Sexual ethics and consent

I was struck by a helpful comment made by the preacher at church recently. Their text was 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 with the focus on verse 3 which says

“3 God’s will is for you to be holy, so stay away from all sexual sin.”

The helpful comment they made was that Christians who care about sexual purity should not feel under pressure for putting boundaries in place as though that made them intolerant. Whilst we draw them in different places, the reality is that we all do draw boundaries.

I think the speaker was spot on. Yes, we do draw boundaries  whether or not we like to think we do. Today’s culture has predominantly drawn them around the question of consent.  Sexual activity without consent is wrong.  This for our society rules out rape, bestiality and paedophilia because those involved are considered either unwilling or unable to give consent. Overruling someone’s will and denying them consent is considered harmful because it takes away a basic freedom.   We need good reason to do that such as for example operating on someone in a medical emergency or restricting someone’s liberty because they are proving a danger to themselves and/or others.

Yet, the focus on consent raises some questions. We’ve already had to recognise that the concept is not so simple and that has led to evolving law on the matter. First of all, we’ve concluded that children under the age of 16 whilst able to exercise a level of responsibility in decision making are not yet mature enough to freely give their consent. Further, we believe that consent can be affected by the power dynamics at work. A teacher or someone in responsibility over a child between the age of 16 and 18 is seen as having a level of influence so that even if the young person appears to give their consent, the adult is seen to have acted unlawfully. The young person is not acting freely and has been groomed and manipulated.

Notice at this stage that we are talking specifically in terms of where the legal boundaries are drawn. We might further observe that other relationships such as between a young person and a significantly older adult whilst not criminally wrong are still ethically icky.  We draw the boundaries here not so much in terms of a technical definition of consent but because intuitively something feels inappropriate, uneasy, shameful even.

Now, in terms of Biblical ethics, the boundaries are drawn differently. It’s not that consent does not matter.  That Amnon forces his sister Tamar to sleep with him against her wishes adds to his incest and fornication. Rather, it is that sexual activity may be considered sinful even when consent is given. This is what provides a little bit of challenge to the debate about whether or not David raped Bathsheba. When we look at the language used and the power dynamics at work there does seem to be a suggestion that Bathsheba is unable to consent or withhold her consent. Yet the focus of the Biblical author is not on that issue, not because it does not matter but because regardless of whether Bathsheba had consented, David would still be in sin against God, against Uriah, her husband and against Bathsheba herself.

Notice the language used in 1 Thessalonians 4:6.

“ Never harm or cheat a fellow believer in this matter by violating his wife.”

Paul is writing here about adultery. Notice that he says that this is harmful to the woman’s husband. But notice too that Paul says the wife is violated. By sleeping with her, you have violated and defiled her, even if she is a consenting party.

The Bible insists that the argument that something is between two consenting adults so it does not matter because no-one gets harmed is false. This is because sexual sin is always about me pursuing my selfish desires, seeking to fulfil my appetites at the expense of another.  Sexual sin is always harmful.

Let’s take the conversation out of the sphere of sexual ethics for a moment.  We recognise this in other contexts. Suppose you seek to defraud me, I have mental capacity but I am unwise in my financial affairs and naïve in my relationships with others.  Suppose I’m even hoping that I may benefit in some way from the relationship.  Does that take away in any way from the fact that you have intentionally done me harm?  No, you have still acted selfishly and I am still harmed as loss is inflicted on me. The same would apply if we were involved in sado-masochism.  I might consent to the infliction of physical pain but that would change neither the fact that you were engaging for your pleasure or that I might suffer potentially serious injury in the process.

The Bible and Christian ethics takes us further than the question of consent to ask whether what we are doing comes from selfish or loving motives and whether it might cause actual, objective harm.

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