In our culture sexuality is spoken of like this:
1. The oppression of the past. In the past, ancient cultures surrounded sex with all sorts of taboos. In general, sex outside of marriage was forbidden in order to control women, to help men protect their daughters and wives as their property.
2. The need for authentic expression. In modern times, however, we have come to believe in the freedom and rights of individuals, including the right to love whomever we choose in a consensual relationship. Science has shown us that sex is a healthy thing and a crucial part of one’s identity. It is also a human right, and therefore we will only thrive and flourish as human beings if that right to choose is equally available to all people.
3. The fight to love whom we want to love. Over the past century a number of brave individuals—usually women, gay, and transgender persons—have heroically stood up to the oppressive culture and said, “This is who I am! Don’t let anyone tell you who you can or cannot love!” Many of the early heroes of this movement were marginalized and many died for their willingness to challenge the cultural elites.
4. The hard-won rights of today. But today we have a culture that affirms the right to have sex outside of marriage, to conduct same-sex relationships and include them in the legal institution of marriage, and to allow people to choose their own genders. In all these changes we are forging the first human society in history which is sex-positive and in which all persons can live as equal sexual beings.
5. The continual danger. Despite these great accomplishments, most places in the world, and many places in our own society, still resist this healthy culture of sexual freedom and justice. Indeed, there are those who would try to turn back the clock and roll back these rights. Under no circumstances must we allow regressive forces—the foremost of which is religion—to take this away from us again.
This modern moral story about sexuality creates a plot line of a struggle between courageous heroes and bigoted, oppressive villains—all toward a happy ending.
The modern moral story about sexuality creates a plot line of a struggle between courageous heroes and bigoted, oppressive villains—all toward a happy ending.
This particular moral story, however, is based on several beliefs that are not proven—only assumed. They are the modern understandings of freedom and identity, and as we will see, of history. Christians cannot speak to the world about sex in a compelling way if we merely answer the story with a list of moral imperatives, however biblical. We must put the Christian sex ethic into a counter-narrative, one based on the Bible’s great story of redemption. And in order to do that, we must face three challenges.
Three Challenges for Christians Today
Challenge 1: Addressing the modern identity narrative—unseen, deep background beliefs about identity and freedom/power.
The narrative of modern sexual liberation feels compelling to so many because it is based on background beliefs of identity and freedom which have been deeply instilled in us through cultural institutions for nearly three generations.
The Christian prohibitions about marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism make no sense to most people because of their belief that sexuality is crucial for the expression of identity. And behind that belief is the very concept of the modern self.
The Christian prohibitions about marriage, homosexuality, and transgenderism make no sense to most people because of their belief that sexuality is crucial for the expression of identity.
In our culture sex is no longer seen as a way to honor God and to create and nurture new human life. Most believe something like this: “If you want to use sex for the development of new human life, that’s an option and your choice, but it’s not the primary reason people have sex. Rather, sex is for individual fulfillment and self-realization.” This modern view of identity is often called “expressive individualism”—the idea that deep within are feelings and desires that must be discovered and unlocked and expressed to become a true self. Identity is now found in one’s desires, while in the past it was found in one’s duties and relationships with God, family, and community. Determining—and acting on—your sexual desires is considered a key part of that process of becoming an authentic person.
Today, this view of identity is not conveyed with arguments but rather is presented as a simple given, not to be questioned. Slogans such as “be true to yourself” and “live your own truth” are repeated in countless ways verbal and non-verbal and sink deep into people’s hearts. Any other view is seen as psychologically repressive and therefore unhealthy.
But the modern self is extremely fragile. Because it is based on nothing but inward feelings, it is constantly changing from year to year or even month to month. Modern identity requires searching through ever-shifting and often contradictory emotions and desires to determine a core “self.” And once you decide who you want to be, it is completely up to you to achieve it, no matter whether your family and community are supportive or not. So the modern self is highly performance-oriented and can be a crushing burden. An additional problem is that this view of identity requires a “soft relativism.” Our society teaches us to say, “Only I can determine right and wrong for myself,” even though, in the next moment our modern culture imposes a very definite set of moral norms on people. This is deeply contradictory, dictating moral absolutes while insisting that we are now liberated from all such truths. In all these ways the modern self and view of identity are unstable and problematic, however dominant they seem.
