CHRISTIAN SEXUAL ETHICS: What's Right? What's Wrong? What's Ideal? and Why?

Introduction to Christian Sexual Ethics

Now, more than ever before, there is widespread confusion and massive disagreement about sex… even among intelligent and sincere Christians who regard the Bible as a reliable and authoritative guide for living. According to Christian author Philip Yancey, “I know of no greater failure among Christians than in presenting a persuasive approach to sexuality.” (Yancey, Philip. Holy Sex. Christianity Today, Oct. 2003) One prominent evangelist commented, “Sex belongs within marriage between one husband and one wife. Everything else is a sin!” Many Christians hold this position, but many do not. For example, does the Bible approve of polygamy? This question has always divided Christianity. According to Martin Luther, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, there is nothing in the Bible, Old Testament or New, that prohibits polygamy. They did concede, however, that Christians should not have multiple wives if the culture has laws prohibiting it. John Calvin, on the other hand, was very much against polygamy, though he regrettably conceded that some in the early New Testament church, mainly Jewish Christians, were polygamists.

To illustrate the diversity of opinion on this matter, according to a survey created by sermonaudio.com, out of 973 total votes, only 37% said polygamy has always been sinful. Twenty percent said polygamy was permitted in the Old Testament but is now sinful under the new covenant. Ten percent said polygamy is not sinful, but is unwise as it is not God’s ideal of one man and one woman for life. Over one out of five, 21%, said polygamy has always been allowed by God, just like celibacy and monogamy. Seven percent even said polygamy is the Bible’s preferred form of marriage. And the rest, 5%, had no opinion.

So according to this survey, only 37 percent agreed that all sex outside of a monogamous heterosexual marriage is a sin. If we begin with the premise that the Bible does allow for polygamy, then we open up a colossal can of theological worms. If the Bible allows for polygamy, why wouldn’t it also allow for polyandry, the practice of one woman having several husbands? Although Romans 7:1-3 prohibits polyandry, it’s debatable whether or not the prohibition is a universal absolute. In other words, is this a prohibition for all women living at all times in all sets of circumstances? To open the can of worms even further, if the Bible allows for both polygamy and polyandry, then what about polyamory? Polyamory is another word for group marriage, which can consist of any combination of men and women. The question further arises about whether the Bible would condone swinging. Although the Bible says nothing specifically about either polyamory or swinging, research strongly indicates that most swingers have a happier marriage than most non-swingers.
 
And then, of course, the heated debate among liberals and conservatives over homosexuality continues, with no end in sight.
 
But even if one agrees with the statement that sex belongs strictly within marriage between one husband and one wife, we’re still not out of the woods. Two pertinent questions still remain: 1) What is sex? 2) What is marriage? Bill Clinton claims he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky. According to his definition of “having sex,” sex constituted sexual intercourse and nothing else. Of course, it’s doubtful that those living in biblical imes would have used the phrase “having sex.” The Bible uses phrases like “he knew her” or “he uncovered her nakedness” or “he layed with her.” Although Clinton was accused of verbal gymnastic during Monicagate, perhaps he was right in his terminology. There are a myriad of sexual activities that fall short of intercourse. Though many Christians would say the Bible condemns these activities if they are not between two lawfully wedded spouses, the Bible does not answer this question, at least not specifically. According to Christian author and teacher R.C. Sproul:

We know, of course, that the Bible does not give us a clear list and directions, a manual of sexual behavior that gives us direct, explicit instructions on what we can and cannot do. There is not a section in the Bible that you can open and it’s going to say in there, “Do not place hand upon breast.” We will not find a list that says, “No petting above the waist.” “No petting below the waist.” “No petting over the clothes.” “No petting under the clothes,” and all that kind of thing. (Sproul, R.C. Sex and the Single Christian, “How far is too far?” Sound recording, Ligonier Tape Series, Orlando, Florida: Ligonier Ministries, 1996).
 
Christianity is also divided on other matters. Is there sex in Heaven? Some, like Billy Graham, say “yes” or “maybe.” Most say “definitely not.” Most envision Heaven as an eternal monastery/convent inhabited by celestial monks and nuns. Is masturbation a sin? Some say yes, some say no. And what did Jesus mean by, “whoever looks at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery with her already?” Exactly what is lust and why is it wrong? Where should Christians draw the line?
 
