Isn’t the Christian Sexual Ethic Harmful and Repressive?

Andrew Bunt
Articles 5 mins
Found in: Sexuality

When people find out that I’m same-sex attracted but I also believe in the historic Christian sexual ethic, they are often quite concerned for me. I believe that marriage and sex are reserved for relationships between one man and one woman. When people hear this, their fear for me is that the Christian sexual ethic will do me harm and cause me to be repressed. Won’t I be lonely and crippled by shame? Doesn’t it require me to deny who I really am? This concern can be very well-motivated, but I think it’s also mistaken. For me, as for everyone, the Christian sexual ethic is not harmful and repressive, in fact, it’s actually the only sexual ethic that is truly life-giving and liberating.

So why do people think the Christian sexual ethic is harmful and repressive, and am I right that it’s not? Let’s take a quick look at some of the big problems people see in what the Bible teaches.

My sexual needs will not be met

The Christian sexual ethic says that the only context in which I can have sex is if I marry someone of the opposite sex. This is not something I’m interested in doing, so I expect to live the rest of my life without having sex. But can a life without sex be a good life?

I think it can. The vast majority of us experience sexual desire, but that doesn’t mean we have sexual needs. There is no sense in which humans need sex to survive. We don’t need it for our physical or mental health 1 – personally I've never heard of anyone going to the doctor and being diagnosed as having too little sex – and we don’t need it to be a true adult – despite what films and TV shows would suggest.

Jesus knew he didn’t need sex to survive or to be a real adult, despite the expectations of his culture.

For Christians, the proof that we can live without sex is Jesus. Jesus is the most perfect example of what it means to be human. In the incarnation, he became a human like us and so he too would have experienced sexual desires. But Jesus knew he didn’t need sex to survive or to be a real adult, despite the expectations of his culture. The fact that the Christian sexual ethic means some of us won’t get to have sex isn’t a problem; we don’t need it.

I will always be lonely

This is often what people (Christian and non-Christian) say when they hear that I’m not looking for a romantic partner. To them, the Christian sexual ethic is harmful because it means I can’t have a boyfriend or husband and so I’ll always be lonely.

Underlying this fear is a bit of truth. Unlike sex, it is true that we need deep connection with other humans. God has made us to be relational beings with relational needs (Genesis 2:18). I can’t live without deep, intimate connection with other people. But it’s not true that the sort of intimate connection we all need can only be experienced in romantic and sexual relationships.

God has created friendship as a context where our relational needs can be met. The Bible gives us examples of wonderfully intimate, though never romantic or sexual, friendships: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy. And, again, Jesus is the prime example. A human man who never had a romantic or sexual partner, but who knew the importance of close friendships with people like Peter and the Beloved Disciple.

I’m denying who I really am

Some people are concerned that the Christian sexual ethic asks me to deny who I really am. In their view, my sexuality is core to who I am: I’m a gay man and therefore I need to be in a relationship with a guy and have gay sex to be true to myself.

But is my sexuality really who I am? Building my identity on an internal desire doesn’t seem like a very good idea. My desires change and they can conflict; how can I know which desire is the real me to be embraced and expressed to find my best life? And I’m well aware that I sometimes have desires that really aren’t good. Surely, they’re not who I am and I shouldn’t embrace and express those?

My identity comes, not from my desires, but from God.

The Bible offers me a better answer. My identity comes, not from my desires, but from God. He says I’ve been created in his image and because I’ve trusted in Jesus to save me, he’s adopted me and now calls me his son. That’s my true identity, and it’s by living out that identity that I can really be true to myself. When God calls me to steward my sexuality in line with his plan revealed in the Bible, he does ask me to deny some of my desires, just as he asks all Christians to do in different ways, but he’s not asking me to deny who I really am. In fact he’s inviting me to be who I really am, a child of God.

I’m destined to live crippled by shame

Some fear that the Christian sexual ethic will mean I live my life constantly crippled by shame about my sexuality, believing there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.

The truth is, there is something fundamentally wrong with me. In fact, there are lots of things wrong with me. And the same is true of every one of us. But that’s why Jesus came. All of us experience desires which are a result of the brokenness that has entered the world with human sin. And all of us do things that go against God’s plan for our flourishing and are an act of rebellion against him. But Jesus came to take the punishment for those acts of rebellion and to start the work of transforming our broken desires. It’s because of the things that are fundamentally wrong with me that Jesus came, and it’s in the midst of them that he loves me right now as one he has forgiven and is transforming.

The Christian sexual ethic doesn’t cause me to live in shame. I have no problem admitting that I’m attracted to guys. In reality, it’s the Christian gospel that frees me from shame. There’s plenty wrong with me, but in spite of these things, Jesus has saved me and loves me.

The Christian sexual ethic is life-giving and liberating

Far from being harmful and repressive, the Christian sexual ethic is life-giving and liberating. This can be seen on the broader scale of history. It was the Christian sexual ethic that transformed the situation of women, slaves and children in the ancient world, safeguarding them from sexual abuse and exploitation, and the same Christian ethic underpins the values of sexual autonomy and consent that are rightly so important in our society today. Christianity was the catalyst for the first sexual revolution.

The Christian sexual ethic underpins the values of sexual autonomy and consent that are rightly so important in our society today.

But the Christian sexual ethic is also life-giving and liberating for me as an individual. It releases me from the pressure to make sure my sexual needs are being met and to find the one person who can meet all my relational needs so I’m never lonely again. (And the experience of many of my married friends suggests that a relationship doesn’t guarantee the absence of loneliness anyway.) The Christian ethic also releases me from the pressure to look within to find who I really am and then to express that loudly and proudly to make sure that everyone knows, and it frees me from shame, giving me the confidence to be honest about all that is good and not good in me, in a way that a simplistic message of self-acceptance never could.

It’s very sweet when well-meaning people worry that the Christian sexual ethic will be harmful and repressive to me, but in reality, it is the unbiblical ideas that are lurking behind their concern which are more likely to cause problems. Perhaps it’s not them who should be concerned for me, but me who should be concerned for them.

Further reading

How Can You Live Life Without Sex?

Is My Sexuality Who I Am?

  1. Kim, Tam & Muennig, ‘Sociodemographic Correlates of Sexlessness Among American Adults and Associations with Self-Reported Happiness Levels: Evidence from the U.S. General Social Survey’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour: ‘The purported detrimental impact of sexlessness on self-reported happiness levels was not evident in this large, nationally representative study after adjusting for sociodemographic factors. Sexless Americans reported very similar happiness levels as their sexually active counterparts.’ Muise, Schimmack & Impett, ‘Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better’, Social Psychological and Personality Science : ‘[T]he association between sexual frequency and well-being is only significant for people in relationships.’