A morality as old as Christianity
Progressives balk at ancient Christian ethics as though they’re new
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In C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress, John the protagonist finds himself in Eschropolis (“Ugly City” in Greek), where the boys look like girls and the girls look like boys, and everyone acts obscenely in their avantgarde rejection of puritanism. Scandalized by what he encounters, John objects, only to be shouted down by one of the residents: “We have got over humanitarianism!” “And prudery!” shouts another. Funny, these impulses. Two peas in a pod.
In his allegory, Lewis exposes modern progressive morality, which is in such ugly disarray that progressives regularly call good evil and evil good and cannot fathom moral principles when they encounter them. Instead, they convulse in protest.
I thought of Lewis’s passage recently when I came across this article from The Nation, a leftist groupthink organization that shared the following deep thought on social media: “The church in heartland America promotes a harsh sexual morality. But it sends a mixed message: Premarital sex is sinful, but teens who have babies are revered as mothers.”
Where to begin? For starters, upholding chastity and revering motherhood are hardly unique to the church in the American Midwest. In actual fact, these tenets of Christian sexual morality are as old as Christianity itself.
Consider the Didache, a document many scholars date to the time of the apostles:
The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child (Didache 2:1–2).
Mixed Midwestern moral messaging? Or the ancient, pro-life-and-marriage Christian message? You decide. Or consider the Letter to Diognetus, an early Christian apologetic dated by some scholars to the 2nd century:
[Christians] They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. (Letter to Diognetus 5:6–7).
Here is the same message The Nation seems to have just discovered on one of their sociological safaris to the American Heartland. Christians think sex belongs in marriage and that all life, even unborn life, should be protected and celebrated. News at eleven.
For students of history, this is as surprising as it is new. Regarding chastity, Jesus himself taught that God’s design in the beginning—“he who created them from the beginning made them male and female” (Matthew 19:4)—defines what is both permissible and advisable regarding human sexuality: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5; cf. Genesis 1:27; 2:24). Natural marriage is the proper context for sex, and procreation and family formation its desired fruit. Christians have consistently and universally taught that marriage and family are to be honored by all (Hebrews 13:4). As the founding institution of human society, it should be privileged and protected.
What about children, even those who are the fruit of immorality? Again, we turn to Christianity’s founder. In opening pages of the first Gospel, Matthew mentions Rahab and Tamar alongside their sons’ fathers in what is a mainly patrilineal genealogy of Jesus. It seems Matthew has gone out of his way to name them. Both women had less than ideal reputations according to biblical sexual ethics: Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah, and Rahab was known to be a prostitute. And yet, both appear by name in our Lord’s genealogy. Why? Because God redeemed their sinful situations as part of his cosmic plan to save humanity.
Christians have a theological category for fallen situations redeemed by God for good. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is the truth we proclaim at the heart of the Christian gospel: Jesus’ crucifixion, itself the greatest moral evil ever perpetrated, is nevertheless the means by which God saves the world. Does it follow, then, that Christians endorse the practice of crucifixion? No more than we endorse the actions of Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into slavery, even as we recognize God used these circumstances for good and the salvation of the whole world (Genesis 50:20).
It is no more a contradiction for Christians to discourage premarital sex and honor teen mothers than for someone to extend grace, forgiveness, and redemption in any sinful situation while refusing to endorse the sin, and then sit back and wonder at how God is pleased to use even challenging circumstances to bring about new life. But perhaps this is why Christianity remains so impenetrable to progressives like those at The Nation: Increasingly, the only sin they believe exists is the belief that sin exists, which renders grace, forgiveness, and redemption an enigma. After all, what is forgiveness if there is nothing to forgive?
As for me, I don’t want to live in a world where grace is incoherent. And praise be to God, we don’t. Long before The Nation rose, and long after The Nation falls, God’s salvation—including his judgment against sin and his mercy for sinners—continues to sound forth from God’s Word and God’s people.
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