A CRAVE MCC Reflection on Sexual Ethics
CRAVE MCC is a dynamic, inclusive, progressive Christian community. Whatever journey you are on, whatever path you have travelled, we welcome you. Rather than being dogmatic about theology or ethics, we encourage people to think through issues & make decisions for themselves. Our agenda is to build Disciples of Christ & in that provide perspectives that we believe to have Biblical, Theological and Cultural Integrity.
We do have Theological and Ethical foundations and this paper is an attempt to outline where we stand on Sexual Ethics. In outlining our beliefs, we are not demanding everyone agree with or follow them. We provide this perspective in hope to draw people closer to Christ and grow as Disciples of Jesus. We hope it is helpful to you.
Let’s start with a story: A man was sitting next to a farmer flying over a cattle farm. The man noticed there were no fences on the farm to keep the cattle in & asked the farmer about this. The farmer replied by explaining the following. “We don’t need fences; instead we have a well in the middle of the farm. The cows don’t stray, as they always stay a safe distance to the well. Their need for water keeps them safe.”
This story explains a Christ centred perspective on Sexual ethics. Instead of setting fences or walls in place to define sexual boundaries, digging a deep spiritual well helps us build healthy sexual ethics. So, rather than working hard at setting rules & trying to stick to them, the other option is to grow as disciples of Jesus in our character and ethics. This doesn’t mean we don’t establish boundaries; it’s just that they are built from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Certain behaviour will grow from deep Christian character and in turn behaviour reinforces character. The focus is not on the rules but on the kind of people we want to be.
As we journey through this sensitive topic, we need to be kind to ourselves & take care if any concerns are raised. Please talk to someone safe & discuss any issues raised with them, travelling alone is not necessary. Reach out to Pastor Karl or another CRAVE leader if you want to talk!
Most importantly, remember who your “well” is & that where you get your thirst quenched is in our Creator, Redeemer & Counsellor God.
Good Sex – Pastor Karl Hand
Christianity and Sex
A century ago, most people in our society had the same sexual ethics – at least, they did in public.
A generation years ago, sexual liberation was born, and created a cultural divide between the liberated and the conservative.
These days, sexual integrity is up for grabs. Most of the messages we get about sexuality come from sexy adverts, conservative commentators, tabloid scandals, high school health classes… There’s so many options that finding your sexual ethic is a pretty daunting prospect!
People who look for a sexual ethic from their faith, rather than in pop-psychology, or what they first heard in the ‘school-yard’ are looking in the right place – but I wonder how well equipped the churches are to give advice on the subject. Christianity’s two great legacies of the twentieth century have been predatory abuses of power, and the exclusion and repression of people who are ‘different’. We have not earned the trusted place we hold. We have to grow up, and become people who do deserve that trust, ‘if not us, who?’
The standard Christian response in the area of sexuality has been to look to the Bible for answers about sexuality. ‘God created sex, so surely God’s word has the answers!’ ‘It’s like operating a car; you have to follow the instruction manual!’ But when people turn to the Bible (instead of believing what they are told it says), they find it’s a lot more complicated than a how-to guide or a road map. They find creation stories explaining the origin of male and female, erotic poetry, tales of ancient people’s sexual lives to match anything they would find on Jerry Springer, and which probably wouldn’t make it through a family safe internet filter, and then a few commandments forbidding everything from incest (Leviticus 18) to inter-racial marriage (Deuteronomy 7:1-3) and many other strange laws including the need to pay a “bride price” for a wife (Exodus 22:16-17), and even to sleep with the wife of a dead sibling (Deuteronomy 5:5-10). An honest reader would have to admit this isn’t much help in the twenty-first century as an instruction manual for sexuality.
For thousands of years, the answer of Christianity on sexual ethics was to choose between celibacy or marriage, and to ‘save yourself’ for marriage. There is nothing in the Bible to recommend this ethic, and for many people, those options don’t work. A century or more ago, the thin fabric of this moral facade was unravelled when Freud showed that sexual repression was the cause of sometimes very severe mental illness. People began to realise that the Christian ideal wasn’t working for many people. Then the ‘sexual revolution’ came, and ‘free love’ was the answer of Western Culture – ‘if it feels good, do it.’ But in all honesty, most people find that way of living is shallow, deeply unsatisfying, and that it has an emotional cost that’s just not okay.
