A Point by Point Commentary on Brandan Robertson's "Rethink Sex"

Douglas P. McManaman
April 7, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Brandan Robertson, a bisexual writer, activist, and pastor from San Diego, California, wrote Rethink Sex as a reply to an article by Katherine Willis Pershey in which she provides good reasons for the traditional view that sex ought to be reserved for marriage--the basis of her claim is the contrast between the experience of women who have had sex outside of marriage, followed as it is by feelings of shame and emotional emptiness, and the experience of women who engage in sex within marriage, which she describes as healing and deeply fulfilling.

Brandan replies:

As a queer Christian, I too have experienced this line of thinking among many of my LGBTQ+ Christian peers who still hold tightly to a "traditional" sexual ethic. There seems to be an underlying belief that when we change our approach to Scripture on the topic of same-sex love, we must do everything we can to uphold and maintain the other pillars of a conservative sexual ethic to prove to conservatives that accepting LGBTQ+ people isn't a slippery slope towards debauchery. We therefore distance ourselves from the broader queer community and their sexual "promiscuity" and try to live into a conservative sexual paradigm.

I won't for a minute judge either Pershey or my queer colleagues for their choice to advocate for sexual expression within marriage alone- I think this is a fine and healthy path for many people. I do, however, think that both approaches are shortsighted from a Biblical and theological standpoint, and that by reinforcing these strict sexual boundaries we will continue to perpetuate sexual shame that has led to such sexual unhealth in conservative Christian contexts. After all, studies show that 80% of unmarried evangelicals engage in premarital sex (Forbes) and the divorce rate among evangelicals is higher than that of the non-religious.

This is an interesting line: "By reinforcing strict sexual boundaries, we will continue to perpetuate sexual shame that has led to..." Towards the end of his article, Brandan draws boundaries that are not quite as strict, but are nevertheless too strict for many LGBTQ+ colleagues of his. Wherever he decides those boundaries should be drawn, they will lead some people--according to this reasoning--to experience sexual shame, because they will not have kept within those boundaries drawn by Brandan. I'm referring to the sexually promiscuous that he mentions at the end, an avenue that he rejects. But why not just remove all boundaries? That way we remove all sexual shame.

Another point to be made regards his claim that 80% of unmarried evangelicals engage in premarital sex and the divorce rate among evangelicals is higher than that of the non-religious. I have heard of similar statistics that show a divorce rate that is highest for those couples who have engaged in premarital sex with many partners, second highest for couples who have engaged in premarital sex but only with the person they ended up marrying, and is lowest for those who were virgins when they married. Isn't it the case that Brandon's highlight of the correlation between fornication among unmarried evangelicals and an unusually high divorce rate actually helps the case of those who argue for traditional sexual ethics? In any case, the fact that 80% of unmarried evangelicals engage in premarital sex does not argue against the veracity of the words of Christ:

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile." When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, "Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine? But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, fornication (porneia), theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile." (Mk 7, 15-22).

Indeed, there are inconsistencies in the Scriptures when they are interpreted at face value, but when they are read within a logic of history, then the matter is quite clear: the Old Testament must be read in light of the New, since Christ is the Word made flesh, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2, 3). Christ corrects Old Testament theology, i.e., that the blind are cursed by God by virtue of ancestral sin, that man is made for the sabbath, that divorce is permissible , etc., and he can do so because he is God in the flesh, for only God can change the Torah (see the Sermon on the Mount: "You heard how it was said...but I say this to you…"). Here in Mark 7, Jesus clearly lists fornication as one of the behaviours that defiles a person.

Let's get statistics on the percentages of evangelicals who lie, who are greedy, who envy, who are arrogant, and who steal. If over 50% of these engage in any of these behaviours, should we argue for the need to rethink theft, lying, greed, envy, and arrogance? I suspect that for Brandan, these can stay. It is only fornication that needs to be re-thought, because after all, it is so difficult to control these passions when you are young, so Jesus couldn't possibly have meant for us to take him seriously. So, are we to accept that although we--including Brandan--believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man, even the God-man can undergo some minor corrections?

Brandan continues: "Somewhere, there is a clear disconnect between this "traditional ethic" and the lived reality of most Christian people".

There certainly is a disconnect. Not only with respect to sexual ethics, but with a whole host of moral issues, such as lying, fraud, theft, indifference, etc. But the solution is not to lighten the demands on the side of moral requirements, but to strengthen our own resolve and to commit more ardently to growing in the virtues. That can be tough.

