Biblical Absolutes and Disputes
We align ourselves with what we understand to be the historic, traditional Christian understandings and teachings of the church universal regarding the meaning of human sexuality and the basic boundaries of Christian sexual morality. We live, however, in a time of fragmentation and dispute about sexuality in the church. In this time of confusion, we think it is important to articulate what we regard as key areas where the Scriptures and/or the historic understanding of the Scriptures by the church are clear and it is thus unfaithful to set aside these teachings (we call these here “absolutes”) , and on the other hand, those areas where the theological or moral teaching is less clear and thus well-meaning, biblically faithful Christians can disagree within a spectrum of possibilities.
(This material has been assembled new for this website)
Many Christians, especially those raised in conservative families and churches, think first of the Bible’s teachings about sexuality as a list of rules, specifically a list of negative rules, the things that we should not do, the things that are off-limits. But the Bible, first, offers a vision of our sexuality that provides a context of understanding for everything else.
Biblical View of Sexuality: Human beings are sexual, male and female, physical beings by creational intent, and this was blessed as a creational good (“it is very good,” Genesis 1:31). The contemporary confusion about sexual identity is first and foremost a failure to understand God’s creational intent and to receive it with gratitude; it is a form of brokenness. Consummation of a heterosexual marriage in sexual intercourse has been viewed as creating a divinely-blessed and intended outcome, a “one flesh” union between wife and husband (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; 1 Corinthians 6:12-17). There is an objective nature to this union; we learn in 1 Corinthians 6 that sexual intercourse has fixed meanings or fixed outcomes regardless of the intentions of the actors. Sexual union between a man and woman appear to serve at least four purposes:
- Procreation (Genesis 1:28),
- Union (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:2-12; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20);
- Physical gratification and pleasure (1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Proverbs 5:18-19); and
- Instruction about our incompleteness and dependence (Ephesians 5:31-33).
Sexual Ethic: The Bible speaks with a unified voice on sexual ethics. Positively, the affirmed, blessed biblical options concerning sexual practice are two: fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. The sexual behaviors and patterns which are judged immoral in scripture are, in rough order of their appearance:
- adultery (sex between an individual and anyone else other than one’s spouse; Exodus 20:14 and many other passages),
- incest (sex between a person and those to whom that person is biologically related; Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-22),
- homosexual intercourse (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9),
- bestiality (namely, sex between a human and an animal; Leviticus 20:15-16),
- rape (Deuteronomy 22:23-29),
- lust (Matthew 5:28), and
- fornication (sex between unmarried persons; 1 Corinthians 6:9 or Acts 15).
While sexual sin may rightly be described as no different from or no more heinous than other sins (after all, such sexual sins appear as one among many entries in the various “vice lists” in the Scriptures, Gal. 5:19-21), scripture also puts particular emphasis on sexual purity, urging us to “flee sexual immorality” and stating explicitly that sexual sin is unlike any other type of sin in that it produces a personal union disapproved by God and is a sin against our own bodies, which are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). In summary, the Christian sexual ethic is:
- an ethic of obedience: God says “don’t engage in sex outside of the bounds of marriage!”
- an ethic of loyalty: Jesus states “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21). The Apostle John, remembering those words at the end of his life, wrote in I John 2:4 “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
- an ethic of principle: Sexual intercourse has a fixed, “objective” purpose, that being the creation and nurturing of a one-flesh union in a male-female married couple (I Cor. 6), and we violate that purpose when we misuse this gift.
- an ethic of caution: Deuteronomy 10:13: these rules are given for our good. The empirical evidence supports the contention that sex within biblical parameters is more likely to have beneficial consequences and less likely to have damaging consequences than sex outside of those parameters.
- an ethic of virtue: The virtues which we are urged to develop in scripture include self-control, purity, faithfulness, trustworthiness, and love. The cultivation of these virtues would make the likelihood of sexual sin diminish.
What are the areas where sincere Christian believers may and often do legitimately disagree:
We must begin by saying that many today would claim confusion or disagreement within the Christian tradition where in fact there has been fair unanimity. The legitimacy of homosexual conduct is the primary example today. We have included above the judgment that homosexual conduct is always immoral as an absolute above, as we believe this reflects the teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Christian tradition for millennia. We will post elsewhere resources through thinking this matter through. We say this knowing that acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church is increasing, and that this position a trouble some readers.
That said, devout Christians have not always agreed on every dimension of Christian sexual ethics. These disagreements are rooted in different ways of understanding the teachings of Scripture and the implications they have in daily life. Christian parents will have to come to some sort of understanding about their views on these issues as they teach their children. Here, we risk alienating more conservative readers have heard church teaching on these matters that forecloses thoughtful discussion of different possibilities. We briefly mentioned the major areas of disagreement:
- Divorce and Remarriage: Some Christians believe the divorce and remarriage are never allowable; some Christians believe that divorce is allowable only under the most narrow circumstances of repeated adulterous unfaithfulness but that nevertheless remarriage is never allowed; some Christians believe that divorce is allowable under the narrow circumstances of adultery or desertion (with abuse by a spouse understood as both unfaithfulness and desertion) and that remarriage is a legitimate option for those who divorce under such legitimate circumstances; and finally some Christians believe that divorce, while always a moral failure and tragedy in God’s eyes, is nevertheless allowable under somewhat broadened circumstances of adultery, desertion, abuse, and broader cases of profound incompatibility, with remarriage allowable after legitimate divorce.
