16 Mar A History of Sexual Ethics
Published March 16, 2021
By David Burggraff, PhD
Editor’s Note: The following article was originally presented as a paper at the 2021 STS Alumni Institute. The content of this paper is of such importance, that it needs even wider distribution among the entire STS constituency.
Jesus, summing up a continual theme throughout Scripture (history), explains what sexuality entails:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast 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 separate. (Matt 19:4-6)
Jesus clearly taught that sex creates a “one-flesh” union between a man and a woman that is intended to be permanent. Therefore, sex, according to the Bible, is inextricably connected with marriage, though, as the apostle Paul points out, it is also possible to become “one flesh” with someone you are not married to, which is the problem of sexual immorality (1 Cor 6:12-20). If we were to summarize the biblical teaching, we could say that sex creates a one-flesh union between a man and a woman, intended for the permanent relationship of marriage, and that by design also leads to parenthood. The very nature and purposes of sex are designed by God and built into his creation order, intended by God to be the norm throughout history.
But observe the course of the “sexual revolution” in our day1 —in our “post-Christian” day. First, God with his commands and creative purposes, is removed entirely from consideration. Next, sex is detached from its physical function of conceiving children. Next, sex is detached from the sexual distinctions of male and female. Next, sex is detached from a love relationship altogether: from the impersonal pursuit of “sex objects” to sex with oneself, in the solitary eroticism of pornography. Thus, sex as a created reality by God has today been reduced and detached from the rich dimensions of God-intended sexuality—love, parenthood, morality—to little more than a spasm of pleasure and relief. How did we get here?
The Grim Realities of Sexual Ethics Today
That sex has become disconnected from God’s creation purposes by no means implies that sex is fading from people’s consciousness. Quite the opposite! Sex untethered from the family expands everywhere, and because the desire for sex is so powerful, it takes over everything. Today, preoccupation with sex characterizes our politics, our technology, and our worldviews.
Through most of American history, our political issues have had to do with economic policies, international relations, legal priorities, and factional interests based on the competing interests of different regions, social classes, or economic sectors. It is only recently that sex has become a political issue. From local to national elections, we see that a candidate’s attitudes toward sex, and what government should do, may determine the outcome of an election: acceptance of homosexuality by establishing same-sex marriage, the right of a woman to abort a child, whether the federal government should force employers to provide their employees free contraceptives, and our list could go on.
“Gay rights” and “women’s health” became the defining causes of liberal political activists. At first, conservatives—religious or political—opposed the “culture war” measures. But many conservatives, in large part, eventually came around, supporting same-sex marriage and sometimes even abortion. Christian activists, however, dissented. And although they remain somewhat politically influential, their rejection of homosexuality and abortion has made Christian political conservatives increasingly vilified and culturally marginalized.2
Not only our politics but our technology has become sexualized. Today’s computer and Internet technology may be the greatest wonder of the modern world. But it also has a dark side: one of technology’s dark sides is its most common application—pornography. Though the precise numbers are sometimes disputed, the statistics on the whole are staggering (and frightening): between 10 percent and 30 percent of Internet use is for porn.3 Three of the top ten most visited websites in the United States in 2018 were porn sites.4 And the major application for virtual reality technology is shaping up to be pornography.5
On the grim realities of today’s sexual obsession, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. writes:
Our current obsession with sexual pleasure as the summum bonum, the highest good, is shaping the very way we think, our ideologies and philosophies. . . . In our hypersexualized culture today, it should not be surprising that religion has become taboo. Sex, of course, used to be taboo, something not to be discussed in polite company, but now religion is. . . . In fact, the secularism that defines our post-Christian times, the conviction that our advanced Western culture can do without religion altogether, may well be caused, at least in part, by the desire to cast off everything that might inhibit our sexual freedom.6
The words of the Bible on sexuality are unchanging—even if interpretation of those words is debated. But it’s important to consider the ways in which cultural views about sexuality have shifted and changed over time. Few areas of culture and ethics have been changing faster than the area of sex and sexuality. For example, in 2004, voters in California approved Proposition 8, maintaining that marriage is between one man and one woman. Only eleven years later, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Within weeks of that decision, other types of marital arrangements were being proposed, from polyamory (multiple persons married together), to marriage to blood relatives, to bestiality (marriage to animals). In addition, today we live in the midst of a “hookup” culture in which sex is increasingly divorced from meaningful relationships altogether.
