Sexual Liberty and the Sufficiency of Scriptures
According as his divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that has called us to glory and virtue.1
The first indictment in Paul Washer’s sermon Ten Indictments Against the Modern Churchis the practical denial of the sufficiency of Scriptures.2 His purpose of the principle was to castigate “seeker-friendly” churches for using social science to rope outsiders into populating the pews. Even Denny Burk, who has deploys the Feinburg grid, has published articles to assert Scriptural sufficiency as a corollary of inerrancy (“We have an obligation to show our churches and indeed the world that God’s written Word is sufficient to address these issues”3)
The principle contends that Scriptures suffices “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work”4; that living requires no more guidance than can be derived from Scriptures alone. Obviously, this assertion runs aground if we considered all the physical elements of this cosmos and the minutiae of life. One hardly believes that these theologians define the principle in a manner reminiscent of the Amish. But where the Scriptures do speak, it provides broad and key principles to inform and circumscribe every intellectual discipline and govern every endeavour.
The complaint is that where the Scriptures do speak, the supposed faithful are inclined to practicably set aside the counsel in favour of the non-Scriptural. A large part of this practice derives from a widespread epidemic of theological and Biblical illiteracy. Alternatively, many place greater faith in the motions of their heart and subjective faculties (pietistic sentiments or gnosis) or in the fluctuating shibboleths of the surrounding culture. Or they are hoodwinked by the prejudice of modernism and historical relativism, or by uncritical and cultish devotion to the opinions of a credentialed priestly caste of scientists. These constitute variations of the typical divine tests and temptations to excise and expose the goats from the sheep.
Although the manner by which the principle of sufficiency of Scriptures hereby deployed might not be the intended desire of those who advocate it, it nevertheless remains a valid application. Practicable disbelief in Biblical sufficiency has historically manifested itself through zealots who “go beyond what is written”5; fabricating theological innovations and ethical constructs, which resonate more with their own pre-existing religious fetishes and disgust instincts. Where Scriptures appears to be remiss in prohibiting specific sexual practices, which offend these moralist guardians; very broad and vague Scriptural adages will be conscripted to compensate for these Scriptural ‘dereliction’.
General adages might indeed have relevance to the particulars of any given issue. However, with these guardians, these adages are often nebulously and disingenuously inferred, often inflating the Scriptural application of a given maxim beyond its express limits, being selective as to what maxims may be applicable to a given situation; all with the intent “to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus that they might bring us into bondage”6.
The does not exist a dearth of specific New Testament counsel and admonitions concerning physical Eros. Lifelong committed exclusive monogamy, opposite sex coupling, enthusiastic wholesale gifting of one’s body and sexuality to the other spouse, enthusiastic celebration of the gift of Eros with one’s spouse, are amongst those admonitions enjoined. Condemnations against divorce, promiscuity, sexual idolatry, incest, fornication, coupling with unbelievers, impure thought life etc are similarly expressed. See how extensive the explicit Scriptural precepts are!
Therefore, does it not seem reasonable that absence of prohibitions on the particulars of sexual expression between spouses might be through divine design?
I recall, with much annoyance, the lack of Biblical guidelines as to the dos and don’ts of sexual expression. And in that perplexity, I fabricated moral principles, much like those aforementioned, to guide our conduct. Because of devotion to the Scriptural principle of liberty of conscience, I would not dare insist upon imposing my grid upon others (beyond the spouse). It barely occurred to me that God deliberately withholds restrictive minutiae because He permits freer latitude than what our natural religious minds will conjure.
However, my hermeneutical and rational scrupulosity and a wife’s frequent scorn quickly disabused many of my ascetic pretensions. And when, after three decades, my heart fully grasped and embraced true understanding of this freedom in Christ, there was great personal relief, excitement and joy after long self-imposed bondage; and much lamentation for the wasted and anguished years.
Those amorphous ethical principles, which we are inclined to invent and apply to erotic expression, are indicative of an attitude that Scriptures is insufficient in this regard. We must add to explicit Scriptural restraints; although we are hard-pressed to maintain the ones that exist. This is legalistic sin. “Do not add to His words, or He will rebuke you and prove you a liar.”7
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This is not to say that there are no general Biblical principles that govern the technicalities of sexual expression. But such considerations should differentiate between the objective, measurable and transparently evident from that which is subjective, psychological and more opaque. There is good case to consider the former as objectively immoral and the latter left to liberty of conscience between spouses.
The wisdom behind designating an action and attitude as sin and transgression is that in some way they cause misery and destruction, injury, pain and endangerment, even if inscrutable to us. Thus, the ethics of any particular practice must be understood in the context of their effects on the spouses themselves.
To exemplify an objective and transparent situation; erotic asphyxiation has that transgressive quality in promoting endangerment; by placing pleasure over concern for the life and health of the other. Hundreds die in the U.S. each year by such practices; albeit mostly in an autoerotic setting. It is less an issue of motives, but imprudence.
