Jessie’s knuckles were now bleeding. So far, mother had hit the back of each hand a dozen times with the wooden spoon, and didn’t look like she was going to stop. Jessie was sobbing quietly, because she knew her mother would be more violent if she protested.
Eventually, after another few hits, she stomped out of the room and left Jessie to deal with her pain.
Jessie’s mother had come into her bedroom late one evening and discovered her masturbating. This had happened a year before and that time she had publicly shamed her before the pastor and his wife. This time, she decided her 15 year old daughter needed a stronger lesson.
Jessie reported these events to me during trauma therapy 20 years later. Through Internal Family Systems therapy, I had helped her stay in Self and not blend with the younger self in this memory. As a result, she was able to help 15 year old Jessie to feel better about life. She invited her to notice how she lived her life in the present day. She showed her that she was able to have the sex she wanted, that she had cut her parents out of her life, and she was feeling confident.
Back in teen years, her preachers and parents had peppered her with predictions of great destruction if she ever embraced her own sexuality. By the time we were in therapy together, Jessie was no longer married and was as sexually active as she wanted to be. She had not gotten an STI, been pregnant, or had mental illness.
The main emotional struggles she faced surrounded her strict upbringing in Purity Culture.
She asked me at one point: “Mike, I know you used to be a preacher. Why is Christianity so negative toward sex?”
At the time, I was only sure it had a lot to do with patriarchal culture. But in the years since, I have learned a lot more.
There actually is an historical reason that Christianity adopted a very strict moral viewpoint toward sexuality. It has everything to do with fear.
If you want a much deeper look at this and other issues regarding early Christianity and Sexuality, read this lengthy article I wrote earlier this year.
In this summary, I’m going to rely on the work of William Loader. Specifically, I am going to draw upon the historical evidence in his book “Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition” and his landmark article, “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World“.
After the Jews returned from captivity around the ancient near east, they re-settled in Jerusalem and the surrounding area and rebuilt the temple. This is known as the Second Temple Era. For the next 400 years, the Jews faced pressure from an ever-changing landscape of nations wanting to conquer them.
The Greek armies under Antiochus Epiphanes finally did just that.
When the Greeks conquered Jerusalem and the Second Temple, they instituted new laws forbidding Jewish men from practicing circumcision, reading the scriptures, or worshiping in the temple. They also practiced a much different set of sexual standards, which included homosexuality in public bathhouses and gymnasiums, freer access to sex workers, use of young boys for sex (catamites), and an open policy on having sex with slaves in public places.
In short, the Greek conquerors exploded the Jewish male’s understanding of what was allowed sexually. When the Maccabees were successful in chasing the Greeks out of Israel during the revolt, a backlash started against all the Greek sexual practices. As I write about in the paper mentioned above, the Jewish religious leaders hated the incursion of Greek ideas about sexuality into the lives of the average Jewish male.
What was the concern about sexuality centered on? Why were they so afraid of allowing any Greek sexual practices to become part of their culture?
After the Jews returned from captivity to Jerusalem, they began to wonder: “Why did our god allow this to happen to us? Why did we go from such a free-spirited, powerful nation to become a nation that other nations trod upon?
The answer they came up with emerged from many sources. But the general gist is that they had not kept themselves pure. Because they were seen as impure, their god abandoned them to slavery and captivity. If they wanted to avoid being judged by their god again, they wanted to purify themselves. But that meant they had to figure out what purity meant.
One prophet said one thing–another prophet had another theory. But they all focused on the concept of syncretism. This is the practice of allowing the behaviors of other nations/cultures to become part of your own. The Hebrew word for “holiness” has the twin ideas of being pure and being unmixed with the practices of other nations.
Several religious sects formed to combat the slide into syncretism. The Pharisees began to emphasize the importance of following all of the rules of the Torah. By this, they hoped to garner their god’s favor and eliminate all Greek influences. The Saducees decided the way to approach this was to gain political power and enact laws and regulations to prevent any foreigner from influencing their nation. In this, they seized control of the dominant political structure.
Finally, a third group emerged, more home-spun and rural. It was known as the Essenes. This movement had a grass-roots appeal and it reached into the sensibilities of most Jewish families. Even Jewish communities as far-flung as the North African city of Alexandria were affected. We read the Jewish historian Philo and we can see the Essene influence in their lives.
Essentially, the Essenes believed that the wrong practice of sexuality is what caused god to be angry at them.
When Philo first begins to write about Jewish history, he has a very expansive view toward sexuality. He sees the legitimacy of men having sex with slaves, with sex workers, and even with foreign women. But over the years, as the sexual purity ideas of the Essenes caught hold of Jewish culture, he began to be more strict about what kinds of sex were legitimate.
By the end of his writing life, he recommended that Jewish men ONLY have sex for procreation. He considered a man having recreational sex with his wife to be akin to making her a prostitute. In this, he echoes the teachings of the Essenes.
The christian scriptures only makes a passing reference to this movement, and that is in the description of John the Baptist. He was the quintessential Essene male–and perhaps the most famous adherent to their approach to faith. He was unmarried, solitary, lived in poverty, and preached a message of repentance and moral purity. He was eventually killed by the king for criticizing the king’s sexual practices.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were collected in a place called Qumran and represented this community’s dedication to the Essene views. From these documents we learn that they believed the following about sex:
Sex was only to be practiced in marriage
Sex with foreigners was forbidden
Sex with another man’s slaves was forbidden
Masturbation was forbidden
Sex with one’s wife for any purpose other than procreation was discouraged
Sex with sex workers was forbidden.
Finally, the ultimate spiritual man was one who lived a celibate life. This was the highest ideal. Sex with a woman was considered an act that made a man impure. The book of Revelation reflects this attitude.
Many theologians, myself included, believe that not only John the Baptist was heavily influenced by the sexual mores of the Essenes, but also Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Paul’s viewpoints on sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 reflect the party line of the Essenes.
Look at that list of names: Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul. These three represent the dominant leaders of the origins of the christian era. Add to this Peter, James, and John who were originally followers of John the Baptist and it is clear that even if they were not Essene members, they were sympathetic to the teachings of this group.
From the very start of Christianity, there was a repressive element to the faith. The first five centuries of the church reinforced this. By the end of the fifth century, most christian leaders considered celibacy to be the highest station regarding sexuality. In no wise were any christian leaders sex positive. There are occasional sex positive mentions in early christian writings, but these are almost completely from writers considered heterodox (heretical) by the early church.
In short, the early christians inherited their fear of judgment if people strayed from sexual purity. This was always fear-based. Repression is always more powerful when it is based on the fear of punishment. These are the roots of the christian approach to sexuality. They are the roots to the endemic sexual repression we see all over the church today.
In next week’s article in this series, we’ll look at what sexual repression does to a person and how it affects a person’s behavior.
As I sometimes do, let me start at the end of the story and then show how I got there.
The end of the story: I was not only fired from being a pastor, I had my license terminated, my career all but snuffed out, and barred from attending any of their churches unless I made a public confession of my sins.
Officially, they were removing me from all my duties present and future because I refused to attend any of the Christian and Missionary Alliance churches.
I had told them, in writing, that I would not attend any of their churches until they made some changes.
I iterated that I would not attend “unless and until the denomination came clean on their involvement with the cover-up of Ravi Zacharias’ crimes, AND renounced christian nationalism AND renounced Donald Trump.”
They had no intention of doing any of those things, and so I have not attended any of their churches since. So their official reason for blackballing me was my refusal to attend.
It was a clean severing, and it was easy to make. It was much easier to do that than to explain the real reasons. If they had gone into the real reasons, it would have been messy and painful for them as well as for me.
They hated the changes in my doctrine, which became many.
They hated how I would not stop talking about their cover-up of Ravi Zacharias’ crimes.
They hated how I would not submit to their authority.
But maybe more than anything, they hated how I supported LGBTQIA+ people. They were confused and bitter about how sex positive I had been for years. I openly taught that all sexuality was good except sex that was illegal, non-consensual, or involving people with more power seducing people with less power.
But, in this article, let me tell you about one of those elements of sex positivity that thoroughly disgusted them and delighted me at their disgust.
For years, I had been a thorn in the side of leaders of the denomination with my insistence on being sex positive. At the same time, pastors, pastor’s wives, and other church leaders sought me out for therapy on sexual issues. One area they wanted instruction and direction was in the area of BDSM. BDSM is about using practices of domination and submission, pain and pleasure, role-playing and costumes. In short, BDSM adds spice to a sexual relationship. It is also focused on many fetishes and kinks. In my therapy practice, I have become very knowledgeable in most variations of kink. The denomination apparently was unaware of how many of their leaders talked to me about it. I was not going to reveal it to them either.
I am, after all is said and done, a therapist. Pastoring became more of my hobby than my calling. As a therapist, I am bound by HIPAA regulations that will not allow me to disclose personal information about clients without their consent.
In the process that led to my blackball, a group of people from one church spied on my Twitter account. They compiled page after page of tweets I had made about anything to do with sexuality. These were not hard to find. I tweet a lot about sex because people need accurate and safe information about sex.
They sent this collection of out of context tweets to my district superintendent. He convened a panel of three national leaders of the denomination due to my notoriety. They spent two months grilling me on every tweet I had sent expounding on sex positivity. To their minds, they had done a ‘gotcha’ on me. They wanted me to know they found me to be morally repugnant and in need of a verbal spanking.
Spanking had a lot to do with their objections to me actually. So did bondage and torture, St. Andrew’s crosses, and dominatrixes in leather outfits.
They hated that I liked kink and wrote about it.