Though same-sex relations is only one topic among many within the current controversies surrounding issues of sex and gender, it serves as a fitting gateway to what will be discussed in this presentation. Because debates about same-sex intercourse are so prominent today in both the church and culture, it may seem surprising that the Bible explicitly addresses the subject only a few times in the Old and New Testaments. This is likely because the male-female sexual bond as the source of image-bearing fruitfulness and as a type of the union of Christ and his church is woven throughout the scriptural narrative from Genesis to Revelation. This norm is assumed, and it is against this understanding that mention of counter practices occurs.
While the male-female norm is central within the world of Scripture, knowledge of some of the surrounding culture makes clear why any mention of same-sex intercourse at all was required in the biblical texts.
In the surrounding pagan cultures, same-sex intercourse (although not personal identification with homosexual practice) was often the norm. Many depictions and affirmations of same-sex erotic acts in art and literature from the ancient Greco-Roman world give a clear picture of their views. Plato, for example, in Symposium, drew approving parallels between the art of conversation and the art of pursuing a boy sexually.7 Within classical Greece and Rome, marital sex between a man and woman served primarily in the production of lawful heirs; sex between men—particularly an older male and a youth (i.e., pederasty)—was considered not only normal and healthy, but ideal, lauded in art, literature, and philosophy.8
The categories of behavior (and corresponding moral judgments—ethics) within the ancient Greco-Roman world related not to homosexual or heterosexual acts, but to participants’ active or passive roles. A vast vocabulary of Latin terms associated with various sexual practices, mostly gay, reveals very different categories for sexual behavior than those in either the Judeo-Christian world or the modern one. Roles in the sex act were expressions of conquest and power (or lack thereof), not morality or righteousness as in the biblical understanding. The approval of same-sex intercourse in this world was derived from a basis radically different from approval given in our society.
Even in the Middle Ages, when the term “sodomite” was used to describe a person who engaged in same-sex intercourse, the term did not apply to a category of desire or attraction, but only to a certain behavior, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex.9 The categories of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” that are assumed today, in fact, did not emerge until the nineteenth century when they were developed from the newly emerging discipline of psychology. The development of these terms at this time reflected a modern epistemological shift, one increasingly rooted in science and one that sought medical and biological accounts of all human behavior.
However, such neat binary categories came to be rejected by postmodern theorists. Michael Foucault, for example, pointed to the constructedness of categories such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” noting the inability of such categories to account for the wide range of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity throughout human history.10 Social constructionists argue that there “is no given mode of sexuality that is independent of culture; even the concept and experience of sexual orientation itself are products of history.”11
This jettisoning of rigid categories and the shift away from biological explanations in favor of felt experience and self-identification have brought the issues of gender identity, transgenderism, and even gender neutrality into any current day discussions that counter the traditional view now labeled as “heteronormativity.”
With increased visibility and acceptance of gay and lesbian persons and same-sex unions within the wider culture, the church’s engagement with the issue has undergone fairly rapid shifts in the way Christians talk about and approach sexual minorities. Thus, just as occurred in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, new vocabularies have developed for dealing with these issues, including within the church. For example, congregations and individual believers who now fully embrace homosexual desire and behavior as acceptable to God call themselves “welcoming” and “affirming.”
From even this cursory review, it is clear that cultural attitudes and understanding of sexual identity, behavior, and practice have changed dramatically over time and likely will continue to do so. The Christian, however, is able to stand securely on the biblical vision for sexuality to critically engage changing understandings.
In order to understand how sweeping the changes in attitude and understanding have been in sexual ethics within culture over the last century, it is important to look further into the development of some of the critical (and controversial) issues we now confront.
Sexual Issues Today: How We Got Here
We have just looked at one example (homosexuality) in our brief survey of history that demonstrated the wide-spread acceptance within culture and society of sexual practices that are far different from God’s design for marriage, sex, and family. It’s not surprising since we read what Paul told us in Romans that “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them” (Rom 1:24) and “for this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire towards one another, men with men committing indecent acts” (Rom 1:26-27).
In ancient pagan cultures such sexual practices—sinful sexual perversions in God’s eyes—were normalized; even accepted as part of their worship practices. But not just ancient cultures.
