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Theological Publications






Can We Still Teach Biblical Moral Values?

Robert M. Price


From the 1963 Friends Home Service Committee report, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, up to 1991's Presbyterian working document, Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice, Protestant denominations have been agonizing like Hamlet over what course of action (or inaction) they should urge on their members--if indeed that is the point of such encyclicals. Are they perhaps public relations documents? To show how relevant the church is to those who might not otherwise consider joining up? "Here's what we do and do not stand for." In this case they are descriptive documents. But then of course they are not what they're supposed to be, since every one of these liberalizing charters of sexual ethics is hotly contested, fiercely disputed by majority or large minority caucuses who start planning a schism. No one can draft a statement that speaks for all factions on a question like sex.

But if not descriptive, are such statements after all prescriptive? Are they supposed to provide a basis on which clergy are dutifully to catechize their flocks, like a new sauce formula handed down to the franchises by the head office of a fast food chain? Personally, I do not relish the role of clergyman as party hack, as dutiful flunky. Nor do I relish the notion of a congregation as a flock of docile sheep who will imbibe a pastor's or a denominational committee's opinions without a bleat. If we think Christian education is a matter of telling church members what to think, we are giving them the most pernicious miseducation they could get: indoctrination and the stifling of moral autonomy. But the issues the denominational commissions are wrestling with are quite real and deserve some serious attention.

Biblical Morality

Conservative spokespersons in churchly debates over sexual morality are in the habit of saying, as one Presbyterian did, "What's at stake is the very identity and character of [our] church, which from the beginning has held the Scriptures as the sole authority of our faith and practice." They see the proposals of their more liberal coreligionists as a dangerous slippage from what they regard as the "eternal verities" of God's Word. The whole problem we face is that we are surfing, precariously balanced, on the crest of a wave of cultural change. But the Bible provides no fixed lighthouse for us because we can trace a similar process of change within it. In the early stages polygamy and casual divorce were all right. Later these allowances are qualified. The Patriarch Abraham could marry his half-sister. Leviticus outlaws this. Adultery did not exclude having concubines, or possibly, even visiting prostitutes. It just meant not having sex with one's neighbor's spouse. This has changed in the New Testament period. Unlike the Old Testament legislators, Jesus seems to have considered divorce illicit, though whether he was just saying it was tragic or actually trying to put a stop to it, New Testament interpreters cannot agree. Besides, Matthew (6:32; 19:3-9) differs from Mark (10:2-9) and Luke (16:18) as to just what Jesus said on the issue. So we have both change and exegetical ambiguity in the text. Where, pray tell, are the eternal verities?

One might contend that there are eternal, transcultural norms floating somewhere above the text of the Bible, that they are manifest in the text only in culturally-conditioned forms, and that it is the job of the biblical interpreter to sniff out the transcultural principles and apply them in our day, in appropriate, culturally adapted garb. Charles Kraft, missionary anthropologist at Fuller Seminary, makes a good go of it in his Christianity in Culture. But note that, this way, it's actually some supposed conceptual entity outside the text, not the text itself, that wears the mantle of "biblical authority" (a perfect example of the "logocentric fallacy" attacked by Derrida).

And there is a further irony. If one goes this route, the route of sophisticated and casuistical hermeneutics, one will be playing precisely the game the liberal caucuses are playing. Once one goes this route, there simply can be no more talk about having the "clear teaching of the Bible" on one's side. A case in point: I marvel at the arrogance or the naiveté of some Pro-Life advocates who shout that the Bible condemns abortion, a claim some Pro-Choicers must accept, since a group of them burned some Bibles in a recent demonstration. But in fact the issue never even comes up in the Bible! One may think it is a valid inference from "Thou shalt do no murder," but then one is doing cross-cultural hermeneutics--in other words, fancy footwork. Just like one's "Bible-twisting" opponents.

Property Rights and Wrongs

Another factor, even more important, is that biblical sexual norms are based on quite different assumptions than the bases of our moral reasoning, whether we are fundamentalists or liberals. It seems that the biblical concern for virginity before marriage and fidelity within marriage, the cornerstones of the traditional Christian sex ethic, was mainly a matter of male property rights. Note that Exodus 20:17 includes a man's wife with his property inventory as that which must not be coveted by another man, the commandments being issued only to men. For David to commit adultery with Bathsheba is to steal Uriah's property. As if I were to sneak into your den and use your VCR every time I saw you leave your house.