Freedom and Power
To this individualist view of identity—which arguably has been growing in cultural influence since at least the early 19th century period of “romanticism”—has been added the postmodern view of freedom and power. It holds that power in culture is exercised through “dominant discourses”—namely, language and truth claims—produced by those elites who inhabit the high places of status in culture. Everything we believe as good, true, right, and beautiful has been constructed by a particular culture’s “discursive systems.” We can only be free to create ourselves by “destabilizing dominant discourses.” For example, if we wish to include transgender people in society, it is believed, the way forward is not just to show compassion to individuals. Rather, we must deconstruct the very idea of a gender binary. Only then will transgender people have an equal place in society.
The problems with this postmodern view of freedom and power are as significant as the modern view of identity. It brings a self-contradictory “hard relativism.” If all social systems are chains of power forged through discourse—so that all truth claims and moral judgments are really just ways of exerting power—then why would one particular set of power brokers be “wrong” or “unjust”? How could you determine which sets of socially structured power relationships are unjust (and which are not) unless you had a non-culturally constructed, objective moral norm by which to judge between them? And where would such a transcendent moral absolute come from, if there is no God?
These contemporary views of identity and freedom are in many ways at odds with each other. (The view of identity is individualist and Freudian; the view of power is Marxist and Nietzschean.) Yet over the last 20 years they have been merged and become dominant and pervasive, particularly in our popular media. Romantic comedies, situation comedies, children’s cartoons, Disney’s and others’ movies for children—all lift these beliefs up and forge them into the heroic narrative of our time (the one spelled out at the beginning of this essay). The meaning of life is to determine who you are and to throw off the shackles of an oppressive society that refuses to accept and include you. It is this story that is to be our guiding light in making life decisions and is to serve as the shared value of a free society.
Arguably, Christians cannot make a plausible case for the biblical sex ethic because in many ways we have adapted too much to—or even adopted—the contemporary views of identity and freedom in the way we preach and do ministry. Some have pointed out that the ethos of evangelical youth ministry has been highly emotivist for years. The emphasis has not been on biblical theology and doctrine but almost exclusively on how Christ builds up our self-esteem and meets our emotional needs. The prosperity gospel, churches and ministries without membership and discipline, consumer-oriented megachurches—all adapt heavily to the culture of expressive individualism rather than challenging it.
As long as people in our culture hold these views of identity and freedom, they cannot find the Christian view of sexuality plausible. And so no Christian sexuality apologetic can have any real impact unless it spends time and effort to reveal the deeply problematic nature of these background beliefs.
No Christian sexuality apologetic can have any real impact unless it spends time and effort to reveal the deeply problematic nature of these background beliefs.
In short, our sexuality apologetic cannot talk only about sex. Only in a compelling, biblical framework of identity, of being in Christ, and of discipleship, of losing oneself in the love and service of God in order to find one’s true self (Matt. 10:39), will all of the Christian teaching about the meaning of sex make sense.
Challenge 2: Addressing the historical narrative—ignorance of the first (Christian) “sexual revolution.”
As we saw above, the main cultural story about sexuality is to a great degree a historical narrative—one that provides a “history of sex” that is now widely believed. It serves as another layer of assumptions that frame modern people’s responses to Christian views of sexuality. Those who believe this account of our sexual history will not be able to find Christian views plausible. We have been given a great deal of help, however, toward exploding the popular history-of-sex myths in the groundbreaking scholarship by Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin.
History or Myths?
Popular history says: (a) The Roman world was a time and place of “polymorphous sexual freedom” and “sexual diversity”; (b) but Christianity came in with its highly restrictive sex ethic, which it imposed through legislation. But Harper writes: “Over the last generation, as the history of sexuality became one of the great scholarly enterprises, the popular story in which Christianity put an end to pagan freedom with the body was exposed as a caricature, at best.” How so?