It seems that wherever pagan values reign, as in Greco-Roman culture, there one finds widespread homosexuality. For instance, homosexuality was common among numerous American Indian tribes. Walter Williams, in a book that focuses on homosexuality among American Indians, sympathetically notes that the Kwaliutl Indians of British Columbia, the Crows, the Klamaths, the Hopi, the Sioux, the Navajo, the Zuni, the Yokuts, and other tribes in the United States all practiced homosexuality before contact with Westerners. Sometimes homosexual acts were intertwined with religious ceremonies performed by shamans. Williams not only conveys a great deal of empathy for the homosexual customs of the American Indians but throws frequent punches at Christianity for having influenced most American Indians to believe that homosexual behavior is morally bad.12
But widespread acceptance and practice of deviant sexual sins within pagan cultures and societies is one thing, it is quite another when it occurs within a culture that formerly built its ethical standards, and societal laws, on Judeo-Christian values. Such was the case in Europe but especially in America. Indeed, our ethics have changed radically during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What follows is a brief look at several significant ethical “shifts”—all related to marriage, sexuality, and family—that have occurred in our recent history; profound changes that now affect our culture and challenge our Christian beliefs (ethics).
It Begins at Birth (or, Preventing Birth)
Sexual sins of every kind have been a perennial problem throughout human history. Every age has its extramarital affairs, mistresses, and babies born out of wedlock. Prostitution was rampant in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, and all the way through the Victorian era. Ironically, the word Victorian has become a byword for sexual propriety, and yet the streets of nineteenth-century London and the boomtowns of America Wild West at that time were notorious for their brothels and sexual exploitation. Prostitution was not made illegal in the United States until the early twentieth-century, due largely to the activism of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.13 The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s and that has been running its course ever since had to do largely with preventing birth, that is, disassociating sex from having children.
Even the non-Christians of the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century materialism tended to support the principles of Christian sexual morality, not because of the moral absolutes of God’s commands but on the basis of utilitarian ethics. Sex outside marriage is wrong, they reasoned, because that can result in children born out of wedlock, which can be catastrophic for the mother and a burden to society. But once that concern was addressed, via technology, those utilitarian reasons for limiting sex to marriage evaporated. Enter the pill!
The birth control pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on June 23, 1960. We can think of this date as the beginning of the sexual revolution, though it had long antecedents. Margaret Sanger,14 who was born in 1879, had crusaded for “birth control,” a term that she coined, mainly for eugenic reasons. Sanger promoted the technologies available to her—the “barrier methods” and sterilization—even though for most of her career contraception devices and even distributing information about them were illegal. But in the 1950s the organization she founded, Planned Parenthood, invested in the research that led to the development of the birth control pill, an invention that Sanger, who died in 1966, lived to see.
The pill seemed to be a safe, simple, easy-to-use way to prevent pregnancy. Women, in particular, felt empowered. The condoms that Margaret Sanger was selling gave men the ability to prevent pregnancy, but the pill gave women the power to choose whether or not to have a baby. The pill bolstered the cause of feminism, of “women’s liberation,” liberating women form the restrictions of marriage, child bearing, and child raising—now women could claim complete equality with men. And men could use women sexually with no inhibitions.
The sexual revolution, with its technological prevention of birth, was a cultural revolution, one that proved devastating to the basic unit of any culture: the family. Self-fulfillment replaced love and service and sacrifice to one’s spouse and children as the purpose of family life. Consequently, the divorce rate soared.15
The mind-set that we should prevent birth in the name of our self-fulfillment has given us something even more horrible and more corrupting: abortion. It turned out that using the birth control pill and other contraceptive devices do not always prevent conception. So with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion nationwide, women who found themselves pregnant had a “plan B.”16 If they could not prevent birth before they conceived a child, they could always prevent birth afterward by aborting the child.
Preventing birth by killing the baby before he or she is born became culturally acceptable, championed in the rhetoric of “women’s health” and “women’s choice.”
Progressives made abortion their defining issue. Feminists turned having an abortion into a virtue. Modernists rejected reason and science in maintaining that an unborn child is not human. Postmodernists threw out their concerns about power and oppression in insisting on the right of a woman to exert her power to destroy her baby.17
Abortion is not only heinous in itself; it is deeply corrupting. What happens to the institution of the family when mothers and fathers are willing to kill their own children? Politically, it is hard to take politicians seriously when they purport to champion the poor and the marginalized while, at the same time, they defend the killing of the poorest and most marginalized of them all, the infants in the womb.18 Mainline Protestants have embraced abortion, with some feminist theologians going so far as to call it a “sacrament.”19 The medical profession is corrupted when those with the calling and oath to heal their patients are engaged in killing their youngest patients. Such noble ethical concepts as freedom, choice, and rights are corrupted when they are used as pretexts for abortion.
