Part 2: Answering Contemporary Challenges to Christian Sexual Morality
August 17, 2020
by Steven Willing, MD
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at two common objections to a traditional Christian view of sexuality: “What about other Old Testament rules we don’t keep?” and “The New Testament teaching on sexuality was socially constructed and not intended for universal application.” In this second part, we will examine two more recent arguments that have become quite popular and, to some, deceptively persuasive.
Objection 3: “Later churches added the doctrine. ‘Porneia’ is being mistranslated as fornication.”
Some now contend there never was an explicit prohibition against extramarital intercourse in either Old or New Testaments. They argue that the word “porneia,” translated as “fornication” and appearing 26 times in the Greek New Testament, refers to other sexual sins, not premarital (or homosexual) sex. Maybe it was pederasty, or sex with temple prostitutes, or adultery, they counter. The odd thing is that this is nearly the opposite of the “cultural bias” argument. While the other argued that the prohibition was a mere social construction, this argues that the prohibition never existed, and the original Christians leaned the other way. Many excellent resources review all the exegetical grounds for rejecting this argument, but two points are in order. First, it embraces the error of the Pharisees by reducing Eternal Law to a game of legal semantics. Second, it is fatally inconsistent with the internal evidence of Scripture and external evidence of historic interpretation.
A compelling internal refutation is found in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes concerning the unmarried:
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2, ESV).
Again, in verses 8-9:
“So let me say to the unmarried and those who have lost their spouses, it is fine for you to remain single as I am. But if you have no power over your passions, then you should go ahead and marry, for marriage is far better than a continual battle with lust” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9, TPT).
Twice, Paul urges believers to marry if they cannot restrain their sexual impulses. These instructions are rendered incoherent if there were any other legitimate outlets for sexual activity. If the critics were correct, Paul ought to have told the Corinthians to “quit worrying and have fun.” The critics also must reckon with the words of our Lord Himself, who declared the intent of adultery as sinful as the act. Are we to suppose that while merely thinking about “doing it” with a married person is a sin, actually doing it with an unmarried person is not?
What did porneia convey to the New Testament authors and readers? Clearly, Jesus and the apostles were communicating with fellow Jews and Gentile converts on the basis of shared assumptions. On this, the historical record is quite clear.
Although the Old Testament law did not explicitly proscribe premarital intercourse, there was a clear expectation that wives would be virgins at the time of marriage. If that bridge were crossed, it was commanded that they would be married (Deuteronomy 22:13-29). Abstinence until marriage (or at the least, betrothal) was universally assumed.
The Mishnah, a compendium of rabbinic sources compiled between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D, is unequivocal on the subject:
“Rabbi Eleazar says, even an unmarried man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman not for the sake of marriage engages in bi-ilat znut [forbidden sexual practice].”
Jacob Neuser, possibly the most noted Jewish scholar of the last century, wrote:
“It is beyond the Mishnah’s imagination for a man and a woman to live together without the benefit of a betrothal, a marriage contract, and a consummation of marriage.”
In New Testament times, there were two noteworthy Jewish authors whose works are well-known and well-preserved, Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus. Philo (15-10 BC – 45-50 AD) was the philosopher, and his lifetime would have overlapped with Jesus. Josephus the historian came a little latter (37 AD – c 100) but overlapped the later Apostolic period. The writings of both illuminate what the contemporary Jewish culture would have thought about sexual matters at the time of Jesus and the apostles, and thus what shared assumptions would have been implicit in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
“Of the second table, the first commandment is that against adulterers, under which many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practicers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections.” —The Decalogue, 168-169
“But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children.” —Against Apion Book II
The Didache is considered the earliest Christian document that is not part of the New Testament canon, and dates from 65-80 AD:
“My child, be not lustful, for lust leadeth unto fornication; be not a filthy talker; be not a lifter up of the eye, for from all these things come adulteries.” —The Didache 3:3
This consistent refrain continues through the earliest writings of the Church fathers:
Origen (184-253 AD):
“Fornication in the strict sense is consorting with prostitutes. Impurity is the generic name, in the maelstrom of our bodily existence, not only for adultery and pederasty but also all the other inventions of sexual licentiousness in all the many and diverse practices.” —Commentary on Ephesians 5:3
Severian of Gabala (380-408 AD):
“This is Paul’s reply to those who had written to him about this subject. He forbade fornication because it was against the law, but he allowed marriage as being holy and an antidote to fornication. However, he praised chastity as more perfect still.” —Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:13
Chrysostom (347-407 AD):
“Paul states that continence is better, but he does not attempt to pressure whose who cannot attain to it. He recognizes how strong the pull of concupiscence is and says that if it leads to a lot of violence and burning desire, then it is better to put an end to that, rather than be corrupted by immorality.” —Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 19.3, commenting on 1 Corinthians 7:8-93
In short, spanning a period of more than 1,000 years with the New Testament in the middle, there is no evidence that extramarital sex was ever acceptable within Judeo-Christian culture, and there is overwhelming evidence that it was not.
