1 Corinthians 5-6 is dominated by a discussion of what Paul called “sexual immorality” (πορνεία in Greek). It is a topic I am loathe to discuss. I have written about it frequently on the blog (see, for example, my three-part series “Developing and Implementing a Christian Sexual Ethic” and my more recent blog “Together in Joy and Pain”). Moreover, sexuality is the source of much pain and shame for many Christians.
Nevertheless, one cannot talk about 1 Corinthians, or about its implications for Christianity in the 21st century, without at least broaching the topic of sexual ethics. So, we might as well run the gauntlet Paul has laid down for us, and we might as well do it as honestly, as transparently, and as sensitively as the present forum will allow.
A Personal Odyssey
Like many children born into evangelical families, I was raised to adhere to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics. Sex was for married people only, and anyone who violated that dictum was a sinner of the worst order. And, like a lot of Southern Baptist adolescents in the early 1990s, I zealously promoted the ideology of True Love Waits. Like many young people, my zeal was partly a response to the fact that I wanted to be having sex just as much as my friends did. But it was also a way to be counter-cultural in my commitment to Jesus. It gave me a way, in the language of social identity theory and self-categorization theory, to assert the positive distinctiveness of my group.
In recent years, however, I have done some serious soul-searching about how we as Christians understand sexual ethics. Part of my reconsideration has to do with the Scriptures and how they are to be applied to our lives. The Greek word Paul used for “sexual immorality” was a broad and flexible word, and words like that tend to derive a lot of their meaning from the culture in which they were (and are) used.
Moreover, marriage in particular, and sexuality in general, do not work like they did in Paul’s day. We marry much later than Jews and Christians did in the first century, which means we must remain chaste for a much longer period of time than they. In addition, our marriages are not primarily a function of the wishes of our families or congregations. Rightly or wrongly, we marry to meet our own emotional and practical needs.
And then there is the pesky fact that we have reliable methods for birth control. Why does this matter? It matters because, in the ancient world, any sex act could produce an heir, and ancient societies had a vested interest in making sure those heirs were legitimately part of the families they claimed.
But, if I am honest, part of my struggle has been deeply personal. Walking the road of chastity as long as I did wounded my heart and my soul in ways that are hard to describe. I don’t want to inflict that kind of suffering on anyone else unless it is absolutely necessary.
And unfortunately, I felt compelled to wrestle with the questions raised by the evidence and by my experience in substantial isolation. My Bible-believing friends might well condemn me for the questions I have asked, and the last thing I need is more shame. As for my more liberal friends, they have already walked away from any kind of meaningful engagement with the rigorous demands of traditional Christianity. I don’t need that influence, either.
A Changing Cultural Landscape
My odyssey did not take place in a vacuum. Even before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, voices began questioning the legitimacy of the old way of thinking about sex. If sex is an act of love, why not spread it around? Why not free people to “love” one another as they see fit?
A lot of people see the old way of thinking about sex as joyless, lifeless, and cold. Even more people see it as an unattainable ideal. But as some of us have watched our society grope its way through the darkness created by sexual secularism, we have seen an alarming trend. Sex is increasingly being divorced from love. It is increasingly being presented as a mere biological function with no mystical properties at all. The magic is gone, and what has been left in its place is, in my view, more than unappetizing. It is vulgar, degrading, and shameful.
That is why we must turn again to Paul. We must ask the apostle some hard questions, and we must be prepared to receive some hard answers. And then we must, with faith and courage, seek to apply those answers to our own context in a way which honors God and contributes to human flourishing.
In my next blog post, we will look back at an alternative view of Christian sexual ethics, first proposed more than 30 years ago. We will see how it is both helpful and insufficient for shaping Christian practices in the area of sexuality. Then, in a subsequent post, we will look at what I think is a more biblical and more robust framework for developing, implementing, and evaluating a Christian sexual ethic. Along the way, I hope to make some practical suggestions about how parents, pastors, and churches can bear witness to Jesus’ rigorous ethical requirements while also living in accordance with his example of resilient love.