Sunday, July 31, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 5b -- Gender and Sexual Ethics, Part 1

And now, where angels fear to tread. Next installment of one Wesleyan perspective on the topics of philosophy.


Truth and Relationships
We should distinguish carefully between what is true and the impact of truth on real people. This distinction is often lost in an era where postmodernism has given a green light to subjectivity. Truth becomes mostly or only personal. I do not mean this critique in a simplistic or stereotypical way. Our perspective on truth is inevitably subjective. But without the goal of objectivity, everything falls apart.

As we will see a few posts from now, I am a critical realist. There are facts. There is objective truth that God knows. God knows all the data and all the proper interrelationships between all the data. I do not. My view of both the data and their interrelationships is both fantastically finite and skewed. So I believe that objective truth exists, even though I do not have full access to it. Even my understanding of the Bible is inevitably partial and skewed by the cloudiness of the "glasses" I wear.

I therefore affirm strongly the distinction between what is true about ethics and the matter of how we should engage other people in relation to those truths. Let me give a scenario. Let us say that I am diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive stage 4 cancer. Let's say there is no question. Apart from a miracle, I am going to die in days, perhaps hours.

When I speak of the distinction between truth and relationships, truth is something like the prediction that I am going to die in the next few days apart from God's intervention. It is objective truth. Nevertheless, all sorts of subjective factors circle that truth. The doctor could be a jerk about telling me. My family could laugh about it. A stranger could show me kindness.

So with gender and sexual ethics, we can speak of truths revealed either by Scripture or nature. But those truths are distinct from questions of how we should relate to one another in relation to those truths. God has tasked us to love our neighbor and enemy. We thus cannot hide behind truth to satisfy our fleshly urges to hate others. Someone can manifest sin while proclaiming a truth. Perhaps someone enjoys oppressing someone whom they believe is in the wrong. They are also in the wrong in a different way.

Beating up someone who is gay is arguably a worse sin than engaging in a homosexual act. The latter might actually be done with affection for the other. The other clearly is done in hate. The Bible clearly indicates that there are greater and lesser wrongdoings, with love as the standard. Someone who viciously murders someone has committed a greater sin than someone who steals a fellow student's homework. The measure of sin is intentionality, with love as the standard. Paul expels from the Corinthian church the man sleeping with his father's wife. He does not expel those who think they are better than others in the congregation.

The expression "all sin is sin" is thus unbiblical. It probably derives from the sense that whatever sin we have committed before we come to Christ falls away equally at the cross. Perhaps the popular sentiment "all sin is sin" comes from a similar theology of eternal security after coming to Christ. However, the New Testament does not teach anything of the sort, as Wesleyan theology affirms. Take 1 John 5:16-17 for starters: "There is a sin that leads to death... there is sin that does not lead to death." Sin can differ in intensity, depending on the measure of how unloving it is. 

Chances are, the world around us knows well enough our positions on the truth of sexual ethics. But some people draw satisfaction from telling other people off. This is sin, lacking in love. A lack of willingness to understand the struggles of others is also sin. It is easy to make light of people who struggle with something you do not. We can disagree with others and yet show the love of Christ to them.

I have witnessed a dynamic where the fact that God is holy is put in conflict with the fact that God is love. God loves the sinner, but his holiness demands he blow them away.

God is no slave. He is no slave to his supposed nature. Everything God does, he does with purpose and intentionality. He is surprised by nothing.

When Uzzah was struck down for touching the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6:7, it looks automatic. But God knew Uzzah would touch the ark before the foundation of the world. There was a reason, a purpose in God doing it. We cannot see fully into God's mind, but we know that the act did not contradict God's love for Uzzah.

I take two lessons from this story. The first is that death in itself is not evil. Is Uzzah being punished, or is Israel being taught a lesson? David's reaction may suggest that it appeared to be an unfair act on God's part (6:8). But it cannot be in contradiction to God's love. This fact may suggest that death in itself is not evil.

It seems to me that the best explanation for why a loving God would bring about the death of someone for touching the ark is to demonstrate the seriousness of serving God in the context of what was an extremely harsh world. It was an object lesson. The God of Israel is serious stuff, more serious that the surrounding gods. His stuff must be recognized as holy. Uzzah's death is an object lesson.