He writes: "Most evangelicals profess this ethic and yet live in contradiction to it, which seems to suggest that perhaps we have lost faith in the validity of claims of the traditional ethic".

Either they have lost faith in the validity of the claims of traditional ethics, or they have not lost faith in the validity of those claims, but instead have lost faith in their ability to rise above--on their own strength--the tendency to sin and are now turned to Christ in their struggle towards becoming the person God intends for us to become, through the grace he provides. There is of course a third option: these evangelicals have resigned themselves to sin, and so they profess one thing but have chosen to live in a way that contradicts that profession. That's the definition of a hypocrite.

He continues: "I know this is true in my own life. I grew up hearing pastors and youth ministers urging us not to have sex until were married, warning us that if we do, we will give away part of ourselves that we will never get back. That we will feel a deep sense of impurity and brokenness. That we will hurt our chances of finding a godly partner in the future, because no one wants "used goods". When you hear these tropes over and over again- none of which have even the slightest grounding in Scripture by the way- you begin to believe them at a deep level."

The reasons provided by his early youth ministers may be extra-biblical, yet it is precisely such "reasons" that allow people to see the "reasonableness" of what it is they believe on faith. To limit oneself to the pages of the Scriptures alone would be to take a fundamentalist route. Moreover, none of the "reasons" Brandan provides for his re-drawing of the boundary lines has the slightest grounding in the Scriptures either.

He writes: "So, when I, as a hormonal young teenage boy found myself making out with my girlfriend and engaging in heavy petting, I immediately felt overwhelming shame. I felt judged by God. I felt like I had irreversibly destroyed my hope for a godly relationship in the future. I would make my girlfriend kneel with me and pray for God's forgiveness. I remember telling her, "If we keep doing this, I can never be a Pastor! God doesn't want impure servants." As I heaped this guilt upon her, she wept and so did I."

At least Brandan is not a psychopath. These feel no guilt, and they take sex lightly because they take people lightly; one of the questions on the psychopathy checklist test is whether or not you take sex lightly.

He continues: "However, once the emotional moment of guilt and shame passed, we both often would have honest conversation in hushed tones where we admitted that we felt fine spiritually and physically. When I finally did have "full" sex for the first-time years later, this was again my experience. I was nervous and it wasn't incredibly fun- but is anyone's first time? But as I walked out of the apartment of the boy I was dating, I felt…good. I felt that we'd had a good and awkward time, and I actually looked forward to having sex again".

Brandan felt good this time around. Is that something to celebrate? Doesn't that reveal a definite move towards the psychopathic end of the continuum? "The first time I stole something, I was nervous and felt guilty afterwards, and so I prayed for forgiveness, but years later when I stole a car, I felt good." Does this mean that theft might not be so bad after all?

He continues: "We weren't in a committed relationship. We weren't married. And we'd stop seeing each other about a month or so later. And we both were fine. There was truly no sense of shame or brokenness."

It is not clear what point can be logically implied here; for he has two options before him: Either 1) there is something wrong with the precept, or 2) there is something wrong with the person who can't live up to the precept.

Brandan continues: "As I reflected on this, I began to ask some hard questions of my inherited theology. As I shared my experience with other Christian friends, they too echoed what I had experienced. When I talked to my non-Christian friends, they looked at me like I was insane for thinking that I would feel some sort of brokenness at all after having sex. Years later, I tend to think they were right- it is insane to teach people to expect sex to be shameful or harmful in any context where it is consensual, desired, and being done from a place of health and wholeness."

In other words, it is insane to hold up this teaching of Christ and feel guilt for falling short of it. Since Brandan looks for biblical foundations for moral claims, where is his biblical foundation for this claim? And of course, that would mean that St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, is simply insane: "Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Co 6, 9-11).

He writes: "The truth is that most people in the world have sex outside of marriage."

And the truth is that most people lie, cheat, steal, are envious, proud, slothful, avaricious, are unjust, think only of themselves, etc.

He continues: "Most people in the world will hook-up with someone at some point in their lives with no intention of having a lasting romantic relationship with that person. And most people will have a positive experience during and after the sexual encounter."

Unless, of course, they haven't wiped out the voice of their own conscience in this matter.

But the crux of his article is here: "If this is true, then we should be drawn back to our tradition and our text to see where we're missing the mark with our sexual ethic. After all, when reality and your theology clash, it is your theology that needs to change."

