One of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.
The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.
A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.
I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.
We most definitely have problems. Furthermore, most of these problems are in fact significantly less serious and common within communities that affirm certain sexual relationships between people of the same sex.
So does that mean we can immediately rule out the traditional teaching as immoral? Well, as someone with scientific training, I have to point out a leap in logic that a lot of people miss. What we have actually established is a correlation between traditional beliefs and serious harm. The scientific community has a slogan that “correlation does not imply causation,” and confusing the two is a fallacy that can lead to absurd conclusions.
Correlation does not imply causation in large part because there can be other confounding factors. To illustrate, suppose you see a commercial for a weight loss product. The commercial references a study in which participants who used the product lost weight more frequently than other participants who did not use the product. Should you trust it?
Suppose you do some research and find out that the participants who used the product were recruited at a gym, while the other participants were recruited at a fast-food restaurant. In that case, it is likely that many of the people who used the product got regular exercise, while many of the people who didn’t use it ate a lot of junk. This could explain the results of the study even if the product is a total dud, so the study is not a good reason to trust the product.
In our case, the relevant question is whether there is more going on than just sexual ethics. Are there other factors in communities with traditional sexual ethics that could cause the problems we’re seeing, and other factors in communities with different sexual ethics that could mitigate similar problems? The most interesting factors are those more common in one type of community or the other, as they could help explain the correlation we do see.
When I think about the question, the first thing that pops into my head is the prevalence of sins against sexual minority people within communities that hold to a traditional sexual ethic. I’ve myself often been guilty of self-righteous attitudes towards people in same-sex relationships, and I’m certainly not the only one. However, these attitudes wouldn’t make much sense on the part of those who don’t believe there is anything wrong with gay sex.
The sin issues at hand go far beyond simple self-righteous attitudes. Sexual minority people often face verbal and physical harassment, and most conservative Christians have been far quicker to condemn gay sex than to condemn this sort of harassment. Furthermore, Christians have often been content to let the sinfulness of gay sex be the last word on responding pastorally to gay people. In other words, they’re putting a significant burden on gay people without doing much of anything to help lift it.
Although these sins are common in communities with a traditional sexual ethic, they do not inevitably follow from that ethic and are rightfully condemned as sins to be repented of even within that ethic. Perhaps the harm we see actually results from these sins themselves.
Another major issue I see among Christians with a traditional sexual ethic is a tendency to confuse certain extra-biblical ideas with Christian orthodoxy. For example, people view sexual attraction to the same sex as arising either from willful choice or from certain unproven causes like father/son relationship issues. Perhaps more significantly, they often offer false promises that if people follow certain steps or are faithful to Christ, they will become straight.
The end result of this situation is that those of us who are sexual minority people in conservative churches often come to see ourselves as particularly broken. We come to see our sexual attractions, which are a significant part of our daily experience, as a source of shame that must be kept secret. Those who are not attracted to the opposite sex are often particularly left out in the cold. They may be given false promises about heterosexual attractions that may never come. If not, they are often given nothing more than a message that they have to live alone, without intimacy or lifelong companionship and support.
How can the problems we’re seeing possibly be surprising in that context, before we even think about the underlying ethic? And sadly, there are many more issues I don’t have space to address.
I also see a lot of positive factors in communities that affirm certain gay sexual relationships. To a significant extent, these are factors that those of us with a more traditional ethic can and should learn from and emulate.
Like many sexual minority people, I’ve found a great deal of relief from shame by being open about my sexuality and subsequently accepted. And although I believe gay marriage is the wrong context for people to love and be loved, those who affirm certain gay sexual relationships are entirely correct about the need for sexual minority people to love and be loved in meaningful, intimate, and ongoing ways. I think we can even learn from the relief people come to by seeing themselves as “not broken.” While orthodox Christian teaching does demand that all people see ourselves as broken, coming to see my brokenness as not particularly unique has helped me a great deal.
In summary, the confounding factors I referenced earlier very much do exist, and the “bad fruit” argument (at least as commonly stated) contains the same error as the weight loss commercial I referenced. I do think the original argument stands as a good reason to reconsider our stance on sexual ethics, but it fails as a reason in and of itself to change our stance.
I should be clear, though I’d hope it’s obvious, that this argument should not lead to an acceptance of the status quo. Although some people’s assessment of what causes the relevant problems is premature, the problems are still very real and ought not be ignored.
Let’s work together to address the problems that do exist. Those of us who hold to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics should not fear that recognizing problems with the status quo in traditional churches means changing our doctrine of sexual ethics. Rather, by drawing closer to Christ and showing His love to others, we can address these problems more honestly. This will strengthen our witness, and help to make the traditional teaching more fruitful in the lives of sexual minority Christians.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.