Developing and Implementing a Christian Sexual Ethic: Evaluating Alternatives

November 14, 2017

Setting Out Our Task: A Foundational Question

Last week, I argued that recommitting ourselves to a genuinely Christian sexual ethic is one way that we can bless those who have been impacted by sexual assault and sexual harassment. Constructing a comprehensive accounting of that ethic is a bigger task than what we can do on a blog (even in multiple entries). But that does not mean we cannot give ourselves some food for thought.

To that end, I want you to think about a question. From a Christian perspective, what makes any given sex act permissible? If you have been in an evangelical or conservative Roman Catholic church for a long time, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s obvious. An act is permissible if it occurs within the confines of marriage.” But let me push you a little bit on that point. Why are acts that take place within the context of marriage permissible, whereas acts that take place outside of marriage are not? Moreover, are there acts that take place within the confines of marriage that do not live up to the standards we find in Scripture, and, if so, why do these acts fall short of what God intends for His people?

Alternative Approaches to Evaluating Sexual Conduct

Here is what we are asking. What criteria should we use to evaluate the permissibility of a given sex act? The best way to get at this question is to look at a couple of alternative proposals. The first comes from ancient Greece. I call it the criterion of comparative status. As long as the person of lower status was penetrated by the person of higher status, the act was generally considered to be permissible. The status of the participants in any given act was a function of their age, their sex, their legal standing (citizen, free-born alien, slave, etc.), their wealth, and other factors.

By contrast, society in the United States today proceeds upon the basis of what I like to call the criterion of individual consent. How many times have you heard someone say something like this? “It is no one else’s business what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home.” The assumption is that as long as both parties consent to a particular act, that act is permissible. Indeed, to condemn the act, either in law or in life, is considered tantamount to transgressing the freedom of the individuals involved.

Both of these criteria are a function of the cultures in which they emerged (and the histories in which those cultures were/are embedded). The criterion of comparative status reflects the ancient Greek concern to strengthen social bonds and to mitigate social chaos. Strong social ties were essential to the survival of Greek city-states, so anything that got in the way of the formation and maintenance of such bonds was a threat to the very existence of Greek civilization.

The criterion of individual consent, by contrast, reflects the suspicions that Americans harbor about the power of extra-individual powers. Over and over again, Americans have seen how institutions (governmental, religious, business, etc.) wield their power to promote the interests of the institutions or of their wealthy and powerful patrons. More to the point, feminist scholars have rightly pointed out that such institutions—and the cultural scripts that they propagate—often disproportionately affect the wellbeing of women and girls. The criterion of individual consent provides women, girls, and other vulnerable groups with a legal and social mechanism that they can use to protect themselves from predatory individuals and the institutions that enable their harmful behavior.

Evaluating the Alternatives

One thing that today’s Christians and non-Christians can agree on is that the criterion of comparative status—at least as it was practiced in the Greco-Roman world—has almost no redeeming value. It construes sex not only as a reflection of societal stratification but also as a tool for inculcating that stratification. Moreover, it leaves a whole range of ethical questions unanswered, and it carries with it a range of theological and anthropological assumptions that almost no one would affirm today.

The criterion of individual consent, however, may be a little more difficult to evaluate, largely because it is so deeply embedded within our own historical context and is so thoroughly saturated with our own cultural values. Our experience as a society has taught us that this criterion has a number of benefits. Ideally, it means that no individual can be compelled to participate in an act that transgresses their conscience or that does not benefit them. It has forced us as a society to consider what is required in order for an individual to offer meaningful consent, and it has alerted us to the ways in which power inequities can make sex acts harmful to those who participate in them.

Nevertheless, we as Christians need to be wary of the criterion of individual consent, especially if it is being used as the sole or primary criterion of evaluation. As Christians, we believe that our sexual practices reflect what we really believe about God, about other people, about the nature and purpose of sex, and about the created order. The consent of individuals is important, for it reflects their status as bearers of God’s image, but any decision to engage in sexual activity has implications that extend far beyond the individuals involved.

And then there is the pesky question of what happens when one person consents but another person does not. How is non-consent to be communicated, and what happens after a non-consenting party has made their wishes known? The inability to give consent, or the refusal to do so, is supposed to settle the matter, but the very fact that we are discussing these issues in the context of sexual assault and sexual harassment indicates that it often does not.

More Needs to Be Done

From a Christian perspective, additional criteria need to be added to the criterion of individual consent in order to produce a sexual ethic that appropriately values individual humans and that places their lives within a wholesome theological and social framework. Next week, I will lay out seven of these criteria that I think are interwoven into the biblical witness and emblematic of God’s vision for sexuality.