The Stakes Are High
Last week, I introduced our discussion of “sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 5-6 by describing my own struggle to understand the Bible’s teachings on sex. After reading that post, you might be saying to yourself, “Come on, now. Is this really that important?” Indeed, many critics of evangelical Christianity have derided its supposed over-emphasis on sexual morality.
The problem with such criticisms is that our emphasis on the importance of sexual morality is derived directly from Scripture. Notice what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV).
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Paul says something very similar in Galatians 5:19-21, and the risen Jesus does the same in Revelation 21:8.
For both Jesus and Paul, sexual immorality was closely associated with doctrinal error and communal discord. The history of Western religion has demonstrated the legitimacy of these concerns, and it should not surprise us that women, girls, and other vulnerable people are the ones who most often get hurt by licentious and predatory sexual practices.
An Alternative Approach
We have to get this right. But doing so, especially in light of the factors I enumerated in my last blog post, has turned out to be a challenging task. A number of proposals have been made to renovate Christian sexual ethics. One interesting proposal was made more than 30 years ago by the ethicist Karen Lebacqz.
In her article, “Appropriate Vulnerability: A Sexual Ethic for Singles” (first published in The Christian Century), Lebacqz described traditional sexual ethics as “legalistic” and hopelessly dependent upon Stoic, rather than biblical, understandings of “passion.” Moreover, she contended that traditional restrictions of sex to heterosexual marriage deny the fundamentally sexual nature of singles.
In its place, she proposes a carefully nuanced theory built upon the idea that sex involves “vulnerability,” that vulnerability is an indispensable part of the purpose of sex, and that this vulnerability requires structural protections in order to safeguard it from misuse. She further argues that, while marriage provides the best protection for the vulnerability of a sexually-involved couple, and while singleness lacks these structural protections, sex cannot be limited to marriage or even to those couples who are on their way to becoming married.
Rather, theological and communal structures need to be put in place that will allow single adults to express their sexuality in a way that is “appropriate” to the level of emotional intimacy and safety they have in their relationships.
Ever since I first read her article more than two decades ago, I have found Lebacqz’s proposal to be attractive. She rightly acknowledges what anyone who has ever been involved in a sexual relationship already knows. Sex exposes us, and it does so at the most sensitive and profound level. As such, it has enormous power to heal, but also enormous power to harm. She rightly implies that some examples of unmarried sex are more wholesome in this regard than some examples of married sex, and she rightly calls the church to take “appropriate vulnerability” into account when evaluating any expression of sexuality.
Nevertheless, Lebacqz’s proposal is insufficient for our needs. She does not acknowledge the strict boundaries the New Testament places on the satisfaction of “desire” or its generally negative appraisal of “passions.” Further, the article seems to proceed on the assumption that rules are always bad, when, in fact, rules help us discern whether we are properly understanding the outlook and vision of our moral system. They are not sufficient, and sometimes we have to make exceptions. But they are still very important.
Moreover, the article does not consider what happens when an “appropriate vulnerability” relationship comes to an end. What are the consequences for the unity of the congregation in which the two participants worship, and what are the consequences for the emotional and spiritual health of the two individuals?
This second question is made all the more urgent by the work of Christian psychologist E. James Wilder. In his lecture, “Attachment Love and the Church,” Wilder argues attachments must be “unique” (“allowing for no substitutes”), must integrate the other into one’s sphere of identity and care, and must be “permanent” in order to be healthy and stable.
Wilder is not specifically addressing sex in this lecture, but the implications of his theory for sex cannot be denied. Sex forms an attachment between two people, and it is worth asking whether that attachment can be broken without doing harm to the two people who formed it. Indeed, it is worth asking whether the attachment itself can be anything other than harmful if it does not possess uniqueness, permanence, and the other characteristics Wilder mentions.
In the end, Lebacqz’s theory cannot provide us what we are looking for. We must keep searching, and we must do so with an open mind towards traditional Christian views of sexual ethics. That is, God willing, what we will do the next time we gather together on the Carroll blog.