In my last post, I drew attention to the very different way that the New Testament dealt with the Old Testament laws concerning food and sex. In this post, I want to reflect a little bit on the significance of this difference. My goal is both to help shed light on the issues raised in my previous post, and also to provide a foundation for some further thoughts on the nature of Christian sexual ethics.
At the most fundamental level, food is a thing, while properly ordered sexual desire is always a desire for communion with a person, created in the image of God. This is an important insight, and I want to explore the implications of it. However, my reflections in this post are intended to be suggestive—to offer avenues for further thought—rather than providing the deductive conclusion to a rigorous argument.
With this in mind, consider the following (completely imaginary) scenarios:
- I go out to a restaurant, and order a Denver omelet. The server arrives at the table, and, as she prepares to serve it drops my omelet on the floor. I burst into tears. She apologizes, and says she will bring me a replacement as soon as possible. I refuse to be consoled, insisting through my tears that no other omelet can replace this omelet, which she has ruined by dropping it on the floor.
- A friend’s wife is killed in a car accident. He is devastated. I say, cheerfully, “You shouldn’t be so upset. You’re lucky. Your wife was an identical twin, and her twin is unmarried. So you can just marry her twin and it’ll be no big deal.” My friend, immediately, cheers up and says, “You know, you’re right! I’m not sure why I let myself get so upset over this.”
Both of these responses seem, quite frankly, insane. In the first case, if I want a Denver omelet, there is no reason to desire this Denver omelet rather than another, equally good Denver omelet. The enjoyment I will derive from one Denver omelet will be the same with another, identical Denver omelet. I might be irritated by the delay while my new omelet is prepared. But insisting that a particular omelet is irreplaceable—and mourning its loss—just defies rational explanation.
On the other hand, in the second case, because my friend is consoled by the thought that his wife has an identical twin, almost everyone would think that there is something monstrously defective both in his love for his lost wife and in the feelings he now entertains for her sister.
What is interesting in the contrast between these two scenarios is that my friend’s cheerful response to the thought that his wife has an identical twin would have been a perfectly appropriate response to the waitress’s assurance that she would bring me a new omelet. And my inability to be consoled about the omelet would have been a perfectly appropriate response for my friend to take to the death of his wife.
I believe that this helps to show that the moral stakes are much higher when dealing with our relationship with other persons than when dealing with food. But then, if food matters so little, why have food laws at all?
The answer, it seems to me, is that Old Testament food laws were part of a Covenant between God and His people. Eating and drinking were not important in and of themselves: they were important as expressions of the Israelites’ relationship with God, a relationship which is consistently portrayed in personal terms: God as a friend who speaks to Moses face-to-face, God as the Bridegroom who has chosen Israel from among the nations to be His bride, etc.
The food laws are thus important primarily as expressions of obedience to God’s revealed will, and if that revealed will changed, as we believe it did at the first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), there is no value in obedience to those laws.
Sexuality, however, is inherently relational, and not only derivatively so. This fact does not, in itself, argue for particular conclusions in sexual ethics (though I will address this more in a future post). But it does help to see why sexual ethics is both more important, and less mutable, than teachings about food.