In Exodus 22:16-17 we read these edifying words: "If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall give the marriage present for her, and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equivalent to the marriage present for virgins." Just whom is this law meant to protect? Not the hapless woman, but her father, who must not be cheated out of the bride price he was entitled to for the commodity of his virgin daughter. The seducer is not entitled to free sexual favors. He must pay for the virginity he has taken--from the woman's father! He is not to be left holding the bag: deprived of the bride price he had hoped to receive and stuck now with unsalable "used goods"!

In the New Testament period the sexual property idea had been extended to both partners: "The husband should give to her wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). Whether this egalitarian balance had been struck already in Judaism or whether it was a Christian innovation, I do not think anyone knows.

Moral and Ritual Purity

Another presupposition of biblical (i.e., ancient Israelite and Christian) sex mores was the notion of purity and defilement. This is a difficult thing to explain. It is not really moral, but rather ritual degradation. As anthropologist Mary Douglas ("The Abominations of Leviticus", in her Purity and Danger) has ably shown, the purity laws of Leviticus, like those of other cultures, are attempts to safeguard the categorical boundary-markers set up by the society. The categories of reality set up long ago by a society dictate what is pure and impure, in terms of food, sex, intermarriage, worship, etc. Douglas argues, quite cogently I think, that this is why the ancient Israelite laws forbade pork. They had never heard of Trichinosis; the trouble with pigs was that they were not true cattle since they did not chew the cud, even though they had cloven hooves. True cattle, which one could eat, did both. Why no shellfish? They were neither fish nor fowl. Well, not real fish anyway; there was something weird about them: they lived in the sea, but they lacked fins and scales. They were not true to type, fell between the cracks, and thus they were off limits.

Similarly, there could not be crossings of lines between groups of potential sexual partners unless they were legitimated (made pure) with appropriate rites of passage. Marriage allowed for the crossing into sexual life, but even so, sexual intercourse rendered one temporarily "unclean." This did not mean it was immoral, as some early Christian theologians thought. Quite the contrary. It had nothing to do with morality. The biblical people had a pretty robust approval of sexuality. Ritual impurity was the issue.

And some lines between potential sexual partners could never be crossed: that between human and animal, and, in some historical periods, that between Israelite and non-Israelite. On the other hand, sexual contact did have to be a crossing of lines: hence the prohibition of incest (within the lines of the family circle) and homosexuality (within the same gender).

Some degrees of impurity were fairly trivial; they did not count any more when the sun set. Others were so weighty that they incurred capital punishment. Was it immoral for a man to lie with a beast? No, it was rather an "abomination," literally, a mixing, a gross defilement that could not be harbored within Israel.

Early Christianity reshuffled the categories of purity and impurity, mainly because it rapidly became a Gentile movement, shedding traditional Jewish mores as it assimilated new Hellenistic ones. But they seem not to have eliminated purity rules per se. Mark says Jesus eliminated food purity laws (7:19). Matthew thought he hadn't and so eliminated this statement from Mark (Matthew 15:17), but even Matthew dropped the rule that eating without washing one's hands incurred ritual impurity (15:20). Does the story of Jesus blessing the (impure) woman with the issue of blood (Mark 6:24-34) mean he rejected sexual purity laws? Hardly! No more than his allowing the hungry to glean on the Sabbath meant he disdained the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-27). His point rather seems to have been that human need takes precedence over such laws in individual cases. Also, note the anxiety of Corinthian spouses with pagan partners over whether their children were "holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14). Paul replies that they are, and so is the pagan spouse, thanks to his or her attachment to the Christian. He is far from throwing out the whole distinction.

These categories seem strange to us, but I think it is safe to say that we have our own culturally defined categories of purity and defilement as well. For instance, why is it a joke that certain restaurants might chop up cat meat for supper? Why would you be disgusted to find dog on the menu? Why do most Americans think it is revolting to eat bugs, though grubs and chocolate-covered ants are a delicacy in some cultures? Why will you eat a lobster as a rare treat yet turn green (and not with envy) if you see someone eat a roach? Isn't that lobster pretty much a kissing cousin of the loathsome bug you spray to death? What counts as food varies from culture to culture, and we all regard the animals not considered food in our culture as somehow disgusting to eat. It is degrading to eat them but hardly immoral.