They sent email after email demanding I explain the terms used in my tweets. You might have suspected they had a prurient personal interest in the subject. They were THAT interested.
Like most christians, they approached sexuality from the repressive angle. Repression is the act of subduing or denying sex as a basic human need so that any thoughts about sex and any actions about sex are expressed only through the unconscious. Or, in the case of many evangelicals, expressed only in particular types of marital sex. To their minds, this did not include kinky sex.
They pointed out to me that the “S” in BDSM could stand for Sadism, which they considered evil by its association with the Marquis de Sade. I remarked that they were about a half century behind the times. The “S” could also stand for submission or slave. That’s when I decided to get theological with them (I do have a theology degree after all).
The bible is big on submission; submission to god, submission to one another in the church, submission to the elders or deacons, submission to the governing authorities, wives submitting to husbands, couples submitting to each other. One would think that the concept of submission would get their genitals all in a tizzy. It did not. At least, they didn’t like the idea of submission being applied differently than a church-sanctioned way.
I also pointed out that the Apostle Paul, a supposed author of half the christian scriptures, described himself as a slave of christ. He also describes himself as a slave to his gentile friends on behalf of christ. In addition, he didn’t have any problem with telling actual slaves to be good slaves and to obey their masters. In short, the bible is quite fond of the master/slave dynamic.
“But” they pointed out to me, “you are taking all those things out of their context and applying them to sexuality.” I don’t think I am. The context of most teaching in the bible is patriarchal, meaning that built into all sexuality is the concept of a man being the master over a woman. This is also true in biblical ideas about sex. Please note: I am NOT patriarchal, and I hate all of the tenets of the patriarchy. I just made this argument to them because they could understand it. Then I went further.
I pointed out that Hebrews 13:4 where it says “Marriage is to be respected among all and the marital coitus to be undefiled.” It’s a difficult verse to translate into English because there are no verbs at all in the verse. And really, there are no verbs that can be borrowed from nearby verses either–which is the other way of finding a common verb. In essence, the writer of Hebrews is saying that marriage is a respectful institution. And as such, the sex that two people in marriage have should not be defiled.
What did the ancients considered defilement? It wasn’t BDSM or any equivalent. It was adultery, plain and simple. In other words, the writer here is saying, “These married people are doing something worthy of respect and no one should interfere from the outside in their fucking around.” Yep. That’s what it says. We get the word “coitus”, meaning good old fucking, from this greek word sometimes translated “marriage bed.”
The ancients knew that most people like sex. The writer here is saying that if you are going to be married and have sex, keep it among yourselves and don’t stray. Pretty clear teaching. It also implied, I believe, that whatever the two of them do is fine if it’s consensual.
Now, why did I bring that up to them? I pointed out that in most surveys, the majority of people who practiced BDSM do so in the marriage relationship. Role-playing, bondage and impact play, toys, mind games, etc. are done in marriages. They are done in christian marriages. They are done in the marriages of christian leaders.
I know this, because I counseled many of them to do it with an eye toward SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) behavior. For instance, I taught them where they could safely use a flogger and where a crop could do permanent damage.
The leaders who were examining me were horrified. I’m not sure what they were horrified about. That their colleagues enjoyed kink? That I would counsel people on how to do it? That upwards of 70% of adults have tried BDSM in the past year? That this 70% includes christians?
Their horror pointed out one more of the many instances where sexual repression is harming church people. Next week, we will dive into the harmful effects of sexual repression.
This is the supplementary guide attached to this article.
Primary Documents Referenced in Article:
Glancy, Jennifer A. “The Sexual Use of Slaves: A Response to Kyle Harper on Jewish and Christian Porneia.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Society of Biblical Literature, 6 May 2015, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/580634.
Balch, David L, and Carolyn Osiek. Early Christian Families in Context : An Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Mich., W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003. (Note: In particular, the Essay by Ms Osiek, titled “Female slaves, porneia, and the limits of obedience.”)
Loader, William. ““Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World.” Religions, vol. 9, no. 9, 28 Aug. 2018, p. 258, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9090258.
From 1978, Loader was New Testament lecturer at the Perth Theological Hall of the Uniting Church in Australia; from 1986, he was lecturer and later Professor of New Testament at Murdoch University (1998-2003 also as Head of the School of Social Inquiry).
Here are some of his many publications regarding sexuality in the days of the bible:
Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, co-authored with Megan K. DeFranza, Wesley Hill, and Stephen R. Holmes (Counterpoints; ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016))
Jesus in John’s Gospel: Structure and Issues in Johannine Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017)
Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)
The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013)
Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Writings of Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)
The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Apocalypses, Testaments, Legends, Wisdom, and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)
The Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Sectarian and Related Literature at Qumran (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)
Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality: Attitudes Towards Sexuality in the Early Enoch Literature, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the Book of Jubilees (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
The New Testament – with Imagination: A Fresh Approach to its Writings and Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
Sexuality and the Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005)
The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament: Case Studies on the Impact of the LXX in Philo and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
Jesus’ Attitude towards the Law. A Study of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002)
Jesus and the Fundamentalism of his Day. The Gospels, the Bible and Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001; Melbourne: Uniting Education, 1998)
While not as prolific as Loader, Harper is making a name for himself regarding the practice of sexuality in the days of the early christian church. As he describes himself on his webpage:
I am an historian interested in the ways that humanity has shaped nature and vice versa. I hold the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty and am Professor of Classics and Letters, Senior Advisor to the President, and Provost Emeritus at my alma mater, the University of Oklahoma. I am also a Fractal Faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute.
My main research interests include the history of infectious disease and climate change and their impact on human societies. More broadly, I write on the history of humans as agents of ecological change and asks how we can approach questions such as biodiversity, health, and environmental sustainability from a historical perspective.
I recommend his two books on sexuality and the ancient world: Slavery in the Late Roman World, was published in 2011 and awarded the James Henry Breasted Prize. The second book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality, appeared in 2013 and received the Award for Excellence in Historical Studies from the American Academy of Religion.
Recently, a close friend and fellow writer asked about my latest writing projects. This person knew I had been writing an article on what the Bible has to say about unmarried people having sex. They also knew it was taking a long time.
I started to tell them it was almost done, but I stopped. I have started and restarted this article four times in the past 12 months. With each reboot, I do new research and approach it from a different angle. I joked to my friend that I now have enough research to write a book.
Even the primary question of the article is difficult: Does the Bible allow people who are not married to have sex? Do you think you know the answer? So did I. But four reboots have shown me how complicated the answer is.
First, the bible doesn’t have a definitive position on non-marital sexuality, no matter how many preachers and theologians say it does. Second, the sexual ethics of the cultures that produced the answers within the pages of the Bible are just as important as the question itself. Third, most of the discussion about the bible’s position on non-marital sexuality concerns the meaning of one particular word–Greek: Porneia–a word that is both ambiguous and culturally adaptable.
Finally, I aim to make this article relevant for those who profess faith and believe the Bible is without error, as well as those who do not believe the Bible is inerrant. Doing both is what makes it really difficult.
With all of those distinctions in mind, this article follows these parameters:
I will refer to the so-called “Old Testament” as the Hebrew Scriptures. The “New Testament” I will call the Christian Scriptures. I do this to distinguish them for the purposes of the cultures represented.
Though I am following some of the conventions of an academic research paper, I am keeping those conventions to a minimum. For instance, though I will cite every source I use, they will not be in footnotes, but rather in a separate document. The link to that document is here!
I use the word “non-marital sex” instead of “pre-marital sex” because not every unmarried person who has sex will get married, or even desires to.
I will not list all the scriptures where the word Porneia is mentioned. Rather, I will summarize the findings about those verses according to the three scholars I rely on for the meaning of this word.
I will not be addressing the issues surrounding the Jewish, Greek, and Christian views and practices regarding male-male homosexuality. I hope to address that in a later article.
So let’s begin our discussion with understanding how Jewish, Greek, and Christian cultural biases radically affect how we view sexuality from a biblical vantage point.
Patriarchy and Female Agency
As I said, I have enough background material on this subject to write an entire book. More than half of that research focuses on how sexuality was viewed in the Ancient Near East (ANE) during the centuries that people wrote the documents in the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. I don’t want to belabor the point, so allow me to condense it down to one proposition:
Women had no official social standing or agency to consent regarding their own sexuality.
The only thing a woman was expected to contribute to sexuality was a vulva which had never been penetrated sexually. Today, we refer to that as Virginity. The Hebrew language only had one word for “virgin” and that word only referred to women. There was no such thing as a male virgin. The issue of whether men had to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage is not addressed in the bible.
Women could not choose their mate. That was done by a woman’s father or nearest male relative. Female slaves could be sexually violated by any man who owned them. (Glancy, “The Sexual Use of Slaves: A Response to Kyle Harper on Jewish and Christian Porneia”, page 216). Foreign women were not allowed to be married to Jewish men, but they could be made sex slaves (also known as concubines).
If a woman was raped in the city and did not scream, she would be held liable as an Adulteress. The Law allowed for her to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-29). There is a story in the Hebrew scriptures of a man whose concubine was raped by many men. The slave’s owner retaliated by cutting her into parts and sending those parts to the various tribal leaders in Israel.
The point of that story was to show the slave owner’s outrage, not the ignominy of the crime against the woman.
Men had sex regularly outside of marriage in the bible. Women did not. Men took concubines. Women did not. Men could have multiple wives. Women could not have multiple husbands. So even though it is said that the Jews practiced polygamy, it was actually polygyny (multiple wives, not multiple husbands).