But why stop here, at considerations of sexual matters? Why not continue with the rest of traditional ethics to see where we're missing the mark. After all - according to his reasoning - , it is our personal and subjective experience that is the measure of the veracity of Christ's precepts. Not Christ.

And what about the "reality" of those who do continue to feel shame for deliberately engaging in behaviour (even sexual behaviour) that clearly falls short of Christ's precepts, i.e., adultery or fornication? Does their reality count? Or has that been dismissed as unreality, because it is not Brandan's experience of life after sex? What about the "reality" of those who can kill without feeling all that bad afterwards, like Christians who support abortion or active euthanasia, and who would actually counsel abortion and cooperate (both formally and materially) with someone who wants an abortion or wants to euthanize grandma? It would seem that if we are to be consistent, then that part of our theology would have to change as well.

He writes: "Theology is a human attempt to comprehend the works of God in the world. As finite beings seeking to understand the infinite Creator, we often fall short in our understanding and reformation is necessary."

Indeed, that is true, but how is Brandan so sure that he hasn't fallen short in his understanding? And how is he sure that what he says does not need serious reformation?

He continues: "When we dig deeply into the Christian tradition and explore what the Church has taught about sex, we quickly see that there has never been a single coherent sexual ethic for Christians. And the ethic that has been most consistent is one that almost no modern Christians would adhere to, best articulated in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, which defines the primary role of sex as procreative and secondarily unitive. Any sexual expression that does not offer the possibility of procreation is therefore sinful."

That's not quite true. There is no possibility of procreation for a woman who is past menopause, but that does not make her sexual expression within marriage sinful. Nor is marital intercourse during the non-fertile phases of the fertility cycle sinful.

He writes: "The fundamental belief at the core is that sexual pleasure in and of itself is disordered and seeking sex for enjoyment is a dangerous path to walk down."

There is a real distinction between having sex for pleasure and having sex as an expression and celebration of conjugal love. The former is a sensible good (pleasure), the latter is an intelligible human good. To have sex with another for the sake of pleasure is to use another as a means to an end, because pleasure "is in me", and so if the end or purpose is "in me", then the 'other' becomes a means to my end. But if the sexual act is an expression of one flesh union, then pleasure is not the end, but the 'other' becomes the end, since the two married one another each for the sake of the other; pleasure accompanies this humanly good act.

Brandan writes: "The Catechism defines lust as "the inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure." In other words, it seems that God has given us the proverbial tree of sexual expression but has told us not to eat of the tree or enjoy the taste of its luscious fruit. In my estimation, this would make God incredibly cruel."

The key word here is "inordinate". The word means "disordered". And indeed, I sometimes struggle with a disordered appetite for sweets. I can wolf down three of those Lindt Bunnies in less than a minute. But I would feel guilty doing so. It seems that God has given me the proverbial tree of Lindt Bunnies but has told me not to eat of that tree or enjoy its fruit. That makes God incredibly cruel. Why don't I just pack in this Christianity and go out and buy a dozen of those bunnies and have at it?

He continues: "He has made sexual desire a fundamental part of the wiring of humanity, he has given us the ability to have extreme pleasure through engaging in sex but has told us we should rarely engage in any form of sexual expression for the sake of pleasure and without the goal of procreation."

Perhaps the "extreme pleasure" is a way of assuring the perpetuation of the species. Perhaps that is why food and drink are so enjoyable. What a cruel God, telling me that I shouldn't eat for the mere taste of food, but only with the goal of sustenance and health.

He writes: "I know of no Protestant Christians that advocate for this rigid understanding of sexuality, and I doubt that many Roman Catholics live by these standards. They aren't tenable, not because humans are so broken and cannot control ourselves, but because these ethics fly in the face of observable reality, of modern psychology, and of most people's experience."

That certainly opens up a lot of doors: "Keep the Sabbath day holy, honour your father and mother, do not commit adultery, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not envy your neighbor's goods", etc., all fly in the face of observable reality and most people's experience. Shall we ditch the entire decalogue?

He writes: "This so-called "traditional" understanding of sexual ethics severely limits what is understood to be healthy sexual expression and leads, I believe, to deeply unhealthy behaviors in individuals who try to repress their sexual desire to fit in this narrow paradigm."

