A common refrain among many outside the church is that Christians seem obsessed with talking about sexuality and gender issues. Often, this is mocked or simply dismissed as Christians just seeking to enforce their personal views on other people or to impose our beliefs through government action. Many argue that society would be better off if Christians just kept to themselves and let people have their personal, private fun since it doesn’t hurt anyone. It is thought that the Christian sexual ethic is not only retrograde and backward, but also deeply harmful and inherently hateful since it limits moral autonomy, the golden calf that rules our day. The idea goes that we all must respect one another’s private decisions and honor the autonomy of the individual to decide what is right and good for themselves.
The infamous moral philosopher Peter Singer highlights this idea in the introduction to his work, Practical Ethics, by highlighting how most people assume that Christians are obsessed with sexuality to the neglect of other aspects of ethics. He states that there was a time in our history when if someone saw a newspaper headline reading “RELIGIOUS LEADER ATTACKS DECLINING MORAL STANDARDS,” they would naturally understand this was simply decrying (yet again) promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, and more. Singer rightfully decries this simplistic understand of ethics, but then goes to on lambast religious-based sexual ethics as simply “nasty puritanical prohibitions” designed to keep people from having fun.
Yet, this focus on sexuality isn’t simply limited to Christians; these ideas are at the forefront of cultural debate today and have been for several decades with the meteroric rise of the sexual revolution. This monumental shift in society is rooted in modern conceptions of the individual that reject our created nature and believe that one’s sexual desires and proclivities are to be seen as absolutely central to one’s personal identity. Not only that, but they should be freely expressed and affirmed by all, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.
Given the widespread cultural fixation on sexuality and gender, it is no surprise that the church would focus on these crucial aspects of both personal and social ethics. But we must not believe that the Christian sexual ethic is simply a response to cultural movements. Instead, as humans, it is rooted in the very nature given to us by God. In an age where we often seek to create our own meanings and moral truths, Christians must remember that the biblical sexual ethic isn’t about limiting one’s pleasure but aligning our desires with our God-given nature for our ultimate good.
An inflamed and sexualized society
We are inundated with conflicting messages about sexuality and deep confusion over the nature of sexual ethics, whether it’s providing (and protecting) gender-affirming care and surgeries for youth or the deeply entrenched nature of pornography. One of the main aspects of this cultural divide is seen in the recent calls to push for the complete normalization of LGBTQ+ lifestyles, especially among children and young adults. For example, last summer we saw companies like Disney make sexuality and gender issues a primary emphasis in their entertainment offerings for children. This push can also be seen in the Biden administration’s 2021 National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality that is designed to help normalize these lifestyles throughout all domestic and foreign policy.
But these moves are just one element of a larger movement throughout our culture to encourage and support the radical moral autonomy of the sexual revolution. While particular instances like that of Disney made national headlines, many schools, communities, churches, and even hospitals have bought into and promoted the harmful lie that we are able to simply determine our sexuality and gender based on personal feelings and decisions rather than seek to bring the mind into alignment with the biological realities of our creation. As these discussions and debates continue, what does the Christian ethic bring to this conversation? And how can we proclaim truth while also caring for those struggling and left in the wake of broken promises and false hopes for peace?
The root of our sexual rebellion
According to Romans 1:25, all of us in our sin and rebellion—no matter our sexual temptations or desires—have ”exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” While not all people believe in God, Paul makes it clear that we all know that there is a God, even if we suppress that truth in our unrighteousness and desire to be like God ourselves (Rom. 1:19-23). This desire to be God and to have the power to decide what is right and good for ourselves is the very root of our rebellion (Gen. 3).
Many will speak of the root of the sexual revolution as the turmoil of the 1960s, various Supreme Court decisions on no-fault divorce, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, or even the rise of modern philosophy with figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. While these factors have undoubtedly shaped beliefs about sexual ethics today and aided the progression of the sexual revolution, the core of our problem goes much further back. All rebellion and sin began at the Fall of humanity (Gen. 3), and the nature of this fall reveals a deep truth about human nature and the great lie we are apt to embrace.
Leading up to the Fall, the serpent tempted Eve by causing her to doubt how God created her. The beginning of Genesis goes to painstaking lengths to show that God created man and woman utterly unique from the rest of creation, stating how God made humanity in “our image, after our likeness”—a reflection of the Triune nature of God. Yet, in Genesis 3, the serpent asks, “Did God actually say?” and then quickly stirs up confusion about how God made Eve in his very image. The serpent said, “You will not surely die (if you eat of the fruit). For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This original disinformation and an outright lie was not just tempting Eve to question God’s commands but to reject her God-given nature. She was already like God because she was made in his image.
One of the ways we try to be like God is by asserting authority over our sexuality. However, part of our God-given nature is the reality of being made distinctly male and female. Our sexuality is rooted in our created nature. But in our sin, we seek to reinterpret or alter God’s good design. This isn’t simply limited to those outside the church or even to those struggling with gender disphoria or same-sex attraction. All of us apart from Christ seek to rebel against God’s good design for our sexuality. Many of us go to great lengths to craft our own identities and reject the one given to us by our Creator.
While the culture around us pushes to normalize rebellious, sinful, and harmful ideologies, Christians must seek to retrieve a deeply biblical sense of sexual ethics, rooted both in Scripture and in the evident ways that God has created us. This idea is commonly referred to as natural law ethics and is a foundational element of the Christian ethic upon which the commands of God as revealed in Scripture and the virtues we are to exhibit as Christians are built. This approach reminds us that the Christian ethic must be deeply rooted in the Bible, but is also revealed in part through how God made us in his image as humans—both male and female.
Even though it is common to hear that the Christian sexual ethic is backward, oppressive, and out of date, we must respond by boldly and gracefully speaking the truth, remembering how God rescued us out of our rebellion. Despite the opposition we might (and will) face, we can take comfort in the fact that God has made his attributes clearly known in creation and that our hope is not placed in temporal cultural gains. As we proclaim and live out the Christian sexual ethic to which creation itself testifies, a broken society will witness how our God enables us to live in joy and true freedom as we point to the gospel of reconciliation and redemption.