A Christian Perspective

Traditional Christian teaching about sex substitutes new commandments for old commandments. Our duty, as Christians, is distinguished from the Jewish duty (defined by the Law of Moses) and pagan duty (defined by the edicts of Caesar or Greek/Roman philosophy and culture). Unlike the Torah, divorce is prohibited. Contrary to Greek/Roman norms, sex is confined to marriage.

Under the secular laws of our society, however, moral presumptions concerning sex are now more like ancient Jewish and Greek/Roman views. Therefore, Catholic and Evangelical Christians condemn contemporary mores and laws concerning sex, as Christians did in the first few centuries of the church. We ought not to be surprised that many Christians are opposed to sex outside of marriage as well as to gay sex, pornography, and prostitution.

Our secular laws, of course, are not perceived as reflecting ancient Jewish and pagan attitudes, but instead as expressing a distinctly modern view of human autonomy. In contemporary Western culture the moral presumption is that consensual sex among adults is a matter of personal privacy, and not an area of public morality requiring regulation by the State. The only exceptions to this presumption are prostitution, which continues to be illegal in most places, and pornography, which is regulated rather than proscribed.

In Christian scripture nothing could be clearer than the teaching attributed to Jesus in Mark 10:11-12. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Yet, the explanation preceding this teaching seems to undercut the interpretation that this is simply a new commandment replacing the old commandment in the Torah. For Jesus is quoted as saying of Moses, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’[Gen. 1:27] ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’[Gen. 2:24] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mk. 10:5-9)

Catholics read this to mean that moral presumptions should always reflect God’s moral purpose, which is reflected in creation and confirmed in the New Testament (as interpreted by the teaching authority of the Church). Thus, Catholic moral teaching resists the contemporary ethical assertion that sex is a private matter and instead argues that human beings should use their freedom to fulfil God’s purposes, which sexually are limited to fidelity in marriage and procreation.

Protestants are divided in their interpretation of New Testament texts. Evangelicals find new divine commandments replacing the revelation of God to Moses. Liberal Christians argue that Jesus, both as a teacher and as the resurrected Christ, frees his followers from the commandments of the past to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in each person’s conscience.

The teaching attributed to Jesus in Mark 7:21-23 may be understood as supporting such a moral presumption favoring conscience. "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

The emphasis here is on the human heart and its capacity for evil intentions. Yet, this passage cannot be read as making sexual choices simply a matter of individual conscience. On the contrary, a number of acts are defined as reflecting evil intentions, including two involving sex – fornication and adultery. These acts, however, are not condemned because of divine legislation, either given by God to Moses or promulgated by the teachings of Jesus, but because these acts express evil intentions.

Christians might argue in support of current mores concerning sex that these simply leave the question of (good) intention to the private choice of consenting adults. The moral presumption reflected in contemporary law favors the right of privacy by permitting consenting adults to enjoy sex in whatever way they wish, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others.

This presumption is not absolute, for it may be overcome in at least three circumstances. First, the public display of pornographic material and acts, which are deemed offensive by contemporary community standards, may be regulated by law and thus restricted in accordance with constitutional limitations on free speech concerning the time, manner and place of expression.

Second, prostitution may be legally prohibited, even if it involves a consensual act by adults, because the selling of one’s body for sex continues to be perceived as expressing an "evil intention" that persons in good conscience would not have.

Third, the sex trade that now involves the "trafficking" of women for sex is seen as especially immoral, because these women are not only involved in prostitution, but also are not "voluntarily" consenting to have sex. Instead, these women are being "sold" and "enslaved" and held in "bondage" by those profiteering from the sexual acts the women are forced to perform.

From a traditional Christian point of view, whether expressed in Catholic or Evangelical teaching, these exceptions to the current moral presumption of our secular society (that sex simply involves the autonomous choices of consenting adults) are easily justified. Such Christians believe even sex among consenting adults is a matter of public morality, as it affects the moral climate of the society and also undermines the purposes of God (Catholic) and the authority of scripture (Evangelicals).

In our secular society those defending traditional Christian moral teaching about sex have to bear the burden of proof in order to change the law and the ethical presumption that it reflects. Yet, in debates among Christians, those who support the secular moral presumption that sex among consenting adults is simply a private matter have the burden of proof, as until very recently Christian moral teaching to the contrary was clearly a near consensus in the churches.

The strongest Christian argument for moral autonomy rests on the New Testament call for acts of conscience, such as in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, which seem to encourage love and forgiveness that transcend simply doing one’s duty (by obeying God’s commandments). Such acts of conscience reflect an intuition that our humanity includes a spark of divinity, that the Spirit may move us to act morally in ways that break the old rules of religion and culture, that "in Christ" (to use Paul’s words) we are freed from the laws of God.

Thus, we may argue that our contemporary moral presumption, which gives consenting adults the right to enjoy sex that is not sold as a commodity, expresses a secular understanding of the Christian teaching that in morality we should be guided by our conscience.

October 20, 2005

 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016