In the Greco-Roman world it was understood that while respectable women had to be virgins at marriage and could have sex with no one but their spouses, husbands—and all males—were expected to have sex with servants and slaves, prostitutes, poor women, and boys. Men could essentially force themselves on anyone below them in the social order; they could have sex with anyone but the wife of another man of status. This was, for men at least, a permissive sex ethic. Why then, long before the Caesars became professing Christians, did the church grow rapidly as millions of people voluntarily adopted our faith’s more restrictive standards for sexual behavior? How could such a restrictive code have won out culturally?
The short answer is this: that while the pagan behavioral code was more permissive, at least for men, the underlying logic or vision for sex propounded by Christians was vastly more positive and humane than the pagan one. And the practical outcome was far more protective of the interests of both women and children. How so?
Every culture has a sexual morality, and that morality is grounded in beliefs about what sex is for. A sex act is allowed if it meets that culture’s telos (i.e., purpose) for sex and disallowed if it does not. In Rome sexual morality was determined by the social status of the parties and, therefore, by power. Sex was for the personal pleasure and enhancement of people with social rank. The rightness or wrongness of sexual acts depended on whether or not they kept persons in a right relationship with the polis, the social order and hierarchy. Those with more power and social honor (men over women, high social status over lower social status) had more sexual freedom than those with less.
The First (Christian) Sexual Revolution
Christianity, however, brought in the first sexual revolution in the West. Christianity changed the “foundational logic” of sex so that “the cosmos replaced the city as the framework of morality.” Sex acts were judged as to whether or not they kept persons in a right relationship with the cosmos, God’s created and redemptive order. Christians’ sexual behavior had to be patterned after God’s saving love for us. As God gave himself to us in Jesus Christ and we give ourselves exclusively to him, so sex is to be practiced only within a lifelong covenant of marriage. As union with Christ bridges the gap and unites God and humanity, so sex is to be practiced in a marriage uniting two different genders. (See below under Challenge #3.) In a revolutionary break with the culture, then, Christians insisted that the rightness or wrongness of sexual acts be determined not by social status and power but by covenantal love and gender difference.
There was an immediate concrete result that all could see. By breaking the connection of sex with the social order, Christianity guarded the vulnerable from exploitation. No man could demand sex of a woman without giving up his independence and committing his whole life to her. No man could demand sex from his servants. The vulnerable—women, slaves, and children—were protected by the insistence that sex occur only within the safety of the covenantal union of marriage. But beyond these practical results, the “underlying logic” of Christianity regarding sex went much further and higher. It reimagined sex as no longer a mere appetite that we could barely control but rather as a joyous, even sacred, expression that reflects the way God is saving the world.
Christianity reimagined sex as no longer a mere appetite that we could barely control but rather as a joyous, even sacred, expression that reflects the way God is saving the world.
The Second (Modern) Sexual Revolution
How does the Christian sexual revolution relate to the second, modern “sexual revolution”?
First, it is important to recognize that the very humanitarian values of our culture—including its affirmation of sex and consent—come from Christianity. The modern emphasis on the goodness of the physical body and of sex, as well as on consent and mutuality (1 Cor. 7:1–4) without a double standard for men and women, were Christian gifts to the modern world. Indeed, Paul’s statement that “the husband’s body does not belong to himself but to his wife,” just as the wife’s belongs to the husband, was a radical, unprecedented declaration in that patriarchal culture. Harper writes: “The social assumptions of pre-Christian sexual morality, such as the casual exploitation of the bodies of [powerless] non-persons, seem incomprehensible [to us today] precisely because the Christian revolution so completely swept away that old order. . . .” Harper here is referring to a growing body of scholarship demonstrating that the modern secular person believing fiercely in the equal rights and dignity of every individual is really borrowing a belief about human nature that originally developed from the Bible and grew out of Christian societies.
