Countryman: Principles for a Christian sexual ethic

We saw earlier that Countryman argues that we can’t, because of the vast gulf that separates our social world from those of the Bible, simply apply “the Biblical ethic” to contemporary concerns. But does that mean that the Bible has nothing to say to us regarding sexual ethics? By no means!

First, as already mentioned, Countryman thinks that one of the chief functions of the Bible is to “relativize” our own social world by bringing us into contact with the very different ones of the biblical world. Second, and more importantly, the Bible records the transformation of the social world of first-century Christians as they encountered the gospel of God’s grace.

If Scripture is important partly because it is alien to and therefore relativizes our own historical-cultural situation, it is even more important in that it can show, by reference to the way the grace of God broke into the self-sufficiency of another culture, how it breaks into our own as well. The New Testament writers did not try to construct a new sexual ethic from the ground up. They took over the existing cultural patterns and refocused them, pushing some elements from the center to the periphery, altering the balance of powers allotted to various members of society and, most important, relativizing the familiar life of this world by subordinating it to the reign of God. (p. 219)

To provide a framework for doing the same in our own historical-cultural situation, Countryman offers six “generative principles” derived from the NT which, in turn, can offer guidance for navigating current ethical dilemmas in the realm of sex:

1. “Membership in the Christian community is in no way limited by purity codes.” This means that nothing is “unclean” in itself, but only as it violates one of the other substantive principles. “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” (p. 223). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t circumstances under which any of these might be wrong, but that wrongness doesn’t have to do with the “unclean” nature of any of these acts.

2. “Christians must respect the sexual property of others and practice detachment from their own.” Countryman makes the interesting observation that “the New Testament interests itself in property not so much in order to defend me against my neighbor as to defend my neighbor against me” (p. 221). In other words, property–including the “property” each person has in his or her self–refers to a kind of zone of inviolability around each person. The corresponding point is that Christians ought to be ready to give up their own prerogatives in service to the neighbor’s well-being.

3. “Where, in late antiquity, sexual property belonged to the family through the agency of the male householder, in our own era it belongs to the individual.” This principle is derived from the changed cultural situation rather than from the NT itself, and necessarily qualifies the previous principle. In our world “the individual is the primary arbiter of his or her sexual acts” (p. 222). Among other things, this implies that the goods one seeks in entering into a lasting sexual relationship no longer have to do primarily with political alliances between families, ensuring legitimate heirs, etc. Rather they are more likely to be intangible goods like “friendship, encouragement, counsel, solace, and a new sense of family to supplement and eventually replace the natal family” (p. 233)–in addition, of course, to the satisfaction of sexual desire.

4. “The gospel can discern no inequality between men and women as they stand before God’s grace.” While the NT authors made certain accommodations to the social realities of their day, the trajectory of Christian ethics is toward one of egalitarianism between men and women. This qualifies, for example, any assessment of polygamy which, if not proscribed because of “impurity,” does not have the greatest track record when it comes to securing the dignity and well-being of women. In addition to “the revision of household rules and the alteration of household roles,” Christian egalitarianism calls for nothing less than “new understandings of manliness and womanliness” (p. 239). Countryman suggests that heterosexual couples could have much to learn from homosexual ones, who lack socially-prescribed roles and division of labor.

5. “Marriage creates a union of flesh, normally indissoluble except by death.”
In the ancient world, ensuring the virginity and fidelity of the bride was essentially to shoring up the familial property regime. But how does this principle apply to marriages based on the intangible “internal” goods mentioned above? Countryman flatly denies that we should expect young people getting married always, or even typically, to be virgins since “the goods sought in connection with marriage in an individual society are goods which can best be offered only by a mature person and such a person will more often than not have acquired some sexual experience” (p. 241). He goes on to suggest that the church might defer blessing marriages until a mature relationship has had time to develop and does not rule out, in principle, pre-marital sexual activity.

6. “The Christian’s sexual life and property are always subordinate to the reign of God.”
This is the most fundamental principle. Christians “belong” to Christ, and seeking first his kingdom and righteousness will not uncommonly require “sacrifice of lesser to greater good” (p. 222). While sex is “an integral part of the human person, particularly as joining us to one another, and therefore has a right to be included in the spiritual transformation which follows upon our hearing of the gospel,” (p. 245) it is not central, any more than other finite goods. To the extent we make it central to our lives, we are fashioning an idol.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Countryman’s specific applications of these principles (though his discussions of, among other things, birth control, abortion, and prostitution are well worth attending to). But I do think that his general position is on more or less the right track. It’s unrealistic to expect to have timeless commandments that apply equally well to the tight-knit pastoral society of ancient Israel, the urbanized Mediterranean world of the first century, and our contemporary globalized, individualist world. More to the point, many of the traditional rules only made sense in the context of a purity system or a familial-property ethic that we wouldn’t want to resurrect even if we could! This isn’t relativism, but an attempt to uphold the gospel as that in light of which we can criticize and question those partial and relative truths that often masquerade as absolutes.
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*Regarding bestiality, Countryman says “where it is the casual recourse of the young or of people isolated over long periods of time from other humans, [it] should occasion little concern. It is probably too isolated a phenomenon to justify strong feelings” (p. 224). That may be true, but he neglects to mention that such acts may also wrong the animals involved!

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