the Bible didn’t follow traditional sexual ethics, it didn’t end up to well for them (unless they later repented and then turned back to God).

      • Tiff

        Sorry, that was to Dennis, not James.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hi Dennis. I was just using fornication and drunkenness as examples of Biblical moral injunctions that are pretty clear, and not, in my view, up for reinterpretation as cultural ephemera.

      There’s much in the Bible that is, in my view, descriptive and not prescriptive. Sometimes it’s just a record of what happened, not of what everyone should do in the same circumstances.

      God bless,


  • I am astonished that D.B. hails a healthy spiritual life while questioning the size of your genitals. I think I am speechless…

  • Mark

    I can see why you’d want to take some time before addressing Tony Jones’s post. He read your post very differently than I did, which led to a rather different understanding of your words than I took away from my reading. I’ll be interested to see how successful you are at merging the various strategies of communication.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well, I didn’t want to post the response to Tony Jones along with the response to the others, because it would have been too long. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish the post before it was time to go Trick or Treating, so I’ll have to post it tomorrow!


  • Rod S.

    Tim, you are right on with your main premise that obedience matters. As someone rapidly progressing towards old codgerhood, it seems to me that the stream of believers who used to trumpet “Freedom in Christ” without balancing that message with the need for obedience to Christ has turned into a veritable flood in the last decade. Sexual purity? That’s so 20th Century. My kids who are in college expect to contend with the world telling them to loosen up sexually, but it comes as a bit of a shock when many of their evangelical peers are ALSO telling them they need to take a chill pill regarding sex outside of marriage. Besides all of the compelling physical and emotional reasons for abstinence, the most important reason is the one you posit: obedience matters. Without such obedience can we honestly hope to go deeper in our relationship with Father God?

  • Mike


    I, too, enjoyed the initial post and this post. In both posts, I was struck by your reminder that our “relationship” or our experience and knowledge of God is deepened by daily obedience. While the “sex” angle was only an example of your point, it perhaps did stir up a bit more criticism than another example might have. Nonetheless, I don’t see how your experience at PTS would come as a shock to many students who hail from evangelical backgrounds. Ultimately, we each have ourselves to blame, but in many instances our churches are pointing us to obedience….