Homosexuality: Sex without Sexual Difference
The word sex literally refers to the two categories of human beings and most other kinds of life: the male sex and the female sex. So sex, as in “sexual intercourse,” means, technically, the physical union of the two sexes. Sometimes, though, sexual desire can be directed elsewhere. Some people are attracted to members of their own sex. Again, this is nothing new, as was discussed earlier with homosexuality. But once sex began to be detached from procreation in people’s minds, thanks to birth control and the sexual revolution, it became harder and harder to see anything wrong or even abnormal with homosexuality. If sex does not have to be about conceiving children, why should it be restricted to members of the opposite gender? If we want to have sex while preventing birth, what better way to do so than for men to have sex with men and women to have sex with women.
Homosexuality and gay marriage are perhaps the most controversial moral (ethical) issues of our time. Whereas homosexual behavior was once widely regarded as deviant, it has now been introduced into the mainstream of American life. Even non-Christians through much of the twentieth century tended to disapprove of homosexuality, which was on the books as being illegal. Homosexuals were looked down upon by much of the public, who found their sexual practices repellent, and, sadly, were often mistreated. But in one of the most remarkable cultural turnarounds of all time, public opinion shifted almost overnight.
There can be no question that Americans have been undergoing a steady change in attitudes about homosexuality over the last two decades. As a result, gay relationships have become accepted by more and more Americans. The growing acceptance of homosexuality has coincided with a sea change in American views on so-called gay marriage. At some point in the last decade, America went from being a majority anti-gay-marriage country to a majority pro-gay-country.20
In the year 2012 the ongoing normalization of homosexuality reached new milestones that never would have seemed possible even five years before. For the first time in American history, a sitting president of the United States announced his support for gay marriage. Even though he was opposed to gay marriage in his first run for office in 2008, President Barack Obama said that he had been evolving on the issue. By May of 2012, his evolution was complete. In an interview with ABC News, the president reported to the nation his conversion on the issue of marriage: “It is important to me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”21 Many people thought that the announcement would damage the president’s prospects for reelection later that November, but that speculation turned out to be incorrect. He was reelected handily and seemed to pay no cost in popular support for his views. This was a remarkable political reversal in a relatively short amount of time. In 2004 President Bush won reelection in part by opposing gay marriage. Only eight years later, President Obama won reelection by supporting it. President Obama’s reelection reflects the fact that America’s views about homosexuality fundamentally shifted.
The LGBTQ movement crusaded for the ultimate marker of social acceptability: same sex marriage. After years of conflicting state laws and legal rulings, the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015. Opponents had difficulty marshaling arguments for why individuals of the same sex should not be allowed to marry each other. As late as 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage;22 in 2018, 67 percent supported it.23
How did such a massive change come about, and what made it happen so quickly? In her 2012 book Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, Linda Hirshman argues that the gay rights movement began in a weaker position culturally than either the civil rights or women’s rights movements that preceded it.24 Nevertheless, gay activists were able to achieve far more in far less time than either of those other groups. Hirshman says, “The movement succeeded, uniquely and in large part because, at the critical moments, its leaders made a moral claim. ‘Gay . . . is good.’”25 Hirshman is right. The gay rights movement has been making a fundamentally moral claim. It is the triumph of that moral claim that has advanced the wider homosexual agenda as quickly as it has. The public is increasingly seeing the issue as a civil rights issue—the next step in society’s march toward greater freedom and equality. To oppose such progress is increasingly seen as backwards and irrational. That is why gay rights advocates are not asking for tolerance. They are insisting on endorsement. Because “gay is good,” the public space can no longer tolerate those who say it is not good. Those who say gay is not good are throwbacks who stand in the way of human rights and social progress.
And herein is the fundamental clash between Christianity and the massive changes that are happening in the wider culture. The Christian view of human sexuality has become a minority position in our day. Because of this, there is now enormous pressure from outside Christian churches (and sometimes within) to revise Christianity’s ancient sexual ethic in order to bring it into conformity with the new spirit of the age. Those who will not conform are openly called “bigot” or “homophobes” or sometimes worse. There seems to be an active campaign to push to the margins anyone who would treat homosexuality as a sin.26 The national mood in America has changed on this issue. Emerging generations of Christians are going to face pressure like never before to abandon what the Bible teaches lest they face social marginalization. There is a conflict coming.
“After same-sex marriage was legalized by the US Supreme Court in 2015, transgenderism has swept through the country, seemingly arising from nowhere. It was the next domino to fall—and the moral slide continues,” writes Erwin Lutzer.27 Speaking to the destruction of the morals (sexual ethics) of the next generation, he writes:
The sexual revolution continues to accelerate, taking everything in its wake. Given the disdain for biology, science, and decency, it intends to destroy the very concept of masculinity and femininity in a child’s earliest ages. . . How do you corrupt children? . . . you normalize the bizarre.
