The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax brilliantly summarized a radical shift in our culture:
A generation ago, a person’s religious observance was a public matter, a defining characteristic of one’s identity, while a person’s sexual activity was something private. Today, this situation is reversed. A person’s sexual behavior is now considered a defining characteristic of identity, a public matter to be affirmed (even subsidized) by others, while religious observance is private and personal, relegated to places of worship and not able to infringe upon or impact the public square.
The culture clash today is less about the role of religion in business or politics, and more about which vision of humanity best leads to flourishing and should therefore be enshrined in or favored by law.
Sex has become a – if not the – defining characteristic for many in our society. I recently read an article about a professor who, in a women’s studies course, asked the class to write down the moment they realized they were gay, straight, bisexual, or queer. For many, one’s sexual awakening has become their road to Emmaus. It is nothing less than their conversion experience. I grew up Baptist, and the question I was often asked was, “When did you ask Jesus into your heart?” Now the question is, “When did you have your sexual awakening?” Sexuality is what gives many their meaning, purpose, and identity.
As I wrote three weeks ago, as a Christian, I cannot define myself in the way so many in our society have chosen to define themselves. I must define myself by Christ and His Gospel. I am, however, well aware that when I define myself in this way, I offend a whole host of societal sensibilities, especially as they pertain to sexuality.
As I’ve been pondering this clash of values, I’ve come to realize that Jesus faced much the same situation. First century society was rife with sexual standards that were radically different from His. Take for instance, the emperor of Rome during Jesus’ day, Tiberius Caesar, who, according to the Roman historian Suetonius, enjoyed watching group sex. This type of sexual licentiousness is, thankfully, offensive to many in our day, but, sadly, nevertheless acceptable and practiced among some. So how did Jesus respond to sexual ethics that contradicted His own?
First, Jesus was ethically rigorous. Jesus didn’t compromise His sexual standards in an effort win allies or appear tolerant. I think of Jesus’ clash with the religious leaders over divorce. In a world where many religious teachers taught that it was acceptable for a man “to divorce his wife for any and every reason,” Jesus responds, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3, 9). This sexual standard was so rigorous that Jesus’ own disciples exclaimed, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10).
It was William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, who famously quipped: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Jesus was not interested in conforming to the sexual spirit of His age. We should not be interested in conforming either.
But there is another side to Jesus’ engagement with the sexual spirit of His society. For at the same time that Jesus was ethically rigorous, He was also relationally generous. In other words, even if people were in lifestyles He could not condone, He did not shun them. He loved them. I think of the woman at the well in John 4. Or the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Or the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume in Luke 7. Jesus cared deeply for these people. We should too – even if they do not share our ethical commitments.
A faithful Christian response to the sexual standards of our society, then, demands that we answer two questions. First, where do we stand? Have we compromised biblical sexual standards to kowtow to the spirit of our age? If so, no less than the living Lord commands that we hold the line. But second, who are our friends? Do we generously befriend those who do not think or live like we do? If our friends are only those who share our ethical commitments, we have traded Jesus’ love for quarantined law. And that helps no one.
As Christians, we need both ethical standards and relational grace. I hope you have both. You should. Jesus has given you both. After all, how do you think He befriended you?
 Trevin Wax, “The Supreme Court Agrees With Hobby Lobby, But Your Neighbor Probably Doesn’t,” The Gospel Coalition (6.30.2014).
 Suetonius, Life of Tiberius 43.
 Tony Lane, Exploring Christian Doctrine: A Guide to What Christians Believe(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 48.