Couple in row boat

The Golden Rule and Hookup Culture

I have been preaching through the book of Proverbs, covering numerous themes from words to relationships to sex. Sex is a significant theme in the wisdom literature (as it seems to be in most writings). Recently, I unpacked (maybe “undressed” is more relevant term here) Proverbs 7. I am always surprised at the number of people who comment on my courage to speak out when I preach on this subject. You would think I called people to carry their cross or sell their homes and become missionaries in Syria—or deny themselves an iPhone 6. It really doesn’t take courage to call people to live out sexual purity. It just requires faithfulness to preach the whole counsel of God.

Maybe this is because there was a time the Church avoided the subject. Perhaps it was a hangover from a Victorian age when church discipline was enlisted if someone was caught smiling during the sex act. In my first pastorate, I did preach the Song of Solomon, and yes, I was “courageous” to suggest it was more about sexual love than metaphoric language about Jesus and His bride. I even used the word “orgasm” in the pulpit at one point (this was back in the 80’s!), and I remember an audible gasp in the morning service. I can’t remember if it was an endearing moment, but some of the newer families seemed to enjoy the preaching.

This silence from the pulpit has surely contributed to the sexual chaos we are in (as well as our capitulation to pervasive behaviors). The Church’s influence over sexual norms has waned greatly in the past thirty years. Our views on everything from masturbation to premarital sex to homosexuality have radically changed. Exhorting people to experience and enjoy a sexual union only in the confines of a permanent union between a man and a woman is viewed as archaic; it is generally maligned today.

Couple in row boat

But our “sexual modernity” is coming with some huge costs, more than I think most realize. Editor and author Damon Linker lists some of the questions the church must not only ask, but answer—

  1. Is the ethic of individual consent sufficient to keep people from acting violently on their sexual desires?
  2. What will become of children if our culture continues down the road of pervasive sexualization?
  3. Can the institution of marriage survive without the ideals of fidelity and monogamy?
  4. If we’re okay with redefining marriage, what about three, four, five, or more people in a constantly evolving polyamorous arrangement?
  5. What kind of temptations and experiences will technology present us a year from now?

Conor Friedersdorf, writer in The Atlantic, suggests that part of the solution for the mess we are in is for Christians to rethink how they talk about sex. He imagines the kind of speech clergy members should give. He pictures a private college, one that was once explicitly Christian but is now avowedly secular. There is a Christian pastor who lives on campus, and every year he has his token 15 minutes to speak to students during freshman orientation. What should he say?

Friedersdorf dismisses what has too many times been said—that premarital sex is wrong; that gays and lesbians who act upon their desires are wrong; that aborting a pregnancy is murder. No one will listen to this today. What he would like to see is a pastor with the courage to call students to something Jesus calls on His followers to do—love one another and treat others as they would want to be treated. In other words, in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, etc., instead of thoughtlessly acting on your desires, ask yourself if this is about being good to the other person. It’s not enough to make this merely about consent or pleasure or self-actualization—it also needs to have this moral tone. He suggests that if Christians could emphasize this, it could help to reestablish that traditionalist thinking has some wisdom on the subject.

On the surface, Friedersdorf has some good things to say. He does want to connect the message of Jesus with sexual behavior. Nonetheless, his advice is terribly thin. While it may offer some help, it does not go far enough. If I were to give this sort of message on a college campus, I imagine a number of students would come up afterwards and say what pastors generally hate to hear—“That was nice pastor. Now we have to get back to the real world.”

To reduce Jesus’ teaching to the golden rule and apply it to sexual behavior is like reducing astronomy to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Jesus was not about nice moralisms, and neither should we. His words must be understand in the broader context of His teaching. He was most passionate about honoring His Father and fulfilling His will. We should be about the same.

In these days, it would be so refreshing if writers and policy makers (and pastors) would just stand up and park all their “do good” speeches aside and simply say—in all of our choices, in all of our behaviors (sexual and otherwise), what matters is what God wants. In any given situation, ask yourself this question—does this honor God? Is this what He has willed for me and others? Does this affirm what He has revealed in Scripture? Does this underscore that we have been created in the image of God and must therefore treat each other with profound respect? Does this honor His designs for maximal sex?

In the end, it is not about me and the satisfaction of my desires. It isn’t even about doing good to others. It is about what God has designed and willed, and in the end, what will bring Him the greatest pleasure.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.