On these points, I am summarizing. No Jewish or Christian theologian would disagree with those conclusions.
In short, a woman had no say over her own sexuality. She had to sexually perform whenever her husband or owner wished it. This isa feature of the cultures who wrote the Christian and Hebrew scriptures.
After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, the ideas about what was sexually allowed began to change. We will cover the most significant of those changes later in this article.
But no change was made to the sexual fortunes of a woman. She still had to be a virgin before marriage. She still had to meet the sexual needs of her husband, or he would be allowed to divorce her. She gained no sexual freedom. It was a world in which patriarchy prevailed among the Jews. And the Romans. And the Greeks. And eventually, the Christians.
These are all the cultures that wrote the Christian scriptures and the Hebrew scriptures.
These cultures showed contempt for women, afforded women no sexual agency, and practiced total male domination over women.
Therefore, everything written in the bible about sexuality is patriarchal, covertly and overtly misogynistic, viewing any female agency negatively.
The Shift of Sexual Ethics in Judaism
The first five books of the Hebrew scriptures are called the Torah. These books tell the story of the Jewish tradition and explain the development of the nation from its roots in Abraham. This is also where the roots of their sexual ethics began.
The Patriarch Abraham and his grandson Jacob had both wives and concubines. Concubines were slaves whose work roles included providing sex for the slave-owner. It would have been unlikely a later Jewish teacher would teach against sex with slaves or polygyny. If they had taught against either of these, they would have been criticizing their patriarchs. At no point were either polygyny or sex with slaves condemned in sexual ethics.
Many Hebrew scriptural sources give ample proof that though women were forbidden from having sex with anyone other than their marriage partner, the same was not true of men. We read about the lives of King David and King Solomon, and their sexual practices include multiple wives and sex slaves. The so-called harems of the Ancient Near East were just as prevalent in Jewish leadership as they are with Sumerian and Babylonian leaders.
Judaism did differ from other nations around them in a few areas. During the 1000 years of formation, the Jewish religion developed distinctive sexual ethics that clashed with the nations around them. This was part of the unique identity that their god Yahweh demanded of them.
In the Torah, the book of Leviticus, chapter 18 lays out the distinctive elements of this formational sexual ethic (Omanson, “How Does It Fit Together” page 419):
No incest of any kind
No marrying sisters
No sex during a woman’s menses
No male homosexuality
At the beginning and the end of chapter 18, the writer of Leviticus emphasizes that these rules are given to distinguish the Jewish men from the men of other tribes and cultures surrounding them. The land of Palestine has always been a small but strategic land bridge. Cultures constantly clashed and intermingled. It was clear from Leviticus that Yahweh did not want any intermingling with the practices of those cultures.
The sexual ethics of Leviticus were given to further distinguish Jewish men from men of other cultures. For example, in Leviticus 19, Yahweh instructs the men that they should not have sex with the sex slaves of other men. Nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is sex with one’s own sex slaves disallowed. This was the purpose of a sex slave, and even Yahweh did not disallow this sexual act. (Glancy, page 217).
These sexual ethics remained in place for many centuries. But something changed when the nation of Israel began to be scattered by various conquerors. First the Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity for many hundreds of years. Then, the Southern Kingdom was conquered by Babylonian forces. Finally, during the reign of King Darius of the Persian Empire, the Jews were slowly allowed to return en masse to Jerusalem. Eventually, the temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians was rebuilt.
During this era, Jewish sexual ethics began to shift. (Loader, “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World” page 3). At this time, the priests and scribes, under the direction of Ezra, began compiling the books that make up the current Hebrew scriptures. As Loader remarks, the compilation of the documents of the Tanakh showed a shift to more restrictive sexual ethics.
First, the writings of the prophets compared the nation of Israel to a man who committed adultery with foreign gods. Therefore, the priests began teaching against marrying foreigners. This included having sex with foreigners. The purge against marrying foreigners associated with Nehemiah had this focus. The practice of having sex with a foreigner (also known as Exogamy), though tolerated for centuries, was now forbidden.
The prophets also wrote about Israel chasing after other gods as if one were going to a prostitute. In other words, Israel toyed with worshiping other gods much like men might have casual sex with sex workers. As a result, the teaching of the second temple era discouraged Jewish men from having sex with prostitutes. Up until then, sex with prostitutes was tacitly allowed, though sometimes ridiculed (see Proverbs, chapters 2-9 for examples).
Again, sex with household slaves and sex with multiple wives is allowed. There is some indication that unmarried men were not forbidden from having sex with sex workers, though this is disputed by some researchers. There is no written prohibition against it. The prophet Hosea is told to marry a prostitute. Later, he is told to buy her out of slavery and remarry her. We can assume then that these were not completely forbidden practices.
The longer the Jewish people followed Yahweh, the more restrictive the sexual practices gradually became. But then, suddenly, this change accelerated. This occurred because the Jewish culture came into contact with the Greek culture which had emerged as the world power.
The Greek Influence and the Late Second Temple Sexual Practices
I had several theology professors while working on my theology degree. Occasionally, they would address the period of time between the last book written in the Hebrew scriptures in the Protestant Christian Bible (Malachi) and the first book written in the Christian scriptures (either James or Galatians). This period of time is known as the Inter-testamental Period by Christian scholars.
The rest of the world knows it as history. The Jewish people know it as their history.
My mentor in those days was a professor who had doctorates in both history and church history. He scoffed at this demarcation of the testaments. He told me that there were many important documents written by the Jewish people after Malachi. He introduced me to the Maccabees, Jubilees, and 1 and 2 Enoch among others. Through those documents, I learned that Israel continued to adapt and change their code of ethics regarding sexuality among other practices.
I also realized that as a nation, the Jews went through a difficult, but significant transformation during those 400 years.
My mentor also encouraged me to read some of the Jewish historians of that period, specifically Philo and Josephus. They shed light on so many of the subjects discussed in the scriptures of the Christian church. And these documents certainly show us the progression of thought about sexuality both within and outside of marriage.
A considerable volume of scholarship has recently been devoted to tracing the understanding of the Jewish teachings on sexuality from the ancient patriarchal period, through the early days of the second temple, to the late Second Temple practice of Judaism.
Two of the most prominent christian names in this research on Jewish sexual ethics are Kyle Harper and William Loader. Since I am trying to simplify this paper for the non-academic readers, please refer to this appendix for more information on both men. Between the two of them, they have published the most significant papers and books we have regarding Jewish and Christian sexual ethics around the time of Jesus.
Both men are convinced that the Apostle Paul, Jesus, and the leaders of the early church were in general alignment with late Second Temple sexual ethics. So, to put the New Testament teaching on non-marital sex into perspective, allow me to trace the development of that particular ethic and show how it related to what we read in the Christian Scriptures.
As the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East, they brought their distinct practices with them. These included their ethics involving sexuality. In some ways, they practiced the same sexual ethics as the Jewish people. The practice of incest was forbidden. This is evidenced in the Christian scriptures in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul admonishes the man who was sleeping with his step-mother as doing “what even the heathens do not permit.” Adultery was similarly discouraged and frowned upon by many. But sex with slaves was very much in vogue with both cultures.
However, the Greeks were much more open to sexuality outside of marriage. Sex work was common, especially sex work connected to various temples devoted to goddesses. The Greeks also permitted young boys to be used sexually as catamites, and this brought the Jewish culture in sharp contrast with the Greeks. The practices of the Symposiums and Gymnasiums were heinous to the Late Second Temple Jews, who created rules outlawing good Jewish men from attending either.
Loader summarizes the Jewish attitude toward Greek culture this way:
Maintaining one’s Jewish identity in foreign cities was paramount for most and included closely knit settlement patterns, careful observance of rituals and laws that reinforced Jewish identity, such as the sabbath observance and food laws, and the rejection of what were perceived as the dangers to which they were exposed, including idolatry and what they saw as sexual immorality.
William Loader , “Not as the Gentiles”: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and Its Greco-Roman World” page 8
The crucial breaking point between the Jewish and Greek cultures happened when Antiochus IV of Greece conquered Jerusalem. He looted the temple, forbade Jews from possessing their own scriptures, and sacrificed a pig on the altar of the temple. Jewish men were ridiculed by the Greeks for being circumcised. These sacrileges caused many within Israel to rise up against him. The rebellion of the Jews against the Greeks is written about in the Maccabees.
The result was that the Jewish people sought to distance themselves from Greek culture completely. Sects within Judaism rose up devoted to complete separation from Greek culture. Many of their restrictions focused on dietary laws, laws concerning the Sabbath, and Exogamy. But among these growing restrictions were some focused on sexual practices.
In the Book of Jubilees, we see an entire leitmotiv of prohibitions on sexuality. Sex outside of marriage was seen as a “Greek” thing, and the Jewish man of good standing sought to stay pure.
Kyle Harper, remarking on the teachings in the Jubilees and The Damascus Document notes,
Fornication, here, is sex that falls outside of marriage according to the Jewish law, but the requirements of legitimate marriage are interpreted very restrictively. Fornication is said to include polygamy and remarriage after divorce (CD 4.12b–5.14a) Fornication also includes incest, specifically uncle–niece marriage. Fornication is thus deployed polemically to describe any sexual contact violating the law, even this rigorist sectarian interpretation of the law.”
Kyle Harper in “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm”, page 373
This is the critical part for our discussion on how the Christian scriptures deal with sexual ethics. By the time of the second century BCE, the Jewish religious leaders were reacting strongly against any sexuality outside of marriage, since they defined most sexual practices as reflections on debauched Greek culture.
