Skip to site content

A True Reformation

Editor’s note: The following column is a revised “Letter to the Editor” in response to Mitch Randall’s April 4 editorial on sexual ethics. EthicsDaily.com appreciates healthy debate, productive conversations and modeling civil discourse when we disagree.

Mitch Randall has recently called for a new “sexual reformation” for the church akin to that outlined by Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book, “Shameless: A Sexual Revolution” (“Sex…Now that I Have Your Attention,” April 4, 2019). This reformation is neither new, nor the one needed.

Conceding all of the problems with much of “purity culture” and its aftermath, it is disheartening to see that the best EthicsDaily can offer is a call to abandon the church’s historic teaching on sexual ethics (what Randall calls the “traditional model,” or, as better known, the position advocated throughout the New Testament and taught historically by all major strands of Christianity).

It would be humorous if not so tragic – the “sexual revolution” advocated by Randall and Bolz-Weber is actually over 50 years old. The position they espouse was more rigorously argued by Joseph Fletcher in his landmark book, “Situation Ethics” – in 1966.

It itself came after Paul Lehmann’s “Ethics in a Christian Context” – of 1963 – in which Lehmann called for his own sexual revolution, namely, a “sexual nonconformity” where “the sexual act is loosed from the marriage criterion” and instead is “anchored…under conditions of trust and fulfillment.”

Yet however late in arguing for a “sexual reformation” for the churches this call may be, we might ask both Randall and Bolz-Weber: What has the earlier reformation rooted in the 1960s procured, both in and out of the church?

Answer: A deep sense of alienation and the numbing of the average person to the power of sex, often accompanied by a descent into the world of pornography and participation in a “hook-up” society, both engendering further isolation from real relationships amid profound and rampant loneliness.

It has also led to the rise of a divorce culture from which millions of children have suffered. Indeed, no one has suffered more from the broken promises of this “reformation.”

In the words of the divorce anthem, “Wonderful,” from the 1990s rock band Everclear: “Promises mean everything when you’re little and the world’s so big.”

The problems begin to mount. It is one thing for Randall to state that abstinence education is ineffective in the public schools.

And it is also certainly right to point out that a narrow legalism, which replaces the power of a restorative grace open to all, is a scandal to the Gospel and can lead to unabated shame and despair for some in the church.

Yet it is quite another thing altogether to overlook that grace is also transformative, compelling Christians onward to live a holy life in accordance to the teaching of Scripture (Mark 7:20-23; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; et al.); or to imply that the call to holy marriage and chastity [the “traditional construct” in Randall’s terms] is impossible – which is news to thousands of married and single Christians faithfully living their single and married lives in quiet obedience; or to call, even if subtly, for an end to the church’s teaching that the mystery of sex’s power is so deep and unitive and unique that it is best expressed in a marital covenant relationship which, itself, bears the weight of serving as an analogy for the mystical union of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).

Randall is certainly correct when he states that the church’s teaching on sex, as well as on the vocations of marriage and singleness, should be more than “thou shalt not.”

The mysteries of sex and of both vocations do require to be taught in all of their biblical and theological profundity as signs of the kingdom of God, of the goodness of creation and of Christ’s redemption of the church.

And yet, there is no meaningful form of teaching or discipleship that does not include prohibitions as well as imperatives.

I assume adultery is off the table, even for the new ethic. If so, there needs to be much deeper reflection on what it means to “love my neighbor” as spoken of in the essay.

Such love of a neighbor would seemingly preclude a person from having intimate relations with his or her neighbor’s wife or husband.

Christian teaching has historically extended this preclusion not only to the current but future wives and husbands of persons as well. Hence, its formidable coherence amid ultimately incoherent alternatives.

And so, once more: In light of the challenges of the times facing our churches, it is disappointing that this essay has nothing more to offer than a “Reader’s Digest” version of a contextual ethic of the 1960s sexual revolution that has proven empty, trite, naïve and devastating to children, as well as to adults.

Surely, there must be a better response to the mistakes of a “purity culture” than taking our cues directly from a shameless one.

C.S. Lewis is older yet than Fletcher or Lehmann, but here he may have more contemporary wisdom to offer us.

In “Mere Christianity,” he dryly notes “we grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity. There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a [person] with an obsession is a [person] who has very little sales-resistance.” Lewis wrote this, it should be noted, in the 1940s.

Yet Lewis continues, and here is the wisdom we may want to ponder. “God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.”

We might want to add that what ultimately matters is the Spirit who has not abandoned us to these difficulties and the temptations that are common to us all (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Nor, it must be insisted, has God abandoned us to the condemnations of our shame (Luke 7:36-50; Romans 8:15-17; 10:11).

The entirely other alternative to Lewis (and this biblical portrait), I suppose, is simply to declare the call to obedience impossible, redefine the difficulties to overcome as repressions and shamelessly abandon them with celebration for a “new sexual ethic,” which is not very new at all.

Kimlyn J. Bender

Kimlyn J. Bender is professor of Christian Theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.