An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Modern Sex and Ancient Purity Laws

A sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 & Song of Solomon 2:8-13 by Nathan Nettleton

Although I’ve had plenty to say from time to time on matters to do with sex, and most of you are doubtless aware of my views on a number of the issues, I haven’t actually preached sermons on the subject very often. And I think it’s time to do so, not only because I find today’s readings to be a helpful launching pad for such a discussion, but because there is so much discussion in the media at present about the church’s dealings with sexual matters, or our inability to deal with sexual matters, that we can’t stick our heads in the sand and ignore it. In the last couple of months, the Uniting Church’s National Assembly have debated their report on Sexuality and the Metropolitan Community Churches, a predominantly gay and lesbian church, have had their international conference meeting in Sydney. The Baptist Union’s task force on the ordination of homosexual people, a task force that I’m a member of, is due to produce a report within the next two months.

The arguments within the church are often so polarised that all you end up hearing when you try to listen and make sense of it are accusations and nastiness. And frequently what you can hear underneath all the allegations are some fundamental disagreements about how to read and understand the Bible.

What has any of this got to do with today’s scripture readings? Well, let’s go back to them for a sec.

The Song of Solomon reading was a celebration of sexual love.

The James reading said nothing directly about sex, but it does speak about obedience to the word that God plants in your heart, which is interesting because it does not emphasise fixed letter laws to obey, and it does refer to getting rid of every filthy habit and wicked conduct and to avoiding being corrupted by the world, which are the kinds of verses that you often hear quoted a lot in the debates about sexuality.

The Mark reading also said nothing directly about sex, but it does speak about our attitude to the biblical laws and how we can make obedience to them something that actually distances us from God’s will rather than drawing us closer. And it does speak about what sort of things defile you and what sort of things don’t, and again you hear that spoken of in these debates.

It is this reading from the gospel of Mark to which I what to give most attention. It is one of a number of places where Jesus is criticised by the experts in the religious law for failing to keep or teach others to keep the letter of the law. And in this instance Jesus responds with a stinging critique of the religious integrity of his critics. Now in this account, the issue that he is challenged about is the ritual washing of hands, before eating, and reference is made to the numerous laws they observed about ritual washing for purification.

Jesus turns on them and accuses them of rigorous obedience to all the external signs of religious faithfulness while ignoring the God’s call to be transformed inwardly by the renewing of their hearts and minds. It is not that faithfulness to the externals is wrong in itself, but they are only a sign of an inward reality, and if there is no inward reality to signify, then the sign is a lie.

Now the reason I think this is relevant to the current debates about sexuality is because these laws about washing are part of what is called the purity laws, and of all the biblical purity laws, it is the ones about sex that are most debated today and so Jesus attitude to one area of the purity laws may be helpful to us in determining how to react to another area of them.

When you think about it, there is no obvious reason why sexual ethics are singled out from the whole realm of moral decision making and given such enormous attention, except that they affect us all and that they are easy to judge – you’re either doing it or you’re not. The fact that the churches disagree over the ethics of war for example, or the ethics of capitalism, has never caused anything like the furore that our disagreements over sex do, and yet the stakes are a lot higher. Decisions about war or capitalism can result in the deaths of thousands or the unemployment of millions, but in the church we give more attention to whether Bill and Sue slept together before or after their wedding, or whether John and Steve can sleep together at all.

If you actually strip away the angst and entrenched positions, you eventually discover that the major ethical questions about sex are actually no different from the major ethical decisions about any other area of life. The more you treat other people with love, respect, honesty and faithfulness, the more ethical your behaviour is. You can apply that simple test to any area of your life and it works, although it isn’t always simple to apply. That’s what Jesus was saying when he said that if you devoted yourself to loving God and loving others you would be fulfilling the law even if you didn’t know any of it. All moral teaching is built on that foundation.

But what often happens, and this is what Jesus was reacting to in our reading today, is that once some moral teaching is built on the foundation, people forget the foundation and absolutise the application. The external signs of morality become more important than the morality they signify. Not only with ritual washing but with sex too.

Take marriage for example. Marriage exists because people find faithful monogamy much easier to live up to if it has an external structure that is recognised and valued. It gives some definition and understanding to your relationship and society values it and encourages you in it. This is a good thing. People are much more likely to maintain a healthy loving commitment to one another with that affirmation and encouragement around them. Marriage functions as an external sign that signifies something that is intended to be true about the relationship.

But if you forget that the institution of marriage exists to help maintain healthy loving relationships and you make the institution the end in itself, then you can get exactly the sort of thing Jesus condemned with regard to ritual washing, a sign that has become detached from that which it is supposed to signify, and that is a dangerous situation. Because then the sign can become the shield behind which the lack of reality is concealed. The fact that someone is married can become the smokescreen that conceals the fact that they are dishonest, abusive and spiteful towards their spouse.

An abusive sexual relationship between two married people is no more morally acceptable than an abusive sexual relationship between two strangers. Marriage exists to make good behaviour easier, not to make good something that is otherwise bad. Marriage without loving, caring, faithful relating has no moral value whatsoever and is an empty sign, a lie.

