The Tyranny of Sexual Ethics

Jesus in the Wilderness 2Our ethical behavior is very important, but it is not the most important aspect of our being. What is most important is that we trust that we have been embraced into the life of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Our decisions about what is moral and immoral then flow from this central truth as a secondary result.

Christians who have put their trust in the God who embraces us through Jesus may sometimes disagree about ethical issues. There is no reason that such disagreements should necessarily lead to a break in communion between Christians since, after all, morality is secondary to the good news that God has included us in his life through Jesus.

Unfortunately, this has often not been the case in Christian history. In fact, schism has often resulted from disagreements over what to eat or not eat, what to drink or not drink, and the general rules of how to live a moral life. On such occasions Christians have allowed ethics to establish a tyrannical reign over Jesus and the gospel.

This tyranny is especially visible when it comes to sexual ethics. The results can be quite startling when viewed from a distance. Consider this example:  some 19th century Christians in America disapproved of an unmarried woman having sex but turned a blind eye to masters raping their slaves. Which is the more damaging act of immorality?

In our own age there are many Christians who confidently affirm that Jesus is the central truth of our faith while at the same time allowing the tyranny of sexual ethics to determine whom they regard as a fellow Christian and what message they choose to present to the world about God. What is the gospel? Is it a message about sexual morality or is it a message about the Father who has embraced humanity through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit? Christians who can’t answer that question with clarity and confidence risk worshiping the tyrant of ethics and not the God of love.

I don’t think that homosexuality is a sin, which works out well for my life and ministry in the Episcopal Church, but I understand the perspective of Christians who disagree with me on this issue. I think they’re wrong and they think I’m wrong, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t share communion with them or that I think they aren’t Christians because they disagree with me. Why? Because my spiritual life is ruled by Jesus, not by the tyranny of sexual ethics.

And maybe, at the end of the day, this is the question that non-Christian are asking of the Church: what is really of first importance, Jesus or sex?

~ Jonathan Stepp

11 comments so far

  1. Pat on

    I had this conversation with a couple others just last night. I understand the COMMAND to LOVE others a little clearer ea. day. I believe that we are so sure we’re right (determined by my view and whatever the topic is at the time) and we seem to prove it by judging another “out sinning” someone else!!
    I’m also clearer on the truth that whatever stands between my relationship with my Father is sin,and that might mean too much pizza!!! That doesn’t work well for me either :):)

  2. Pat on

    Just finished a really good book on that very subject,”The Bible’s YES to Same -sex Marriage” I forgot the Author’s name?? Check it out,very interesting,informative and encouraging, at least it was to me.

    • Jonathan Stepp on

      Thanks for your comments, Pat, I haven’t heard of that book before but it does sound very interesting!

  3. Because it was not very long ago that I ceased seeing homosexual behavior as a sin, I can still very strongly *feel* the point of view of those who deem it sinful. I can’t join those on my “new side” in shouting insults at those who are on the other side, the side that was mine until pretty recently. It is my hope that I can maintain this sort of “bifocal empathy” in the long run. Because the people who disagree with me on this are my brothers and sisters who are doing the best they can, same as me. Thank you for this, Jonathan!

    • Jonathan Stepp on

      That’s well said, John, our past experiences with these issues should enable our ability to empathize with others. As you may know, this issue is a big one in the EC because we’ve had several dioceses attempt to secede over the issue, in essence telling us that they can’t share communion with us unless we agree to their ethical understanding.

  4. John on

    Thanks Jonathan
    This is a fractious topic, that has confused me for years.
    Have I completely resolved this in my mind? NO!
    There is ongoing changing of my mind!

    If Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not judge our behaviour, but constrains love in their oneness in all mankind. WHY DO WE judge ourselves?

    This I know!
    If one died for ALL then ALL died!
    In His resurrection we are ALL new creations in Jesus Christ!
    We regard NO ONE according to the flesh
    We should not call ANY man common or unclean

    Are there consequences to actions that we may take in the here and now, whatever they are, off course, but this does not override Jesus as Grace and Truth for all and in all!

    • Jonathan Stepp on

      Thank for your comments, John – I understand the ongoing process of change that you’re in and I agree that staying focused on what is of first importance is the key.

