Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

1. Prologue

Gay marriage is almost the law of the land, and I’m still reeling from surprise that Alabama was not the last state where it became legal. Some anti-gay folks deployed the usual inflated rhetoric, the most amusing of which was a Birmingham preacher who spoke at a city council meeting. You can watch the video here. Now that men can marry men and women can marry women, he said, humans would soon marrying, among other things, dogs, cats, snakes, brooms, and mops. Some have said that the next thing will be marriages of three or more people, or incestuous marriage.

This kind of argument is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy. A fallacy is a misleading argument. A fallacy may sound reasonable or even convincing, but it’s based on flawed logic. The “slippery slope” fallacy says that one action or claim will lead to a series of others that creates an undesirable result. In this case, if legal marriage rights are granted to gay and lesbian persons, people will soon be marrying their mops.

2. The Question – Inanimate Objects and the Problem of Love

By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsSo why don’t we marry our mops?

We could propose several reasons. This is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware or autonomous, and therefore
  3. Mops are not capable of consent, and cannot make vows
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  6. Mops are not capable of sharing an equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship.

Mops, therefore, not only make poor lovers; they make poor people. This is not to say that we may not have some kind of sentimental relationship with a mop. Inanimate objects can have sentimental value. Teddy bears, for instance, are nice to cuddle. But teddy bears, like mops, cannot meet any of the above criteria. Most inanimate objects cannot. (Robots and artificial intelligence may provide and interesting challenge to the above criteria, but they go beyond the scope of this article).

Now, inanimate objects, while they are not capable of consent, have a long history of being used in sexual ways. In this regard they are like other tools which give people pleasure—televisions, radios, scented candles, electric massagers, and hot tubs, for example. The virtues and vices of using these tools can be debated. Still, most people will not be inclined to marry their masturbatory aid for the above reasons: a dildo is a tool and, unless artificial intelligence is involved (again, beyond my scope), not capable of loving anyone back. More significantly for the purposes of marriage, neither dildos nor mops of the non-robotic sort can make breakfast, help carry the groceries, earn a second income, or enter into legal contracts.

Since I am writing from a perspective of Christian sexual ethics, this is an appropriate place to point out that there is no explicit biblical prohibition against masturbation, with or without tools. Some people (both Jewish and Christian) look at Genesis 38 and the story of Onan as a warning against self-pleasure, but most scholars reject that interpretation. Onan’s sin is not masturbation (or coitus interruptus), but theft: he attempts to defraud his late brother of his inheritance by not giving him an heir (38:9). His sister-in-law goes on to seduce her father-in-law by posing as a prostitute (38:15) and is finally called the most righteous of all the characters in the story (38:26). If we accept that Onan’s sin is masturbation, then we’re left with the odd lesson that adultery, cultic prostitution, and non-consensual sex are more acceptable to God than masturbation. Since the Bible does not list masturbation among sexual sins, and since it is probably the sexual practice most easily at hand for a majority of human beings on the planet, it seems reasonable to conclude that biblical authors were not too worried about it.

The Birmingham preacher, in his rant, may have been alluding to masturbation when he expressed frustration at not being able to find batteries, but it is difficult to tell. Only he knows what was going through his mind.

3. Living Things and the Problem of Consent (Dogs, Cats, Alligators, Swans, and Gods)

Cesare da Sesto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having dealt with inanimate objects, let’s turn to the others Rev. Hatcher mentions. Dogs, cats, and snakes, unlike mops and brooms, are alive. Are they viable marriage partners?

At the risk of offending reptile pet-lovers, I will claim that snakes, whose brains are much more rudimentary than dogs and cats, are not capable of love. Reptiles do not typically form social bonds of the sort that would lead to marriage.

Cats and dogs, while mammals, also do not make suitable marriage partners. Even cat lovers will acknowledge that though their cats may be capable of love, and while they display a high (and often frustrating) degree of autonomy, they are still not able to give consent either to marriage or sexual relations. Moreover, cats’ reciprocity is debatable—do they love their owners, or is it merely (pardon the metaphor) a marriage of convenience? Dogs, likewise, are not able to give consent, although they demonstrate a high degree of loyalty. Since both of these animals lack language, making vows and giving consent are not possibilities. Dogs are still valuable helpers: service dogs illustrate the kind of important bond between dogs and humans.

