Today and in my next two articles I will be exploring the question: What should a modern day, Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like for Christians who aspire to follow Jesus? Jesus, of course, does not address this subject directly in the Gospels. But he does speak to it indirectly.
By way of introduction we should first ask: Does the Bible as a whole teach a clear sexual ethic? It does not. The sexual mores condoned and practiced in the Old Testament Scriptures almost always favor patriarchal preferences and prejudices. Consider the following examples:
(1) Polygamy (having many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced and accepted as normative in the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by a biblical writer.
(2) Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary in patriarchal biblical times as a safeguard for the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7)
(3) In the Old Testament a man could not commit adultery against his own wife (because she belonged to him); he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21).
(4) And nowhere in the Old Testament are sexual relations between consenting unmarried heterosexual adults prohibited.
I could go on (the above examples are not exhaustive), but the point should be obvious: The sexual mores accepted and practiced in the patriarchal culture of the biblical world favored male power and interests. If anyone tells you that the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics is clear, they either do not know any better (they are simply passing on what they had been taught), or they are being intentionally dishonest.
As I said, Jesus does not approach this subject directly, though he does teach some things that are certainly related to sexual mores and practices. So where do we begin? We must begin with that which constituted the critical core of all Jesus’ teaching.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law, he responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).
And lest we look for some wiggle room in the way we define “neighbor” Jesus closed that door by teaching that the neighbor even includes the “enemy” who wants to do us harm (Matt. 5:43-48).
For Christians, this love ethic as taught and embodied by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that can be used to chart the course of God’s will for human beings.
I believe that everything Jesus did and said ultimately relates to this essential demand: Love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Value the well-being of the other as much as you value your own well-being.
In light of the importance of this foundational teaching, I believe that any contemporary Jesus inspired sexual ethic must be filtered through this love ethic that was central to Jesus’ life and message.
In my next two articles I will apply Jesus’ love ethic to three specific sayings (Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 7:21-23, and Matt. 19:1-12) that relate to this subject. Watch this space (Sept. 7; Oct. 5).
Part 2 (Sept., State Journal)
What should a modern-day, Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In my first article (Aug. 3) I pointed out two things: (1) In the Bible sexual mores were quite diverse, but generally they reflected patriarchal practices that favored male prejudices and preferences. (2) Any Christian sexual ethic must be guided by the love ethic (Matt. 22:37-40) that was foundational to Jesus’ life and teaching. Here I want to explore how Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9) relates to this.
Jesus argued against divorce, but I do not believe he considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. In Matthew 19 Jesus is not the one who brings up the subject. I am convinced that why Jesus said what he did is even more important than what Jesus actually said. Let me explain:
In the patriarchal culture of Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ world only men exercised the right to divorce and they could do so on any grounds. Deuteronomy 24:1 (“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .”) was commonly understood by many Jewish leaders to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim.
This was simply disastrous for women who were then considered damaged goods and had few options. Some without family to take them in were forced into lives of prostitution simply to survive.
When Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, he objected by appealing to Genesis 2:24: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
(Sometimes opponents of same-sex marriage argue that Jesus was here affirming heterosexual marriage over/against same-sex marriage. Clearly, Jesus’ appeal to Gen. 2:24 was for the express purpose of arguing against divorce. And clearly, the affirmation of heterosexual marriage does not in any way imply the condemnation of same-sex marriage, which Jesus says nothing about, and would have made no sense in a culture that knew nothing about same-sex orientation.)
Jesus’ critics raised an objection: “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” In response Jesus said: “It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).
The Bible doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation—his critical/spiritual reading—of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).
Jesus interpreted Deut. 24:1 with a bias toward love—toward the good and well-being of the women who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing some leverage for women who were generally devastated by divorce. He was trying to level the playing field.
Undoubtedly, Jesus’ love ethic provided the context for his argument from Scripture against divorce. Why did he do this? Because what he cared most about was trying to make the situation livable for women trapped in a patriarchal system that often treated them as commodities to be disposed of at will by men who considered themselves naturally superior.
Jesus did not argue against divorce because he was inflexibly committed to some divine law or ideal plan that was encapsulated in Genesis 2:24 or because divorce is a greater sin than other sins involving a breach of trust or act of betrayal. I am convinced that he argued against divorce because he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them. Luke 4:18 emphasizes Jesus’ mission as one of freeing the captives and releasing the oppressed.
What can we appropriate from this in our contemporary setting? By following the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching we can conclude that a Jesus-inspired sexual ethic for both heterosexual and same-sex couples will always be characterized by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for and in the best interest of both partners in the relationship.
Part 3 (Oct., State Journal)
This is part three of: What should a modern day Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In part one I argued that any Jesus-inspired sexual ethic must be grounded in Jesus’ love ethic that was central to his life and teaching (Matt. 22:37-40). In part two I concluded from Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-12) that all sexual relations (heterosexual or same-sex) worthy of Jesus will be marked by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for both partners in the relationship. Here in part three I want to look at what Jesus says about sexual excess and exploitation. .
In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
In the interests of love Jesus sometimes intensified the Jewish law, other times he abolished it. Here he intensified or radicalized it.
What did Jesus mean by looking at a woman lustfully? Was Jesus condemning sexual desire? Of course not. The Greek text behind the translation suggests that the looking is for the purpose of using the woman sexually. What Jesus was denouncing was sexual desire that objectified a woman as a man’s personal object for sexual gratification.
As in the passage on divorce, Jesus spoke directly to men, because in his culture it was patriarchal men who sexually exploited women. And once again, Jesus does what he can to safeguard women against sexual oppression and exploitation.
What follows next is a warning by Jesus to the men who sexually exploited women that is the most vivid, intense, and severe of any warning Jesus ever uttered:
“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. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if 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” (Matt. 5:29-30).
Jesus was certainly employing hyperbole (it would be absurd to interpret such a text literally), but he fully intended to shock his hearers. Jesus wanted to derail sexual exploitation at its origin—in the heart.
Jesus made this point in Mark 7:21-23 where he traced sexual exploitation along with a host of other harmful and evil attitudes and behaviors to their source: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
The word translated “fornication” is a very general term that is often simply translated “sexual immorality.” Immoral sex is sex that objectifies and exploits the other, sex that is non-mutual, manipulative, and self-absorbed.
Authentic transformation involves a transformation of the heart. This is why the Hebrew prophets envision the future day of the world’s redemption as a time when the will of God is written on the minds and hearts of God’s children (see Jer. 31:31-34). When the royal law of love fills hearts and minds, then holiness codes and legal stipulations become obsolete.
So what happens when we apply Jesus’ love ethic to sexual desire and the sexual mores of our culture? Sexual desire will not be denied, denigrated, ignored, or abhorred. It will be welcomed as a gift, an inseparable part of our humanity that God calls “very good.” The external shape of a Jesus-inspired sexual relationship may take different forms in our culture, but without question this relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) will be characterized by mutuality, equality, fidelity, humility, honesty, compassion, and a magnanimous love that truly pursues the good and well-being of one’s partner.
On Tuesday, Nov. 11 from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Community Room of the Paul Sawyier Library I will be leading a workshop on “Why Jesus Would Say ‘Yes’ to Same-Sex Marriage.” This is a workshop on why the church should be welcoming and affirming (committed to full inclusion) of our LGBT sisters and brothers. It is free to the public. One can access all three parts of this series at my website: http://www.afreshperpective-chuck.blogspot.com. It’s titled: Toward a Jesus-Inspired Sexual Ethic.