With recent church sex-abuse scandals, unprecedented numbers of Christian couples living together before marriage, and the #ChurchToo movement, there’s no doubt the church needs reform on sexual issues. But what kind of reform?
Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints, The New York Times bestselling author, conference speaker, and public theologian, answers this question in her latest book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. She argues that Christians need to abandon what the church has traditionally taught about sex and gender and to forge a new Christian sexual ethic.
Endorsed by progressive heavyweights such as Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Richard Rohr, and Austin Channing Brown, I predict this book will be wildly popular. It’s well written, funny, down to earth, and peppered with F-bombs. If someone is looking for a way to hold on to the title “Christian” while being able to freely indulge their sexual appetites in any way they believe promotes their sexual flourishing, Shameless will be their manifesto.
Rejecting the Church’s Teaching
Shameless begins with Bolz-Weber describing the church’s traditional teachings on “God’s plan” for sex. She sums up and rejects that teaching in the Denver Statement, which she co-wrote in response to the Nashville Statement. In part it reads,
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gender, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married.
She doesn’t believe that God’s design for sex is between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. She believes that what the church has traditionally taught about sex is harmful, needing not just a makeover, but an entire overhaul. Or, “Let’s burn it the f*** down and start over,” to quote her precisely.
There are many stories and illustrations in Shameless that conservative readers would find shocking, and I don’t doubt many reviews will highlight them. However, I’d like to interact with the fundamental beliefs that rest beneath the arguments. That is where the most danger lies. Rather than nudging her readers toward obedience to God and the teachings of Christ, Bolz-Weber gives them permission to follow their hearts and base their opinions about sex on their own feelings and desires. She does this in three subtle ways.
1. She Promotes an Unorthodox View of the Bible
As a child, Bolz-Weber was taught that Eve’s entire purpose and identity was to be a “grateful helper” to Adam: “God gave her to Adam, like a mail-order bride. Adam was her purpose” (33). And because Eve “screwed it up for the rest of humanity” by eating the fruit (42), women should focus on looking pretty, being quiet, and forever being subservient to and dominated by men.
I don’t doubt this was what Bolz-Weber was taught in Sunday school. But her experience doesn’t faithfully represent what the Bible actually teaches about the garden of Eden. She seems more interested in dismantling the historic Christian sexual ethic than in correcting faulty interpretations of Scripture, correcting some missteps of the purity movement, or diving deep into the Bible to exegete what it teaches about sex. Although Bolz-Weber claims to love the Bible and regularly preaches from it, she doesn’t see it as a cohesive whole. In an interview with the LGBT publication Out in Jersey, she said:
The Bible’s not clear about s***! The Bible is a library. Let’s say you have this huge library in your house and ask, “What’s the clear message my library has to say about ‘gender’?” The poetry is going to say one thing, history says another, prose says something, science fiction says something else.
Christians are obsessed with sex. But not in a good way. For generations countless people have suffered pain, guilt, and judgment as a result of this toxic fixation on sex, the body, and physical pleasure. In the follow-up to her celebrated New York Times bestseller Accidental Saints, Bolz-Weber unleashes her critical eye, her sharp pen, and her vulnerable but hopeful soul on the caustic, fear-riddled, and religiously inspired messages about sex that have fed our shame.
She also doesn’t see the whole Bible as authoritative for Christian life. She describes one of her parishioners tearing out the eight pages of the Bible that mentioned homosexuality. The parishioner threw them into the fire, finally “allowing herself to be free.” Then, tearing out the four Gospels, she clutched them to her heart and, in one cathartic motion, chucked the rest of the Bible into the fire (71). Bolz-Weber writes:
There are those who will say that it is “dangerous” to think we can decide for ourselves what is sacred in the Bible and what is not. I reject this idea, and here’s why. (72)
Her “why” is her view of biblical authority. She defines the four Gospels as the most authoritative books. The closer a text is to that story, the more authority it has. The farther away, the less. So it’s no surprise that many of the arguments in the book are anecdotal, rather than biblical.
With the Bible out of the way, readers can now look to their own autonomy to guide their views on sex.
2. She Champions a Faulty Definition of Sexual Flourishing
Bolz-Weber’s new sexual ethic isn’t based on biblical guidelines, but on “concern for each other’s flourishing” (12). For a definition of “sexual flourishing,” she turns to the World Health Organization (WHO) for guidance and sums up their definition this way:
Consent (enthusiastic consent—not merely the absence of “no”) and mutuality (enjoyment by both parties) are what the WHO says constitute a baseline sexual ethic. (11)
Without any clearly defined boundaries for sex, she writes, “Whatever sexual flourishing looks like for you, that’s what I would love to see happen in your life” (60).
Yes, we need reform. But what Bolz-Weber offers is not reformation. She has recycled a sexual ethic as old as paganism itself and rebranded it as Christian.
This definition of sexual flourishing plays out when Bolz-Weber writes that looking at pornography in moderation isn’t necessarily harmful, depending on someone’s personality, history, and relationships. She recalls giving her 18-year-old daughter permission to spend the night at her boyfriend’s house, advising her to speak up in bed so she can learn to communicate her desires to her future lovers. She writes about her own divorce and the sexual fulfillment she finally experienced when she started seeing her boyfriend: “It was like an exfoliation of my entire spirit. It softened me and opened my heart and cleared away the gunk in my head. It was good” (59).
