Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sex Before Marriage

I've been reflecting on the latest editorial fulmination from the good brothers over at the Layman. That organization, in case you're not familiar with Presbyterian in-group politicking, is a group of folks committed to renewing my denomination by first driving everyone from it.

They and some fellow travellers are deeply concerned that the progressives and moderates within our denomination are utterly gutting the sexual ethic we get from scripture. By being open to "adulterers and homosexuals" being a part of our church, we're consigning ourselves to collapse and failure, as the Lord God Almighty shifts his divine endorsement to nondenominational Bible-believing megachurches.

I've discussed my scriptural response to homosexuality...but what about where I feel scripture stands on premarital sexuality?

To that question, the Bible read in a literal sense doesn't give you much wiggle room. There are many folks on my side of the aisle who will try to point to the variety of acceptable sexual expressions in the Old Testament as permission. Did David sin with his many, many wives, or when he tried and failed to get Abishag to *cough* warm him up? Ruth and her possible seduction of a tipsy Boaz invariably surfaces, although I would contend that seminary grads who argue that "feet" are a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy need to never, ever be put in charge of a foot washing service. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, people.

They'll point to the folk tale that gleefully and approvingly recounts Tamar's sexual trickery of her father-in-law Judah. If pretending to be a ho, getting pregnant, and blackmailing your family to get revenge can make the Torah proclaim you "righteous," well, golly, all bets are off. Or so the argument goes.

I don't generally find those arguments compelling. They presume that the Christian moral imperative is somehow bound to the folk ethics of an ancient near-Eastern culture. While we have our moral foundation in that culture, I don't think you can reasonably say that such stories represent the highest governing principles of that culture. They don't really capture the moral ethos of that society, or of a Christ-centered faith.

The Apostle Paul, while no great fan of marriage, makes a sustained and consistent argument against non-connubial nookie. Paul makes it clear in a range of different places...and particularly in 1 Corinthians 7...that he expects Christians to contain their sexuality within the bounds of a covenant union.

I don't tend to view this as Paul being oppressive. He's just being consistent with his repeated articulation of the core Golden Rule teaching of Christian faith. It's better to commit to another than to use another for one's own pleasure. Marriage, even in the rather more amorphous form that existed in 1st Century Rome, could give a clear framework for that commitment. It could also, of course, just be another way of securing worldly power over another child of God. It's conflation with property rights in the ancient world certainly didn't help.

While not rejecting Paul's gracious intent, I tend to go directly to our Man in Nazareth for advice on the issue. When we listen for Christ's sexual ethic, we get something that be frank...even more challenging than Paul. Jesus makes it clear that Christians aren't called to just attend to the law. We're called to go well beyond it. Mechanistic chastity or by-the-book fidelity within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman means exactly jack to Jesus. Thinking that's our unbreachable bulwark against sin is the error of Pharisees, because Jesus here turns it up to eleven.

It's not just our practice. It's our desire. If you look at Halle Berry with lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. That is equally true of Scarlett Johannsen. It is exponentially more true of some creative combination of the both.


Where was I? I seem to have lost my train of thought. Oh yes...

What Jesus lays before us is a sexual ethic that both affirms marriage and transcends marriage. It affirms commitment to another, but it also forces us to admit that the reason that commitment is meaningful rests in our love for the other and an honoring of the other that goes to our purpose as human and sexual beings. Ultimately, I think that's where the heart of scripture leads us. The boundary that defines acceptable sexuality is love.

When I say that, though, I'm not saying that this is an easier standard. The "love" I describe is not to be confused with erotic desire. It also isn't fervid romance-novel emoting or the we're-celebrating-our-two-week-anniversary puppyness of adolescent infatuation. It is agape love, Essential Nature of the Almighty God love, Our God is a Consuming Fire love. It is an awareness that the way in which we interact with other souls has eternal weight. We are each accountable for how our actions impact the other, and if you have even the tiniest sliver of awareness of the nature of God's love, it can scare the pants right back on you.

I would hold that our actions as sexual beings are judged against the same essential standard as our other social and interpersonal relations. That means absolute injunctions against sexuality in it's predatory form or any sexual expression in which the other becomes primarily an object and not a Thou. Any authentic Christian sexual expression is fundamentally opposed to the culture of the hookup and the culture of sexual objectification.

Can sexual expression exist outside of marriage and not be inherently sin? I believe so. But if we take our role as disciples seriously, we're not going to take this intense and intimate part of our created nature lightly.