No issue is more contentious in our culture than sexual ethics. From the outside, followers of Jesus are accused of being bigots. And from the inside, many preachers, writers, and theologians are questioning whether or not Scripture is really as clear on sexual ethics as we’ve always asserted. Co-habitation, same-sex relationships, transgenderism, and more; ours has become a tricky culture to navigate with kindness and without compromise.
Everyone Has a Sexual Ethic
Every person with whom I have discussed this issue believes some sexual behaviors are good and pure, while other behaviors are shameful and even deviant. For instance, most people in this culture would hold to a sexual ethic that condemns behaviors like pedophilia, rape, and probably incest.
Regardless of a rapist’s desires, or the length of time he has struggled with those desires, we simply do not condone rape as acceptable sexual behavior. We rightfully condemn rape as immoral, regardless of any other considerations. Similarly, most people in this culture would also condemn a sexual relationship between a 45-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl. Regardless of the man’s desires or the girl’s consent, we would all judge that relationship to be unhealthy, inappropriate, and wrong.
So, here is the question I think everyone needs to ask, “What is the standard or basis for my sexual ethic?” In other words, “By what standard do I judge one sexual relationship to be right and another sexual relationship to be wrong?” Standards by which we judge might include:
- personal opinion
- state or federal law
- or something else
Everyone makes judgments about sexual behavior. No one is ambivalent on the issue. But our judgments differ because we are using different standards. So, what is your standard?
Jesus’ Sexual Ethic
Jesus had a sexual ethic. He believed some sexual behaviors were moral and others were immoral. In order for us to understand Jesus’ sexual ethic, we need to consider what he meant when he talked about “sexual immorality” (e.g. Mark 7:21). As a first-century Jewish rabbi, speaking to a Jewish audience, there is absolutely no doubt Jesus defined sexual immorality according to the Law of Moses (see Leviticus 18-20). The Law of Moses was the standard by which Jesus judged sexual behavior. Everything the Law condemned as sexually immoral, Jesus also condemned as sexually immoral (same-sex relationships, rape, bestiality, incest, etc.).
But Jesus’ sexual ethic went far deeper than a surface reading of the Law. Jesus discerned from the Law principles like these:
- a married man is sinning by even fantasizing about women other than his wife (Matthew 5:28)
- the story of Adam and Eve serves as a precedent for the definition and permanence of marriage (Matthew 19:4-5)
- in spite of the Law’s limited allowance for divorce, leaving your spouse to marry someone else is still adulterous (Matthew 19:3-9)
Jesus did not create or void any laws about sex, marriage, or divorce. He upheld the Law of Moses, but he also dove deeper into Scripture to reveal the will of God that was always present in the heart of the Law.
The Sexual Ethic of Jesus’ People
After Jesus’ ascension, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish. Like the Lord, they held to the sexual ethic of the Law of Moses. When Gentiles started following Jesus, the church told them they were not obligated to keep the entire Law of Moses, but there were some requirements from the Law that remained binding. In Acts 15:28-29, we read:
It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
Like Jesus, the apostles defined sexual immorality according to the Law of Moses, but they also had a unique view of sexuality in light of the Gospel.
The Spirit-filled apostles extrapolated from the Gospel story itself a sexual ethic based on Jesus’ faithfulness and self-giving love (e.g. Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Corinthians 5-7). They taught that committing oneself to a spouse of the opposite sex was a way to model the faithfulness and self-giving love of Jesus and the church. They also taught that because Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, engaging in any sexual behavior outside of marriage was an act of defiling God’s holy temple.
Policing the World
With all of that said, the apostle Paul took the position that it is not up to the church to police the sexual ethics of those outside the church (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13). It is our job to hold other disciples accountable, but it is not our job to hold people in the world accountable for their sex life.
If you have accepted Jesus’ offer to be his disciple, then adopting his sexual ethic is part of that relationship. Being a disciple of Jesus means, in part, allowing Jesus to dictate our sexual behavior. Our emotions and desires cannot dictate the way we behave sexually. Just because we have a desire does not mean it is right to fulfill that desire. Like the early church, we must allow the Gospel story to shape our view of sexuality and dictate our sexual behavior.
However, if someone is not a follower of Jesus, all we can do is invite them to follow Jesus, explaining to them why trusting Jesus about everything (including sexuality) is the best choice anyone can make. Criticizing their sexual behavior, shaming them because they do not hold to a biblical sexual ethic, will not help bring them to Jesus. It’s not our job to hold them accountable for their sex life, it’s our job to share Jesus with them!
[UPDATED] The more we try to hold the world accountable to the sexual ethic of Jesus, without them actually being disciples, the more we ensure they move further and further away from Jesus (and his sexual ethic). When we rail against sexual immorality saying, “That’s wrong because the Bible says so!” The world simply replies, “But we don’t believe the Bible.” That’s why it’s so important to apply Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, it isn’t our place to judge the world’s sexual immorality, that’s up to God. Our job is to hold the church accountable and preach Jesus to the world.
I love you and God loves you,