A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 13 – Birth control and infertility treatment.

God’s command to have children

As we have noted repeatedly in the course of this series of articles, for human beings to live rightly means for them to live in the light of the fact that they have been created by God as men and women, in his image, and after his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). In the final article in this series we shall look at what this means in relation to the two issues of birth control and infertility treatment.

Having declared that human beings have been created by God in his image and likeness, the Book of Genesis immediately goes on to say that, as those who have created in this way, human beings are called by God to reproduce. In the words of Genesis 1:28:

‘And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’’

As the second half of this verse indicates, for human beings to live as God’s image bearers involves them acting as God’s stewards, ruling over the rest of creation on God’s behalf, and in order for this to happen each successive generation of human beings is called to beget more human beings to fulfil this calling (hence the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’).

What Genesis also goes to say, is that God created marriage between one man and one woman to be the context in which the command to be fruitful and multiply is to be fulfilled. That is how it was with the first humans, Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1-2, 4:25, 5:1-3) and that is how it is mean to be ever thereafter.

Birth control

Given that human beings have been commanded by God to beget children within marriage the questions that then arise are  (a) whether it is ever right for a husband and wife to deliberately restrict the number of children they have and (b) if they may do this, what means they may legitimately use to achieve such a restriction.

The answer to (a) is that there may be morally good reasons for a married couple to restrict the number of children they have, because of the particular circumstances of their lives, or the particular vocations to which God has called them. Examples of such reasons would be the health of the mother, the well-being of existing children, or a call to a form of ministry or service that could not be satisfactorily combined with parenthood.

The answer to (b) is that there are number of means for restricting the number of children that do not raise any moral problems. This is true of what is known as ‘natural family planning’ based on sexual abstinence and the natural cycle of female fertility. It is also true of ‘barrier’ methods such as the use of condoms, diaphragms, cervical caps or spermicidal sponges that prevent the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm, and of male or female sterilisation in situations where there are morally justifiable reasons for preventing pregnancy altogether. 

However, there are moral problems with methods of birth control such as the abortion pill (RU 146) which is specifically designed to abort an existing embryo and with the use of hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill, intrauterine devices (IUDs) using copper, and emergency contraception  (the so-called ‘morning after’ pill), which may have the effect causing embryos to perish by lessening the chance of an embryo implanting successfully in the lining of the womb.

The reason such methods of birth control are morally problematic is because it seems clear that God has so designed the human race that human life begins at the point where a woman’s egg is fertilised by a man’s sperm. To quote Sean Doherty:

‘Fertilisation is when a new human life begins physically. A fertilised egg is not a part of the father or the mother in the way that the sperm or the egg  were—something new has begun. No new beginning takes place after this: all that ensues is the natural development of the new life that has already begun.’[1]

If human life begins at fertilisation, then the deliberate destruction of the embryo through the use of the abortion pill is certainly morally unacceptable, and the use of methods of birth control that may prevent implantation of the embryo also raises serious moral questions. Is the risk of preventing the implantation of an embryo, even if it is very small, a risk worth taking given that the destruction of a human life would be involved and that other methods of birth control are available? [2]

Treatments for infertility

As well as couples who wish to restrict the number of children that they will have, there are also couples who would like to obey God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply, but who, like Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15-21) , Elkanah and Hannah  (1 Samuel 1) and Zechariah and Elizabeth (and Luke 1-2),  have problems with conceiving any children at all.

In this situation there are no moral objections to medical intervention which is designed to allow a married couple to conceive through sexual intercourse. This would include surgery to clear a blockage in a man’s testicles, or a woman’s fallopian tubes, the use of drugs to aid or stimulate ovulation, or even a womb transplant. In all these cases the aim is to try to counteract a disorder resulting from the Fall so that conception may then place as normal.

There also seems to be no moral objection in principle to forms of fertility treatment in which a husband’s sperm and a wife’s egg are artificially brought together before being implanted into the wife so that pregnancy and birth may then follow. This is still a form of sexual conception involving a husband and wife even though the circumstances of the conception are abnormal.

However, there are three forms of infertility treatment that are morally problematic.

The first is conception using sperm or eggs from someone other than the husband or wife. The problem with this is that it severs the link intended by God between the sexual relationship of a husband and a wife and the birth of children. In the words of Oliver O’Donovan: ‘This is a knot tied by God, which men should not untie.’ [3]

The second is those forms of artificial conception that result in a surplus of embryos which are either destroyed or frozen. If, as we saw above, life begins at fertilization,  this is deeply troubling because it means that human beings are being deliberately destroyed  or left indefinitely in freezers.

