The 2017 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America passed a resolution this week on the interpretation of “sexual immorality” or “unchastity” in questions #108 and #109 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The statement that was passed reads as follows:
To affirm that the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 and 109 categorically states that God condemns “all unchastity,” which includes same-sex sexual activity, and that faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.
I want to address specifically the words in this statement that “all unchastity” “includes same-sex sexual activity.” I would note, first of all that the statement does not say that “all unchastity” includes all same-sex sexual activity. This is the first problem with this statement. It doesn’t consider LGBTQ people who desire to sanctify their sexual activity by incorporating it into a marriage covenant, raising questions, of course, about the final clause in the General Synod’s statement. Given the absence of legalized same-sex marriage, both during the period when the New Testament was written, and during the period when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, I would not dispute that the writers of the catechism would have included the same-sex behaviors with which they might have been familiar within the general category of sexual immorality. Yet this hardly is a conclusive argument that same-sex marriages of today would have been automatically included. That is a case that needs to be argued, not merely asserted.
But this, of course, raises the deeper question about what sort of moral logic governs the concept of unchastity or sexual immorality in the Bible. The Greek word used in the New Testament for this concept is porneia. Certainly, some uses of this word are clear and unmistakable. It is used for various kinds of sexual acts that everyone would agree are morally wrong. It is linked to prostitution in 1 Cor 6:13-18. It is linked with adultery in Matt 15:19, and the same moral logic appears to be reflected in the use of the word in Matthew 19:9 (cf. Sirach 23:23). 1 Corinthians 5:1 speaks of incest using this word. So it seems clear that forbidden sexual acts are envisioned by this word. At this level there is no dispute. Any form of sex outside of marriage, any form of sex that creates conflicting roles within families, or any form of sex which violates a marriage bond that is already in place is always considered sexual immorality, and Christians are always to resist such behaviors or inclinations. We see this “objective” approach in other New Testament texts, such as Revelation 9:21.
But the New Testament is not only concerned about behaviors, it is even more centrally concerned with the motives and desires that lead to immoral behaviors. Mark 7:21-23 is a classic and important text here:
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication (Greek porneia), theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
This concern about motives and desires appears commonly in the teaching of Jesus. The most common problem Jesus addresses is not about actions that are wrong; it is about the motives and desires that lead to our actions. He speaks often about hypocrisy, and confronts those whose lives are “whitewashed tombs,” whose behavior is technically acceptable, but which springs from corrupt motives. We see these thoughts reflected in Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication (Greek porneia), theft, false witness, slander,” and in the words of Colossians 3:5 “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication (Greek porneia), impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” Note that all the words in Colossians address motives and desires.
This concern with motives and desires is evident, even in the Heidelberg Catechism, particularly Q&A 109, which states in part, that “God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires, and whatever may incite someone to them.” So clearly the Heidelberg Catechism is not only concerned with the “objective” side of unchastity, but also with the “subjective” side.
This focus on motives and desires is also reflected in the link between sexual immorality and impurity in the New Testament. Note, for example, the way in which 2 Corinthians 12:21 links together “impurity, sexual immorality (Greek porneia), and licentiousness.” We see the same linkage in Galatians 5:19. Ephesians 5:3 links together fornication (Greek porneia) and impurity, together with greed. Of course, many things that the Old Covenant regarded as “impure” (e.g. dietary restrictions, exposure to blood, etc.) are treated differently in the New Testament. But what the New Testament continues to affirm is the motivational side of the category of “impurity.” If behavior of any sort springs from impure motives or desires, then that behavior is still considered “impure” by the New Testament, and is to be resisted. In the New Testament, what makes behaviors “impure” is not some objective moral standard, but rather that these behaviors spring from wrong desires or motives.
So here we come to two dimensions to the biblical concept of “sexual immorality,” both of which need to be included in order to fully understand this concept. On the one hand, there is the “objective” side of unchastity or sexual immorality. Certain behaviors like prostitution, sex outside of marriage, adultery, or incest are always morally wrong, and the New Testament treats them consistently in this way. However, the New Testament itself provides another “lens” through which to construct a sexual ethic as well, and that lens focuses on motives and desires. This is important for two reasons.
First, there may well be sexual acts which are permitted by “objective” standards (like sex within marriage), but which are still problematic because of problems with motives and desires (such as excessive lust in marriage, or the failure to treat one’s spouse appropriately during sex). The New Testament is rarely content to look merely at objective behaviors; it always probes to motives as well.
This leads to the second reason why the New Testament focuses on motives and desires. The church often encounters marginal cases in its construction of sexual ethics, which require the exploration of motives and desires, beyond merely a focus on objective actions. I think that the clearest case of this has to do with divorce and remarriage. Mark 10:11-12 clearly forbids all divorce and remarriage: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Matthew 19:3ff. qualifies this case, allowing for divorce and remarriage in the case of “sexual immorality” (Greek porneia). But most Christians today call for an examination of the circumstances and motives leading to divorce and remarriage, and are generally open to a consideration of motives and desires, as a way of discerning which sorts of divorce and remarriage cases should be accepted by the church. In other words, a consideration of motives and desires helps to solve sexual ethics cases which are at the margins, and for which more “objective” criteria seem problematic for one reason or another.
And so we return, finally, to the question of whether “unchastity” or “sexual immorality” as applied to same-sex marriages should fall under the “objective” category of those behaviors that area always forbidden by Scripture, or whether specific cases should be evaluated according to the motives and desires which drive them. This strikes me as an important question worth pursuing, and a conversation worth having in the church in general, and in the RCA in particular. I hope we can have such a conversation, even after the General Synod’s vote.