The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.
Chapter 10: Bodies and Relationships
The last six Commandments in the twentieth chapter of the book of Exodus all govern interpersonal relationships. They cover the full range of human action and human emotions, and they reveal the Hebrew theological attitude toward life.
Commandment number seven, "You shall not commit adultery," plunges us inevitably into a consideration of sexuality, sexual ethics, and sexual practices. It rises out of the JudeoChristian view of the sacredness of human bodies, the sacredness of human relationships, and the sacredness of person-hood.
Adultery and sexuality are emotionally-charged subjects. Sex is power, and we all know that power. We all live with it. Some of us are afraid of that power, some of us are victims of it. In many ways sex stands at the center of our personhood and, try as we may, we cannot shunt it aside. I am not just human. I am a human male. There is an incompleteness about being either a human male or a human female that drives one sex toward the other. There is a yearning for union that is emotional and spiritual as well as biological. Sex is of creation, the Bible asserts, and therefore, sex is good, even though it can obviously be misused. Sex is a force in the human yearning for union. No one can live without coming to terms with his or her sexuality. We deal with it in many ways. We bridle sex, we channel it, we express it. We redirect it, discipline it, repress it, and enjoy it. But we cannot deny it.
Sex is a part of life. Sex participates in creation. Sex is a gift of God. Sexuality is obviously a central factor in the life experience of everyone. I do not believe that there is any sexual problem that I have not dealt with pastorally in some form in my more than twenty years in the ministry. I have faced heterosexual problems and homosexual problems of both males and females. I have confronted problems in men of impotence on the one hand and Don Juanism on the other; problems in women of unresponsiveness on the one hand and insatiable desire on the other; premarital pregnancies and postmarital childlessness. There were fetishes, perversions, rape, incest, infidelity, romantic attachments, affairs across racial lines, family lines, and generation lines. These and many others are human problems that emerge every day; and when one is a pastor, life, unperfumed, comes from lots of different directions.
Being a pastor means that one must seek to love, accept and forgive people where they are, not where the ideals of life say they should be. To apply moral precepts and rigid rules to hurting lives trapped in a compromised society is not to be righteous, but rather to be hostile. I am not a situationist in the sense that I do take seriously the eternal principles as expressing the wisdom of the ages in the normal circumstances of life. Yet as a pastor I have learned that there are a myriad of exceptions to the ultimate rules which in the midst of life’s complicated contingencies force people to choose, not from ideal options, but from available options.
We live today with new realities that have fueled a sexual revolution. These realities affect our standards, our values, our choices. The task of the Christian today is not well served by remaining ignorant of these realities or by seeking to ignore them. Perhaps what! am suggesting is that there is a very large area between what we would call ideal and what we would call immoral. In that gray area debate rages, choices are complicated, and human beings wrestle with a conflict between a search for wholeness and a reality of guilt.
Before seeking to examine the framework that provides the modern context for our decisions in the area of sexuality, let me make it quite clear where I stand.
Sex has its only fully proper place for me inside marriage where commitment is both deep and eternal. Sexual relationships between a husband and a wife can participate in the meaning of communion that reaches the edges of holiness and has something of the nature of a sacrament about it. Here life is shared in a way that it is shared nowhere else. This is the ideal, the goal, the hoped for pattern in marriage and in life. But this ideal is rare if it exists at all. Even though I have seen some wondrously happy married couples, most of the marriages I have worked with were struggling to find even vestiges of joy. Sexual problems were and are frequently both the focal point of tension and the bearer of destructive feelings. I am not one who would say that I approve of sexual relations outside of marriage, but I have come to be less judgmental and more compassionate; I have come to understand behavior patterns as appropriate for some people in some circumstances even though they could never be called ideal nor could they ever be fully acceptable to me or for me. Nothing said later in this chapter should be read except in terms of this guiding principle.
Yet it is obvious to me that we must find a place between the sexual ethics of yesterday, which were based upon a cultural and religious repression, and the sexual ethics of many people today, which suggests that "if you enjoy it it must be good." Yesterday’s repression has lost its power, today’s hedonism has lost all standards. Surely there is another alternative.
