Starting Assumptions for Sexual Ethics

Starting Assumptions for Sexual Ethics January 3, 2013

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.


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