The Church in a (Once) Sexually-Liberated World: Sex, slaves, and rock ‘n’ roll (pt. II)

In my last post on how the church engages culture, I showed you two popular models for how we can understand cultural engagement. I finished with Tim Keller’s four quadrants. They look like this:

Keller has said that none of these is the “right” answer. Instead, he argues for balance. We shouldn’t get too extreme in any of these directions, but instead utilize all of them in appropriate ways.

That’s a decent start, but it has the potential to lead us astray. A generic “balance” isn’t the answer. In fact, there are times that our response to something in our culture should be one of these in the extreme. But Keller’s model doesn’t help us identify when to favor one of these stances, and it doesn’t help us identify how to adopt that stance. Neither did Niebuhr’s earlier model (also described in the previous piece).

The problem is the starting premise in both models. They attempt a top-down approach to cultural engagement. They ask general questions about the nature of a culture: Is it good? Is it bad? Should the Church be actively involved in it? But we don’t approach a culture generically. We approach it in all of its particulars, and each is different.[note]Niebuhr was aware of this. He writes, “When one returns from the hypothetical scheme to the rich complexity of individual events, it is evident at once that no person or group ever conforms completely to a type” (See chapter 1, part IV of Christ and Culture).[/note]

Amid the rich complexity of individual events, the models that Niebuhr and Keller propose leave us aimless––or even worse, justifying bad positions. To demonstrate, I’ll consider three case studies: sex, slavery, and rock ‘n’ roll. This post focuses on the sex and uses slavery and rock ‘n’ roll as its foils. I’ll expand on those if you think it would be helpful.

The Church in a Sexually-Liberated World

For all the sex on our TV shows and movies, almost none of it is between married couples. Our culture’s accepted and celebrated sexual ethic has little in common with historic Christian teaching. The idea that sex and marriage should go together seems outmoded. And now, some are arguing that it’s not just a quaint, antiquated notion. They’re claiming that it’s bad, harmful, repressive.

How do Christians handle the difference between our historic teaching and the culture’s generally accepted practice? Let’s consider Keller’s four approaches:

The Relevance model

Are you looking to our culture for the answers to sexual ethics questions? You fit here. A faithful church attender said to me not long ago, “It’s the 21st century. I don’t think God is too worried about sex outside of marriage anymore.” Look around. Get with the times. Read up on the harm that comes with sexual repression.

The Relevance model will probably also talk about the harmful shaming and fear that Christian “purity culture” has caused and instead focus on the goodness of sex and sexuality.

Christians who take the Relevance position on sexual ethics won’t stand out from the world. That’s part of their intent. If you want people to be attracted to the faith, you need to quit making it look so weird.

The Counterculture model

If you fit here, you see our culture’s unrestrained attitude toward sex as unsurprising. But you also see it as incompatible with the Christian life. You expect the church to model something entirely different, even if we don’t try to impose it on others.

The counterculture church maintains lives of purity and chastity: fidelity in marriage, celibacy in singleness. (A note: the kind of “purity” this church should advocate is neither shame- nor fear-based, but holiness-based.)

There’s no concern here about changing our culture’s views on sexuality. The world will be the world.

This will be the crowd most likely to abstain from the shows and movies that promote a different view of sexuality. At the least, they’ll likely reject shows and movies with nudity and graphic sexuality. As a wise person once said, “Casual sex, casual nudity, and pornography are eroding our respect for the body and sex. They’re training us to separate two things that God created to go together––intimate relationship and the intimate giving of our bodies.”

The Transformation model

If you’re a transformationist, you want to go further than the group above. You want to change the culture’s views and practices. You believe it would be better for the world around us to maintain a Christian sexual ethic, even if they don’t adhere to the Christian faith.

If that’s you, we need to ask how this transformation would come about.

One option is to mandate it. Legislate it. Make laws against cohabitation and extramarital sex. You’re probably not ready for that, are you?

