Christian Sexual Ethics: Is sex moral when “appropriate vulnerability” is present ?

The first proponent I will interact with argued that sexual intercourse between singles was not inherently immoral.  According to her, the morality of any sexual encounter (between married persons, unmarried persons, homosexuasl, heterosexuals, etc.) is to be determined by the presence of “appropriate vulnerability” in a relationship.

Appropriate Vulnerability:  Karen Lebaqcz in her article “Appropriate Vulnerability: A Sexual Ethic for Singles” (http://alturl.com/7nrn)  argues for a more permissive sexual ethic that is more just and fair to singles.  Singles, in her mind, have been treated as second class citizens in the church. For a Christian to choose to remain single and not be “on the market’ invites suspicion that one is asexual, hyper-sexual or hypo-sexual.  Married persons dominate church leadership and therefore essentially run things.  Single persons do no’t have a seat at the table and this is an injustice to single persons who are marginalized because they are unmarried.  Given the examples of voluntary singleness in scripture (such as Paul and Jesus) churches should treat single adults as equal persons within the church.  I would agree with Lebacqz this far.

Lebacqz believes that part of the injustice done to singles is that churches (again dominated by married persons) reserve sexual intercourse for marriage.  To correct this injustice she believes churches need an “adequate” sexual ethic, that “doesn’t require celibacy” for singles.  This is where I depart from Lebacqz.  Lebacqz’s argues for a selectively permissive sexual ethic; while not abandoning the concept of sexual sin wholesale Lebacqz re-defines sexual sin to exclude pre-marital sex in some circumstances.  Lebacqz’s arguement goes something like this…

Lebacqz affirms that union and procreation are two purposes for sexual intercourse but argues for a third (previously undiscovered) purpose of sex: appropriate vulnerability.  Focusing on Genesis 2:25, which reads “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame,” Lebacqz asserts that “naked” in the Hebrew carries the connotation of “vulnerability” and “felt no shame/knew no shame” in the Hebrew carries the connotation of “appropriateness.”  Genesis 2:25 should then be interpreted as “The man and his wife experienced appropriate vulnerability.”  Lebacqz continues writing,  “‘Appropriate vulnerability’ may describe the basic intention for human life – which may be experienced in part through the gift of sexuality.” (italics mine)

Sexual intercourse is moral when appropriate vulnerability is present in a relationship.  Appropriate vulnerability can exist inside or outside of a marriage, therefore marriage is no longer the clear unambiguous boundary marker for moral sexual intercourse.

Lebacqz believes that sexual sin does exist, but it is when appropriate vulnerability is absent, not when scripture condemns it.  Lebacqz writes, “any exercise of sexuality that violates appropriate vulnerability is wrong.” Lebacqz still condemns certain sexual behaviors categorically (with no concern for the presence of appropriate vulnerability) but it is important to understand why she does so. Rape, promiscuity, and prostitution are condemned not because the Bible forbids these things but because they violate her principle of appropriate vulnerability. For example, “Rape is wrong not only because it violates the vulnerability of the one raped, but the rapist guards his own power and refuses to be vulnerable.”

To be fair, Lebaqcz is not calling for uncritical promiscuity among singles or even uncritical engagement in sexual intercourse in relationships that are appropriately vulnerable.  Lebacqz expresses concern that this side of the Fall human sexuality can be very painful and marriage affords some protection that single persons do not have.  In closing Lebacqz calls for a “theology of vulnerability,” presumably from which to guide this sexual ethic more clearly.

My Critique of Appropriate Vulnerability:   Lebacqz views and arguments represent a capitulation to the pressures of gospel of Secular Humanism.  I believe this because a number of basic assumptions in Lebacqz work come from Western culture and not from any orthodox Christian tradition I am currently familiar with.  As such, Lebacqz is quite possibly the worst possible type of Christian theologian: one that contorts Christian scripture to support beliefs from another religion.  Lebacqz dresses up Secular Humanistic beliefs with Christian verses in an attempt to pass of theses beliefs as “Christian”.  I believe Lebacqz’s beliefs have been formed by her surroundings (she is a member of the United Church of Christ and a religion professor in Berkley, CA) not from a reasoned interpretation of the scriptures.  I see Lebacqz’s argument as primarily eisesgeis (she is reading into scripture her beliefs instead of developing her beliefs from reading scripture). Instead of being transformed from the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2) Lebacqz is encouraging Christians to conform to the pattern of this world.  Lebacqz, at least in regards to her sexual ethic, is a false teacher and should be confronted and corrected.  Some Christian authors simply writer her off outright, but this is a disservice to the wider community.  Without seriously interacting with her view and crediting or discrediting her opinions from a scriptural argument we allow her opinion an air of mystique and authority that might seduce the young in the faith or let those who believe like her remain unchallenged in their thinking.  I will attempt to treat Lebacqz’s argument respectfully as I back up what I have just said about her and her ethic.

