The One Humanizing Sexual Ethic

The One Humanizing Sexual Ethic
March 16, 2021

By Tony Scarcello. Tony is a pastor, speaker, and writer located in Springfield, Oregon. He regularly speaks at churches, camps, retreats, and conferences. Tony is also the host of the Regenerate Podcast, a podcast dedicated to having the critical conversations required to regenerate our faith. His book, Regenerate: Following Jesus After Deconstruction is available now.


My wife and I had just finished speaking to 300 pastors and leaders at a forum on faith and sexuality in Salem, Oregon. It was my first time sharing the story of my life-long battle with same-sex attraction in front of a crowd. It was my wife’s first time sharing much of anything in front of a crowd. We were greeted, encouraged, and thanked afterwards. Then, one gentleman came up to me looking quite concerned. This man proceeded to ask if I used the Billy Graham rule when meeting with men. 

The Billy Graham rule is named after the legendary evangelist’s firm effort to live a life of sexual integrity; he committed to never meeting with a woman one-on-one. In recent years, the Billy Graham rule has been scrutinized for a number of reasons. Many women have been overlooked for prominent positions in the workforce because, if employers abide by the Billy Graham rule, said women cannot meet privately with their male employers and co-workers to discuss pertinent work issues. Critics of the Billy Graham rule say it is steeped in the thousands-of-years-old myth that women are primarily sexual foibles to otherwise noble men, and that men are fundamentally helpless to their sexual appetites. Perpetuating the idea that men can’t help but give in to their sexual desires puts the onus on women to carefully monitor the way they dress, talk, interact, and exist around men, lest they unintentionally lead the powerless males into the clutches of sexual deviancy. 

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This is a problem. Men do have control over their sexual urges and should be held responsible when they fail to control themselves. Notice how in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that if our eyes cause us to lust, we should gouge them out. He doesn’t direct us to control how women dress and then blame them when they are sexually harassed or assaulted with ridiculous questions like, “What were you wearing?”

Good intentions underlie the Billy Graham rule, and there are compelling arguments both for and against it. But those arguments can wait for another essay.

Let’s return to the very serious-looking man in the gymnasium of a Baptist church in Salem, Oregon, who had just asked me if I apply the Billy Graham rule in my meetings with men. I could tell by the sternness of his face and the tone of his voice that he would only find one answer acceptable. For reasons I can only speculate on, he needed me to say “yes.”

I was not going to say yes. Firstly, because I do not apply the Billy Graham rule with men. I don’t really apply the Billy Graham rule at all. Secondly, because I was insulted by the notion that I would have to. I was frustrated by the question. I am a man whose closest friends are males, and these friendships, which I have maintained for years, are completely platonic. I had just finished sharing how I fight like hell for my marriage, and how suffocating it is to be in church spaces while being honest about my story. This guy seemed to want to tighten the grip just a little more. Did he think I was so weak I couldn’t spend time with someone without wanting to indulge every depraved desire? I instantly assumed the question was blatantly homophobic.

Then I realized, perhaps by Divine whisper, that his concern was not really about me. This man was concerned about how I navigated my sexual energies because he was concerned about how he navigated his own. Many of us who grew up in the purity-culture-soaked evangelical church believe our sexuality is a raging beast just waiting to be uncaged and destroy everything in its sight. If you administered a polygraph test to most evangelicals and asked us to tell the God’s-honest-truth about our theology of sex, we would probably tell you sexuality is a curse.

This is tragic, because we overlook the splendor of our design as sexual beings. Sex is a Divine gift that fosters intimacy, abundance, healthy vulnerability, the conception of life, and soul-sharing.

Like this gentleman, many of us in the church are fearful of sexual energies. And perhaps we are right to be. Of all the passions, energies, longings, and desires we experience in this world, few are more powerful than sexual impulses. People live for sex. People die for it. People kill for it. If you were to ask a student of Freud, they would tell you everything we do is in response to our sexual energies. Even if we dismiss the Billy Graham rule as puritanical and patriarchal, we would be foolish to say we don’t understand why some Christians are wary of lackadaisical boundaries for restraining our sexual fires. 