In public libraries across America, drag queens are hosting story hours for children. In this phenomenon that has been sweeping the nation, grown men dressed in lurid outfits and wearing excessive makeup read books promoting the LGBTQ agenda to children as young as three years old. These presentations are used to indoctrinate young children into accepting transgenderism, encourage them to dress as the opposite sex, and promote other deviant behaviors and belief systems. Dylan Pontiff, aka Santana Pilar Andrews when in drag, uses his stage name at both the adult clubs where he performs sexual acts and at Lafayette Public Library when he’s with young children.
In his own words, he reveals his intentions: “I’m here to let you know that this event is something that’s going to be very beautiful and for the children and the people supported are going to realize that this is going to be the grooming of the next generation.”
Grooming, of course, is a word used to describe the effort to desensitize children to the sexual abuse of adults. This is the culture in which we find ourselves. Parents who object are called bigots.28
“There have always been a small number of men and women who would like to be of the opposite sex,” writes Gene Veith. He then comments on gender dysphoria from history:
Cross-dressers—men who dress up like women—have been staples of pagan religions, the Renaissance stage, and modern music halls. Sometimes this is just acting or a heterosexual fetish, but often it has to do with homosexuality, with men wanting to be the object of desire of other men. Such “gender dysphoria” can also be found among women who cultivate masculine traits and pose as men.29
Transgenderism today has become an ideology.30 In our time, a diverse array of disciplines and discourses—feminism, womanism, gender theory, queer theory, CT, intersectionality, etc., have spawned various ideologies and legalities designed to deal with perceived abuses pertaining to gender (i.e., perceived patriarchal dominance in Western society and demeaning of women—the thinking that women are more emotional than rational, and therefore suited to nurturing rather than leading; or the same thing to men, whereby maleness is associated with power, aggressiveness, strength, domination). At the risk of gross generalization, there are those who say that the modern gender wars are the unfortunate fruit of a binary view of sex, collapsing gender into sex, stemming from a long history of patriarchal domination of women, and derived from cultural mores. This has spawned no little degree of confusion today as to what it means to be a gendered human being.
At one time, not that long ago, changing one’s gender—sometimes for medical reasons due to intersexual problems due to someone having elements of both male and female reproductive organs; or due to prenatal abnormal development, etc.—entailed physically changing one’s sex through the technology of modern surgery and medicine. But then the idea grew that one’s sex is ultimately a matter of how a person chooses to self-identify. And surgery was not even necessary! Today, if a man self-identifies as a woman, then “she” must be accepted as a woman. And if a woman self-identifies as a man, then “he” must be accepted as a man. One’s actual body makes no difference whatsoever.
The transgendered and their allies speak of being born in the wrong body—of being a woman but being born into the body of a man, or being a man born into the body of a woman. They have, as they say, a “gender assigned at birth,” but that is not their true gender. In that light, the medical profession has given a new name to sex reassignment surgery: it is now called “gender confirmation surgery.”
One of the more problematic aspects of contemporary discourse about gender identity is that gender is often completely divorced from biological sex. As a result, gender identities have become peculiar social functions that can be multiplied almost infinitely. To say that gender has nothing to do with biological sex is to open up a quasi-gnostic anthropology whereby a person’s sense of self, their “identity” as it were, is completely disengaged from their embodied existence as a human. In other words, “I am not my body and my body is not me.” The assumption seems to be that there is a soul of some sort, which is the essence of a person, which exists prior to the assumption of a physical body. That soul is either male or female, but sometimes the physical shell that it is made to inhabit gets it wrong.
One might think that such a view would be hard to accept today given the naturalistic, scientific worldview that is thought to dominate our secular culture. Are the transgender apologists today maintaining the existence of a soul/spirit? Remarkable! If so, this is not the Christian view of the soul/spirit, which comes into existence at conception. (Moreover, abortion-favoring, reproductive-engineering secularists certainly do not want that!) Rather, it is the gnostic view of the soul/spirit, the creation-denying, body-repudiating heresy that teaches the “transmigration of souls,” which is similar to the Hindu belief in reincarnation and the Mormon belief in the preexistence of the soul. Still, such a view would seem to be even more problematic for a secular materialist than the Christian understanding.
