Debates about Christian sexual ethics, and particularly debates dealing with homosexuality, are often difficult and sometimes counterproductive: the argument may do more to alienate the audience from the Church and the Christian understanding of sex than to draw them to Christ.
I want to begin my meditations on how Christians should understand and respond to contemporary debates about human sexuality with the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11).
3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
1. The first point to notice here is that the woman was caught in the act of adultery. If she was caught in the act, a man was caught with her. Yet the scribes and Pharisees did not bring him to Jesus. Only the woman was brought to judgment.
Sexual sins are almost never treated equally, and never have been: there are some people, and some sexual sins, which are treated as sins on paper, but excused in practice. Men’s sexual sins are almost always more socially tolerated than the same sins by women. A man who has premarital sex is only “sowing his wild oats”; a woman who does the same is a “slut” or worse. (Notably, however, this is reversed for homosexuals: sex between men is far more stigmatized than sex between women in most cultures that I am aware of.)
2. It is interesting to notice the order in which the scribes and Pharisees leave the scene: the oldest are the first to leave. The older men, who had spent longer meditating on God’s law, and measuring their own lives against it, understood more readily the degree to which they had fallen short. Like the Apostle Paul (himself a former Pharisee), their study of the law and the struggles within their own hearts made them more readily able to recognize that, even if they have not committed adultery, they are not righteous before the law.
When the Apostle Paul wrestles through the relationship between law and grace in his letters, I think we are seeing a mature theological working out of the truth Jesus confronts the Pharisees with here: the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But it’s worth remembering that Paul’s argument leading up to this point dwells on the affirmations of pervasive human sinfulness found throughout the Old Testament. It is not a new revelation: the human inability for righteousness is already available to those who meditate faithfully upon the law and prophets.
3. It is those who are immature in their understanding of the Jewish Scriptures who are slowest to see their own sinfulness, and slowest to see that they are in no position to cast the first stone. They had the same Scriptures at their disposal as their elders and as the Apostle Paul. But they had not yet penetrated deeply enough into those Scriptures to understand the judgment against them: they saw only the judgment that the Scriptures authorized against the woman.
They read the Scriptures to reinforce the power games they would already have played, which we see played out in many cultures which have never been shaped by either the Old or New Testaments. But they did not allow the Scriptures to read them, to reveal to them their own need for contrition and grace.
For Christians, the situation is the same: it is easy to quote the Bible when it allows us to condemn others. We are much more likely to ignore it when it speaks to our own sin. It is those who have grown more mature in their faith, and who have allowed God’s words to challenge their own sinfulness, who will have the greatest understanding of human sin, beginning with their own. It is generally the saints who are quickest to recognize their own inadequacy, even though their lives are far more marked by obedience to God than the rest of us. The Apostle Paul, for example, says that he is the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
4. When we approach discussions of sexual ethics, we are not speaking in the abstract. We are speaking into concrete situations, to people who have lived with the hypocrisies and evasions of whatever culture they have grown up in.
Those who are most prone to speak of sexual ethics are often, like the scribes and Pharisees, apparently oblivious to the ways that they use ethical and religious sanctions to reinforce the power relations of their culture—the sins of groups with more power are more likely to be tolerated, while the language of sin will be used to abuse those who already have little power, as we see happening with the woman taken in adultery.
Many of those we speak to, on the other hand, will have experienced the oppressive side of sexual ethics, and may already recognize and hate these hypocritical and self-serving uses of ethical language.
The Apostle Paul recognizes clearly the danger that this poses to the preaching of the Gospel, when, after pointing out the hypocrisies of the religious leaders of his day, writes, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:24; cf. Isaiah 52:5 [Septuagint]; Ezek. 36:20,22).
Those who are the victims of this abuse of religious power often believe that the hypocritical preachers are telling the truth about God, and so they imagine that God has the same bad character as His most hypocritical preachers.
5. I think I need hardly point out that contemporary debates about homosexuality are deeply shaped by this kind of hypocrisy. You might say that our culture has been caught in the very act of breaking down the structures of the family. But in the contemporary Christian scene, one can be a divorced and remarried—even multiply divorced and multiply remarried—Christian, and still be counted a defender of the sanctity of marriage, as long as one is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. Our religious leaders generally let the divorced and remarried get away: only gays and lesbians are brought to judgment.
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is an inescapable part of the Gospel. The Gospel’s message cannot be faithfully used for the kind of power games that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to play. It also cannot be used for the rather similar games that many Christians want to play today.
6. If even those who seem most devoted to God’s service—the scribes and the Pharisees—still cannot please God, then what hope do the rest of us have? Jesus might have turned from rebuking the Pharisees and stoned the woman, because He is without sin. Yet He said to her, ”Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.”
The Apostle Paul reminds that God’s forbearance in punishing us should not lead us to remain in our sin; rather His kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:3-4), as Christ gently calls the woman taken in adultery to sin no more. Writing to the Colossians, Paul reminds us,
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)
7. If we are to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world, we must approach others with the same compassion and kindness that Christ showed the woman taken in adultery (though at times we must also speak with the boldness and unflinching courage with which he opposed the proud and hypocritical religious leaders of His time). We must speak with humility that recognizes that we, too, have sinned, that we cannot cast the stone at others’ for their sins, even if those sins are judged more disreputable than ours in the eyes of society. And we must show the gentleness and patience with which God responds to all of our sins.
8. This is not a “liberal” call for tolerance of sin. The surprising thing about the teaching of Jesus and Paul is that they are both much kinder and much more demanding than the scribes and Pharisees. In His teaching about lust (Matthew 5:27-30) and His teaching about divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-12), Jesus presented a very demanding call to holiness.
If the woman taken in adultery became a follower of Christ and listened to His teaching, she would quickly learn that to “go and sin no more” as a follower of Christ demanded even more than obedience to the law of the scribes and Pharisees. But she would be learning that hard teaching from a teacher whose love and compassion had, very literally, given her a new lease on life.