Let me begin by trying to dispel some of the fear. The dynamic motivating power of sex has, beyond the moral questions, biological and psychological dimensions which must be studied and understood. To ignore these dimensions is not to be moral; it is to be naive. To take cognizance of new insights into human sexuality from the life sciences is not, as some critics suggest, to contribute to the breakdown of morality. It is rather to find a new way to sail through uncharted seas developing a moral code that is in touch with both our deeper Christian convictions and the reality of this generation. Repression will not keep the genie of sex in the bottle in the twentieth century. Indeed those people who are so afraid of exploring a new basis for sexual morality might well examine their own unconscious motivation, for fear frequently masks desire which is regarded as unacceptable; when the superstructure of repression is threatened that fear becomes violent anger. We see this frequently because one of the facts that we have to face is that, whether we like it or not, yesterday’s repressive patterns do not govern or control sexual behavior today.
To plunge into this subject is like facing delicate surgery. We must divide Christian principles from the cultural accretions of the ages that have become attached to them.
First we go to the historic context of this commandment itself. The seventh Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," comes to us from a people who for many years after this Commandment was given still practiced polygamy, not monogamy. Monogamous marriage is not the original context of this injunction against adultery. This Commandment was given, according to the tradition of the Hebrew people, in the wilderness somewhere around the year 1250 B.C. Solomon, with his three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines, reigned from 961 to 922 B.C. That is the first fact we need to embrace.
Second, this law was received in, and influenced by, a patriarchal society, and the biblical record of that society at that time is quite clear that, even with this Commandment on their law books, the Jews did not regard sexual intercourse between a married man and an unmarried woman as an offense. For documentation see Genesis thirty-eight, which tells of Judah’s affair with Hirah, an Abdulamite who is described only as his friend, even after he has had three children by her. Or see Judges Twenty-one, where the men of Benjamin seduce first and marry second. In the Hebrew idiom, reflecting the patriarchal system, a man committed adultery only if he took another man’s wife; that is, for a man adultery was an offense against another’s marriage rather than against one’s own. A married woman, on the other hand, committed adultery if she was unfaithful with any man whether he was married or not. Thus, if a married man avoided married women, he could have as many affairs as he wished and still not violate Commandment number seven. Indeed, you can find in the biblical law that the seduction of a man’s unbetrothed daughter was regarded simply as a minor offense against his property, not a violation of the seventh Commandment. That is the literal biblical context.
Now, within that narrow scope, adultery—that is, sex by a married man with someone else’s wife or sex by a married woman with anyone other than her husband—was condemned and the guilty person was sentenced to death. The Hebrew word for adultery used in this Commandment was gsa ‘aph, and this word could apply to either a man or a woman.
The third thing that we must note is that the negative, repressive attitude toward sex that marks moralistic legalism is clearly not biblical. There is no such thing as a puritanical Hebrew. There is no Jewish Queen Victoria. There is no disparagement of the body or exultation of the soul in Hebrew thought. That comes from another tradition, and it is alien to the Bible.
The Hebrews were a lusty life-affirming people, and their literature reveals and revels in this attitude. When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, I taught a Bible class that was broadcast over a local radio station each Sunday. On one occasion the radio station managers bleeped my broadcast because in their judgment the words being used were offensive to their listeners’ ears. Much to their surprise and chagrin, they discovered that what they had censored was a passage I read verbatim from the Bible. (The King James Version at that!) The Song of Solomon—which is what I had been reading—is not discreet in extolling the physical beauty of a woman’s body.
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet. Thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate. Thy neck is like the tower of David. Thy young breasts are like two roes that feed among the lilies. How fair is thy love, my spouse. How much better is thy love than wine and the smell of thine ointments than all spices. Thy lips drop as the honeycomb. Honey and milk are under thy tongue. Open to me, my love, for my head is filled with dew and my locks with the drops of the night.
