Contemporary debates about human sexuality and reproduction—abortion, in vitro fertilization, birth control, gay rights, etc.—tend to be highly charged with emotion. While it is often easy to carry on a dispassionate debate about even such life or death issues as war and capital punishment, issues in sexual ethics are much more challenging in this regard. It is apparent why this is so when one considers the stakes. For permissivists on such issues (e.g., pro-choicers, gay marriage advocates, etc.) personal autonomy and, by extension, a whole way of life, is at stake. And for conservatives the sanctity of life and family itself (as traditionally understood) is at stake. And for folks on both sides of these debates a sense of what is ultimately good for society as a whole hangs in the balance.
But for Christian moral conservatives there is a further dimension to these issues which makes them especially urgent and emotionally charged—the notion that human sexuality is sacred. So what is it about sex such that it should be considered “sacred” or somehow religiously significant? From the standpoint of Christian theology, of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that God ordained sex and blessed it as a means of procreation, marital unity, and pleasure.
But could there be something even more significant about sex which traces back to the nature of God? One possibility is that sex and procreation actually reflect the Trinity. Sex is an intimate communion between two persons (man and woman) from whom proceed a third person (child), and all three of these persons share the same (human) nature. This mirrors the divine nature, which consists of an intimate communion between two persons (God the Father and God the Son), from whom proceed a third person (the Holy Spirit), and all three of these persons share the same (divine) nature.
Now this analogy might appear to break down in the fact that God the Son also proceeds from God the Father, which is not mirrored in a human marital relationship. However, this procession is reflected in the Genesis creation account where the woman proceeds from the man, via the “rib” of Adam. Anyway, though human sexuality and procreation are imperfect images of the Trinity (one must be careful not to go too far with such images), they are profound analogues of the divine nature all the same. And this is one more reason why we should regard sex as sacred, from a Christian perspective. And it helps to explain why behavioral distortions of our sexual teleology are regarded by Scripture as especially heinous and harmful. See, for example, such passages as Prov. 6:32-33, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9. The severity of judgment in these passages is more understandable if such acts constitute attacks on the Godhead.
Can we really discuss the symbolism of human sexuality without referencing Ephesians 5, especially verses 25-32? Paul seems here to refer to sexuality as symbolic of the relationship of Christ to the church. I suppose this does not contradict a secondary symbolism of the Trinity itself, and it is also true that one could make a similar argument from Ephesians 5 to what is made here. Nonetheless, I believe the directly biblical image should add to our understanding of the issue.
The one other minor critique I have is that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 refers to sin beyond sexual sin, and the thrust of the passage seems to be God’s forgiveness and sanctification of those who repent. In context, it does still provide a strong condemnation of sexual sins, but not necessarily stronger than of theft, greed, or drunkenness. What are you arguing that sexual sins are “especially heinous and harmful” in comparison to?
Good point about the relevance of Ephesians 5 to my analogy, and I do think it serves my point well.
As for my reference to sexual sins being worse than some other sins, this is based on such facts as these: 1) no sin affects the body like sexual sin (cf. 1 Cor. 6:18), 2) most sins were not punishable by death in the O.T. civil law, but such sexual sins as beastiality, adultery, and homosexuality were, and 3) Proverbs 6:32-33 says that the shame of the adulterer “will never be wiped away” and very few sins are described this way in Scripture. Of course, none of this shows that sexual sins are worse than some of the others that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 6 but that’s beside the point, since my claim is not that sexual sins are the very worst of all but rather “especially” wicked and damaging. Presumably some other sins are especially bad as well.
All of this assumes that not all sins are equal, which is fairly obvious in Scripture. Yet, strangely, some Christians are skeptical about this. See J. I. Packer’s excellent piece on this point in the January 2005 issue of Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/january/19.65.html.
1. I’m not sure why war and capital punishment would not be just as important as issues in your understanding, Jim. Life is sacred. Much is at stake. And a sense of what is ultimately good for society hangs in the balance (on both sides of these debates).
2. I appreciate your giving clear reasons for taking the position that sexual sins are worse than some other sins. Would you have anything to add in response to those who argue that sins of money and power are even more serious than sexual sins, on the basis of counting the number of times Jesus–and the rest of the Bible–teaches on each of these issues? This question comes up a lot in my present circles.
