From time to time we hear some telling us that evangelical Christianity must retool our sexual ethic if we’re ever going to reach the next generation. Some say that Millennials, particularly, are leaving the church because of our “obsession” with sexual morality. The next generation needs a more flexible ethic, they say, on premarital sex, homosexuality, and so on. We’ll either adapt, the line goes, or we’ll die.
This argument is hardly new. In the early 20th century, this was precisely the rhetoric used by liberal Protestant Harry Emerson Fosdick and his co-laborers. Fosdick was concerned, he said, for the future of Christianity, and if the church was to have a future we would have to get over our obsession with virginity. By that, Fosdick didn’t mean the virginity of single Christians but the virginity of our Lord’s mother.
The younger generation wanted to be Christian, the progressives told their contemporaries, but they couldn’t accept outmoded ideas of the miraculous, such as the virgin birth of Christ. What the liberals missed is that such miracles didn’t become hard to believe with the onset of the modern age. They always had been hard to believe from the beginning.
Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s announcement of her pregnancy, after all, wasn’t, “Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” He assumed that she had been sexually unfaithful. Why? Because he and his contemporaries knew how people get pregnant.
But the Christian message isn’t burdened down by the miraculous. It’s inextricably linked to it. A pregnant woman conceives. The lame walk. The blind see. A dead man is resurrected, ascends to heaven, and sends the Spirit. The universe’s ruler is on his way to judge the living and the dead. Those who do away with such things are left with what J. Gresham Machen rightly identified as a different religion, a religion as disconnected from global Christianity as the made-up religion of Wicca is from the actual Druids of old.
The same is true with a Christian sexual ethic. Sexual morality didn’t become difficult with the onset of the sexual revolution. It always has been. Walking away from our own lordship, or from the tyranny of our desires, has always been a narrow way. The rich young ruler wanted a religion that would promise him his best life now, extended out into eternity. But Jesus knew that such an existence isn’t life at all, just the zombie corpse of the way of the flesh. He came to give us something else, to join us to his own life.
If we withold what our faith teaches about a theology of the body, of marriage, of what it means to be created male and female, we will breed nothing but cynicism from those who will rightly conclude that we see them not as sinners in need of good news but as a marketing niche to be exploited by telling them what they want to hear.
You can’t grow a Christian church by being sub-Christian. That’s why there are no booming Arian or Unitarian or Episcopal Church (USA) church-planting movements. But even if it “worked” to negotiate away sexual morality for church growth, we wouldn’t do it. We can only reach Millennials, and anyone else, by reaching them with the gospel, good news for repentant sinners through the shed blood and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
If we have to choose between Millennials and Jesus, we choose Jesus.
Some think the Christian sexual ethic is akin to our congregation’s constitution and by-laws, that it can be amended by a two-thirds vote. But this isn’t the case. Sexuality isn’t ancillary to the gospel but is itself an embodied icon of the gospel, pointing us to the union of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:29-32).
This is why the Bible speaks of sexual immorality as having profound spiritual consequences (1 Cor. 6:17-20), ultimately leading, if not repented of, to exile from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Sexual immorality isn’t simply a matter of neurons firing. A Christian view of reality means that the body is a temple, set apart to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. Sexual immorality isn’t just bad for us (although it is); it’s also an act of desecrating a holy place.
There’s little surprise then that the Jerusalem Council, while not placing the burden of the Mosaic ceremonial law on the new Gentile believers, did decree that the new brothers and sisters in Christ must flee sexual immorality (Acts 15:20). In a world of concubines and temple prostitutes and public pornography, a Christian sexual ethic was just as freakish and counter-cultural in the first-century Greco-Roman world as it is today, if not more so.
But the apostles maintained the pattern of sound words they were given because to do anything else would be to replace King Jesus with another lord, and to preach “peace” where there is still war, “Spirit” where there is still flesh. They wouldn’t do it, and neither should we.
Virgin births and empty tombs are hard to believe. Fidelity and chastity are hard to live. That’s why we don’t have a natural gospel but a supernatural one. And that’s why Jesus isn’t a means to where we want to go. He’s a voice calling us to where we don’t, left to ourselves, want to go: the way of the cross.
If we want to reach the next generation, they must hear from us a Galilean voice saying, “Come, follow me.” Anything less is just more marketing for an already well-marketed Broad Way. And the end thereof is death.