These excerpts from chapters four and five of the Song of Solomon capture much of the Hebrew attitude toward bodies, toward sexuality, toward the beauty of the feminine form. Please note also that these words are seldom read in church, even less seldom preached on by the clergy unless allegorized in a wild and irrelevant exegetical exercise.
The anti-body, anti-sex attitude that equates sexual intercourse with defilement, that exalts virginity as the highest vocation, is not now and never has been Hebraic.
To separate conventional religious attitudes from the JudeoChristian revelation is to begin to understand that the repressive moralism against which our culture is in such rebellion is not necessarily Christian or biblical at all. Repressive moralism is a product of the dualistic Greek mind, which tended to denigrate the physical and material as less worthy than the nonphysical or spiritual. This dualism reached its zenith in Western civilization when it combined with a puritan zeal that was thorough in removing beauty and fun from life in every aspect, in instituting and institutionalizing the repressive mentality, and in identifying Christianity with a strict moralism and a rigid austerity. Remember that it was Queen Victoria, who, though having had nine children (which proved she made love to Prince Albert once in a while), was nonetheless "not amused" by any references to sex. Sexual repression was the unquestioned rule of the day, at least in "proper" society. It was, in fact, a mark of good breeding, at least for the women of that generation.
This attitude toward physical life that made a virtue out of repression was thus embraced by a moralistic Christianity to become the powerful, controlling superstructure that held the sexual drives of human beings in check. Perhaps this was necessary in that day to preserve the orderliness of society, the sacredness of the family, the morality of the culture. But such an attitude surrounded sex with fear and negativity. It assumed that sex was evil or animal in nature. It created guilt about feelings that are as natural as night following day, and it set the stage for a rebellion led by Sigmund Freud, the end of which we have not yet experienced. Indeed, the more powerful and repressive the superstructure, the more overwhelming has been the rebellion. Perhaps in the Victorian age sex could not have been managed in any other way. They could tolerate nothing short of the ideal and organized life to uphold that ideal and to minimize any deviations.
All kinds of social and religious pressures were created to keep this delicate balance. Childbirth out of wedlock was the infinite disgrace to the family. It marked the unwed mother for life. Such a sexual profligate was assured of hell, said the Church. Social diseases were also violent and fearful and were thought to be nothing less than punishment from God for violating the moral code. A limerick popular at that time went like this:
There was a young lady named Wilde
Who kept herself quite undefiled
By thinking of Jesus
and social diseases
And the fear of having a child.
The triple terrors of sexuality fed the repression, and those triple terrors were quite simply "detection, conception, and infection." A tremendously powerful chaperon system was developed to insure virginity. This era recognized the power of the sexual drive and made the effort to place sexual acts into a context where they could be preserved in sanctity until they could be expressed in marriage.
Public opinion and religious attitudes combined to make sex, save in the context of marriage alone, the worst of all possible sins and the major area of moral concern. In puritan times adultery was punishable by death while child-beating was only considered unfortunate. Sex was placed under rigid control, and no one stopped to examine whether or not such a position was true to our biblical heritage; it was simply assumed that this was "Christian."
It is interesting to note that Jesus had nothing to say in any of the four Gospels about such things as sexual manners in courtship. Wherever we have very clear rules about that, we have something to which the culture has given birth; it cannot be rooted in the Christian Gospel itself.
Similarly, Jesus had nothing to say about perversion. He had nothing to say about masturbation, reproduction, birth control, or abortion. All we have on any of these subjects is tradition. This is not to say that the tradition is wrong, but that there is no word from the Lord that authoritatively places each of these vital issues of our age into a right and wrong situation even for Christians.
Though we have no record that Jesus was ever married, he certainly does not make a virtue of celibacy. He frequented parties, including weddings. The analogy of a marriage adorns many of his parables. He refers to himself in some instances of his teachings as "the bridegroom." I can find nothing anti-physical or anti-sexual in the New Testament. There is a healthy respect for the reality of sex. There is the necessity of guarding sex from abuse, but there is no negativity toward sex. That attitude is a modern Western creation. I must conclude that the cultural attitude toward sex, in terms of legalistic moralism, is not the Judeo-Christian attitude toward sex at all, but is rather a reflection of the way that an earlier era of our history related to the circumstances of sex. I do not mean to criticize or condemn that era. I only mean to say that, given their reality, given their circumstances, that was the way they chose to deal with that problem.