The third is the use of a surrogate mother to carry, and give birth to, an artificially conceived child. This is morally problematic because:

  • Surrogacy very often involves the commercial exploitation of vulnerable women: [4]
  • Even when this is not the case, surrogacy breaks the God designed nexus between marriage, conception, pregnancy and birth. As before this is a knot tied by God which we should not untie.
  • Surrogacy can very often result in deep emotional distress to the birth mother due to her having to give up the baby she has carried and to which she has given birth and with whom she has formed a strong emotional bond. [5]

In conclusion

What all this means in practice is that however valid our reasons for wishing to restrict or avoid pregnancy and however deep our wish to have children we have to take into account the moral issues relating to birth control and infertility treatment sketched out in this article.

As human beings we cannot simply do what we want and what is now technologically possible. We can only rightly do that which accords with God’s will by respecting God’s general call to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ the God given dignity of all human life from the moment it comes into existence, and the God given link between procreation and the sexual union between a husband and wife in marriage.

[1] Sean Doherty,  The Only Way is Ethics, Part 2: Life and Death (Milton Keynes, Authentic Media, 2016), p.13. 

[2] It is also worth noting that even if one is not entirely certain when human life begins, if the point of fertilisation is a possibility, then one would have an obligation n to act as if it did begin at that point (in the same way that one would have to act on the possibility that someone was trapped in a burning building).360 The same moral issues relating to birth control would therefore apply

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP. 1984), p.17.

[4] See Kathleen Sloan,  ‘Trading on the Female Body: Surrogacy, Exploitation, and Collusion by the US Government,’  Public Discourse, 25 April, 2017 at https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/04/19109/

[5] Where there is both conception outside of the married relationship between husband and wife and surrogacy, as in the case of Adam and Ian on the Archers, this is doubly problematic.

Wayne Grudem’s new proposal on divorce – a response.

In my previous article on divorce and re-marriage I argued that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows for divorce only in the specific circumstance of a divorce initiated by an unbelieving spouse. This traditional reading of the text has recently been challenged by the veteran American Evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem. In this paper I respond to this challenge.

In his paper ‘Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There Are More Than Two – An Argument for Including Abuse in the Phrase “In Such Cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15,’ which was first delivered at the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2019,  Grudem suggests that 1 Corinthians 7:15 shows that spousal abuse should be regarded as an additional legitimate ground for divorce alongside adultery and divorce by an unbelieving spouse.[1]

Grudem’s proposal

His proposal is that divorce on the grounds of spousal abuse should be regarded as morally permissible:

‘… in situations where one spouse is repeatedly inflicting substantial harm on the other spouse, such that the abused spouse must leave the home for self-protection, and also in other situations that are similarly destructive to a marriage.’

He further states that: ‘This ‘substantial harm’ could be physical or mental/emotional (from verbal and relational cruelty).’

The basis on which he makes this proposal is the argument that in 1 Corinthians 7:15b the Greek phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις , translated ‘in such a case’ in the RSV, ‘in such circumstances’ in the NIV and ‘in such cases’ in the ESV, should be translated as ‘in this and other similarly destructive cases.’ According to Grudem, if we translate 1 Corinthians 15b in this way, the particular case of the desertion of a Christian by an unbelieving spouse which Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15a becomes merely one among a range of cases in which a spouse’s action destroys a marriage and divorce is then legitimate, and spousal abuse should be regarded as such a case.

He offers three reasons for reading 1 Corinthians 7:15 in this way.

First, there are many examples from extra-biblical Greek literature in which the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις refers to a range of cases illustrated by one example.

Secondly, the writers of the New Testament use phrases such as  τὸν τοιοῦτον, ὁ τοιοῦτος, or ἐν τούτῳ,  when they are referring to only one specific example and therefore Paul’s use of  ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in 1 Corinthians 7:15 must therefore refer to a range of examples as is the case in the extra-biblical literature previously mentioned.

Thirdly, the range of cases illustrated by the case of desertion by an unbelieving spouse must be cases in which a spouse takes action destructive of a marriage, since this what the illustration refers to. Spousal abuse would count as such a case because it too is destructive of a marriage.

Why Grudem’s proposal is implausible

What are we to make of this argument?

  • Grudem is right to say that spousal abuse is something which Christians need to take with the utmost seriousness.
  • Grudem is correct in what he says about the use of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in the extra-biblical literature he quotes[2] and about the phrases the New Testament writers use to refer to a single person or thing.
  • Nevertheless, Grudem is wrong to say that in 1 Corinthians 7:15 the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις in refers to a range of cases beyond desertion by an unbelieving spouse.

