Why Biblical Sexual Ethics Strains Intimacy Between Church And Culture

Sexual. Many people clicked on this link almost instinctively just because they saw that word in the title. For many (believer or nonbeliever), sexuality is a defining element of life, one of the great pleasures that we have in this short time on earth. As Christians, we believe that sexuality is a great gift properly expressed within the confines of a conjugal bond. Others would object to that caveat. But that is not the only one. The Christian worldview, as defined by the Bible, outlines a few proper and improper expressions of sexual activity. This would extend to the pro-life cause, regarding abortion as a moral obscenity. Some would argue that biblical sexual ethics also extends to contraceptives, artificial insemination, sterilization, homosexuality, euthanasia, and much more. These issues have generated no small debate over the centuries, with Christians at large clashing with secularists. There are several reasons why biblical sexual ethics strains intimacy between church and culture.

Interestingly, some of these ethics have left a little room for compromise. There are Christians who buckle under the pressure of the secular point of view, and secularists who are willing to concede a bit. Probably the most obvious issue that secularists might compromise on is abortion. Many secularists can see the common sense ethics of the pro-life cause. There is the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, the Secular Pro-Life organization, and secular politicians such as Austin Peterson. As an aside, I think that the pro-life movement needs to distance itself from the politics of social conservatism and make room for secular pro-lifers. Nevertheless, there is still this strained intimacy between church and culture, and I think I can provide some insight into why that is.

The Difference Between Objectivity And Subjectivity

In a world engulfed in moral choices, witnessing the height of evil and sometimes a glimmer of good, people scarcely stop to ask themselves what it means to be good or evil. This is a higher-order question about the nature of our decisions. Do these decisions appeal to a transcendent standard of right and wrong, or are they societally based and prone to change based on the shifting sands of our culture? Our answer to this question will very much define our moral views (making it rather tragic that people do not think it is useful to reflect on this sort of thing). For example, the pro-choice apologetic is often loaded in subjective terms, assuming that a moral truth is malleable in different situations. The ethic that it is wrong to take a life is silenced while an individual’s subjective interpretation of the situation is the determining factor. The same point can be made in the majority of sexual ethics. People believe that if they feel a certain way, they can act on those impulses, and it is wrong to tell them otherwise, because you are imposing your ethics on them. This is undergirded by a philosophical subjectivism, even if it is not outrightly stated.

In contrast, Christians (and adherents to other world religions) typically believe in an objective standard of right and wrong. This means that when we make a moral decision, we are trying to discern what is truly right and truly wrong, moving closer to the standard that we believe is there. For Christians, that standard is God himself, as his nature defines what goodness is. Any departure from God’s goodness is characterized as evil. That is not to say that ethics can always be as simple as reading the Bible. The Bible expresses some specific moral principles, but often just provides the resources for discerning between right and wrong. There are some ethical issues that are unclear and not defined by Scripture.

In sexual ethics, we often have a crystalized distinction, and we believe that is an immovable moral truth. So the clash is essentially between an objective standard, where everybody has a moral duty to be obedient to that standard; and a subjective standard, where everybody is free to choose their own way without external interference. If a subjectivist believes in God, judgment is often not emphasized, or it is vague enough to allow for subjective morals, like “God wants us to do our best.”

Philosophy may provide a potential resolution to this clash. If people were to ask this higher order question of why something is wrong and analyze whether they are appealing to subjectivity or objectivity, it could provide some clarity. I think if you were to press the average person, they would admit that some things are truly wrong. Pithy sentiments like, “You should not impose your morality,” could not be applicable in the most extreme cases. When it comes to clearer ethical issues, like theft or murder, we would agree that you can impose your morality on others. Sexual ethics might be different because they are more difficult to discern. But the fact that they are sometimes difficult to discern should not lead us to think that individuals can decide what is right and wrong for themselves. Also, and more concretely, the doctrine that “You should not impose your morality,” is itself an attempt to impose morality onto another.

Overall, my suggestion is to abandon subjectivity. If we recognize that we are talking about an actual standard of morality, then our discussions will be more meaningful. If we are just saying that it is your subjective opinion against mine, then the entire discussion is futile. If you are not willing to abandon subjectivity or if you are a Christian who already believes in it, then at least contemplate the differences between these moral frameworks. Those differences will very much define our thinking and debates about sexual ethics. Contemplating it can provide a little insight into how the other party is thinking and expose some of the undergirding reasons that you are clashing.

The Blur Between Ethics And Legality

There is a sense in which we can sympathize with the notion that you should not impose your morals onto others. That is not to say that everything is subjective, but rather that there is a difference between what is right and what should be legal. Many Christians would say that smoking, drinking, or eating fast food would be wrong because it is a violation of 1st Corinthians 6:19. But that is not to say that these actions should be illegal. Often, making something illegal causes more problems than it solves. There was a brief period of the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century, which led to it being sold on the black market. The black market often entails violence and an increase in crime, especially when there is a high demand for the product. We see the same thing today in drug trafficking.

Governing a nation is not as simple as having a few moral prescriptions. Legislators need to discern not just what is right but what is ideal for the flourishing of the people. This sometimes entails moral compromises by legalizing that which is wrong. A good rule of thumb is to adhere to the non-aggression principle. Citizens should be free to do anything that they like so long as they are not hurting another human being (thus restricting against abortion).

If I tell somebody, “Your behavior is wrong, and I think you should be coerced into abstinence,” it is likely to be met with a fiery diatribe. But if I say, “I think this behavior is unethical, and here are my reasons,” it could still produce a diatribe, but the probability that it is met with rage is significantly diminished and the other party will be more likely to engage in a discussion about it. His mind will be more open to your ideas because you are appealing to reason rather than to coercion. I think mixing ethics and legality is one of the fundamental mistakes when discussing moral issues. Many people want to use the law, rather than their reasoning, to promote their ideology and their notions of right and wrong.

