Continued from part 1, on the Bible’s explicit commands about sex acts
The teaching of nature—this is the key principle to which Scripture appeals when remarking on what is allowed in certain sexual contexts. The Bible presupposes a natural order which can be observed, and from which we can infer certain lessons. For example, Genesis 2 notes that it is not good for the man to be alone—an inference with which the reader is expected to agree based on Adam’s nature being “pointed toward” a complementary companion rather than aloneness.For a decent primer on the extent to which natural law permeates Scripture, see Andrew Fulford, An exegetical case for natural law in Calvinist International (May, 2013).
How Scripture applies this natural law to certain sexual contexts gives us a good idea of how we should apply it to others.
Perversion or inversion?
At the most basic level, God expects or allows us to use a thing in a way consonant with how he designed it. Now, modern natural law arguments typically speak of the perversion of a thing’s design—but the Bible typically speaks of inversion. Moreover, while modern natural theology often develops complex philosophical theories of telos, the Bible appeals to what we can really only call common sense: our faculty of noting the obvious in view of the facts on the ground (e.g. Romans 1:19–20; 1 Corinthians 11:14).
This might sound like a mere semantic quibble, but the language of perversion is problematic. Even though it can be accurate, it frequently misses the mark. Speaking of homosexual behavior as perverted, for example, is certainly right; yet many people might impulsively declare all kinds of sex acts “perverted” when no serious case can be made against them from natural law (as we’ll see). And one could even say that a leftie is perverting his natural design by learning to write with his right hand, without intending to pass any moral judgment whatever. Thus, although speaking of perversion can be appropriate, the terminology is too colloquial, too broad, and too easily misconstrued to be useful. Speaking in terms of frustration has similar problems.
The Bible does sometimes speak of sexual perversions (e.g. Leviticus 18:23), and abominations (e.g. Leviticus 18:22), but in other places it explicitly couches the problem in terms of acting contrary to nature (e.g. Romans 1:26–27). Rather than concerning itself with whether a behavior is a “standard feature” of the design spec, Scripture’s concern is of behavior contradicting the design, opposing its intended use, defying the natural order. This is just as well, since God didn’t make noses and ears for holding up glasses, yet I would be quite disappointed if this were considered a “perversion” of their design in the biblical sense. Creatively using one’s body in “non-standard” ways is not the problem; rather, what God hates is when we effectively tear up the original spec. Thus, since Eve was deceived, Paul infers that women are less discerning than men—so having them teach defies the spec (1 Timothy 2:12, 14); since men and women were created as sexual complements, homosexuality contradicts the spec (Genesis 2:18, 24; Romans 1:26–27)—as does bestiality (Genesis 2:20; Leviticus 20:15–16); since hair was designed for a woman’s glory, cutting it off opposes the spec; since God joins man and wife as one flesh, divorce reverses the spec (Matthew 19:3–8). Etc—you get the idea.
Put simply, the Bible would have us ask two questions:
- What is a thing made for?
- What is it thus against?
The question it doesn’t seem concerned with is mere logical negation. God would have us distinguish between the following statements—where the arrow means roughly “was made for”— because they are not logically equivalent:
- X → Y
- ¬(X → Z)
- X → ¬Z
Straightforwardly, the fact that X is made for Y (#1) does not, in and of itself, imply that X is not made for Z (#2). The mouth is made for eating, but that doesn’t mean it’s not made for speaking. And even when it’s true that X is not made for Z, neither does that imply that X is made for not Z (#3). Certainly in some cases this principle holds true—for example, the fact that “woman was made for man” (1 Corinthians 11:9) clearly implies to Paul that women should not rule over men—in this case, #1 implies #3. But equally, the nose is made for sniffing, not holding up glasses, yet I doubt anyone would condemn me for not handicapping myself in writing the rest of this article.
In asking how we may permissibly use God’s creation, then, he would not have us mindlessly apply some simplistic rule by rote. The kind of thing in question matters. The situation of its use matters. He is less concerned with “I did not make it with that in mind,” and much more concerned with “I made it with that not in mind.” It is our job to figure out which is which.