In order to understand why Grudem is wrong at point (c ) we need to note, first of all, that in the extra-biblical texts quoted by Grudem which use the phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις the reason a range of cases wider than the one specifically referred to in the text needs to be inferred is that this is necessary in order to make sense of what the text is saying.

We can see this, for example, if we look at the first two these texts, which Grudem cites as follows:

‘1. PHILO JUDAEUS Phil. De vita Mosis 1.38, line 1 (lib. i-ii) {0018.022} (1 B.C.-A.D. 1)

[When the Egyptians discovered that their all their firstborn sons and firstborn cattle had been killed:] And, as so often happens in such circumstances (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις), they thought that their present condition was but the beginning of greater evils, and were filled with fear of the destruction of those who still lived.

Specific example:  10th plague on Egypt and death of the firstborn sons.

“in such cases”: any kind of sudden tragic event. (clearly broader than the specific example named)

2. EURIPIDES Trag. Troiades [The Trojan Women] {0006.011} Line 303   c. 480-c. 406 BC

What are they doing? Are they firing the chambers, [300] because they must leave this land and be carried away to Argos? Are they setting themselves aflame in their longing for death? Truly the free bear their troubles in cases like this (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις), with a stiff neck.

Specific example:  captured people who are about to be carried into exile

“in such cases”: any case where someone faces a sudden loss of freedom or even loss of life.’

In both these texts, the clue that a wider range of cases has to be inferred is that one example is cited, but the  phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις, which contains two plural pronouns,[3] is then used. What has to be explained is why plural pronouns are used to refer to a single case, and the most sensible explanation is that this is because the single case is an example of a whole range of other, similar, cases.

In the text from Philo the one example is the discovery by the Egyptians of the death of the first-born sons and cattle, and the plural pronouns only make sense if they refer to circumstances which include, but are not limited to, this example.  In the text from Euripides the one example is the actions of the Trojan women at the fall of Troy and again the plural pronouns only make sense if they refer to circumstances which include, but are not limited to this, example.

A similar pattern can be found in the other six texts Grudem cites.

By contrast, in 1 Corinthians 7:15b the plural pronouns are used to refer to the two specific situations which Paul has set out in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15a. The reason the pronouns are plural is because the situations are plural.

We can see this if we look at 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 as a whole. In the ESV these verses run as follows:

‘12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called youto peace.’

In these verses, situation one (v 12) is when a male Christian has an unbelieving wife and situation two (v 13) is when a female Christian has an unbelieving husband. In these two situations, says Paul, for the reasons set out in v 14, the Christian husband or wife should not initiate divorce if the spouse consents to live with them. However, should the unbelieving spouse separate (i.e. divorce them) then these two  situations change (v 15a) and ‘in such cases’ (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις,) they are free to re-marry (v 15vb) .[4]

Because the plural pronouns and the two situations previously mentioned  (what grammarians  call the ‘antecedent’) match up there are no grounds for the suggestion that Paul has other grounds for divorce in mind. The antecedent is what Paul has in mind.

In the words of Ed Dingess in his revuew of Grudem’s paper:

‘The antecedent of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις is τὶς [‘any’] up in v.12. Paul says if any brother or sister has an unbelieving spouse who is content to dwell with them, they must NOT put that person away. This indefinite pronoun is inherently plural. It refers to a category of people: believers with unbelieving spouses. The indefinite pronoun is clearly implied in 7:15 where the category is now believing spouses who are being divorced by unbelieving spouses. This category is also plural: there is more than one case where a believing spouse is being divorced by an unbelieving spouse. This is the best explanation  for why Paul employs ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις rather than ἐν τούτῳ.’[5]

The other use of the demonstrative pronoun τοιούτος in 1 Corinthians 7 supports this reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15. In the first half of 1 Corinthians 7:28 Paul declares that a man who marries does not sin and if a woman marries she does not sin either. However, he then goes on to say that ‘those people’ (τοιούτοι) who marry will have worldly troubles from which Paul wishes to spare them.  The nominative plural pronoun  τοιούτοι in the second half of the verse matches the two types of people  referred to in the first half of the verse, and so translators rightly conclude that Paul has the same set of people in mind. That is why the RSV, NIV and ESV all translate τοιούτοι as ‘those who marry.’  Here again we see the principle that the match between the pronoun and the antecedent shows what Paul meant.

