Social attitudes and moral absolutes
It was recently reported in the news that social attitudes in
Of course, ‘public opinion’ is not always a particularly safe standard on which to base moral decisions, because such opinion has proved faulty in times past. There have been occasions when popular opinion has been in favour of persecuting minorities, or perpetrating violence against unpopular groups. A cursory glance at the history of the 20th century is enough to demonstrate that popular movements are not always wholesome.
For the believer, standards are set by revelation, as we find it in the pages of the Bible. The Word of God is our guide. Since I have written on these themes before, I will take this opportunity to adopt a slightly different angle on things, by providing a larger Biblical framework. We need to consider the four great themes of revelation: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation.
1. Looking back to Creation. The Bible begins by giving us an account of Creation. It is a wonderful insight into the original intentions of God, and we ought to be interested in understanding those original intentions. Interestingly, this is exactly what Jesus did. He was confronted by Pharisees who were obsessed with divorce and what had become a debate on how easy it should be to get rid of your wife. Instead of tackling that debate, Jesus turned them to first principles, and spoke of what God’s original intentions had been in Creation. Gen 2:24:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Human relationships were to be guided and governed by this principle. Intimacy was to be between one man and one woman in a permanent monogamous union. Other arrangements, and there are many, are not envisaged. It is the divine institution of marriage between one man and one woman at Creation that reveals the divine intention, and provides the foundation for our morality in this regard.
Recently, in our series in the Commandments we reached number 7: ‘You shall not commit adultery’. We noticed that this commandment would not have been a surprise to the people of God. There are several examples in the book of Genesis, long before the commandments were given, which indicate that the moral framework concerning the sanctity of marriage was widely acknowledged. Joseph refused to get involved with Potiphar’s wife (to his cost) and Abimelech refused to get involved with Sarah, once he discovered she was Abraham’s wife, to mention just two examples.
We look back to the Creation and the institution of marriage as a permanent union between one man and one woman. All the particular texts and passages through the Bible should be understood in the light of this. Debates about what specific words mean in particular verses cannot detract from the original creative intention.
2. Looking inward to The Fall. If you ever read chapter 2 of Genesis, with its delightful description of innocence and unsullied joy between Adam and Eve and God, and then read chapter 4 with its murderous account of one brother taking the life of another, you would be forgiven for wondering what had gone wrong. Thankfully, we have chapter 3, and the account of human rebellion against God to explain things.
It is the account of the Fall that helps us grasp how the flouting of God’s authority, and the rebellion into which it has plunged the human race, gives us answers that otherwise bring disillusionment to secular humanists who reject the Fall, and who don’t know why human beings behave as badly as they do.
The effects of the Fall are felt in every aspect of our humanity, including our sexuality. This is true of every single one of us. We need to realise that our instinct for deep human intimacy can be distorted and cause havoc and unhappiness. The Fall has substituted lust for love, grab for give, confuses innocence with ignorance and treats sexual wants as if they were sexual needs.
It was C.S. Lewis who said that it was ‘in the grandeur of Eros that seeds of danger are concealed’, and how true that is. A gift that in the right context (marriage) is a great joy and blessing, can be a terrible obsession and bring deep regrets in the wrong context, and damage relationships irreparably.
3. Thirdly we look upward to the principle of Redemption. The Fall is not the last word to be said about our human predicament. God has not left us without hope or without help. He calls us to a better way; a way by which we can rediscover our true humanity and do so in the midst of rewarding relationships. When we repent and believe we are given support and help and a new beginning in the context of a Christian fellowship.
Think of the woman we read of in the gospels who was caught in adultery (John 8). Over against the hypocrisy and the double standards of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who would stone the woman and have the man involved go free, Jesus offers a new beginning and a fresh start to the woman. There is always a new start on offer in the gospel, even when we go badly wrong.
In John 4 we read of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. . The key question that opened up the sadness and brokenness of her life was when our Lord asked about her husband. John 4:17-18
"I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."
This was a woman who had died a thousand deaths in her life. She had made the tragic mistake that so many in our own communities are making every day. She was looking for fullness of life in the wrong place. She tried all the sources that the world tries to persuade us to try. She had gone from one man to another man to another man. She sought excitement in that kind of lifestyle, but her life had become an empty, black, stagnant pool. Jesus offers to this stagnant pool a life that would bubble up with excitement and fullness and wonder. This is the living water of eternal life.
People who had been steeped in the immorality of the ancient world came to Christ and learned a better way. Those who got things wrong, found forgiveness and a new beginning with a new life.
What a Christian fellowship ought to do is provide friendships and relationships of support. It is the Christian fellowship that ought to provide help to come alive again after the futile emptiness of an affair; help and support after a marriage is sadly ended; or understanding for those struggling with their sexuality. Christian fellowships ought to be places where we can rediscover the exhilaration of following Christ with others and find our deepest longings met in relationships between believers, and a readiness to accept the lordship of Christ over every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality.
The knowledge of redemption in Christ brings with it the knowledge that we can be reinstated and helped, even when we have failed. When we repent, we can always hear Christ’s word of forgiveness and restoration. Christian fellowships are not places for the perfect, but for the forgiven.
4. The final point to make is about looking onward to the return of Christ and the principle of final accounting. The day will come when we all have to give to God an account for what we have done in this life. Knowledge that the end is coming and we will have to give account for our lives, that a new creation will be established and the Holy City of God founded with perfect security and harmony, helps us focus more clearly on the demands of our own calling, be that as single people or married people.
The church is always caught in a tension between its prophetic responsibility to bear witness to God’s revealed standards (in this case the sanctity of marriage), and its pastoral responsibility to show compassion to those who have been unable to maintain those standards. This is our task. What we must not do is think that we achieve the latter by denying the former.
Your minister and friend