On Sexual Ethics: or, does the Bible forbid premarital sex?

As you might imagine, thinking about sexual ethics as a gay man is an important part of my Christian life. I’m sure there will be lots of posts about Christian sexual ethics over the next year, so I just wanted to introduce a quick thought.

There’s been some flurry in the news about a new strain of gonorrhea that’s resistant to antibiotics. I’m glad that people are drawing attention to this–good science should be part of what informs Christians about our sex lives (and anything else about which good science can comment). I am less appreciative of some of the very reactionary comments (some of them not necessarily religious) that result from reporting said science.

Like the Bible says,” some Christians seem to be saying, “we should all refrain from sex before life-long monogamous marriage. This is the only way to be completely safe from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The only reason why people deal with STIs is because of promiscuity.”

There’s a great deal that’s worthy of honest discussion in this statement. But let me challenge only the first clause here. Despite the long Christian tradition that says the word fornication (Koine Greek: porneia) means “all sex before marriage,” I think it’s highly unlikely that’s what the Bible means. Although absolute certainty is difficult when reading a dead language, porneia probably had to do with pagan cultic sex work, or something else equally 1.) non-relational, 2. transactional, and 3. exploitative.

Put another way: The Bible doesn’t seem to forbid all (or even most) premarital sex.

To me, this does not mean, as some might be tempted to think, that Christians can embrace a sexual free for all. (I will post further on being a sex-positive Christian some other time.) Rather, freedom from the stricture of premarital sex encourages us to grow up into spiritual adulthood.

I believe that Christians are called to be “citizens of the Kingdom of God,” following the Way of Jesus. Christians should, I believe, agree with those outside our tradition that informed consent and enabling agency are important core values of all sexual encounters. Christians accept, in addition, an even greater discipline. God has commanded us to love God and all people as we love ourselves. This is not at all a recipe for “free for all”! How do I, as a Christian sexual agent, “do what love requires” (Pittinger)? How do I give Jesus, and others, the honour due to them?

The answers might be different in each sexual situation. We will sometimes get it wrong, or at least less right than we would like–honest mistakes happen. But let’s take joy in God’s gift of sexual connection, be aware of science’s super bugs, and commit ourselves to the serious conversation and formation that Christian sexual ethics requires of us–even if Scripture doesn’t say what we think it does. Even if the freedom we have as citizens of the Kingdom feels scary at first.

If premarital sex is not condemned by Scripture, how or why would your sexual practices change? What do you think motivates you to believe and act as you do in the realm of sexual behaviour and ethics?

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