God did not strike down every unholy high priest who touched the ark. Eli's sons did die in battle but those evil-hearted priests touched the ark many times before God finally let them die. There was a reason at this point of Israel's history to remind them who God was.

Similarly, not everyone who lies about what they have given to God is struck dead like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. There are likely many televangelists who have misappropriated the Lord's money who were not struck down. There was a reason at that point of the early church to make a point.

Let us not fall into the trap of saying, "Homosexual activity defies God's holiness and thus has nothing to do with loving others." Everything about God coheres perfectly with God's love for the world.

The New Testament is also the telos or goal of the Old Testament. The barest of hints of life beyond death in the Old Testament become fully revealed in the New Testament. The human kingship of the line of David in the Old Testament is revealed to be the eternal kingship of Christ in the New. A strong sense of collective and unthinking sin is overtaken later in the Old Testament by a sense of individual guilt (e.g., Ezek. 18:1-4) and a New Testament emphasis on intentionality that we have seen.

The theology of the Old and New Testaments is thus the same but it differs in emphasis and precision. Jesus is God's final word. The New Testament gives a fuller and more precise understanding than the Old, even though they agree. God judges in the New Testament as well as the Old, but the Old Testament in general paints a harsher picture of God than the New. God is holy in both the Old and New Testament, but the New Testament gives a fuller and more precise picture of God's holiness than the Old. The New Testament gives a fuller and more precise picture of God's love than the Old, not least because the New Testament shows us the fullness of Christ.

I mention this principle of biblical theology because there is often a tendency to read the Bible in a "flat" way that does not recognize the growing theological precision from the Old Testament to the New. We should take context and the inner logic of biblical passages into account when we are building a biblical theology of sexual ethics.

The Principles
What then are the fundamental biblical principles underlying a Christian and Wesleyan sexual ethic? The three principles that are candidates are 1) the holiness of God, 2) the love of neighbor, and 3) societal stability (which is a working out of the love of God corporately). Let us start with the more obvious and work to the more uncertain.


Adultery is clearly unloving toward one's spouse. It is a violation of relationship and commitment. It is hard to see how it is not a worse sin than homosexual acts, because it is full of disregard for neighbor, for spouse, for children, for the spouse and children of the other. In the justice-by-revenge world of the Ancient Near East, adultery created tremendous social instability.

Rape is even worse than adultery. In context, this is clearly part of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that is attempted. This is an act similar to what would later take place in Benjamin (Judges 19:22-29), where after initially threatening to rape the man, in the end they raped his concubine to death. These are violent men, not the modern understanding of a homosexual. It is an act more akin to prison rape than modern homosexuality. In that culture, they likely had wives and children.  

This interpretation is not particularly controversial from an inductive standpoint. The homosexual nature of the proposed act is likely also a component of the vice of these men, but in context it comes behind the sins of violence and mistreatment of the stranger. When Jesus mentions the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, he is focusing on how these men treated the messengers of God (Matt. 11:20-24).

Incest violates both the love of family and societal stability as well. If rape is evil in itself, incest is the rape of one's family. The compounding of unlovingness is the compounding of the evil. 

The Bible nowhere prohibits polygamy. In fact, the Pentateuchal Law assumes its practice. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 assumes that a man might have two wives. The law of Levirate marriage probably assumes a man will take on the wife of his dead brother as an additional wife (Deut. 25:5-6).

We are thus reading things into Genesis 2:24 when we think it is assuming monogamy. A man became one flesh with each of his wives. Someone who visited a prostitute became one flesh with the prostitute (1 Cor. 6:16). Becoming one flesh is not the same as getting married, although it is supposed to take place in the context of marriage. Becoming one flesh is about having sex with someone.

Marriage between one man and one woman is therefore the trajectory of Scripture but not the explicit teaching of Scripture. Once again, the Old Testament is less precise in this area than the New Testament, which seems more or less to assume monogamy. Even here, though, monogamy is more a description of marriage in the New Testament than an explicit prescription. Overseers in leadership in the church are supposed to be the husbands of one wife, but nothing is said of non-overseers (1 Tim. 3:2). [1]

What therefore is wrong with polygamy? It does not normally give the woman full status and value. In other words, it violates the principle that women are equally created in the image of God. Polygamy is thus less than God's ideal that "in Christ there is not male and female" (Gal. 3:28). Although it contributed to societal stability in the ancient Near East of Israel, it is deficient from the standpoint of the love of neighbor.