But as the originator and architect of sex, God is the one who gets to define sexual flourishing and decide what is “good.” From Genesis to Revelation, his Word is clear and unified in its sexual ethic. In Matthew 19, Jesus himself affirms the purpose of sex and marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Jesus also condemned “sexual immorality,” which would’ve been understood by his listeners to be any sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman.
To define it any other way is to put one’s own opinion above God’s.
3. She Advocates an Erroneous Understanding of God’s Holiness
Holy holy holy Lord
God of power and might
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory
Hosanna in the highest
After quoting the above prayer, Bolz-Weber defines holiness as “the union we experience with one another and with God. Holiness is when more than one become one, when what is fractured is made whole” (19). She then relates this with the sexual union of “two loving individuals” as holy because they are “unified in an erotic embrace” (20).
She makes a distinction between holiness and purity by surmising that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from” (26). The problem with this definition of holiness is that it’s pulled out of thin air and contradicts what the Bible teaches.
Biblically, the holiness of God has everything to do with separation. It requires that God have no unity with sin. As one theologian explains, “God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.” This idea is expressed throughout the Bible, starting with the veil of separation in the tabernacle that cordoned off the “most holy place,” where God himself dwelt. It culminates in Revelation which predicts a time when all things will be made right and holy—when everything on earth will be separated from evil once and for all.
The apostle Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15). In other words, be separated from sin, because God is separated from sin.
Any treatise bent on destroying the Christian sexual ethic will inevitably defend abortion rights. Bolz-Weber writes that “Christians originally believed that life begins at birth” and that the evangelical support of the pro-life position is a modern political invention (117). She traces the history back to 1968 when Christianity Today featured an article in which a professor from the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary was quoted as saying that fetuses don’t have souls.
It’s true that evangelicals were inconsistent in their views on abortion in the early 1970s, but it’s demonstrably false to claim that this was the original position of Christians. The earliest Christians were unanimously opposed to abortion, which, along with infanticide, was a common practice in the first-century Roman Empire. As early as the Didache (AD 80–120), every Christian writer in antiquity who mentioned abortion forbade it. As Albert Mohler notes, “There can be no question that historic Christianity condemned abortion and affirmed the sanctity of human life, born and not yet born.”
Bolz-Weber writes that sex is a gift from God. I agree. God invented sex, gifted it to creation, and blessed it as a good, holy, beautiful, pleasurable, and fruitful endeavor. But God didn’t give us sex in isolation. It’s not like he handed Adam and Eve a candy bar and said, “Eat for pleasure—just don’t eat so much you get sick.” He told them, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Although sex was pleasurable, pleasure wasn’t its only or ultimate purpose. Its ultimate purpose was multifaceted—intimacy in marriage, binding two people together for life, companionship, pleasure, and procreation.
So, in seeking reform, do we throw out what Scripture testifies to from cover to cover and go our own way? As followers of Jesus, we must consider what he taught about sex and embrace that teaching as life-giving and right. After all, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (John 14:15). We simply don’t have the option to pick and choose which of his teachings to follow.
Scripture doesn’t promise everyone sexual fulfillment in this life.
In a public discussion with Matthew Vines, Sean McDowell invited the audience to imagine a world in which everyone lived according to what Jesus taught about sex and marriage. He said:
There would be no sexually transmitted diseases. No abortions. No brokenness from divorce. Every child would have a mother and a father and experience the love and acceptance each parent uniquely offers. There would be no rape, no sex abuse, no sex trafficking, pornography, and no need for a #MeToo campaign. Think of the healing and wholeness if people simply lived Jesus’s life-giving words regarding human sexuality.
In that type of world, there would be no church sex-abuse scandals. Parents wouldn’t have to fear leaving their children in the care of others. The list could go on and on.
Scripture doesn’t promise everyone sexual fulfillment in this life. It doesn’t even promise a mind-blowing sex life to every couple who has “followed God’s plan.” But it does offer guidelines that are for our good, flourishing, and protection.
Although she takes every opportunity to mock and deride “God’s plan” for sex and marriage as a harmful, impractical, and antiquated idea, the alternative that Bolz-Weber offers isn’t the answer. Simply ignoring or refusing to feel shame won’t fix the problem. That shame will return. Our biggest problem isn’t shame—it’s sin. Feeling a sense of conviction over our sin is a good thing, because it leads to the good news that Christ has taken our sin and shame upon himself. The only way to be truly shameless is to repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ. As Romans 10:11 says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
True reform wouldn’t be to abandon the Bible’s teaching, but to actually start living it.
We all have, in one way or another, messed up “God’s plan,” and I’m thankful to God for his grace and mercy to me. This is the beauty of conviction, repentance, and the forgiveness and restoration God offers his children. Yes, we need reform. But what Bolz-Weber offers is not reformation. She has recycled a sexual ethic as old as paganism itself and rebranded it as Christian. True reform wouldn’t be to abandon the Bible’s teaching, but to actually start living it.