A generation after the morality of ‘hippie culture’, what I constantly experience is that many people have reached a place that is like despair. Marriage hasn’t worked out for them (or they don’t want marriage, or they are legally denied marriage because they are not heterosexual), but ‘free love’ has no integrity for them. There has to be a better choice than this!
I use the title “Good Sex” with a deliberate double meaning. I’m talking about moral goodness, and also about sex that is good because it’s hot! Sex that has integrity is fulfilling and exciting. Sex with no integrity will never stimulate more than your body – and will probably leave your deeper, true self feeling cold. Conservative Christianity is right when it claims that it is God who makes us sexual beings – so the desires we have are really a clue to God’s purposes for our lives! If we desire things like a fulfilling sex-life, intimacy and integrity it’s because we’re on the right path. God is reaching out to us through those desires.
Like many Christians, I believe that the Bible is the right place to look for guidance. But if we are going to have anything worthwhile to say to a generation who desperately need the truth of the gospel to be spoken to them in a way that engages their sexual being, we must give up the search for easy answers. What we find might be very different to what is pushed as ‘family values’ by the religious right.
- What sexual ethics were you taught as a child or a teenager?
- Does that ethic still ‘feel right’ to you?
- What do you want your faith to teach you about your sexuality? Are you open to new truth about sex, or are you more comfortable where you are at?
The answer given by many mainstream Christians is that good sex is ‘pure’ sex. For instance, some churches encourage their youth to wear purity rings as a symbol that they won’t have sex until their wedding night. There are books and self help guides around about how to ‘stay pure.’ ‘Impure thoughts’ are discouraged, and a white wedding dress is a symbol of purity. When Christians talk about purity, what they usually mean is marriage. They think sex is good when it’s done by married people and it’s impure when it’s done by people who are not married. A lot of energy is spent on ‘controlling sexual temptation,’ and it’s common for Christians to get married very young so that they can have some kind of legitimate sexual expression.
I think this way of thinking is pretty shallow because marriage is a superficial test, and Jesus judges the heart. I also seriously doubt that most ‘pure’ sexual lifestyles are God honouring, when that purity comes from of a sense of obligation. A morality that is all about rules is simply not a Biblical way of being a good person. Galatians 3:19-4:7 talks about the true meaning of the law, by comparing it to a guardian or a disciplinarian for children. It goes so far as to say in verse 22, “But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin.” These words sound so strange to a conservative or Christian understanding of what the scriptures are! And yet most of us would agree that Biblical practices like dowries and polygamy do seem like a kind of imprisonment: a repressive slavery, not a liberating way of life. In Galatians, Paul explained to a group of people who were considering signing up for this kind of ‘biblical’ lifestyle that those laws spoke to ancient Israel in a period of its immaturity. They are not intended for people who know Christ, and are therefore mature spiritual adults. The law’s purpose is fulfilled when it brings a person to a relationship with Jesus. At that point, we grow up, and we are expected to act like adults – making moral choices and taking ownership of the consequences. The Bible is God’s word to us when we allow it to inform our values, and teach us moral integrity – not when we expect it to make our choices for us.
One of the basic features of Jesus’ ministry, as it is described in the gospels, was his undermining of the whole ancient Jewish purity system. The Jewish religion in his time seems to have been characterised by social exclusion of people who were considered unclean – people with leprosy, people who weren’t circumcised. Purity laws included not working on holy days (such as the Sabbath), only eating ‘kosher’ food (no pork, no shell-fish), not touching bodily fluids or dead people and many others. Stories of Jesus breaking these rules are everywhere in the gospels. One of the most scandalous things he ever did was to eat meals with unclean people.
If you want to read some examples of Jesus breaking purity laws, try Mark 2:13-17. It is a famous story about Jesus being criticised for eating with Levi – a traitor, and a person who associated with unclean, uncircumcised Romans! Another example is Mark 7:1-23, where Jesus very forcefully addresses his critics and defends his practice of eating with ceremonially unwashed hands. In Luke 7:34, Jesus is called a ‘glutton and a drunkard.’ Biblical scholars suggest that this kind of criticism of Jesus must have been fairly common and well-known for it to have been recorded in the gospels, because you’d think the gospel writers would try to put forward the best, cleanest image of their hero that they could! But it is hard to imagine the Jesus of these texts fitting in well at a clean, straight laced ‘family-values’ Christian church.
