Sexual Mores and the Bible

[ Allen H. Brill, founder of “The Right Christians,” is a private citizen and Christian who wanted to see viewpoints of progressive Christians better represented in the public forum. He provides a Weblog on issues involving Christianity and politics that is updated five times a week. Rev. Brill is an ordained Lutheran minister educated at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO. He is also a member of the South Carolina Bar with a B.A. degree in Government from Harvard College and a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School. –Suzanne Faye ]

The Right Christians, February 25, 2004 (reprinted in the Charlotte Observer)

by Allen H. Brill

As Americans enter into an intense period of debate about sexual mores, Christian Right leaders like Albert Mohler are framing the issue as one that pits the religious against the secular and timeless divine truth against godless postmodern relativism. At stake, he says, is society’s responsibility to regulate sexuality:

Civilization requires the regulation of human sexuality and relationships. No society–ancient or modern–has survived by advocating a laissez faire approach to sex and sexual relationships. Every society, no matter how liberal, sanctions some sexual behaviors and proscribes others. Every society establishes some form of sexual norm.

For Mohler, granting equal marital rights to gays and lesbians will remove the lynchpin that holds our fragile civilization together:

Inevitably, once marriage is redefined as something other than a heterosexual pair, there is nothing to stop further redefinition but sheer arbitrariness. Once marriage is no longer “one thing,” but now “another thing” as well, there is nothing to stop marriage from becoming virtually “everything.” Put simply, if marriage can be redefined so as to allow same-sex pairings, there is nothing in the logic of this transformation that could justify discrimination against those who would transform marriage in other ways. Why just two people? If the consent of all partners is all that is requisite, why laws against incest, polygamy, or any number of other alternative arrangements? We can be certain that proponents of these transformations will be waiting in line for their turn to use the courts to reverse what they claim to be unlawful discrimination.

Mohler and other fundamentalist Christians point to the Bible as the infallible source of guidance for how we should regulate sexuality. Remove one more biblically-based restriction on sexual behavior, they say, and we risk both societal collapse and the judgment of an angry God.

The conservative proponents of biblical sexual standards better hope that no one examines the texts they rely upon too closely for many of the Bible’s ideas about sexual morality are quite alien to our own. Biblical sexual mores were centered around two concerns: preserving the property rights and honor of men with respect to the women in the household; and avoiding tebel, the improper mixing, that could threaten the order that God had imposed upon chaos.

The status of women and children in biblical times throughout the Ancient Near East was little above that of chattel. In Judges 19, the old Ephraimite man could offer his virgin daughter to satisfy gang rapists without even asking for her consent. Sexual behavior was prohibited only when it interfered with another male’s property rights or honor. “Adultery” was defined as sleeping with another’s wife. Sexual relations with prostitutes was not prohibited. Sleeping with a step-mother, mother-in-law or daughter-in-law was punishable by death. On the other hand, there was no explicit prohibition against a father having sex with his daughter. “Rape” was sleeping with a unmarried woman without her father’s permission. If she was betrothed to another man, the victim died along with the rapist unless she “cried out” in protest. If she was not betrothed, her father received a bride-price for her from the rapist and she had to marry the man.

The laws against homosexuality and bestiality that are found in chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus derive from the taboo against tebel rather than a concern for male property rights. Sexual acts between males–there is no biblical prohibition against lesbian sex–or sexual interaction between humans and animals constituted an “improper mixing” could lead to cosmic collapse just as mixing two kinds of crops in a field or two kinds of material in clothing.

What is missing in the biblical regulation of sexuality that we now consider of utmost importance? Consent, particularly consent on the part of women and children.

Don Browing, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of Marriage and Modernization, traces the rise of the importance of consent in Western laws governing sexual behavior and marriage to the interaction of the Jewish, Christian and Stoic traditions in the Roman Empire. By the 10th century, it was the consent of the parties to marriage, not the groom and the bride’s parents, that established a union in Catholic canon law.

This emphasis on consent in sexual matters has expanded in the modern era to make regulations on sexual behavior more restrictive in some cases and less in others. A husband can now be guilty of raping his wife. Because our society sees children as incapable of giving consent to sexual relations, adults who engage in sexual relations with minors are severely punished and the ability of children to marry is strictly limited. None of these concerns appear in the Bible. Conversely, the past fifty years have witnessed the invalidation or repeal of many laws regulating the sexual behavior of consenting adults.

Mohler argues that a consent standard is inadequate to protect society from sexuality run rampant, and he specifically mentions polygamy and incest. The Bible will offer no help with the former. It was practiced by the patriarchs and implicity approved with some restrictions under biblical law. When the Catholic scholastic Aquinas analyzed whether polygamy was appropriate, he resorted not to biblical texts but to Aristotle, Albertus Magnus and his own observations in order to support his thesis that polyandry (multiple husbands) undermined the male commitment to raising children while polygyny (multiple wives) was unfair to women. We moderns are surely as capable of investigating the advisability of polygamous marriage practices using tools not available to Aquinas along with the teachings of our various religious and ethical traditions.

As far as incest is concerned, Mohler should be aware that state laws currently define incest much more broadly than the Bible. There is no biblical prohibition against marrying first cousins, nieces or nephews. In any case, our more complete understanding of genetics provides us with more persuasive arguments against intra-familial marriage than any passage of scripture.

The truth is that Christian ideas about sexuality and marriage have not been frozen in time. They have evolved, been debated and changed throughout the past 2,000 years. Most of us would recognize that many of these changes have been for the good. Who would want to return to the days when women and children were considered the property of the male head of household who could offer them up to a mob or marry them off to a rapist? What is divine about a legal code that punishes women with death for adultery but allows men to sleep with prostitutes without any sanction?

Mohler and his colleagues of the Christian Right are not mistaken, however, when they point out the importance of sexuality and marriage to the well-being of our society. The forces of modernization have done much to undermine family stability and hamper the nurturing of children. We should all be alarmed at statistics that show rising rates of divorce and child poverty. But if the welfare of society and Christ’s directive to be concerned for the least among us are the real concerns, all Christians should be uniting around efforts to support our nation’s families rather than enacting a Constitutional amendment aimed at discriminating against gays and lesbians.

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