At any rate, the transgender worldview has become almost unquestionable among our cultural elite, particularly in academic and left-wing circles (as well as the scientifically trained physicians who perform the lucrative “gender confirmation” surgeries). Thus, transgenderism says that whatever gender you have been “assigned” by God or nature makes no difference. Your gender is however you identify. Identification used to be thought of as an empirical exercise: observe something and then identify what it is. But now that identification is a construction (i.e., post-modernism), an imposition of the will (i.e., post, post-modernism). What you desire to be is what you are. Your gender is however you identify. This is why social media sites like Facebook list up to seventy-one different gender options that a user may select from to identify themselves. A person may even have multiple genders. Now that gays have their argument that sexual orientation is innate, permanent, and immutable—a notion that influenced the legal arguments for same-sex marriage, as well as popular acceptance of homosexuality—LGBTQ scholars are changing their story, saying now that gender and sexual preference can be “fluid.” (People, make up your mind already!) Some say that the LGBTQ acronym should be made more inclusive so as to include the many possibilities. One proposal is LGBTQQICAPF2K+. Here is what that new proposal stands for:
F—friends and family
+—the possibility of more31
Much of this sounds merely comical, but an area where transgender ideology can have serious consequences is in child raising. The opening illustration above by Erwin Lutzer serves as a real example; children are being influenced by the discussions around them, and they can be easily confused by what they are being forced to listen to. If the “gender assigned at birth” is not the real, self-determined gender but a potential problem that can thwart the child’s true nature, something must be done. Some parents today have decided that they do not want any gender put down on their baby’s birth certificate, since they want the baby to make that decision for zerself (not a typo). Other parents are going so far as to raise their children without any gender designations whatsoever, keeping the child’s biological sex a secret from family, friends, and even the child. These so-called they-bies, babies who are referred to with the neutral but plural pronoun they, are sheltered from any gender influence in their dress, toys, or treatment. Once they are older, they can decide which gender they want to be, if any.32
The underlying notion is that identity of any variety—sexual, ethnic, national, or ableness—is neither inherited nor determined by external factors, but rest entirely in the will of the individual. In practice it means that you can define yourself with any eclectic set of ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, or abilities that you wish. But the multiplication of gender identities and their accompanying sexual orientations runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own incredibility. Simply uttering the words “I identify as . . .” is not a legal pronouncement, nor can it effect an ontological change in a person’s psychological and physical makeup. Claims to a particular identity are at most a statement about how a person wishes to be understood amidst the swirling mix of selves in an increasingly diverse society. Treating people how they wish to be treated is one thing, but catering to an infinite number of identities with peculiar hybridities and strange derivations is quite another.
Biology is still an important factor in one’s gender. The fact is that every cell in the human body is encoded with male and female DNA. Plus, there are real differences between men and women at the level of physical attributes and the neurobiological wiring of their brains. We should recognize that differences between men and women do exist; they are God-given and good. They enrich the vast array of human experiences and arguably contribute to human flourishing. What that means is that cultural pressures to pursue an idealized form of human existence characterized by some kind of androgynous sameness should be resisted. What Christians should take away is that God created humanity as male and female (i.e., all people exist within the nodes of maleness and femaleness to some degree or another) for humanities wonderful benefit and God’s glory.
From even this cursory review of the history of sexual ethics,33 it’s clear that cultural attitudes and understanding of sexual identity, behavior, and practice have changed dramatically over time and likely (but sadly!) will continue to do so. The Christian, however, is able to stand securely on the biblical vision for sexuality to critically engage changing understandings and remain faithful.
1 Sexual revolution is the term used today to describe the changing attitudes toward sex that occurred in the 1960s as a result of the merging of new sexual attitudes in society and the development of the birth control pill. See discussion in this paper below. For further reading on the ethical changes caused by the sexual revolution, see R. Albert Mohler, Jr., The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020). Of the impact and expansion of that “revolution” he writes: “The church of Jesus Christ faces and unprecedented challenge: the collision between it and a new sexual ethic, a collision between revelation and revolution. The revolution is a sexual one, and it is indeed a revolution, demanding complete reordering of society and civilization. Indeed, this revolution questions a fundamental grounding of what it means to be human—to be male and female. . . The progress of this revolution did not occur randomly. What follows is an account of how we got to where we find ourselves today. Much of the sexual revolution began when scientists developed technology aimed at liberating human sexuality from reproduction. The single greatest impetus of the sexual revolution was the advent of birth control, which began to transform the notion of the ‘possible’ and gave way to an onslaught of consequences no one saw coming. There is no way to overestimate the impact made—indeed, the energy released that fueled the sexual revolution—by the advent of the oral contraceptive” (87-89).
2 See especially Erwin W. Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced: Responding Courageously to Our Culture’s Assault on Christianity (Eugene,OR: Harvest House, 2020). This is a well-researched, up-to-date work on our contemporary culture and Christianity’s marginalization, and vilification, by our culture. Highly recommended.