Second, we should realize that the modern movement of sexual liberation is in many ways retrograde, a turning back the clock to the underlying logic of Rome. Modern culture has broken the link between sex and God and reattached sex to the social order. So sex is again detached from the requirement of lifelong commitment in marriage. Sex again becomes about self-fulfillment instead of self-giving. As Harper notes, the modern sexual revolution retains some of Christianity’s gifts to the world, the concepts of consent and of the goodness of sex. So while not as brutal as it was in the older pagan culture (due to the remaining Christian elements), sexual culture today is still depersonalizing and objectifying. There are numerous studies and anecdotal evidence that people are far lonelier, with sex detached not only from marriage but even from personal relationship through the massive and elaborate empire of pornography. In ancient Rome there was usually one party—the party with power—using the other party as an object to satisfy his physical needs. Today often the parties are both using one another, treating the other party as an object to meet needs, to be related to only as long as those needs are being met.
Modern culture’s desire to retain some parts of the Christian sex ethic but not the others has created huge tension.
Modern culture’s desire to retain some parts of the Christian sex ethic but not the others has created huge tension.
The idea of consent goes best with covenant, not hook-ups. Women in particular can feel used as objects. Early Christians faced the same charge that we do—that our sex ethic is stifling, killjoy, negative, repressive, and unrealistic. They also knew that, while in the short run sexual self-control is hard, in the long run, the Christian sex ethic is more fulfilling and less dehumanizing. In our day we must also find ways to talk confidently about the revolutionary Christian good news about sex.
Challenge #3: Rooting the church’s teaching about sexuality in its full theology, rather than simply declaring its ethic.
The Christian sex ethic can be stated with great economy and simplicity. “There should be no sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.” Today most younger people will ask the question: “Why? Why is sex outside of marriage (or with someone of the same sex) wrong?”
Christian theology answers that sex is part of the image of God—it must image God and in particular his redeeming love. Sex is not about enhancing one’s power but about mutually giving up power to one another in love, as Christ did for us. The Christian answer to the question, “Why must sex be within heterosexual marriage?” gets us into the very heart of the gospel. We should not, then, present the sex ethic without rooting it in the Bible’s doctrines of God, of creation, and of redemption. Certainly Paul argues in this way. After reminding us that we are united with Christ by the Spirit (“He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him”; 1 Cor. 6:17), he immediately says in verse 18: “Flee from sexual immorality (porneia).” Why is sex outside of marriage wrong? We note that Paul does not merely say, “It is wrong because the Word of God says so,” although he certainly could have done that.
Rather, he writes “or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor. 6:18–19). He is saying that sexual immorality is wrong because of our union with Christ, which must serve as the pattern for sexual union.
So what is sex for? It is a signpost pointing to God’s design of saving love, and it is a means for experiencing something of that same pattern of love at the horizontal level between two human beings that we know at the vertical level in Christ. Spelling this out—
Grounding the Purposes of Sex in Biblical Theology
1. As union with Christ is a relationship of exclusive, covenantal, self-giving love, so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced within the covenant of marriage.
There is no intimacy with God without entering into covenant with him, and so there must be no sexual intimacy without entering into an exclusive, permanent, covenant relationship with your spouse. Modern culture turns all sexual relationships into consumerist, transactional relationships. A consumer connection is about mutual self-fulfillment; the individual’s needs are the non-negotiables and are more important than the relationship, which is provisional and easily terminated. A covenant, however, is based on mutual self-giving and putting the needs of the other party and the good of the relationship before your own. In marriage, spouses give up their independence for interdependence. They give their entire selves to each other—emotionally, physically, legally, economically. We must not “split the self” as modernity does, so sexual partners give their bodies to one another but not the rest of themselves. The rule “no sex outside marriage” sounds “sex-negative” to modern people, but the opposite is the case. It elevates sex from a mere consumer good into a way to create the deepest community between two human beings—as well as a way to honor and resemble the One who gave himself wholly for us so we can be liberated to give ourselves exclusively to him.
2. As union with Christ is a relationship between deeply different beings (God and humanity), so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced in a union across the deep difference of gender.