A similar usage occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:16 where the plural pronouns τοῖς τοιούτοις (this time without the preceding  ἐν)  refer to the plural antecedents in the previous verse, the members of the household of Stephanas and is translated as ‘such people’ in the RSV and NIV and ‘such as these’ in the ESV.

The reason  why in 1 Corinthians 7:15b Paul does not use the phrases typically used in the New Testament to refer to a single person or thing is simple. He is not referring to a single thing, but to two things, the two situations previously mentioned.

For these reasons Grudem’s proposed reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is implausible.

Furthermore, even if we were to accept that 1 Corinthians 7:15b , refers to grounds for divorce other than those specified in 1 Corinthians 7:15a, this would not prove that one of the grounds that Paul had in mind was spousal abuse. The (correct)  judgement that spousal abuse is a truly dreadful thing does not prove that it is what Paul had in mind. There would need to be other evidence to show this and such evidence does not exist. Nowhere in the New Testament, either in the writings of Paul or elsewhere, is abuse specified as legitimate ground for divorce.

It follows that divorce on the grounds on spousal abuse cannot be plausibly argued on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:15.

M B Davie 18.5.2020

[1] His paper can be found at http://www.waynegrudem.com/grounds-for-divorce-why-i-now-believe-there-are-more-than-two/.

[2] It should be noted that Grudem explains that he has sampled 52 examples out of 617 potentially relevant texts in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and only quotes eight of these. This does raise questions about how representative his sample was and how representative of this sample his quotations are. Nevertheless, the texts he quotes say what he says they say.

[3] As Marg Mowczko explains, the grammatical construction of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις is as follows:

‘En (ἐν) is a common preposition that often means “in.” It occurs over 2700 times in the New Testament and always takes nouns, etc, in the dative case.) Tois (τοῖς) is a dative plural neuter pronoun and is translated as“cases” in 1 Cor. 7:15. The dictionary form of τοῖς is ὁ. This pronoun in its various declensions occurs over 20,000 times in the NT Toioutois (τοιούτοις) is a dative plural neuter correlative adjective, sometimes called a demonstrative pronoun, meaning “such.” ‘  (Marg Mowczko  ‘A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s “Grounds for Divorce”’  at https://margmowczko.com/wayne-grudem-abuse-is-grounds-for-divorce/#_ftn6)

[4] Verse 14 is a parenthetical clause that explains the reasons what has been said in verse 12-13. The main argument runs from 12 & 13-15. Wives should not divorce their husbands, or husbands their wives, but the situation changes when an unbelieving husband or wife initiates a divorce, In such cases etc…

[5] Ed Digness, ‘A Response to Wayne Grudem’s Shifting Doctrinal Stance on Marriage and Divorce’  at https://reformationcharlotte.org/2019/12/09/a-response-to-wayne-grudems-shifting-doctrinal-stance-on-marriage-and-divorce/

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 12 – Divorce and re-marriage.

As we have seen in the course of this series of articles, the institution of marriage is what God created it to be, and God created marriage to be a permanent relationship. In the language of the Prayer Book, marriages are intended  by God to endure ‘till death us do part.’

In this country, however, a very large number of marriages end not in death, but in divorce. According to the most recent figures, 42% of marriages in the United Kingdom now end in divorce. This means that that thousands of marriages in this country end in divorce each year, which in turn means that almost everyone will have some personal experience of the painful effects of divorce, either because it has happened to them personally, or because it has happened to people in their family or among their friends.

In this article I shall look at the three key biblical texts concerning divorce and re-marriage and what they mean for Christians today.

The first is text is Matthew 5:31-32:

‘It was also said, ’Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

The second is Matthew 19:1-9:  

‘Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.’

In these passages Jesus makes four points:

  1. He teaches that according to Genesis 2:24 those who are married are joined together by God and it is not right for human beings to dissolve this union: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6);
  2. He teaches that even the permission for divorce granted in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was only a divine concession to human sinfulness – ‘for your hardness of heart’  (Matthew 19:8);
  3. Developing the implications of the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 about the ‘defilement’ of the divorced wife who re-marries, he teaches that all forms of divorce and re-marriage, except those following adultery, result not just in defilement, but adultery, since they substitute a new sexual union for the union created by God (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9);
  4. He teaches that the only ground on which divorce is permitted is not the refusal of food, clothing, or conjugal love, or the existence of something in the wife displeasing to the husband, or immodesty or indecent behaviour (as some contemporary Jewish teaching held on the basis of Exodus 21:10-11),  but solely sexual intercourse outside the marital union (Matthew 19:9).