But Brandon did say in the previous paragraph that we are able to control ourselves: "...not because humans are so broken and cannot control ourselves,..." So, instead of repressing one's sexual desires, perhaps one should control them, that is, order them in accordance with the demands of the natural moral law, that is, in accordance with reason, and the measure of reason is not and has never been what most people are doing, but the moral law and the words of Christ himself. After all, the emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason (Conrad Baars).

He continues: "I believe that sex is intended for procreation. I also believe sex is intended for deepening relationship. And I also believe sex has always been intended to simply be a gift- a way to bring pleasure, release, and joy into our day to day lives. Sometimes sex can do all three of these things at once, and that is an incredible experience (I presume). Sometimes it may fulfill two of these intentions. And sometimes just one. But sexual expression for any of these purposes can be good and healthy."

It can also be sensibly good but intelligibly unhealthy. So, what is the criteria that will enable us to distinguish morally healthy sex from morally unhealthy sex? After all, both morally healthy and morally unhealthy sex involve the pleasure of orgasm, so orgasm can't be the criterion. And Brandan has eliminated shame and guilt as a criterion. So what's left? The boundaries Christ drew or the boundaries that Brandan now draws? Brandan expects others who are reasonable to go along with him (Brandan), while Christ expects us to go along with him (Christ). Into which basket are you going to put your eggs?

He writes: "Sexual expression for any of these purposes can also be damaging- a woman being used by a man just to produce offspring with complete disregard of relational intimacy or her pleasure is a cruel and wicked practice that has been carried out by "faithful men" throughout history."

That's very true. Brandan needs to uncover the principles that allow us to determine that this behaviour is indeed immoral. After having done that, it is only a matter of applying those principles consistently. That will take us full circle and back to traditional sexual ethics.

He continues: "Sex for purely selfish, overly-hedonistic desires can cause us to feel used or abused."

Overly-hedonistic? Does this mean that "hedonistic" is now okay, but "overly-hedonistic" not okay? And how do we determine what is "overly-hedonistic"? The traditional criterion is that when you have received the body of another sexually without committing yourself entirely to that person, you are being "overly-hedonistic" - she could conceive a child, and then she and her child would be without proper protection from a husband and father. What's Brandan's criterion for "overly-hedonistic" as opposed to acceptably hedonistic?

He writes: "At the same time, sex between two consenting individuals for the sake of the pleasure of both people can be an incredibly enriching experience, even when procreation or long-term relational commitment are not the goal."

What is his biblical foundation for this claim - since he seems to believe that biblical foundation is important? And where is his extra-biblical foundation for this claim, that is, his support from human "reason"? Why should anyone accept his claim? What psychological support does he have for this? Especially in light of the statistics on the correlation between premarital sex and suicide.

He writes: "I know that this is true because I've experienced it. I've experienced fulfilling sex for the sake of pleasure. I also have experienced the beauty of sex in the context of committed relationship with a partner. And while I've never engaged in procreation, I know many friends who have conceived children and talk about how deeply fulfilling that experience it is. These contexts and experiences are different to be sure, but all of them are good. All of them are healthy. And all of them should be advocated for in Christian contexts."

And I've experienced "fulfilling" meals with too much wine, too much beer, and too many servings of the main course and dessert--without guilt I might add. Does that mean gluttony is no longer a sin?

He writes: "In Scripture there is no clear and consistent sexual ethic. In one place, you see God blessing Kings with many wives and concubines, and in other places we see God rewarding sexual fidelity between two individuals."

It would follow that there is no clear and consistent teaching on marriage and adultery either. Nor would there be a consistent teaching on killing: "When Yahweh sent you on a mission he said to you, "Go and put those sinners, the Amalekites, under the curse of destruction and make war on them until they are exterminated" (1 Sam 15, 18); "You heard how it was said 'You shall not kill', ...but I say this to you… (Mt 5, 21).

He continues along this line of reasoning: "In one place we read broad condemnation of living in sexual excess, but in another place an encouragement to express our sexual desire in marriage. I think these inconsistencies are intentional, because a person's sexuality is a unique expression of their God-given identity. No two sexualities are the same. Desires will differ from one person to another."

Condemnation of sexual excess in one place of Scripture and an encouragement to express sexual desire in marriage are not inconsistencies at all, any more than condemnation of drunkenness in one place and Psalm 104 are inconsistent ("God created wine to cheer the hearts of men").

