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On Celibacy and Licentiousness – A Critique of Modern Moral Standards

At the edges of Christian consciousness, an ethical tidal wave is preparing to crash into the center of Church discourse. Debates over questions of polyamory, non-monogamy, and open relationships already show signs of getting stuck in the historical and false dichotomy of licentiousness or celibacy, which has plagued theology since the early days of the church.

Old Testament Traditions

For centuries, Christian tradition has assumed the idea that covenant faithfulness in marriage requires the sexual exclusivity of one or both partners. A study of Biblical texts and culture reveals a somewhat different story. Within patriarchal societies, sexual exclusivity was demanded and expected of wives but not of husbands. Female sexuality was controlled as a way of regulating property transfer and inheritance. A womb was considered the property of the man who bought it for the purpose of extending his family name and wealth exclusively to those who carried his personal genetics (see ”Sex in History”).

The modern “madonna/whore” complex (which applies only to females) reflects a long-standing history of systematic gender inequality through the commodification of female sexuality. A woman might choose the secure and respectable path of a wife whose sexuality could be bought by only one person or the socially outcast role of a prostitute whose sexuality could be bought by more than one person. [Note, socially outcast is not the same thing as sinful – see this extensive exploration of prostitution in the Bible]

Adultery is the biblical term used to describe a violation of the socio-economic expectations between a man and his wife. Within a “biblical marriage,” a male was expected to provide food, clothes, and sexual satisfaction (e.g. see Exodus 21:10), while a female was expected to provide sexual exclusivity and offspring. Biblical examples of adultery are limited to scenarios in which the female sexual partner is the legal property of another man (as a wife or concubine). The thoroughly documented practice of males having multiple wives, concubines, or sexual partners like slaves or prostitutes to whom they were not contractually bound was never described as adultery.

Theological scholars must question whether the Old Testament laws regulating sexual behavior within this patriarchal paradigm reflect God’s ideal created order, allowance for sinful disorder, or divine intervention in human social structures to elevate women and restore gender equality. Through the arc of the Biblical text, I am inclined toward the latter interpretation.

New Testament Upgrades

In the New Testament, Jesus seems to extend the meaning of adultery to male behaviors that include looking upon a woman with lust (Matthew 5:28) and the exploitative practice of divorce allowed by the Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 19:3). Paul later gives the wife authority over the husband’s body (1 Corinthians 7:4), and presents a theology of equality that includes slaves, gentiles, and women (Galatians 3:28).

Does this imply that females now had access to the same kind of sexual freedom that had always belonged to males? Popular theology answers this question with an untenable interpretation and inaccurate translation (see Harper) of the word porneia as fornication.

So far, my research into the word porneia integrates academic scholarship and rhetorical analysis to suggest that the word had a specific cultural and linguistic meaning as it was used in the New Testament and the Septuagint. I will not go into detail here [buy my book if you want the whole story!], only recognize that the universal moral principle of porneia calls the Christian to express their sexuality in ways that are governed by the spirit rather than by the flesh (e.g. Galatians 5, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). Porneia implicates sex outside of marriage along with sex inside of marriage – if it is driven by lust instead of love. This word does not provide satisfactory grounds to answer the question about sexual exclusivity.

Early Church Context

A brief look at the cultural context of the early church is equally unhelpful. Thanks to the influence of Plato and the gnostics on Christian theology, the early church writings tend to represent one of two opposing viewpoints. In spite of New Testament warnings, the more dominant view condemned the body and sexuality, elevating celibacy – even within marriage. In contrast, the minority (and probably misrepresented) view seemed to reject any constraints on sexuality.

Competing stories about the teaching of the Nicolaitans provides one such example of the false dichotomy between celibacy and licentiousness that has dominated the Christian imagination since (probably even before) the ascension of Christ. Stories are told of Nicolas, who may have been the deacon of Antioch, that reflect both perspectives. One side claims that he made his wife available for sexual relations with any man who wished as a rhetorical gesture to prove that he was unattached to things of the world (aka. celibacy – see Eusebius, Book III, Chapter XXIX). The other side claimed that he did so as a sex addict who preached licentiousness and adultery (see Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, I.26.3).

Modern Challenges

A similar dichotomy can be seen today in liberal and conservative churches who demand celibacy, except in heterosexual marriage, or demand celebration of every kind of sexual expression. Meanwhile the whole of Christendom maintains an unhealthy affair with the “covenant of marriage” by elevating it to the status of a sacrament rather than a concession (see 1 Corinthians 7). This means the ethical options available to a modern Christian include celibacy or licentiousness, with monogamy often being used as an excuse to justify the latter.

The dominant conversation on sexual ethics in the church has entirely overlooked (or misrepresented) the historical, cultural, and linguistic implications of Biblical teaching on sexuality – which I believe is a call toward a life governed by the spirit in all things. Unless this framework is brought into the discussion, there is little hope that the church will be able to address the questions of polyamory without alienating, isolating, and dehumanizing those whose choices fall outside of the dominant and biblically uninformed paradigms of moral behavior.

