Explaining Christian Sexual Morality
to a Non-Believing World
Michael A. Covington Ė Beech Haven Baptist Church Ė December 5, 1999
(Minor revisions later)
1. Christian sexual morality is mostly positive, not negative.
Alongside an assortment of "thou shalt nots," the Bible is pervaded by a positive teaching that men and women were created for each other and that marriage is holy and blessed (Gen. 2:24, 1 Cor. 11:11, Mark 10:6-9).
So the criterion of all sexual behavior is not merely whether it violates a "thou shalt not" Ė itís also whether itís on track relative to Godís plan.
Does this mean that only married people are first-class citizens of Godís kingdom? No. (Thatís a Mormon doctrine, not a Christian one.) There are many reasons why it might be Godís will for a particular person not to marry. Donít consider yourself inferior if you arenít married. God may have special plans for you. Many great saints have been single people. (1 Cor 7:32-33)
2. Modern American culture seriously misunderstands sex.
a. Todayís movies and TV are very cynical about marriage and the family. Many people have never seen a happy marriage but have seen TV stereotypes that are shallow, sappy, and boring.
b. In todayís popular culture, sexual intercourse has nothing to do with marriage, family, or childbearing; pregnancy is viewed as a misfortune that you catch like the chickenpox. (Before we teach people morality we may have to teach them biology!)
3. Christian values are not the same thing as "traditional values"!
"Traditional values" deal mainly with keeping society stable and avoiding scandal. It is "traditional" to tolerate a certain amount of adultery, premarital sex, etc., as long as it doesnít rock the boat (and as long as respectable men, not respectable women, are doing it... the old double standard).
There is also a new double standard that says a personís sex life is so "private" that it never reflects on his or her character. (I have heard this said in defense of Clinton and Lewinsky.) (Then whose character does it reflect on?)
God doesnít operate that way. He sees your whole character and expects purity and honesty of everyone.
"Traditional values" often include hatred for people you consider repulsive. Christians are not allowed to hate anyone; the Christian approach to people who are trapped in serious sexual sin is to reach out to them and bring the good news of the Gospel (example: Jesus and the woman caught in adultery).
4. Basic principles of Christian sexual morality, expressed so that a non-believer can understand them
(1) God knew what he was doing when He created both men and women. Neither one is unnecessary or contemptible. Both are created for each other (complementarity).
(2) Like geese, people are meant to mate for life. Marriage, as a lifelong commitment, brings more happiness and benefit than any series of shorter relationships.
Many people seem to spend their youth trying to guarantee that they will never be happily married.
(3) Intimacy requires commitment.
On a superficial level, most people understand this. You probably wouldnít kiss someone unless youíre attracted to them and feel some affection toward them.
Well... Going all the way with physical intimacy requires you to also go all the way with commitment.
(4) Sexual intercourse has two effects: to bond a couple together and to pro-create children. If you want to, you can train yourself so that it no longer has the bonding effect on you, and then itís just a source of physical pleasure. But when you do this, you have made yourself less of a human being and have cut off a source of lifelong happiness.
5. Some misconceptions
Misconception: "Sex is dirty and is something God allows only grudgingly."
This is often believed by religious people who mistake frigidity or prudishness for Godliness.
It is associated with the heretical doctrine that Adam and Eveís sin was premature sexual intercourse. (Complete nonsense as far as the Bible is concerned, but itís a legend that wonít die out. If I recall correctly, Rev. Moon teaches it as doctrine.)
People with a fear of their own sexual nature often want to identify with movements (including Christianity) that put some kind of limits on sexual behavior. This is not healthy spirituality.
Another class of people who consider sex to be dirty is those who have dirtied it for themselves, those who have fallen into sin and donít know how to get out.
Misconception: "Sexual morality should change with the times."
This has been the secular gospel for about 35 years Ė but will someone please tell me what new conditions justify abandoning old moral laws?
Not the invention of contraceptives; theyíve been known (though uncommon) for centuries, and certainly for decades before the "sexual revolution."
What it boils down to is that when people say "morality should change with the times" they mean "morality should change to agree with my plans for Saturday night."
If you look at objective conditions, the risk of sexually transmitted disease is higher than it has ever been before, and that should warrant a stricter standard of chastity, if you want to "update" anything!
Misconception: "Only actions matter, not thoughts."
Jesus teaches very clearly that in all areas of morality (not just this one), you are accountable for what you (voluntarily) do mentally, not just what you do physically. (Mt 5:28)
But this doesnít mean itís wrong to have sexual appetites or experience attraction to the opposite sex. Attraction is one of the pleasures of adult life.
Nor is it wrong to experience temptations, dreams, etc., that are not voluntary.
What matters is what you do with your appetites. If you are mentally practicing sexual sins, sooner or later you will have the opportunity to go through with them physically and will do so.
I think an important social skill is to know how to deal with attractive members of the opposite sex as complete human beings, rather than just as objects of sexual desire.
Misconception: "How can it be wrong if it feels so right?"
Ever notice that nobody asks this question about overeating?
Of course it should "feel right" to gratify a bodily appetite. But first, is it an appetite you should be gratifying under the circumstances?
Misconception: "Sexual frustration will drive you crazy."
No, not quite. It may test you and build character, but it will not drive you crazy.
You can reduce the frustration by reducing the temptation. If you donít want to fall over, donít go right up to the edge of the cliff.
I wonder if, among highly educated people, we may be postponing marriage too long. I was quite happy to wait until age 25, but by most of the worldís standards, thatís a fairly late age at which to get married. St Paul says that if you burn with desire, you should get married (1 Cor. 7:9).
