A theological stress test
When we change our views on sex, that’s never all that changes
We live in a day when the biblical sexual ethic is considered by many in the West to be not just outdated or benighted but maliciously harmful. In Finland, for example, a Lutheran pastor and a Finnish member of parliament are being charged with “hate speech” for writing and publishing a 2004 booklet that explains basic Christian theology about sex and marriage, specifically that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sex is reserved for that marriage covenant. When it comes to the conclusion that same-sex sexual intimacy is sinful—a belief held at all times and in all places in church history until very recently, and a biblical conviction still held by virtually all Christians outside the West—the pressure to capitulate is immense.
For most of us, the pressure is not (yet) about fines or jail time, but the pressure is real, and it will only keep growing. For some, the pressure will come from a genuine desire to make sense of their own sexual feelings or to affirm sexual strugglers in their lives. For others, the pressure will be formal and external, coming by way of educational attainment or the desire for career advancement. For many, the pressure will be more organic, but no less forceful—we will feel pressure from family, friends, and peer groups, or from the general cultural expectation that good, normal people can’t possibly believe the things the church has believed for two thousand years.
The temptation for the Christian is to convince oneself that changing one’s views on homosexuality is relatively inconsequential, like taking a new position on the millennium or deciding that it’s okay to eat out on Sundays. And yet, sexual sin is never considered adiaphora, a matter of indifference, an agree-to-disagree issue like food laws or holy days (Romans 14:1-15:7). To the contrary, sexual immorality is precisely the sort of sin that characterizes those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). There are at least eight vice lists in the New Testament (Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1:24-31; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-9; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; Revelation 21:8), and sexual immorality is included in every one of them, usually multiple times and often at the head of the list. You would be hard-pressed to find a sin more frequently, more uniformly, and more seriously condemned in the New Testament. Sexual immorality has always been a proving ground for whether we will take God at his word. As Wheaton professor Doug Moo points out, “In Paul’s day, as well as in ours, sex was an area in which biblical standards clashed especially harshly with contemporary mores” (631).
Most Christian ministries and Christian leaders will not change their sexual ethics right away. The process of capitulation usually follows a certain, now-predictable pattern: first, we hear how complicated the issue is and how we need more time to study, then there is the phase of intellectual agnosticism and indecision about which way to go, next comes total affirmation of homosexual behavior, followed finally by frequent vituperation against those who have not embraced the new morality.
To be sure, there are conservative Christians who get their sexual ethics right while getting all sorts of other things wrong. Holding to orthodox views on sexuality is not a sufficient ground for doctrinal fidelity across the board. But more and more it appears to be a necessary ground. What one believes about sex and marriage usually tells you a lot about what they believe in other areas. How many open and affirming churches and church leaders are resolute champions of inerrancy and penal substitutionary atonement? How many would defend soteriological exclusivism and the reality of hell as eternal conscious torment? Or, to think about the Reformed tradition, how many Christians waving rainbow flags also preach the hard doctrines of election, reprobation, and particular redemption? Might it be that the same contra mundum impulse required to affirm the church’s historic position on marriage is also necessary if we are to teach other angular and (often) unpopular doctrines of the faith?
There is a name for the opposite impulse: it is called liberalism. I don’t mean that as a swear word, but as an identifiable theological tradition that argues, according to Gary Dorrien (one of its leading scholars), “that religion should be modern and progressive and that the meaning of Christianity should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” Liberals believe they are making Christianity relevant, credible, beneficial, and humane. Evangelicals in the line of J. Gresham Machen believe they are making something other than Christianity. That was the dividing line a century ago, and that division—seen most clearly today in the area of sexual ethics—still remains.
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