3 Michael Castleman, “Dueling Statistics: How Much of the Internet Is Porn?” Psychology Today, November 3, 2016, http://www.psychology today.com/us/blog/all-about-sex/201611/dueling-statistics-how-much-the-internet-is-porn. I found this reference in Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 100. I am citing his statistics and his sources, though I did further research for the most current statistics and found that his source contained the latest stats.
4 “Top Website Rankings,” Similar Web, July 1, 2018, http://www.similarweb.com/top-websites/united-states.
5 David M. Ewalt, “The first real Boom in Virtual Reality? It’s Pornography,” Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2018, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-first-real-boom-in-virtual-reality-its-pornography-1531320180.
6 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 100-101. I am indebted to Veith’s insights, so much so that most of the information in this portion of this paper has been drawn directly from his work and research (especially from content found on pages 97-137). Though a theologian, I do not possess the informational background on this topic that Veith possesses, therefore I have been heavily dependent on this most recent work of his. In the presentation of this material in the lecture I draw attention to the fact that originality for much of the content is not mine, but comes from Veith. I want to give that same credit to him in this paper. This paper was originally written for a lecture presentation, therefore I did not follow normal procedures for citations that I would for a research paper. As such, not all quotations from Veith are cited throughout. I urge each seminar participant (and article reader) to obtain his book and read it; you will be greatly benefited as he covers the wide range of topics impacting today’s thought and culture.
7 W. L. Bryan & C. L. Bryan, eds., Plato the Teacher: Being Selections from the Apology, Euthydemus, Protagoras, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Phaedo of Plato (New York: Scribner’s, 1897), 129-31.
8 See Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 85-87 for discussion and documentation of the extent and acceptance of homosexuality and pederasty in the Greco-Roman world. He writes: “Many people today know that the Greeks were notorious for their homosexual behavior. But often they do not know that Greek homosexual sex was primarily pederasty or pedophilia, that is, an adult man having sex with a young boy who commonly was between twelve and sixteen years old. The Romans practiced the same perversity. Roman literature both before and after the birth of Christ has numerous references, similar to Greek writings, showing that this kind of homosexual behavior was widespread and common. That Roman homosexuality was largely pederastic is underscored by its own poet Martial. He is rather explicit and unembarrassed in referring to it. To Phaedrus, he writes, “You sleep with well-endowed boys” (Epigrams 3.72). The acceptance of pedophilia among the Roman populace is not just evident in the literature of its poets and philosophers; it is also illustrated on archaeological artifacts. These artifacts depict behavior that today, even in an increasingly secular and anti-Christian society, is regarded as morally abhorrent and thus legally classified as child molestation. . . . As with the heterosexual customs, the sexual depravities were not confined to the Roman public, but were also practiced by society’s upper echelon. Thus, we find pederastic sex as common behavior among many Roman emperors. Tiberius, the emperor under whose rule Christ was crucified, often surrounded himself with young boys whom he used sexually. Nero had at least two boys, Sporus and Pythagoras, with whom he engaged in sex acts. Sporus was castrated so he could assume the role of ‘wife’ for Nero, and with Pythagoras, Nero himself assumed the role of ‘wife.’. . . Emperor Commodus, along with three hundred concubines, also had three hundred young boys to satisfy his sexual appetite. . . . These emperors, given to the perversity of pederasty or pedophilia, were commonly bisexual. As one Roman historian has noted, Rome’s sexual sensuality in its most degrading forms pervaded all classes and was ‘the opprobrium of history.’”
9 “Homosexuality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified July 5, 2015, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/homosexuality.
10 See Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Richard Hurley (New York: Random House, 1985).
11 “Homosexuality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
12 Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 89. See also his source, Walter L. Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).
13 See “Prostitution,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution#20th_century.
14 See Erwin Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced, 26-27. About Sanger, Lutzer writes: “[She] was a revolutionary who intended to transform the American family so she could change the world. In March 1914, she launched a newspaper called The Woman Rebel, which promoted moral and political anarchy. Her motto was ‘No Gods, No Masters.’ In the paper she touted the virtues of single motherhood, contraception, and asserted that women have the right to face the world ‘with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention.’. . . She endeavored to liberate women by affirming ‘reproductive freedom,’ which would give women the ability to be promiscuous and still be able to decide whether they wanted to bear children or not.”
15 From 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled—from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women. This meant that while less than 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. And approximately half of the children born to married parents in the 1970s saw their parent’s part, compared to only about 11% of those born in the 1950s. See W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Evolution of Divorce,” National Affairs (Spring 2019), http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce.