Why is it that anything that comes out of the body is repugnant once it's out? It has crossed a boundary it cannot recross. If it does one will be defiled. But has one done anything immoral? Of course not. Moral guilt or outrage is not the source of the disgust one feels. It is impurity that one cringes from. What I am getting at is that in the Bible sexual transgressions are at least as much and as often purity transgressions as moral ones.

Honor and Shame

Thirdly, biblical sex laws have more to do with honor and shame than with good and evil, morality and guilt. Studies of Mediterranean peasant sociology tell us that it was incumbent upon an ancient Mediterranean man to prove his virility by fathering many children, and probably also by deflowering as many virgins as he could get away with. Also by having as many wives as he could afford (hence the great honor attached to Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines; they attested, supposedly, his great sexual prowess). The more wives, children, sexual conquests a man could boast, the greater the esteem or honor he had earned in the eyes of his fellows.

This business of male honor also explains, I think, why the woman was always blamed for a childless marriage. For the man to be at fault was unthinkable. In some cultures a shaman or itinerant holy man was brought in to miraculously grant the "barren" woman fertility. Probably in such cases, like Sarah and other recipients of angelic annunciations, what really happened was that the woman was simply impregnated by a man (the holy man or "angel") who was not sterile like her husband. (See M.J. Field, Angels and Ministers of Grace.)

The honorable behavior of the woman was just the reverse of the man's. It was her duty to remain sexually inviolate except for her husband--because he owned her! He had to be on the watch for sly rogues (like himself!) who could score honor points by seducing his virgin daughter or sister (remember the vengeance Simeon and Levi exacted on Shechem for the rape of Dinah!) or his wife.

Hence the double standard. Only they perceived no inconsistency: it was a single standard designed around the male competition for honor. The sexual purity of women was a "limited good" in the society, and so competition for male honor was like a game of Capture the Flag, with the sexual honor and chastity of the women as the flag. (On all this, see Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights From Cultural Anthropology and L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed & Sex.) The honor of the woman was itself simply a function of her value as her husband's or father's property: she was a more valuable commodity if her honor were intact, like a collectible doll still in the original box.

In all this what was at stake was by no means morality! Rather it was all a matter of points. Status! If one had a lot of it, one had honor. If a man had lost the limited good of his wife's chastity or if a woman lost it, he or she was shamed. But that's not the same thing as moral guilt.

By the same token, prostitutes were not sinful; they were shameful--or rather shameless: so heedless of shame/honor distinctions that they were forced to the margins of society. They did not play the game everyone else played, so they had to sit on the sidelines. (Think of Belle Watlin in Gone With the Wind; she is a highly moral character yet dares not show her face in public. She bears shame but not guilt.)

What are we to make of all this if we are concerned to derive sexual instruction from the Bible? We might be tempted to conclude that the Bible can be no help to us since it is not really talking about sexual morality in our sense at all. True, it isn't. But that hardly means it is of no help.

Over the years I have read and heard a good many discussions by Christian moralists on why premarital sex is supposed to be wrong, and I have always been surprised at how weak the arguments were. It seemed like the worst kind of special pleading. I now think this is because these moralists were trying to make something into an ethical matter that belonged to a completely different realm of discourse: that of property, purity, and honor. One example: readers are told that it is wrong to live together without getting married because the law requires a marriage license; thus, since Christians are supposed to obey the secular authorities (Romans 13), premarital sex is immoral! Pretty contrived, to my way of thinking. But what has been dimly perceived here is that, far from being a moral matter, it is really a question of honor, of having one's sexual union legitimated by public recognition.

It ought to go without saying that some premarital sexual encounters would be immoral in the full sense, say, if they involved deception ("Sure, I'll marry you, baby!"), manipulation, or exploitation. But it would be the dishonesty, not the sexuality, of the act that would make it immoral. Similarly, we have a strong moral reason for not committing adultery. Insofar as spouses have pledged their exclusive sexual fidelity to each other, adultery is the violation of a trust. Thus it is wrong, morally wrong in the full sense. (The ambiguous situation of so-called "open marriages," on the other hand, is a more difficult matter. We seem there to be verging on a multiple-spouse marriage, such as is practiced in some cultures.)