Philo, writing from Alexandria, a place where the Jewish and Greek cultures both found strong representation, spent many pages calling on his Jewish brothers to be sexually set apart. He focuses on incest, homosexuality, intermarriage with foreigners, and adultery for special condemnation. But as Loader points out, the more he writes about sex, the more acts he wants to prohibit. His earlier writings condone prostitution for young men, but in later writings, he condemns it. Loader notes that in these later writings he encourages married men to only have sex with their wives for procreation and to “not treat them as harlots” (Loader, page 12). The implication is that he considered recreational sex to be a Greek focus and thus to be avoided.
The overall impression we find during the five centuries from the re-establishment of the Temple to the emergence of the Christian sect is that of increasing prohibition against sexual practices the Jews used to find acceptable. The only exception to this was that men were allowed to have sex with slaves living in their household.
Recent research by both Catherine Hezser and Jennifer Glancy have shown that sex with slaves was common in all the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Hezser says,
“Slaves were sexually exploited in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman society. The phenomenon that masters would sleep with and produce children with their slaves is taken for granted by both Jewish and Roman writers.”
Catherine Hezser “Jewish Slavery in Antiquity”, page 175.
As noted above, Glancy shows in her research that no Jewish writer in antiquity ever claims that having sex with one’s own slave is immoral. To our modern sensibility and ethics, this screams as a huge oversight and mistake. Yet, it was part of their ethical system of sexuality.
With all of these things as background, let’s now turn to the Christian scriptures specifically to see how the Jewish christians introduced sexual ethics to the fledgling church.
The Word Porneia as the Basis for Christian Sexual Ethics.
Now we come to the heart of the matter for discerning what the Christian scriptures have to say about non-marital sexuality. The only word used to describe non-marital sex is the Greek word Porneia, which is often translated immorality or sexual immorality. In the history of preaching on this word, the primary meaning given is that of non-marital intercourse.
Therefore, if we can understand what is meant by this word in light of the historical setting of the Jewish and Greek peoples, we can better discern the full gamut of early christian sexual ethics.
Bruce Malina, whose significant paper on Porneia is foundational to all the other studies on this word, has this critical observation about non-marital sex from a Jewish context:
Pre-betrothal, pre-marital, non-commercial sexual intercourse between man and woman is nowhere considered a moral crime in the Torah. Aside from the instance of Rabbi Eliezer, there is no evidence in traditional or contemporary usage of the word Pomeia that takes it to mean pre-betrothal, pre-marital, heterosexual intercourse of a non-cultic or non-commercial nature, i.e. what we call “fornication” today.
Bruce Malina, “Does Porneia Mean Fornication?, page 11”
This flies up against most modern understandings of the word. But as we will see from further investigation by other scholars, Malina’s statement holds to be true in all but one instance.
We start our investigation into the meaning of Porneia by looking at its most unusual occurrence. In Acts 15, the leaders of the early Jewish Church were meeting to decide how to deal with a rapid influx of Greek/Gentile christians into church meetings, primarily in Syrian Antioch. Many people felt these new converts should be circumcised. Contrary to modern beliefs about Christianity, they saw themselves as a Jewish sect. They did not perceive themselves as a different religion from Judaism.
It confused and infuriated many of them that these gentile believers did not consider themselves to be Jewish. Thus, they argued about whether these new converts should have their foreskins removed. If the same people had sought to become Jews, the men would have been required to be circumcised. It stood to reason to these Jewish followers of Christ that these new converts were asking to become Jews.
Paul, Barnabas and others in the church did not agree. A huge church fight ensued and it was all brought to the council of leaders in Jerusalem. In the end, we read this in Acts 15:19-21:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Acts 15:19-21 (NIV)
Here are the four requirements they laid upon them:
They needed to avoid food offered to other gods
They needed to abstain from sexual immorality (Greek: Porneia)
They needed to abstain from strangled animals
They needed to abstain from meat that still had the blood in it.
Three of these were dietary restrictions, and one was a moral imperative. Because of this strange combination, some scholars doubt the accuracy of this list. Westcott and Hort, compilers of one of the Greek manuscripts we use for translation, attributes it to one of the two major traditions of copyists, but not the other.
That means they do not think this list is what the original author of Acts actually wrote.
But for the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume this was the correct list.
A few things to note. First, this list is probably a summary of chapters 17 and 18 of Leviticus. One can assume from this that “immorality” is referring to all the sexual ethics of chapter 18 we discussed earlier and not non-marital sex. If that is the case, and both Loader and Harper believe it is, then this was a list of bottom line issues the Jews of that days had with the Greeks. Remember that Late Second Temple Judaism was being taught everywhere in synagogues and that sexual ethics and food restrictions were at the top of the list of things that made Jews angry about Greeks.
Therefore, this was a list of appeasement.
Apparently, Paul and his fellows were okay with this list. As long as it didn’t have any requirement for circumcision on the list, Paul was satisfied his work was done.
But what is this word Porneia referring to? How are we to understand it.
For this, I am indebted to two renowned scholars and their exhaustive work regarding this word. Bruce Malina (see the appendix for more information on this paper) traces all uses of this word throughout the literature of the Ancient Near East. Kyle Harper’s “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm” took the research of Malina and expanded on it with more recent discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls. And though these two wrote many years apart, they come to most of the same conclusions. In addition, I will note one very important contribution brought by German scholar Christiane Nord on how this word should be translated for modern languages.
Seeking to avoid turning this paper into a 200 page book, let me summarize the primary points of each of these scholars:
Malina on what Porneia means:
The word is used often to refer to spiritual idolatry. This is its most common use in Revelation
The Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (The LXX) uses this word to translate the Hebrew word Zanah. This word often means adultery (this is how Jesus uses it),
Sex with a prostitute
Sex between men
Sex with another man’s slave
Incest. Malina believes this is the primary meaning. Paul uses it this way in 1 Corinthians 5 and probably several of the times he uses it in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7
It also refers to cultic sexual practices.
The Essene community (the community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls) believed it referred to all sexuality outside of marriage and used the word in that respect.
Marriage with a foreigner, ie. non-Jew.
Harper on what Porneia means:
Incest. Harper believes that most uses of Porneia in the LXX, the writings of the Late Second Temple Jewish writers and the writers of the Christian scripture books are referring to incestuous relationships
Sex with prostitutes, especially cultic prostitution.
Sex that is forbidden. He believed that many groups used the words to describe sex that their group did not agree with. He quotes Carolyn Osiek: ““To say that Porneia means “fornication” is circular, and the concept of illicit sex only begs the question of what is considered illicit.” (Harper, page 364). One of the most thoughtful contemporary interpreters of Christian sexuality has warned that “the precise meaning of porneia is simply uncertain given the lack of evidence we have” (page 365).
Any sex with a woman who is not an “honorable” woman. Harper indicates that women were categorized in two groups by Jews and Christians. The first group were the Eleutherai. This meant “women of integrity”. These included Jewish single women who had not had sex with a man and lived in their father’s household. The other group were women who were married to Jewish men, had been virgins when they married, and had never committed adultery. To have premarital or adulterous sex with an Eleurtherai was called Moicheia. And it was a violation of the covenant that the woman had with her father or her husband. It was NOT considered Porneia.
The second group of women were not Eleutherai. These are the foreigners, the prostitutes, and women who were household slaves. To have sex with the prostitutes and foreigners was what was considered Porneia. It all depended on a woman’s status.
Reiterating a point I have made a number of times, sex with a household slave was not considered wrong by any group.
Christiane Nord on translating Porneia:
Sexual intercourse or marriage with non-Jews
Now here is where Nord adds one more intriguing observation. She writes,
The Dictionary of Contemporary English (DCE 1978) defines fornication as “sexual relations outside marriage”, whereas Unzucht, the german word for Porneia, is a juridicial term referring to sexual practices sanctioned by the law (e.g. sodomy). While English readers may find St. Paul’s attitude rather old-fashioned, German readers would not see why they should take the appeal seriously: “Unzucht” is something we do not practice, we think it is immoral, and St. Paul is right to tell the Corinthians they should refrain from doing these dirty things. So contrary to St. Paul’s intention to make people change their ways of life, the translation may even cause the opposite reaction: readers feel they are fine as they are and need not worry because they actually avoid “Unzucht”
Nord in “Function plus Loyalty: Ethics in Professional Translation”, page 8
Nord is telling us that Porneia is simply the word used to denote sexual practices that are illegal by the definition of whatever culture or group is defining the term.
We seem to have taken a long time to get to the point, but it is substantial. All of the researchers into this word Porneia come to the same conclusion. It refers to incest, to sex with prostitutes, to spiritual adultery, and sex with outsiders.
Additionally, Harper summarizes that Porneia is sex with non-sanctioned women.
In my opinion, Nord summarizes it even more adequately. Porneia is the sum total of all the sexual expressions a particular group doesn’t permit. For all the cultures of that day, it meant incest. For the Jews, it included prostitution, but that only applied to the later Second Temple Jews. To the Essenes, it referred to all sex outside of marriage. For Philo, it was sex within marriage for any other reason beside procreation. (Harper, “Porneia” 373-374).
None of the cultures had a problem with men having sex with their household slaves. We have no evidence that was a problem for early christians either.
I worked for a number of years in bible translation work. It is never the goal of a translator to take a word in one language and find a single equivalent word in the other language. Many times, that is not possible. Every word is a picture, and one must be part of the culture that created the word and lived in that culture to fully understand what the picture means. Therefore, when we translate, we look for suitable pictures in the other culture even if it uses more words to translate it over.
