F.A.Q.: A Consistent Ethic of Sexuality

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of divorce and cohabitation,
And fornication and . . . “

That’s not how that poem goes. That’s not how that poem goes at all. With apologies to Mr. Carroll, however, that’s how it will go for the purpose of this blog. The time has finally come to address the walrus — er, carpenter — er, elephant — in the room. One question I’m asked pretty regularly is why Christians spend so much time talking about homosexuality to the exclusion of other, seemingly more pervasive sexual sins. So here goes.

Short answer: the pot likes calling the kettle black. The other staple sexual sins — pre-marital sex, pornography, cohabitation, most forms of divorce, and adultery — are so common among churchgoers that pastors are afraid to say anything about them for fear of losing their flocks (and their pulpits). The LGBTQ community, however, is a much safer target, and so energies are diverted to speak out against homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. Such behaviors (NOTE: behaviors, not people) are fairly universally condemned from the pews as well as the pulpit, and so more lay Christians are likely to speak out about them. Instead of uncomfortably discussing our own sins, we say, “Let’s pick on someone who sins differently than we do!”

Again, that’s the short answer. The long answer is, well, longer.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. Under the biblical schema, many things are classified as sexual sin. The catch-all word for sexual immorality is porneia; I’m sure you recognize the root as the same for “pornography.” Porneia is a bit of a legal term in the sense it carries the full weight of the Torah behind it. Anything and everything the law of Moses classified as sexual sin is counted as porneia in the New Testament. Most of those laws are scattered throughout Leviticus, but they’ve largely carried over even in popular conception: incest, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, homosexuality, and transvestism (included here in its traditional place). Many people claim Jesus never talked about homosexuality, and he didn’t explicitly, but he did make reference to — and sharply condemn — the categorical porneia, so he really did talk about it.

Back on topic, though, porneia very soundly condemns the “church-approved” sexual sins. The only acceptable sexual behavior in either testament is heterosexual intercourse in the context of the marriage covenant. That pretty much excludes both adultery and fornication straightaway. A common argument in favor of the latter nowadays is “Oh, but we love each other, and we’ve promised to only be with each other.” Great! Put a ring on it. The full level of commitment prerequisite to sex shouldn’t be at all daunting if you’ve already made it as far as all that. Secure God’s blessing on your relationship through holy matrimony and enjoy your marriage bed. But until you do, you’re not married, the two have not become one flesh, and sexual intercourse is still out of bounds for you. (I would say I’m sorry, but I have a rule: never apologize for what the word of God says, even — especially — the hard parts.) So again: any sort of sexual behavior outside of a heterosexual marriage is sin. And some of the violent and demeaning sexual behaviors inside of those parameters are sin, too. But that takes care of two things, then, pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

On to another. Divorce is perhaps the most taboo, most difficult subject to teach on. Jesus actually made my job much harder on this score than both Moses and the rabbis in the time of Christ. I mean, one rabbi actually authorized divorce if your wife ruined your meal while cooking it.

“Darling, I burned the toast . . . “
“Well then I’ll see you in divorce court. Start packing.”

Divorced women at the time had no rights and no property. So when Jesus tightened the regulations governing divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12, he did a great deal to help women. He greatly reduced the valid reasons for obtaining a divorce — as in the number changed from “infinite” to “one,” namely infidelity. Paul nuances this a bit in 1 Timothy 5:8 (as most take it), saying infidelity also includes a failure to provide (up to and including abandonment by most interpretations). And most interpreters take that provision to include safety, so abuse likewise becomes a valid reason for divorce. That’s it, really: infidelity, abandonment, and abuse. The only three reasons the New Testament gives us for divorce. Anyone divorcing for any other reason and remarries both commits adultery and causes the other ex-spouse to do so as well.

This is a hard saying.

Now add the fact lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-30) and you have even bigger problems.

Let’s kick it up another notch (BAM!), a notch brought to you by 20th-Century technology and 21st-Century demand: pornography. There is nothing redemptive about porn; there’s nothing anyone can say to make it less evil. As the saying goes, the only difference between pornography and prostitution is the camera. Both are paying people for sex, yet we only really consider one of them to be evil; why? How? Add to that fundamental thought the aforementioned sinful status of lust. Now consider the rise in demand for violent pornography. Now think about its connection to sex trafficking. And don’t forget the way it warps views of sex, women’s bodies, men’s bodies, women’s personhood, men’s personhood, and everything else it falsely portrays. After all, porn is a lie. Now let’s mention the addiction, the porn-induced sexual dysfunction, the shame and guilt and . . . Finally getting the picture? One last thing, then: if fornication is wrong, and porn requires fornication, then at its most basic, it’s simply a recording of sin. If your spouse asks to watch it together, remember: it will only hurt in the bedroom, never help. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: there is nothing redemptive about porn.

There. A consistent sexual ethic to cover sexual immorality in all its various guises, inside the church and out. I realize some of you are pondering the topics of polygamy and levirate marriage in Scripture, thinking they’re permissible by the biblical “meta-ethic.” Short answer: no. Longer answer: apples and oranges. Longest answer: that’s another blog for another day.