"Sin" Versus "Wrong"

I believe we have traditionally been talking about shame and honor, purity and impurity, and even property rights, when we imagined we were talking about morality. Before the cultural revolution of the 60's it worked pretty well, and it still may work. Really, the offensive thing about the biblical mores I have just discussed was the one-sidedness of them. They were all outrageously biased toward the man. But the notions of sexual property, purity, and honor are in their own right by no means to be despised, nor sexist.

Mothers still warn daughters that they should not give away their sexual favors for free. They should not come to be known as "cheap," a significant choice of words. They should hold out for a commitment to marriage to test the professions of love on the part of a teenage Lothario in heat. Here is the use of the property analogy, but note that the woman's sexuality is her own property. By being taught chastity, she is being taught to value her own property. Not a bad idea. And not oppressive. Parents tell daughters not to have sex casually lest they be regarded as "sluts," "'ho's," "bad girls," etc. If she heeds mom's advice she will have given up easy popularity (= esteem without honor) with boys in exchange for the superior good of honor among her peers. This still seems not a bad way of looking at it.

What about young men? Of course their peers still deem wide sexual activity as a badge of honor. Nothing has changed in that respect. But as Christians trying to educate our youth, we must urge upon our young men the Pauline maxim of not causing one's brother, or in this case one's sister, to stumble into sin (1 Corinthians 8:9-13; Romans 14:13-15). That is, if one's honor in the eyes of one's male peers requires one's dishonoring women by initiating premarital sex with them, then as a Christian one will resolve to trade honor "before men" for honor unseen by them but visible to one's Father in heaven who sees what is in secret. Of course this is exactly the trade-off Jesus commends in the Sermon on the Mount: honor is good, but honor from God is more valuable than honor from men, and so it is worth having less of the latter if in exchange one will gain more of the former (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18; John 5:44). And again, in all this we are still talking in terms of honor, not morality!

I have now tried to show how sexual conduct remains as it was, a matter of property and honor. But what about purity? Here is perhaps my most controversial proposal. I think that premarital sex, viewed within traditional Christian values, counts not really as a wrong, but rather as a sin. It is a ritual transgression, not a moral one. Let us remind ourselves again of the difference. There are some biblical boundaries which one transgresses without moral stain, such as food laws, but with ritual consequences. If unclean food rendered one impure, one could not approach the altar for the duration. Paul very clearly states that there is nothing immoral about eating meat offered to idols (unless one knows it will scandalize someone else), but as a ritual offense it may be deadly! He says that such eating at the altar of demons bars one from the Table of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14-21)--just like in Leviticus! Ritual impurity, not moral, is in question.

Why, after all, do we have two different words, "sin" and "wrong"? What is the difference? A wrong may be done to a fellow human being, but a sin is perpetrated uniquely God-ward. One cannot injure God or wrong him. But certain acts cut one off from his holy presence. They are ritual in nature, and we call them sins. The great insight of the Prophets was that morally wrong acts against men and women are also counted as sins. This was the great moralization of the Holy that Rudolf Otto chronicled (The Idea of the Holy). But that hardly means immoral acts are simply the same thing as sins. It means that moral transgressions separate their doer from God as surely as ritual transgressions.

But the conversion does not work both ways: though God counts all moral wrongs as unholy, he does not necessarily count all ritually unclean acts as morally wrong. Otherwise, how could Paul have declared many of the ancient scriptural taboos defunct in the new dispensation of Christ? He certainly did not think morality had changed! He still quotes scripture with enthusiasm when it comes to morality. But kosher laws? Circumcision? Holy days? Take them or leave them, says the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Back to sex. I believe that the hushed tones of condemnation and all the talk of "stain" with which Christians have surrounded premarital sex shows that something other than morality was involved. There is a sense of defilement, of ritual uncleanness. Notice that Paul compares sexual transgressions to defiling a temple, a ritual infraction, in 1 Corinthians 6:16-19 (the word "immorality" in the Revised Standard Version begs the question; the Greek is porneia, "prostitution").

Once a friend told me that he taught Sunday School in the strict fundamentalist church he attended, but would do nothing of a more pastoral nature. He felt he could not bring himself to control his sexual behavior. He slept around. He felt that this behavior barred him from any form of ministry other than strict information dispensing. Why did he not flee the church with a bad conscience? Or, if he felt he was in the right, why did he not feel such a deep moral contradiction that he rejected the Christian ethic? For this reason, many gay Christians have felt they had to leave the church. I think my friend had implicitly understood that he was rendered not morally guilty but ritually unclean. He could not approach the altar as a priest, so to speak, as long as he engaged in ritually impure behavior. But he felt generally that he belonged, because he felt no real moral conflict.