While the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of humans cavorting sexually with gods in the form of animals (swans, bulls, and eagles, just to name a few), and while inter-species sexual activity has been documented in real life, these relationships can hardly be said to constitute marriage. In most of the mythological cases, the consent of the human, if not the animal, is ambiguous. At the very least, there was an element of dissembling: Did Leta know the swan was Zeus? We cannot know. Either Leta or the swan or both were violated, which places that sexual act outside the realm of what is proper. This has not kept artists from depicting—quite frequently—these various sexual encounters.

I can imagine, though, that inter-species marriage relationships might be possible if we met a sentient alien race that was similar enough to our own (even though theirs may have multiple genders, or no gender). Could we talk reasonably about “what God intended” in such a circumstance? But who knows? They might find our monkey-like bodies too disgusting to contemplate anything other than a platonic relationship. Like robotic artificial intelligence, this falls outside the scope of this article.

Free consent is vital to the concept of modern Western marriage. It has not always been so. Child marriage, shotgun weddings, and concubinage have all been part of our history. Some ancient biblical authors believed that guaranteeing paternity was more important than consent, so a man who raped a virgin was then obligated to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In that culture, such marriages helped secure her future, since her value as “unspoiled merchandise” was diminished. However, other Biblical authors creatively critiqued this social double-standard (see again the story of Tamar in Genesis 38).

Consent also rules out marrying people who are catatonic or mentally impaired to a degree that they cannot give consent. For this reason, pastors will often refuse to marry people who are drunk. Modern anecdotes of couples who get drunk and wake up married in Las Vegas are common, although these are usually cautionary tales of what ought not to be done. One must be sober and in full possession of one’s faculties to get married.

4. Taboo Relationships

What about taboo human relationships? Incestuous marriages? Multiple partners?

Incestuous relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily related to autonomy, consent, equity, and reciprocity. In familial relationships, the primary question becomes “how free is the person to make a choice?”

We can compare it to another common ethical violation: If a boss or a supervisor demands a relationship with a subordinate, it is workplace harassment. Family relationships, which are even more private, contain much greater possibility for abuse. Even if someone gives their consent, we’re left with the question, “How free is their consent?” In the workplace or in the military, a consequence of rejection may be firing, demotion, or loss of pay. The reward for compliance may be promotion, higher compensation, or status and prestige. The consequences may be described explicitly as a threat or reward, or, more deviously, they may be implicit and assumed. These latter cases are the most insidious, as people in power often claim that people under their power were willing partners.

In family relationships, even the loss of esteem of a family member may be coercive, especially in parent-child relationships. In this situation, how can consent be truly free? Even if these consequences are only possibilities, they place partners in very unequal positions of power.

While romance does happen in the workplace, generally supervisors and subordinates must sever their workplace relationship. This is not possible with familial relationships. Because of discrepancies in power and the question of consent, incestuous marriage remains unacceptable.

Bestiality and incest are often used in slippery-slope arguments against gay marriage. But the main reasons we avoid them is not “because the Bible says so.” There are good reasons to avoid such relationships besides the fact that they are prohibited by scripture. These questions are often deployed as fallacies in order to raise the “ick” factor in the listener, to generate sufficient disgust to paint the issue in question in a negative light. This does not mean that we should not consider them as arguments (the “fallacy fallacy.”) I think there is value in doing so because it clarifies how we think about marriage and sexual relationships.

5. Monogamy and Exclusivity

As for multiple partners, we must observe that the Bible contains many stories about polygamy. People have put households and families together in a variety of innovative ways. Christian missionaries have often struggled with how to address those relationships within the context of spreading Christian values. But for the purposes of talking about marriage and Christian ethics in our American context, we’ll bracket, for the moment, these other cultures and the fact that some people believe that legal marriage is itself a problem or an outdated institution.

Let’s look again at the reasons that marriage to a mop is not appropriate:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware and do not have autonomy
  3. Mops are not capable of consent
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot make vows of marriage
  6. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  7. Mops are not capable of sharing the equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship that leads to long-term social stability.

These last two reasons for avoiding marriage to mops are, I think, also the best arguments against multiple-partner marriages. (I am not, by the way, ruling out multiple-partner marriages, but illustrating one way to think about it).