And let’s not forget the famous 70’s song by Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” What relationship is there, or should there be, between love and sex? Many would say that if you really love someone, you should mary them and not allow yourself to have any sexual feelings or thoughts for anyone else. Many wedding vows instruct us to “forsake all others.” Sure, most Christians would admit that, “Yes, men should love women other than their wives, and vice versa. However, they should not have a “sexual” or “romantic” kind of love. They point out that there are different kinds of love mentioned in the Bible. The Greek word for sexual love is “eros.” The problem is, the word eros is nowhere to be found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible. Even the Song of Songs, the most erotic book in the Bible, does not use the word eros. Furthermore, most scholars agree that the two lovers in the Song of Songs are not married. However, since the Bible could not possibly condone sex outside of marriage under any circumstances, many rationalize that this book is about an engaged couple in a dreamlike state looking forward to their wedding night. Throughout much of Judeo-Christian history, the Song of Songs was desexualized and regarded solely as a metaphor for God’s love for His chosen people or Christ’s love for the church.
 
Although all students of the Bible rightly conclude that the Bible prohibits sexual sin, there is much confusion and difference of opinion as to precisely what sexual sin is and why it is wrong. Many define adultery as being synonymous with extramarital sex and fornication as being synonymous with premarital sex. Others define these words as umbrella terms that cover all sinful sexual behavior. So if one considers masturbation as sin, they might label it as an act of fornication. Lust is often defined as thinking about having extramarital or premarital sex.
 
Many scriptures denounce adultery and fornication. First Corinthians 6:9 warns us that unrepentant sexual sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God. So we don’t want to be cavalier. We need to take the biblical warning against sexual sin seriously. On the other hand, we don’t want to go above and beyond what the Bible says by being legalistic and adding our own rules to the rules already given to us in the Bible. The Pharisees were guilty of this and Jesus was not well pleased.
 

Certainly the Bible is totally against deviant sexual activities such rape and child molestation. One does not need to be a seminary graduate or an expert in ethics to reach that conclusion. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to deduce that it is not loving your neighbor as yourself to give someone a sexually transmitted disease or an unwanted pregnancy. And certainly, Christians should decieve their spouses while engaging in secretive affairs. On the other hand, the Bible gives its stamp of approval to sex within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 7:5, married couples have an obligation to sexually satisfy their mates. The question is, does the Bible allow for sexual any activities outside of the institution of marriage? In fact, how should we even define “marriage”? Are couples living together without a legal piece of paper and the pronouncement of the clergy or justice of the peace living in sin?

Perhaps we need to go back to the beginning and ask, “In the beginning, did God make us monogamous?” If so, then why do most people, at least most men, desire sexual variety? Is it only because of our fallen condition? Or is that the way God made us from day one? Perhaps the institution of marriage was imposed upon mankind as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. Although the Bible identifies the institution of marriage as a good institution, it is also referred to by Paul as an institution of this world that will soon pass away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). If marriage is such a great instituion, then why get rid of it? Many have suggested that the forbidden fruit had something to do with a sexual transgression. If that is true, then what does that mean for us today? These are just a few of the perplexing questions we’ll be grappling with.
 
These ideas will no doubt be considered controversial by many. That is not my intention. The late Walter Martin once said, “Controversy for the sake of controversy is a sin. But controversy for the sake of truth is a divine mandate.” John Calvin once said that even the best of theologians are wrong 20 percent of the time.  Take Augustine as a prime example. Augustine took the position that married couples should only have sex when and if the intention is to make a baby. And even then, they should try not to enjoy it. Most Christians today would thoroughly disagree with this. However, most Christians today would also consider Augustine to be one of the greatest Christian scholars, if not “the” greatest Christian scholar to ever live. Along the way, I’ll be offering my own personal opinions. I could be wrong. I am not omniscient. All I ask is that the reader consider my arguments, keep an open mind, and reach their own conclusions. 
 
Let the inquiries begin!