This fourth point is not explicitly made in the parallel record of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:9-12 and Luke 16:18, but it is implicit in these other texts since any Jewish hearer or reader would have accepted that adultery was a legitimate ground for divorce unless this idea was explicitly ruled out. What Mark 10:12 does imply, however, which Matthew 19:9 does not, is that a wife can divorce her husband as well as a husband his wife.

The third text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-16:

‘To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called usto peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?’

In this text Paul reiterates the teaching of Jesus that a wife should not divorce her husband or a husband his wife. He then addresses a situation which did not come up during Jesus’ earthly ministry, namely what should happen if a Christian is married to a non-Christian spouse  and that spouse initiates a divorce. Paul’s apostolic advice is that they should accept the situation and that they are then free to re-marry (that is what ‘not bound’ means).

In these three texts we find three principles which unite the grounds on which Jesus and Paul allow divorce and remarriage:

  1. Both sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse violate one of the two fundamental components of marriage (either the ‘leaving and the cleaving’ or the ‘one flesh’ unity);
  2. Both sexual immorality and abandonment leave one party without any other option if attempts at reconciliation are spurned;
  3. In both cases divorce is therefore a last resort and an admission of defeat. Divorce is never either commanded or commended in Scripture. Even when it is allows ‘it remains a sad and sinful declension from the divine ideal.’[1]

What this teaching means for us today is that Christians should:

  • Accept and teach that God has ordained that marriage should be for life and that, even when permitted, divorce and re-marriage are a departure from God’s intention for his human creatures.
  • Practice the Christian calling to exercise forgiveness and seek reconciliation when marriage gets difficult
  • Separate from an abusive spouse if our wellbeing and those of our children requires it, and encourage others to the same, but seek reconciliation if possible and only divorce on the grounds laid down in Scripture.
  • Only divorce if the conditions in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 are met through a spouse being adulterous, or an unbelieving spouse wanting a divorce, and then only if there is no realistic possibility of reconciliation.
  • When divorced, live a godly life as a single person with the requirement for sexual abstinence that this involves.
  • Only re-marry if we are free to do so because our former spouse committed adultery before the divorce or has subsequently sundered the marriage bond by entering into a new sexual relationship, or because we have been divorced by a non-Christian spouse.
  • Provide friendship and support to those who are single as a result of divorce, particularly when they are facing the challenges of being a single parent.
  • Only re-marry in church people who are free to marry under these conditions.[2]

[1] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1984), p.271.

[2] Even when re-marriage is biblically permissible it still signifies a departure from God’s intention that the first marriage of one or both new spouses should have been life-long. There therefore needs to be some way of marking this truth liturgically. Since neither the Book of Common Prayer nor the Common Worship rites make provision for this, one way of doing it in a Church of England context is to only allow a service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage and to explain to the couple involved the reason for not holding an actual marriage service. What it is not legitimate to do, however is to use a service of Prayer and Dedication to bless a new relationship that is in fact adulterous because it exceeds the limits laid down in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 11 – sex outside marriage.

The Christian sexual ethic.

As C S Lewis writes in his book Mere Christianity, traditional Christian ethics contains a very clear rule with regard to sexual ethics. In his words:

‘There is no getting away from it: the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ [1]

The reason for the existence of this rule is because, as we have seen previously in this series of articles, when God created the human race he created he created men and women to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and ordained that the context for sexual intercourse should be the permanent and exclusive relationship of one man and one woman in marriage.

What follows from this is that sex prior to marriage is morally wrong and so also is sex with someone other than your husband or wife. Furthermore, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, it is not only the act of sexual intercourse outside marriage that is morally wrong. The desire to perform such an act in morally wrong as well. In Jesus’ words:

‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’ (Matthew 5:27-30).

‘Adultery’ here is shorthand for all forms of sexual activity outside marriage and the point that Jesus is making is that ‘any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought.’[2] Furthermore, because such looks and thoughts have the capacity to cut someone from God forever they must be radically rejected (Jesus’ images of bodily mutilation are a symbol for this).

Six forms of behaviour which are contrary to the Christian sexual ethic.

In today’s society there are a number of forms of sexual behaviour which are contrary to the Christian sexual ethic that has just been described and which are yet increasingly defended as morally acceptable. These forms of behaviour are prostitution, pornography, masturbation, the use of sex surrogates, cohabitation and same-sex sexual relationships. In the next section  of this article we shall explore what is wrong with each of these forms of behaviour.  