The hardest cultures to do this with are cultures that are dead and have no living members of the culture to help us understand the meaning. When this happens, we rely on guesswork by reading what has been written by the people of those cultures. This is what we are doing in this paper. We are looking at what little is written on the sexual ethics of people we will never talk to.
In this discussion, we are hampered by some other things that are missing. They lived in realities and with segments of society we do not have today. For instance, slavery plays a major role in the sexual ethics of their day. We do not own any slaves today, let alone concubines. There is no way to draw parallels, and we would be foolish to try.
Even more significant is a group of women that exists now that didn’t exist back then. I am speaking of the single woman who has had sex but is not a prostitute. This is a category that the Jews and Christians at the turn of the first Millennium CE did not understand. Either a woman was married, single under her father’s control, or she was a prostitute. The Greek world had single women who had sex, but the Christian and Jewish world did not understand them and certainly would not have an ethical system prepared for them.
So, taking these differences into account, here are the implications I draw from this short study into the sexual ethics of the Scriptures.
1. Immorality means “sex that is illegal”
In the ancient world, many expressions of sexuality were illegal. Incest, adultery, and sex with another man’s slave were considered illegal by all cultures. The Jewish people also considered homosexuality, rape, sex with a foreigner, and sex with a sex worker illegal. The early church didn’t have much to add to that.
Can we live out that biblical concept today? In America, incest is illegal. So is sex with anyone under 18. Rape is illegal, regardless of the low percentage of men who are convicted of it. Sex with a sex worker is illegal, though there are some cases where this is not true. A sex worker can have sex in an erotic video and not be charged. Polygamy of any kind is also illegal.
Therefore, if a person wants to be biblical in their practice of sexuality, they will uphold the nation’s laws regarding sexual ethics.
In addition, certain religious groups also have sexual ethics they expect their members to live by. For some groups this includes all of the above laws plus abstaining from homosexuality, premarital sex, adultery, polyamory (sex with other partners while one is married, with full approval of one’s partner). Some groups even disapprove of sex outside of procreation. Regardless of what each group believes and teaches, if a person is a member of a religious group, to be biblical means to practice the way that group wants you to practice.
However, if one is not a member of a particular religious sect, the only restrictions laid upon them would be the ones that are laid on all citizens of the country.
2. Virginity is a meaningless concept today
By American law, we do not live in a society which gives different rights to men and women. Though men are treated much differently than women in practice, by law this should not be allowed. We live in a culture which recognizes that men and women are equal and all privileges and responsibilities of one should apply to the other.
In this, I apologize to people of other genders, since your rights have not been recognized by law as of this writing. But the principles I’m writing here apply to you as well.
There is no doubt that men and women in the Ancient Near East were seen differently in terms of sexual ethics. Men were not required to abstain from sex before marriage. Granted, the only women they could have sex with were sex workers and slaves, but this double standard did not apply in any way to women. We abhor the idea of categorizing women into clean and unclean categories. We abhor allowing men to do things we do not allow women to do. I conclude from this that as we move into a more expansive view of the application of scripture, that the idea a woman needs to be a virgin before marriage is meaningless.
Virginity in the ancient world was not primarily about sex anyway. It related to whether a husband could be sure his wife was the mother of those sons who would inherit his lands and property.
The biblical ethic of a woman having to be “more pure” than a man is not something we can ascribe to. And the opposite directive–requiring that men be virgins–is not something the scriptures support either. If a person wants to be biblical in their sexual ethic, then men and women have no reason to be virgins.
3. Slavery and Nonconsensual Sex are equivalent
Just as we eventually opposed slavery as a culture, even though the bible gives approval to it, so too we must stand against all nonconsensual sex. Our opposition to this kind of sex is built on the same reasons as we opposed slavery. Both slavery and nonconsensual sex are centered on taking away the right of a person to have agency over their own life.
Nonconsensual sex is not just rape. It is coercing someone to have sex who does not enthusiastically agree to it. “I’m not sure” is not consent when it comes to sex. In addition, a wife who does not want to have sex with her husband should not be guilted or shamed into doing so. This is unbiblical to the extent that we believe all humans have agency over their own body. If we reject slavery, we must reject marital rape.
All consensual sex that is legal is therefore allowed, unless someone is prohibited by their religious membership from taking part in it. This does not imply people must have sex or should want to have sex. Asexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation. But that is not in the scope of this article.
If a person wants to live as someone who follows the bible ethics regarding sexuality, I believe there is ample evidence that consensual sexuality that is legal is a proper ethic to practice.
4. Lack of Matching Sexual Categories Makes Strict Adherence Impossible and Unnecessary
Today’s follower of the bible and Christ will struggle to maintain the same sexual ethic as those of a first century CE person. We have much different sexual categories now. We do not have sex slaves: at least we don’t have them in modernized, western society. We do not practice polygyny. Our sex workers are usually not connected to cultic organizations. We have laws against using boys as catamites.
Much of western society has come to grips with the validity of marrying and having sex with members of other racial and ethnic groups. That was not true for them and represented a major category of what they called Porneia. In addition, today’s woman is legally allowed to withdraw consent for sex, even with a spouse. Though this is not enforced universally, it is still the law. And even if churches do not teach consent for all, they must adhere to the law like everyone else.
But the biggest category related to sexual ethics currently, is the large number of single people who are not looking to get married but are having sex with others. This was not a category the ancient near east conceived of. Either you were a virgin woman living with your family or you were married off to a man and expected to remain sexually faithful to him. If a woman had sex outside of those boundaries, she was labeled a sex worker and marginalized as such. So the category of single woman who has sex but is not a sex worker did not exist.
And as much as some modern church leaders don’t want to admit it, we have this category now; and we have had this category for a long time. Does the concept of Porneia cover this category? If we adhere to a strict reading of the scriptures, it does not. It also doesn’t cover polygyny or sex with one’s own slaves. It would only prohibit single men having sex with other men’s slaves, sex with other men’s wives, and sex with foreigners.
Glancy is very pointed in her paper on the matter of sex with slaves. She notes from many sources that Jews, Greeks, and subsequently, Christians, were supportive of the sexual dynamics between a slaveowner and female slaves. She remarks
More disturbingly, in a passage condemning the seduction of wellborn, unmarried females, Philo rails against treating free women as though they are (unfree) servants (ταῖς ἐλευθέραις ὡς θεραπαίναις), a tirade reflecting a double standard between treatment of respectable women, whose honor should be protected, and women of lower social status, who have no honor to protect (Spec. Laws 3.69.4).
Jennifer Glancy, “The Sexual Use of Slaves”.
This category allowing sex with slaves puts all modern christians on the horns of a dilemma. There is no reasonable way to match up their ethics with ours, except in a few areas: Adultery, rape, incest, and homosexuality. And since adultery and homosexuality are not currently illegal, only rape and incest are the universally shunned and illegal sexual practices in both cultures.
Any ethics added to that are sectarian in origin. They are not necessarily biblical in origin.
He lowered his eyes. This boy had endured a vicious spanking and was at a loss for any words to say to me. I kept asking him what he wanted me to know and see.
“No one will play” he said. “My brother will play, but he is so small. I have to do all the playing.”
This wasn’t the answer I expected. I was the therapist, the helper.
The boy was me at 4 years old.
In the therapy I practice–Internal Family Systems, or IFS–we refer to wounded and traumatized younger versions of ourselves as Exiles. We call them that because we have created an internal system for ignoring their pain and shutting it off from our conscious minds.
When I just turned four, my mother was placed in a mental institution. My brother was 2 1/2 and our father decided he couldn’t care for us. We were placed in a group foster care home for six months. After that, we went to a few other homes for several weeks at a time. Finally, my dad’s older brother took us in. We stayed with him for several months. At the end of that time, my mother was released from hospital and we were reunited with our parents.
I was reprocessing one of the memories from my days with my uncle and aunt. He was a police officer and she worked as a legal secretary. During the day, we were cared for by a babysitter. My uncle and aunt never played with us. They had no children and didn’t want any. They felt badly for us and took us in. As an adult, I am thankful they rescued us from some bad foster care homes.
But the lack of play was constant. It ate away at my 4 year old self. I wanted to have some joy in my life. In my desperation for something to do during the day, I discovered the basement of the house my uncle and aunt had rented. In that basement, there were many pieces of furniture covered with white sheets. This was the storage area for the owners of the house.
Every day, in search for meaning and needing to recreate, we went down there and explored. One day, I found a pan of crankcase oil. I had no idea what it was, but it felt deliciously squishy in my hands. I played with it for awhile and invited my brother to join me.
That’s when I noticed the pristinely white sheets covering the furniture. To my four-year old self, they looked like canvases in need of some art drawn on them.
I started to finger paint on the sheets with the crankcase oil. The oil was perfect. The sheets were perfect. We drew grandiose pictures . Here was the fun we sought for.
When my aunt and uncle came home, they had no idea how artistic my brother and I had been. So 4 year old Michael showed them. He wanted them to know that he and his brother could find something to play with on their own. He was quite enamored of the design on the sheet covering the sofa.
His uncle erupted with fury. This 6’4″ police officer blew his stack. He beat the four year old and left him sobbing in the bedroom for hours. Not once did either of them come and check on how Michael was doing. Years later, they admitted to me they were considering sending me and my brother back into foster care.
When I began to unburden Michael, I started by letting him know I witnessed what he had gone through. I affirmed his absolute right to play and to find meaning in such things. I told him I understood how hard that year had been and how absolutely lonely he felt. I assured him that I would never leave him and I would play with him any time he wanted.
