Does a virtue-based ethic mean the church is wrong about sex?

Evangelical theologian Preston Sprinkle, who, like me, supports the church’s traditional stance against homosexual practice, is hosting a debate on his blog between himself and a gay-affirming Christian ethicist named Jeff Cook. There have been a few exchanges so far.

Cook’s argument, which you can read about here and here, is that the New Testament promotes a virtue-based ethic rather than a rule-based ethic for Christian living. We are not righteous, he says, because we follow rules—even God’s rules—apart from a corresponding change of heart. (I don’t disagree so far.) To make his case, Cook cites Jesus’ frequent denunciations of the Pharisees, for example. They followed all the rules, yet they were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

But here’s where it gets tricky: Following rules is good inasmuch as those rules promote virtuous living. If there’s no virtue at stake in following a rule (as he understands what counts as virtue) then Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament would say that we don’t need to follow it.

From Cook’s perspective, a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship is virtuous, therefore when Paul condemns homosexual practice, he must be talking about something other than that kind of relationship. And so, like many gay-affirming Christians, he interprets Paul’s words against homosexual practice to be about exploitative, non-consensual, and/or pederastic relationships.

There’s much to disagree with here. The most important question, as usual in these debates, pertains to one’s view of the authority of scripture. It strikes me as arrogant to say, as Cook seems to, that God’s Word—properly exegeted and interpreted—has to make perfect sense to our finite and fallible minds before we’re willing to obey it. In other words, if we believe that scripture tells us that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful, then why isn’t that enough for us?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying, “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion.” On the contrary, I’m saying that we need to have the discussion first—to make sure that we have properly understood what God is telling us through his Word. But once we’ve done that—bringing our best thinking to bear and availing ourselves of the wisdom of the saints who’ve gone before us—then, as a matter of integrity, we ought be prepared to obey it, trusting that God is telling us the truth in the Bible that he gave us.

An open mind isn’t meant to remain open forever! As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Be that as it may, in the comments section of Cook’s second post, I wrote the following, taking his argument at face value. Feel free to tell me where my logic fails:

Notice in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul confronts the issue of incest head-on. In doing so, he’s looking back to the sex “rules” of Leviticus 18 and 20. For all we know, this man and his stepmother were committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship (the man’s father was obviously dead). What harm would this man and his stepmother be causing anyone? He’s not related to this woman by blood. His father is out of the picture.

As Cook says, “because virtue and divine commands go hand in hand, there must be a virtue-focused reason,” in this case, for Paul’s objecting to this seemingly “borderline” incestuous relationship.

What possible virtue would this relationship be violating? In other words, what is the basis of Paul’s objection, other than that he believes that incestuous relationships, per se, are sinful—that they are, indeed, as contrary to God’s intentions for sexual behavior as homosexual practice?

I can’t imagine a virtue-based objection in this case. Can Cook?

Yet by Cook’s logic, unless there were such an objection, Paul ought to say that the “rule” against incest no longer applies in this case—so long as the couple were behaving virtuously. Instead, Paul tells the church to remove the man from their fellowship in hopes that he’ll come to his senses and be saved! Paul’s language couldn’t be stronger.

Cook is also confident, along with so many other gay-affirming Christians, that Paul is really talking about exploitative, non-consensual, pederastic, or idolatrous same-sex relationships, not committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Granted, this would be a hard case to make, given that these kinds of relationships did exist and were well-known in the cosmopolitan circles in which Paul traveled.

Nevertheless, Cook’s words fail to appreciate that Paul also condemns lesbian sex in the same breath as male homosexual sex. Based on what I’ve read, lesbian sex in antiquity was not known to be exploitative, non-consensual, or pederastic.

Again, why does Paul fail to see any virtue in these relationships?

14 thoughts on “Does a virtue-based ethic mean the church is wrong about sex?”

  1. Paul was very clear headed in his arguments. He went deep, and he anticipated every counter argument. If you look honestly enough you will find it.

    I think that this issue of homosexuality is one on which the church is going to divide. As John Piper puts it; between the “purity boys” and the “unity boys”. For full sermon see:


    He notes that Paul is very clear on this divisiveness in Romans 16:17-18:

    “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

    As Brent points our, the “unity boys” want to bring all committed, monogamous homosexual couples into the church. It is not new. We already do this with committed, monogamous, but unmarried heterosexual couples, don’t we?

    But Paul, in the writing, says that we must “avoid them”. We must divide from them “for the sake of truth based unity”, as Piper puts it.

    This is a painful thing, but the alternative is to continue to accept the watering down of the truth of Scripture for the sake of unity. We all know that if you water something down enough that it loses all of its taste and all of its essence.

    Where do we draw the line?

    1. “If you look honestly enough you will find it.” I think that’s right. Whereas if you approach the question with a desire to overturn the church’s traditional verdict regarding these scriptures, well… the human capacity for self-deception is endless.

