A Brief Defense of Traditional Christian Sexual Ethics

A good friend of mine recently asked my thoughts regarding this article, which offers a revisionist view of Christian sexual ethics (in this case, specifically with regard to same-sex issues). Over the years I have seen many articles like this which attempt to overthrow traditional orthodoxy on these highly personal and sensitive issues. I thought I would offer some brief thoughts in defense of the historical understanding of the biblical record on this topic. I want to begin with these crucial foundational principles of the Christian view of sexual ethics:

First, God is the creator of the universe (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:15-16). This means that the natural world is not a random assembly of bits of matter. Nature is the creation of God, and as such it is suffused with order, rationality, and purpose. Our rational nature allows us to discern the structures of the natural world and to live accordingly.

Second, Jesus Christ is King (Matthew 28:18; Philippians 2:9-11). He is the ultimate sovereign, and calls his followers to absolute obedience. This means denying our own desires and wishes to live in keeping with his model of cross-bearing submission to God (Matthew 16:24). This is true regardless of our own feelings, inclinations, or desires.

Third, Jesus appointed representatives called apostles to defend and extend his authority over all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). To guide them in this mission, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles into the truth (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 7:40). Anyone who dismisses the words of Paul or Peter or John merely because they are not in “red letters” (the words of Jesus) completely ignores what Jesus said in John 13:20 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

I recognize that many people do not believe in God, or in the lordship of Jesus, or in the authority of the apostles. I think you should (duh!), and that there are many good reasons for doing so. If you do not share these convictions, most likely we will not agree on highly controversial issues like same-sex conduct. But for those who do accept these truths, here is a survey of what Scripture says.

The crowning act of God’s creation in the account in Genesis is the creation of humanity.

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Just as there is order and structure to creation in general, there is special order and structure to the creation of humanity. Men and women share equal status and dignity as image-bearers of God, but are also different from and complementary to each other. Adam needs a partner who can be a what the old translations called a “help meet” for him, what modern version better capture as “a companion who corresponded to him” (New English Translation). This divinely ordered male-female complementarity is the foundation of everything else Scripture says about sex:

Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)

As the biblical record unfolds, it is important to understand that the Bible is a very big story, with a huge narrative arc. So you always have to ask yourself, “Where are we in the story?” In some parts of the story, God is calling out the nation of Israel to be distinct from other nations. This is why there are certain laws that emphasize Israel’s distinct identity (through things like circumcision, dietary laws, holy days). That’s even why there are obscure laws about keeping things separate (like different kinds of seed, or clothing material). They served as visual reminders of Israel’s distinct identity. This is where the Book of Leviticus fits in with its (to our ears) unusual and strange laws. But in the larger story arc, it was not God’s intent for Israel to remain separate forever. Through Israel, God brought the Messiah into the world, and for the whole world. So then at THAT point in the story line, those laws that kept Israel distinct were no longer needed (you can read a nice summary of this big picture in Galatians 3:16-4:7).

But there are some principles that permeate all phases of the story arc. And from a traditional Christian point of view, this includes male-female complementarity in marriage. Jesus rooted this understanding in the fabric of the created order itself. Notice this passage from Matthew:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)

The specific matter the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about is the divorce legislation found in another Old Testament legal document, the Book of Deuteronomy. But notice that Jesus draws their attention back to the creation narrative itself, to the male-female complementarity described in Genesis. And on the basis of that teaching, especially in light of the “one-flesh” union of marriage, Jesus says that divorce is wrong. He even explicitly argues that the later provisions of the Law of Moses were provisional and temporary in light of God’s ultimate purposes reflected in creation – from the beginning it was not so.

Genesis 2 did not explicitly mention divorce, but Jesus draws out the obvious implication of its teaching regarding the subject. Anything that departs from this vision of the unity a man and woman in marriage is a departure from the structure God infused into the created order. This includes:

  • Divorce, which ruptures the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • Premarital sex, which ignores the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • Adultery, which betrays the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • And obviously, homosexual conduct, which subverts the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.

When the apostle Paul addressed the issue of same-sex conduct specifically, his arguments were also rooted in the natural order of God. For instance, in Romans 1, Paul argues that since the Gentiles supressed the truth about God revealed in the natural order, God gave them over to – among other things – “degrading passions.”

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)

Right in line with the creation account, Paul says that the natural sexual counterpart for a woman is a man, and that same-sex acts are “contrary to nature.” Notice carefully – what Paul condemns here are actions that are contrary to the natural order. Consequently, when the article my friend asked me to read claims that Paul “is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation,” it badly misses the point. Paul does not address the modern psychological construct of sexual orientation for good reason – that is simply irrelevant to the issue. It would make no difference to Paul whether the person engaging in same-sex acts identified as straight, gay, or bi. The issue is the act itself, regardless of the underlying orientation, and it is the act that is contrary to nature.

There is one other statement from the article I would like to briefly comment on. The writer asserts:

In other words, monitoring and proscribing human (homo)sexual activity is not a particular concern of the Bible when compared to the overarching demand for justice, economic equality, and the fair treatment of foreigners and strangers. For certain Christian groups to make this the decisive Christian issue is simply a misreading of biblical values.

No one that I know believes that same-sex marriage is “the decisive Christian issue.” The decisive Christian issue is the lordship of Jesus Christ. And far too often, those who claim to follow Jesus have indeed ignored, exploited, and oppressed the poor and needy. If Jesus is truly Lord, we do not get to pick and choose which issues we intend to take seriously. But this also includes the principles of sexual morality woven into the very fabric of the created order itself.

The teaching of Christ regarding these matters was not any more popular in the first century than it is today. In the pagan world, adultery, prostitution, and same-sex conduct were widely practiced. The apostles of Jesus frequently taught about sexual purity since this was such a counter-cultural aspect of following Jesus (as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-9; 1 Peter 4:3-5).

And the lordship of Jesus defies the popular idolatries of our age. Our culture is radically individualistic, prizing personal happiness above any sense of the common good. And our culture champions subjective feelings over objective truth, favoring personal identity over structural reality. The realm of sexual behavior is just one arena in which these idolatries are cherished.

But Christ calls his people to resist the tide of culture. To rejoice in God’s love and to share it with others. Not the vague, insubstantial “love” of pop culture which twists “love” into a code word for self-gratification. But love in its true sense, that which seeks the good of others, good as defined by God.

I know many Christians who are committed to following Jesus even though it means doing his will rather than their own in these deeply personal matters. Married Christians who remain committed to their wedding vows even when the times get tough. Single Christians who remain pure in their conduct in spite of the lure of the world. Same-sex attracted Christians who embrace the self-denying cross of Jesus and follow him in obedience.

In all these ways, these brothers and sisters of mine reflect the essence of love. Love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The challenge of Christ’s lordship ultimately comes down to insisting on our way or his way. In other words, it comes down to love.




1 Comment

  1. Matthew Bassford

    August 25, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    The pull quote in the original article is exactly the sort of thing that leaves me frustrated with progressive Biblical scholarship. You can assert that Paul “is simply not talking about loving relationships between people with same-sex orientation,” but there is no textual evidence for the assertion. Simply. One might as well say that Paul’s condemnation of idolatry a few verses up simply does not apply to sincere believers in a committed relationship with their god. In both cases, Paul uses extremely broad language, and if we believe he speaks with authority, we need to take him at his word.

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