(For a much more extensive review of the usage of “porneia” in New Testament times, see Harper, Kyle, Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm, The Journal of Biblical Literature, (2012) 131:363-383).
Objection 4: “Christian sexual morality has been refuted by modern science.”
The trendiest objection today is to invoke the mantle of “science.” The obvious riposte to such a claim should be “how, where and when?” For 400 years, there has been a quest to redefine morality within a naturalistic, scientific framework. That effort has failed. While philosophers and researchers have made great headway in describing morality (and finding it surprisingly consistent across cultures), the mission of prescribing morality never quite made it to shore. The problem, defined by David Hume in the 18th century, was summed up by the so-called “Hume’s law:” One cannot derive an ought from an is.
“Oughts” can only be assumed. It is here that Natural Law comes to the rescue. If we accept as a first principle that human flourishing is a morally worthy objective, then we can develop a system of ethics in support of that cause. In that regard, science can be of immense value in identifying what methods and behaviors contribute to, or detract from, human welfare. Science cannot define morality, but it can inform it. Science cannot refute morality, and to imagine otherwise is a category error.
A common variant of this argument is, “Since same-sex attracted people are born that way, it should not be considered immoral. To think otherwise is cruel.” The premise of the argument is, of course, unproven, and the American Psychiatric Association continues to hold that “the causes of sexual orientation (whether homosexual or heterosexual) are not known at this time and likely are multifactorial.” The implicit claim is not merely that they were born with those impulses but should act upon them, an obvious non sequitur. Many defenders of Christian morality allow themselves to get trapped in an argument over the causes of same-sex attraction, failing to see that etiology is irrelevant to the question of morality. We may be born with any number of proclivities conducive neither to our own welfare nor that of others. More specifically, Scripture has always held that we are born with an innate disposition toward sin. We are all “born that way.”
Every one of us is born a slave to sin (Romans 6:20). Only through the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit can we hope to overcome our natural dispositions. This leaves no room for us to feel morally superior.
The accumulated body of scientific knowledge through the second decade of the 20th century is no challenge to Christian morality. Science cannot prove that lying, adultery, racism and murder are wrong, and science cannot prove that telling the truth and faithfulness are right. These things must be assumed. As it happens, we find them quite easy to assume because Natural Law is imprinted upon our psyche—and this can be empirically validated.
Over the course of this discussion, we have zeroed in on objections to Christian morality that may arise within the congregation of believers and exposed the underlying errors. For the sake of young believers, these need to be taught and understood. There is no back door for the “sexual revolution” within Christian orthodoxy. We should not expect these arguments to have much purchase with unbelievers and others who reject Scripture. For them, we must begin elsewhere. But the foundation has been laid. We are not finished with Natural Law.
 Sifra Emor 1:7 (94b) quoted in: Machael L Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Brown Judaic Studies, 2020) 122.
 Jacob Neuser, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Women (5 vols; Leiden: Brill, 1980) 5. 266.
 Mark J. Edwards, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament VIII. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999)
 James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018
 David Scasta and Philip Bialer, American Psychiatric Association, Position Statement on Issues Related to Homosexuality, Approved by the Assembly November 2013.