A gay war hero from World War II is chemically castrated, leading to his suicide (The Imitation Game). A convent schoolgirl falls pregnant, so the nuns have her child adopted, which breaks her heart (Philomena). Gay activists against social injustice are victimised by straight society, but show generosity to others (Milk, Pride). Journalists reveal a child abuse scandal covered up by the church to save face (Spotlight). All true stories.
According to these narratives, shame has been used to enforce a repressive Christian sexual ethic that denies diversity and full human flourishing. But now it’s Christians who are likely to feel ashamed and foolish.
In a longer article, I suggested that Christians will have to be prepared to look foolish for a while to come. But there is a place for challenging some misconceptions, which might clear the air a little. The Apostle Paul had to deal with objections in Athens before he was able to gain a hearing.
MYTH 1: only Christians are moralistic about sex
Secularists sometimes talk as if only people of faith make moral judgments. But the question is not whether we put down boundaries but where. Is it OK to date a teacher or a patient? Send a ‘sext’? Have plastic surgery? Use pornography? Promote gender-neutral toilets? Have sex with animals or robots?
Our papers are full of judgments on these issues. Society has changed its boundaries massively, and will continue to do so. What makes a secularist think we have got it right and not our parents or children?
MYTH 2: the sexual revolution has been good for us
The sexual revolution is often touted as a great success. This was the liberalisation of attitudes to sex, especially in the 1960s, promoting increased access to contraception and sexual equality.
Christians may applaud parts of it, such as opportunities for women. But there have been many losers too. The hyper sexualisation of society has led to addictions to pornography, unwanted pressures on teenagers and women, body shaming, spiralling sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
Arguably though, the most troubling fallout is on the most vulnerable of all: children. The compelling evidence is that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better, on average, than children raised in other family structures. They enjoy ‘better physical, cognitive, and emotional outcomes than children who are raised in other circumstances’. For instance, the Millennial Cohort Study showed that 18.1% of children in stepfamilies had significant mental health problems, compared with 15% living with single parents and 6.6% living with both biological parents.
Whilst cohabitation may be a happy arrangement for couples, consider the implications for children of the stats from the UK household longitudinal study. Off those who never married, 69% of couples had broken up by their first child’s 15th birthday, compared with 54% who married after their first child, and 24% who were married before their first child.
And the irony is that whilst liberal elites have promoted progressive agendas that disproportionately affect the poorest in society, they have kept the benefits to themselves. As one journalist observed ‘marriage has become a preserve of the rich’ after a study showed that the wealthiest are 48% more likely to marry than the poorest. Perhaps the privileged recognise the rewards of family values that put marriage before childrearing. But the thought leaders in government and media are not helping others to get stable families established.
MYTH 3: the church has been universally harmful to women
As always, Christians would want to recommend Jesus as our role model, not the Victorian archetypes that usually get wheeled out in debates. He had a unique relationship with women. The author Dorothy L Sayers was impressed by his counter-cultural values for any age:
‘Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; and who took their questions and arguments seriously.’
Perhaps we have forgotten the history of the first and best sexual revolution: the one that Jesus unleashed in the first century AD that bears his name. It’s no accident that the West offers the best opportunities for women today. It follows a long tradition founded by the church 2,000 years ago. Women flocked to the church in the early centuries, partly because they were not forced into early marriages, abortions and infanticide. They were given property rights for the first time.
Ever since, however falteringly, the church has been working out the implications of the Bible’s revolutionary teaching that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’ (Galatians 3:28).
So Christians have some good reasons to advocate for its historic teaching, but we often need to clear some ground first by countering false arguments (in the footsteps of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5).
For further reading, I would particularly recommend Glynn Harrison’s new book, from which I have borrowed heavily!
Alex Bunn is CMF’s Associate Head (Field) of Student Ministries