Developing and Implementing a Christian Sexual Ethic: Seven Evaluative Criteria

Establishing a Christian Legal Framework for Sexual Behavior

As Christians, we have a unique contribution that we can make to conversations about sexual ethics. As we reflect upon our sacred texts, we recognize that we do not depend upon a single criterion to shape our behavior and evaluate the conduct of others. Rather, Scripture has provided for us a robust framework for ordering our behavior and interpreting the behavior of others.

The Old Testament in general, and the Pentateuch in particular, provides us with something akin to legal principles for determining the permissibility of any given sex act. These principles do not express the highest aspirations that God has for human sexuality. Rather, they establish minimum standards for the ordering of individual behavior. Moreover, they serve as a touchstone for the thinking and acting of social groups—especially groups that understand themselves in terms of relatedness to God.

The principles that I find at work in the Old Testament’s witness can be expressed via three questions.

  • Is a particular act beneficial to the community in which it is embedded, to the human species, and to the created order? We live in a different time than when God told humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1-7). The human race in general, and Israel in particular, needed to grow in order to fulfill God’s purpose for it (to represent God in creation and to manage creation on God’s behalf). With seven billion people now living on earth, it is safe to say that we have fulfilled this part of our responsibility. Nevertheless, I think that the principle behind God’s command still applies to us today. Any behavior that is not beneficial to the community in which it takes place, to the human species, and to the created order is to be avoided. We are not isolated, autonomous agents; we are responsible to one another, to the created order, and to God for how we behave.
  • Does a particular act promote interpersonal bonding? From the beginning, sex was about more than reproduction. It was, according to Genesis, an act that brings two people together in a way that nothing else does. The implications are not just psychosomatic; they are also intrinsically social. The identity of the two individuals is transformed, and they constitute a new social unit. This is why permanence is such an important part of the Christian doctrine of marriage, and it is also why Christians uniformly oppose casual, coercive, and violent sexual interactions. Such interactions do not bond people together. They tear people apart!
  • Would a particular act win the consent of the community in which it takes place? Marriages were usually arranged in the ancient Mediterranean world. We have learned through millennia of experience that this social mechanism often does not produce good results, but there are also some serious problems with the “love marriage” model. It seems to me that we would do well to inculcate in society what could be called a criterion of social consent. Put simply, if a particular act would not pass muster with the family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. of the participants, it should not (barring significant extenuating circumstances) be considered permissible. Consent should begin with the two people involved; no one should be compelled to take part in something that transgresses their conscience. In this way, the criterion of individual consent is preserved. But individual consent needs to be contextualized—and, in some ways, safeguarded—with communal consent.

It should be remembered at this point that it is the Bible, and not the culture out of which it emerged, that is authoritative for Christians. That is why we speak of “principles” that provide a quasi-legal “framework” for sexual ethics. By looking at how God spoke to people in a vastly different cultural context than our own, we discover what God would likely say to us and how we can appropriate God’s message to protect all of us—and especially the vulnerable among us—from the self-satisfying and predatory tendencies that are the defining attributes of sin.

Moving Beyond the Legal Framework

Indeed, as we reflect upon the broader message of Scripture, we recognize that God is not ultimately interested in just having us meet certain “minimum standards.” God calls the people that He has created into a life of radical devotion to Him, and, in exchange, He offers them a life that is quintessentially good, true, and beautiful.

So, we need to move beyond the legal framework sketched above. We need to ask ourselves what an ideal sexual experience would look like from God’s point of view, and we need to ask ourselves how that ideal should impact our behavior.The results of my reflections on these questions can be summarized with four questions. Like the ones I present above, these questions function as evaluative criteria that can be applied to any expression of human sexuality.

  • Does a particular act presume the existence of something that is existentially and morally superior to itself? Americans have often been accused by Christian apologists of worshiping sex, but we are not the only ones guilty of such idolatry. The ancient world was replete with fertility religions of various sorts, and these religions simply give concrete expression to what has been a persistent human tendency. Because sex provides pleasure, and because humans have difficulty seeing anything beyond their immediate pleasure or pain, sex is often ascribed (in deed if not in word) the status of a first-order good. We who follow Jesus believe that he calls us (and the world) to a different way of life. He calls us to acknowledge that God is higher and better than any human experience, including any sexual experience. We who follow Jesus preach—and hopefully practice—self-restraint precisely because it embodies the reality that God exists and that God alone is worthy of absolute devotion.
  • Does a particular act conform to the design of creation and the expectations of its Creator? This is not simply—or even primarily—an appeal to natural theology. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that God made the universe and that we live best when we live in accordance with His design. We do not learn what that design is simply by reading the Journal of Sexual Medicine. We learn it by cultivating a dynamic and obedient relationship with God.
  • Does a particular act cohere with the symbolic universe of Christian theology? It is not enough for an expression of human sexuality to acknowledge God’s existence or to conform to God’s design for the universe. It must also cohere with the symbolic universe of Christian theology. There are two specific ways in which this coherence can and should take place—one drawn from each Testament. First, does the act reflect the faithfulness that defines God’s character and that expresses God’s expectations of His people? Throughout the Old Testament, adultery is compared with idolatry because both are expressions of unfaithfulness. When people are bonded together in covenant relationship and are faithful to those bonds, they mirror in their lives the faithfulness that God exemplifies and expects. Second, does a particular act reflect the self-giving love of Jesus? Paul explicitly compares Jesus’ love for the church with a husband’s love for his wife in Ephesians 5:21-32, but the broader message of the New Testament indicates that Christ is a model for all believers in every area of their lives. Perhaps most notably, Christians are to live in ways that benefit others, even if that means (and it often will) that their own needs are left unmet (Philippians 2:1-11).
  • Is a particular act an expression of mutual affection and a result of mutual admiration? Song of Solomon is not an allegory of God’s love for Israel. It is a deeply sensual expression of the affection and admiration that a man and a woman have for one another. Now let’s be honest; Solomon was a polygamist, and that is not an example that we want to imitate. But, as we have already said, it is Scripture, and not the life of the historical Solomon, that are authoritative for us. And what we find in this beautiful love poem is a passionate celebration of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality—and not just in the abstract but in the concrete reality of a relationship between real people.

No expression of human sexuality that is self-indulgent, coercive, or violent will fulfill the criteria enumerated here. That is because such expressions of human sexuality are inherently idolatrous. They do not express love. Indeed, they point people away from love’s true Author and offer instead a cheap and deadly substitute.

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