A Way Forward

One of my goals in writing and research ministry is to enable the cultivation of healthy dialogue and deeper understanding of the scriptures around ethics and sexuality. I have thoroughly studied the relevant passages and many historical documents that contribute to the modern understanding of these topics. However, I recognize that Christian sexual ethics ethics are part of a broader theological evolution that reflects a diversity of geographical and political climates, literacy standards, social traditions, and various motivations of polarizing individuals.

We cannot understand the meaning of one text or one Greek or Hebrew word in isolation from the rest of the language, culture, and socio-economic context that it represents. It would be easy to address the broken framework of sexual ethics that my generation inherited by aligning with the popular deconstruction movement, but I am not content to dismiss the voice of tradition, history, scholarship, and literature in favor of what feels right in the moment. I believe there is a way to reconcile the need for a practical, compassionate, and empowering sexual ethic with the truth of the scripture and the traditions of the church.

Modern theological scholars are blessed with resources and tools far beyond those available to our predecessors and so it may be our joy as well as our duty to lay a foundation for long-term sustainable change. We have the chance to cultivate unity instead of division around topics like polyamory, open relationships, and non-monogamy by uncovering the roots of the traditions we have inherited and presenting a responsible biblical interpretation with clarity and understanding. Perhaps then, the church may once more serve as a fountain of life and wholeness instead of confusion and shame around these topics.

Resources:

Eusebius of Caesarea. “Church History.” Book III. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. New Advent. www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm.

Harper, Kyle. “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 131, no. 2, 2012, pp. 363-383.

Irenaeus. “Against Heresies.” Book I, Chapter 26, Section 3. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New Advent. www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103126.htm

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980. Print.

The Bible. “English Standard Version.” Blue Letter Bible. www.blueletterbible.org/esv/index.cfm.

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2 thoughts on “On Celibacy and Licentiousness – A Critique of Modern Moral Standards”

  1. First, you make it almost impossible to read this post online and leave a comment. The only way to see it is by subscribing as there is no close button on the popup window ‘Start Reading Today!” I have already subscribed and bought your book.
    Second, the church at large has relinguished its moral authority and is not seen as credible in matters of morality today. Within vital church communities – and to a less extent church denonominations – dialogue regarding the particulars of the Spirit – including sexuality mostly on an inferred basis – is alive and well. In a bigger picture lies a disconnect in a church that claims to be the “pillar and buttress of the truth” when it acts according to God’s Word (1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). This purports that Church decisions have divine authority when they are faithful to the Apostolic and prophetic revelation of Scripture. But how valid are such decisions mired in the backdrop of child and sex abuse, the reporting of which gives an impression of the Church being marinated in immorality rather than subject to it as fallible humans?
    Third, the dichotomy of celibacy and licentiousness has largely been coopted by government and marketing in the US as an effective way of manipulating and controlling people. You provide an excellent overview of the concept of porneia, but it is far too spiritually focused and nuanced to work within the power dictum “divide and conquer.” The middle loses ground to polarization.
    Fourth, I still consider Jesus’ teachings of Oneness as a greater calling, lesson and outlook, but have found this message overall lost in the perpetual dysfunction and despair which US churches today. This doesn’t even take into account the rise of Christian nationalism that may be more prevelant in the media than actual churches, but nonetheless is a factor in the role and view of the church in society today.
    Finally, I haven’t given up on the power of small groups of individuals to be agents of change. Whether this “boots on the ground” can include “butts in the pews” is another matter. I personally believe that the church can have the greatest impact by focusing away from its real estate and Sunday morning to which it desperately clings. I no longer conflate Jesus’ teachings, Christianity and the church, but see the later two in major transition and welcome what they may become.
    As I am not called to serve the church and feel too wounded and alientated to participate in it, I will continue to explore such questions regarding sexual orientations and relationships integrated with my personal faith and life journey, and it’s all good.

    Reply
    • Hello Andy!

      Thanks for your comment and for buying my book! I love it when people have a background to wrestling through some of these ideas!

      I’m sorry about the technical glitch. I think I was able to fix the problem you were talking about, but please let me know if it comes back…

      I resonate with a lot of what you share here, especially the part about the church losing credibility because it claims to have truth while also enacting violence. It was this contradiction in my own life that started me on a long spiritual journey to where I am today. It’s probably more than just sexual ethics that need fixing, but this is such a pain point that it is where I have chosen to camp out in my service to the church.

      As you have observed, the middle way that I outline in my work seems to lose ground in competition with the polarizing dominant viewpoints…and I suspect this is some of what Jesus was referring to when he talked about the way that leads to life and few that find it.

      I appreciate your thoughtful reflections! Feel free to reach out anytime you want to chat through some of these ideas…

      -Kevin J

      Reply

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