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The Goodness of Christian Sexual Ethics


She told me on the phone, “How can you say you are following Jesus but make masks optional for Sunday morning gatherings?”
I still have dreams, or should I say nightmares, about masks or no masks.
As my pastoral care was being questioned on this call, it was revealed that she was living with her boyfriend. She had plenty of reasons why it was necessary. After I heard a little more, I asked her, “So why do you have such a conviction on masks for Sundays but not the same conviction for sexual purity in your home?” Just before the click, she responded that God understood their situation and that the church needed to stay out of their bedroom. If I'd had time to respond, I would have said, “Trust me, I don’t want to be in your bedroom, but know that God is already there, and no door lock, window shade, or light off will change that fact.”
In the beginning, there was ethics. Right after God stated that all creation was very good (Gen. 1:31), God then says that Adam being alone without a suitable companion was not good (Gen. 2:18). What was the measurement of one being good and one not being good? It was God himself. Ethics works to determine what is good and normative for people and society.1 Ethics is not something God created for us but rather something that radiates from who he is because he is the ultimate good. Therefore, God is the source and the conclusion of all ethics. So then, beyond ‘because God says so,’ why should we be convinced that Christian sexual ethics is good?

If it's truly good, it's not just for Christians; it must be good for everyone. God didn’t call only Christians good (and they are); God called all creation very good. Christians often have a passive view of what we know is good by believing that Christians have one ethic to live by and everyone else has a different one. Christians tend to back down from asserting God's ethics in public because we all know that the standard is different. However, what God has revealed is not for the few but for all. We may not demand God’s ethics of others who are not Christian, but we can hold to it confidently and lovingly while hoping, praying, speaking up or against, and even voting. Why? Because we believe God’s good is for the flourishing of the whole world. This is why I would celebrate a non-Christian man and woman getting married.

Still, the same kind of celebration can’t be had for two men or two women getting married- even if monogamous and committed - because it exists outside of true human and societal flourishing.

We must remember that Christian sexual ethics is about the whole, not parts or individual sexual experiences. Listen to Stan Grenz in his book Sexual Ethics:

"Sexual intercourse is intended to convey the union of two persons as two sexual beings: the two becoming one. For this meaning to be fully expressed, the physical act must be one whereby the dialectic of sameness and difference is taken up into a union…The sex act, then, is more than the experience of sexual 'climax.' Climax, therefore, ought not to be equated with the sex act…More crucial than the ability to attain climax, therefore, is the capability of the sex act to symbolize the uniting of supplementary sexual persons into a whole."2 

His point is that sex has a greater purpose than the act itself. There is something more to it than a single sexual act - like physical and spiritual oneness, procreation, the raising and education of children, the display of the image of God, and, as we are told in Ephesians, a visible metaphor of Jesus’ love and commitment for the church (Eph. 5:22-26).
Can two men or two women fulfill those in the same way?
Many secular studies have proven that a married mom and dad are best for children's flourishing, which only reinforces the tenets of Christian sexual ethics.3 If marriage is a metaphor for the greater picture of Christ’s love, then the metaphor needs to be retained for the clarity of the ultimate reality. If the husband is a metaphor for Christ and the wife a metaphor for the church, how can the meaning be preserved by two wives or two husbands? There needs to be a Christ and a church, not two Christs or two churches. Christian sexual ethics of men, women, and marriage matter in tangible ways in every part of our society.

Ethics and discipleship are connected. If ethics is discovering the good, then discipleship as a Christian is living out the good. Christian sexual ethics brings together the secular/spiritual divide we are all prone to fall into. The body and the soul matter. What we do in our bodies is as important as what we do in our thoughts and hearts. To be human is to be body and soul; to be a disciple is to follow Jesus in body and soul. There are physical and spiritual consequences when we use either in a way God has not designed.
Being a Jesus follower means a change of mind and affection which leads to actions not previously desired. Remember Romans 12:1-2 -

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Notice it says we can know what is good, which is the goal of ethics.

If you could sum up traits of Christian ethics, it would be the triad of faith, hope, and love, just as it was for the Apostle Paul.
How do we know when we have not lived up to those? Ethics is the pathway of our discipleship, and discipleship begins with repentance, which is the turning away from pursuing something we thought good and now pursuing what is truly good. The goodness of Christian sexual ethics is that it shows us where we are and where we need to be in our thoughts, desires, passions, and expressions. How can disciples repent if they don’t know what to repent of?4 Christian sexual ethics tests our discipleship or our needed repentance and realignment to God’s good.

Christian ethics is not only for the good of our personal lives and society, but it also tells a story. If this life is all there is, why not live it up? Why not choose your gender? Why not forego marriage? Why not polyamory? Why not porn? Why not indulge in fantasy? Why not leave a sexless marriage and find someone more sexually compatible? It’s because these pleasures pale in comparison to the capacity of joy we will have in Christ in the future. What a better story! Christian sexual ethics tells that story.

You can see this in the storyline of the Bible. First, the Old Testament is not a Christian ethic but an ethic of law. Obey the law, and it will benefit you and your people. The law created separation and holiness as a testimony to the nations around them. God's people are commanded to do things differently because of God's law, therefore, the surrounding peoples knew who were God’s people and who were not because of their external obedience.

Fast forward to the New Testament and the new covenant of God through the sacrificial death of Christ and the grace applied to us through him. Where the Old Testament was a witness by law, the New Testament is a witness by willingness: the law of God has been written on the hearts of his people. Therefore, motivated by grace, the Christian also separates from the surrounding cultural ethics, submitting willingly to what God has designed. Christian sexual ethics is not the same as being gluten-free. I don’t know anyone who wants to be gluten-free but is begrudgingly gluten-free. Similarly, we are not repressed and sexually bound, never to be satisfied. Instead, we are telling a story of freedom because we don’t need all of our desires fulfilled to be made happy by the love of our Savior.

The critics of Christian Sexual Ethics will often say, “why do Christians care so much about what I do in my private life?” Sam Allberry, in his book “Why Does God Care Who I Am Sleeping With” answers this so well:
“God cares who we sleep with because he cares deeply about the people who are doing the sleeping.5 
That’s the heart of the goodness of Christian Sexual Ethics. It is not about managing behavior but rather an act of love for the person beyond their felt need. It is not God against you, but God for you.

1. This is a simplified definition of ethics for the purpose of this blog. There are many subcategories of ethics like virtue, deontological (duty), natural and revealed law, etc., each having their own goals.

2. Stan Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 236-237.



5.  Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I am Sleeping With?, 10.

Mark South is the lead pastor of Living Stones Sparks and works with Acts 29 helping to assess and coach church planters and preachers. Mark is also working toward a doctorate in preaching from Western Seminary.