The secularized culture will tell you that to restrain your sexual fire is to diminish your humanity, and anyone who tells you to restrain it is actively crushing your personhood. Many people recognize one boundary when it comes to sex: the boundary of consent. An astonishing number of Christians today maintain a sexual ethic that more closely mirrors secularism than it does two thousand years of consistent church teachings on the matter. When pushed on this topic, Christians sometimes reply, “What’s the big deal?” What’s the big deal if two consenting adults agree to have sex with no covenant, no promises, no strings attached? After all, who is it hurting? This approach is disastrously ignorant of the power of sexual energies. 

My father taught me how to shoot a gun when I was eight years old. Dozens of rules governed the smallest of details. He was so thorough to teach me these rules, and so quick to correct me when I broke them, that I remember them to this day, twenty-two years later. He did this because a gun is powerful, and when we handle powerful things without proper reverence, we risk hurting ourselves or others. Nobody studying dozens of gun safety rules asks, “What’s the big deal?” We know what the big deal is.

Our culture’s relationship to sex is bewildering. On the one hand, we worship sex. It consumes our thoughts, our time, our attention, our entertainment, our activism, our hopes, and our emotions. In a society with little to no sexual ethic, we never cease chasing the carrot. On the other hand, we try everything to convince ourselves that sex has no more meaning than what we make of it. We worship it aggressively while simultaneously attempting to prove it has no impact on our lives. Hogwash.

In his crucial book, The Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser writes, “Sex is the energy inside of us that works incessantly against us being alone.” If we have a healthy understanding of the Trinity and truly believe that we were made in the image of the Trinity, then we know that to be in deep connection with others is the core need of our souls. Only in connection with others can we truly realize how we are image bearers. A sexual relationship is far from the only context where this connection can be realized, but it is certainly among the most significant. The sex drive is deeper than a raging biological programming to procreate; it is also rooted in the soul’s yearning for companionship. 

The Christian sexual ethic is wildly liberating. Liberating because it says we do not live in bondage to our every sexual impulse, liberating because it tells us we ought not feel any shame for being sexual creatures, liberating because it harnesses this powerful and ferocious passion in the direction of life, wholeness, and intimacy. But if the church yields to society to form our sexual ethics, we have every right to be as wary as that man concerned over whether or not I use the Billy Graham rule.

Because our sex drive finds its root in God’s design for us to procreate and experience intimacy, it is among the most primal of all desires we will experience. Like fire, it is far too powerful to simply be let loose without any boundaries. Flames in the boundaries of a campfire pit provide warmth and food for those huddled around them on cool summer nights, but those very flames can destroy everything in their path if they were to leave the boundaries of the pit. 

Sex is powerful, and when we handle powerful things without proper reverence, we harm ourselves and others. Our culture has played fast and loose with sexual energies for too long. The Western secular ethos utilizes sex as an exercise in narcissistic pleasure where people are treated like commodities rather than image bearers of God. Many cycle through sexual partners, or at least fantasize doing so, because our sense of longing will always be stronger than our sense of satisfaction. In this life we will experience brief glimpses of contentment, but only in heaven will every longing be truly appeased. Karl Rahner said shortly before his death, “In this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” Part of realizing our full humanity is learning how to prioritize what we value most over what we want now. The journey of sanctification is not a journey from humanity to divinity, but a journey towards truer humanity as God imagined it. Jesus was the most fully human person to ever walk the planet, and he valued his mission and prioritized it over all the temptations Satan threw his way. True humanity is not found in acting on every inclination; such behavior eats away at our humanity. 

But there is a truly humanizing sexual ethic out there. There is a context in which the fires of sexuality energize the soul instead of destroying it, and that context is in the safety of covenant relationship, covenant to one’s spouse, or covenant to Christ. To say to one’s spouse, “I will channel the most primal and dominant instincts I have exclusively in the context of our marriage” is one of the highest ways we honor the image of God in another person. To say to Christ, “I will trust you to be Lord of my sexuality, and trust you honor my covenant of faithfulness to you” is one of the highest ways we honor the image of God in ourselves. Our culture will tell us that the one humanizing sexual ethic is consent, but that view doesn’t honor the value of our bodies, our souls, our image bearer-ness. The one truly humanizing sexual ethic is not consent, but covenant, and that is a principal worth passing down.