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.