He cried for awhile and then stopped. He seemed to have some peace settling on him.
So I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to do for him. He looked up. “Can you tell aunt and uncle that I’m a good boy and they need to play with me from now on?”
I responded by marching him upstairs with me. I sat my aunt and uncle down and explained what Michael had gone through. They were horrified. I also told them that from now on, they would play with Michael and his brother and not leave them so unloved and unwanted. They reluctantly agreed to this.
In IFS, the current version of who we are can create new realities for our exiles. After all, the only place they still exist is in our midbrain. The re-creation we did next is called a Do-Over.
I then asked Michael how he was feeling. He still looked a little despondent. He told me that he didn’t think he was worth playing with. So I assured him this idea was preposterous and we needed to destroy that idea. We created a balloon, and we put the words “I am not worth playing with” on it. Then, we let the balloon go and a huge wind came and took it away.
That second, I felt a loosening inside of me. I realized that for years I had carried an idea that I was not worth having fun with. People didn’t mind doing serious things with me. But they refused to play with me. That idea now felt gone.
Young Michael is now playing inside of me. He feels free.
I take delight in playing with him and he with me. It has transformed me into a much more playful person. And, other people seem to notice as well and are much more expressively playful around me.
[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 who asked these questions were committed Christians with a good grasp of the Bible and the church’s teachings on sexuality.
“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.
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.
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:
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.
I had been pastor of this church in Northwest Montana for only six months. I took one Sunday off to go back to British Columbia for the weekend to pack up my house we owned there to prepare for moving. Through a friend, I had arranged for a professional singer/preacher to do his thing at the church in my absence. He had good credentials from people I trust.
A week after finishing my move to Montana, an older couple in the church asked if they could go to lunch with me. They seemed nice and my schedule wasn’t overwhelmed yet, so I agreed.
We made pleasant small talk and I started to get to know them. There was definitely something off about both of them. They told me about moving to Montana from Missouri to escape the thug elements of their town. I had no idea what they were talking about. I learned very quickly as they moved to the true reason for this lunch.
“Pastor Mike, I’m sure you didn’t know the guy who spoke a couple of weeks ago. I know you didn’t. There is no way you would have condoned him” the husband began. His wife, who had been smiling sweetly a moment before had a sour face. They were together on this one.
“What happened? I asked.
“You didn’t hear? It is an absolute scandal. I’m surprised the elders haven’t called a special meeting.”
“What on earth did he do?” I was worried he may have committed something heretical.
“You don’t know? Oh my lord. He was Black! A black man speaking in our church. I’ve been talking to everyone since it happened and there is a lot of talk going on.”
I was temporarily frozen in my chair. I wasn’t afraid at all. I was seething with intense anger and I was afraid I was going to do something I would regret. And, I was afraid I wouldn’t do something I would regret.
I stood up. My plate was only half finished, but I was done.
“Lunch is over. I want you to know I consider both of you horrible racists, and I will do everything in my power to see you removed from the membership of the church. Do not EVER set foot in our church again.”
They never did. People revealed to me later that this couple had talked to them and most were embarrassed by the conversations. Montana has very few People of Color. There is an endemic racism there like most states. But the average person hides it better than the couple who met me for lunch.
This was my first foray into this kind of racism. That is not to say that Canadians aren’t racist. We are. But you don’t see it this blatantly. It opened my eyes not just to a different country that I was now living in, but a different church I was now a part of. It is one of the things that I have noticed about the evangelical and charismatic churches in America. There is something going on that is weird. And I couldn’t put my finger on it then.
But I can now. And I am doing that here.
Many of you reading this allowed me to be your pastor. That was something I cherished. Therefore, you need to hear it from me before hearing it from anyone else. I may still be friends with some of you, but I do not identify with either the Evangelical or Charismatic movements any longer. And I haven’t for awhile. But this week’s horrible act at the Capitol convinced me I have to publicly announce where I stand.
I still believe the theological basics of both groups. But I can’t tolerate either movement any longer. I have taught in evangelical/charismatic churches for 36 years. I taught at over 200 conferences, seminars, schools, and training retreats. I have sat on boards of evangelical organizations, been at the head of movements, and participated in both healthy and very unhealthy meetings. I have not seen it all, but I have seen enough to know I am accurate in what I’m going to report here.
The American versions of Evangelical church and Charismatic church are not godly and not where I can go.
And let’s dispense with the “Not All” fallacy at this point. Every time a legitimate criticism is leveled against any group, gender, party, religion, institution, etc., someone will always point out that not everyone is involved in that error. Though that is always true, it is also an attempt to divert from the point. You may read what I’m writing here and say “but not all Evangelicals do that”. Yes, but enough do all these things that I feel confident in lumping the entire movement in with these errors.
Since 81% of evangelicals promoted a maniacal man for President, and based it on the beliefs I outline below, I feel confident lumping in the entire movement together.
Notwithstanding that, here are the many reasons why I will no longer call myself part of Evangelicalism.
Endemic Racism: Every level of American society is affected by the decision to make slaves a part of American culture since its beginning. Regardless of whether you accept Critical Race Theory, everyone has to admit that the vast majority of black individuals grew up in poverty and will live their entire lives in poverty. They will live in fear of the police, and will receive only token support in their efforts to change things. As I have observed, white evangelicals will be “nice” to people of color but will do nothing to change the culture so the disparity can end. Since slavery started in America, the church has openly and tacitly approved of it. It is not enough to say “but I have some black friends.” The church is historically guilty of even finding doctrinal reasons to promote slavery. And though the doctrines on slavery have formally changed, nothing substantial is being done by evangelicals to enact reparations.
Christian Nationalism:The evangelical church (I am including charismatics in this as I don’t want to have to keep typing both), is intricately tied to the notion that God chose America to be the greatest nation in the world, a so called “City on a Hill”. Read any book by Eric Metaxas or others, and you can see this outlined. Most evangelical leaders with few exception, teach their church that country, the flag, patriotism etc. are godly attributes. God supposedly loves America and has chosen her to fulfill a manifest destiny as part of his plan. This is why God approves of our military, our wars, our way of life, our political system, our leaders. They will say that God chooses our leaders.
Everything other nations do is criticized. And yet when America does the same thing, it is excused. Our soldiers executed an entire village of My Lai in Vietnam and christian leaders did all they could to excuse the behavior and justify it. If planes fly into the World Trade Center it is terrorism. If drones destroy thousands of lives in the mountains of Afghanistan in order to kill 20 terrorists, it is justified.
The church will listen to whomever promises to “Make America Great Again.” Even though we are told explicitely in the bible to pledge our allegiance to no one but God, the church has made patriotism its great unspoken doctrine. Our nation is not evil; believing we are called by God above other nations is.
I just can’t do it any more. Trump won you over by making grandiose promises of American greatness. You think he accomplished that when he removed us from treaties with other countries, when he blocked non-whites from coming into the country, when he said we would not participate in climate change preparation.
Christians Support of Guns and Violence: If you have ever heard me speak, it should be clear that I am a Pacifist. I am not passive–these words do not mean the same thing. I do not believe any person should be killed by another person. Ever. I don’t think children should be killed if they are viable in birth. I don’t think criminals should be killed. I do not think we should go to war and kill. I especially don’t think you should kill another person because you’re afraid of them.
You don’t have to agree with that. But in my 30 years in America, I note your obsession with guns. You have to have them in your nightstand for “protection”…even though it has been shown that you are more likely to be killed with your own gun that to kill an intruder. And I find this obsession with guns goes along with this false belief that Christians have to be tough and macho.
Donald Trump knew this. At his rallies, he attacks those who are weak, and makes heroes out of those who are violent and merciless. He criticized the handicapped as weak, he vilified prisoner-of-war John McCain as the greatest loser because he got captured. On the other side, he paraded an openly racist Sheriff of one small town (Joe Arpaio) for all to see and hear because he practiced racial profiling. When the sheriff was arrested for contempt of court, Donald Trump pardoned him.
Evangelicals and charismatics want to be warriors, soldiers for Jesus. You can leave me out of it.
Assuming to Be a Christian Means You are Anti-Choice: Billy Graham was pro-choice for most of his career. So were many leaders within evangelicalism, including W. A. Criswell, Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist of Dallas. That is, until 1980. Then, evangelical leaders made a deal with the Repubican Party. They would make “pro-life” the evangelical thing and Republicans would support their anti-choice agenda.
They did this despite the fact that the Bible says virtually nothing about abortion, and nothing definitive about when life begins. I am pro-life…I don’t broach taking any life…but I also believe that we have never defined that life begins at conception, either medically or theologically. Christians adopted this stance to get political control, and that is all it is for. Before the 1970s, very few people in churches even knew what it meant to be Pro-life.
You don’t think these mega-pastors care about little babies do you? They don’t even allow them in the sanctuary when they’re preaching.
An evangelical church that purports to be against abortion should be very much in favor of birth control. And caring for poor women who are the predominant ones who have abortions for financial reasons. And setting up better systems for childcare for working single mothers. Churches put almost NO effort into these things and teach actively against birth control for singles.
Trump knew that promising to support wee babies in the womb would guarantee the vote. Other than putting conservatives on the Supreme Court (which will likely do nothing to make abortions illegal), he did NOTHING for the unborn or the families of the poor. But that wasn’t the point for him or evangelicals. It was about controlling the voting bloc. If conservatives and conservative christians were all that effective at curbing abortion, why is it that abortion rates have fallen much more in Democratic Presidencies than Republican? Because Democrats teach birth control and care for the medical needs of the poor.
