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dirt, greed & sex by L. William Countryman


L. William Countryman earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago and is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. He is the author of Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (1988).
When the New Testament rejected the imposition of the purity codes of the Torah on Gentile Christians, it was not in order that a new, distinctively Christian purity code might take their place. Except for hints of such developments in Jude and Revelation, the New Testament did not justify any sexual rule by appeal to physical purity. Indeed, it exhibited a strong concern that purity, as a distinction dividing human societies from one another, should give way before a massive awareness of the grace of God, extended impartially to all human beings. The creation of its own purity code has been one of several ways in which the church has at times allowed itself to become a barrier to the gospel of God's grace. A Christian sexual ethic that remains true to its New Testament roots will have to discard its insistence on physical purity.

The great difficulty of this demand is that it excises what has become, at least for many Americans, the very heart of Christian sexual morality. It therefore places the churches under a great test--essentially the same test as that which confronted the pious among the Jewish people during Jesus' own ministry and the circumcision party within the earliest Christian church at the time of Paul's Gentile mission. Will the churches hang onto their own self-defined purity and so hold themselves aloof from those excluded by it, or will they proclaim the grace of God which plays no favorites? Will they make their existing purity codes conditions of salvation, or will they acknowledge that they have no right to limit what God gives?

To be specific, the gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature. The Christian is free to be repelled by any or all of these and may continue to practice her or his own purity code in relation to them. What we are not free to do is impose our codes on others. Like all sexual acts, these may be genuinely wrong where they also involve an offense against the property of another, denial of the equality of women and men, or an idolatrous substitution of sex for the reign of God as the goal of human existence.

Christians have increasingly accepted that masturbation or even nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, in and of themselves, are not wrong. Bestiality, where it is the casual recourse of the young or of people isolated over long periods of time from other humans, should occasion little concern. It is probably too isolated a phenomenon to justify strong feelings. More difficulty may attach to the other issues in the list. They therefore call for a somewhat more detailed discussion.

Polygamy is more likely to be a serious issue in the Third World than in the modern West. Nowhere, however, does the Bible make monogamy a clear and explicit standard for all Christian marriage. Our usage in this matter must derive from the Greco-Roman milieu in which the church spent its formative early centuries. This does not mean that the modern church should seek to reinstitute polygamy where there is no cultural demand for it; but it does mean that, in cultures which have hitherto been polygamous, monogamy as such should not be made a condition of grace. The church, however, should concern itself with the question of the equality of women and men, particularly with regard to the way marital patterns affect the status of women. Monogamy offers no guarantee of equality; but the relative benefits of monogamy and polygamy in this respect should be the principal point at issue wherever the church must make such decisions.

Homosexual orientation has been increasingly recognized in our time as a given of human sexuality. While most people feel some sexual attraction to members of both the same and the opposite sex and, in the majority of these, attraction to the opposite sex dominates, there is a sizeable minority for whom sexual attraction to persons of the same sex is a decisive shaping factor of their sexual lives. It appears that this orientation is normally inalterable and that there is no strong internal reason for the homosexual person to wish to alter it. To deny an entire class of human beings the right peaceably and without harming others to pursue the kind of sexuality that corresponds to their nature is a perversion of the gospel. Like the insistence of some on the circumcising of Gentile converts, it makes the keeping of purity rules a condition of grace. It is sometimes suggested that homosexual persons be told to become celibate. While celibacy is a venerable Christian tradition and may even, as Paul suggested, be called for under certain circumstances, it is also a charisma (gift) and can never be demanded of those to whom such a gift has not been given. Paul indicated that the presence of this gift is known by the ability of the celibate person to deal with ungratified sexual desires without being dominated by them. For those without this gift, Paul considered the satisfaction of their desires, so long as it was within the boundaries of the property ethic, entirely appropriate. Any insistence on celibacy for homosexuals as such is, accordingly, contrary to the New Testament witness.

