A New Sexual Ethic? Part 3

This is part 3 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialim,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One and Part Two are here.

The second premise of Heyward’s work is that Christian tradition has been “antisexual” in its teachings. Heyward places the behavior of sinful, fallen, and fallible man as the standard by which Scripture is judged. Rather than declaring that mankind has been wrong in its portrayal of women, especially when such behavior is judged through the glaring Light of the Gospel, Heyward seems to make the assumption that, because church tradition allowed such behavior to occur, then such behavior must be condoned in the Bible as well. Much time is spent by feminist theologians pointing to Old Testament passages concerning the ceremonial uncleanness of women after childbirth or menstruation as examples of men writing oppressive religious codes against women. The apostle Paul is accused of being a homophobic misogynist. Heyward actually goes so far as to declare the Bible as “antisexual” because its supposedly antiquated rules set up a sexual ethic completely unrelated to today’s society. She states:

The christian church plays the central formative role in limiting and thwarting our sexual phantasie, or sexual imagination. Most historians, sexologists, and others who are interested in how sexual practices and attitudes have developed historically seem to agree that in the realm of sexual attitudes, Western history and christian history are so closely linked as to be in effect indistinguishable. That is to say, the christian church has been the chief architect of an attitude toward sexuality during the last seventeen hundred years of European and Euroamerican history—an obsessive, proscriptive attitude, in contrast to how large numbers of people, christians and others, have actually lived our lives as sexual persons (Heyward, 12-13).

Even though Heyward repeatedly calls herself a “christian,” such a statement can only be made by one whose sexual ethic is not grounded in the concept of God as the Holy and Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Instead, such an ethic can only be grounded within one’s self. Heyward’s above observation of the church and human sexuality is correct—the church has been the guardian of the holiness of God, and in an attempt to keep the church holy as God is holy, certain sexual behavior has been limited by that same holy God. This limitation and thwarting of sex is not the work of close-minded men who wrote Scripture of their own accord. This limitation instead is the good work of God for His creation. These boundaries are, in the very words of God, for our own good (Deut 10.13).

Heyward would have her reader believe that the Bible declares all sex to be sinful. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

Modern people are always saying, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” [If they mean,] “there is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself a certain way , nor in the fact that it gives pleasure..” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. … I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked that as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. They were wrong (emphasis mine).

There have indeed been many “muddle-headed” Christians who have declared sex to be inherently sinful. Church father Augustine said of women that “it is a shameful thing to intend to use one’s husband for passion.” He went so far as to say that all Christians should desire to remain chaste because the sooner humanity died out, the sooner Christ’s reign on earth would begin. Those who marry only do so because they lack self control. Early church fathers nearly unanimously claim that sex is solely for the purpose of procreation. Justin Martyr said, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children.” Lactantius made the bold statement, “There would be no adulteries, no debaucheries, and prostitution of women if everyone knew that whatever is sought beyond desire of procreation is condemned by God.”

Heyward gives the example of the Council of Elvira in 309 A.D. as an early indication of the “church’s antisexual preoccupation” (Heyward, 13). At the fall of the Roman Empire, Heyward surmises that the church sought to establish some amount of control over the ensuing chaos. Heyward uses Historical theologian Samuel Laeuchli’s work as support for this belief. According to Heyward, “Laeuchli…[suggests] five reasons why the church’s elite became preoccupied with sexual control of the clergy and, to a lesser extent, the laity.” These five reasons were: 1) the transition from contending with the state to vying for control of the state; 2) a “new sociopolitical context” that centered church power in Rome; 3) the exacting task of becoming true members of Roman culture, 4) the increasing urbanization of Christians, and 5) the widening gap between the religious mythologies of both pagans and christians (Heyward, 13).

Later in the article, Heyward proclaims, “Understanding sex historically might enable us to also experience sexual pleasure as good, morally right, without need of justification…. We do not need to justify pleasure” (Heyward, 15). Again, Heyward, is correct; pleasure should not be justified or explained away. Heyward’s subtle destruction of the truth occurs in the fact that she equates all sexual pleasure with biblically correct, God-honoring, holy and good sex. By making a sweeping claim that Christians declare sex to be bad, Heyward seems to echo the oldest lie told to mankind: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen 3.1). Heyward’s twist of truth has caught many a Christian in the trap of sexual license. By asking for this one “clarification” of facts, the serpent is shifting the focus from the plethora of blessings showered upon man by his Creator to sudden desires that seem unfulfilled.

C.S. Lewis explained this lie best when he stated: “Like all powerful lies, it is based on truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself… is “normal” and “healthy,” and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal.” Lewis is correct in assessing that sexual pleasure and desire are not inherently sinful. In fact, these things are, when practiced within the boundaries designed by God, good and right. Sex in God’s perfect design is pure and holy and pleasurable. Sex outside of God’s design is ultimately none of these things.

A New Sexual Ethic? Part 2

This is part 2 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One can be found here.

First, Heyward correctly points out that there is an abuse of power often evident between people in relationship with one another. Throughout the article, Heyward describes the relationships between men and women as being dominated by men through the power they hold over women in the sexual relationship. She observes that “advanced capitalism literally feeds off of men’s control of women’s bodyselves…. Sex pays, and… coercive sex—involving pain and humiliation—pays best” (Heyward, 15). There is an evident power struggle between the genders that can be seen even today as women continue to struggle to prove that they are just as capable as men in fields ranging from the military to business to athletics. It seems to be assumed that women can only achieve empowerment and wholeness through fulfillment in areas in which men have traditionally excelled and dominated. Heyward contends that this domination is fulfilled only because of man’s control over women through sex.

“The place of women in this chaotic world” is one of toil and trouble, scapegoating and violence, hatred and trivialization, poverty and despair. Economically, under global structures of late capitalism, women are kept in poverty. It is the way profit is maximized. Women’s bodies are kept in the service of heterosexist patriarchy–as wives, whores, fantasy objects, and as a vast, deep pool of cheap labor (Heyward, 14; emphasis mine).

Heyward implies in this statement that women who are married and work in the home, those women who have espoused traditional gender roles as wife and mother, have been enslaved by this tradition, or are nothing more than hired help who exchange sex and housekeeping for room and board.

This view of marriage and the arrangement held in such disdain by Heyward is justifiably detested by liberation and feminist theologians. It is indeed an incorrect and sinful model of marriage and family. The fallibility of Heyward’s argument lies not in an incorrect assessment of the problem but instead in an incorrect solution. It is true that for centuries, women have been used and abused by men. They have been treated as property, relegated to second class citizenry, and even treated as the source of man’s sin. This treatment has occurred even within the very church that claims “there is neither… male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28). Early church fathers taught that, like Eve, women especially carried within them “the degradation of the first sin and the hatefulness of human perdition.” Women have been blamed for the fall of man since the fall of man (Gen 3.12), and this has led to a deeply ingrained tradition within the church as well.

According to Heyward, this dynamic between men and women is bound up in the relationality of mankind. In speaking of relationality, Heyward observes, “…relationality… presupposes relativity: all of us, and all of everything, is relative to everything else—changing, becoming, living, and dying in relation. There can be nothing static in a personal identity or relationship formed in such a matrix” (Heyward, 11). Because people change due to their interactions with one another and with the world around them, it is concluded that one’s sexuality must also be open to such change. Heyward declares, “Sexuality is socially constructed” (Heyward, 11). Therefore, it is through one’s environment, life experiences, and interpersonal relationships that a person ultimately finds the center and sexuality of her “bodyself.”

This first major premise of her article, that the interrelatedness of male and female is ultimately sexual and that this relationship has been demeaned and undignified throughout history, leaving women without dignity and self-worth, can in some cases be legitimately supported. From Scripture to early church writings, to popular work such as plays and poetry, all the way through modern days, women have indeed been mistreated and used as sexual toys by men. But to say that this occurs only in heterosexual relationships, or that it occurs in all heterosexual relationships, is very far from the truth. To claim that such behavior is actually the biblical mandate for the relationships between men and women would be grossly incorrect and indeed heretical. Yet, throughout this article, Heyward draws a nearly indistinguishable line between church history and biblical doctrine.

A cursory look at Scripture shows that God’s plan for the relationship between man and woman is to be something other than domineering and abusive. While there is a set standard of man as the head of the relationship, this is not a directive for man to rule over woman in a domineering, militaristic manner. Nor does this somehow declare man to be of more intrinsic worth than woman. At the consummation of the first marriage, it was explained that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2.24). The study notes for the ESV Study Bible further explain that “the term ‘hold fast’ is used elsewhere for practicing covenant faithfulness (e.g. Deut. 10.20; see how Paul brings these texts together in 1 Cor. 6.16-17). The idea of covenant faithfulness implies love, protection, loyalty, unity; nothing of overpowering abuse and forced labor as Heyward would have her readers believe.

While the above passage in Genesis is a prescription for how marriage should function, the curses passed down by God following the fall of man in Genesis 3 give an accurate description of how relationships between men and women are adversely affected by sin. Part of the curse placed upon woman states, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3.16). This statement accurately describes the role reversal Heyward is proposing as the solution to man’s ruling over woman. Before the fall, God appointed Adam as the head and leader of the human relationship. Eve was created to be a complementary helper for Adam, not a lesser being created to be ruled over. Each was equal in the sight of God and both were fully created in the image of God.

But after the fall, sin deeply affected the relationship between Adam and Eve. Their fellowship with God was destroyed as well as their fellowship with one another. The sin of Adam and Eve was a desire to reverse roles with God so that they would become like God. The relationship between Adam and Eve was likewise reversed through sin. Eve now would taint her helpmate role by having a desire to take leadership away from Adam, and Adam would pervert his leadership role by dominating and ruling over Eve. According to Scripture, both of these are sinful responses to equally sinful choices. Heyward is not proposing anything near a Christian solution to the sinful issue of men wrongly dominating women. Instead of exposing and correcting wrong behavior in the light of the Word, Heyward is suggesting that women should respond to the sin of men by sinning in return, and completely reversing God’s intended relationship between man and woman. This rebellion against men is a physical, external symptom of a deeper issue which ultimately is a sin of the heart—rebellion against God.