Monday, October 13, 2008

Article from Andrew Cameron: "Do We Have a Sex Problem?"

Do We Have a Sex Problem?

Andrew Cameron

13 October 2008

Early church theologian Augustine is seen as an enemy of our sexually liberated society. ANDREW CAMERON argues moderns could learn much from him – including conservative Christians who refuse to place sexual morality next to idolatry and greed.


‘The burden of such a great weight cannot be borne by the weak,’ complains Firmus to Augustine nearly 1600 years ago. Firmus is a Roman aristocrat, and Augustine his evangelist. The ‘burden’ Firmus refers to is the ‘burden’, if he becomes a Christian, of only having sex with his wife.

(Men like Firmus took it as their right to have many mistresses.)

Some well-worn responses can made about the interchange between Augustine and Firmus. ‘The church has always been on about sex,’ we are told, ‘and Augustine’s negativity is no exception. But people are always going to want sex, and a bit of church rule-making is never going to stop them. Augustine was part of the problem, not the solution.’

Christian thought about human sexuality begins well before Augustine’s fight with Firmus – although food was a far more pressing issue at one early Christian policy discussion, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. How are Jewish and Gentile Christians going to get along together? The decision is that people can basically eat whatever. A letter is sent from ‘the apostles and elders’ to Gentile believers.

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements,” it concludes. The apostles are not very interested in rule-making – their intention is not to be a ‘burden’ – and they tell Gentiles to avoid just three foods that would have sent early Jews crazy (idol food, blood, strangled meat).

But then, out of nowhere, they further instruct Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality. Why this addition? It has little to do with the discussion of food. And why add it if their intention is ‘not to burden’ Gentiles? (Firmus certainly found it to be a ‘burden’.)

‘You will do well to avoid these things,’ they add. (Firmus sure didn’t think so.)

The Council’s stance against sexual immorality becomes one of the most consistent features of New Testament Christianity. They are not inventing it. They simply relay Jesus’ clear and firm emphasis on the good of chaste singleness and faithful marriage (Matthew 5:27-32 and 19:12). Jesus’ apostle Peter pictures sexual purity as one of the defining distinctions between Christianity and Hellenistic paganism:

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3-4)

But he does not single out sexual immorality here. It is part of a ‘package’ that includes idolatry and greedy consumerism. We can track this triad throughout the New Testament. When Paul addresses a situation where the distinction between Christian and pagan practice has disappeared (1 Corinthians 5), the triad of idolatry, greed and sexual immorality reappears:

“I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler.” (1 Cor. 5:9-11)

We baulk at these words, but the point was to maintain the distinction between Christian and pagan practice in Corinth. Paul wants to force the issue in the man’s own life, ultimately to accept him back.

So early Christian and pagan practice differs starkly. Christians seriously think Gentiles “do well to avoid” sexual immorality, while pagans “think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you”. What gives? If the apostles were right, why do ancient Romans like Firmus heap abuse on how hard it all is?

As Augustine puts it all together, he cannot help noticing the whole package of unbelief – that triad of idolatry, sexual immorality and greedy consumerism. He does not pluck sexual immorality from this trio, for he realises that the apostles put them together for a reason. There is something about imagining our own gods which sends our desire circuitry completely haywire (and vice versa). We want everything, including everything sexual, and the idea that we (or God) might question or challenge these desires is intolerable.

Augustine was very taken by John’s succinct portrayal of obsessive human psychology: “For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). John doesn’t mean that good things are bad, but that we madly long for them in a way that goes bad.

So Augustine, like the apostles, discovers that we do well to be released from deranged desire – although it sure seems burdensome at first. When Firmus first hears that his desires need rearranging, it cuts like a hot knife. For we cannot rearrange our own desires: that requires a rescue, and the power of the Holy Spirit. But over time, new-found love for God spills over into thankful contentment both sexually and otherwise, whether we are single or married.

After the year we have had, the wrestle between Augustine and Firmus remains very current. A young Christian recently asked me in puzzlement, “Why do people think I hate gays? I don’t hate gays. I just think people should have sex when they are married.”

This abuse at strangeness (to use Peter’s words) is not new. Every generation has some white-hot issue of sexual disagreement between Christians and others. Ours relates to homosexuality. Christians do not believe we are singling out homosexuality, although in the face of the urgent homosexual demand for total agreement, it seems as if we are.

Rather, we stand in a tradition dating back to Jesus, in which sexual expression is needed by marriages to create companionship and children, and to enhance faithfulness. (Modern people think that sex primarily expresses adult love, and that children are a secondary consideration at best.) It is the marital relationship that needs sexual expression to help it prosper in every way; sex is ‘for’ marriage in that sense. We are thus freed from imagining sex as our fuel (like food or oxygen), as if I ‘need’ sex and ‘must’ experience sex in order to survive.

Of course single people also experience sexual thoughts and feelings. But they lack nothing in ‘identity’ or ‘fullness’ or ‘completeness’ in the absence of sexual expression. Indeed they are freed to build a wider network of close relationships than are married people.

This way of seeing relationships is no mere theory. It has been lived out in an ongoing two-millennia community experiment called ‘churches’, where at our best, we gently but firmly hold each other to chaste singleness and faithful marriage.

According to my anonymous hate-mail correspondent, such a community is oppressive and ridiculous. (As far as I can tell, the writer considers it our human right to have sex with any consenting adult.) Another man told me that my conservative Christian sexual morality is “infinitely cruel”. Clearly, we see so differently that there can only be frank disagreement. I can only shrug as we stare at each other across this great chasm, described by Peter long ago.

In the meantime, I want to keep signalling to gay people that I do not despise them. Indeed I affirm the way people in their community often care for each other deeply. But I do disagree with how they interpret sexual desire and human identity. I invite them to consider that we all ‘do well’ to love and be loved by Christ, freed from modern idolatry, greedy consumerism and sexual immorality.

If there is a discovery for modern conservative Christians, it may be that we do pluck sexual immorality from its place within the triad. We rarely discuss what constitutes modern greed. The discussion is difficult because material goods are good, and sharing them (using money and markets) is often helpful. But our material desires can go haywire. When we are poor at identifying and wrestling with that and related idolatries, our sexual morality makes less sense.

Firmus complained that ‘the burden of such a great weight cannot be borne by the weak’. I find myself giggling at Augustine’s reply:

‘You do not seem to notice, O men who dread this burden so, how easily you are surpassed in bearing it by women, by the religious multitude… One of this multitude in particular… is your wife.’

In other words, many now abstain from sexual immorality and are doing well. It is hard when we first come under God’s care. Yet many I travel with have begun to find peace. There are singles who would enjoy sex, yet are content. There are those whose homosexual feelings no longer define or control them. Married people love their spouse again, after times in the sexual wilderness. We don’t pretend it is easy or simple – but it is good.

As Augustine says tantalisingly to Firmus, “the mysteries of rebirth are rightly and properly made known only to those who accept them” So the experiment continues, and we will keep inviting people to find rebirth in Jesus, and to join the experiment with us.



The Rev Dr Andrew Cameron lectures in ethics and philosophy at Moore Theological College. Augustine quotations are taken from Letter 2* (Divjak collection, 1980), tr. Robert B. Eno (1989).

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