Ephesians 5:31–32 interprets Genesis 2:24 Christologically. Paul says that when God created the marital union he was doing so to give us a mysterion—a sign pointing to Christ’s love and union with us. The male-female bond can only serve as an analogy to the Christ-Church union if the parties are significantly different. The wonder of our union in Christ is that humanity and deity—alienated by sin—are now united, first in the person of Christ himself, and then in our union with him through the Holy Spirit. And one of the great accomplishments of marriage is that the genders—also alienated by sin (Gen. 3:16–17)—are brought together in a loving union. The rule “marriage only between a man and a woman” sounds narrow to modern ears, but the opposite is the case. Homosexuality does not honor the need for this rich diversity of perspective and gendered humanity in sexual relationships. In one of the great ironies of late modern times, in which we celebrate diversity in so many other cultural sectors, we have devalued the ultimate unity-in-diversity—inter-gendered marriage. Male and female each have excellencies and glories, perspectives and powers, that the other gender does not have and cannot reproduce. As you could not have an entirely male or female society or church without impoverishment, neither can you have such a marriage.
3. As union with Christ brings new life into the world, so God has bestowed only on male-female marriage both the ability to create new human life and the best resources to nourish that life.
In Genesis 1 it is to human beings as male and female (v. 27) that God says “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth” (v. 28 NIV). It is only on this male-female union that God bestows the ability to produce new human life. In marriage, male and female form a deep unity with life-giving power. And if a marriage brings new lives into the world, the presence of both a father and a mother gives children deep, long-term relationships with and access to both of the gendered halves of humanity and therefore to the full range of human strengths and abilities. Again, this fits the pattern of our union with Christ. Just as the union of male and female produces the “fruit of the womb—a reward” (Ps. 127:3)—so the union of Christ with his people produces the fruit of new life in Christ, through conversion (John 15:16; Rom. 1:13; Col. 1:6,10) and growth into Christlikeness (Gal. 5:22–23).
To recap: sex is (a) for self-giving, which is only complete if there is a lifelong covenant, (b) for the bridging of difference across the barrier between male and female, and (c) for the creation and nurture of life. These theological purposes explain the ethic—why sexual intimacy is only to be experienced within marriage between a man and a woman.
Toward a Christian Sexual Apologetic
The Rationale for the Christian View of Marriage
How shall we proceed, then, with a sexual apologetic? First, while grounding the three purposes of sex in our biblical theology, we should also connect them to existing cultural narratives, so as to both critique them and yet build on them. So we can say to the world that Christianity understands sexual intimacy to be:
Christians believe sexual intimacy is not for those who merely give temporary consent for one sexual encounter but for those who give permanent, whole-life consent to each other through marriage. And even inside marriage, sex must be mutually consensual (1 Cor. 7:1–4). We believe this reflects how we know God—only through a covenant of exclusive love.
2. Gender diverse.
Christians believe God distributed unique abilities, perspectives, and other gifts across the two genders. We do not believe that men can reproduce all the gifts women have nor that women can reproduce what men have. We believe a marriage between persons of the same gender fails to practice the gender diversity that we wish to see in other areas of life. We believe that the union of male and female in marriage reflects the union of God and humanity through Christ.
3. Capable of life.
Christians understand as God’s will the biological reality that the sexual union of male and female can produce new human life. This is why we believe it is right to bestow the institution of marriage only on a male-female relationship. Not only is this relationship the one that produces new human life; it also then exposes growing children to the full range of our gendered humanity through the presence of both a mother and a father.
The Christian Counter-Narrative of Sexuality
1. The brutality of sex in the old world.
Greco-Roman society was the historic forerunner of all Western culture. In the ancient world sexual standards were very permissive. Sex was seen merely as a way to enhance personal pleasure and fulfillment of those in power, and so any sex was permitted if it did not upset the social order of the time—men over women, owners over slaves, rich over poor. While wives could not have sex with others, their husbands could have sex with most anyone they desired. This led to much brutality.
