We live in a society in which there is a growing belief that sexual freedom is an unquestionably good thing. The idea is promoted by the media, by the political classes, by the legal profession, and by the education system, that people should have the freedom to decide what sex they are (male, female, or other), that they should have the freedom to enjoy sexual relationships with whoever they want (providing such relationships are consensual), and that they should have the freedom to unilaterally bring their marriages to an end simply because they wish to do so.
Christians who hold that people should not do any of these things are widely regarded as odd, reactionary and (in some circles) positively immoral, because of what is perceived to be their opposition to sexual freedom. What is not generally understood, however, is that it is not that Christians are opposed to sexual freedom as such, but they have a different take on what sexual freedom involves.
To understand why this is the case we have to begin by understanding the overall Christian approach to human freedom, what the late John Webster calls ‘evangelical freedom’ because it is rooted in the ‘evangel,’ the gospel message concerning the salvation that God has made available for the human race, and creation as a whole, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Webster explains, Evangelical freedom is about freedom in fellowship with God. In his words:
‘Evangelical freedom cannot be divorced from the holy fellowship with God of which it is an aspect. Fellowship with God is both its basis and the sphere of its exercise . Drawn by the divine mercy into holy fellowship, I am bound to God - I am, in Paul’s terms, a slave of Jesus Christ, my autonomy at last broken. But bondage to Christ is not the antithesis of my freedom , quite the reverse: it is its essential condition. Why? Because the Christ to whom I am bound is the one who has finally secured the fact that no other power can come between me and my flourishing. In him, God has set a distance between me and all other bonds in which I find myself, and that distance is ‘the distance of freedom.’ Evangelical freedom is thus freedom from the powers that inhibit me including, and especially, my own powers. To live the active life of holy fellowship with God, is therefore, to live out of the event of freedom from sin and death. Evangelical freedom is the freedom that comes from not being finally responsible for my own being ; by the mercy of God I am restored to know myself to be a creature in fellowship with my creator and saviour. And to such freedom I cannot liberate myself : self-liberation is precisely ‘the yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1) from which I have been set free.’ ( 1 )
To put it another way, evangelical freedom, like all forms of freedom, is both freedom from and freedom to. It is the freedom won for me by Christ from the destructive powers of sin and death which would otherwise have held me in bondage. It is also the freedom to achieve the flourishing for which I was created by living in fellowship with the God who has set me free.
As Webster further explains, this view of freedom goes against the accounts of freedom as self-creation that have become prevalent in the modern world.
‘Modern accounts of freedom identify freedom as un-fettered liberty for self-creation , and therefore contrast freedom and nature : freedom is the antithesis of the given , a move against and beyond any sense that I have a determinate identity. Evangelical freedom, by contrast, does not envisage being human as an utterly original making of life and history. Rather, to be human is to live and act in conformity to the given truth (nature) of what I am - a creature of grace, a reconciled sinner and caught up in the movement of the ways and works of God in which I am pointed to a perfection to be revealed in the last times. I am free as I find myself finally unencumbered by idolatry , false desire and vanity, and therefore enabled to fill out, actively to occupy and expand the role to which I am appointed . In evangelical freedom I am set free for reality, and thus for the practises of holiness.’(2)
Evangelical freedom thus involves practising holiness by living obediently as the creature God created and liberated me to be. I am who he has made me and for me to flourish as a human being is to live in the light of this fact.
Living in this way will not necessarily be easy and will not necessarily make me happy at any given point in time, any more than Jesus’ life was easy, or he was happy all the time. However, what matters is not my subjective and temporary feelings of happiness or unhappiness, but the solid, objective, reality that God has called me to live in this way and that in Paul’s words ‘this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (2 Corinthians 4:17). To use the well-known phrase ‘no pain, no gain,’ and the gain which we will eventually achieve in the life to come will make anything we have to go through now, however difficult and painful, infinitely worthwhile.
In terms of modern discussions about the nature of freedom, it is important to note that the evangelical freedom which has just been described transcends the contrast that is often made between autonomy (living my life on the basis of what I want to do) and heteronomy (being subject to the alien will of another).