Erotic literature and art (commonly called "pornography") form a widespread and diverse phenomenon which may at times be contrary to Christian ethics, particularly when they set up idolatrous ethical standards which treat the self and its sexual gratification as the final goal of all existence or when they present as acceptable the degradation of adults (usually women, in our society) or abuse of children. Explicit verbal and pictorial representations of sexual acts are not forbidden by the gospel-- apart from such considerations which may render one or another particular item ethically obnoxious. By the traditional standards of Western Christianity, however, whatever is sexually explicit is impure. Although we tend to think of the issue of pornography as limited to newsstands so-called "adult" bookstores, and theaters, actually it permeates our whole society, as attested, for example, by our lack of an ordinary vocabulary in English (as distinct from a medical or an obscene one) for the discussion of sexuality. Anxiety about the erotic is, most importantly the thing which prevents the dear and open sexual education of our young. We are currently reaping the consequences of this purity rule in the form of widespread pregnancies among teenagers who are neither capable of nor very interested in the rearing of children. And we shall be very lucky indeed if we do not promote the rapid spread of AIDS by our unwillingness to speak explicitly to children in the educational process. The pleasure attached to explicit sexual portrayals, in words or pictures should be accepted as the powerful ally of any effort to teach the responsible use of so beautiful a thing. We cannot, however, expect to forbid sexually explicit representations in most respects and still make good use of them in one narrowly permitted area, namely, education. Children will not usually trust claims on which they have no independent controls whatever.

The New Testament, of course, does not demand that those Christians whose consciences are committed to some purity law give up the practice of it. No one should be required to take an interest in erotica or to indulge in sexual practices which, however permissible, seem to that person a violation of conscience. For that person, they would indeed be wrong actions. Conscience, of course, is not fixed in its final form, and one must expect that it will mature along with our comprehension of other aspects of God, the world, and the gospel. It remains true, however, that every Christian is responsible to his or her own present understanding. Those whose confidence in grace is great enough to free them from purity codes (the "strong," as Paul called them) may not force their position on others; but neither may those who observe such codes (the "weak") refuse the strong the right to follow their consciences. Since neither group has any right to deprive others of what properly belongs to them, it follows that the weak should not attempt to prevent open sexual education, outlaw erotic art and literature, or keep homosexual persons out of the church and ministry. The strong, on the other hand, must not make their standard of conduct a prerequisite of grace any more than the purity rules are. Paul urged the strong to avoid occasions of public offense to the weak. This is good, so long as the weak also commit themselves to a clear recognition that the strong have a part in the church; it would be a betrayal of the gospel, however, if the needs of the weak were made an excuse for the reinstitution of purity law as a condition of grace.

There has been a tendency, over the past century or so, to reinstitute purity law under the guise of mental health, by claiming that deviations from it are a kind of sickness. Our society, having made a religion of medicine and a priesthood of physicians, is tempted to invoke the word "sickness" as a mere synonym of "impurity" without imparting any definite meaning to it. This sham was long used to threaten children who masturbated with such dire consequences as insanity; but the most obvious and shameful use of it has been against homosexuals, who have been labeled as sick merely because they differed from the majority. Even though intelligent and truly comparable studies have now shown that there was never any foundation for such claims, there are those who, on dogmatic grounds (nothing else being available), still make them.

The identification of sickness and impurity has become even more apparent in the irrational anxieties focused recently on people with AIDS. These anxieties have induced many to seek a radical separation from carriers and potential carriers of the virus, even though competent authorities have repeatedly assured the public that the virus is communicated only in quite specific ways. The irrationality and intensity of such responses testify to the enormous power that the purity ethic can still have for us. It is not death which is the primary source of these fears, for the advocate of quarantines may well be willing to take much greater risks, day by day, in driving metropolitan freeways. The great fear is of contracting a disease as "dirty" to many in the modern world as leprosy was in antiquity.

Those who wish to rescue our society's purity rules by designating everyone who deviates from them as "sick" are merely renaming purity; they are not telling us anything new or illuminating. In many cases, they have even been uttering falsehoods; and, in the process, they have harmed many generations of the young who were forced to fear that masturbation or homosexual attractions were signs of insanity.

Excerpted with permission from Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today by L. William Countryman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 243-247. Footnotes omitted.


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