However, saying this; one can imagine the scenario of the spouse desiring sexual intimacy after receiving extensive burns and disfigurement. Despite the physical pain involved in sexual congress, the pain might be a ‘necessary’ psychological palliative to ease the anxiety of abandonment. Such a crosscurrent of considerations might abet in understanding why God refrained from extensive, minutiae of regulations on these matters.
As to subjective psychological and opaque harms, such as intimations of humiliation or psychological flashbacks from prior sexual abuse; the subjective sensitivities of both initiator and respondent should be given consideration. Most acts of sexual expression are morally neutral in and of themselves. It is subjective attitudes that give a moral quality in these cases. The same act may have different connotations between persons or between social and cultural milieus.
Roman Republicans considered male masculinity threatened if they were in any way “passive”. Females were often deemed inferior beings for that very reason. Passivity was understood to include giving oral massage to a wife. And Cato the Elder considered even kissing the wife in daylight an offense and exiled a patrician.
What might be construed as worshipful honour to the other’s masculinity/femininity to a grateful spouse can in another instance, become a megalomaniacal ego boost requiring the psychosocial humiliation and denigration of the Other. The psychic harm occurs in motivation and attitude; not in any technical regulations that are coherent or sensible.
Certainly, Christian precepts can govern these types of subjective situations. However, these filtering constructs are often unbalanced and tilted towards producing a progressively ascetic and legalistic oppression. The stumbling block or weaker brother/sister principle is often abused to suggest that the freer should always give way to the inhibited, out of love. The grid question is always posed, “Will my brother/sister stumble if I do this?” But an accompanying question should also be included. “Will my brother/sister stumble if I don’t this?” For, is the inhibited one always the weaker brother? If one spouse refuses what is seen by the other as legitimate sexual expression, may it not be inviting the latter to sexual temptation? In a Christian commonwealth marriage, should not overall interests of the relationship govern such determinations, not individualistic interests?
As has been intimated, I was quite green and messed up in matters of sexuality as a newlywed. There are certain sexual expressions, which are absolutely necessary in order for a woman to prepare for comfortable coitus; to which I was ‘ethically’ uncomfortable. It is unimaginable that my spouse should have abode by this stumbling block principle. Sometimes, the cause of Christ is accomplished by breaking the eggs of unwarranted inhibition.
The more inhibited should demand of themselves a scrupulous rigour to justify their inhibitions; not only for the sake of their spouses and relationship but for their own psychic liberation. Actual virtue and vice dwell outside of our subjective ability to ascertain them, to which we should all seek to align. And our guilt consciences are populated with ethical precepts or attitudes to which we concur as consequence of our own subjective evaluations. (Shame is consequence of the evaluations of outsiders.) However, it is possible for some vague, amorphous feeling, which lacks substance in truth, to ape conscience. In that case, the inhibited is not really violating virtue if they violate these unjustified and irrational feelings.
In the typical moralist grid, it progressively tilts the standard toward a restrictive and oppressive ethos and ethic. Should a relationship or society be subject to the lowest common denominator of liberty? Will not tensions accumulate, some form of snap back occur or repression find some alternative and transgressive outlet? It is recorded that sexually restrictive societies often result in increased proliferation of prostitution because wives were deemed too decorous to please husbands except in prescribed ways, dictated by the weaker vessel, often with the spiritual imprimatur of moralist preachers and priests.
The stumbling block or weaker brother principle is a favorite sophistic ploy deployed by moralist legalists in any era to exact a repressive regime. They often inflate the intentions of Scriptural meaning beyond recognition. That which may be merely aesthetically displeasing becomes matters of ethical consideration. Prior sexual abuse becomes a badge for disobedient selfishness.
There is not intention to roll over the concerns of inhibited or weaker. It is merely a call and push back into balance against the tilt towards psychic oppression in matters of Eros.
Finally, the very practice of adding extra-Biblical or nebulously vague generic precepts often inflicts a pall of moralism into every act of sexual congress. Does this action lead to the fulfillment of the Procreative Imperative? Do I have notarized, positive consent to proceed to the next step? Does this particular act glorify God, by whatever inscrutable basis that can be determined? Moralist intrusion destroys psychic liberty and free enjoyment and celebration of Eros; making sexual expression into a stressful and even pathological exercise; destroying the libido and the joy.
Copyright © 2013 John Hutchinson
12 Peter 1:3
2Paul Washer, “Ten Indictments Against the Modern Church in America”, Revival Conference 2008, Transcript accessed at http://media.sermonaudio.com/mediapdf/102308839520.pdf on April 21, 2013, p 3.
3Denny Burk, “Is Inerrancy Sufficient? A Pleas to Biblical Scholars Concerning the Authority and Sufficiency of Scriptures”, Southwestern Journal of Theology, Volume 50, Number 1, Fall 2007, pp 76-91.
42 Timothy 3:16
51 Corinthians 4:6