Let’s be good to each other, folks. Speak these truths in love. The sin is not the person; the sin is a mistake the person made. Love that person with all you are — just as the Lord loves you.

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Save the Baby Humans

I recently put my first bumper sticker on my car. Prior to this, I’d always had a sort of mindset which rebelled against using my vehicle (and thus myself) as free advertising for anyone, regardless of my feelings toward said entity or cause. (“I can’t let people know whom I supported in the election! If people want my opinions on things, they can ask!”) A few weeks ago, however, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a rather cute-looking cartoon member of an endangered species with a sign reading, “Save the baby humans!” And it was free! (I guess you get these kinds of offers after you sign so many petitions or join enough mailing lists.) So I got one and slapped in on the back of my car below my ichthus (Jesus always get free advertising space). Now my car boldly invites everyone to join the pro-life cause.

It’s a biblical cause, to be sure. To borrow some scare tactics language, legalized at-will abortion is nothing sort of a legitimatized genocide. Countless lives have been thrown away on a whim, simply because they were unwanted or inconvenient. Yes, the unborn are still alive in a very literal sense, even if our language says otherwise. Think about it: we rarely call a fetus a baby; no one would call a man a father before the birth of the child; and we count age beginning at the date of birth, not the (generally fuzzier) date of conception. For all linguistic purposes, we use a completely different vocabulary when discussing an unborn human being. And so they have no right to live.

Scripture tells us a different story. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, prophets and poets alike acknowledge the reality that life begins at conception. Job 31:15 speaks of God as “the one who made me in the womb,” acknowledging God’s hand in the creation of a new human being, a creative act carried out in the womb. It also implies God’s knowledge of the unborn as a distinct individual. Likewise Psalm 139:13-16 says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” God’s knowledge of an individual life and his recognition of personhood clearly begins in utero, long before birth. Each person is known to God fully in the womb, and He considers them His creation from the time of conception.

Isaiah 44:2 and Jeremiah 1:5 are also standard passages in the discussion of personhood and abortion. Each acknowledges God’s hand at making them in the womb, but Jeremiah goes a step further. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” he writes, “and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). Again, we are known to God before birth as distinct persons capable of being granted gifts and callings.

But the New Testament also tells us more than that. God knows us at conception — and we are capable of knowing him as well. The beautiful meeting between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-56 makes this abundantly clear. Verses 39-41 read: “Now at this time [immediately after the conception of Jesus] Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” The unborn John the Baptist recognizes the unborn son of Mary as the Son of God in fetal form. There can be no mistaking this passage as meaning something else. Life begins at conception.

If life begins at conception, as it clearly does from a biblical viewpoint, we’re left with dealing with the ending of that life. The easy place to begin is the Decalogue. Exodus 20:13 gives us the relevant commandment: “You shall not murder.” (I know, I know; the King James says “kill,” but there are half a dozen words in Hebrew for killing. This one, ratsach, is the one for murder or slaughter.) That in and of itself should be enough, but let’s keep going. A chapter later in Exodus 21, the Torah lists the killing of an unborn child still being carried by his/her mother (or the causation of a premature birth so that the infant dies) as a grave offense (vv. 22-25). Not only is all life protected by the law of Moses, then, but also specifically the life of the unborn.

It seems fairly obvious that abortion constitutes the willful killing of a living human being. There remains debate in some Christian circles, however, about abortion in certain circumstances (such as a child of rape or a birth which would endanger the life of the mother). All I can do here is state my own opinions, as this isn’t going to be an issue resolved by someone’s blog (try though we may). I hold the belief that abortion in any situation is still murder. In the latter case, it’s a horrifying decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. Either way, someone is going to die, and either way, that death is going to come as a result of a conscious decision. I personally feel I would place both lives in God’s hands and pray for His miraculous intervention. (You’re thinking that this makes me a horrible person, I know: to gamble the life of my wife and unborn child on a literal miracle. And you’re also right: it’s not only my decision to make, and I haven’t been put in that position in the first place. You’re also thinking Christian ethics has long held it is permissible to lie and take a life to save a life under special circumstances. Your criticisms are all valid.) In the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, it’s another horrific situation. A new life has been created because a woman was violated by a man she might not even know. How could we possibly expect her to give birth to and care for that child? Because it’s still a human life. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not something anyone would ever want to have to do. But it’s still a human life, and that’s worth something — even death on a cross.

This leads to a fundamental question in the abortion debate: is this an issue of women’s rights? Is this a woman exercising her right to control what happens to her physical body, or is it something different? I will be the first to say a woman has every right whatsoever to make decisions about her body. No other person, male or female, has that right. Period. The problem arises when we realize, however, that in pondering abortion, she’s making a decision about another human being and another body. Is that human being inside her own and relying upon her for life itself? Yes. But it’s still an error to say it’s exclusively a matter of her own body; another human being is in the equation. And since that human being cannot speak for itself, someone else needs to.