Marriage is, essentially, the simplest social arrangement for two non-kin human beings to come together to make a family. Karl Marx observed that the elemental form of human being is not an individual, but a family. A single human being on an island lacks what makes us most distinctively human: our social community. Being in solitary confinement “de-humanizes” us. We are verbal, we can imagine others as subjective selves, we form pair-bonds, we use higher reasoning, all because we have to coordinate social action. Aristotle observed that we are “political animals.” Just as you cannot understand bees without studying a hive, you cannot understand human beings without studying how we organize in social groups. The family is the most elementary social group, and a pair is the smallest unit of human society you can have and still call it “human.” We celebrate the equitable, mutual, reciprocal love of that basic relationship because we recognize something virtuous in this act of family-making. Two have become one.

But for most of human history, equitability, mutuality, and reciprocity have had little to do with family or marriage. In biblical times, men treated women more like chattel than like subjective selves whose consent and autonomy mattered. Of course, there are plenty of scriptures (Samuel 1:8, Song of Songs) that indicate these ancient people were not oblivious to love as the basis for marriage.

Today, though, the willing self-giving of two people to each other to enter into this basic social relationship is considered a praiseworthy thing in our society. Ideally, these arrangements lead to long-term stability that benefits society. Couples can raise children, if they so desire, and support each other by creating networks of enduring relationships that build resilient communities. Divorce and separation, when it happens, hurts the partners, children, and even the fabric of the community as friendship ties are severed.

While it may be possible for more than two people to enter into this kind of relationship, the most basic system is a pair. We must acknowledge that even pairs are seldom alone in how they form households and families: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, children and grandchildren may all live under one roof. They do not all enter into this kind of covenant relationship, and their presence in the household may be temporary. But in a household with a married couple, all of those relationships are often sustained by the vows and stable relationship of at least one pair.

Sex and reproduction is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a marriage. People marry who cannot have sexual intercourse. Infertile couples marry. Old couples marry. We must also acknowledge that people can, and do, form households or families without marriage. These may be created with any number of sexual or non-sexual relationships. Sex and reproduction are not necessarily part of the relationship.

But part of the traditional vow of marriage is sexual exclusivity, “forsaking all others.” There are several reasons for this exclusivity:

  1. Ensuring paternity and clear parental responsibility for children
  2. Preventing the spread of STDs, especially to the unwitting partner
  3. Ensuring each partner’s energy is focused on the other for stability’s sake
  4. Creating intimacy

Regarding #3 and #4, it should be obvious from divorce statistics that it is difficult enough to create a stable long-term relationship with one other person. Adding more into the mix increases the difficulty level. In cultures which practice other forms of marriage, these reasons might be contested or mitigated by different social arrangements in a village or community. But if having a stable marriage relationship is itself a good to be desired, we can make reasonable arguments for monogamous exclusivity.

Again, this does not rule out the possibility of other marriage arrangements. It does force us to clarify what the social goods are that we believe marriage is supposed to produce. People can, and do, argue that the Bible supports polygamy. If we wish to make arguments about what Christian ethics supports, we will have to do better than just make claims about “what the Bible says.” The long-term work of truly “knowing” another person, coming to terms with our differences, sharing a mission in life together, all may be virtuous goals of monogamous marriage supported by sexual intimacy. But if these are good for straight folks, they are good for LGBTQ folks as well.

6. Further Thoughts about Sexual Ethics and the Bible

Many folks have a good deal of anxiety about the rapid social change that has led to the social acceptance of homosexual relationships. They fear that rejecting one set of moral standards means abandoning all moral standards. But in pursuing this (absurd) question, I’ve illustrated that we have many ways of making ethical judgments. “The Bible says” is only one kind of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and it’s one that not even devout Christians follow completely. We refrain from adultery, murder, or bearing false witness not because the Bible forbids it, but for other very good reasons. That the Bible forbids it gives us interesting theological insight into the ethical nature of God—but it’s not the primary reason we don’t kill.

LGBTQ allies have often noted that the Bible also forbids eating shrimp and endorses the stoning of disobedient children. While dispensationalist Christians sometimes relegate certain regulations to the “old” covenant, it’s pretty clear that even they are not refraining from stoning their disobedient children because one set of regulations (or divine commands) has been superseded by another set.

There are challenges to traditional binary-gender opposite-sex marriage even without the looming inevitability of same sex marriage. Sometimes people are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia. As Jesus himself observed, “some people are born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12.) Should intersex people be allowed to marry? Does someone born with ambiguous genitalia have to “decide” which gender they are going to be and marry someone of the opposite gender? In this case, someone may be chromosomally male, but identify and express themselves as female. If this person is also attracted to women, could we reasonably forbid her to be in a same-gender relationship? Or will our society be okay with it if she just changes clothes and acts masculine?

