What Is Right Then?
This is a guest post by Mac
This will be the second last entry in the series and I would say the real conclusion, with the next being more of an epilogue or appendix. I’ve been ragging on Scott Croft quite a bit, showing why his sexual ethic doesn’t work. It’s one thing to attack ideas that don’t work, it’s quite another to use ideas that do work. That is why this entry will be devoted to positive sexual ethics. It is largely based on William Countryman’s “Dirt, Greed, & Sex.”
Countryman’s book analyzes two Biblical ethics and tries to apply them to sexual ethics. Those two ethics are purity and property. Purity is summarized in the laws of Ancient Israel. These are mainly the kosher laws. The purity laws are not arbitrary but are tied to the created order found in Genesis 1. For example, fish are creatures that swim in the sea and are therefore clean because they do what they are supposed to do. Most insects are creatures that crawl upon the face of the earth and are therefore clean because they also do what they are supposed to do. Lobsters however are odd animals. You see, they live in the ocean but how do they move? Why, they crawl along the ocean floor like the insects. It’s a sea creature that pretends to be a land creature. It is unclean because it violates the created order. This also explains why a woman having her period is unclean or why a man having a nocturnal emission is unclean. Blood and semen are supposed to stay in the body. And yet, here they are leaking out. It is not a moral judgment but a physical judgment.
Physical purity was very important to the Jews of Jesus’ day. It served as a way of distinguishing Jews from Gentiles and particular interpretations of it even separated Jews from other Jews. However, Jesus was not so concerned about physical purity. He told his hearers not to worry so much about what goes into their mouths but what comes out of the mouth from the heart. Jesus cared more about inner purity of heart than any sort of physical purity. The early Christians also found inner purity to be important. Paul’s most important letter on purity blasts the Galatian Judaizers for demanding such strict observance to the purity codes. This applied to all physical purity including sexual purity.
However, this does not mean that anything goes in terms of sex. For there is another ethic at work: the property ethic. The property ethic was still in force. This is where it is incredibly important that you remember everything I said about the difference between the Biblical world and our world. In the Biblical world, the family was the basic social unit. The man was the head and everyone else (women, children, slaves) were his property. Adultery was wrong for a man, because in committing it he was taking what belonged to another man. It would not be adultery for a married man to sleep with an unmarried and unbetrothed virgin as long as he married her so as not to ruin her value as her father’s property. We see some tiny signs of progress towards equality as we enter the New Testament (even the author of Ephesians instructs husbands to love their wives sacrificially even as he commands wives to submit to their husbands). However, the world of the Bible is still a man’s world. Obviously, we no longer believe that women are property.
So how are we to construct a sexual ethic? We see the movement of the revelation of God. We follow the signs of progress towards mutual equality. And what do you know, some specific ideas of conservative Evangelicals will still exist, but for different reasons. For example, it is still wrong to commit adultery. Why is it wrong? Not because it is a crime against the man, but because it is a violation of trust within the marriage covenant. It is wrong for a married man to sleep with anyone who is not his wife because it violates the trust that she has placed in him and vice versa.
Likewise, sex before marriage is probably a very bad idea, since giving oneself to another person in that way kind of implies a very high level of commitment. That verse about not defrauding each other is still relevant since that trust and vulnerability in marriage has come into play. It is not because we want to hold on to physical purity (something that Christ regarded as nothing next to inner purity). Living together is probably just unwise, although I’m not sure I would call it sinful.
Purity laws are not all that important except for inner purity. We ought to set Christ apart as Lord in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15). However, mutual respect for the other’s personhood is incredibly important. The powerful exploiting the vulnerable (in any way, including sexually) is sinful on a very high level and is pretty much the main sin that makes my blood boil the most. Trust and trustworthiness are the most important aspects of any relationship. That is what it means for us as Christians to put our faith in Christ.