When it comes to a position on marriage and sexuality, we often hear Christians say they are “moving” or “evolving” or “on a journey.” Almost always, this means they are on the pathway from the traditional Christian view to a revisionist sexual ethic.
These descriptors make sense in light of the narrative of the sexual revolution, a worldview that envisions societal progress in terms of “emancipation” from regressive and repressive moral standards. Once someone adopts this narrative of progress, it only makes sense that he or she would “evolve” toward a better ethic—a new state of human flourishing through the satisfaction of God-given desires, all of which are permissible as long as sexual activity remains consensual.
But why should the idea of “moving” or being “on a journey” refer only to the pathway toward revisionism? Isn’t it possible that some Christians will realize they’ve made a wrong turn and look look for a pathway back? If love hopes all things, shouldn’t we want people to find the path back home?
Path of Moral Chaos
Imagine this scenario.
A Christian concludes that affirming someone’s self-proclaimed sexual identity and desire is the only possible way to truly love one’s neighbor. That conclusion, combined with the cultural pressure to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, leads the Christian to start thinking that the Bible isn’t clear on this subject, or that this alteration to traditional Christianity isn’t major, and, besides, the rest of Christian morality will stay intact.
So, at first, the people on this path advocate for same-sex unions as part of a bigger, more inclusive Christian understanding of marriage. They see it as an extension of Jesus’s teaching to love our neighbors. They believe the rest of Christianity’s teaching about sex and marriage is right, but the church got this one part wrong. They still believe sex should be reserved for marriage between two committed people. These Christians have gone “on a journey.” They’ve “evolved.” They’ve “moved” along the pathway toward a more “inclusive” vision of sexuality.
But as the months and years go by, some of the anthropological assumptions that lie under the surface of sexual revolution ideology—assumptions that get to the heart of Christian doctrine and ethics—begin to reveal themselves. It becomes clear that so many of the people who disagree with the historic Christian position on marriage have also abandoned other doctrines that have long been central to the faith. Not only that, they are troubled when they see other people on the path who scoff at the idea of “saving sex for marriage,” or who claim we should stop making moral judgments about sexual activity altogether, as long as it’s consensual.
It’s not hard to imagine this scenario, because that’s exactly where the revisionist pathway leads.
David Gushee, an ethicist who came out in favor of same-sex relationships a few years ago describes this path as one of “Christian moral pluralism.” Or, as the title of one of his article states, “It’s chaos out there!”
I had been lecturing on Christian sexual ethics to an audience of committed Christians. In the lecture, I ruled out the option of polyamory for Christians. I suggested that it was outside the boundaries of a recognizably Christian sexual ethic, that it had never been contemplated as an option in Christian history and that there were very good reasons today to rule it out. I learned in a follow-up conversation that the practice of polyamory was not viewed in this way by certain of my listeners; that, indeed, there were practitioners of polyamory in the audience. I had heard that polyamory was on the rise. I had not anticipated that it would be a live option among committed Christians.
Gushee seems concerned by this turn toward chaos, but he recognizes that the moral pluralism is pervasive and that his voice doesn’t have much authority:
Increasingly I am in contexts where I have to call people back from drifting too far “left,” as with polyamory. I think I can make a strong case rooted in Jesus, the Bible and Christian best practices for the version of Protestant ethics that I teach. But I realize I am competing with a whole lot of other voices.
Danny Cortez, a former Southern Baptist pastor who led his church to affirm same-sex marriage, was recently pressed by an interviewer about polyamory. At first, he firmly rejected the idea. By the end of the interview, Cortez sounds a different note:
I have no desire to police the relationships of our people. I don’t think that Scripture gives a robust position on this topic. . . . I don’t think there is enough evidence in Scripture to outright condemn polyamory.
Gushee and Cortez have taken the path away from the historic Christian consensus on marriage and sexuality, and they’ve watched as people further down the path have arrived at the total dissolution of Christianity’s moral outlook. And now, the narrative of freedom from sexual norms and traditional morals has eaten away at their ability to make any moral judgment about any consensual sexual activity.
Christians who go down this path suddenly find themselves untethered to the historic and global church and without any authority to say “This is right” and “This is wrong” when it comes to sex.
- It’s why women who have gone down this path couldn’t challenge popular speaker and writer Glennon Doyle Melton when she divorced her husband and began a relationship with a woman.
- It’s why attendees at conferences promoting a revisionist sexual ethic cheer whenever someone who once reserved sex for marriage (even gay marriage) alters their position toward “freedom.”
- It’s why the idea of sexual purity and chastity is mocked and maligned. (Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently told feminist icon Gloria Steinem that she’d love to get women to mail her their purity rings so she could melt them into a sculpture of a vagina and present it to Steinem as a gift.)
At some point, there will be Christians on this path who are troubled enough to question whether or not they’ve made the right move. Perhaps they thought “progress” was inevitable, and that soon, Christians all over the world would shed their harmful and outdated moral codes and embrace the new ideology.
But as time goes on, they realize that the global Christian church is still standing where it always has. They come to realize that the narrative of progress that animates sexual revolution ideology is fundamentally opposed to the Christian understanding of the world and the role sexuality plays in it. (I write about this “eschatology of progress” in Eschatological Discipleship.) And suddenly, the Christian vision of chastity starts to looks more attractive and freeing than ever. Make no mistake. Some of these Christians will want to turn back to the path they left.
How will we treat people who thought they were taking a bold step forward into the future of Christianity, only to realize they’d stepped onto a rapidly descending escalator that left them powerless to affirm any kind of Christian morality at all?
Will we show grace to people who once doubted the Christian position on sexuality, but who now doubt their doubts, who now are considering a return to the traditional Christian position?
Will we provide pathways home for evangelicals who once walked down the path for same-sex marriage but have now mustered up the courageous humility necessary to return to the unchanging witness of the church?
I hope so. After all, it’s not just the Christian sexual ethic that has endured all these years, but also the refreshing return of the wayward to the well-worn paths of truth and grace. Love hopes all things.