Because of this legacy of Jesus, early Christian communities became melting-pots. They reached out to all the nations of the known world because their ethic was the exact opposite of purity! It had a values ethic of universal inclusion and of compassion. The Christian movement adapted to every culture in the known world, brought a legacy of community and sharing, practised charity, and built hospitals and schools. The purity code, however, was entirely forgotten within a century.
- What do you expect the Bible to tell you about sex? All the answers? No guidance at all?
- For further study, Acts 10 and 15 recount key moments in the early Jesus movements struggle to understand and accept this radical new ethic.
- Read some of the other scripture passages mentioned above.
- How do you feel about God? Is God a law-maker? A punishing God? A forgiving God?
- What do you want to feel from God?
If we turn away from ‘purity’ and ‘law-keeping’ as ethical principles on which to model our sex lives, does that leave us with no moral centre at all? Quite the opposite. Becoming a spiritual adult and making moral choices enables us to reconnect with scriptural values in a deeper way.
Proverbs 5:15-20 is a text which many people don’t consider when they are building a sexual ethic. It gives a picture of a wise old sage instructing his ‘son’ about wisdom. When he comes to talking about sex, he has the following words of advice:
(15) Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
(16) Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
(17) Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for sharing with strangers.
(18) Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
(19) a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.
(20) Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?
As the distinctively Hebrew poetry continues, verse 21-23 don’t speak about sexuality specifically – but they speak to a similar condition to that which which we find ourselves in today, the moral wreckage of a culture with no sexual values:
(21) For human ways are under the eyes of the Lord,
and he examines all their paths.
(22) The iniquities of the wicked ensnare them,
and they are caught in the toils of their sin.
(23) They die for lack of discipline,
and because of their great folly they are lost.
It’s tempting to read this passage in the context of verse 20 and the “bosom of the adultress” as a condemnation of cheating on your partner… ‘those who cheat are “caught in the toils of their sin.”’ ‘Those who cheat “die… because of their great folly.”’ But this scripture says very little about who to have sex with and when. The wisdom is addressed to a person in a monogamous marriage, and also speaks to people in all sorts of diverse relationships. It says much more about why you shouldn’t cheat, and what values should inform your sexual decisions.
Let me ask you a question: Who should drink of your own precious fountains of intimacy? Who is worthy for you to share yourself with them in that way? To answer that question, you first have to know what you are worth. Wisdom is about understanding that basic value – and building a sexual ethic on the basis of it.
The ancient Hebrew sages wrote at a time when the purity code was being practiced in Israel, and at a time where prophets and miracle workers were highly respected. While the priests and prophets were deeply aware of Israel’s own special place in God’s plan, the sages were focusing on the whole of creation – not just one nation. They were aware of the fact that the world is an organised place, that Yahweh (the ancient Hebrew God) had created it with an order which reflected ‘Hokmah’ or divine wisdom. The high praise given to Hokmah in the Old Testament (especially Proverbs), the Gospels (Luke 7:35 and Matthew 11:9) and the Epistles of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and Colossians 2:2-3) has led some scholars to speculate whether Hokmah was seen as a divine person. Some have suggested she was an ancient goddess who was Yahweh’s consort, and others have seen her as being the second person of the trinity, the pre-incarnate Christ.
Proverbs 8 is a speech by Hokmah, as she cries out in the street calling people to know her. She claims a special relationship with Yahweh, and says she was there, instructing him “beside him, like a master-worker” while he was creating the world. Those who knew Yahweh then, must also know Hokmah, and therefore understand something about the way the world operates. The ‘motto’ of the sages is quoted in Proverbs 1:7, 9:10 and Psalm 110:10: “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.” Knowing God means understanding the wisdom which organises the world in which we live. Loving God will translate to loving Hokmah, and having good moral judgment. Reverent fear for God’s majesty is the beginning of good sex.