If we don’t legislate it, the church could seek transformation in another way: by spreading our worldview. Hold out the Christian understanding of sexuality in its most winsome form across our culture so that it would become the mainstream view of what’s good and right. This is where some Christians have advocated heavy involvement in the entertainment industry and education sector.

Like money or food & drink, human sexuality is a good thing when it’s used as God intended. But when we cast off restraint, it becomes a form of idolatry that’s deeply destructive to ourselves and others. The transformationist tries to convince our society of that, whether they’re Christians or not.

The Two Kingdoms model

Maybe none of these sound quite right to you. You’re more of a live-and-let-live kind of person. You’ll continue to maintain a sexual ethic as the church teaches it, but you won’t stand out. You’ll neither compromise your own standards nor expect others to live by them.

The two kingdoms model will have you live in both the Church and the world, but in different ways. For instance, you probably won’t have any problem with a co-worker or employee who sleeps around or lives with his girlfriend. But if your pastor is doing the same, you’re not okay with it. In fact, you’d probably consider it unjust if your secular employer fired someone for anything to do with their sex lives (excepting anything illegal, which is a different matter), but you’d consider it highly appropriate for your church to fire the pastor who has a sexual relationship with someone other than his/her spouse.

According to Two Kingdoms, we expect different things in the Church and in the world. What would be considered an unfair or unjust expectation in one place would be a requirement in the other.

An aside: The Cracks in our Sexual Liberation

The #MeToo movement has highlighted many of the problems with our sexually-liberated society. When sex is disentangled from relational commitment, we create a whole new set of questions about when it’s appropriate. The cracks in our sexual liberation are showing.

We’ve landed on “consent” as our guide, but we’ve seen that even that standard can be difficult to define. In a relationship where one person has more power, does the other person really have power to consent? Is “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a playful song or predatory? When one or both people are drunk, can they consent? We’ve had plenty of instances where one person claims the encounter was consensual and the other claims it wasn’t. And so we’ve created forms and apps that allow us to contractually consent to sex.

Imagine that … associating sex with a contractual commitment. We’ve heard about this somewhere before.[note]To the wokest, I agree that consent can even be at issue in a married relationship. And that sex should never happen without both parties’ consent. Every problem I know of from the #MeToo movement, though, involved people who had not freely chosen to be married to each other. Marriage continues to be one of the most reliable indicators about whether someone generally consents to having sex with the other person.[/note]

How do we choose?

Did one of these models strike you as most appropriate? Or maybe you found portions of a few of the models that you would endorse? Did any seem like inappropriate ways of handling sexual ethics in our culture? You may even say that a nice balance of these is best in this situation.

Whatever model of engagement fits you best for this question, I would bet that it won’t fit you best when we discuss slavery or rock ‘n’ roll.

You may have thought the idea of legislating sexual morality was a bad idea, you might have liked the live-and-let-live approach of the Two Kingdoms view or the “alternate society” approach of the Counterculture view, but I bet you would be glad Christians were involved in changing laws about slavery. And you doubtfully would say they should have just been balanced in their positions.

You may agree with me that we shouldn’t look to our culture and “evolve” to whatever it believes is a proper sexual ethic, but you may also be okay with an “evolving” acceptance of musical styles as the world around us changes. (Hey, even the organ was once a new invention.)

The models explain which stances we’re taking, but they don’t explain why. They might even allow us to justify a position that we shouldn’t justify (e.g. wholesale acceptance of our world’s sexual norms or anyone who took a “live-and-let-live” approach to American slavery).

I think we can ask better questions to arrive at better answers. I’ll detail those in the next post.

For now: Does one of these models sound closest to your view? What helps you identify which positions to take and which to reject?

Like it and want to see the follow-up post? Click here to subscribe for blog updates.

Love it? Most people find this blog because you share it. Thanks! Hit a sharing button to share with others.

A Summary Chart

2 thoughts on “The Church in a (Once) Sexually-Liberated World: Sex, slaves, and rock ‘n’ roll (pt. II)

Join the Discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s