If the reality changes, however, then the way we deal with that reality must change. That is what has happened in the area of sex in the last one hundred years. The circumstances have changed; the reality has changed. The attitudes of the past are not wrong but they were created to deal with circumstances that no longer exist. Thus, we are left with the situation of having a new reality without having any new way of relating to it.
There are four major new factors that affect sexual behavior in the twentieth century. First, whether we like it or not, sex and procreation are no longer necessarily linked. Love-making and baby-making can, in fact, be separated, and that means inevitably that the whole superstructure set up in order to keep babies from being born out of marriage no longer possesses the same urgency, and consequently, no longer can undergird sexual practices with the same power.
A second fact has changed: one hundred years ago, puberty occurred in boys and girls much later than it does now. The average age was sixteen or seventeen, and marriage, particularly of girls (at least in the dominant strata of society which set the norms), generally took place one or two years after puberty. The time of virginity thus was quite brief. Today, puberty takes place at age eleven or twelve, and marriage, somewhere between twenty-one and thirty. How "natural" is sexual abstinence from puberty to marriage in such a long culturally imposed separation? What is the emotional and physical price that virginity requires in this kind of world and are we prepared to pay it? These issues must be weighed by those who would set moral standards.
The third new reality: in the highly mobile culture of the automobile, the chaperon system of a hundred years ago is impossible. With external controls greatly diminished, we begin to depend on building internal controls to protect one’s "honor" and "virtue." If internal repressive controls are too rigid, the price in physical and emotional health may be costly. One may not be able to turn these rigid controls off as soon as marriage occurs; if they continue to operate, they will create a host of problems. No one would regard that as a desirable state.
The fourth new reality is that the powerful fear of infection which inhibited or at least deterred sexual activity in previous years can, since the advent of the miracle drugs, be successfully controlled. In previous eras the social diseases were devastating in their effect, producing sterility, abscesses, brain damage, mental illness, and sometimes even death. The religious attitude of repression treated these physical diseases quite simply as the visitation of the wrath of God upon those who were immoral. Mentally disturbed people who were victims of syphilis were, in earlier times, the primary inhabitants of our mental institutions. This is no longer so.
We live today with the new realities of the twentieth century, a century that has separated procreation from sexual activity, stretched the time between puberty and marriage to ten years or more, removed the chaperon system, and to a large degree taken away the fear of infection. In the process we have rendered the repressive superstructure of yesterday irrelevant at best, even though, its goal may still be highly desirable. It is crumbling before our eyes and, like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never put it together again. Now we must deal with sexual activity on a new basis that takes cognizance of our new reality.
So questions arise. What is the basis for sexual morality for Christians in this age? Is there an area between the ideal and the immoral where sexual relations between consenting unmarried adults who are deeply committed to each other could be viewed in some way other than as destructive or wrong? Can we look at such relationships without moralistic judgment? Can we understand even if we do not ultimately approve? Can sexual activity apart from the holiest context of marriage ever be more positive than negative? Can it in some conceivable set of circumstances enhance life more than it destroys life? Is repression or abstinance the only choice a Christian ethic can tolerate for widows, widowers, unmarried adults or divorced people?
On what basis can one walk through these questions as a Christian? There must be guidelines that we can find to direct us to some ethical stance that, though short of the ideal, is still not just a reflection of yesterday’s repressive system, for that simply will not win today’s world. The guidelines for a Christian must, I am convinced, exclude promiscuity. There must be a position that is true to the twentieth-century reality and yet still takes seriously the sacredness of marriage, and this is what contemporary Christians must seek. What does the Commandment "You shall not commit adultery" mean today, within the reality of the twentieth century, the situation in which you and I are now living? Even more importantly, what does it mean in terms of the situation that our children are now facing? How can we maintain character and commitment and oppose mutual using in the name of love? For such are part of a Christian’s concept of life.