I realize these are poorly-worded and probably unpopular opinions; I considered not voicing them at all and instead opt to explain myself in-person to those who ask, as it would be much easier to communicate tone and nuance that way. Regardless, the matter deserves the full treatment, even if it’s coming from a single white male who will never have the honor of being pregnant.

At the very least, we should all agree on this: while we lobby — and rightly so — to save the trees and the baby whales, we should be doing something to save the baby humans, too. And it might start with getting a bumper sticker.

Gadgets & Gizmos

We live in the “Information Age.” Our society isn’t hung up on what you can do as much as it is what (or who) you know. A college degree, once the ultimate, nigh-unattainable goal of many has now become standard issue, and more people are pursuing advanced degrees than ever before. Our quality of life and sense of self-worth is largely dependent on how much we know and the nature of the material itself. (For example, knowing about data migration is probably a bit more helpful than learning the migratory patterns of butterflies. At least in certain circles.) And how do we manage all this information we learn, store, and use every day? Technology. Technology is the logical outgrowth of information, for it allows data to be managed and applied. As we learn new principles of biology and engineering, we can craft better prosthetics, drug delivery systems, and surgical techniques, among other things. Information Age cultures are largely driven by wave after wave of technological progress.

This puts the Christian in the interesting position of having to sort out what exactly to do with all of this new tech. Should we embrace each innovation that comes along and delight in progress qua progress, do we adopt only certain inventions which are developed in accordance with strict ethical standards and which can only be used according to a certain ethos, or do we reject new technologies and go back to older ways of doing things? (I admit we could probably fix the road rage problem if everyone had to ride a mule instead of drive an automobile.) Different groups throughout the history of the Church have answered the question in different ways. The first and most obvious is the “Christ Against Culture” mindset of the Amish and Mennonite communities (and my mother’s constant assertion computers are tools of Satan). All technology beyond that achieved by the 17th/18th centuries is eschewed as evil, and an appropriately contemporary German society is promoted as the ideal.

Most of us find that particular solution to be a bit extreme. At the other extreme, then, is the early adoption of all technologies regardless of any external factor. (Think of people waiting in line for weeks to get the latest iPhone. No concern for anything but the phone.) In this view of technology, progress is good because it’s progress. It’s a new way of doing things, and the new way is better. New technology allows for society to progress in other ways: better healthcare, more energy-efficient homes, cheaper clothes, etc. The tech in question could be entirely dependent upon slave labor for its production, or it could have required the death of a human embryo during its research and development phase. Moral and ethical issues simply don’t matter: the technology is the ultimate.

The more balanced middle view takes the ethical concerns into account when considering what technology to promote and what to eschew. If a medical treatment is developed using fetal/embryonic stem cells, it is to be rejected, but perhaps it can be replicated using adult stem cells. If a computer requires child labor, it shouldn’t be bought or even allowed on the market. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ascertain these particular details most of the time. In our globalized economy, a single gadget or gizmo could need a dozen countries and even more labor forces to be designed, built, tested, and put into mass production, and it would take a great deal of devotion to trace each link in the chain. (But don’t let that stop you from trying when you can!) Elements of stewardship theory make it into the thought process as well. Christians should look for green solutions to transportation (fuel efficient and hybrid/electric vehicles) and other needs in an effort to show God’s love for the world He gave us to care for and steward.

Alright. Say a piece of tech passes the test and makes it into your hands. What can you do with it? The easy answer is “whatever is right, just, and true” (but then you just sound like Superman). Cameras on cell phones, tablet PC’s, and laptops make it much easier to stay in touch with people around the globe. Families connect via Skype or FaceTime, and many companies now conduct interviews over the Internet. But video technology in general can also be horribly abused. Pornography, sexting, and other sexually immoral practices depend upon the wrong use of a technology which can be used in right ways. People can hide behind a keyboard and post things on social media sites which are deliberately inflammatory and personally degrading (or just plain narcissistic) when they would never do so under normal “in-person” conditions. The rise of “stalkers” is also largely contingent upon the misapplication of technological innovations, and the list goes on. It’s important to realize technology in these cases may not be inherently immoral or evil; it’s the intent behind the use of the device.

It’s difficult to think of any invention which is fundamentally evil (although the electric chair leaps to mind fairly quickly). The problem is the person behind the gizmo. We have all sinned and continue to come short of the divine ideal. All of us have sin in our lives, and much of that sin depends on misusing some “thing,” whether it’s the Internet or a piece of paper. As always, the rule of thumb is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to evaluate the impact the tech will have on our walks with God. If we get addicted to the Internet, a television show, or something more sinister, we’ve walked away from God a bit. If we violate someone’s privacy or watch someone violate his/her body, then we walk away from God a bit more. By being open to the guidance of God and making deliberate decisions incorporating a Christian ethic, we can be sure to adopt helpful technological innovations and put them to use in the edification of the kingdom of God on earth.