Jesus words again, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” and for that matter nothing outside a person that can make you holy either, “but the things that come from inside are what defile.” The ritual washing of hands and utensils did not make people holy, but it served to remind them to purify their hearts and minds. If the reminder worked, they became more holy, if not, it was worthless. The sign did not produce the reality. It is what is inside that is the reality, and it is the reality that defiles you or makes you holy. The sign of marriage is worthless if what is coming from inside you is envy, pride, adultery, slander and bitterness.

The same is true of celibacy. Celibacy, like marriage can be a great gift. Embraced voluntarily it can be something that liberates a person from the sexual obsessions of our culture and releases great strength and energy to be channelled into other creative fields of endeavour. Such people deserve our respect and the decision of a person to commit themselves to celibacy should be as much a cause for celebration as the engagement of a couple.

But celibacy is not an end in itself, and has no moral value unless it is used in loving, creative and life-giving ways. A person can be celibate and a whinging bitter arrogant sod always calling attention to their martyrdom. A commitment to celibacy can be used to hide an allergy to intimacy and fear of failure. If it never gets past that it is as hollow as loveless marriage or anonymous sex.

The church’s moral teachings must be judged, as Jesus said he judges, by their fruits. If our moral teachings and ritual structures are helping people to produce from within them, love, peace, honesty, faithfulness, self-control and integrity, then those teachings and structures are worthy of honour and continued emphasis. But if something in the dynamic has changed so that the teaching no longer produces good fruit, then it is time to change the teaching.

A few hundred years ago the average age of the onset of puberty and sexual interest was about 14 or 15 and the average age of marriage was about 18. Today the average age of the onset of puberty is about 11 or 12 and the average age of marriage is about 27. The gap between the onset of sexual interest and marriage has increased from three years to fifteen. In that new context, the traditional teaching that sex is only acceptable within marriage produces two main effects. The most frequent is dishonesty. People get stuck into it and hide it. This is a disaster because anything that encourages dishonesty makes it more likely that the relationship will become dishonest too, and it’s a disaster because hidden sex is immune from any ethical appraisal. It has no structure that affirms it and encourages honesty, love and faithfulness, so it is likely to fail and become poisonous.

The second most frequent result, and it’s a long way behind the first, is rushed marriage of emotionally immature people. I know about this one because as a 20 year old, with a head full of testosterone and traditional morality I got married because I didn’t think I could wait. By 24 I was divorced. If healthy loving sexual relationships come third behind sexual dishonesty and ill-conceived marriages and the consequent trauma of divorce as the most frequent consequence of our teaching on sexual ethics then it’s time we woke up to the fact that the usefulness of the teaching is past and heard the words of Jesus, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Marriage is still a valuable and useful institution. I’m a believer in marriage – I’m married and I hope to stay that way. But the Bible does not teach the modern institution of marriage, and if you actually looked at the marriage practices of biblical times, even the most vehement of fundamentalists would not want it for their children. What I want to see is not an abandonment of marriage but a creation of some additional moral and ritual structures to support and encourage wholeness and holiness for those for whom marriage is not the right option at this time.

That’s why I was so proud of Tim and Angela when they set about creating an interim institution for themselves between dating and marriage. There was no dishonesty or impurity in what they did. They stood up before friends and family and said “We are going to live together and make love together and we are going to be faithful to one another, but we haven’t yet tested this sufficiently to say ‘Till death do us part’ but for the next year we will work towards that goal and we want you all to hold us accountable for how we treat each other and for how we grow in love and commitment.”

They created an environment where there was no secrets and no shame and they gave themselves a structure that encouraged them to be loving, honest and faithful while exploring the extent of commitment that was possible for them. The external structure did not create wholeness or holiness, but it gave them every chance. Now while what they did certainly flies in the face of traditional church teaching on sexual morality, I would strenuously argue that it is absolutely faithful to the teaching of Jesus Christ in this passage, that the traditional moral teachings need to be repeatedly reevaluated and reshaped to ensure that they continue to support and encourage purity of heart.

If your sexual behaviour is secretive, pushy, selfish, disrespectful or lacking in mutuality, then your behaviour is as ethically indefensible as it ever was and no institution or label will justify it. Those who write me off as a sexually permissive liberal have seriously misunderstood me, but so has anyone who expects me just to keep trotting out the old party line. The Christ who we follow clearly condemns unquestioning repetition of the old party lines, but continues to call us to strive for love, honesty and faithfulness, and to create structures that will uphold and encourage them.

I could go on, but I’ve probably said enough for one session. I haven’t even addressed the issue of homosexuality, but the issues are essentially the same. The church’s traditional teaching on the subject and our refusal to offer any legitimating structures to even the most loving and faithful same-sex relationships has made such relationships all the more difficult and so produced a culture of rampant promiscuity, aggressive exhibitionism and furtive dishonesty. And if that is the predominant fruit of our teaching then it is a manifest failure as a moral teaching and needs to be radically reevaluated and overhauled.

I’m proud of you people. I’m proud to be part of this church. Because there are very few churches around, especially in our Baptist communion who are as open as you people are to seeking new ways forward in this area. And we need to continue to be open to questioning ourselves, and looking at what fruit our teachings are producing in our own lives. And if we continue to do that we will be vilified by many, but we will also be a role model for many churches who have not come as far as we have. More than what we conclude in any given area it is important that we continue to be open and honest and accountable for our journey together as we search for truth that will lead us into all purity and fullness of life.


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