2016-06-30
The bottom line is this: God created sex for marriage, and within a Christian moral vocabulary, it is impossible to defend sex outside of marriage. To more liberal readers, schooled on a generation of Christian ethics written in the wake of the sexual revolution, this may sound like old-fashioned hooey, but is the simple, if sometimes difficult, truth.

For several years, I tried and tried to find a way to wiggle out of the church's traditional teaching that God requires chastity outside of marriage, and I failed. I read all the classics of 1970s Christian sexual ethics, all the appealing and comforting books that insisted that Christians must avoid not sex outside of marriage, but rather exploitative sex, or sex where you run the risk of getting hurt. These books suggest that it is not marriage per se, but rather the intent or state of mind of the people involved, that determines whether or not sex is good and appropriate; if a man and woman love each other, if they are committed to each other, or, for Pete's sake, if they are just honest with each other about their fling being a no-strings-attached, one-night stand, then sex between them is just fine. After all, as long as our 1970's man and woman care about each other, making love will be meaningful. In fact, sex might even liberate them, or facilitate their personal development.

Well. I tried to find these books persuasive. I wanted to find them persuasive. I wanted someone to explain to me that I could be a faithful Christian and blithely continue having premarital sex. But in the end, I was never able to square sex outside of marriage with the Christian story about God, redemption, and human bodies.

It wasn't just the liberal, supposedly liberating, books that left me cold. I didn't find many of the more conservative bromides all that persuasive either--the easy proof--texting that purports to draw a coherent sexual ethic from a few verses of Paul. To be sure, scripture has plenty to teach us about how rightly to order our sexual lives, but, as the church, we need to ask whether the starting point for a scriptural witness on sex is the isolated quotation of "thou shalt not," or whether a scriptural ethic of sex begins instead with the totality of the Bible, the narrative of God's redeeming love and humanity's attempt to reflect that through our institutions and practices. If our aim is to construct a rule book, perhaps the cut-and-paste approach to scripture is adequate: as the bumper sticker wisdom goes, Jesus (or in this case, Paul) said it, I do it. But if we see scripture not merely as a code of behavior but as a map of God's reality, and if we take seriously the pastoral task of helping unmarried Christians live chastely, the church needs not merely to recite decontextualized Bible verses, but to ground our ethic in the faithful living of the fullness of the gospel. As ethicist Thomas E. Breidenthal once put it, "We must do more than invoke the will of God if we wish to recover a viable Christian sexual morality.... Even if God's will is obvious, it cannot provide a rationale for any moral code until we are able to say, clearly and simply, how God's command speaks to us, how and why it addresses us not only as a demand but as good news."

The church derives its sexual ethic from scripture, and Paul has a few sharp-tongued things to say about sexual morality. But those verses of Paul had little impact on me. That is probably more my failing than anyone else's, but for a few-months-old Christian-too Christianly young to be said to be formed in Christian virtues and hardly eager to stop sleeping with her boyfriend-an isolated verse from 1 Thessalonians was about the easiest thing in the world to ignore.

An analogy may help make the point. If my sexual habits were formed by Hollywood and Cosmo and therefore at odds with how Christianity would have me comport my sexual self, my shopping habits were equally schooled in a surrounding secular culture whose assumptions are contrary to those of the gospel. Compact discs were coming into fashion when I was in fourth grade, and my father, upon buying a CD player, presented my sister and me with one CD each-Leanne got ABBA's greatest hits, I got the more modish Madonna, her album Like a Virgin (which may itself speak volumes about how I was formed sexually) with its hit single, "Material Girl." And though after college I eschewed lucrative job offers to work on Wall Street and rake in more money than a twenty-one-year-old should be allowed to earn, I nonetheless was something of a material girl. I liked to shop. I owned a lot of silk blouses. I was singularly unreflective when it came to matters of money, ownership, and wealth.

Not that I hadn't read the Gospels, where Jesus has quite a few things to say about money, ownership, and wealth. I had read his strict words about the rich man's inability to get into heaven. I had even heard sermons that quoted these lines and urged the faithful to be "good stewards," whatever that meant. (As far as I knew, a steward was a male airplane attendant.)

Jesus's words did, in fact, lodge like small burrs in my side, and I began to feel pangs of something-though I'm not quite sure you could call it guilt-when I went on those silk shopping sprees. But it was not until I began to grasp the larger arc of the Gospels' teaching about wealth and possessions that the radical nature of Jesus's words began to sink in. It would be a dramatic overstatement to say that today I am a model of simplicity (I do still own a few silk tops), but I have begun to take steps toward simple living, and those steps were goaded not merely by hearing Jesus's harsh words to the rich young ruler, but by hearing them through the scrim of centuries of church teaching on ownership and possession, by coming to see how Jesus's words were not isolated instructions but integrally related to basic Christian themes of creation ownership, and salvation.

As with wealth, so too with bodies. Yes, St. Paul's sexual guidelines would be sufficient. But they would be sufficient the way a black-and-white film clip is sufficient. Sometimes you see gospel truths in very sharp relief when they are just in black and white. But sometimes they are clearer and more arresting when they are not seen as isolated instructions, but rather as part of the large biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption-the entire story in Technicolor.

Our bodies and how we inhabit them point to the order of creation. God made us for sex within marriage; this is what the Reformed tradition would call a creational law. To see the biblical witness as an attempt to direct us to the created order, to God's rule of creation, is not to appeal to self-interest in a therapeutic or false way. It is rather to recognize the true goodness of God's creation; things as they were in the Garden of Eden are things at their most nourishing, they are things as they are meant to be. This is what Paul is saying when he speaks to the Corinthians: Don't you know that when you give your body to a prostitute, you are uniting yourself to her? To ask that question is to speak the wisdom of Proverbs in the idiom of law. It is a law that invites us into the created order of marital sex; a law that rightly orders our created desires for sexual pleasure and sexual connectedness; a law, in short, that cares for us and protects us, written by a Lawgiver who understands that life outside of God's created intent destroys us. By contrast, life lived inside the contours of God's law humanizes us and makes us beautiful. It makes us creatures living well in the created order. It gives us the opportunity to become who we are meant to be.


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