3. I can imagine Christians who take a non-traditional stance on sexuality with respect to gay marriage could also see these sexual relationships as symbolizing the divine nature. Although gay marriages never involve procreation (as I’m sure you would be quick to point out). 🙂 My point is merely that, whether or not they can make as good of a case, gay Christians will also see sex as sacred, and therefore I am not convinced that–in their own minds at least–that they have less reason than conservatives to see these issues as “especially urgent and morally charged”.
1. My claim is not that issues such as war and capital punishment are not as important as issues in sexual ethics but that debates about the latter tend to be more emotionally charged, at least in my experience of teaching and discussing ethics for the last twenty years.
2. You raise a good point about Jesus’ emphasis on monetary issues–with the possible exception of hell, he taught on money more than anything else. And in lots of other places in Scripture the issue is addressed. But the biblical emphasis on the significance of sexual sin goes even beyond the fact that Scripture speaks to the issue very frequently (which it does). But we should emphasize the significance of the sin of greed when we consider Paul’s statement that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). I plan to address this issue, specifically related to tithing and the Church’s profound failure to do so faithfully, in a future post.
3. Perhaps what you say about some “gay Christians” seeing their sexual activity as sacred as well is correct. But just how prevalent that perspective is—given the staggering patterns of promiscuity among homosexual males—is questionable. And, in any case, the most important question is whether this perspective is true.
Sexual sins not only mar the image of the Trinity, but they are among the few sins that humans committ against our very being. In this sense, then they are contrary to nature. That is sexual sin, as opposed to say theft, goes against the purpose/nature/end of our own being. This is way sexual sin is as serious as murder. This is also why respect for life breaks down in the face of sexual immorality. By engaging in illict sexual activity we have already begun to lose respect for the sanctity of life.
Also, sacramentally speaking my tradition holds that the sacrament is not complete until the marriage relationship is consummated. Therefore, every act of marital love is sacramental.
Just a few thoughts.
What theory of the purpose/nature/end/constitution of human beings is presupposed by the claim that sexual sins and murder violate our very being in a way that social sins such as oppression of the poor by the rich do not?
If human beings are social creatures, and if God has a communitarian social order in mind for God’s human creations, then why are violations of that order–along the lines of radically unjust distributions of basic resources like food and water–not fundamental violations of our very being?
Taken even further, what presuppositions are brought to the table to state that basic resources are radically unjustly distributed. And what would a just distribution look like?
Hi, Chris! 🙂
Setting aside the question of whether or not world hunger today constitutes a “radically unjust distribution of basic resources”, the Bible (Hebrew Prophets) certainly recognizes that injustice (specifically instantiated as oppression of the poor by the rich) happens. This isn’t to say that being rich is inherently evil or that being poor is necessarily the consequence of being oppressed.
My point was less to quibble about what the worst sins in our world today are, and more to quibble about whether or not sexual sins should be put in a special category from other sins that are also important to biblical writers.
I am not here attempting to disagree that sexual sins are thoroughly sinful, I am simply questioning the claim that they are especially sinful.
Hey Scott 🙂
I don’t think Jim ever really put sexual sins in a special category from all other sins. Other than to state that in general discussions concerning them tend to be more emotionally charged. Then he discusses why sexuality is sacred. He does state in his first response that based on scripture he finds good reason to believe that sexual sins are more egregious than some other sins. In that sense they are “especially” sinful, although no claim was ever made as to which sin was most sinful.
So if your purpose is to bring down sexual sins to the level of certain other sins and thus not especially sinful, then you would need to respond to Jim’s biblical arguments in his first response. Your bringing in oppression of the poor really has no bearing whatsoever on the issue at hand. Although it does raise a bunch of other interesting questions. Such as what would a just distribution of basic resources look like? Or who has committed (is committing) the sin that has caused (is causing) World Hunger?
I think you should read my purpose less as bringing down sexual sins to the level of certain other sins and more as bringing other sins up to the level of sexual sins. 🙂
As Jim said in his first comment to this post, “…none of this shows that sexual sins are worse than some of the others that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 6 but that’s beside the point…. Presumably some other sins are especially bad as well.”
I was quibbling less, I think, with Jim, and more with Peter Marshall above, when he says: “…but they are among the few sins that humans commit against our very being. In this sense, then they are contrary to nature. That is sexual sin, as opposed to say theft, goes against the purpose/nature/end of our own being.”
Note that in 1 Cor 6, Paul lists theft, greed, and swindling.