In Proverbs 5, this wisdom is applied to seeing the divine order in sexuality, by comparing sex to a well, or a ‘cistern’ – which to an ancient culture in an arid climate was a source of refreshment and life. The question this passage poses to us, in all the diversity of relationships that exist in our culture is, do we see the divine value in the people we see every day? Modern rationalistic thinking might describe humanity as a biological machine, the result of an evolutionary process guided only by the irrational and arbitrary forces of natural law. But people know that they are more than this – they know it about themselves, and they recognise it in other people, that there is more to a human being than that which can be observed – there is personality, life and spirit.
According to Genesis 2:7, every person we walk past on the street is a person whom God created; God fashioned an “earth-creature” from the clay, and breathed God’s very Spirit into its nostrils – and it became ‘nephesh’: a living soul. If we can’t even afford a smile for our bank cashier, or take the effort to say ‘thank you’ to the person who scans our groceries at the check-out, then we do not recognise this divinity in other people, and what hope do we have of treating our sexual partners with the honour and value described in Proverbs 5?
But if we do really ‘get it’, if we look at human beings with an understanding that they are divine creations, and that there is more to them than empirical observation could ever show, then regardless of what we may believe about sin and being imperfect, or morally ‘fallen’, we will still have a higher respect for human beings than a secular or rationalistic world-view would allow. Such a sensitivity would say to the sage’s son in Proverbs 5 that his ‘flowing streams’ are too valuable to be shared with any stranger in the street (v. 16), and that his love for his graceful doe of a wife should be sufficient to intoxicate him forever (v. 19-20). When we fail to act with sexual integrity, it is because we are longing to be reconnected with that original divinity of creation – but seeking that in sexual partner after sexual partner is an unending process.
What wisdom teaches us is that we need to change our selves, and our way of looking at the world, so that we can recognise the divinity that is already present in those we love. For those who have not yet found someone to love in this way – Proverbs 5 still speaks. Looking harder for the right person is often a fruitless process – and a selfish one! When we look at people we meet as a ‘prospective love’ instead of a divine person, that selfishness is often what scares the person away! “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?” Should we spend all our energy looking for someone we “need”, instead of rejoicing in people who God created, even if they have nothing to offer us.
If that is the case, then the relationship that needs work first is the relationship with God, with God’s Wisdom, and with ourselves. We cannot love other people if we do not first love God, and until we love ourselves, we have nothing of value to bring into a relationship. From a place of recognising and valuing the divinity that is within you, you will be able to reach out to other people (your partner, your partners, your friends, your Self), and that energy will be attractive, and will call stronger relationships into your life.
- Are you naturally a ‘wise’ person? Are you naturally an open-hearted/warm person?
- Do you have very strong boundaries, or very open boundaries? Are you a touchy-feely person? A shy person? A guarded person.
- What do you feel when you read Proverbs 5? Is it something you desire for yourself, or something that challenges you – or do you perhaps feel alienated by the image? Why do you think that is?
- If you were to take one step towards becoming ‘smarter’ or ‘wiser’ in relationships, what would it be?
Sexuality and Freedom
The first three chapters of Good Sex have had very little to say about actual sex. They have focused more on the values behind our sexuality. In this chapter, I want reflect on how to build specific guidelines on how to live out your sexuality on a practical basis – particular examples which bring these values into 21st century Western culture.
What I am suggesting is very different to the way many Christians would define their ethic. A traditional Christian manual on sexual ethics might say ‘don’t get divorced’, and give a list of scriptures to back that up. Of course they could just as easily find scriptures to back up a ban on inter-racial marriage, the practice of owning slaves, or (if you are male) the practice of paying a bride price, and thereafter owning your wife like a piece of property. Christians are highly selective in the way they apply specific scriptures.
But even if the argument is given objectively, and even-handedly, and those scriptures are interpreted in their historical setting, the result is still only a sexual ethic might have been appropriate for the first century of the church’s life. Jesus and his disciples interpreted their Bible (the Torah, and other sacred Jewish texts) not as a frozen depository of yesterday’s truths, but as a living document in which God speaks to living situations, so we need to go a step further.
