The Holy Bible and Sanctified Sexuality: An Evangelical Approach to Scripture and Sexual Ethics

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I AM AN EVANGELICAL. Now, I am usually happy to be called such, for I take the term to identify me as one who longs to think and to live my life--including my sexual life--in the light and power of the gospel, the good news, the evangel.

"Evangelical" means different things to different people, however, and some of those things I should rather not be called. Someone has said, for example, that an evangelical is "a fundamentalist with a sense of humor." It is not for me to settle disputed questions about the definition of an evangelical or about the boundaries of evangelicalism or about the correct pitch for an evangelical voice. It is enough for me happily to accept the designation, while admitting that I do not and cannot claim to speak for all who would likewise happily call themselves "evangelical."

Evangelical voices do not always sing in unison--or even in harmony. Not all, however, is dissonance. There are some common notes: notably, a commitment to Jesus the Christ as Savior and Lord and a confidence in scripture as the Word of God.(1) These are notes this essay also sounds. I am convinced, as evangelicals insist, that to think about human sexuality and to live sexually with Christian integrity requires attention to scripture and a readiness to be disciplined by it.

There are problems, of course. One problem is the silence of scripture concerning many of the concrete issues of the sexual world in which we live. For example, scripture, though always ready to take the side of the vulnerable against the rich and powerful, nevertheless never mentions adolescents and the entertainment industry.

The silence of scripture is a problem, but so is the strangeness of scripture. When scripture does speak of human sexuality, its words seem sometimes, well, quaint. Solomon's many wives and quite too many concubines, levirate marriages, the story of Jacob's purchase of a bride, the story of Bilhah giving birth to Jacob's child while she sits between the legs of Rachel--it is a strange world of sex in scripture. And honest Christians are driven to admit that the words of scripture are human words, words we may not simply identify with timeless truths dropped from heaven or repeat without qualification as Christian counsel for sexual ethics today.

Scripture is sometimes silent, sometimes strange, and frequently diverse. That is the third problem. Scripture does not always speak with one voice about sex, marriage, and divorce. For example, although Moses permitted divorce (Deut. 24:1-4),Jesus evidently did not (Mark 10:2-9, although there are different voices about this as well).

Moreover, it must be admitted that appeals to scripture have sometimes done a great deal of harm. Great harm is done, for example, when reports of abuse and incest are hushed by reading texts about submission. It may be said, and I think rightly so, that such uses of scripture are abuses of scripture. If the message is "good news to the oppressed" (Isa. 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18), then we ought not fail to observe that when scripture is abused, it is usually women and children and marginalized persons, seldom "righteous" adult males, who are hurt.

The silence, strangeness, diversity, and abuse of scripture are reasons enough to be cautious in reading scripture to form and reform sexual lives, but there are features of our culture that seem to prohibit the effort to attend to scripture as relevant to our sexual world. It is a pluralistic society after all. Christianity and its book no longer bind society together by providing a common interpretation of reality or a shared set of legitimating standards.(2) It was the expectation of the Enlightenment that reason and its child, science, would play the role of integrating society by providing common standards and interpreting reality. The Enlightenment had effects on both hermeneutics and sexual conduct, effects that evangelical communities have resisted, even if in sometimes inept ways. …