  • Prostitution

The problem with prostitution is that whereas, as we have seen, sexual intercourse is meant to take place within marriage, in the case of prostitution the sexual act takes place outside marriage as a purely commercial arrangement. For this reason, prostitution is always wrong, even if a prostitute willingly chooses to engage in it. If, as is all too often the case, a prostitute has been forced to engage in prostitution through a threat of violence, or through force of circumstance, this makes it doubly wrong.

  • Pornography

The problem with pornography is that it involves the deliberate stimulation of sexual desire outside the context of marriage. Pornography is designed to encourage that adultery in the mind that Jesus warned against. Furthermore, as studies have shown, pornography, and online pornography in particular, is highly addictive. It creates a need for more and stronger pornographic material and this has a negative effect on people’s marriages, jobs and mental well-being. It can make people incapable of entering into and sustaining real life relationships of intimacy and love. In addition, the production of pornography often involves the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people and this is a wrong in and of itself.

  • Masturbation

The problem with masturbation, the sexual stimulation of someone by him or herself, is that whereas the God given pattern of sexual activity within marriage leads us out of ourselves into relationship with others (our husband or wife and any offspring who result from our marriage), masturbation encourages us to remain locked up in a prison of self-love. Sex is meant to be about the giving of ourselves to another. Masturbation, by contrast, is solely about giving pleasure to ourselves.

  • Sex-surrogacy

Sex-surrogacy, highlighted in the 2012 film The Sessions, involves someone making themselves available to provide sex for people who would not otherwise be able to experience it, whether due to physical or mental disability or to illness. The problem with sex surrogacy is that it implies that ill or disabled people are a separate class of human beings who should be able to experience sex without marriage. From a Christian perspective, however, this argument is mistaken. Ill or disabled people are people and therefore they too are called to adhere to the God given pattern of sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it.

The current development of sex robots designed to simulate the sexual activity of real human beings can best be understood as an attempt to provide a non-human form of sex surrogacy. However, the problem with the concept of sex robots is that, like pornography and masturbation, it detaches sex from a marital relationship with another human being. God has designed sex to be about a relationship with another human in the context of marriage. We cannot love God and second guess that decision..

  • Cohabitation

Cohabitation involves two people living together in a sexual relationship, and often having children together. This is the fastest growing type of family relationship in the UK, but it is problematic because God’s will is that his human creatures should be either married or single, but those who are cohabiting are neither married nor single. This means that the old description of cohabitation as ‘living in sin’ is accurate, however unhelpful it may be to single out one sinful pattern of life in this way. To live in sin is to live in a way that is contrary to God’s will for his human creatures. By choosing not to be single, yet also choosing not to marry, those who cohabit are living in contradiction of God’s will.

Furthermore, the common idea that cohabitation is a good preparation for marriage is not borne out in reality. What research tells us is that cohabitation makes it more likely that couples will break up and more likely that they will divorce if they marry. The more unstable nature of cohabiting relationships also means that they are detrimental to the well-being of children.

  • Same-sex sexual relationships

Same-sex sexual relationships are problematic for two reasons.

First, they are a form of sexual activity outside marriage. Regardless of what UK law says, a relationship between two people of the same-sex is not marriage precisely because it involves two people of the same sex while God created marriage to be between two people of the opposite sex.

Secondly, they involve people failing to live in accordance with the sex in which God has created them. As shown by the very structure of human bodies, God created men to have sex with women and vice versa and same-sex sexual relationships necessarily involve a denial of  this fundamental truth. It is for this reason they are seen as sinful in biblical passages such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and Romans 1:26-27. They are a rejection of a key aspect of how God created human beings to be and as such, whether consciously or not, acts of rebellion against God himself. 

The challenges raised by these forms of behaviour.

The fact that each of these various forms of extra-marital sexual activity and relationships go against God’s will for his human creatures raises two challenges.

First there is a challenge to the people involved in them. Are they willing to say to God ‘thy will be done’ (Matthew 6:10) and to put this into practice by giving up forms of sexual behaviour that are contrary to his will?  If not, what is their reason for continuing to live in rebellion against God given that all he desires is their well being both in this world and in the world to come?

Secondly, there is a challenge to the Church. Is it willing to be community of a people that declares the truth about the pattern of sexual conduct laid down by God and is it also willing to be a community that stands alongside those who struggle with sexual sin and temptation, praying for them and giving them the emotional and practical support they need to help them live God’s way?

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984), p.86.

[2] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), p.88.