Sexual Ethics in College
Richard R. Crocker
November 20, 2011
I Corinthians 9:9-20
During the past weeks, the press has given a good deal of attention to sex on campus – the national press covering the scandals at Penn State, the local Dartmouth press printing its annual “Sex Issue”. Since the topic of sexual behavior is so central to many conversations at Dartmouth and elsewhere, or perhaps because the topic of sexual ethics is so absent at Dartmouth and elsewhere, I think it is important for us to consider it in this series on the Bible and the newspaper.
I have chosen to read from scripture tonight a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which is, perhaps, the most used and ab-used scripture passage on sexual ethics. In it Paul gives us a list of “wrongdoers” who will, in his words, “not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Although there is dispute about how some of the Greek words should be properly translated, the list is nonetheless a list that, however we wriggle, delights the hearts of some Christians and appalls many others. “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.’ So declares Paul, without qualification. The presence of several sexually related words on this list – fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites (Greek words which almost every English version translate differently) – has fueled so many blatant condemnations of so many by so many for so long that the presence of greed and drunkeness and revilers in the list has been almost forgotten.
Many of us wish that Paul had been a bit less specific in his list of sins, or that he had been a bit more charitable. Most of us, finding this passage quite problematic, simply ignore it.
But I shall attempt, in the next seven minutes, to deal with this passage intelligently and faithfully, because, like it or not, deal with it we must. It is here. It is the source of much discord in the Christian church, and, therefore, in our culture. And thus those of us who take the Bible seriously must deal with it.
However we may parse the words or translate them, Paul’s list seems to condemn many kinds of behavior that have become commonly accepted in our society – to the horror of many. . Fornication, which some define as any sexual activity outside of marriage, is condemned. Adultery is condemned. Homosexual behavior seems condemned, Male prostitutes (why not female?) are condemned – along, of course, with greed and drunkenness. Now this is very different from most of the articles in the Mirror’s Sex issue, which seems to approve of most of these activities. If Christianity stands with Paul’s list of sins, then few of us – perhaps none – will inherit the kingdom.
So what shall we say? Some would simply dismiss Paul, the Bible and Christianity altogether. Many do. This strikes me as throwing out the baby with the bath water. Can we take a more useful approach? Perhaps.
First, let us note that there is a certain tension between these words of Paul and the teachings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels. Paul’s list of those presumably condemned to hell does not correspond with Jesus’ behavior. Remember what Jesus said to the righteous people, the chief priests, of his time? He said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) Remember what he said to the woman caught in the act of adultery? (The man who was her partner presumably escaped.) He said: “Who is there to condemn you?” When there was no one, he said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8: 1-8) The picture of Jesus that we have in the gospels just does not mesh with this list of Paul’s – except for the greedy. They are on both lists. Jesus and Paul clearly condemned greed. Perhaps we should pay more attention to that.
But second, we should note in fairness that this passage of Paul’s is in tension with many other words of Paul. This passage, so often called upon to stand alone, is part of the same epistle that contains the great hymn to the supremacy of love – you know the one, 1st Corinthians 13, read at almost every wedding “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a sounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” Is it possible for us to place these very harsh words in a context that is more loving?
Paul’s major point is talking about these sins, and especially the sins of the flesh, shall we say, is his view that our bodies are the temple of God. We should use our bodies to honor God, because we, in our very fleshliness, house the spirit which is divine, holy.
Now if we accept and treasure this part of Paul’s message, does it negate the other part – the list that seems so judgmental? I would like to think so. But it is not so easy. Paul’s list prompts us to ask ourselves, how should I treat my body and the body of others? This is an ethical question, a moral question that is important for us to think about and talk about – and I think we rarely do, especially at college, where we think and talk and become moralistic about almost everything else.
The real brunt of Paul’s criticism is prostitution. Homosexuality, in some form – though the precise translation is debatable - comes in for condemnation because the major instances of homosexual behavior that Paul observed were in pagan religious rituals. Homosexuality has always existed and been practiced, but often in a ritual context. It is this form of false worship that Paul is condemning – not, I have to believe, the loving union of two persons of the same gender, which Paul knew little about. Many Christians disagree with me. They think I am wrong, maybe even dangerous. I think their interpretation is wrong, and dangerous. Do I therefore believe that any kind of sexual behavior is OK – whatever? Do I consider prostitution just another form of private enterprise? No, I don’t. Prostitution is wrong because it takes something holy and sells is, makes it unholy. Sexual union is intended to be holy. It is intended to be the expression of a very deep part of ourselves, a union that reflects God’s union with us. It is not to be profaned. This is what I think Paul, properly understood, means. It is also what Jesus meant when he condemned divorce. Both Paul and Jesus refer to the verse in Genesis, in which we are told that “the two shall become one flesh” – an act that is singularly holy.
It is this sense of holiness that seems absent from so much talk about sex, and practice of it, at college. Although I am sure that there are many students who do perceive and respect the unique power of sexual union, who respect the special nature of sexual union with another person, it is fair to say that many do not. We are not encouraged at college to think about it or talk about it in this way. And thus there is no wonder that sex has become for so many cheap, hollow, meaningless - a source of grief rather than of joy, a source of anxiety rather than security, a curse rather than a blessing, a source of regret rather than gratitude, a step into the vortex of meaninglessness.
Religious people know that is to be enjoyed as a blessing, They can give thanks to God for it; indeed, they can see it as a strong revelation of the holy. Whatever cheapens and profanes this experience is sad. We may disagree with the way in which Paul’s words have been used so often to hurt homosexuals, but the broader truth of his words is correct: Careless sex, drunkenness, and greed reveal our inner hunger, but they do not lead us toward the kingdom of God. Amen.