How “love your neighbor” is the Bible’s sexual ethic

This is the final installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looked at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 considered “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 and part 4 explored some of the limitations of this starting point. Part 5 below offers an alternative approach.

Here’s a quick recap of the last four posts in the series . . .

On balance, the evangelical purity culture has done more harm than good, failing (mostly) to prevent premarital sex while marginalizing those who don’t live up to their exacting standards. Yet many of us still think marriage is the ideal setting for sexual intimacy. There are passages of scripture which seem to equate sex with marriage, and this leads some to argue that the former should be reserved exclusively for the latter.

On the other hand, much of what the Bible says about sex and marriage shouldn’t be applied today. The Old Testament tolerated polygamy. It required unwed rape victims to marry their attackers. It generally viewed women as property. So if you’re trying to build a comprehensive ethic on the idea that sex equals marriage in the Bible, you’re going to run into trouble.

OK, so now what? Do we give up trying to extract a meaningful sexual ethic from the Bible?

No, but maybe we’re going about it the wrong way. Maybe this isn’t really about sex. Maybe it’s about how we read the Bible.

Most of us treat the Bible as if it were a series of propositional truth statements. We see it as our job to cobble together a coherent theology or ethic of [insert subject here] from a handful of seemingly related texts pulled from random bits of the Bible.

The problem is, scripture doesn’t work this way. It’s not that kind of book. It’s more story than statement. And it’s a story that’s evolving (which is one reason why women generally fare better in the New Testament than in the Old).

But many Christians don’t just treat the Bible as a collection of propositional truth statements. They treat it as as THE collection of propositional truth statements, the final authority, the “Word of God.”

Except . . . the Bible doesn’t use this last term in reference to itself — that is, to the whole canon of scripture.

There IS such a thing as “the Word of God” with a capital W, but it’s not a text. It’s a person. The Word of God in its truest and most authoritative form is Jesus. (See John 1, Revelation 19, etc. See also Christian Smith’s helpful book The Bible Made Impossible.)

Jesus is the final authority, the definitive revelation through whom we’re meant to read all the other words about God and from God in the Bible. Scripture, then, is a book about Jesus, not a book about sex or [insert your favorite hot-button issue here].

So how did Jesus read all the other words about God in his Bible?

Quite simply, as it turns out.

Everything scripture demands of us, Jesus taught, can be boiled down to this:

Love God and love your neighbor.

“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” Jesus said.

The apostle Paul echoed Jesus when he wrote that “love is the fulfillment of the law” and that “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

For Jesus and Paul, everything comes down to this. If you do this one thing, you have kept the only law that matters to God.

In which case, the question is isn’t, When is it OK to have sex? The question is, How do I love my neighbor? Any sexual behavior which doesn’t pass the “love your neighbor” test is off limits.

Sounds weak, right? I mean, did we just open a Pandora’s box of promiscuity, all in the name of “love”?

Well, no. Love is a lot more demanding than that. Love by its very nature refuses to dishonor another person. Love is not self-seeking. Love protects. Love does not pursue its own satisfaction at someone else’s expense. Love teaches us to value others above ourselves.

Which leaves absolutely no room for coercive or predatory sex of any kind: rape, harassment, or even just pressuring someone to jump into the sack before they’re ready. All off limits.

As is pornography, which is inextricably tied to sex trafficking, and which encourages men to view women as objects for their consumption. Such a reduced view of humanity runs opposite to “love your neighbor.”

Casual sex, even when it’s (supposedly) consensual, turns out to be a pretty bad idea, too — because as Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote in her brilliant post recently:

[Sex is] the most vulnerable thing you’ll ever do with another human being. Commitment breeds intimacy, and intimacy is what makes sex freaking amazing.

In other words, if you’re not committed to the other person, you’re not doing it right. And if you love someone, believe me: you’ll want to do it right. Good sex takes practice… with the same person. (Notwithstanding Hollywood depictions of strangers falling into the sack and magically satisfying each other in two minutes flat… i.e. fantasyland.) It takes vulnerability, trust, and all those things you generally don’t find outside a committed relationship.

We could go on. Polygamy doesn’t pass the “love your neighbor” test because it un-levels the playing field between partners, undercutting mutuality. Adultery has no place either, because it means breaking faith with someone you’ve vowed to love.

But for the life of me, I don’t see how a committed, same-sex relationship fails the “love your neighbor” test. Sure, we could dust off the so-called clobber texts and argue that it’s “unnatural.” But to do so is to put some other law above “love your neighbor.” Which is the reverse of what Jesus taught.

If “love your neighbor” really is the fulfillment of every other law, then in order to condemn homosexuality, you’d have to show how a committed, consensual relationship between two adults of the same gender violates this law, not how it violates some anachronistic levitical code banning ritual sex between two men.

So what about those who, regardless of their orientation, have a complicated sexual past? What about those who’ve had more than one partner? Or who became sexually active before they were ready? What about those who’ve been told by the evangelical purity culture that they are damaged goods, that they’ve stolen something from their future spouses, that they’ve forever tarnished their capacity for intimacy?

“Love your neighbor” calls out this kind of thinking for the crap it truly is.