First, from Lebacqz’s beliefs that the church is being unjust towards singles by denying them sexual expression it seems clear that Lebacqz believes sexual expression is a basic human right (such as a right to food, water and shelter).  This smells more of Secular Humanism’s celebration of individual autonomy and rights over and against moral and ethical codes than any scriptural beliefs regarding sexuality.  I am hard pressed to find a place where sexual expression is a guaranteed right in Christian tradition and even secular culture has limits on sexual expression (such as age of consent). I would suggest that, if we are to talk about it rights language, it would be correct to say that the specific joys, pains and responsibilities of sexual intercourse are a right that is earned by entering into the Sacrament of Marriage, not an inherent human right.

Second, Lebacqz argues singleness is a viable Christian option; not everyone must marry or have sexual intercourse to be a human or a Christian.  This is true but she fails to connect singleness to celibacy.  Lebacqz brings up Paul and Jesus as examples of Christians who were voluntarily single but conveniently ignores the fact that they were also celibate.  Unless Lebacqz is willing to argue that Paul and/or Jesus engaged in unmarried sexual intercourse Lebacqz is simply ignoring the facts.  Scripture and Christian tradition support the fact that both of these men remained celibate in their singleness. While singleness is a legitimate and viable option for Christians singleness also goes hand and hand with celibacy.

Third, procreation and union are the two basic purposes of sexual intercourse that have been traditionally affirmed by the church.  To suggest that experiencing “appropriate vulnerability” is the purpose of human existence and and a third previously undiscovered purpose for sexual intercourse is dubious at best and heretical at worse.  This is a radical re-writing of Church tradition regarding human sexuality coming from one verse in scripture.  While tradition is imperfect and needs to be critiqued by the scriptures this single verse is not sufficient evidence to change a widely attested and long-held church tradition.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that Lebacqz is right and this is a third basic purpose for sexuality.  Her argument is still filled with problems.

Textually and linguistically speaking I believe a case can be made for her beliefs that “naked” has the connotation of vulnerable and “were not ashamed” has the connotation of appropriateness. However, Lebacqz proceeds to interpret this passage highly selectively to arrive at a pre-determined point. This is a passage of a “man and his wife“.  The fact that this relationship is heterosexual and apparently in the contexts of a marriage covenant is conveniently ignored as she affirms both homosexual and extramarital sexual intercourse.  Lebacqz assumes that “naked” also also carries the connotation of “sexual intercourse,” an assumption that Lebacqz offers no exegetical proof to support.  To modern readers two people being naked might immediately carry the connotation of sexual intercourse, this is not the case in a Hebrew narrative about a pre-Fall reality.  The scriptures are at times bashful or otherwise indirect about describing sexual intercourse and use euphemisms for genital body parts but in Genesis sexual intercourse is described with the Hebrew word that means “to know” (4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain…KJV).  Without proving that Genesis 2:25 is about sexual intercourse one simply cannot suggest that it is revealing a previously undiscovered purpose about sexual intercourse.

Finally and most importantly, Lebaqcz still affirms some sexual sin (rape, promiscuity, unloving sexual intercourse, etc.) as they violate her third purpose of sexual intercourse.  The assumption required for both condemning certain types of sexual intercourse but not pre-marital sex where appropriate vulnerability is this: sexual intercourse is immoral when it violates a purpose of sexual intercourse.  What then of the first two purposes of sexual intercourse?  Is any sexual intercourse that fails to produce offspring then sinful? (Lebacqz denies this explicitly in her article)  Is any sexual intercourse that doesn’t increase or represent permanent union sinful? (Lebacqz would probably disagree with this as she doesn’t think permanent union is required to have moral sex).  Lebacqz effectively raises her third purpose for sexuality over the other two traditionally affirmed ones.  Lebacqz calls the first two “incomplete” not “inferior” but in reality she is forced to make an unspoken assumption that her third purpose is the dominant purpose of sex to preserve her argument.

Conclusion: Lebacqz clearly had a goal in mind before she even opened the Bible and she all but states as much when she says that the church needs a new adequate sexual ethic for singles that doesn’t require celibacy.  Lebacqz goal was to develop this ethic, not to read the scriptures and practice what ethic she found in scripture. Using a single verse that is not clearly about sexual intercourse she partially affirmed a cultural value: the right to sexual expression unrestrained by religion.  The fact that she is performing an elaborate work of eisegesis is evidenced by inconsistencies in her argument, unspoken assumptions that are not supported by scripture and her need to skip over certain facts (such as “the man and his wife” and the celibacy of Paul and Jesus).  Lebacqz’s work is therefore not legitimate and is not a convincing argument for changing the church’s sexual ethic.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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6 Responses to Christian Sexual Ethics: Is sex moral when “appropriate vulnerability” is present ?