I cannot speak definitively, but I can share with you the guidelines that I have discovered which have helped me personally and as a pastor to chart a path through this world. These are guidelines that I think can be grounded in the Christian revelation.
First, sex is not evil; it is good. It should therefore not be repressed; it is meant to be expressed. But the expression of this good gift must come inside a relationship through which it can communicate the holiness of life as well as the gratification of biological desire.
Second, the holiness of life and the gratification of biological desire cannot be separated without dehumanizing people.
Third, no pattern of sexual behavior that is counter to natural biological forces will ever succeed, except by inflicting vast distortions upon the personhood of the one who is a victim of such a repressive moralism.
Fourth, marriage is, I believe, the context in which sex finds its holiest and most life-giving outlet.
Fifth, marriage is sacred. Fidelity to the marriage vows is an essential ingredient in the development of character, in the function of parenthood, and in the stability of society. To violate this fidelity in marriage is to run incredible and enormous risks of destruction of essential human meaning. Therefore, only for the most compelling and unusual circumstances could such sexual infidelity by a married partner ever be justified. These reasons must be far deeper than boredom and far deeper than the oft-repeated "My wife doesn’t understand me," or "My husband no longer pays any attention to me." There is no normal biological need in any human being that cannot be met inside the sexual exclusiveness of marriage. There is no biological necessity for a variety of sexual partners. Nothing but the human ego is involved in the incessant desire for new thrills and new conquests, which are designed basically to overcome one’s own psychological doubts and fears of sexual dysfunction.
Sixth, the ultimate Christian ethic is not rooted in sexual abstinence. It is rooted in the fullness and holiness of life. Sexual indiscretions are not the most profound transgression even though they are transgressions. At its best, sexual fidelity is an asset to the fullness of life, but there are rare occasions when the two are in conflict, and when that time comes, the call to the fullness of life, I believe, takes priority in the Christian scale of values. Let me illustrate this with a premarital and a postmarital situation.
I am the father of three daughters. I love and admire those three girls inordinately. I want for them all the sweetness that life offers. As I have previously stated, I am a rather oldfashioned man and an old-fashioned father. On my scale of values, premarital virginity has an important place. It is not the primary value, but it is a high value. My primary goal is to raise my daughters to be whole persons, complete women, loving themselves, rejoicing in their femininity, proud of their bodies, capable of entering the bond of marriage and the bed of marriage with confidence, anticipation, joy, and abandon; free to give and to receive, free to be fulfilled and to fulfill, free to explore the mystery of sex with their husbands, exalting in the love that gives life and produces life. That is my primary goal. If they can have all of this and still be virgins at the time of their marriage, I would consider that the best of all possible worlds. If they cannot, for me, the fullness of life would take the highest priority.
If the price of virginity is the repression and distortion of that which is good and wondrous; if virginity is achieved by surrounding sex with guilt and fear; if the quest for virginity drives them to an unhealthy dependency on some form of autoeroticism as a preferred means to release their sexual energy; then for those reasons I would say the price of virginity is too high on my scale of values.
I want to make it clear that I do not in any sense regard masturbation as evil or destructive. I consider it a natural part of the discovery of bodily joys. Harm comes from masturbation only because of the fear and negativity with which past generations regarded it. I am impressed by some recent studies that seem to indicate that better marital adjustments are made by those who had regularly engaged in adolescent masturbation than by those who had not. Danger arises when one limits his or her sexual desire to this level, substituting a solitary act for the sharing of life which I believe is inherent in sexuality and is potentially the deepest human experience of community.
I have a great desire to keep an open and honest relationship with my daughters that would enable us to discuss all aspects of sexuality as I think parents should. If that discussion leads to the conclusions that sex before marriage is inevitable and, in their minds, desirable in their individual particular circumstances, then I would want each of my daughters to be well advised professionally and to have access to the best contraceptive devices available. I do not believe that the risk of conception is ever proper or ever loving outside the bond of marriage.
