It’s somewhat trendy in some circles to question just how concerned God is with sexual ethics and morality. Look at the prophets, we are told: they go after corporate greed and crony capitalists and welfare cash cows. They condemn charging interest, grinding the faces of the poor, taking advantage of the unprotected orphans and widows. God, we are assured, certainly cares about sex, but these are merely house keeping details. What really gets Him worked up is economic sin. Economic sin is what really hurts people, what God really hates. And so we are patted on our prudish little Victorian heads and told to calm down and take a few deep breaths. There’s no need to hyperventilate because you saw someone down at the pool in a two-piece bathing suit.
Now first of all, just for fun, let’s address the so-called old church lady going into cardiac arrest because one of the deacon’s daughters has her belly showing and is inviting the world to consider her Grand Canyon cleavage. It’s certainly possible that the old church lady is reacting out of her fleshly pride. Maybe she really is a prude. Maybe she’s embarrassed for the reputation of her church, and she knows the little chicky-babe’s mother is going to be horrified too. Well, what does the Bible say about that? The first thing that the Bible requires is that you honor that woman. She may be old fashioned, she may be a prude, she may indeed be horrified in a fleshly way. The Bible requires that you honor her, listen to her, expect to learn wisdom from her.
We may also note that prudish horrors and embarrassed shock are not biblical responses to sin. This is to act as if we are still Adam and Eve in the garden scrambling about in the bushes for fig leaves, which is not true, even if the deacon’s daughter is trying to get as close as she can. Jesus came to bear away our shame, to bear away our guilt, and this means that when we see sin, when we see shame, when we see the telltale signs of guilt, we may not respond with shock or horror. Jesus died for sinners. To be shocked by sin is to assume that Jesus died for a non-existent problem. The shameful, painful, disgusting death of Jesus teaches us to expect to find shame, pain, and brokenness in our world. Far from being shocking, it should almost be relieving to see the sin that needs His blood. There’s also something repulsively self-righteous about the purse-lipped “well, I never…,” as though sin and shame is something so foreign, so unheard of, as though you never had Jesus cut you open and apply His blood all over your rotting soul. To see sexual sin, indiscretion, impropriety should never come as a shock, and it must be responded to with grace because that’s what Jesus does with all of us.
All of that and more could be said on some occasions, and yet, I fear that what is often the more prevalent problem is actually shame going in the opposite direction, shame of being associated with an imagined old, self-righteous prune. What’s often going on is not that an older, godly woman is hyperventilating, rather she is merely responding in a godly fashion. And since it takes courage to stand up to sinful cultural norms, it’s easier to brush her off as an old, cranky prude than to stop and listen to what she is saying which may actually be good, righteous, and lovely.
But what’s even better than an eye-rolling grimace is another self-righteous prop: Bible verses. Thus, we return to trendy notions of the kinds of sin that really bother God. So pat the lady on the head and explain that this is not worth getting worked up about since what Jesus really cares about are economic sins. Dear lady, don’t you know that Micah talks about doing justice and loving mercy? God isn’t that worried about how much skin is showing….
The problem with this patronizing answer is at least two fold. First, as I’ve already noted, this is frequently just a sexy cover for more self-righteousness, which in turn is another cover for shame.
You say, “A sharp intake of breath would never happen if I saw Susy Q. folded into the lap of a slightly sketchy boy from the local university.” And you’re proud of that? Sort of like making it a point of pride that if you saw smoke billowing out of your neighbor’s windows you would just keep on walking and mind your own business. That’s great. Wonderful. Remind me not to live next door to you.
Self-righteousness is a blinder, and people given to self-righteousness tend to go through the world trading out blinders and occasionally act as if their new blinders have opened a brand new world to them. But since they’re blind and can’t really see, all they have is loudly insisting that they can see and it’s a much clearer view from over there in the fig bush. Which is to say, it’s more comfortable to dwell on how wonderfully righteous and biblically literate you are than to worry about your porn problem, or the fact that you like it when the boys can see through your shirt.
But this leads to the second and more serious problem, and that’s the exegesis problem. It’s simply not true that the Bible grades economic sins as worse than sexual sin. But this is not because I did a concordance search for trendy key words like mercy, money, poor, justice and then compared those results to Victorian words like fornication, adultery, and sodomy. On the one hand, this is to miss all the passages that hold these sins together as connected. But I don’t have to do the Bible word search because to do Bible study like that is to already mangle the text, is to already assume that God talks like that, carefully throwing out word counts for all the bean counting theologians of the world. Of course every single word is inspired, and I don’t mind counting words on occasion, but more fundamental is the question of the nature of sin in the first place. This is not because I want to flatten all sins out. (There is of course the fact that James says that if you’ve broken the law at one point, you’re guilty of the whole thing. So there is that.) But what I want to point out is the fact that economic sin is sexual, and sexual sin is economic. To divide these into separate categories is to divide the world like a computer instead of spiritual wisdom, instead of the way the world actually works in real time. When a man has a one-night stand with a woman (willing or not), she has been defrauded (1 Thess. 4:3-6). This is why in the Old Testament system, God required that a “bride price” be paid by the perpetrator of that kind of crime (Ex. 22:16-17). And please note: this was not some kind slave trade deal where rapists could buy their victims. This money was paid to the woman whether or not they ever saw each other again. It was restitution for theft. This is because a woman’s body and purity have intrinsic value to God. She is precious like silver and gold.
But to think that economic sins could somehow be disconnected from sexual morality is to fundamentally misunderstand economics. An economy is literally the management of a home. A home, to state the obvious, is the place where you live with your family, including parents and children, usually spouses, and there is often sex happening on the premises from which other children may appear as they are wont from time to time. To divide economic sins from sexual sins is to pretend that there is some place you can go in this world where your sexual choices are not also always economic in nature, and somehow where your economic impulses are not also already bound up with your sexual desires and responsibilities.
I’ll close with one practical point: the burgeoning multi-billion dollar porn industry is an apropos example of several angles of this point. First, to deny the sexual economics of the matter is to close your eyes to pure injustice. Second, the fact that pornography is the kickstarter fund for the world-wide sex trade is now being documented with increasing particularity. When you click on a picture of a naked woman, man, or child, not only are you engaged in evil desire, you are supporting an economic system of sexual exploitation. Third, picking up from the last, Jesus said that the eye is the lamp of the body. He says this in the immediate context of greed and hoarding, but it comes in the same sermon in which Jesus has condemned adultery, insisting that it begins in the heart with lust, and He commands that we pluck out the eye that causes us to sin rather then end up in Hell. In other words, greed and lust are practiced with the same muscle. Sexual exploitation is a form of economic injustice, and economic exploitation, I would be willing to bet, is almost always tied to a form of sexual theft. People steal and hoard so they can gratify their lusts. People who desire to be rich fall into temptations and snares and harmful lusts (1 Tim. 6:9).
If we teach our daughters modesty, if we teach our sons self control, we do so not only on grounds of sexual purity and God’s clear instructions in those matters, we do so also in the name of mercy and justice. Sexual sin is fraud, theft, and oppression whether the perpetrators and victims know it at that moment or not.
But the point of insisting on this connection is not to heap up more condemnation, more guilt, more shame. The point is actually just the opposite. We object to the oppression taking place in the name of “harmless fun” and “mind your own business” because it’s not harmless and it’s going to be everybody’s business in a couple minutes. But even more crucial is the fact that underlining the connections between sex and economics is another way to apply the blood of the Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world. God insists that all people are valuable to Him, and therefore He sent His Beloved Son to purchase your freedom, your purity, your forgiveness, your glory. His blood has paid all your debts. You are completely free.