I continue to (slowly) work my way through my series on “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
Those keeping up with the numbers will notice that I skipped #7 and #8. Well, that is because those chapters in Gulley’s book were decidedly not progressive. Indeed, I agreed with many things in those chapters and found them helpful.
But, as we turn to the ninth commandment, the progressive emphasis returns with vigor: “We should care more about love and less about sex.”
Of all the postmodern cliches that abound, this one may be the most common. And it’s quite effective, rhetorically speaking. After all, it tells people what they already want to hear. They want to hear that they have all the sexual freedom they desire and, at the same time, that they are good people who are just about “love.”
It allows a person to keep their questionable behavior and congratulate themselves on their own moral superiority–at the same time.
Gulley’s book expands this cliche into a full-blown argument for sexual freedom. And he does so by adopting an all-too-common strategy. I will let out his strategy step by step.
Step #1: Tout the moral virtues of those in sexual sin
The first step in the playbook is to show that those people engaging in the disputed sexual behavior are genuinely nice, wonderful and all-around virtuous folks. This is a move designed to make people second-guess whether the sexual sin is all that bad. After all, if it’s so bad, then how could such wonderful people be doing it?
Our put another way, if wonderful people engage in a behavior I think is wrong, then maybe I ought to rethink whether it is wrong.
Gulley brilliantly executes this move. His first example is of an elderly couple in their eighties who are sleeping together outside of marriage (157-159). We are told that they were “kind,” they “warmly welcome” people into their “modest home,” and pictures of “grandchildren lined the walls” (158)
Thus, Gulley’s entire strategy is built on the premise that something is wrong only if they people doing it are mean-spirited jerks. In fact, Gully draws this conclusion directly: “The home they created was one of deep love and mutual respect. . . nothing about any of that felt like sin to me” (160).
But, this is not the way Christians think about morality. Christians don’t claim something is wrong only if “really awful” people do it. We argue something is bad if it conflicts with God’s character, which is reflected in his moral commandments.
Thus, Christians would argue it is very possible (and very common!) for very nice people with many other virtues to be engaged in behavior that is very wrong.
Of course, Gulley (and postmodern people in general) do not live out their premise consistently. If being nice makes a behavior OK, then what happens when a very nice person turns out to be a child molester? They certainly wouldn’t argue, in that instance, that we must accept such behavior.
Step #2: Insist that God has bigger things to worry about
The next step in the strategy is to downplay God’s holiness. He’s not concerned about sexual sin anyway. It doesn’t really bother him. He’s got bigger things to worry about.
Gulley states this plainly to the elderly couple, “You know, friends, I think God has bigger things to worry about. Let’s just be grateful you have each other” (158).
Of course, one is free to portray God in this manner. But, they cannot claim that this is the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is actually very holy, and talks a good bit about sexual activity and sexual sin. And that’s not just because God is prudish and “old school,” but because sexual sin hits at the heart of our humanity. It also hits against the way marriage reflects the union of Christ and his church.
Step #3: Show that the sexual behavior actually leads to good results
The third strategic step is no less brilliant. Gulley then shows how the sexual sin actually has good results. Or, if not good results, then at least that sexual activity solves other problems.
Standing behind this argument is an unspoken premise, namely that something is good if it leads to something good. Good results justify the behavior.
In terms of the elderly couple, Gulley notes that they were financially strapped and had to live together in order to make ends meet. Also, they were just “lonely” and needed the companionship (158).
The reason this strategic move works so well, is that anyone who insists they should not be living together sounds like they are callous to their financial situation and care nothing of their loneliness.
But, that is not the biblical perspective. One can still by very compassionate and sympathetic about their situation, and, at the same time, remind them they still need to follow God’s guidance for sexual activity. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Moreover, we would want to challenge the idea that good results justify the behavior. Again, postmodern folks don’t apply that to other areas. My inability to pay rent on my house does not give me the right to rob a bank.
Step #4: Portray those against certain sexual behaviors as mean-spirited and cruel
Every good story has a foil–a nemesis you can cheer against. In this story of the elderly couple, Gulley describes the church elder who first informed him of this couple’s situation. Instead of the warm, positive description given to the elderly couple, this man gets the opposite.
He is portrayed a “critical,” “unduly upset,” one who “roundly condemned” others, and eager to enforce his “rather extensive sexual code” (v.159). Gulley even implies he is financially stingy, unwilling to help this poor elderly couple.
So, according to Gulley’s overly simplistic portrayal, it’s not the people engaging in sexual sin that are the problem, but it is the guy who points it out who is the problem!
This is the morality of postmodernity. The tables are reversed.
Completely missing in this account is the idea that sin harms people and that perhaps this elder was genuinely concerned with the damage that sexual sin causes in peoples lives. In other words, is it possible–this is a shocking idea in our postmodern world–that is actually loving to confront sin?
Step #5: Insist Jesus is on your side
The final step in the justification of sexual sin is to enlist the help of Jesus. To do so, Gulley trots out the standard cliches about Jesus being more gracious to sinners than to the legalists. He even appeals (not surprisingly) to the story of Jesus being anointed by the sinful woman (166).
What Gulley leaves out, however, is that the woman came to Jesus not defiant in her sins but repentant of them! Indeed, Jesus indicates that “her sins. . . are many” but that they “are forgiven” (Luke 7:47). Yes, Jesus forgives sinners. But we must acknowledge and admit we are sinners.
In sum, Gulley’s ninth commandment is a masterpiece of progressive Christianity. It runs through the classic playbook of justifying sexual sin and, at first glance, can seem quite compelling.
But in the end it just doesn’t hold up. We are not called to care about love instead of sex. We are called to care about both.