Theologians sometimes suggest that what is moral at one point in ‘salvation history’ might become immoral at another point – and that is why Christians don’t obey all the laws of the ‘Old Testament’. We end up with a strange kind of result. Slavery and genocide are understood to have been moral until Jesus died, at which point, they became immoral. What that understanding says about God’s character is that God is inconsistent. That God changes at will. But if God is consistent, reliable and true, then we should be able to expect that God’s values would endure – they would be consistent. A better theological understanding would say that God’s values last forever, and scripture witnesses those values being applied very differently in various cultural settings.
Universal statements about God, truth, goodness and beauty are beyond human languages to describe. Certainly, they are beyond written language. Scripture can only ever approximate such truths, which have to be experienced to be understood. The great sixteenth century theologian John Calvin describes the process as one of ‘accommodation’ of divine truth to human capacities. He wrote that God “proceeds at the pace of a mother stooping to her child, so to speak, so as not to leave us behind in our weakness”(Institutes 3.21.4). What God might say as an accommodating mother to Israel is very different to what she might say as an accommodating mother to a sex-worker on the streets of pre-industrial London, to a Christian apostle in the 1st century like Paul, or to you and me in this post-modern world.
Jesus and the apostles also understood that Scripture was an accommodation to human situations. Famously, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus speaking in the formula, ‘Moses said to you (in ‘God’s law’) … but now I am saying to you…’ He used that formula in many contexts, but here are a few in which he specifically talks about sexuality:
(27) ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” (28) But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (29) If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus did not read the particular commandments of the law as being universal truths. Instead, he drew out but the values behind them – the motivating factors rather than the actions proscribed. In this example, he reads from a law about adultery a challenge about lust and fidelity. His followers similarly don’t hesitate to read his commands and adapt them to their own context. For instance, in Matthew 5, Jesus continues to say
(31) ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” (32) But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
But in a different context, the apostle Paul says something quite different,
1 Corinthians 7:10-16
(10) To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (11) (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
(12) To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. (13) And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (14) For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (15) But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. (16) Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
Notice that just like Jesus changed the law which Moses gave by intensifying it, and forbidding divorce, Paul is at liberty to distinguish between commands given by Jesus (v. 10-11), and commands that he himself is making for the current situation. In verse 15, he even make exceptions to what Jesus himself said. That is not because he disagrees with Jesus, it’s because he is preaching Jesus’ own values in a different context to Jesus’ situation.
Summarising the various biblical positions on divorce makes it clear just how diverse Biblical laws around divorce can appear: In ancient Israel, divorce was freely allowed to men, as long as they provided women with a certificate of divorce. Jesus forbade divorce except in the case of ‘unchastity’. In Paul’s church in ancient Corinth, divorce was allowed in some situations and not in others.
The reasons for these different applications are not stated – they are anyone’s guess. My suggestion is that divorce was allowed by Moses in order to regulate it – so that women, who had no socio-economic means in a patriarchal clan society were not just abandoned, but given a certificate of divorce which allowed them to return to their Father’s home without shame. I don’t think this means God approved of patriarchal clan society, but I think the laws are aimed at ‘harm-minimisation’. In Jesus’ time, under the Roman Empire, the clan system was no longer operating, and so the Mosaic Law was outdated. People had the economic means to focus more on the values of personal sexuality. Jesus frowned on a legal system which made it too easy to callously discard an ‘unwanted wife,’ and so he named that kind of flippant divorcing ‘adultery.’ I do not think Jesus (who ate with sinners, and was kind to outcastes) was likely to have demanded his followers apply this law rigorously or dogmatically. In other words, this law was being abused – and Jesus brought people back to the values upon which the law was based.
Once the message about Jesus had spread all the way to Corinth in ancient Greece, into a cosmopolitan city in which Christians lived in a very counter-cultural way, these values again need to be applied differently. Situations had risen that would not often occur in Palestine, such as Christian-Pagan marriages, needed to be addressed – should a person stay in a marriage when their values are so different to their spouse’s? The ethical suggestions Paul makes is to follow Jesus’ rule so far as the situation permits, but if life in a cosmopolitan city makes that impossible, we are “not bound” – although the basic values of faithfulness and love are binding, the specifics (never divorcing) clearly aren’t. If irreconcilable differences, relating to a Christian’s core values end a relationship – freedom, not law-keeping is the right way to understand Jesus’ policy on divorce.