Passive and Active Contempt for Women, LGBTQ, Immigrants, and Victims of Sexual Assault: This was the clincher for me. And it still shocks me. I spent the past 30 years counseling victims of sexual abuse in churches and in church organizations. I have met with over 200 of them. In all but two cases, the churches either tried to cover up the abuse, or claim it didn’t happen, or force the victims to apply grace and forgiveness to the crime.
And this applies even more to well-known evangelicals. Men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, Bill Gothard, and Andy Savage were all protected and defended by their churches after assaulting victims. Pastors such as Paige Patterson, C J Mahaney, and Matt Chandler covered up abuse they knew about.
And then, after all that–which goes back decades and decades in evangelicalism–they have the audacity to say that women cannot be preachers and leaders in the church because they’re too weak. They have the temerity to claim that the LGBTQ individuals in the church are disqualified just for who they are, and that immigrants belong on the mission field and we need to build a wall to keep them out. Over 80% of evangelicals supported the building of the wall. At the same time, they send missions teams to Mexico in the greatest show of ironic hypocrisy I’ve ever witnessed.
Trump knew all of that as well and he appealed to white male egos. The pastors as a large bloc touted him as God’s man for this hour. Hundreds of so-called charismatic prophets still claim God showed them he will be in the White House for a second term. And even though they have been shown to be wrong, most of them will not change their minds or repent.
More than anything, I cannot stand all the duplicity of claiming that white males are to lead the church when most of the egregious behavior has been by white males.
Considering all of this, and seeing what it culminated with at the Capitol last week, I see no reason whatsoever to align myself with the culture or community of evangelicals or charismatics.
I believe it is time for all societies to stop using Moral Imperatives to guide our actions. Instead, Ethical Guidelines work much better and will always aid us in improving society. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, the President published tweets that suggestively urged his fans to take up arms against the leaders of their states. He referenced several states–such as Virginia and Minnesota–reminded them of the 2nd Amendment, and put his tweet advocating violence in all caps. By doing this, he got the point across while maintaining a tiny margin for deniability. He did not explicitely say to try and violently overthrow state governments. Therefore, if there is any violence based on his tweets, he will deny any complicity. That has been his pattern so far in 3.5 years in office.
As of the writing of this blog, the nation is facing a terrible ethical dilemma: Do we stay at home, sheltered-in-place and risk harming many citizens in our country because of the destabilization of the economy? Or do we end the shelter-in-place, perhaps prematurely, and potentially kill more people than the COVID-19 virus would otherwise kill?
I don’t want to understate how important an ethical decision this is. There are almost no right answers to it. Regardless of where you land on this decision, you should admit it is a tricky and dangerous dilemma.
This follows on the heels of a decision many churches and Christians had to make for the past few weeks. This decision is NOT an ethical decision. Rather, it is a moral decision, and not even a very convincing one. Many states have made it illegal to gather in groups larger than 10 people. For most of those states, this includes churches.
The vast majority of churches have seen the ethical value of closing the doors, choosing instead to host virtual gatherings of their members online. But not all churches have complied. Some have defiantly opened the doors of their churches. Not only do they feel they have a first amendment right to do so, they claim to have a moral right and obligation to do so, given to them by God.
For instance, Pastor Tony Spell of Baton Rouge, LA held services for several Sundays in defiance of that state’s orders not to. Over 1000 people attended. When interviewed, Spell said,
“The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
The concept of “religious rights” is not an ethical foundation but a moral one. And in many cases, ethical and moral foundations can be completely opposed to each other.
Recently, Stephanie Tait, who is an advocate for the disabled and how churches relate to their needs, had this to say about the church’s attitude toward opening up churches and potentially exposing many more people to the virus. She likens it to the church’s disregard for the handicapped by claiming they should be exempt from Accessibility Requirements according to the law. She states:
So I see abled Christians who are “shocked” to see some of their fellow Christians framing this as a religious freedom issue, and essentially fighting for the right to hurt other people in the name of their “liberty” being preserved above all else?
Churches have repeatedly asserted that their right to harm certain others with legal impunity is a religious liberty issue – including disabled ppl, LGBTQ+ ppl, and Black ppl. This is nothing new. This is not “shocking.”
So respectfully, if you find yourself “shocked” at people fighting to keep holding services in the pandemic, recognize that you’ve been living in a bubble of privilege, where you could remain blissfully unaware of our history of fighting for special rights to harm others.
Stephanie Tait, 2020 on Facebook
Stephanie is stating that some Christians are claiming their rights–which is a moral claim–above what is helpful for other people (which is an ethical approach).
At this point, I want to define two terms: Morals and Ethics. In doing many hours of research into this subject, I found few philosophers, ethicists, social scientists, or pastors who could agree on a definition. So I have compiled a number of them together to come up with a working model for this document.
Morals are the principles underlying the ideal behavior of each individual.
Ethics are the principles underlying all of the acceptable behavior of members of a culture.
Morals are subjective and personal. Ethics are subjective and communal.
Morals are usually based on a philosophy or religious belief. Ethics are decided upon by a society after debate and trial.
Morals transcend cultural norms, but may conflict with them. Ethics are based on cultural norms, but may conflict with an individuals morals.
We use Ethical guidelines when we decide whether or not to open up the society to business and social events again during the virus. We will debate the pros and cons of any approach and decide as carefully as possible which approach would create the most advantage and good to the most people. There is no other way of doing it.
Morals are involved as people decide if they should be in church, if they should visit a loved one, if they should share their food or toilet paper with others during this crisis.
In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot several people in Arizona, including Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. After killing six people, he was charged with murder and attempted murder. His lawyers used an interesting moral defense. They said he firmly believed in the moral philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught that weakness must be eradicated in order for the race of Ubermensch to appear. (Ubermensch refers to “Supermen” or “Master race”). His legal team argued that his moral compass was pointing in a different direction than the rest of society and even though that compass directed him to kill people, he should not be charged with murder. He needed to be re-educated, not incarcerated.
The court disagreed and gave him 7 consecutive life sentences.
It is the argument that is intriguing. And it is not a new argument. The argument is that a person has a right to their moral beliefs, regardless if their society considers them ethical. This does not make every action a person takes based on those morals legal, just defensible.
Soren Kierkegaard spent years wrestling with this incongruence of morals and ethics. He used the life of Abraham in the Old Testament book of Genesis as his starting point for figuring this out. In the story of Abraham, he takes his only son Isaac up on a mountain to sacrifice him there. He believed that God had told him to do so. He trudged up the mountain also carrying an ethical dilemma: Do I kill my only son and lose him? Or do I disobey God and lose my standing with Him? It seems like a dilemma where Abraham (and Isaac) lose either way.
In the ultimate deus ex machina, God intervenes at the last minute and gives Isaac a reprieve. A ram is caught in the thicket and Abraham is ordered to sacrifice the ram instead of his son. God then revealed he was only testing Abraham to see if he would obey.
As Kierkegaard pondered this moral and ethical quagmire, he imagined what the biblical tale would have shown us if it had been told differently.
In his book “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard imagines four possible retellings of this story:
Abraham decides to kill Isaac and tells him it was his decision alone to kill him, and doesn’t mention God. Doing it this way, God doesn’t look like the tyrant Abraham now believes Him to be.
Abraham kills the ram instead. But because God didn’t trust him and put him to the test, Abraham loses faith in God.
He decides not to kill Isaac and lives in complete dejection. He believes he is not a man of faith and sees himself as a spiritual failure.
Isaac sees his father hesitate: That is when Isaac realizes it was God who told his father to kill him. Isaac loses faith in God’s goodness.
Here is what Kierkegaard concludes. There is no good solution to Abraham’s dilemma. It is one of the conflicts for which morals and ethics will always disagree. The moral solution sometimes must struggle with believing something is right to do even if it is not ethical. The ethical solution must struggle as it must sometimes disgregard the moral underpinnings of our lives.
Most people believe they will choose the moral position first. In practice, however, we see they choose the ethical position. Indeed, there are times when people do choose the moral position over the ethical one, that they are often condemned by society.
Look at churches who have chosen to open at this time. Even other Christian groups condemned that practice.
In 1978, Jim Jones brought 1000 members of his cult church down to South America to start a communal society. As their Jonestown cult began to deteriorate, and they murdered a US senator, they realized they would all be taken into custody. As a result, Jones gathered all 1000 people into their makeshift auditorium. He invited them to join him in a final Communion service. The drink was laced with a poison. This was a mass suicide and all but the smallest children knew what they were being asked to do. Some refused and ran out of the meeting, but most of the Jonestown group killed themselves. Over 900 people died.
They were acting upon what they considered to be a moral imperative. They believed a version of an apocalyptic belief: That they would be rewarded in the Afterlife if they were faithful in this life. We do not agree with their decision, but philosophically we must conclude they were trying to live according to their moral standards. And their morality was based upon the words of Jim Jones.
They were indeed moral. But just as decidedly, their actions were unethical. We consider it wrong to do what they did. The “wrongness” of it is an ethical consideration not a moral one. In our culture, mass suicide is always wrong, as is mass murder–for the same reasons.
To be fair, some ethical decisions can lack a moral foundation, depending on what culture one lives in. In cultures where headhunting is practiced, taking the head of another person can sometimes be ethical. That is, if everyone accepts it as a standard practice, then it is ethical.
In the Ancient Near East, a woman was considered property. It was considered ethical for a husband to physically assault his wife. But if he physically assaulted another man’s wife, he had to give compensation, since she was his property. This is why, in the Bible, when David sexually assaulted Bathsheba he is not condemned for the sexual assault but for taking another man’s wife. Nathan the prophet chastises David for taking Uriah’s wife–he does not even give her a name–not for raping her. But that fit the ethical climate of that day.