Misconception: "A marriage certificate is just a piece of paper."
Then why are you afraid of it?
Every time Iíve seen a couple living together out of wedlock, it has been one of two things:
(a) A one-night stand that persisted; that is, they really have made no commitment at all; or
(b) A situation where one of the pair thinks they are practically married, and the other thinks they have not actually made any commitment to marry. (I.e., a trick!)
Letís distinguish marriage from wedding. If youíre ready to marry, but youíre putting it off because of some difficulty arranging a big fancy ceremony Ė please re-think where you stand. Either make the commitment, and get it publicly registered, or admit that you are not yet married.
Side-topic: Youíre not married until youíre married. A dating couple is not bound by a commitment until they are actually engaged; not bound by marriage until actually married. Donít get stuck dating an unsuitable person just because you "need the commitment" or think you have made a commitment.
Misconception: "But weíre really in love..."
About 50 years ago, popular culture began to mistake emotions for love. All of a sudden we had a flurry of popular songs and movies about "falling in love" (which is an exciting stage in the development of a committed relationship).
Unfortunately, people began to think that the emotion is a substitute for the commitment of marriage.
So now people make a hobby of falling in love (i.e., experiencing just the beginning of a relationship) dozens of times in succession. Itís like ordering every dish on the menu and taking just one bite Ė or reading the first page of every book in the library.
I love my wife. I am also in love with her. Fortunately, Iíve never stopped feeling excited about her Ė and one reason for this is that Iíve made a commitment! I donít ask myself every morning whether weíre "still in love." Of course we are! But if we werenít, it would not cancel the marital commitment.
Finally, note that falling in love is voluntary. It does not give you special privileges or the right to cancel an existing relationship. You have a responsibility not to do it at the wrong time or with the wrong person.
6. Which sexual sins are the worst?
This is a somewhat silly question, since any sin is sufficient to separate you from God.
Also, if you want to divide the human race into sinners and non-sinners, guess how it divides up? Sinners are the only kind of people weíve got! (Rom. 3:23)
But if I had to rate the destructiveness of sexual sins, those that involve an innocent victim are surely the worst. That includes child molesting and adultery. (Adultery is currently fashionable, and people sometimes want me to say itís not serious, but it exposes oneís spouse to ridicule and to potentially fatal disease.)
7. What about homosexuality?
This is a hot issue because:
(1) Homosexual people have generally had the experience of being treated very badly by heterosexuals, often in the name of Christ. But Jesus died for them just as He did for us.
(2) Some activists will accuse you of "hate" if you disapprove, even mildly, of anything they are doing. To them, we must explain that disagreement is not hate.
(3) Many secular conservatives (who call themselves Christians) actually do hate and vilify homosexuals. But hate is un-Christian. Motives include:
a. Being afraid that thereís some of it in yourself; or
b. Wanting to excuse some other sexual sin by looking down on this one.
(1) Sexual union between people of the same sex is clearly not part of Godís plan. It is condemned briefly in several places in the Bible (Lev. 18:22, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9)
(2) The reason the Bible doesnít say more about homosexuality is that the wrongness of homosexual behavior has always been well understood. Crucially, although it says a lot in favor of heterosexual marriage, the Bible never says anything in favor of homosexuality.
(1) Unlike secular conservatives, we distinguish clearly between temptation and sin.
a. It is not a sin to experience abnormal sexual appetites. Youíre just being tempted. Pray, seek wise counsel, and resist!
b. Sin comprises voluntary bodily and mental acts only.
(2) There is nothing wrong with close friendship between people of the same sex (example: David and Jonathan). God often blesses such relationships. They are not sexual.
(3) We cannot divide the world into "normal" and "perverted" people. We are all sinners, and all of our bodily appetites are disordered in some way and to some extent.
Gay activists are spreading some misinformation and half-truths about the Bible. Some examples:
(1) "Jesus never condemns homosexuality." Well, there are a lot of moral issues on which He says nothing specific (that got recorded in the NT) because his morality is the same as the Jewish morality people already knew about.
(2) "The prohibition of homosexuality was invented by St. Paul." No, it wasnít; see Leviticus or any ancient Jewish moralist. (And some non-Jews. The ancient Greeks practiced pedophilia but did not seem to wholeheartedly approve of it!)
(3) "David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship, as would be obvious to you if you knew more about it... itís there, as a secret message in the Bible." Nonsense. If the Bible wanted to bless homosexuality it would come right out and say so! Besides, David got in trouble for chasing a woman who wasnít his wife.
8. What if your record isnít perfect?
Whenever we talk about Christian sexual purity, a really important issue is, what do we say to Christians (or would-be Christians) whose record is not perfect?
In particular, it is common to lose your virginity first, then lose your faith. Many people feel that after theyíve fallen into extramarital sex, they no longer can be Christians and might as well not even try. They rationalize it by ceasing to believe in God.
(1) Those of you who are pure, donít be too proud of it. We are all sinners. The only difference is that some of us have not sinned in that particular way.
(2) Those of you who have lost your purity, donít despair. Jesus died for your sins no less than anybody elseís. He made at least one great saint out of a sexually impure person (St. Mary Magdalene).
Practical note: Sexual intercourse is addictive. Itís supposed to be. Its purpose is to produce a lifelong bond. Once youíve experienced it, you will have a harder time resisting some temptations than a virgin would have. (For preserving premarital chastity, it helps a great deal not to know what youíre missing!)