Building a New Christian Sexual Ethic

[Update: So many people read the first few paragraphs and assume I am building a case for polyamory. I am not. This is because people aren’t reading to see my key point which is further on. If you’re going to read this article to discover my proposal for a new sexual ethical system for Christians, please read all of it before reacting].


“What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?” The man who asked me this had been a missionary for 25 years and was not considering a change in his marital status. He was not contemplating cheating on his wife or taking another bride. He was simply curious.

He was curious because during the previous year, three separate people had asked him these kind of questions. All of them who asked these questions were committed Christians with a good grasp of the Bible and the church’s teachings on sexuality.

"What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?" Click To Tweet

“Mike, the Bible doesn’t make it clear where it falls on any of those issues. Though we make excuses for the Bible, there are examples in the Sacred Writings of people who lived with multiple wives, who had sanctioned girlfriends, and who lived this way openly. And from what we can see in the Bible, God never condemns this practice.”

I couldn’t argue with him. The only restriction in the Bible regarding any form of Open Marriage is the 1 Timothy 3 admonition that an Overseer should not be a polygamist. It never expands on this concept by forbidding others to have multiple wives. In short, the biblical ethic regarding Open Marriage was non-existent.


Everyone has ethics; but not everyone has an ethical system. An “ethic” is a belief in how one should act. You can have an ethic that allows you to tell the truth one day and then not tell the truth the next day. But because this is not a consistent ethic, we would say it is not an “ethical system”. I define an ethical system as a series of beliefs regarding a particular behavior that are consistent with themselves. Therefore, if you have an ethical system about telling the truth, that system should apply to all situations. Let me give an example of the difference between an ethic and and Ethical System.

I might believe that it is wrong to kill. That is an ethic. I would not (and do not) kill anyone. But how widely do I apply that ethic? I might believe it is wrong to kill others unless they are trying to kill me. I might also believe it is wrong to kill others even if they are trying to kill me. In addition, I might define killing mosquitoes as killing, killing cows as killing, killing fetuses as killing, killing prisoners on death row as killing. I might believe killing all those beings is considered killing. That is an ethical system.

However, if for some reason I feel that killing enemy combatants on the battlefield is not killing, but killing someone invading my home is killing, then my ethical system is more complex, and perhaps inconsistent.

That is the problem with most ethical systems. Most systems of behavior are internally inconsistent, at least from a logical/philosophical viewpoint. Why is it wrong to kill some people but not others? Why is it wrong to deceive some people, but not other people? Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Most people will seek to justify the complexity and variations of their ethical systems by explaining the exceptions.

Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Click To Tweet

We will never be free of doing this. Not even those who believe in a so-called “Biblical Sexual Ethic” can get away with it. Let me show how this happens.

In the first paragraph, I noted the question about polyamory. The idea that all sex should be between one husband (male) and one wife (female) is the standard teaching of much of the Church for much of the Church’s existence. But is it a consistent ethical system?

Not really. There are many examples of prominent men in the Bible who married more than one woman. Jacob, Esau, David, Solomon all lived this way. In addition, several Bible characters had sex with sanctioned sex slaves–Jacob, Abraham, David, Solomon, Absalom, Judah and others. God does not condemn any of these men for polyamory. In many cases, God even approves of it. When David raped Bathsheba and had her husband killed, God did send the prophet Nathan to confront David. And in that confrontation, this is what Nathan says:

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

2 Samuel 12:7-8

According to these verses, Nathan is speaking for God and claiming that God gave King Saul’s WIVES to David after Saul died! And God says that he would have given him more women if he wanted. If we accept this as God’s inerrant word, then God not only passively accepts polyamory, but actively endorses it and supports it.

The biblical sexual ethic gets more complicated than that. The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person’s experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Nowhere are men told they must also be virgins. Even the Hebrew word for “virgin” is a word that only refers to females. There is no Hebrew word for a male virgin. There is no place in the Old Testament where men were even expected or ordered to be virgins.