What counts as inversion?
This leaves us in a situation many Christians are uncomfortable with: we had hoped for a principle that could be straightforwardly applied to produce black and white results—yes, this is ok; no, this is not—but instead find that God requires us to assess for ourselves the nature of a thing, and whether a particular behavior contradicts it. This expectation is par for the course, in my view, because God made us to rule in his behalf, and the key function of ruling is judging. Solomon was the greatest of kings because he was the wisest. He took over the rulership of Israel only shortly after the monarchy had replaced rulers called judges. The very thing that many Christians find most troubling and disappointing—God’s expectation that we exercise our own discernment, and his placing of us into situations that are not obviously black and white—is the very thing the gospel is supposed to prepare us for. Life in the age to come is the restoration of the Edenic vision. God’s people will rule alongside him, to such a level of competence that we judge both nations and angels (Revelation 2:26–27; 3:21; 1 Corinthians 6:2–3). So let’s get practicing.
Knowing the spec
Discerning what is permissible sexually, and what is not, should be a simple case of:
- Looking at the features of sexuality which God made;
- Figuring out what they tell us about his intentions.
Unfortunately, this is precisely where things get complicated, because mere statistical analysis is fairly useless for determining what is “normal” with sexuality. Some of its features vary widely between people—and some are the very predilections and practices we’re wanting to assess. This creates a chicken-and-egg problem: if certain sexual predilections are highly represented, shouldn’t we then treat them as standard features of God’s design? But if they are standard features, then there can be no doubt about their permissibility. But we do doubt their permissibility. How are we to adjudicate this question without prejudging the very activities we’re trying not to prejudge?
For instance, suppose well over 50% of common populations have some predilection for bondage. Dale Markowitz, Kink is More Popular Than You Think in OkCupid (April, 2017). Rose Eveleth, Americans Are More Into BDSM Than The Rest of the World in Smithsonian.com (February, 2014). Does this tell us that BDSM is a feature of God’s design spec for sexual activity…or just a common bug? You might instinctively say that it’s a bug—I think that’s a normal reaction. But to avoid begging the question, what can we use to justify that response? Is it simply that the numbers aren’t high enough? If so, what do we then do with the statistics on female orgasm? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of 33 studies from the past 80 years, Elisabeth Lloyd concludes that only 25% of women achieve orgasm during vaginal intercourse. Elisabeth A. Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm (Harvard University Press, 2006). Cited in The Most Important Sexual Statistic. Should we therefore conclude that female orgasm is also not a standard feature in God’s design for sex? Is it a bug too—a less common one than BDSM?
If so, we could further infer all kinds of views, some of which are mutually inconsistent:
- Since female orgasm is not a standard feature in God’s design for sex, but is obviously good, other kinds of stimulation that lead to female orgasm should therefore be incorporated into our view of the standard features in God’s design for sex;
- Since female orgasm is not a standard feature in God’s design for sex, but is obviously good, we should therefore conclude that women not achieving orgasm is an unfortunate element of the curse on Eve, and does not legitimize other kinds of sexual stimulation;
- Since female orgasm is not a standard feature in God’s design for sex, it is not actually good;
- Since female orgasm is not a standard feature in God’s design for sex; it is actually an aberration to be avoided.
Alternatively, we could conclude that female orgasm is a standard feature—because #obvs—and that the statistical prevalence reflects a failing on the part of men and/or women when it comes to sexual technique etc. And we could treat this as the sole factor, or merely as a contributing one in failure to climax. Ultimately we would develop a very complicated view—which is probably right, and pretty much my point: if there is one thing we can say with some confidence about God’s design for sexuality it is that, within some hard limits, the spec is complex and variable.
Given God’s design for everything else, from personality types to insects, that should hardly come as a surprise, but it does throw a great deal of partial shadow on what many Christians want to treat as black and white areas.
So before we begin looking at the features of sexuality, we need to be aware of these issues. We need to realize that because of the variability of sexuality, we must start with absolute bedrock features first—we must find the real hard limits that God has set. From these, we can establish a framework that will help us to reliably ask about more questionable predilections.