4 Comments »

  1. Hey Tom. I see you’re starting a new website. With this summary it looks like you may end up going even deeper than before which is good. However, I’m still waiting to hear an answer to the challenge posted at your previous blogspot about the idea that Eve attended her ability to reproduce by having sex with Satan eventhough the bible clearly says God told them before the fall to “be Fruitful and Multiply.” I know this idea has been presented before by ancient scholars, but what is the justification in light of this verse?

    Comment by JRH80 — March 10, 2010 @ 11:48 am |Reply

    • jrhockney@aol.com,

      First, thank you for your interest in my writing. In response to your question, didn’t God tell Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply before the fall? I’ve covered this in my first book entitled “What the Bible “REALLY” says about Sex,” available through Trafford.com. This is from my chapter on procreation.

      But didn’t God command man to be fruitful and multiply?

      But if this evaluation [that Adam and Eve obtained the ability after the fall and as a result of the fall] is accurate, then why did God instruct man to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Ge 1:28)?

      There’s a simple explanation. Genesis records two accounts of creation. The first account is sometimes referred to as the P account (Ge 1:1-2:3). The second account is sometimes referred to as the J account (Ge 2:4-4:1). Even though the instruction to be fruitful and multiply appears in the Bible before the second account of creation, many scholars believe that the instruction was not given until after the Fall. Joan Timmerman explains it this way:

      The P account was written 550 BC, after the time of the captivity. Here the admonition to be fruitful and multiply is a major emphasis of the text and it dominates the P account. After the exile, when the chosen people needed to return to build the temple, an increased population was absolutely essential for them. There was a great social importance for preserving and propagating the children of Israel after the exile. This made certain rules of behavior, especially those with regard to procreation, both practical and necessary. These ideas were rooted in the social and cultural needs of the time.

      The J account puts the emphasis on companionship and the uniting of a man and woman as one flesh. The J account, in its final form, was written 950 BC, 400 years before the P account. The reversal of their appearance in the Bible was the work of a later redactor (editor). There is nothing in the J account about man having the ability to procreate until after the Fall.

      Whenever the New Testament writers spoke of sexual relations, they always referred back to the J account. They always spoke of the unification of a man and a woman through intercourse. The King James uses the word “cleave.” The New Testament never refers to sex in terms of being fruitful and multiplying. In fact, the term “be fruitful and multiply” is nowhere in the New Testament. There is no New Testament admonition that Christians should procreate and have lots of children.

      Here is more from my book:

      God not only could have populated the earth without sex, but most Christian authors prior to Augustine believed He would have if Adam hadn’t sinned. According to Margaret R. Miles:

      Most Christian authors before Augustine thought that procreation by sexual intercourse was initiated by sin and would not have occurred if Adam and Eve had not sinned.

      Biblical scholar Ivan Engnell also concludes that producing offspring through sexual relations was a result of The Fall. According to Engnell, Adam and Eve became like gods because they acquired the power to procreate as a result of eating from the tree of ‘knowledge.’ Engnell says when Adam and Eve ceased to observe God’s prohibition, they secured divine knowledge, something they did not have before. Suddenly, their eyes were opened, they knew they were naked, and they became mutually ashamed of their nakedness, covering themselves.

      That the nakedness and the shame form a central motive is to be seen also from Yahweh’s words in Genesis 3:11. Of the utmost importance, moreover, is the connection of the curse upon the woman with the sexual: she shall bring forth sons, though in pain, and, although her husband is to be her ruler, her desire shall be to him, as we see in Genesis 3:16. Central too is the context in Genesis 4:1. Adam knows Eve, she conceives and bears a son of whom she says: “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”

      Some commentators believe Eve was boasting. What she meant was, “Hey, get a load of me! I have become a goddess because I have produced a man, just like God.”

      However these words are interpreted, their ultimate meaning, according to Engnell and others, is “… Adam is now like the ‘gods’ because he is now capable of begetting.” Engnell is quick to point out, however, that the text is not talking about sexual life per se. Whether or not Adam and Eve had intercourse before eating from the tree of knowledge is not the issue here. Instead, Engnell explains that “the whole stress is laid on the ability to procreate.”