The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person's experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Click To Tweet

What can we say about all of this? Simply that the Bible does not present a consistent or relevant ethical system regarding sexuality. There are many more examples of this to give, but I want to move on to the solution, not just note the problem.

I don’t believe the Bible is helpful or realistic for building a modern ethical system for sexuality. There are many reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to these:

Patriarchy: Everyone who wrote Sacred Scripture believed in patriarchy. They believed that men had privileges and rights which women did not have. This affected everything they wrote, but especially their viewpoints on sexual relations. One classic example: In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John, chapter 8) only the woman is brought before Jesus and not the man. And no one, not even Jesus, openly notes this. It takes modern commentators to sort this one through.

Ancient Near East Focus of Sexuality: Virginity did not focus on sex; it focused on inheritance. A man wanted to know that his wife had not had sex with another man to ensure his offspring were truly his children. No claim could be made by another man on his children. Children and women were considered possessions of a man, even by the writers of the Bible. Even the teachings on “immorality” in the Bible are really focused on discouraging men from visiting prostitutes.

Misogyny: Women were hated in the days the Bible was written. A Jewish man prayed this prayer most mornings: “Thank you God that I am not born a gentile, a dog, or a woman”. How can an ethical system of mutuality with regards to sexuality ever come from that backdrop?

Homophobia: The writers of Scripture not only had a very low opinion of women, they hated anyone in the LGBTQ community–not that there was an established community due to fear. So, any ethic regarding those who are not cis-hetero men is going to be demeaning and incomplete if we rely on the Bible.

So how do we build an ethical system?

Christians have seen the problem with applying the Bible to many of our ethical systems: Money, power, marriage, reproduction, government, criminal justice, human interactions, etc. There have been many proposals through the centuries on how to build an ethical system which keeps some of the good teachings of the Bible but does not lean too heavily on them.

One of the most profound attempts at this was made by John Wesley. He spent years seeking to apply biblical truths to modern-day ethical problems. His view on Holiness required that our faith be lived out ethically and consistently. But he found that many in his day had widely differing views on what the Bible said on just about any topic. So, while keeping the Bible principles central, he added three more sources of revelation in building an ethical system:

  • Tradition
  • Experience
  • Logic

By tradition, he meant the traditions of the faith community one finds themselves in. By experience, he meant the experiences a Christian has which line up with the Bible. By logic, he is referring to the mind which has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to grasp deeper truths.

Thus, even with these four sources of input to build an ethic, Wesley still saw all of them revolving around the Bible and biblical truths.

I contend that isn’t going to work with sexual ethics. You can certainly hold to it if you like, but the Church’s history with strange teachings on sexuality and moral purity lead me in a slightly different direction.

I still think we can use four sources of input to build an ethical system, including the Bible. But here is how I fashion it:

  • The Bible: We can use the Bible as a source for ethics on sexuality if we strip away patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and virginity.
  • Tradition: In the sense that we rely on a trusted community of people whose practices of sexuality are consistent and respectful, we can use certain traditions we trust.
  • Experience: By this, I mean the collected experience of all humans with regards to sexuality. In our day, we are much more refined as a society on what should and should not be allowed in sexual relationships. The #metoo movement did not start the discussion on sexual assault, consent, and misogyny. It simply sought to apply emerging community standards world-wide…to everyone
  • Logic/Reason: By this, I mean that ethical standards need to make sense to a faith community and be reasonable to apply. If the faith community one is a part of does not apply logic or reason to sexual ethics, one might have to find a different faith community.

It should be obvious that this opens the door to many different ethical systems regarding sexuality. But if you think about it, that’s where we currently are. This is even true within the church of Jesus Christ. There are elements of acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and other groups which do not accept LGBTQ as valid. Some faith groups allow for premarital sexual expression and some do not.

But there is widespread acceptance of the following:

  • Consent must be applied to all sexual relationships
  • Honesty and integrity are vital to healthy sexuality
  • The practice of safe sex is paramount for everyone
  • Sexuality with minors is always wrong.