Transgender and queer persons continue to face marginalization because their gender expression or gender identity don’t line up with social expectations, even among gay and lesbian peers. Yet if we were to transport Jesus (as he is popularly depicted) to modern-day Birmingham in his first-century Palestinian dress and long hair, people might assume he was cross-dressing. Jesus never wore trousers. How we interpret the meaning of people’s clothes, makeup, gestures, and vocal characteristics depends not only on their gender, but on our own culture and value systems.

The Bible contains a single line forbidding cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5,) yet many Christian women who claim to be biblical literalists wear pants, vests, and ties. We are forced to ask tough questions about what gender roles have to do with Christian ethics. Is it okay for a man to wear a kilt? A toga? Since fashion changes with the times, is it a Christian virtue to be conventionally fashionable?

I think these are all good questions that challenge us to think more deeply about marriage, sexual ethics, and the things our society considers good and bad. Unfortunately, because a few anti-gay Christians have liberally used fallacious logic and hateful rhetoric, they have undermined the credibility of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere. Those of us who believe that Christian ethics has an important role to play in public life wind up doing damage control. Naturally, plenty of non-religious people have come to believe religion itself is the original sin that plagues our society. As Paul said to the religious leaders of his day, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Both Jewish and Christian ethics have a long tradition of reframing and reinterpreting the Bible. Jews have somehow avoided stoning disobedient children and adulterers for thousands of years in spite of the fact that they don’t believe in the Christian “new covenant.” Their history of rabbinical argument and dialogue has been a model for Jewish communities about how to read and interpret sacred scripture. When our faith seeks understanding, we leave behind childish things.

I’ve entertained this question, “Why don’t we marry mops,” because I think it’s important for thinking Christians to recognize and name the fact that we use ethical norms other than “what the Bible says.” Rejecting heterosexist or anti-gay norms does not mean we reject all norms and values, or even Christian ones. In fact, we may emphasize other norms, like consent and personal autonomy, that are more conducive to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For more reading:

Does the Bible Mean?

A reflection on Margaret Farley’s 7 Norms for Sexual Ethics

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

5 thoughts on “Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

  1. I think you skimmed over the polygamy issue. I’ve often wondered if Mormons will reinstitute polygamy if it becomes legal. Will the hatelessness exist if Mormons exercise their legal right to have multiple spouses as prophets of old, or will intra-Christian ridicule reignite as it did when Mormons first instituted the practice in the 1800s?

    • I did skim the polygamy / polyamory issue, because I feel like it’s a bit of a rabbit trail, although I do think it’s relevant. I suppose my biggest critique of polygamy / polyamory is that it violates a norm of exclusive commitment and calls into question equal power relationships. In classic polygamy (polygyny), women, girls, and even young boys often wind up the “losers” in that kind of social arrangement. It requires an unequal distribution of men and women, and anyone who is not an older male does not have the same level of freedom or power. With that said, I can imagine polygyny being adaptive for “frontier” societies – but I can also imagine us sending a spaceship to another planet to colonize it with an exclusively female crew and medical technology necessary for reproduction. Why use men at all?

      I like Margaret Farley’s norms for sexual ethics, which includes mutuality, equality, and commitment. I suppose my critique of polyamory begins with the idea that it takes a lifetime of exclusive commitment to truly know another person intimately, and that adequate respect given to that process doesn’t leave time for anyone else. I think exclusive commitment is one way to protect the idea that people are treated as ends instead of means, that others are not used for their sexual utility only (either for pleasure or reproductive purposes), but are valued as complete subjective selves.

      I also find interesting Jesus’ statement that in the resurrection, people do not marry, but are like the angels. The assumption is often that it means people are without gender or sexuality, but it could just as easily mean that with an eternity on your hands, you could have plenty of time to “know” others and God in a way that transcends conventional sexuality. Exclusivity is not as important if you are going to live forever.

      I think discussing marriage practices in other cultures requires sensitivity and scientific thinking, and I don’t like anti-Mormon or anti-rural-Zambian or anti-ancient-Hebrew prejudice. But I think it’s appropriate to point out the sexist values that often undergird polygyny. My bias toward equality suggests that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

  2. Pingback: Christian sexual ethics for dummies: Why we don’t marry mops | RMN+

  3. Pingback: What Good is Monogamy? | Dave Barnhart's Blog

Comments are closed.