In the words of Richard Bauckham, the paradigm for evangelical freedom is the words of Psalm 40:8 ‘I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’
This, he writes: ‘…is neither the autonomy that is contradicted by any authority, nor the heteronomy that experiences authority as alien subjection to the will of another. It is the obedience to God of those who already glimpse the eschatological identity of their best desires with God’s, who recognize Go’s will as the desire of their own hearts, whose experience of God’s love makes love the freely chosen goal of their lives. Freedom is here not the rejection of all limits, but the free acceptance of those limits that enable loving relationships. Obedience is demanding, but it is no more heteronomous than the athlete’s acceptance of the demanding regime that she knows to be the way to the goals she has set herself.’(3)
If this is the overall Christian approach to human freedom, what are the implications for a Christian approach to sexual behaviour?
Based on this understanding of human freedom, what should determine our sexual behaviour is the given nature of who we are as God’s human creatures. Our behaviour should be the expression of our true nature and our true nature is the nature given to us by God.
The nature that God has given to us is revealed to us in two ways. First, through empirical observation of our created nature (what is known as natural revelation). Secondly, though the words of the Bible, which have been given to us by God to confirm and supplement what we learn through natural revelation. From these two sources we learn three key truths concerning our existence as sexual beings.
The human race is a dimorphic species. That is to say, humans are divided into two sexes, male and female. These sexes are differentiated from each other in a variety of ways, but primarily by the fact that men and women have bodies that are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. (4)
God created human beings in two sexes so that (a) together they might know and love God, each other, and creation as a whole, and jointly rule over creation on God’s behalf, and so that (b) there might be future generations of human beings who would continue to live in this way (see Genesis 1:26-28).
God established marriage as an exclusive and permanent relationship between one man and one woman to be the context for sexual intercourse and for the procreation and upbringing of children (see Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-6).
These three truths then determine the God given pattern of Christian sexual behaviour revealed in the Bible and historically maintained by the Christian tradition.
Because human beings have been created as either male or female they should live as members of their own sex. Because marriage between one man and one woman is the context established by God for sexual intercourse and sexual reproduction, sexual intercourse and the procreation of children should only take place in this context.(5)
Because marriage has been ordained by God to be a permanent relationship that reflects the permanence of God’s love for his people, people should remain married to their spouse until one or both of them dies.
The exercise of Christian freedom is the freedom of the Christian believer to live rightly in relationship with God by adhering to this threefold pattern for sexual behaviour. The reason that Christians believe that all human beings should adhere to this pattern is because this pattern is not simply a set of house rules for Christians, but a pattern established by God for all his human creatures. It thus represents a good to which all humans are called.
The reason why Christians say ‘no’ to people living as members of the opposite sex to their own or adopting some other sexual identity, to people having sexual intercourse outside heterosexual marriage, and to people unilaterally choosing to end their marriages simply because they wish to do so, is because these things are a rejection of the freedom God gives his human creatures to live in accordance with the pattern of sexual behaviour that in his perfect goodness and wisdom he has established for their well-being.
In terms of the discussion of freedom earlier in this paper, such things constitute a decision to continue to live in bondage to the disordered desires from which human beings suffer as result of the Fall.
The reason people do these things is because they desire happiness and believe that they will achieve happiness by doing them. From a Christian perspective, however, the problem is that any happiness they do gain in this way will be limited and short lived. The true, full, eternal, happiness that God desires for his human creatures can only be experienced by those who embrace the freedom he has given them to live as they were created to live, and this includes adhering to the pattern of sexual behaviour outlined above.
What all this means is that the disagreement between the adherents of modern ideas of sexual freedom and the views of traditional Christians is not (as is often suggested) an argument between those who are in favour of sexual freedom and those who are against it. Both sides of the disagreement are in favour of the exercise of freedom regarding sexual conduct. Where they disagree is over the nature of true freedom and hence what it means for freedom to be rightly exercised.