Most of these conclusions do not come directly from the Bible, but rather from experience, logic, and the dialogue of interested communities.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system. Click To Tweet
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Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 1

My granddaughter looked thoughtful. She took more time than I thought a 5-year-old would take to answer the question “What’s your favorite movie?” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This girl thinks things through.

“I’m ready Papa. I know my favorite.”

I waited. “So, which one is it?”

“I just love “Inside Out”. Don’t you? It is so beautiful and I like that the girl has all the same parts inside her that I do. Can we watch it now?”

And so we watched it. “Inside Out” tells the story of a young teen girl. It charts her progress since the moment she was born. The movie shows her brain and how various parts of her psyche (Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Sadness etc.) develop and create relationships even with each other.

One reason I love the movie is that it serves as a great starting place for discussions on a therapy method I love called Internal Family Systems.

Internal Family Systems is part of a larger branch of psychology called Complex Systems Psychology. The basic idea is that our inner psyche is a complex amalgam of Parts, Structures, and Systems all designed to move us toward our full identity.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) focuses on how the Parts of a person’s psyche work together, much like the various characters in “Inside Out” relate to each other. In this article, I want to introduce you to those Parts and explain how each of them works. In subsequent articles we will address more of the problems which IFS seeks to help with.

The very basic idea of IFS is the concept that most people initially struggle with: That our sense of personal identity is not just one part, but is a multiplicity of various sub-personalities or Parts. When I tell people that, they assume I am saying that these Parts are all fully formed personalities with Ego Power equal to all the other Parts. But this is not true. Let me illustrate.

Have you ever been thinking of doing something and then another part of your thinking totally disagrees with that? And then, in the midst of those competing thoughts, a third thought–more an emotion–reacts to the ideas of the second thought. If we were just one Part, we would always think in a straight line. But our sub-conscious contains many opinions and reactions to the events and ideas of our lives. These opinions and reactions are some of what we in IFS call Parts.

To make it simple as possible, let me outline the four basic Parts that make up our psyche:

The Core Self: This is the decision-making part of our mind. It is the part of us that makes the final designation on what our true identity is. This is the only Part of us that really knows the entire breadth of our life to that point. This is where all the wisdom, knowledge, and experience is centered.

Many sacred writings, including the Bible, Koran, and Baghavad Gita call this Part our Heart. It truly is the heart of who we are and will be. But it is not the only Part.

Exiles: IFS is one of the therapies which believes in Ego States. An Ego State is a snapshot of who we are at any given age. We have a 6-year-old Ego State, another one at 7 and maybe another one a few months later. We are constantly evaluating who we are as we grow up. At significant moments of existential examination, we conclude “This is who I am”.

If those moments coincide with pain, loss, abuse, or injustice–as they often do–we develop a very reactive Ego State that IFS calls an Exile. These Parts are called Exiles because they represent events and emotions we never want to relive in any way. In fact, the entire Internal Family System from those moments forward exists to keep the Exiles quiet.

Let me give an example. A five year old boy witnesses his parents fighting more and more. Each day, he comes home from school wondering what horrible emotions he will feel because of their fights. Already, he is feeling chaotic emotions. He fears the disintegration of his home. He is angry at both of them for not loving each other. One day, he returns home from school and he witnesses the biggest fight of all.

At one point, Mom demands that Dad leaves the home. Dad screams at her and hits her. Then, he grabs his coat and runs out the door. The boy is left with an explosive mixture of emotions and ideas that are overwhelming. He will spend the next two years pondering what all of this means.

But at that moment, he decides one thing. It must be his fault! His 5-year-old brain takes all the evidence and reactions and this is what he comes up with. It is not accurate at all, but this is what he concludes. He doesn’t tell anyone of course. He is too ashamed to do so. But he still believes it. And that’s when this little boy develops a Part which represents the third group of Parts: The Managers.