I would suggest that at the very minimum, we need to make one exception to the Biblical laws about marriage in applying them today. In the twentieth century, we became much more acutely aware of issues such as domestic abuse. The Bible never made an exception to the divorce law for such cases. Understanding God’s values, and applying them with divine wisdom demands that people be given the freedom to leave situations in which they are experiencing violence, neglect or humiliation from their partner.
But that is a minimum. To hold radically to the scriptural values of love, faithfulness, freedom, we need to use wisdom to apply scriptural values to every cultural nuance: how does marriage relate to the high levels of mobility people experience economically and geographically, to our understanding of how sexual orientation works, to the enormous new freedoms afforded by the availability of ‘safer-sex’ and the pill, to the way DNA testing can show a child’s paternity (so that husbands don’t need to keep their wives under lock-an-key to ensure the heredity of their children). What would wisdom say to a culture like ours? The human race is evolving rapidly, and if we hold dogmatically to the specifics of Biblical law, we may be spared the effort of growing up and taking responsibility for our choices – but we will end up warping the value system behind it, excluding and repressing people with laws that were really intended to protect them and give them freedom.
- Do you thrive with rules and order – or are you more free spirited?
- Does adapting God’s Word in new circumstances detract from its authority? Or add to it?
- Jesus and Paul adapted the scriptures to their own contexts. Can we do the same thing?
- To what extent is our sexual morality based on technology, such as contraception, medical science etc.
- Does God’s understanding of right and wrong change? Why/why not?
What Jesus Might Say, Fifty Years after the Sexual Revolution
In this final Chapter, I want to suggest some ethical principles which would work in a western, 21st century context. As outlined in the last chapter, the principle which I am following is that the Bible is God’s Word, and it is a word that was spoken contextually. God made no apologies about addressing the specific cultures and when God speaks to us today, surely God will say something that reflects the divine values of scripture appropriate in this time and place.
The first task is an imaginative one. There is no infallible rule that would apply values to a culture – it is something which is done through sensitivity. I start by thinking about what Proverbs 5 describes as the core value of sexuality – recognition of the value of other people, of the divinity they embody, and using wisdom to apply those values to a present culture.
A helpful exercise might be to imagine what Jesus would say to many of the sexual values of our culture. You could do this as a prayerful exercise yourself. When I did it, this is what I came up with. Perhaps if Jesus were alive today, he would say something like this:
You have heard it said: “As long as it’s between two consenting adults, whatever happens in the bedroom is nobody else’s business”
But I say to you: “whatever is done without awareness and respect is an act of violence, and unworthy of you who are children of peace. For truly, it is by your careless actions and thoughtless deeds that you will be judged.”
You have heard it said: “Save yourself for marriage, and be faithful to your spouse”
But I say to you: “whoever takes their spouse for granted has been unfaithful, and the one who treats another person like an object, or as a means for personal gratification is worse than a promiscuous person or an adulterer.”
You have heard it said to you: “I was born this way.”
But I say to you: “our choices are what make us who we are, and out of the abundance of the heart, the body responds.”
You have heard it said to you: “trust is more important than monogamy”
But I say to you: “Any house built on a shaky foundation will fall, and anyone who abandons their beloved one has neither trusted nor been trusted – nor understood the faithfulness of God.”
You have heard it said to you: “Repressed sexuality is neurotic, and sexual morals are just hang-ups from your childhood.”
But I say to you: “Anybody who wants to receive must first allow the gift to be given – and they themselves must give everything away. For if a person does not have integrity, they can never be free.
You have heard it said: “Whatever you do, and whoever you do it with, make sure you do it safely.”
But I say to you: “A person’s heart is easier to break than a sheet of latex, and if a person’s dignity and self-respect are wounded – antibiotics won’t heal the wound. And I say unto you, how you treat the very least person is how you have treated me.”
I think it is also valuable to put forward some rules of thumb about sexual behaviour. There are times when we don’t feel up to making rules for ourselves, and doubt our own wisdom. Naturally I am not suggesting any of these rules are ‘universal.’ It is the values behind them which (I hope) are universal. But I am attempting to limit myself to guidelines which would apply to almost everyone within that culture – rules which transcend sexual idiosyncrasies like socio-economic class, HIV status, race, age, marital status etc. and could apply to anyone. In fifty or a hundred years these rules might have to be reconsidered.