And one often hears of evangelical singles who quietly disregard the ban on premarital sex just as Catholic couples disdain the decrees of their church not to use birth control. Deep down they feel it is not wrong, but neither would they repudiate the teaching of their church. They have committed a sin but done nothing morally wrong. Some years ago a group of Protestant seminarians sent a letter to Playboy admitting, apparently without much guilt, that, yes, they and their fiancés had engaged in premarital sex. Oh, sure, it was sin, but it wasn't wrong. I am making explicit what was implicit in the actions of these people. As in the Bible, premarital sex is a ritual purity issue, not a moral one. Transgression is sin, and sin ought to be avoided. Sin is no light matter, but it can be forgiven.

Practically speaking, what difference does this distinction make? Just this: as long as we make premarital sex a moral wrong, we can put forth no cogent reason to avoid it. And then people will think there is no reason to avoid it. But if we come clean and admit there is nothing immoral about it, that it is not in the same league with stealing or lying, but that it is ritually, religiously wrong, like blasphemy or approaching the eucharist without a meditative spirit, we can inculcate among Christian youth an appropriate and honest conscience about it.

Brazen New World

I have argued that the strange-seeming mores of the Bible, stripped of their male chauvinism, can still provide a workable guide for Christian sexual conduct. But even in this moment, I am aware of the flood waters of cultural change eroding the ground beneath my feet. The writers of the denominational ethics reports I mentioned at the start may be saying precisely that cultural change is happening so fast that the very social conventions which give categories of shame, boundary transgression, etc., their meaning are rapidly fading, to be replaced by others.

Many people are coming to see sexuality not as a thing one possesses and must guard, but rather simply as a pleasant biological action, like kissing. For them it is simply not a question of property. That seems as absurd to them as when we used to warn young men that if they masturbated they would prematurely expend their energy and virility, as if they had only so much of it. (See Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Sin, Sickness, and Sanity: A History of Sexual Attitudes.)

If no one any more believes that sex is more than recreational, then no one is going to look down on you for your sexual escapades during Spring Break. It is apparently no longer regarded as shameful behavior. And in our rationalistic, bare-bones Protestantism which, as Durkheim said, has "disenchanted the world," where no one believes in any wrong but moral wrong, where holiness has become a synonym for morality, if we cannot show premarital sex is wrong, we cannot say it is sin either. The distinction I have argued will just go out the window.

Our sexual mores are in many ways just reflections of social convention and consensus. This was no less true in the Bible, as we have seen. Social assumptions move beneath us like the tectonic plates. Their motion is slow but irresistible. We have to live on the continents that are shifting; there are no others that stand still. Maybe the framers of the Quaker, Presbyterian, and other documents have seen that. Maybe they are looking further ahead than I am.

I suspect that before long it will become apparent that the only way to maintain more traditional Christian sex mores in a society indifferent to them is to construct a religious ghetto-existence like the Amish or the Hasidim or the Catholic Charismatics in Ann Arbor. Our ethic will be an increasingly cultic one, not a matter of "doing what is right in the sight of all" (Romans 12:17). One day shunning premarital sex is going to seem as esoteric a rule as the Jehovah's Witnesses' banning of blood transfusions. Perhaps that day has come. That's what the writers of those denominational sex-creeds are telling us.

Christianity changes as culture changes. This must be so even if we view our religion as counter-cultural. It must move with the culture to some extent if it is to be in a position to counter it! The Amish make little impact on the world around them; the Quakers, in their quiet way, do. The Amish are not willing to budge; the Quakers are. These are our options.

I have tried to show how the biblical values of sexual property, honor, and purity may be carried over into Christian sexuality today, but those values are inherently no more eternal than the various biblical laws based on them, many of which we reject. Who knows what Christian sexual mores will look like in the brave new world that is ever around the corner? The writer of Leviticus could never have anticipated Paul, nor could Paul have foreseen the evangelical sex manuals like Designed for Pleasure, much less Bishop Spong's Living in Sin? and Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics.

Maybe our faith should be less a fearful clinging to the taboos of the past than a trust that future generations of Christians will use the same creative wisdom Christians have (sometimes) used in the past. "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And the Master is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4).


Copyrightę2007 by Robert M Price
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