Pre-marital Sex
In the Old Testament, having sex with a virgin to whom you were not married upset the stability of society. To resolve the situation, the man either had to marry the girl (if the father wished) or had to pay the bride price (Exod. 22:16-17). In the latter case, she presumably would remain with her family. In both situations, the woman had a secure place in society.

In the New Testament, Paul assumes that random burning with passion is at the very least not desirable (1 Cor. 7:9). At least in the earlier days of his ministry, his preference was for virgins to remain with their families (1 Cor. 7:38). Although he does not give reasons, Paul clearly assumed that the unmarried should not be having sex with each other. We might speculate that sex should always take place in the context of commitment, which preserves the stability of human society.

Prostitution and Pornography
The Old Testament indicates that no Israelite woman should be a prostitute (Lev. 19:29; Deut. 23:17). The apparent reason is that it degrades her. The man is simply using her. Prostitution violates the love of one's neighbor. 

In the new covenant, it is clear that God cares about all men and women, not just the Israelite ones. Men and women of all peoples are created in the image of God. For this reason, no woman or man should be a prostitute because no human being should be devalued as some simple toy or plaything. And, accordingly, no man or woman should visit a prostitute because it violates love of one's neighbor.

We can extend the argument further to pornography. Although no physical contact is made, the man or woman is mentally using the other. Since sin is ultimately a matter of the mind even before the body acts, to lust after another in pornography is to use them and have sex with them in your heart. Meanwhile, the men and women in pornography have been degraded as prostitutes of a sort. It also seems that human trafficking stands behind much pornography. For this reason, to use pornography is to promote the enslavement of others, which clearly violates the love of one's neighbor.

Don't do it.

In the above cases, we have found good reasons for traditional sexual norms both in the love of one's neighbor and in the preservation of society's stability, which is also part of loving one's neighbor. In that sense, the holiness of God is offended because the love of others is offended. It does not seem that the holiness of God is directly offended in these cases but rather that it is offended because others are violated.

[1] It is possible that this passage is saying that a church overseer (probably the role of being one of many elders) should only have one spouse in their lifetime.


Martin LaBar said...

Good job. Thanks.

Society throws lots of sexually suggestive images at us, in advertising, and in other places. Do Christians have a duty to oppose such, somewhat like some Christians oppose abortion? Do Christians have a duty to fight pornography?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

John Mark said...

I think it was 1989 that several organizations produced a film entitled The Winnable War. It involved NCAP, the National Coalition Against Pornography, and there was real belief that porn could be effectively stopped. I don't doubt that Christians should oppose pornography, for the reasons pointed out in the post. But it is like a Medusa, there are just so many people involved in the business. And no one with any legal or political power wants to do anything about it. I worked in porn saturated environments for years (before I finally graduated from university and went into full time ministry). What I faced was mostly pin ups, but they were a plague to the small handful of Christian men (and one woman, as I recall who--and not all women there shared her perspective--felt that she was implicitly objectified by the "wallpaper" in her work area); anyway, there were a few men who didn't want to have to face it every day. In one place, men kept images up pretty much everywhere, stuck up on movable carts, etc. One day the whole crew was moved to another part of the large complex of buildings where we worked. I shared this with my best friend at the time and he said, "I've been praying, 'Lord, save'em or move'em out." We might oppose porn, but in most cases, it is part of the fabric of the world we find ourselves in.
I appreciated the entire post and am mostly responding to Dr. LaBar's comment.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for your response to my comment, John Mark. It is all too true that pornography is "part of the fabric of the world [in which] we find ourselves." (So are deceit, injustice, pride, unbelief, and a lot more, probably more harmful than pornography.) I'm not sure that that doesn't mean that pornography shouldn't be opposed, however. But I don't see how my opposition could change very much. At least, I should shut my eyes, put down the book, change the channel, or the equivalent, I guess. And I need to fight the main battles.