1. Never do anything out of a sense of obligation.
God loves a cheerful giver. We teach children to say “stop” if something is making them uncomfortable. But as adults, managing our sexuality, we often trade in our sense of personal worth against our need to be loved. We feel that because we are ‘in a relationship’, we are obligated to have sex. We think that because we went into someone’s house or got in their car, we owe them something. This kind of thinking rarely pays off – affection given out of obligation doesn’t inspire love. It’s not a good trade.
Please remember if you do put yourself in risky situations, like being alone with someone you haven’t met or can’t trust yet – I don’t want to judge you, but I want you remember that at any time you always have the right to say “no, I don’t want to do this any more, I’m going home” or “can you please take me home.” It’s also a good idea to have your phone with you so you call for help, and if possible, to let someone know where you are going. Most importantly, listen to your instincts about what is safe.
If you are a person who has real difficulty saying ‘no’ out loud, practice! Say no in lesser situations, like at work or to your friends. Practice your ‘no’ in front of the mirror if you have to. It’s one of your most valuable possessions.
2. Listen to other people’s “No” whether they say it out loud or not.
Everyone knows rape is illegal, immoral and pathological. We respect other people’s right to decide who to have sex with and when. But not everyone has the strength of character to say no out loud. Some people were never allowed to say no as children, and so they haven’t learned the skill. It’s not loving or honouring to exploit them, no matter how emotionally needy you or they are.
In the movie Hitch, Hitch has a rule of thumb called the 90/10 rule for kissing people. You go 90% of the way, and let the person you are kissing come the remaining 10%. Apart from being a hot way to kiss people, and good for your self esteem, this respects their boundaries, and makes it easier for them to say no if they need to.
This rule applies in many different situations. If you’re interested in dating someone, don’t pressure them. Suggest it, but if they don’t respond, don’t push it. When having sex, allow your partner to respond. If they’re not interested, listen to their unspoken no.
3. Never treat people as a nothing more than a means for your own pleasure.
There is nothing wrong with giving and receiving pleasure, but pleasure is not an object in itself. People rarely say ‘hmm, I think I want some pleasure.’ Pleasure is something that arises while we are seeking other goals. It could be as simple as saying ‘I want some new clothes,’ and feeling pleasure when you get them. But the pleasure is a by-product of having the desire fulfilled, not an end in itself.
Our desires become twisted when we start to seek after the pleasure itself. We know this about food and over-eating, clothes and vanity, alcohol and substance abuse. But often, sex is thought of as a merely pleasure generating activity. We would treat people in a way we know not to treat clothes and food. Worse yet, we would treat our spouses and our lovers as objects in that way.
We need to keep the words of the sage always before our eyes “rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.” Rejoice in her – not the pleasure she supplies to you.
4. Look after your well-being, physically and emotionally.
Ultimately, only you know what kind of sexual activity is acceptable for you. What makes one person uncomfortable will be meaningful and fulfilling for another person. This rule is last, because we need to respect other people’s boundaries before we begin to focus on our personal growth, and because only in the context of such respect will personal sexual awakening and discovery avoid the trap of being intrusive or sleazy.
It should be obvious by now that I am not saying that monogamy is an absolute, eternal law. That being said, I have come to believe that for most people, monogamy works well, and is the most advisable option. It offers love in a trusting and nurturing environment. Listen to your heart in prayer on this issue.
Finally, when I say that we need to decide this for ourselves, I don’t mean to put you above God, but I am recognising that God’s will is for you to make your own moral decisions. The journey to personal sexual awareness is one which should be carried out with the same sense of sanctity as the journey of spiritual growth. God is not providing every easy answer on a platter, as many Christians have suggested. But God is still the one leading and guiding you on the pilgrimage and self discovery should take place in the context of regular prayer, and listening to the voice of the scriptures. We’re not seeking pleasure or an escape from reality, but relationships with God, yourself and other people which make you a better, fuller human person.
- Are you good at saying no, or is it hard for you?
- Do you have a sense that sexuality is holy, or do you keep God and sex separate?
- What do you think Jesus would say about sexuality today? Write a beatitude, a parable or a “you have heard it said… but I say…” saying that expresses what you believe Jesus is saying to you today.