  5. Sherwin Scott on

    When God created Adam, He also created a woman for him whose name was Eve. Not another man whose name was Steve! How can you write that “I don’t think that homosexuality is a sin” when there are several biblical passages that indicate otherwise. At the end of the day it is not what you think that really matters, it is what God’s word, the holy scriptures teaches.

  6. Jonathan Stepp on

    Hi Sherwin,

    I don’t think either of us wants to have an online debate about this issue. If you’ve studied the arguments from the other side you know that this isn’t as simple as we’re often led to believe and you know that trying to discuss it through blog comments is too difficult.

    However, I do know that many readers of this blog disagree with me on this issue, as you do, so I will briefly summarize my thoughts in the hopes that you and others will take the time (if you haven’t already) to study the argument from the other side.If you’re looking for a good book on the subject I recommend “This Far by Grace” by Bishop J. Neil Alexander. I found this book after I had changed my mind but I think it’s one of the better ones.

    So here’s my brief summary:

    1. I believe in making ethical decisions based on what flows with the inclusive, loving life of the Trinity. As far as I can tell, two people of the same sex in a committed, loving relationship flows as well with the life of the Trinity as two people of the opposite sex. Which is to say, like all human relationships, same-sex relationships have good aspects and bad aspects. There is nothing about them that inherently goes against the flow of God’s nature.

    2. With regard to how the Bible fits into this: 4 of the 7 verses you refer to are part of the Law of Moses. I don’t regard the Law of Moses to be ethically binding on Christians. Where it agrees with a Trinitarian logic of ethics, fine. Where it disagrees, I feel free to set it aside. This is why I don’t refrain from working on the Sabbath, celebrate the arrival of the new moon, or advocate stoning women who commit adultery. The other three verses you refer to are found in the Epistles and this where you’ll have to do your own research. The fact is that it is not entirely clear what those three verses are referring to: they may refer to same-sex temple prostitution, or coercive rape, or child abuse. It is not clear at all that the New Testament writers were capable of visualizing homosexuality as an innate orientation capable of expression in committed, loving relationship. They also weren’t capable of conceiving of the world as containing three more inhabited continents than the three they already knew. Scientific knowledge progresses and we have to account for that in how we interpret scripture. Also, as an aside, we modern Christians do this sort of interpretation all the time. In the very same passage in Corinthians where Paul references some sort of same-sex activity as sin (again, it’s not clear in the Greek what he’s referring to) he also says it’s a sin for Christians to sue one another in court. When was the last time you heard a church enforce that ethical standard? In fact, every denomination I’ve ever been a part of has been involved in lawsuits against other believers.We always have to read and interpret these ethical standards in the Epistles according to a multitude of factors and not just a wooden, legalistic standard that says “here’s what our written law says and we are bound by it.”

    3. Finally, I’m concerned about the way the arguments from creation, the law of Moses, and the Epistles have been used in the past to justify slavery, racism, and prejudice against women. The same arguments that were used then are used now to justify an ethic of exclusion that fails to take into account scientific knowledge. Forty years ago when the Episcopal Church began ordaining women many denominations thought we were crazy. Many of those same denominations now ordain women. Where will Christianity as a whole be in another forty years? This brings me back to my first point: there is a higher standard that must be adhered to beyond simply reading statements in a book. Before we say that certain people are excluded or inferior based on the circumstances of their birth (race, gender, sexual orientation) we had better give some thought to who Jesus is and what his nature tells us about the nature of God.

  7. iamjean9 on

    Not sure how I missed this post until now. As you know, I am right with you, brother! 🙂 I am personally perplexed that this is such a sticking point among many professing Trinitarian theology. The main message of Trinitarian theology as I have heard it is that we are loved with no ifs, thens, or buts. When those professing Trinitarian theology say that a homosexual must not practice in order to fully enjoy his/her inclusion, we are right back to our behaviour and our response being more important somehow than God’s behaviour and response toward us.

    I sincerely believe it is our job to love each other and to spread the amazing news that God loves us right where we are. It may take people years to fully grasp this – a lifetime, perhaps. If at that point, God chooses to move within us to modify our behaviour in any area, that is between that person and God. We ought to just stay out of it.


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