Though today in America, we would consider headhunting, sexual assault, and ownership of women to be unethical and even immoral, they did not consider it that way back then in Ancient Near East cultures.
Unfortunately, because the Jews–and now Christians–believe their Scriptures are both ethical and moral standards for all time, the two ideas of morals and ethics have become conflated.
In any theocratic nation–that is any nation that accepts a religious moral standard as a de facto ethical standard–the moral law is the ethical law. This is true with Sharia Law in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has been true in Israel’s history. And when Christians have enacted Biblical laws as mandatory in some countries, the moral and the ethical get confused.
Philosopher and ethicist, Elizabeth Anscombe has noted,
“The impact of monotheistic religion was to transform morality into a set of laws that had to be obeyed. Laws require a legislator and a police force. God was that legislator, the Church the enforcer.”
The Quest for a Moral Compass (p. 296). Melville House.
Therefore, in any nation where the moral rules are governed by one religion or religious group, it gives power to the leaders of that group to decide what is moral or immoral.
In today’s America, the idea of “morality” or “moral standards” is almost exclusively applied to one’s sexuality. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt says that world culture encompasses six themes when it comes to their personal morality: liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, care, and purity. But he also notes that in today’s America, authority, loyalty, and purity are mostly emphasized by Conservatives, and fairness and care are mostly emphasized by liberals. He notes that liberty is emphasized by both groups, and is seen as both a moral imperative and as a right.
Yet when it comes to ethics, liberty is sometimes shoved aside.
He concludes that morality has focused way too much on sexuality: either sexual purity or sexual freedom. And he also says the problem is that most people will focus on those two things based on their personal viewpoints, whether religious, philosophical, or political.
Here is my contention. For the human race to move forward we must have an ethical dialectic. A “dialectic” is a discussion where two sides with differing opinions come together to discuss their differences. Out of that comes a new understanding of an ethical position. We have seen in the history of the world that society keeps trying to get ethics correct. And when they find out they have not got it correct, they keep having a discussion.
In other words, the ideal is to continue debating our current ethical guidelines until the majority of people are satisfied we are benefiting the most people.
Morality does not offer a changing dialectic, since it is based on some kind of absolute standard.
Here is how moral imperatives work. Christian morality told us in the middle ages that all peasants must submit to the authority of the King and the nobles. Christian morality said that men could beat their wives as long as they didn’t do permanent damage. Christian morality said that the Bible justified the owning of slaves, the subjugation of women, the fighting of just wars. All of these were placed under the aegis of morality. The people who decided what was moral were the Christian leaders.
There was no society-wide discussion on these standards. They were decided upon by religious leaders and all people were required to accept these moral imperatives.
Even today, Christian leaders tell their churches what moral sexual standards should be. They say homosexuality is wrong. They say that polyamory is wrong. They say that sex before marriage is wrong. They say it is wrong for a wife to refuse her husband sex. They say that marital rape is impossible since wives have a sexual duty to their husbands. Each of these beliefs is unassailable because they are held to be absolute imperatives. If one does not accept the moral imperative, then one must face the censure of their religion.
Now let’s look at ethics. Ethics are societal standards of behavior. Ethics have also been brutal at times through the centuries. The idea of an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” seemed like a good idea at the time. If someone causes you to lose a limb, cut off his limb. At least it limited the damage you were allowed to enact in vengeance. But it meant a lot of people with swords were cutting off a lot of appendages.
Ethics have also created justification for war. Ethics have concluded that some people have to die for the good of others. Ethics were at the base of the Final Solution where the Nazis sought to exterminate all the Jews. We know that ethics can be harmful.
And we know that morals can be harmful.
The difference is this: Morals are not supposed to change; ethics are supposed to constantly adapt and change depending on the current ethical understanding of the culture.
Which one then should we adopt to guide our society?
In his book “How Then Shall We Live”, Chuck Colson suggested that we use an absolute moral standard as the basis for how we craft our laws and live our lives. Why? He says that only a Moral Consensus gives people a tangible sense of security that something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. In this book, he bemoans that so many people do not hold to a Christian standard of morality any longer. He believed that this lack of a clear Moral Consensus was going to ruin us as a nation.
Is he correct? I don’t think so. Even within the Christian Church, a moral consensus has proved to be impossible. On so many issues, the church disagrees with itself. On issues like divorce, war and pacifism, premarital sexuality, marital sexuality, birth control, sexual identity, euthenasia, capital punishment, separation of church and state, etc. there is no moral consensus. The disagreements outweigh the agreements. Consensus is usually reached only by denominational legislation and not through dialogue.
Let’s take the issue of birth control. My wife is a school nurse. She helped to found a local clinic. She and one of her close friends, an OB/Gyn, sought to be allowed to put out a bowl of condoms at the front desk of the clinic. A member of the school board opposed this. Why? Because she had a moral opposition to condoms, she would not vote to allow them.
This person’s moral argument against handing out condoms is simple. They believe the Bible opposes premarital sexuality. They believe that giving a teen a condom is giving them a way to practice sexuality without immediate consequences like pregnancy or STD’s. They believe this gives tacit approval to a teen to have sex. Since this is what they don’t want, the condom is the point of the spear.
The ethical argument for condoms is simple. Teens will have sex whether you want them to or not. Only condoms protect against both STD’s and pregnancy. Condoms prevent both unwanted outcomes.
The Moral Imperative is a personally held belief that teen sexuality is wrong. The Ethical Guideline is based on something both groups can agree to: No one wants a teen to be pregnant or catch an STD.
I believe that an Ethical Guideline ultimately can be a better way of governing human behavior because it requires the majority of all of us–regardless of religious or philosophical belief–to agree before we accept it. And Ethical Guidelines are not legislated first. They are felt first. They are things we know to be true among us.
For instance, look at sexuality. As we have moved on from the middle ages, through the Enlightenment, to the modern age, and now into a Postmodern reality, we have changed our views on what is ethical. And I think many of those changes are good and just. They could stand improvement, but they are changing much more quickly than the moral views of sexuality.
Here are Ethical Guidelines of sexuality that most people today can approve:
That all sexuality needs to take place after all parties give consent and continue to give consent all through the sexual act.
That consent must be informed. This means that if someone does not understand the deep significance of sexuality, they should not enter into it. This includes minors, the mentally disabled, and those for whom sexuality would be dangerous.
That consent must be equal. This means that anyone who uses their authority, position of power, or position as overseer to have sex with an individual, the sexual act is not ethical and may be illegal.
All sexuality should be carried on between two adults who are honest and straightforward about their relationship status. This excludes adultery and lying about one’s identity.
There may be many other ethical guidelines that we could come up with as a society. Other societies might have different guidelines. In the future, more guidelines might be developed.
But the advantage of an ethical guideline over a moral imperative is that it embraces everyone in a culture and doesn’t require them to first ascribe to a religion or a philosophy. I propose that even if we strongly hold to a religious or philosophical viewpoint, we can all participate in the discussion on the best ethical guidelines for all to accept and live.
Henry Lang came to Downton Abbey to take over as the Valet to the Lord Grantham when the Lord’s previous valet had to leave suddenly. This fictional account of a household of the English aristocracy is originally set during the early days of World War 1. The writers of Downton Abbey researched how the war affected different individuals in England. Lang’s short time at the Abbey is one of the most sublime.
Lang had to leave the war because of a condition we now call PTSD. At the time, it had various names: Shell shock, soldier’s heart, war neurosis, and Combat Fatigue. The general population did not treat these soldiers well. They were often considered cowards and treated like lesser humans.
Lang came to the Abbey and at first everyone was impressed by his skill set as a valet. But quickly he showed signs of emotional deterioration. What made it difficult for Lang is the Abbey was being used to convalesce injured officers. Eventually Lang collapsed emotionally after seeing too many wounds and groaning soliders, and he left the Abbey in shame. Nothing more is said of him for the entire series.
This poignant portrayal of a character is accurately written. It is estimated as many as 100,000 British soldiers had this condition. If one adds the American, Canadian, French, Belgian, and soldiers of other allied nations, the number of soldiers suffering PTSD may have reached 1.5 million.
“Over half a million men were permanently evacuated from the fighting for psychiatric reasons, enough to man fifty combat divisions.” And though many of them were sent to mental institutions, they were not treated with any compassion.
David J. Morris
Despite its prevalence, shell-shock was often attributed to moral failings and weaknesses, with some soldiers even being accused ofcowardice.
I have believed in the doctrine of Inerrancy at various times during my 50 years as a follower of Christ. But I can’t say I have always believed it. For me, the evidence that this doctrine is true gets slimmer as time passes.
I want to make this clear: I am not trying to convince anyone. This is just my journey. This article may help others who are in situations where they cannot express their doubts about Inerrancy and still maintain relationships with other Christians of their tribe.
Just so you know. You can believe whatever you want. These are my struggles.
This morning, I texted my wife and asked if she would read Numbers 31 again. I suggested she read it as if she was not a follower of Christ, and not someone with a high opinion of the Bible. As we digested its contents together, we realized it was saying that God had ORDERED the Israelites to:
Kill all the Midianite boys
Make all the virgin girls their sex slaves
Kill all the women who had sex before
Kill all the men
Set fire to all their towns
Reward the most violent soldiers with more spoils from the massacre.
your head around these stated “facts”: God commanded sex slavery. God
commanded slaughter of children.