A New Sexual Ethic for Christians: An EPIC Discussion

SexualityPeople assume lots of things about what Christians believe and preach about sexuality (rightly or wrongly). During a time of rapid societal change, the loudest Christians have doubled down on what they believe to be “traditional” or “biblical,” while Episcopalians and many other Christians have jettisoned elements of sexual ethics that we find to be repressive. My observation is that Christians with a more progressive bent on social issues are happy about this jettisoning, but that we have not done our work to replace a destructive sexual ethic with a constructive one.

Theologically conservative parents know exactly what to teach their children about sex: don’t do it, and when you do, keep it hetero and within marriage. At its best, such an ethic can make kids wary to engage in sexual activity too early. But we see its worst in the abject failure of “abstinence-only” sex ed programs in schools, and in the continued misunderstanding and persecution of people whose sexual identity doesn’t fall within the majority. Meanwhile, theologically progressive parents have been left with nothing but the sexual ethic of the dominant culture, which is not an ethic so much as it is the natural result of hedonistic market forces. One terrible outcome is the widespread use of online pornography among teenage boys.

Do conservative Christians ignore science and the experiences of loved ones in order to cling to an outmoded ethic? Do liberal Christians ignore Scripture and tradition and capitulate to the dominant culture’s sexual proclivities? What might a responsible Christian sexual ethic look like for the 21st century? And in building such an ethic, what all should be taken into account?

Just LoveWe talked about sexual ethics in EPIC one night last month. I came to the discussion prepared with notes from a book I read in seminary called Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret A. Farley. I told the students this, but I withheld the book to see what sorts of norms they would name themselves for a new Christian sexual ethic.

First we talked about the “dominant” Christian sexual ethic. We named some stereotypes of Christians regarding sex:

  • No sex outside marriage
  • Marriage is great! Get married!
  • Sex is mostly for reproduction
  • No sex allowed other than “P&V”
  • Men can’t control their sexual urges
  • Girls, don’t be alone with boys! Be careful!
  • Separation of the sexes
  • “Modest is hottest”: Girls are responsible, through their choice of clothing, for boys being “turned on” and acting on this feeling
  • “Leave room for the Holy Spirit” in dancing, hugging, etc.
  • Sex is wonderful and powerful (fire as a metaphor: helpful or destructive)
  • Our culture has become overly sexualized/impure
  • Porn is bad
  • Non-hetero = “abomination”

Next, we each took turns marking items on the list that we thought carried some merit. We didn’t need to come to consensus; anybody could mark one of them. The following were each marked by somebody:

  • No sex outside marriage
  • Marriage is great! Get married!
  • Girls, don’t be alone with boys! Be careful!
  • “Modest is hottest” (some modicum of this)
  • Sex is wonderful and powerful (fire is a pretty good metaphor)
  • Our culture has become overly sexualized/impure

To be clear, not everybody agreed that all these items should be included in our new ethic. They just found them to be valuable contributions to the conversation.

It is commonly said that in the Episcopal Church, we look to the authority of three different sources: Scripture, tradition, and reason (or experience). We understand God to be at work in all of these sources, and that means that valuable insights can come from just about anywhere. As Christians, we never rule out the authority of the Bible. But sometimes we understand its authority to have a different quality than many other Christians assume.

I stressed that it’s important for us to note that for many Protestant Christians, the Bible is considered the only authority in matters of ethics. I don’t believe this plays out in actual practice for any Christian. But if we want a Christian sexual ethic to be taken seriously outside our denomination, we have to be able to point to Scripture as a warrant for every single element of our ethic.

Many college students feel less than proficient with the Bible, but we asked: Off the top of our heads, what does the Bible say about sex?

  • Paul says a lot, but one favorite is: “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Cor 10:23)
  • The Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) give us lots of specific instructions about sex. We understand these to be very late writings, attributed to Paul by pseudonym.
  • “I am doing a new thing,” says God to Isaiah. (Is 43:19) When the world changes, is God driving the change? Reacting to it? Guiding it?
  • Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13) The Bible cannot give us specific instruction on things that people in that place and time hadn’t yet imagined, such as same-sex marriage.
  • In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter understands God to have changed the rules about what is clean v. unclean, at least regarding Jewish dietary restrictions. (Acts 10)
  • Any time we read the Bible, we must take into account the century and the culture into which it came. The purpose is not to write off portions of Scripture, but simply to place them into their proper context to enable a deeper understanding.

Of course, the Bible also says many other things about sex, but we understand that not every sexual event in the Bible is meant to be proscriptive. For instance, rape abounds in the early books of the Old Testament, and it is there to teach us how unacceptable it is.

What about our tradition and culture? What messages do these give us about sex?

