Having been stuck at home for the better part of a week, I’ve had ample time to catch up on my reading. One book I finally got around to was L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed & Sex, a study of the sexual ethics of the New Testament.
Countryman–a professor of New Testament and an Episcopalian–focuses on the ways in which the NT modified or discarded the existing rules surrounding sexual conduct that it inherited from Judaism and the broader Greco-Roman culture. The two organizing concepts he uses are related to the Torah’s purity code (“dirt”) and the property ethic rooted in the patriarchal family of the ancient world (“greed”).
In his telling, the NT is consistent, indeed almost unanimous, in rejecting sexual norms based on physical purity/impurity. As enunciated in the Torah, purity has to do with maintaining the “wholeness” of individuals and boundaries between kinds of things. The resulting ethic is based on avoiding or removing ritual impurity, whether intentionally incurred or not. (This covers everything from contract with menstruating women to homosexual relations.) By contrast, he says, when “purity” is used in the NT, it refers to purity of heart, or the intention underlying our actions.
Obviously, the question of the law and its ongoing role in the Christian community was an important topic for the NT writers. Countryman shows, however, that the NT takes a fairly consistent line that allowed Jewish Christians to continue observing the purity requirements of the law, while definitively rejecting that observation as a requirement for Gentiles to become full-fledged Christians. Purity is not a condition for receiving God’s grace. And purity and ethics are two different kinds of discourse. (Relevant here is his particularly fascinating exegesis of the much-discussed Romans 1 as it relates to homosexuality.) “With the possible exception of Jude and Revelation, all the documents that dealt with physical purity at all agreed in rejecting it as an authoritative ethic for Christians as such” (p. 123).
The sexual ethic of the NT, to the extent we can discern one, is a modified form of the property ethic common both to ancient Israelite culture and the broader ancient world. This family-centered culture rested squarely on the patriarchal family unit in which women, children, and slaves were essentially the property of the male head of the household. For example, adultery was condemned on the grounds that the man who committed it was stealing property from another man (because depriving him of the possibility of legitimate heirs), not because it represented the violation of a relationship of trust between the adulterer and his wife.
The NT introduces some major changes to this ethic. First, Jesus’ ministry disrupts the centrality of the patriarchal family. By calling disciples to “leave everything” and follow him, Jesus rejects the priority of the family to all other loyalties. And by telling his disciples they must become “like children,” he introduces an egalitarianism into the Christian community that contrasts starkly with the hierarchy of the “traditional family.” Second, both Jesus and Paul affirm–at least in principle–the equality of men and women. One critical example is Jesus’ teaching that both men and women can be guilty of adultery, and the corresponding implication that both partners have sexual “property rights” in the other. This represents a major elevation of women’s status compared to the traditional patriarchal family.
Both Jesus and Paul, Countryman insists, see sexuality as good, but not something to be put at the center of one’s life. Loyalty to God’s reign is the overarching value of the Christian life, and all other goods find their proper place only in relation to this. This accounts for the NT’s–at times radical–disregard for traditional family structures.
Countryman recognizes that there are some outliers in the NT, such as the Pastoral Epistles, which seem to be trying to put a more socially respectable face on Christianity, and Revelation, which seems perhaps to uphold virginity as the ideal for all Christians. But the mainstream tendency of New Testament Christianity is neither strictly ascetical nor hedonistic (two dissenting tendencies Paul had to fight in his Corinthian community), but subordinates sexual fulfillment to the calling each one of us receives from God.
Paul in particular is fairly pragmatic: he may prefer that people remain celibate, but recognizes that celibacy is a gift not given to everyone. Sexual desire is a sufficient reason for getting married, though Paul is careful to note that, in light of God’s inbreaking reign, the distinctions between married, single, betrothed, etc. aren’t all that important.
One of the key points Countryman wants to make is that there is no “Biblical” sexual ethic that we can simply adopt wholesale and apply to our current situation. Both the purity ethic and the property ethic presuppose social structures that are almost completely foreign to us. This doesn’t mean, however, that the NT has no value for our ethics. For one thing, the very “alien-ness” of the biblical world can provide a critical perspective on our own: the way things are isn’t the way they have to be.
Secondly, Countryman thinks we can extract some “generative principles” that provide guidance for contemporary Christian ethics. But since this has already gone on long enough, I’ll save that discussion for a future post.