L’Abri is French for “the shelter.” The L’Abri ministry was founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in 1955 to provide a hospitable environment for any person seeking honest answers to honest questions about God and truth. Following in that tradition, a L’Abri Conference provides an opportunity through lectures, discussions, and personal interaction to deepen understanding of what it means to be fully human in light of the transformative truth of Christianity. Each lecture, workshop, mealtime, and discussion is designed to facilitate an exchange of ideas among conference attendees and speakers.
What follows is the second installment of a series of reflections from my attendance at the 2019 Nashville L’Abri Conference, Being Human in a Fragmenting World. Click here to read the first.
“Bodies with Meaning: Christianity’s Liberating Sexual Ethic” was one of my favorite talks from the conference, even though it left me with a few pressing and frustrating questions. Phillip Johnston’s talk was largely about two massive cultural code shifts in relation to how we think about and steward our sexuality.
Johnston started with a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, which mirrors well the sexual ethic of today.
In summary, our modern-day sexual ethic is: desire + consent = freedom.
For the Christian, this conclusion provokes some questions . . . how, if at all, have sexual ethics changed since biblical times? If different, is the Christian perspective on sexuality restrictive or liberating? How so?
In order to answer these questions, we need to go way, way, way, way back in time.
In the apostle Paul’s culture, the pre-Christian cultural code for sexual ethics viewed bodies as an indicator of status. Johnston described, in graphic terms, a code we would now consider barbaric.
Every person in this ancient culture operated from either a place of honor or shame, what Johnston calls the “honor-shame light switch”. Based on the cultural code of the day, someone’s body was subjected to either honor or shame. If the switch ever flipped to shame, there was no going back, and the impact was devastating.
Predictably, men were allowed more sexual “privileges” than women. In those times, marriage was nearly universal. Girls were often legally married by the age of twelve. The main mark of a woman’s honor was chastity. If a girl was chaste prior to marriage and was able to have children, her body was considered honorable. Some things that could take away her honor forever and leave her open to rampant abuse was if she was raped, subjected to forced or unforced prostitution, or if she was infertile.
Men, on the other hand, had generally more control over their own honor. The main mark of a man’s honor was moderation. He was allowed a “slippery time” in youth to engage in all manner of sexual activity, but when he reached a certain age, he was expected to have self-control. Self-control, however, was defined rather loosely.
When married, culture permitted men to have sex with other women as long as those women were not married. In other words, a man was free to take advantage of a woman’s body even if she was currently considered an honorable woman. This act, of course, would flip the woman’s honor/shame switch to irreversible shame.
It was even considered virtuous to have sex with a prostitute in order to avoid adultery. Men were culturally permitted to engage in sexual activity with young boys and slaves in a similar fashion as unmarried women. Men had total control over the honor/shame switch of virtually everyone else in society.
It is to this horrendous sexual ethic that Paul addresses and introduces a distinctly Christian code. This code stated that sex is only meant for a husband and wife. Any sexual pursuits outside of that relationship were not just shameful, but sin.
Any sexual activity outside of this permissive sexual outlet between husband and wife would be akin to spitting in God’s face.
We can see how the Christian sexual ethic influenced the ancient Roman culture in a good way. Indeed, many women and children ran to the Church’s teaching during this time, as it was the only safe haven from sexual abuse in the Roman empire. The Christian sexual ethic, while “restrictive” to men, undoubtedly resulted in more positive, healthy, godly sex lives, as well as overall relational well-being for everyone.
But what about the modern-day cultural sex code? Johnston pulls from an op-ed piece from the Atlantic to describe the sex practices and thoughts of the age, which has ultimately resulted in a sex recession. People are having less sex, because meaning is being erased from the act due to constant consumption.
We desire sexual intimacy, but we no longer know where the goodness of sexual intimacy is located.
Modern culture declares not that our bodies have status or meaning, but that they have possibility. Our imaginations are only limited by the notions of consent and desire. Where does this boundary-less sexual ethic lead us?
To the fragmentation and callousness of human hearts.
Sex is no longer sacred. It is simply a tool used for pleasure.
We use it so casually that we have lost the concept of its goodness. In my opinion, it is like we have gorged on imitation strawberry syrup for so long that we have lost our taste for real strawberries.