  • The institution of marriage is a cultural phenomenon that has changed drastically in the time since the Bible was collected into one book. For instance, arranged marriage is rare in Christian circles now. Marriage because of love is the current norm, yet people in the Bible couldn’t have imagined this. And we find such practices as levirate marriage to be unacceptable.
  • What is the definition of virginity? Should it matter to us? Matthew and Luke make a big deal out of Mary’s virginity, but how are we to understand its importance?
  • Our overly sexualized culture would have us believe that sex is the be-all and end-all of human experience. We agreed that this is not the case.
  • The rise of individuality throughout the sweep of the Bible and into the present day has affected all discussion about sex. In Western culture, we are not as beholden to our communities as previous generations were.
  • In the late 20th century, birth control, paternity tests, and technological and medical advances and options all began to contribute greatly to the conversation.

Finally, what do our reason and experience teach us about sexual ethics?

  • We each live our own lives and make our own decisions. Mistakes and corrections are to be expected and welcomed. As Christians, we believe that God forgives our sins.
  • There is truly a variety of sexual identities. While science hasn’t yet provided an explanation of the origin of every phenomenon related to sexual identity, we understand this variety to be God-given and natural.
  • We are more than our sexuality. It’s not as big a deal as people in marketing tell us it is.
  • Does sexual activity change a relationship? How?
  • “The talk” used to refer to parents teaching kids about sex. These days, “the talk” might refer to the disclosure of one’s sexual identity to parents and friends!

By now, we were itching to list some basic norms for our new ethic. The conversation had moved much more quickly than I had expected. Here are the norms our students came up with:

  • Safety
  • Consent
  • Respect
  • Fruitfulness
  • Commitment
  • Honesty/Trustworthiness
  • Autonomy
  • Mutuality
  • Equality

To these, I suggested we add one from Margaret Farley’s book: Social Justice. We’ll come back to that one. But I was excited to see that the students had named every other norm Farley had identified in her own book.

Again I explained that some Christians would understand us to be working backwards. They would want us to begin with Scripture and move from there into the norms. So I said, “Let’s look for biblical warrants now to justify these norms.” We thought of stories involving sex and wondered, “Where do these fit?” Some fit in multiple places. Some of them we found to be appropriate in that they teach us what not to do. To these Scripture references we added some other observations in some places.


  • Ruth and Boaz
  • Woman caught in adultery
  • Jesus’ teaching on divorce


  • David and Bathsheba
  • Lot and his daughters
  • Joseph and Potiphar’s wife
  • The rape of Dinah


  • Ruth and Boaz
  • Jesus’ teaching on divorce


  • Song of Solomon
  • Jesus’ teachings on marriage
  • God’s love as a model for couples
  • Genesis: procreation
  • We make each other better as couples who love each other


  • Mary and Joseph
  • Hosea and Gomer (This was an interesting suggestion! Look up the Book of Hosea and revel in its unsettling metaphors.)
  • Jesus’ teaching on divorce
  • Our commitment to God


  • Ruth and Boaz
  • Jacob and Leah
  • Always allowing for the possibility of children


  • Jacob and Leah
  • Woman caught in adultery
  • This norm includes freedom to pursue individual interests and friendships.


  • The woman at the well
  • All of Jesus’ other relationships with women as well


  • Equality has various definitions to people. For some, clearly defined gender roles help them maintain a sense of equality in the relationship. We can’t totally write off this instinct as unhealthy for everyone.
  • The woman at the well
  • Jesus’ teaching on divorce

Social Justice

  • Margaret Farley suggests that it is the duty of a sexually active couple to serve as a catalyst for the betterment of society through such practices as refusing, as a couple, to exploit others, and working together for the establishment of a positive sexual ethic among friends, family, and the larger world. I note that the maturity required for this norm would probably cut out the ethical possibility of sex for many, if not all, teenagers.
  • Esther used her marriage to save her people
  • Jesus’ teaching on divorce

Doubtless there are many other biblical warrants we could apply here, but this was good work for one night.

Finally, we created a list of controversial conversations going on in our culture right now. We asked, “If we were to hold any one of these up against our new norms, would it pass the test?”

  • One-night stands
  • Premarital sex
  • Polyamory
  • Polygamy/Polygyny
  • Pornography
  • Prostitution
  • Masturbation
  • Same-sex relationships
  • Same-sex marriage
  • Divorce
  • Transgender situations/Gender reassignment surgery
  • “Friends with benefits”
  • “Bromance” (Why can’t men just be affectionate friends?)
  • Birth control
  • Sexual advertising
  • “Unequally yoked”: Couples of different religious traditions

We started with one-night stands, and we decided that it would be difficult to make it pass the Commitment and Social Justice norms. We decided that masturbation runs into no particular trouble with these norms. And then we ran out of time.

We acknowledged that not everybody would necessarily come to the same conclusion about whether a given topic fits with our ethical norms as we have defined them. This is unfinished work, but we commend it to all of you who read about it. We also welcome input on this work.


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