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The Bible & Sex: A Case Study

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I recently found myself in a debate about the Bible and sexual ethics. That's not rare: although I've devoted little of my academic writing to it, I read, write and speak on the subject often. I'd made two points in that conversation. First, the Bible doesn't offer a clear or consistent sexual ethic. And second, the sex lives of ancient people differed so greatly from our own that Bible is rarely talking about the questions we modern people are asking. In short, we shouldn't twist the Bible into a set of rules for faithful sexual behavior.

It was no surprise to find someone who disagreed with me, but one conversation partner posed a question I rarely receive: "What do you believe the Bible teaches us about sexuality?" In other words, am I saying the Bible is useless for addressing this fundamental and often vexing dimension of our lives?

Christians will, and should, always seek scriptural wisdom for our most pressing questions. Yet the old-fashioned, "What does the Bible say?" approach rarely provides the wisdom we seek. The Bible does not "tell" us how to relate to our environment, how to conduct international relations or even how to build friendships. No more so does the Bible "tell" us how to cultivate healthy sexual identities and relationships. We may find it frustrating, but the relationship status between the Bible and sexual wisdom reads, "It's complicated."

A case study may illuminate the danger and promise of turning to the Bible for guidance with respect to sexual ethics. In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (or perhaps 6:9-20) Paul speaks to the problem of prostitution. The passage includes what constitutes a lynchpin for sexual ethics in some circles. In the King James Version 1 Corinthians 6:18 begins, "Flee fornication," and it's often assumed to teach that Paul disapproves of pre-marital sex. (First Thessalonians 4:3 says something similar.) We won't dwell on the question of pre-marital sex here. Paul probably did disapprove of it, as we see especially in 1 Corinthians 7. Then again, Paul's world differed so greatly from our own that "pre-marital sex" would have meant vastly different things than it does now. At the risk of over-generalization, let's just say Paul was not talking about the realities of modern dating, nor could he have conceived of them. Most women married as young teens, while most new husbands were in their twenties. Their marriages did not result from a dating process involving mutual selection. As for 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul is directly addressing prostitution, not pre-marital sex.

In my view we may draw two important lessons from this passage. The first lesson involves the Bible's limitations as a handbook for addressing contemporary life questions. But the second lesson reminds us that we can encounter great wisdom from the Bible even when the most faithful options do not require us to submit to it or "apply" it.

Taken in context, Paul's advice is, well, frightening. Paul is speaking only to men here. Not once does the life of the prostitute figure into his calculus. Many ancient prostitutes were slaves: they did not choose prostitution as a "profession"; they were forced into sexual labor to bring profit to their owners. They suffered horrific exploitation and violence. Paul, unfortunately, does not mention the victimization of prostitutes in his logic. Instead, he thinks like many ancient men thought -- and like too many men think today. Paul actually demeans prostitutes in the passage. He reasons, "Should I take the members [think body parts] of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!" (NRSV). In locker room language, this is the equivalent of "Ewww! You tapped that?"

Maybe Paul never heard that Jesus placed prostitutes before the religious authorities in God's kingdom. Jesus was notorious for the company he kept. Paul, on the other hand, effectively prevents prostitutes from participation in the churches -- even if the prostitutes are believers enslaved or otherwise controlled by men. As Jennifer Glancy shows us, Paul's teaching on sexuality would have been nearly impossible for slaves to observe, since their masters controlled their bodies. A prostitute in the ancient world hardly possessed the freedom to "Flee prostitution." (Fortunately, Paul does advise slaves to take freedom when it was offered to them -- precisely in the middle of a conversation about sex [1 Corinthians 7:21-24].) Paul offers guidance for the clients, but he has nothing to say to the prostitute. He shows no concern for her either.

Paul's limited vision precludes deploying 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 as an authoritative word on prostitution. And that's okay. Do we really need Paul to tell us prostitution involves great violence against vulnerable women, men and children? We already know that.

Yet Paul also makes an argument our culture needs to hear. Too many people regard sex as just another biological function: necessary and important, but a personal matter with little moral significance.

Paul knows something important. There's a spiritual dimension to sex. Sex affects our whole selves -- our relation to God, our relation to one another and our relation to ourselves. What we do with our bodies matters, and it's much more than a matter of biological drive or personal preference. How badly our Cosmopolitan and Men's Health cultures need to hear that.

It's a funny thing with the Bible. We can't simply control or contain it. It won't fit into an advice column, much less a "user's manual" for daily living or a set of commandments. But if we read it carefully and take it seriously, we might surprise ourselves by what we learn. In this case, Paul's male-only perspective confronts us with our own sexism and with our tendency to overlook prostitution as it really is. At the same time, Paul might just challenge the lazy and self-serving attitudes we bring to this very sensitive aspect of our lives.