That’s the other thing about love. It keeps no record of wrongs. It never stops trusting. It always hopes, always perseveres, always sees the best in other people. Love refuses to define anyone according to their sexual past. To quote Jamie the Very Worst Missionary again, love says, “You are so much more than your sexuality.”

“Love your neighbor” doesn’t offer a simple answer to every “what if?” But maybe that’s why it works as a sexual ethic where other approaches fall apart — because the others try too hard to be all-encompassing, too one-size-fits-all, and end up being undermined by their own inconsistencies.

“Love your neighbor” is not always easy to apply, especially when it comes to sexuality. But I believe it’s the only ethic we need.

Image by Marcelino Rapayla Jr. on Flickr

9 thoughts on “How “love your neighbor” is the Bible’s sexual ethic

  1. An interesting examination of the sexual ethic from the Love Your Neighbor perspective…

    …but even Jesus put one law above even that one… “Love the Lord your God with everything that is you”… and I expect that even means your sexuality.

    So… in light of that, how do you answer committed same sex relationships in light of God the creator who, while it may not be a literal story, inspired a story of two genders committed to a God-sponsored “marriage”?

    So, while love your neighbor may be fine in understanding sexual behavior between two people, it falls short in addressing this understanding of “love God”… and it is this point that is my wrestling point, really.

    While I have come to the place that, at least for our non-religious government and the social programs and such associated with it, marriage between two people of the same physical gender is not a problem, when it comes to the standard as revealed in the story of Scripture (note, not propositions, but story), it seems that at least the ideal that we should be aiming towards should be a mixed-gender relationship. Is this world broken with things not living up to that standard? Certainly… but this does not negate the standard, it simply shows our world for what it is.

    *shrug* YMMV but, for me, I don’t look for the propositional statements but look for the ethic that is in the larger story: God created a world that was good (how, exactly, he went about doing that remains a mystery as to time frame, process, etc) but something came along and broke that good. We are living in that brokeness and so there are things that come out of that brokeness that we should approach with caution and discernment.

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    • Hey Robert, thanks for the dialogue and for sharing your wrestling points. I’ve been wrestling with some of the same questions as you. For me, I take Jesus’ statement that the second command is “like” the first (Mt. 22:39) to mean that practicing the second is the way in which we practice the first. That is, we love God by loving our neighbor.

      I do think that part of what it means to love God is to try and discern the world as he intended it, the world as it is (broken in many ways), and the world as God wants to put it back together. I think it’s possible (not necessarily easy) to discern all of these through the lens of “love your neighbor.”

      Re. the inspired story of the first marriage… though I don’t take Genesis 1 as literal history, I agree w/you (and with most Christians, for that matter) that it sets something of a pattern or precedent. I would say that heterosexuality is the norm when it comes to marriage. And that procreation is an important factor in marriage (though certainly not the only or most important factor). But I’d propose that just because something is normative doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the ONLY acceptable pattern. We affirm married couples who don’t have children (whether by choice or b/c of infertility), even though Genesis 1 connects procreation pretty strongly to marriage. In a similar vein, I would argue that just because heterosexuality is “the norm” (as evidenced by the fact that some 90-97% of the population is heterosexual) doesn’t mean homosexuality is bad. Exceptions to the established or default norm are not always bad; some are just different.

      This is the point at which I run homosexuality through the “love your neighbor” test to try and determine whether it’s an immoral exception to the norm or a just morally neutral one. My own personal conclusion is that it’s the latter.

      So that’s why I can affirm the importance — even the sacredness — of heterosexual marriage while equally affirming the fidelity and commitment demonstrated by my friends in same-sex marriages.

      I think we have a similar approach to the Bible and the larger story it tells. Now if only figuring out what to do with that story was simple! 🙂

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      • I guess it’s the difference between “normative” (as a mathematician, I take that to mean “covers the majority under the bell curve”) and ideal (more of the concept of archetype). While homosexuality is not the norm, it is not the ideal. But I see what you’re saying that, even in hetero-sexual relationships, if we include “procreation” as the “ideal”, then whether or not it’s “normative” or “ideal” we run into the same problem.

        The question would be, even in those hetero-sexual relationships that don’t fall within the “norm” (infertility, etc), are those outside of the norm because of divine design/ideal… or are they outside of the norm because of the brokeness of the world? Having gone through a period called “primary infertility” ourselves, I recognize that infertility is, in many cases, a result of either the brokeness of a damaged body (out-of-whack horomonal levels) or the brokeness of environment (something environmental prevents conception). So, could we so easily dismiss infertility of “Oh, that’s just the way God made the world”? I have a hard time even doing that.

        But, it is a symptom of the brokeness of this world and, looking at how Jesus dealt with “broken” people, that law of love certainly plays a HUGE role… so, I affirm the loving approach towards same-sex couples… but I still hold back affirming such relationships as within God’s “ideal”. They may be the way things are in this broken world, but if the world wasn’t broken, would they still be? To quote another famous person: “That’s above my pay grade”

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  2. Interesting picture of scripture as the “Story that is Evolving”… while I don’t think it solves every issue that rises from some of the stories of the OT (I’ve even had a professor who calls passages like these the “SO-CALLED ‘marriage’ metaphors”!), I think it’s a nice start. There are many difficult passages in our sacred texts, but we wrestle with them…

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