He writes: "Some people will find tremendous fulfillment having sex with one person their whole life. Some people will find contentment never having sex at all. And most people, I presume, will experience a fulfilling sex life engaging in a number of these "purposes" for sex- for pleasure, for relational connection, and for procreation."

But there is one more option: Some people will also experience a fulfilling sex life engaging in sex with a number of partners, in a number of positions, with a number of sexes, in a number of places, etc. Why are Brandan's boundaries any more sacred than anyone else's?

He continues: "If we teach that these are all appropriate expressions of sexuality, accompanied by the guardrails of general Christian virtues like self-sacrificial love, restraint, moderation, dignity, and respect, I believe we will set people up for a more healthy and holy expression of their God-given sexuality."

The only problem is who is going to decide precisely where the guardrails are to be installed? Who is going to provide the standard of moderation, restraint, and respect? Why should anyone restrain themselves according to Brandan's criterion? Perhaps moving the guardrails does not go far enough. Perhaps they should be removed altogether, especially if one's personal experience suggests as much.

What I am not advocating for is a sexual free for all.

Now that he mentions it, why not?

I do believe that the Scripture clearly and consistently warns us against becoming controlled by lust.

But most people do not pay attention to such warnings, and when biblical warnings and a theology based on them come into conflict with reality, theology has to change, at least according to Brandan. And the very same Person who listed fornication as a vice that defiles a person made the precepts of the Torah more strict with a warning against lust: "You heard how it was said 'You shall not commit adultery', but I say this to you: Anyone who looks upon a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5, 28). How's that for a clash with reality?

He writes: "I don't think living a life filled with constant hook-ups with random people is healthy, nor do I think two young people rushing in to marriage so they can have sex is healthy either. Both behaviors seem to stem from an inability to maturely control sexual passion, which admittedly is difficult, but is one of the only clear teachings of Scripture on the topic."

I don't disagree with this, but if he is saying that it is possible and good to maturely control sexual passion - and he admits that it is difficult but possible - , then what is so "insane" about maintaining that one ought to "maturely control sexual passion" in order that it be reserved for the context of a committed married relationship? Why is that an insane limit, yet control of sexual passion is not insane? He's just drawing a wider boundary line and declaring that anything narrower is "insane". For example, his next line is: "Moderation and restraint are the keys to a healthy sexual ethic".

He continues: "We should always be asking ourselves why we are seeking to express our sexuality- is this out of a centered, healthy place, or is this in an attempt to self-medicate, to fill some deep void within us? If it is for these reasons, then we would do well to refrain and seek more productive ways to find healing."

What he says here is "reasonable", and it is extra-biblical, but it is no less reasonable than the points provided by those youth ministers in his young life who were exhorting him to also refrain and keep sex for marriage.

He continues: "But if we're engaging because we are seeking to enjoy the good gift that God has given to us from a healthy, respectful, consensual place, we should throw off the weight of shame and engage freely and joyfully in the gift of sexual expression."

"Throw off the weight of shame" is a dangerous piece of advice. What about hiring a prostitute? Why not throw off the weight of shame here and at the same time provide employment for someone - as long as it is "safe"?

He says: "Sex is a gift from God that is meant for our joy and God's glory. When we finally begin to believe that, I believe we'll begin to see the health and healing that the Church so desperately needs after years of advocating a negative, narrow, and shame-based sexual ethic."

But sexual morality should never be shame-based, but love based. Shame should only arise out of behaviour that is selfish. Similarly, lying should never be shame-based, but love based, and shame should only arise after one has lied. Absence of shame in these cases might very well be a sign of a damaged conscience.

And once again, Jesus' boundary is too narrow for Brandan, but Brandan's boundary lines are too narrow for many others as well. Who is right?

Finally, he writes: "Each of us should be free to explore and discover how God has wired us sexually and seek to live according to the values of Jesus and inner-authenticity. For some, that may mean reserving sex for a marriage relationship. For others, that may mean expressing your sexuality more freely. Both have a place in God's design for sex, and therefore both should be celebrated by the Church."

But who says that both have a place in God's design for sex? And how does Brandan know this? If one makes a claim, one must provide evidence. In theology, the evidence to back your claims is Scripture, the teachings of Christ - this is especially true for someone like Brandan, who speaks of living according to the values of Jesus. So where is the Scriptural evidence for his claim that both have a place in God's design for sex? And why doesn't "adultery" have a place in God's design for marriage? Perhaps adultery does have its place, and traditional sexual ethics has been too narrow on this issue as well. How do we know?