How Christian sexual ethics gets tricky

This is the third installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looked at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 considers “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 below explores some of the limitations of this starting point (as will part 4), while part 5 will offer an alternative approach.

Sex — not a ceremony or a legal document — is what made a marriage official in the Old Testament. That’s what Preston Yancey argues near the beginning of his thoughtful series on sexual ethics. (Seriously, he is tackling some difficult issues with sensitivity and insight. Much respect.)

But “sex as marriage” is bound up with a number of cultural realities that do not hold today. Most of us don’t practice arranged marriages anymore (at least not in the West). Most of us are free to marry for love, rather than survival. Polygamy is generally frowned upon; and, mercifully, rape victims aren’t forced to marry their attackers.

All of which means we have to be careful how we articulate and apply a “biblical” sexual ethic today.

For example, how do we address the growing gap between the onset of adolescence and the average marrying age today? How do we do so in a way that is both principled and pragmatic?

When we tell kids to wait, we’re asking them to do so longer than ever — and during the most hormonally intense period of their lives. That’s not to say there’s no point in postponing sexual activity, especially given that many teenagers (including two-thirds of females) look back on their first sexual encounter with regret. But let’s not kid ourselves: we’re asking kids to wait a long time.

Another cultural dynamic which complicates the development of a biblical sexual ethic: the Bible’s treatment of polygamy. How could two people become “one flesh,” as God apparently intended, if one of them was united to multiple wives? How do we make sense of the fact that Scripture tolerates polygamy — even mandates it in at least one case?

Neither Abraham nor David were ever criticized for having multiple wives and concubines. Solomon doesn’t fare as well in the final analysis, but it’s mainly because of his wives’ pagan religious attachments, and less about the fact that there were 700 of them.

This is not just an “Old Testament” problem either. The closest the Bible ever comes to an outright prohibition of polygamy is Paul’s requirement that church elders be monogamous. While certainly nothing in the New Testament can be read as encouraging polygamy, ultimately it still falls short of issuing a blanket prohibition. In order to reject polygamy as we should today, we have to go beyond the Bible.

In other words, making the biblical concept of “sex as marriage” the basis for a Christian sexual ethic doesn’t adequately account for the Bible’s implicit tolerance of polygamy. Polygamy is incompatible with a “sex as marriage” ethic, yet it escapes outright condemnation.

So we’re faced with a couple of possibilities: perhaps “sex as marriage” isn’t a viable basis for a comprehensive sexual ethic, or perhaps it just needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the realities of a particular time and place.

“Sex as marriage” may still be where the bar is set. Which means that polygamy is far from ideal. But time and again in Scripture, God seems willing to overlook certain shortcomings like polygamy for the sake of a larger redemptive purpose. Thus David can still be a “man after God’s own heart,” even though he had more wives and concubines than was good for him. He’s still God’s man; he’s still moving God’s plan forward.

Or to put it another way, maybe God isn’t as preoccupied with sex as we are.

Even if “sex as marriage” is the ideal, in figuring out how to apply it we may have to make exceptions, depending on our cultural context. More on that in the next post.

8 thoughts on “How Christian sexual ethics gets tricky

  1. I would encourage you to consider and address the quite literal text of Ephesians 5:21 – 32, both for its description of a husband a wife, and also for its depiction of the marriage relationship as both a symbol and a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church (not Christs and the church, not churches and Christ)

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    • James, I don’t think “literal” is a helpful or advisable category in this case, particularly since the household codes in Ephesians 5-6 also govern (and therefore assume the legitimacy of) slavery.

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  2. I totally appreciate this post, thank you. I like how you bring up the waiting age (something I’d not previously considered and haven’t seen discussed) and the way you’ve highlighted polygamy as an example of how we need to be careful about the sexual ethics we draw from it.

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  3. Ben,

    I was disappointed by your response. I believe you (perhaps inadvertently) seized on my use of the word “literal” to completely disregard both the text of that passage, as well as the deeper point regarding the marriage relationship and what it is expressly designed to represent. You attempted to legitimize your failure to address the main point by putting forth a logical fallacy regarding the passage’s discussion of slavery, which I address below.

    Your first point appears to be that because Ephesians 6:5 urges masters and slaves to treat each other with respect (while also stating that there is “no favoritism” with God), the Word of God must be “assum[ing] the legitimacy of slavery.”

    The recognition of a condition is not synonymous with endorsement of that condition. The Bible does not endorse slavery, but it does speak to slaves and masters who found themselves in that very real institution of those times, and set forth how they are to conduct themselves. Since many early Christians were slaves to Romans, it was understandable that Paul would exhort them on how they should conduct themselves in that reality.

    Your comment also disregards the fact that the system of slavery in those times was in many ways distinct from the slavery that was a reality in America. (This is not meant in ANY way as an endorsement by me of slavery in ANY form, just a recognition of the fact that the differences were in some ways significant.) For example, individuals in some cases sold themselves into slavery in order to pay a debt; some families sold themselves into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure; slaves were to be freed after serving six years.

    In short, saying that this passage somehow takes away the import of the text addressing familial relationships is disengenuous.

    In addition to the passage in Ephesians, the Bible speaks repeatedly about the marriage relationship and God’s design for it. Here are just a few of those passages:

    Genesis 2:24 – “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

    Matthew 19:3-4 – Jesus quotes the Genesis passage

    1 Corinthians 7:1-10 – Paul discusses sexual immorality and tells the church to limit their sexual relations to their spouse.

    1 Timothy 3:2-3 – “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”
    Your blog suggests that since this is included in a list of qualifications for church elders, it maybe doesn’t apply to the rest of us. Applying your logic to the entire verse would mean that there is no reason for us “everyday Christians” to be above reproach, self-controlled, respectable, non given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle. I don’t know you but I would assume that you do not stand by the conclusion that your logic compels?
    As a secondary matter, I would suggest that since we are all priests (Peter 2:9), it’s not a stretch to assume that we should all seek to live in a way that is holy and sanctified before God.

    One final note about the later marrying age prevalent today. Your argument reduces to this: “Current societal norms make it harder to obey God; therefore, perhaps obeying God should mean something different now.” This is a dangerous view of scripture’s relevance across time and culture and can pretty easily be applied to justify any moral conclusions we as a society decide to embrace.

    I’ll end with this passage, which I would imagine we can both agree is a sober warning for all Christians. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 – “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

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    • James, if I misunderstood the point behind your original comment, then I apologize.

      My point in bringing up the reference to slavery in Ephesians 6 is to highlight how this text, like everything else in the Bible, has to be read in light of the culture it came out of. Paul is repurposing Greco-Roman household codes which can be found in other correspondence from that era and which, yes, assumed the legitimacy of slavery. Slavery in the Greco-Roman world may have differed in some respects from more recent forms of slavery, but it still involved the ownership of one human being by another. The Bible may not endorse slavery, but it doesn’t come right out and challenge its existence either. And it never flat-out prohibits it.

      Which is actually my point about polygamy. The passages you quoted may show that polygamy wasn’t the ideal, but Scripture never flat-out condemns polygamy.

      And yet today we condemn both slavery and polygamy – and rightly so. You have to go beyond the Bible. This does not, however, suggest some interpretive free-for-all. There is a trajectory in Scripture, and I believe we have to follow it: from less humane treatment of people to more humane, from inequality to equality, etc.

      If you think my argument can be reduced to “current social norms make it harder to obey God, so let’s just do what we want,” then you have missed the point of my post.

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  4. Pingback: How we all make exceptions « Ben Irwin

  5. Pingback: How “love your neighbor” is the Bible’s sexual ethic « Ben Irwin

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