      This is the decisive fact: Adam and Eve in Eden have not been allowed earlier to reproduce offspring.

      Westermann agrees that Engnell’s interpretation, unlike most other theories, explains the whole sentence “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” because the ability to beget makes a person like God. H. Gressman says that begetting life was the knowledge God wanted to withhold from Adam and Eve because it would make them like God. Gressman says, “begetting and sparking life is a divine craft.” H. Schmidt also agrees. Schmidt says, “knowledge of the secret of begetting is something divine.”

      I hope this helps.

      Tom

      Comment by Tom Gruber — March 10, 2010 @ 9:10 pm |Reply

  2. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for responding so quickly here and yes that does help. Not bad for a borderline amatuer with no thology degree that I’ve read about anyways. I’m glad you have addressed this issue in your book, though you may want to do it on your other sites as well so there is no more confusion. I have read your writing on your websites, but I’m a bit hesistant to get any of your books yet because of my present circumstances. I’m sure they are interesting and better research than most conservative apologists would expect.

    Anyways, I’m not sure about the two creation account idea as it is a rather liberal idea without a huge amount of support as far as 100% certainty that they were written at the times you mention. Although I have heard of this idea, I’m fairly new to it and I do not dismiss it outright. Though if they were written withsuch a huge time gap they would have had to have been written by different authors. I posted a link below that I found that seems to disagree with these presumptions and I’m curious to see how you would respond to the claims here at an Apologetic Press site:

    http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:op_t2PaealEJ:www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2194+when+was+the+creation+story+written%3F+apologetics&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    Lastly do not think I’ve come to discredit you. Although I do have a role in a fairly conservative Church, I’m very ruthless when it comes to finding the truth on these matters (whether it agrees with them or not), Even to the point where I have read Books by Philo Thelos, Raymond Lawrence (though he is too theologically liberal for me) and have discussions with Liberated Christians. I’m determined to put aside all biases to find the truth whether I like it or not and I hope you are willing to do the same in your writings. Sorry, I’d usually write and research more more, but I’m exhausted tonight.

    Comment by JRH80 — March 11, 2010 @ 11:09 am |Reply

    • Again, thanks for your interest in my writing. I’m not sure that I agree with the two creation accounts theory either. However, I think that there is little doubt that the books of Moses were edited after his death. I doubt if Moses said of himself, “Moses was a humble man.” And how could Moses have written about his death after the fact? The important thing is that the entire Bible was written by God and is referred to as being inspired and infallible many times throughout Scripture.

      Another important consideration is, in regards to the Genesis command to be fruitful and multiply, not everything recorded in the Bible is listed in chronological order. Sometimes things are listed in order of importance. Furthermore, the text does not say how they were to be fruitful and multiply. Of all the animals, it was said they were to reproduce after their kind. It does not say this of man, which has lead some to believe that God originally did not intend for men and women to reproduce like animals.

      I’ve had interaction with Liberated Christians as well. They have been kind enough to refer my works to many visitors of their site. For this, I am grateful. However, I do not agree with them on everything.

      When I first came up with the idea that Adam and Eve had sex with the devil and perhaps his demons, I thought I was the first person to think of it. I also thought I was the first person to come up with the idea that the ability to reproduce was a result of the fall. Because of the ultra-conservative church I had been raised in, I lived a sheltered life. So when I read comments from F.R. Tennant, saying: “It is beyond question that various legends concerning the monstrous intercourse of Adam and Eve with demons, and especially of Eve with the serpent or Satan, were both widespread and ancient among the Jews,” as well as comments from Margaret R. Miles, saying: “Most Christian authors before Augustine thought that procreation by sexual intercourse was initiated by sin and would not have occurred if Adam and Eve had not sinned,” it was truly mind-blowing. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am still learning because I, like you, strongly believe that the quest for truth is vitally important.

      Because of your interest in this subject, I have taken the liberty of attaching the chapter of my book on procreation to this E-mail. Keep in mind, however, that this was written over 10 years ago and that I may make revisions as I grow in grace and knowledge. Your comments are always welcomed and encouraged.

      Best wishes,

      Tom

      Comment by Tom Gruber — March 11, 2010 @ 7:02 pm |Reply


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