2. A new personal identity.
Christianity came into the world with a message of grace, namely, that it was possible to have personal communion with God in a relationship of love as a free gift through the work of Jesus the Son of God, who died and rose again for us. This message of salvation by grace rather than good works, morality, respectability, or pedigree had a social-leveling effect. Christians who had social status in society stood in exactly the same place as sinners in need of grace as did the social outsiders and moral failures (cf. John 3 and John 4).
3. A new social ethic.
This new personal identity was unique. Christians’ self-regard was not based on performance or on how one was regarded by family or society. Culture’s ability to define believers’ personhood was broken. It also meant Christians were all equal in Christ—equally sinners in need of grace, and equally loved, justified, and adopted as God’s beloved children. This new identity had many practical effects. The Christian community was the first multi-ethnic religious community, which brought wealthy and poor together in unprecedented ways. Relationships within the Christian community were to be based on self-giving, sacrificial love, rather than on class and status.
4. A new vision for sexuality.
But one of the most striking applications of this new identity and social ethic was in the area of sexual relationships. Christians called for sex to be based not (as in the Roman society) on power but on love, to be captive not to the culture but to Christ who gave himself for us and brought us into an exclusive, covenantal relationship with him. Sexual love had to reflect God’s saving love, and this meant that sex was shaped by two principles. First, the principle of self-giving. Just as salvation and intimacy with God is only available inside an exclusive, lifelong covenant relationship with God, so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced within marriage. Second, the principle of gender diversity. Just as salvation creates a union between God and humanity—a unity across deep difference—so marriage brings together the different—male and female. Just as each gender has some glories and abilities that the other gender cannot reproduce, so practicing gender-diversity in marriage combines the full range of human excellencies and abilities.
Just as salvation and intimacy with God is only available inside an exclusive, lifelong covenant relationship with God, so sexual intimacy is only to be experienced within marriage.
5. The failures of Western society.
When laws enforcing Christian sexual standards across a whole country were disconnected from the animating high vision of Christ’s love and grace, a kind of “sex-negativity” indeed did grow, so that in many places all sex was seen as shameful. Also, when Christian sexual mores are held by a largely nominal Christian populace—without a keen sense of being sinners saved by sheer grace—those mores were more often than not enforced very harshly, so that pregnant teenage girls or homosexual youths were treated with cruelty. And often society’s leaders not only violated their professed morality, but used their power to coerce sex in the Roman way. Those without power felt excluded and oppressed.
6. The modern sexual revolution.
The modern sexual revolution was to some degree a reaction to this harsh regime. However, there is great evidence that the revolution is failing in many ways. While contemporary people have maintained the idea of mutual consent (an idea that came from Christianity), they have severed sex from whole-life commitment. That means we have “turned back the clock” to the ancient world, where sex was for self fulfillment rather than for loving self-giving. Sex becomes transactional, a consumer good in which two parties exchange favors only as long as they are getting their needs met. The results have been great numbers of people who are having sex but feeling used (and, consequently, abandoning sexual intimacy for digital stimulation or other forms of societally approved satisfaction and distraction), of people who feel no need to marry and have children, of people who feel lonely and detached as the numbers of people living in families plummet. These trends are especially devastating to the poorest communities and so, arguably, the modern sex ethic is hardest on those with the least power and societal protections.
7. The Christian sexual counter-culture.
Christians still believe that sex must be rooted in the larger story of God’s saving love. Our culture tells us we must discover our deepest desires and then express them in order to become our authentic selves. But the reality is that we have contradictory impulses in our heart. We need some standard to help us determine which of our desires and instincts should be cultivated and which ones should not. Ancient people and modern people alike let their cultures set the standards. Christianity says: don’t let tribe or culture control you and give you your valuation. Let God’s Word give you the moral grid to understand your heart. And let God’s love and grace, through Jesus Christ, give you your deepest validation and identity. We believe that this link between God’s love and sexuality, that is lived out through the biblical model of marriage, is the best way for human beings to live and thrive.
The Gospel Coalition