5 Foundations That Lead to Compromise on Sexual Ethics – Brett McCracken

Every week it seems new CCM stars, former Christian celebrities, or Christian college graduates announce “evolving” beliefs on Christianity—how their “deconstruction” journey is leading them to reconsider or abandon faith tenets they once believed. Some of these journeys are thoughtful and ultimately constructive wrestlings that result in a more durable, orthodox faith. Others are cynical, reactionary, and result in deconversion. Various “issues” are catalysts for these deconstruction journeys, but in my experience one stands out as the Jenga piece most likely to cause the whole tower of faith to collapse: biblical sexual ethics

In the landscape of contemporary Western Christianity, most roads away from orthodox faith travel through an increasingly populous pit stop called “LGBTQ+ affirming.” It’s a stop that doesn’t just change the route; it reconfigures the whole map. If we ignore, dismiss, or question what Scripture says about sex and identity, it naturally leads to further and deeper questioning of Scripture’s authority and an ever shakier faith. But more and more Christians—even those steeped in Scripture and raised in the church from a young age—are making this move. Why?

Shaky Foundations

Even if all roads eventually lead to the sexual-ethics-line-in-the-sand, they don’t all originate in the same place. It’s helpful to consider some of the different, subtle shapes Christianity can take that at first might seem benign—but will later set up a Christian for compromise.

Consumer faith is a fast track to compromised faith.

From what I’ve observed, most deconstructing Christians who shift on sexual ethics come from a faith background that has one (or more) of these precarious foundations.

1. Consumeristic

Perhaps the most widespread distortion of Christianity (at least in Western culture today) is a consumeristic orientation that understands faith mostly in self-enhancing, “what does it do for me?” terms. This is church-shopping faith, in which a believer looks for the “perfect church for me” as for the perfect pair of jeans. And like anything else in consumerism, it’s a faith rooted in the assumptions of expressive individualism and deeply oriented to comfort. Faith is great as long as it adds but doesn’t subtract from my life; as long as it has benefits but few costs. Faith is plausible insofar as it doesn’t impede my autonomy or put boundaries upon the “true self” I want to express in my own unique way. This faith thrives in contexts where Christian beliefs aren’t controversial, Christian practices aren’t countercultural, and where churchgoing is a net gain (or net neutral) for one’s social status.

2. Pragmatic

The pragmatic tendency comes from a good motivation: to be as effective evangelistically as possible. It’s the type of faith that birthed the seeker-sensitive movement, megachurches, the emerging church, hipster Christianity, and various other missional or church-planting strategies. Highly attuned to felt needs, public opinion, and “meeting people where they’re at,” this outward-oriented, PR-minded faith has good intentions—do whatever is necessary to fill pews and win the lost—but often bad results. 

3. Political

When political affiliation and theological beliefs merge, the latter inevitably becomes shaped by—and made to serve—the former. This sets up a situation in which Christians might “change their mind” on some issue for political reasons (either by switching parties or by changing along with their existing party) or be forced to “rethink” Scripture’s teaching on the issue in order to serve political purposes.

4. Emotionalistic (“All heart”) 

To be sure, emotions are vital in healthy Christianity. But an inordinately emotionalistic faith can be shaky. This is the faith largely centered on experience: heart-stirring worship, rousing sermons, the “mountaintop” experiences of spiritual ecstasy. It’s a faith often evaluated in terms of intensity and zeal. If I’m “not feeling church anymore” or if it starts to get boring, it’s a problem. This “good vibes only” faith also tends to avoid contemplating God’s judgment, prefering to conceive of God as an always-hugging figure akin to Santa Claus or Mr. Rogers. 

5. Cerebral (“All head”)

Doctrine and biblical knowledge are certainly vital in healthy Christianity. But an overly cerebral faith can be problematic, especially when “right belief” is divorced from, and has little bearing on, the rest of our lives. Some forms of Christianity may rightly emphasize catechesis and sound teaching, but if it isn’t connected to formation and lives visibly shaped by those beliefs, it’s a recipe for disaster. Too many Christians know the right answers but fail to live rightly. Too many churches don’t properly bridge belief and behavior. This disconnect is deadly for a sustainable faith in a changing culture.

Cultural Winds

If the construction of our Christian faith contains any of these five structural flaws (or some combination of them), we’ll likely be wobbly when the cultural headwinds blow. And on the issue of sexual ethics, it’s a veritable gale.

Here’s how each of the five distortions leads Christians to compromise.

1. Consumeristic

Faith framed in “self-enhancement” terms has little pain tolerance. It’s only as strong as the fringe benefits. The minute costs are associated—social stigma, cultural marginalization, strained friendships—the consumer Christian pivots to curate a bespoke spirituality that conveniently eliminates the “take up your cross” part of following Jesus.

