Sexual Ethics and Controlling the Discourse
September 12, 2014 0 comments
“Oh, great,” said everyone. “Another church railing against promiscuity, homosexuality, and how society is going to hell in a handbasket. Just what I want to read today (this is not what I want to read today).” I know there is something archaic and cliché to read a blog post about sexual ethics from an evangelical church. Having admitted that, I hope you’ll bear with me since this post isn’t really about decrying the erosion of a normative sexual ethic built on heterosexuality and abstinence until marriage and replacing it with the new normative sexual ethic that basically anything consensual and post-18th birthday goes. It’s about why sexual ethics generally have changed (both within and outside the church) and what that means going forward.
There is no doubt, after all, that sexual ethics are generally shifting. People are having sex earlier but getting married later. The disfavor towards homosexuality is dissipating, both legally and socially. Abstinence until marriage is less and less considered a realistic option from a holistic standpoint (even as it gains popularity in certain countercultures). It’s wrong to explain the trends away as a natural evolution towards the God-forsaken hellhole our society is careening towards in a game of chicken we can’t win (until Jesus ultimately does). It’s not enough to explain the trends away as natural ebb and flow that societies have shifted on for centuries. While that’s true, it also casts society as a passive participant in broad trends they can’t control, but of course society is actually composed of the active choices made by individuals. So why are more and more individuals choosing a perspective on sex that seems patently unbiblical?
One possible explanation could be that less and less people are self-identifying as Christians. But that seems insufficient, since even those that identify as Christian are following the same basic trends as society generally. Although the answer is almost certainly multi-faceted, I think one thing the church should acknowledge is that part of the problem is the reactive nature of church teaching on sexual ethics.
At the risk of oversimplification, the church has often allowed secularism to control the discourse, reacting to the conversation rather than dictating its terms. As Hannah Andersen said, “[w]hen the world promised good sex outside of marriage, we promised better sex to those who wait for marriage. When the world said that the timing of marriage is essential to a successful life (i.e., wait until you are ready to settle down), we said the same thing only in reverse (i.e., your happiness depends on marrying young).” The problem with this approach is twofold – first, it focuses on the practical and eventual benefits of not feeling good now (which will never be as convincing as the practical and immediate benefits of feeling good) rather than on the message of the Gospel. Whatever we think about the message of the Gospel regarding sex and marriage, it’s not a how-to manual. It’s not a ritualistic PowerPoint full of pros and cons and ultimate conclusions and can’t be limited to bullet points (early marriage = preferable). Second, it feeds into the obsession with sex and conflates sex with marriage in an unhelpful way. While sex after marriage might be better than sex before marriage, it also might not be. Does our sexual ethic depend on it? While people who marry young might be happier, evidence suggests that most will not be. Does our sexual ethic depend on it?
Society is uncomfortable with the truth that while the Bible is pretty clear that God’s plan for sex included the dictate that it be confined to marriage, marriage is ultimately not about sex. Because of society’s obsession with sex and how it drives large sectors of our economy, social discourse, and internet usage, the church has focused on sex in basically the same ways. Instead of “Want good sex? Take this pill!” or “PICS OF JLAW!” the church says, “Want good sex? Wait until marriage!” and “DRISCOLL SERIES ON SONG OF SOLOMON!” See, we can preach 1 Corinthians 7 until we are blue in the face, but in doing so we are assuming a level of fighting against temptation that probably does not exist for a large segment of evangelicalism. The answer is not to return to the 1950’s and break out our “See no evil, Hear no evil, Do no evil” strategy of ignoring the notion of sex altogether, but it’s also not to capitulate to the notion that sex is one of the two driving forces of everything that humanity does.
The Gospel is a radical message. It is a discourse-dominating message, one that, if applied, would not only have a radically positive effect on sexual ethics, but also on racism, poverty and two journalists being beheaded in the Middle East. But if our message is solely determined by society (Ferguson? OK let’s preach about racism and authority. Gay marriage is being attacked? HOMOSEXUALITY IS SINFUL!) then the church won’t be relevant so much as they will be seen as grasping at relevance despite their backwards message. The answer isn’t to ignore society (Ferguson? Yawn) but to preach a gospel of a radical grace sufficient for pastors kids and criminals, an impartial mercy for both Jew and Gentile, a perfect justice no matter our skin color or economic status, and a sexual ethic that treats sex not as a monster to be controlled but as one gift among many to be properly enjoyed. If our sexual ethic is basically reactive, than we are left with an ethic limited to the dual notions that heterosexual relations after marriage (preferably one that begins in the 20’s) is awesome, mindblowing, change-your-life level enjoyable, and all other sex is sinful (especially homosexuality). That’s not enough. It’s akin to a social justice ethic that says “Jesus loves all the little children” and all racism is bad (especially Affirmative Action). The gospel has so much more to say, and what it has to say is not determined by what society wants to talk about.
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