  1. This is a great paper Kevin. And I really commend you for taking a stand at tackling this issue head-on.

    As someone that is a recovering sex and love addict, and as someone who has recently come to a very close relationship with Christ, and also is new to really diving in The Word, I could have used a paper like Lebaqcz on “Appropriate Vulnerability,” to justify acting out without remorse.

    I think your point about her making the scripture fit the argument she wanted to make is totally accurate. And it is important to identify.

    And choosing to be celibate when you are single is not just part of a covenant to God, but to the person you choose to spend your life with. Although I have been on both sides of the coin on this issue, I know that the path of purity, is clearly outlined in the Bible.

    And to be honest that has given me more peace, than the so called “fairness” in sexual ethics.

    Thanks for your words,
    A.S.

    • “As someone that is a recovering sex and love addict, and as someone who has recently come to a very close relationship with Christ, and also is new to really diving in The Word, I could have used a paper like Lebaqcz on ‘Appropriate Vulnerability,’ to justify acting out without remorse.”

      This is exactly why we should not simply let anyone claim Christ and believe (and teach) whatever they want unchallenged. This is also why I hope to avoid simply writing such people off and not really wrestle with their argument.

  2. Joel Gonzaga says:

    Kevin, you might gain more credibility with your opposition when you do not describe the opposition’s argument with loaded terms.

    I think you over-the-top when you describe Lebacaqz’s position as a capitulation to secular humanism. I don’t think you have really effectively argued for the “real genesis” of her thoughts. Furthermore it is ad hominem anyway (“this idea is wrong, because what it is associated with is wrong”). This is equivalent to saying, “he’s wrong, because he’s a methodist.”

    Plenty of arguments can be made (and likely have been) that make the claim that much of the “orthopraxy” is equally socially conditioned, habituated, or capitulated to something else un-Biblical or un-Christian. If we concede that the historical and cultural experiences of WASPs have colored the theological glasses when it comes to politics, economics, slavery, mind/body dualism, etc why would we not also assume it has effected our ideas about sex? Therefore, I do not think that a brute appeal to Christian tradition helps here.

    I believe that an “eisegesis” in this matter is inevitable, since what sex, love, and marriage mean in our culture is not tied to the social customs of the ancient near east (Isrealite or otherwise). Any thorough exegesis must concede this point.

    • To your first point:

      I think I am exactly spot on when I describe Lebacqz as a capitulation to Secular Humanism and this was not an ad hominem statement. If I had said, “She’s a woman, so she’s wrong” or “She’s a United Church of Christ member, so she’s wrong” that would be ad hominem. I did not say she was wrong because she capitulated and was a bad theologian, I explored her argument and noted important inconsistencies and “inconvenient truths” she has left out (Such as the apparent marriage of Adam and Eve, the celibacy of Paul and Jesus or more clearly the denial that the person sin the Song of Solomon were married Song 5:1 which she flatly denies). I guess one could argue she’s a bad theologian, a bad writer, was careless, etc. but I think Lebacqz definitely had a point in mind that she was arguing for before she ever opened the Bible. That point was a “Christian sexual ethic” highly tainted by assumptions from Secular Humanism, which led me to call her what I did. I put this accusation upfront and maybe that’s what your concern is but I didn’t just call her a bad name and claim that is what made her wrong.

      To your second point: Orthopraxy is often socially conditioned and the Church is by no means above condoning an evil because it is viewed as morally right by the masses in their culture. Slavery, racism, economic exploitation, female circumcision, etc. are all examples of wrongs that should have been rebuked by the Scriptures but instead the church bowed down to the morality of the masses, often using scripture to give them Christian authority. I believe this is the case with the current sexual permissiveness in question.

      You are right, the WASPs that affirmed slavery and racism also affirmed the Victorian repression of sexuality and now some of them are adopting the “anything goes” attitude of the Sexual Revolution. If the ethic of “sexual intercourse outside of marriage is immoral” was unique to WASPs I would be highly suspicious of it…but it is also found in the Catholic Tradition, the Greek Orthodox Tradition, the Coptic tradition and has been for hundreds of years. Sometimes the church “gets it wrong” as it were and capitulates to the masses, do you honestly think the church has “got it wrong” and capitulated to the masses in believing that pre-marital sex was immoral and now culture (of all things) is leading us into the truth that sexual intercourse before marriage is moral (and has always been such)?