Faith framed in ‘self-enhancement’ terms has little pain tolerance. It’s only as strong as the fringe benefits.

This faith won’t long endure in an age when orthodox Christianity—specifically what it says about sex—is culturally, relationally, and professionally costly. Whether because a Christian works in an industry or lives in a city where social climbing is impossible with any ties to “bigoted Christian beliefs,” or simply because a Christian wants to personally break free from the “oppressive” biblical constraints on sexuality, consumer faith is a fast track to compromised faith.

The primacy of expressive individualism and autonomy—the assumed right of each person to be happy and affirmed in whatever unique way they choose—also makes consumeristic faith mushy on the issue of sexual ethics. If the expressive individualist’s happiness is considered a higher good than Scripture’s authority (and for many contemporary Christians it functionally is), then of course Scripture will be sidelined in favor of the self.

2. Pragmatic

Increasingly, Scripture’s clear teaching on sex goes against the grain of public opinion. It’s bad PR. This presents a dilemma for pragmatic believers who want their faith to be salient, palatable, and generally appealing to as many people as possible. What happens when one biblical theme (sexual ethics) makes faith a nonstarter for masses of would-be converts? Pragmatic Christianity makes the calculated decision that ignoring or reinterpreting biblical sexual ethics is the best option.

This approach is common among megachurches, or in ministries and industries (see CCM) in which lots of money is at stake. If survival means “rethinking” doctrine to better fit where the audience (and the money) is going—versus where the Bible has always been—many Christians will make the compromise.

3. Political

Orthodoxy does not, and will never, fit neatly into any nation’s tidy, partisan, political system. On sexual ethics, for example, I’ve seen more than a few politically left-leaning Christians steadily shift their biblical convictions because the “package deal” of their political program requires it. One simply cannot ascend to political relevance on the left today without waving the rainbow flag. To be sure, this also plagues politicized Christianity on the right—which in recent years has tended to downplay or ignore the deviant sexual behavior of conservative leaders (even while decrying the sexual ethics of the other side). 

4. Emotionalistic

A “good vibes only,” therapeutic Christianity cannot fathom a God who would ask, for example, a same-sex-attracted woman to take up the cross of celibacy rather than live into her sexual desires. God is nicer than that, they assume. He would never judge anyone for simply being who they are. The progression tends to be:

(1) A Christian’s friend or family member comes out as LGBTQ.
(2) The Christian assumes (or is told in no uncertain terms) that loving this person requires affirming their sexual identity.
(3) The Christian realizes that affirming
both this loved one’s sexual identity and affirming God’s Word on the subject are mutually exclusive.
(4) The Christian chooses to affirm the loved one, downplaying or “rethinking” Scripture’s authority on the topic.

The shift is justified by an appeal to the fact that “God is love.” The “love” in that phrase, however, is not the objective, God-defined love we see in Scripture, but a subjective, self-referential love as we define it (“love is love”).

5. Cerebral

One might think the cerebral, steeped-in-doctrine Christian would be on solid ground in the cultural hurricane on sexual ethics. Not always. What often goes wrong here is a deadly disconnect between belief and behavior. It’s the church planter who has a secret porn addiction, the seminary student sleeping with his girlfriend, the pastor who rails against gay marriage while engaging in an extramarital affair. These are extreme examples, but any disconnect—however subtle—between the cerebral realities of biblical truth and the bodily implications of it will almost inevitably set you up for compromise.

Part of why many biblically literate young people today compromise on sexual ethics is that they’ve seen too many hypocritical Christians live compartmentalized lives—their supposed biblical convictions having little bearing on their actual lives. Over time, “Is the belief really true?” becomes a fair question.

Will You Stand in the Wind?

Maybe you’ve read this and seen yourself in one or more of the categories. Don’t be alarmed. Take it as a warning and challenge to shore up your faith, seal the cracks, and patch the holes, so that it will withstand the storm surge of sexual ethics in the 21st century. 

It’s going to become harder for us to stay faithful on this issue, not easier. Don’t scoff at all those compromising now and think it could never happen to you one day. Audit your faith. Examine your heart. 

It’s going to become harder for us to stay faithful on this issue, not easier.

Is your Christianity contingent on anything other than Christ? Being liked? Being comfortable? Being in power? Being happy? Being right? If so, consider that all of those foundations are like shifting sand, and you are the foolish builder of Matthew 7:26–27. When the winds come, your faith will crumble. If you’re like the wise builder, however, and your Christianity sits firmly on the foundation of Christ alone—firm and content on the sufficiency of his work and his Word (however unpopular it becomes)—then the house of your faith will stand.

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