  2. “Progressives” are always trying to make God and the Church “user friendly”. A perfectly righteous God of “absolutes” is a threat to the free will of man. And, this free will, which they love to talk about, must be free to do mischief.

    It’s remaking God in man’s image(nation). 🙂

    1. If you peruse the comments section of one of the links above, you’ll see that this guy, Cook, replied to me. He said he “liked” my argument, and I think I responded well to his rebuttal.

      My point to him was: By all means, God has good reasons for giving us the laws and commands that he gives us in his Word. Indeed, there is “virtue” (as Cook likes to say) in every command of God that he expects us to follow. My problem, however, is this: As finite, fallible human beings, it’s not our place to fully understand those virtues before we obey. How can we understand eternal things? How can we understand the mind of God? Yet Cook would have us believe that unless or until we do, we are free to disregard God’s commands.

      I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his position. Because he can’t see any harm in two men or two women having sex with one another, it must be O.K.

      I just can’t abide that. At what point are we humble enough to trust that our God, who is infinitely smarter than we are, knows what he’s doing?

  3. I looked at the blog. Hard to follow. I didn’t see a comment by you.??

    I liked the discussion about “covenant relationships”. This is something that the heterosexual couples spend a lot of time writing into their ceremonies and then ignoring to often.

    Back to the blog. I think it is useful to hear rational polite comments from each side, but at the end of the day I agree with Al Cruise. You will alway end up with one side affirming and the other not.

    My own view is that the right of same sex couples to marry under secular law is all but assured given current momentum. It appears that there will also be churches aplenty that will “bless the union”. Why do whole denominations need to tear themselves apart on the issue? That’s where “the harm” is happening.

    I agree with you on the “no harm” comment in the blog. There are a lot of things that result in no harm, say beastiality, but that’s not an argument for affirmation of the behavior. God does set boundaries.

      1. I found your exchange. You are good.

        Wow! Hillary just weighed in……

    1. The bestiality comment is a good one because we can say that bestiality is wrong simply because God didn’t make us to have sex in this way. That is a sufficient reason. It’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s not clear from Cook’s argument that there’s anything “harmful” to an animal about having sex with it. Yet I’m sure Cook would say that this behavior is abhorrent. By that same logic, why wouldn’t this apply to same-sex sexual relationships? Why is it not enough to say that it’s wrong because this is not how we are created to behave? Just thinking out loud here.

      Cook’s logic doesn’t obviously rule out bestiality any more than incest in some cases.

  4. Basically consistent with what you observe above, it is a “virtue” in itself to “trust and obey” God. We don’t have to look for some “other” virtue to inspire us to do what God says. Also, it IS a virtue to have a monogamous heterosexual relationship, for purposes of, among other things, having a “healthy family unit.” As Malachi says, “And why one? Because he desires a godly offspring.”

    What the “pro-homosexuals” do is simply decide that they aren’t going to obey God in not doing what he prohibits unless it is something they don’t want to do anyway. (Like bestiality.) Then try to come up with some fancy “rationale” to justify their disobedience, never minding that it totally slaughters the passages.

    Finally, I might be somewhat sympathetic towards someone who would honestly say, “Yes, I know it is wrong, but I just can’t seem to beat it.” We all fall prey to one temptation or another that can “eat our lunch” from time to time. But the solution is to “confess” that it is a sin and regret it, not argue that it is not a sin in the first place.

    1. I believe strongly that the complementarity of mother and father together provide the best environment for raising children. But then the pushback would be, “Yes, but what about infertile couples? Do their marriages not count?”

      1. The “infertile” defeating the “rule” is like saying if someone is lame in one leg, everybody should hop around on one leg. You don’t “change the rule” just because some comparatively few people may not be able to fully participate in the blessings of the union. Something like that, anyway.

  5. Another pushback that gives me pause comes from friends who have a homosexual son, daughter, brother or sister. They don’t stop loving them, and I don’t think I would either. They also say that “hating the sin – loving the sinner” just doesn’t work in when it’s that close. The other party doesn’t just want love; they want acceptance and validation.

    It makes me think long and hard about how I would handle it. It’s easy for me to say that I would still maintain that it was sin, but I can imagine that it’s an emotional wringer.

    In some way that I don’t understand, this is also a part of God’s plan.

    1. I’ve been challenged by that same question from clergy colleagues: “What if you had a child who was gay? I bet you’d change your tune!” To which I say, “I hope not!” To me, this is like saying, “Would you still believe in a loving God if your child was killed in some freakish accident?” I hope so! Because I’ve already thought it all through. This is the advantage of arguments from reason and logic: they don’t depend on personal experience. And they shouldn’t! Emotions change; they’re not a reliable foundation on which to build one’s faith. But God’s Word is.

  6. Oh, I agree with what you are saying. I think my understanding of God’s Word is clear. I was just saying that I understand that when you factor love into the equation, which is what we should do in all instances, you look harder for ways to be loving in your response. And that is complicated. The final result may be a breach between the parties, as irreconcilable, but it should not be reached without much loving effort.

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