16 “Plan B” is now the brand name of a morning-after pill designed to kill the fertilized egg immediately after conception.
17 Gene Veith, Post-Christian, 105.
18 Gene Veith, Post-Christian, 105. This summary is taken from Veith’s work.
19 See, e.g., Ginette Paris, The Sacrament of Abortion (Washington, DC: Spring, 1998).
20 The turnaround has been complete: in 1973, 70% of Americans believed that same-sex relations are always wrong. In 2017, 70% of Americans believed that same-sex relations are morally acceptable, according to the Pew Research Center. See “Homosexuality, Gender, and Religion,” Pew Research Center, October 5, 2017, http://www.people-press.org/2017/10/05/5-homosexuality-gender-and-religion/.
21 Rick Klein, “Obama: I think Same-Sex Couple Should Be Able to Get Married,” ABC News, May 9, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/05/obama-comes-out-i-think-same-sex-couples-should-be-able-to-get-married/.
22 “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” Pew Research Center, June 26, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/.
23 Aamer Madhani, “Approval of Same-Sex Marriage in U.S. Reaches New High,” USA Today, May 23, 2018, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/05/23/same-sex-marriage-poll-americans/638587002/.
24 To understand how the gay revolution achieved its ends, and the players who made it happen, I highly recommend R. Albert Mohler, Jr., We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, & the Very Meaning of Right & Wrong (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Books, 2015). The entire book is excellent on what has transpired in America, but note especially chapter three: “From Vice to Virtue: How Did the Homosexual Movement Happen?” (33-52); Mohler, in detail, analyzes the impact of Linda Hirshman’s book. For more recent developments and what the church will face in the coming days on these issues, see Mohler’s The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Books, 2020). This is somewhat of a sequel to We Cannot Be Silent.
25 Linda Hisrchman, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution / How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), xvi.
26 This warning from Girgis, Anderson, and George is coming true: “As the conjugal view comes to be seen as irrational, people’s freedom to express and live by it will be curbed. . . . If civil marriage is redefined, believing what virtually every human society once believed about marriage—that it is a male-female union—will be seen increasingly as a malicious prejudice, to be driven to the margins of culture.” See Sharif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012), 9.
27 Erwin Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced, 165.
28 Erwin Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced, 163-164.
29 Gene Veith, Post-Christian, 128. In a footnote, Veith also cites recent statistics of transgenderism. He writes: “A study calculates that one out of every 250 people identifies with the other gender, a percentage of four tenths of one percent (.4 percent). The number, however, is growing, according to the study, especially among young people, suggesting a cultural and not just physical or psychological component to the phenomenon.” (128).
30 This section of the study is drawn from and dependent upon two main sources of information: Gene Veith, Post-Christian, 128-137; and Michael Bird, “Gender and Sex: Related but Not Identical” in Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior, eds., Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 82-85.
31 Gene Veith, Post-Christian, 133.
32 Julie Compton, “’Boy or Girl’? Parents Raising ‘They-bies’ Let Kids Decide,” NBC News, July 19, 2018, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/canada/british-columbia/parent-fights-to-omit-gender-on-b-c-child-s-birth-certificate-1.4186221.
33 For further reading, I am suggesting four important books that address this subject much more thoroughly. All four are recent publications (2020), therefore deal with the current state of the topic. I suggest reading them in the following order: first, Erwin W. Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced: Responding Courageously to Our Culture’s Assault on Christianity (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2020); second, Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); third, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020); fourth, Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020). Trueman’s, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is not cited in this paper for the simple reason that my copy did not arrive until after the paper was written and presented. I wish it had come earlier—it is an excellent book on the history of sexual ethics. But it is not light reading, therefore, read it after you have laid a foundation by reading the other three books. I appreciate Tim Challies’ endorsement of the book. On his blog he writes: “While The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a demanding read, especially for those of us for whom many of these categories and characters are unfamiliar, it is a rewarding read. In its pages Trueman aptly explains how and why our culture has arrived at a place where “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is no longer nonsensical, no longer self-contradictory. And it begins to explain what is at stake if this long march is not interrupted, not refuted according to truth. As I see it, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is not only the most important book I’ve read in 2020, but also the best. I can’t recommend it too highly.”
Dr. Dave Burggraff is Professor of Systematic Theology at Shepherds Theological Seminary and also serves as Executive Pastor of The Shepherd’s Church. He graduated from the University of Minnesota and received his seminary degrees in Pennsylvania; and he received his doctoral degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. Prior to his ministry at STS, Dave has served as pastor and professor in four colleges and seminaries, even serving as President of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.