If the ideal cannot be lived out then I would hope that neither my daughters nor any other young man or woman would engage in premarital sexual relations except as the result of the most mature act of decision-making. I think that such relations must wait until he or she is capable of handling the full emotional demands of that activity and must occur only inside a very special relationship where love, trust, commitment, and deep communication already exist. For me this is still marriage, but it is not for many living in today’s world. Without these conditions, sex seems to me to be a mutual using of two persons, an activity destructive of character, and a violation of the holiness of life. Whenever sex is these things, it cannot help but be wrong, for it destroys rather than creates life. My ultimate standard of moral judgment is found when I face the questions: Does this act bring life or does it bring death to the persons involved? Does it enhance being or does it repress being? Does it make the people involved more capable of giving love or does it make them less capable of giving love? My ultimate ethical standard is the development of the fullness of life for every person. It is not found in any rule that begins with the words "You shall not," for life as I know it as a pastor, with real human beings facing real human circumstances in specific situations, is far too complex for that; yet the "you shall nots" still define the normative ethical pattern reflecting the wisdom of the ages.
Moving on to problems of a later stage of adult life, let us first examine the role of the single adult—unmarried, widowed, or divorced. If a single adult simply cannot live the celibate life and is not willing to be married or is simply not emotionally ready for or capable of marriage what are the alternatives that could still be called moral? Do we want to be in the position of saying that the satisfaction of sexual desire alone is an adequate basis for marriage? Do we have any alternative other than the deniat of sexual energy or the repression of sexual desire? Must we as Christians offer only an ideal or a word of judgment? Is not our gospel more loving than that? In previous eras sexual prohibition was decreed for "maiden lades," at least for proper maiden ladies, and they endured it frequently by becoming the paradigms of rigid virtue with ramrod backbones and judgmental airs, in many instances, enough to create a recognizable caricature. They were both vicious gossips and fierce, self-appointed guardians of the community’s righteousness. No other possibilities were open to them so they convinced themselves of the rightness of their stance and society enforced their role by applauding it publicly. One wonders about the inner sadness that many of these women have endured. Today we question whether that is the only option and at the very least today’s society will not affirm the "maiden lady syndrome" of yesteryear. A post-Freudian society is not likely to make a virtue of rigid repression. No such burden was laid on the single male, and it was the normative practice for him to find sexual outlet among the lower-class women of the society. In previous generations, the divorced person was almost nonexistent, so scandalous was divorce in that era, and the widowed person was thus the only remaining single adult.
Today few people in psychological or medical circles would suggest that widowhood at age thirty-five, for example, means that the spouse must cap his or her sexual energy forever. Sexual needs do not die with the death of one’s husband or wife. Yet when there was no way to separate sex from procreation, this may have been the only alternative. The price a man or woman paid may well have been an increasingly bitter personality, a frustration that even led to physical disorders. That may have been the best alternative years ago, but is that the best or the only alternative today? If the fullness of life is the goal of the Christian gospel, sexual abstinence may not always serve the goal; we may have some other options. Must sexual relations between consenting, unmarried adults always be considered wrong? Are there at least some instances that could be seen as beautiful and life-giving, beneficial and fulfilling, an enhancing of one’s being, even if not ideal? If so what would be the necessary conditions for this result?
As a Christian pastor who has faced this problem with people many times, I would say that the following guidelines are absolutely essential. Sex between unmarried adults might be inside that gray area between the ideal and the immoral if, first, no one’s marriage is being violated by either party; second, if it is a union of love and caring, not just a union of convenience and desire; third, if sex is shared only after other things have been shared, other things such as time, values, friendship, communication and a sense of deep trust and emotional responsibility; fourth, if it is both loving and discreet, private, shielded from those who would not or could not understand; if it is valued as a bond between the two people involved and between them alone, never violating the sacredness of the exclusive quality of that moment.
