We have spent an extended period of time considering the way of love in early Christianity, revealing that it was the virtue which defined and directed the inner life and outer witness of the desert fathers and mothers.
I will turn next to the practice of non-judgment, but today I want to write about a misperception that often arises among critics who view the way of love and the practice of non-judgment as meaning that ancient and modern Christians who espouse these values are soft on sin.
I confess that I am inserting this writing into the larger exploration of the three pillars that I advocate in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride,’ because one of the false allegations that keeps raising its head against me is the notion that by advocating the principle of love, the practice of non-judgment, and the process of holy conversation, I have joined the ranks of those who take a minimalist position on sexual sin.
As a way of honoring the early Christian community, and simultaneously representing myself, I want to make clear where a theology of sexual sin fits into the paradigm I commend and that I find operative in early Christianity. I know that what I am about to write will not satisfy everyone, but I hope it will put to rest the caricature that Christians like me (ancient or modern) have become relativists when it comes to sexual sin. The following points can only scratch the surface, but I offer them as signposts toward a larger address of this matter which I hope to make eventually.
First, there is sexual sin, and in every case the Bible is against it. God has created human sexuality as “good” in the original creation, and whatever violates the sacredness of sexuality is to be rejected. The two main words that capture the Bible’s prohibition are the Hebrew word zana and the Greek word porneia, usually translated by the term immorality.
Second, both heterosexual and homosexual persons commit sexual sin. As Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson so clearly points out, heterosexual immorality is frequently ignored in the current debate, when the data reveals that heterosexual sinfulness more extensively affects the sexual mores of society than homosexual sinfulness does. I fully agree that this is an unacceptable imbalance in any attempt to establish a theology of holy sexuality.
Third, sexual sin is summarized in one word: promiscuity. That is, any sexual behavior which is driven by lust rather than defined by love, centered in self-gratification rather than God-glorification, is temporary rather than permanent, and lacks a sense of commitment. The two words used to describe this in Scripture are fornication and adultery, with a plurality of behaviors that emerge. A look at early Christianity shows that these two manifestations were roundly rejected.
Fourth, the often-debated passages regarding homosexuality in the Old and New Testaments are all about some kind of promiscuity, as are the other texts in Scripture that describe sinful sexual behaviors. As with heterosexual sin, homosexual sin is not one overarching behavior, but rather sexual behavior that is promiscuous.
Fifth, the basis for determining the morality of sexual behavior is covenant: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency. Covenant is the evaluative factor for all of life. We even refer to the two major sections of Scripture as the Old and New Covenants. In both Testaments, covenant is rooted in the two great commandments, upon which hang all the law and the prophets. Sexual behavior is, therefore, one powerful way we declare our love of God and others. Sexual sin is a violation of biblical love through a host of expressions, all egoic in nature.
Sixth, when covenant remains definitive, both heterosexuals and homosexuals can honor it through celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. With regard to human sexuality, God has one standard, and both heterosexuals and homosexuals can and must keep it.
So, far from being soft on sin, I join with Christians who put the focus on behavior rather than orientation. I join with Christians who reject sexual promiscuity of any kind by anyone. And I join with Christians who offer any two people the opportunity to make vows that root their relationship in covenant (sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency), creating accountability and responsibility for us all.
I believe this way allows the principle of love to exist and flow between and among people, without creating a carte blanche disregard for honoring the covenant which alone makes any aspect of life good.