A Gospel-Centered Sexual ethic
If the last blog in this series made you think of marriage, that is no accident. Heterosexual marriage not only provided the ritual foundation for legitimate sex for first-century Jews; it also formed the symbolic world that shaped the thinking of our Lord and his followers. That may not seem like good news. But 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 makes the connection between the gospel and sexual ethics explicit, and so we ought to think about how the gospel impacts our practices in this very important area of our lives.
On the positive side, I am reminded of the words Gandalf the Gray spoke to his old friend, Bilbo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings. “I am not trying to rob you. I am trying to help you.” God’s laws are not arbitrary. They are intended to promote our flourishing and to keep us from hurting each other (e.g., Jesus’ discussion of Sabbath in Mark 2:23-28).
Moreover, there is no sin beyond the reach of God’s forgiving, cleansing, and transforming love. Sin enslaves us to a cadre of psycho-somatic urges and socio-political systems that distort our true nature and destroy our relationships with God and others. Christ’s death atones for our sin and his resurrection frees us from our enslavement to these malevolent powers (see Romans 3:21-26; 6:1-23; 8:1-17).
On the negative side of the ledger, the gospel reminds us life is not about our happiness. That is because, in Paul’s words, “we have been bought with a price.” We now belong to Jesus. We are his servants, and we must do his bidding.
But what is it that Jesus wants from us? Simply put, it is radical selflessness (see Mark 8:34-38 and parallels). Jesus asks that we deny ourselves one of our deepest desires and trust that God will provide what we really need (see Matthew 6:25-34).
Suggestions for Making the Gospel Practical
So, how do we take all of this talk about the gospel and make it practical? How do we help people stay connected to Jesus while also helping them embrace a sexual ethic which promotes psycho-somatic pleasure, relational connection, and ontological oneness? I don’t have any “magic bullets” which will ease the burden of chastity or silence the skepticism of liberal theologians. However, I think there are some steps we can take which will help us, and the people we lead, avoid “sexual immorality.”
- We should begin by reminding ourselves, and those we lead, that the gospel will cost us something. Sacrifice is an indispensable part of Christianity (cf. Romans 12:1), and the sooner we get comfortable with that idea, the better off we will be.
- We must subvert the radical individualism surrounding sex. Contrary to what our culture regularly preaches, the decision to have sex is not merely a private decision made by consenting adults. It involves families, communities, churches, and, most of all, God. So, we are accountable to all of those entities for what we do, when we do it, and how we do it.
- We must subvert the “naughty is good” narrative that permeates our culture’s discourse on sex. Even liberal Christians must recognize this faulty narrative undermines genuine virtue, short-circuits efforts to experience real romance, and leads to reckless and promiscuous behavior.
- We need to remember that some of the psychological and spiritual processes involved with sex are beyond our control (see 1 Corinthians 6:15-16). The Corinthians’ behavior was so egregious precisely because the sex they were having with prostitutes was creating a “one flesh” bond, even though there was no marriage involved. Indeed, to try and undo that uniting effect would be more, not less, damaging.
- We need to keep the eschatological situation in mind. Yes, there is hardship in this life, but Paul was convinced that it paled in comparison to what is to come (see Romans 8:18-25). It is that blessed state that is to be our aim.
- We must speak openly and honestly about what we believe God has revealed in His Word, but we should also be careful to avoid the self-righteous, condemning tone that has so often characterized Christian polemics on sexuality. This is in part because of the ambiguities liberal scholars point out, but it is also because there is wisdom in saving our most vitriolic responses for those instances that are the most repugnant.
- Similarly, we need to give people a safe place to talk about their desires, their struggles, and their doubts. I recognize there is danger in giving people the freedom to talk about these things. After all, if they start talking about how much they want to have sex, they might just decide to do it. Nevertheless, I agree with Curt Thompson that shame prevents us from confronting our true selves. By contrast, bringing our longings into the light makes them more real, and, at least in my own experience, making them more real makes it easier to discern which ones are legitimate and which ones need to be killed off as manifestations of the flesh.
- Love must always be at the heart of everything we do—and that includes everything we do in the bedroom. We will need to return to this point when we come to 1 Corinthians 13. For now, it is enough to observe that Paul, in Romans 13:8-14, affirms the traditional Jewish and Christian insistence on love as the center of human life and connects that insistence with his eschatological perspective.