If the fullness of life is the goal, and if the sexual options are abstinence that cannot be managed without physical distress and impairment of personality, or an affair under the circumstances which I have just outlined, then I believe that an affair might be for some people the best option, the most life-giving. Therefore, under these circumstances, sexual intercourse outside of marriage could be good and not bad even though I would still not call it ideal.
Consider the final gray area. What about sex outside of marriage when the marriage itself is still in force? I cannot see how that could be good or desirable except under very extreme circumstances. If the marriage dies sexually, then before one partner or the other can justify an extramarital affair, I believe that he or she is bound to seek outside help and to work on that sick marriage. If the partners do not do this, they cannot possibly do anything but violate their word, their character, and their fidelity in a sexual union outside of marriage. There is no way, in my mind, that one will find support for that kind of behavior in the Christian Gospel or in what I would call the ethics of life, which grow out of that Gospel.
The fact that a wife has lost interest in sex or a husband has become impotent is a situation that cries out for professional help. It is not license for an affair. Yet there are rare circumstances where one partner or the otiter is rendered sexually incompetent by physical disease, accident, or by mental illness, so that the remaining partner is forced to choose between abstinence and the violation of the sacred bond of marriage. If the remaining partner can manage abstinence without destroying his or her life, I am convinced that that is the best course. But if he or she cannot, then what are the options in that gray area between the ideal and the immoral? There is the sheer physical release of autoeroticism, which is a lonely, shallow, non-life-giving possibility. Someone has called masturbation the ultimate sacrament of loneliness. It is a temporary solution at best.
To avoid autoeroticism lonely people have sought sexual outlet with prostitutes. But life is not found here either, for sex is one human being sharing with another on the deepest level, and this is patently impossible when love and community are separated from sex or when one relates to a sex partner as a thing, as impersonal as a partner from a rent-a-body agency. I cannot see life developing in relationships with a prostitute, indeed I think life is destroyed in such relationships. Therefore this falls out of the gray and into the immoral area.
The third option could be an occasional one-night stand, wherever convenient, with a series of acquaintances. This is only slightly different from prostitution. For sex to be sacrament of wholeness, it must be shared inside a relationship that is special and loving. Shallow sexual contact with a variety of partners cannot help but result in questions of identity and of the meaning of love itself.
The last alternative could be an affair with one you love, with whom you share many things, an affair discreetly carried out with no threat of revelation, with no demands other than the beauty of those special moments together. If the fullness of life is the basis for Christian ethics, in some circumstances
—very special and extreme circumstances—I would suggest that this latter alternative might be, for these very rare few, the best of the available options. But let it be stated clearly that no living or potentially living marriage could ever be violated by either partner in these circumstances, with this reasoning. We are talking about an unusual exception to the rule. But as a pastor I have had to confront such extreme exceptions more than once. I have been driven to seek loving alternatives short of the ideal but hopefully also short of the immoral.
I began this chapter by stating that through my experience as a pastor I have been moved out of a rigid, moralistic legalism into what I believe is a more loving and more compassionate attempt to discover the best alternative within the particular circumstances of each person’s life. I reject a rigid ethical system that applies a rule indiscriminately as one would place a cookie cutter down on dough cutting it wherever it happens to land, whether it fits or not. I also reject the neo-hedonism that suggests that pleasure is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and what is wrong.
Christianity need not be tied to the repressive legalism of yesterday that is not biblical and that is not essential in the reality of the twentieth century, yet Christianity does have standards and norms that must be heard in the midst of the moral revolution today. I have tried to spell out these standards as I understand them. Even if new forms for marriage contracts or family structure develop into the norm of the future, these standards will still be relevant for they center on the sacredness of life.
"You shall not commit adultery" invites us to look at the depth of human personhood, the depth of human relationships, the sacredness of human bodies, the biological fact that sex is powerful, and to decide how love and life and being can be expressed so as to glorify the Creator in every act of the creature. Christians in the twentieth century need to bear their unique witness in word and deed in this arena of human sexuality.
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