The Managers: Managers are Parts whose job it is to keep the Exiles from reacting to any current events. To see how this works, let’s return to the little boy again.

He doesn’t like feeling that this is all his fault. So he develops a Part of his psyche–a Manager–who will remind him when he is about to make a huge mistake that will cause other people to get angry and leave. We might call this Manager a “Perfectionist” or maybe even “Shame” or “Obsessive-Compulsive”. Any of these Managers might accomplish the task of keeping that Exile from getting emotionally reactive.

Here is how this works out in adult life. This 5-year-old has grown up and is now married with kids. One of his sons is doing poorly at school. His wife simply suggests the two of them spend more time helping their son with his homework each night, perhaps taking turns.

At that moment, the 5-year-old Exile inside of him starts to react. She is saying that this is his fault, and he is not doing his job as a dad and the boy will be a failure in life because of it. He feels all of this in just a fraction of a second.

Immediately, a “Perfectionist” Manager jumps in to save the day. This Manager takes over and causes him to become obsessive about planning out the homework program. He buys a new desk for his son. He creates a very elaborate chart for homework which includes rewards and punishments. He buys four books for his Kindle on how to manage homework with elementary students.

And now, the Exile quiets down. The Manager has done his job. Unfortunately, the Core Self was not really involved in any part of this process.

Some IFS therapists call the Managers by a different name. They call them Protectors. This is mostly an accurate term. Most of our internal Managers are trying to help protect us from the real and perceived threats in our world. I prefer Managers because Protectors is only one role of these Parts. There are many others.

There are indeed Protector Parts

There are also Shame and Guilt Parts

There are Anxiety Parts. (Some people have lots of them).

Most people have Anger Parts

These are the more negative Managers. But we also have more positive Managers. We have parts that deal with our relationship needs (Sex, romance, communication skills). We have Parts that deal with other needs (achievements, freedom, fun).

There can be Healing Parts, Numbing Parts, Hero Parts, and Spiritual Parts

But for all their well-designed characteristics, the Managers are sometimes not enough. Let me give an example.

Let’s stay with the man whose parents split up when he was five. Let’s talk about another time in his marriage. Let’s say that his wife, when she gets angry, calls him a name that his mother used to call his father. The Exile of that age is apoplectic and out of control. The Managers that normally can keep this Exile out of sight can’t do the job any longer. This Exile is setting fire to the emotional center of the man’s mind. He can’t sleep at night. He can’t concentrate at work. He doesn’t know what he will do.

After work one day, his supervisor asks what is happening with him. His work performance is suffering. The two of them decide to go to the bar after work. After three beers, for the first time in weeks, he no longer hears the crying of the Exile inside. He is no longer in a constant turmoil. He likes the difference.

From that point on, every time this Exile gets out of hand, he drinks enough so he won’t have to hear that Exile any longer. Alcohol then becomes the next type of Part in the psyche.

The Firefighters: Firefighters are Parts we develop whose job is to calm down the entire Internal Family System when the Managers can’t do the job. Firefighters have one job: Distract the entire system so thoroughly that the Core Self cannot hear the Exile.

It is amazing how ingenious the brain is at creating these Firefighters. The distraction can be as simple as video games, eating more carbs, watching television or working out hard at the gym. It can be more advanced with actions like drinking too much, smoking too much weed, working too hard into the night, watching porn constantly, or bingeing on carbs.

Firefighters can be deadly. They may resort to harmful behaviors like self-harm, eating disorders, heavy drug use, unsafe and adrenaline-producing behaviors, complete dissociative shutdowns, and extreme violence toward others. Remember, the job of the Firefighter Part is to distract the Core Self when the pain of the Exile cannot be ignored any other way.

I think you can see if a person has Exiles who were abused sexually, physically, or emotionally that Firefighters can be quite common. And they are. Often, people come to the IFS therapist because they have a Firefighter problem. All that tells us is there are Exiles that need some loving.

In summary, here are the four main groups of Parts with each person:

Core Self

Exiles

Managers

Firefighters.