      Finally, Eisegesis is inevitable in the sense that we never do exegesis in a vacuum. Every scholar or theologian brings his or her beliefs with him to the text. What is not inevitable is to selectively proof text your beliefs, which is essentially what Lebaqcz is doing. Regardless of what I bring to the text I can either see it in authority over me, or I can see my beliefs as in authority over it.

  3. Joel Gonzaga says:

    hmmm.. I think we’ll have to talk some other time on this, but for now I assume that you want to persuade, not just speak? I am about the most generous opposition you can find on this. But when I read this, I don’t get the impression that you have shown even academic charity. Will this make less generous audience members receptive to you?

    I still think you still make an ad hominim (specific species: poisoning-the-well). Ad hominem doesn’t just mean calling someone a mean name, it means attack “the person” in any form rather than the argument. Furthermore, you make the connection to secular humanism by affirming the consequent. So it is kind of nested fallacy here.

    Your reasoning might lead you to the following other conlcusions:

    1. Secular humanists believe in individual liberty.
    2. Ron Paul believes in individual liberty.
    Ergo, Ron Paul is (wrongly) influenced by secular humanism.

    1. Secular humanists believe that science is reliable.
    2. Michael Behe believes that science is reliable.
    Ergo, Michael Behe is (wrongly) influenced by secular humanism.

    1. Secular humanists believe in AIDS relief for Africa.
    2. Pope Benedict XVI believes in AIDS relief for Africa…

    I could go on, but I think you get the point?

    Secondly, just because a secular humanist (or any other non-Christian) says something, that does not make it wrong. Ayn Rand thought that guys who act like play-boys and sleep with sluts are less than “real men,” must I believe something different because she was a (rather nutty) atheist?

    Rhetoric about the “authority” of the Bible are moot right now, but that is another conversation for another time.

    • “I assume that you want to persuade, not just speak?” I would hope that where I am correct I would convince others and where I am incorrect the wider community would show me the error of my ways but convincing others to believe what I believe is not the objective of these posts. the goal of these posts is to present what I have learned and/or am thinking about as a result of a class at seminary.

      “1. Secular humanists believe in individual liberty.
      2. Ron Paul believes in individual liberty.
      Ergo, Ron Paul is (wrongly) influenced by secular humanism.”

      This is true. Lebaqcz could have come to her beliefs through a myriad of ways, including her best attempts at scriptural exegesis and I am not privy to the life experiences that have shaped Lebacqz. Furthermore, just because someone believes something in accordance with cultures doesn’t mean they are syncretistic in their beliefs. For example a person could want to preserve the environment because of their deeply held ecological beliefs (coming from the current culture) or their theology regarding mankind’s role as caretakers (orthodox Christianity). However, given that her beliefs are a break from Christian orthodoxy I am more prone to suspect the likely culprit of Secular Humanism, even if it is a couple layers deep (it influenced her church tradition and family which in turn shaped her for example).

      Even with all of that in mind though I still believe her theology is wrong, her ethic is wrong and her argument is not a representation of legitimate exegesis. Lebacqz lays out her eisegesis pretty clearly. Lebacqz suggests that there is injustice against singles, part of this injustice is precluding them from sexual intercourse. Lebacqz solution is that a permissive ethic must then exist (for justice to exist) and then proof texts here pre-determined point. Furthermore, I feel I have shown that there are a number of problems in her argument. You normally would have no problem blasting a conservative pastor for “proof texting” some truism or evangelical belief, what’s the hold up here?

      – Lebacqz argues that singleness is a viable option as evidenced by Jesus and Paul but ignores their voluntary celibacy and the lack of any scriptural record they engaged in sexual intercourse.
      – Lebacqz argues for an ethic regarding sexual intercourse off of a passage that is not about sexual intercourse. The Hebrew word “arom” is used to indicate literal nakedness or a more figurative meaning involving vulnerability. It is not used to indicate sexual intercourse.
      – Lebacqz argues for moral sex between unmarried persons when this passage is commonly and consistently translated as “man and his wife“. While the Hebrew word here, “isha”, can mean “woman” or “female” she does not argue for why it should be seen as “woman” or “female” but simply ignores it.
      – Lebacqz claims that Song of Songs is a graphic celebration of passionate sex that is not between married persons though Hebrew word, “kalah” meaning BRIDE is used (Song 5:1).

      I wish I could go deeper into the Hebrew on this point but she doesn’t and maybe that was beyond the scope of her paper but it seems to me she makes a lot of statements, has a lot of unspoken assumptions (that line up with Secular Humanism), and is clearly using scripture to support a previously determined point. Regardless of any problems with my critique, do you think Lebacqz provides a convincing argument?

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