- Modesty and exposure to “erotica”: Some Christians believe the injunction to pursue the virtue of modesty means that there should be no nudity in the home whatsoever (including, for instance, an older male child seeing a mother breast-feeding a younger child) and that extreme care must be manifest in engagement with the media (meaning that some families make the decision not to have television in the home, not go to movies, and so forth). Other Christians believe that modesty needs to be understood as allowing for some level of comfort with the display of the undressed physical body in the home, and allow for exposure to moderate levels of sexuality in media. We discuss the issue of modesty with young children at various places in our guidebook for parents and have a focused discussion of this issue as it relates to such issues as permissible styles of dress for preadolescents and adolescents in chapter 14 of How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex.
- Masturbation and self stimulation: All human beings find stimulation of their sexual organs pleasurable. “Self stimulation” typically refers to the deliberate touching of the genitalia that is pleasurable. “Masturbation” refers to self stimulation to the point of climax or orgasm. Many inexperienced parents are surprised to discover that self stimulation comes easily to young children. Children exercise their natural curiosity in touching themselves, and this often becomes an issue for parenting. Christian parents disagree on exactly where to draw the line on such behavior. Some parents are highly restrictive, and risk setting highly frustrating standards for their children and inculcating high levels of guilt and apprehension for their children around sexuality. On the other hand, parents who are extremely permissive may be encouraging inappropriate sexual experimentation for their children that has problematic implications later. We discuss the issue of self stimulation by young children in our How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex guidebook for parents, and have a focused discussion of this issue as it relates to preadolescents and adolescents in a later chapter.
- “Petting” for many refers to all forms of affectionate, romantic or erotic touching. As a young person falls in love and moves towards marriage, what kinds of expressions of affection are legitimate before marriage? Some Christian parents today teach their children to have no sexual expression whatsoever, including kissing, before their wedding day. We know and respect some parents who have declared with pride that their child’s kiss of their new spouse on the wedding altar was the first kiss ever for the couple. Other Christian parents believe this is too strict a standard, and that some level of physical demonstration of affection is a legitimate Christian liberty. But if you allow some displays of physical affection, “where do you draw the line?” We discuss this issue at considerable length as it relates to preadolescents and adolescents in chapter 17 of How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex.
- Dating: some Christian parents (and young people) today believe that independent, one on one dating itself is a trap that facilitates sexual immorality and inculcates unreasonable and untypical attitudes in young people. This generated a “courtship” movement among some conservative believers where Christian young people develop romantic relationships only under highly constrained and parentally-determined circumstances. This movement has been fading in recent years, but conservative Christians remain uncomfortable with the idea of dating. Other Christians regard some form of independent dating as a necessary developmental process for young people to become happily married. Parents disagree on when to start allowing dating, the circumstances under which to allow dating, and constraints on dating. We discuss this issue at considerable length as it relates to preadolescents and adolescents in chapter 16 of How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex.
- Contraception: it is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that sexual intimacy, both generally and in every specific instance, properly always has life-giving potential (could result in pregnancy), and hence that artificial methods of birth control are immoral because they make this life-giving potential impossible in any given sexual experience. Many Protestants have disagreed with this, arguing essentially that while, generally speaking, a sexual relationship within marriage should have life-giving potential overall (that is, that there should be a general openness toward producing children in the relationship over time), that there is nothing wrong with the use of effective methods to temporarily prohibit the possibility of getting pregnant. But this is not the only area of moral disagreement among Christians regarding contraception. Another important disagreement beyond the basic morality of contraception is the question of what, if anything, we should tell our adolescents about contraception; this is an issue because some Christians believe the contraceptive information is essentially a nod and wink to a child that says “I talk about sexual purity but don’t really expect you to live that way.” Yet another concern is the thorny question of whether a parent should help to prevent an unwanted pregnancy by providing contraceptive information to a rebellious child that the parent knows is engaging in illicit premarital sex. A fourth major concern is the fact that most conservative Christians believe that life is sacred and that human life starts at conception, but are unaware that while some contraceptive methods (such as the condom or the diaphragm) prevent conception itself (that is, prevent fertilization of an egg by a sperm), on the other hand that some birth control methods (such as the “Plan B” and the IUD) do not prevent conception but rather prevent the fertilized egg from implanting in the woman’s uterus. We dedicate all of chapter 19 to this issue in reference to adolescents in How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex.