The bottom line when it comes to sexual ethics is ultimately this: the intimate Trinity has given humans their sexuality as a primary vehicle for creating and enriching intimacy. The Creator has also given us a sexual ethic through his Word that works and helps humans to build and protect intimate relationships.
Sexually, the church has usually operated with an outside-in approach. That is, we have tended to teach that if we work hard to avoid certain “sinful” sexual behaviors, we will create attitudes that will help us be more Christlike. The problem with such an approach is that this is not the way Jesus taught. He didn’t say, “Fight sin, my children, and you’ll be more like me.” He said, “Come have a love relationship with me and with the Father, and my light will drive out the darkness.” What Jesus offers is illustrated in figure 1.
Yet, sadly, our outside-in approach has deteriorated into a sexual ethic of chastity that is based on controlling one behavior: penis-in-vagina intercourse. And we can see in the present Christian culture in many parts of the world that such a sexual ethic hasn’t resulted in pure lives. I often tell young single adults, “If all you are doing is trying to keep from sleeping with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you are in trouble. Let’s let Jesus help you be unselfish and cast a vision of sexual chastity that will help you and your girlfriend or boyfriend grow into the sexual person God intended you to be.” What a fun job description that is: Helping someone grow into their full sexual potential.
An inside-out theology starts with God and a motivating personal relationship with him through Jesus and the empowering Holy Spirit. Then our ethic is built on his Word and his sexual economy. As we take the inside-out approach as seen in the circles in figure 1, God truly touches our hearts and our minds and that work of the Spirit in turn truly touches our actions and our behaviors. What if we really let Jesus put an unselfish love into our hearts rather than simply trying to avoid certain behaviors? Such an approach is so important that Jesus came to create a new covenant, and this covenant is not going to be based on works and Levitical laws. This covenant relationship will be internally motivated with a changed mind and heart—not based only on regulating behaviors:
This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds. (Heb. 10:16 NIV)
My conservative Christian background focused on banning behaviors and going outside-in. You can see how such an approach was effective only if the “sex police” were out to keep an eye on everyone’s actions. Ethics, if they’re not internally motivated, will ultimately have little effect on us. That is why it is crucial to define virginity and chastity as much more than behaviors we abstain from. I like to define a virgin—and remember that this is not about what your body has done or not done—as a heart attitude, as someone who values, celebrates, and protects his or her sexuality and that of one’s brothers and sisters.
So, an effective sexual ethic begins with a personal relationship with Jesus and his transforming power. And then it involves inviting him to guide you: “Okay Lord, help me understand your sexual economy better.”
Using such a grid, let’s choose a behavior—let’s say masturbation—and apply an inside-out, internally motivated ethic. I’m never going to start with a simple assessment of something as “a right or wrong behavior.” Jesus always got personal; so I imagine he would ask, “How is masturbation affecting you in your relationship with me and with your brothers and sisters—or the person you are dating?”
We can take any sexual behavior and start inside-out rather than outside-in. So, let’s be careful as Christians to refrain from basing our ethics on banning behaviors. Instead, let’s go inside-out; let’s be internally motivated. And let’s really try to think through how we value, celebrate, and protect our sexuality and that of another. Let’s invite God to help us achieve a sexual integrity and chastity that can build sexual wholeness. So that is the starting ethic—go inside-out.
This post is adapted from Sanctified Sexuality, edited by Sandra L. Glahn and C. Gary Barnes. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
“Sanctified Sexuality embraces a complex and multi-faceted subject with a beautiful balance of cultural intelligence and biblical relevance. Anyone interested in countering popular perspectives about marriage, sex, and human sexuality will certainly find wisdom and direction—anchored in God’s Word—through this array of topics Glahn and Barnes have arranged. Equally critical is the tone of charity this book exemplifies—a tone the editors lay forth as essential for all relationships.”
Mark Yarbrough, President of Dallas Theological Seminary