At this point in Johnston’s presentation, a lack of clarity and cohesion discomfited me. As he went on to describe how in the Christian view bodies have meaning because of their eternal destiny and sacramental nature, I found myself both agreeing and lamenting with his lackluster conclusion to receive our bodies as meaningful gifts from God.
In the historical Christian sexual ethic, what kind of gift is a sexually-charged body to a single person? To an LGBTQ+ person? To a paralyzed person?
These questions remained unanswered by the end of the presentation. Dissatisfied, I spoke up, asking what is the good news of a Christian sexual ethic for such people?
He did not give me a direct answer. Though I spoke with him more fully in private after the presentation, I still felt there was a lack in substance of how the Christian sexual ethic was good for me, personally.
I see how the Roman sexual ethic was degrading and repulsive.
I see how modern-day promiscuity rips open hearts and leaves them calloused.
I see how the Christian sexual ethic is endlessly more beautiful and dignifying in comparison.
Let’s tackle just one of the above people groups… one that many of us are a part of: singles.
How is the Christian sexual ethic good for me as a single person? Indeed, what good is sexuality at all, if I never get married? What exactly am I showing the world about the eternal destiny of the body and the sacramental nature of the body in my singleness?
Well, in essence, I’m showing an aspect of what heaven will be like. There will be no marriage in heaven. There will be no married people. There will be no sex. Marriage and sex are merely cheap imitations of the ecstasy and commitment eternally ours in heaven because of Jesus.
The only reason singleness often sucks right now is because of sin. The Church is not living up to its calling. Married people are not living up to their calling. Single people are not living up to their calling. We are all falling short. Sin tarnishes everything, even our glimpses of heaven from our earthly perspective.
So, I will ask my honest and perhaps selfish question of discontent… how is the Christian sexual ethic good news for me in this cultural moment?
Yes, I know sex is not all goodness and beauty all the time, even in marriage. There are obstacles and unique frustrations to sexuality that marriage brings – scenarios I can honestly imagine to be much worse than never having sex. We live in a scarily sinful world.
But . . . I am a sexual being. What good can I do with that fact in my singleness other than weep and pray, taking comfort in the truth that Jesus understands how I am feeling? My natural inclination is to want to commit myself holistically not just to God, but to another human being. Why God made us that way when some of us are not in healthy marital relationships is beyond me. Then again, why did God make food if some people are starving?
Sexuality is not just about sex, but I’m referring to sexual acts here because it is something that Christian singles are indeed missing experientially within our sexuality, if we are following God.
What is good about that?
I don’t think there is anything intrinsically good about being a sexual being with no opportunity to give of oneself holistically, sexually. But, Paul does call singleness a gift. The goodness of the gift of BOTH marriage and singleness lies in what we choose to do with our desires and if we ultimately will surrender to Love, Who is God Himself. This is something none of us want to hear. It doesn’t seem fair, to some of us caught in less-than-ideal situations.
I truly did not want to end with a dissatisfying conclusion, but it seems on some level, I must. Just as there’s mystery in marriage, there is mystery in singleness that is uncomfortable to my very human heart.
It has been helpful to me reading through a book called Surrender to Love, by David Benner (I have only finished the first chapter). I will end with this quote, in hopes it will encourage you as it has me.
“Creation is an outpouring of love – an overflow of love from the heavens to earth. Creation not only declares the inventiveness and resourcefulness of God but reveals the abundance of his love. Creation declares that humans are born of love and for love, created in the image of a God who is love. Love is our source and love is to be our fulfillment.
Made in God’s image, humans are invested with a nonnegotiable dignity. We are compatriots of God, not just creatures of God. Even more astounding, God chooses us to be his friends. That imputed status was never annulled, despite our sinful rebellion and declarations of independence.
Creation was God’s plan for friendship. We were not brought into existence simply so that we could worship God. Nor were we created simply for service. Human beings exist because of God’s desire for companionship. We are the fruit of God’s love reaching out toward creatures who share enough similarity that relationship is possible.
Humans were created for this intimate communion with their head-over-heels-in-love Creator God. When God thinks of us he feels a deep, persistent longing-not simply for our wholeness but, more basically, for our friendship. This possibility lies at the core of our own deepest desires. It also lies at the core of our deepest fulfillment.”