We see the same thing in sexual ethics. Many conservative Christians want to say not only that same-sex marriage is wrong, for example, but that is should be outlawed. This strikes me as sort of like prohibiting alcohol. While there is no outlet to sell same-sex marriage on the black market, it still restricts the free choice of free citizens. We should not be dictating responsible behavior. This misuse of the law opens the door for overreach of government power, with the government dictating what it regards as responsible behavior. Many people are inclined to agree with that practice so long as the governmental forces are on their side. But when the government shifts against them, they are outraged.

It is for the same reason that we would object to a benevolent dictator. A benevolent dictator would implement perfectly moral and competent policies, but when she dies, somebody else will take over, and there is no guarantee that he would be benevolent. Our government is a scaled down version of that with more checks and balances. But as we attempt the wield the government to impose our ideology, we create a precedent for imposing ideology in government. What the government regards as responsible behavior today might change tomorrow. When it comes to sexual ethics, we should not attempt to sway the government to impose our ideology. Reason is a more effective motivator than coercion, and people are going to do whatever they want anyway. So let people marry, divorce, use contraceptives, etc. so long as they are not hurting anybody else (like in abortion).

There Is A Bigotry Problem

Bigotry is a concept that is often misused in these discussions. Many people use it as a shorthand for “Anybody who disagrees with my sexual ethics.” But it is a little more nuanced than that. Bigotry is an actual intolerance of another demographic; you literally do not want them in your society or you believe that they are second-class citizens. This definition should expose quite a bit of bigotry that makes it difficult for the church and culture to be intimate. For somebody call another a bigot merely for disagreeing is itself bigotry (in the actual sense) and makes communication impossible. Similarly, bigotry can be expressed when one verbally assaults another demographic just for the sake of stirring the pot. They might thinly veil their motivation as “spreading the gospel,” or “inviting them to repent,” or something like that, but it is obvious that their goal is to yell at people and manifest their ego.

Probably the most oft cited example of bigotry is that against homosexuals. People do not handle differences in others very well, especially at a young age. Children who admit to having homosexual desires are often ostracized and bullied. Some are even murdered. Their parents turn against them. The church thinks they are a genetic abnormality. It seems like nobody loves them for who they are. For those who survive this tumultuous time, the church is often perceived through that lens. If somebody merely expresses dissension and attempts to provide reasons, she is hastily assigned a place with the true bigots.

For many, the potential of being perceived as a bigot is sufficient pressure to yield a concession. But I think there are other options available. It is possible to be empathetic to another person’s struggles even if you do not envy her ethical decisions. That is one reason that it is important to form unconditional friendships with those who see the world differently. Your moral opinion needs to be credentialed before it will get a hearing. When somebody thinks that you care about her, she will be more likely to listen to what you have to say. You will be in a better position to address her as an individual rather than as the target of your unsolicited preaching. The perception of bigotry is an obstacle, but it is not insurmountable. If you actually care about people, then show them that you care.

Integrating Sexual Ethics Into Apologetics

Most apologists can answer objections to the Cosmological Argument without much effort. Featured even in Hollywood productions, apologetics is becoming a more popular practice (even if the way the arguments are rendered on a popular level is not as sophisticated as it should be). But if our conclusion is that Christianity is true, that will come with a few daunting implications, like that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) and have a moral duty to follow Christ and lay ourselves down. This will entail submitting our ethical positions to his will. Since ethics are definitional for many people, we have to be equipped to answer objections to biblical sexual ethics. It needs to be concomitant to our apologetic presentations. But it should be constructed on an apologetic foundation so that we can explain [1] why it is true and [2] why the objections fail. Sexual ethics need to be intimately related to apologetics.

I think that for many people, the apologetic content will only be partially persuasive. We should not reduce sexual ethics down to “Your sin is holding you back” or something like that. People have intellectual objections, pithy one-liners and relativistic philosophy attached to their ethics. If a persuasive case for Christianity is made, it could be measured against the ghastly implications for their lives, namely, surrendering their seemingly justified ethical positions. As apologists, we believe that it is important to remove intellectual barriers to faith. Integrating biblical sexual ethics into our apologetic methodology is driven by that principle.

That does not mean that every time you talk about apologetics, you have to talk about sexuality. But it does mean that you should be prepared to answer difficult questions. Pastors and those who disciple new members should be prepared. When we are equipped to use our reason rather than coercion, it will go a long way to presenting Christianity as a reasonable option for thinking men and women.

Why Biblical Sexual Ethics Strains Intimacy Between Church And Culture

The Christian Church has maintained its ethical positions for two thousand years. If it succumbs to the pressure of fading cultural fads, it will not be something to take seriously. Why should we believe the Bible if it is being adapted based on our cultural preferences? This is basically why compromising our ethics is not an option. But at the same time, the church must have gentleness and humility as it proclaims Christ, keeps the Great Commission and reminds the world Jesus commands us to lay ourselves down completely, surrendered to his will. We have to remember the reasons why biblical sexual ethics strains intimacy between church and culture. We have different underlying philosophical systems, different experiences with bigotry, and sometimes we blur the line between ethics and legality. But with thoughtfulness, research and preparation, we can overcome these differences and relate with people more effectively.

Recommended Reading:
Why Pro-Life Ethics Are Definitional In Politics
Where Libertarianism Overlaps With LGBT Activism