We Need a New Christian Sexual Ethic

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Series, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 85 comments

New Christian Sexual Ethic

What if the current Christian sexual ethic isn’t working?

One of the big things to come out of our work evaluating the effects of purity culture is that our sexual ethic, the things that we taught teens about sex, is falling short. The way we’re teaching about sex is hurting people. We’re causing shame and confusion.

What if there’s another way to look at it–because Jesus shouldn’t cause shame and confusion!

Welcome to 2024 on the Bare Marriage blog! The big, huge thing that happened in 2023 was the release of our book She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self, and Speaking Up (and that book is on for $2.99 on Kindle all month!).

She Deserves Better was based on our survey of 7000 women, looking at how experiences as teens in Christian circles affected them long-term. And we found that we simply must do better about teaching about sex.

Rebecca and I have been talking about this on walks, and she’s the one who first came up with this idea:

We need a new sexual ethic that gives a positive vision for what health and wholeness looks like.

We need a sexual ethic that applies:

  • whether we are single or married;
  • whether we are young or old;
  • whether we are male or female.

We need a sexual ethic that is about our humanity, and how we express sexuality in a way that honors Jesus.

Because right now the sexual ethics that we are being given are largely failing us.

And what is a sexual ethic? 

It’s a statement of values or guidelines that express how we should act in sexual relationships, or that should govern how we treat each other sexually.

I think there are two competing sexual ethics right now: What would largely be called a Christian sexual ethic, and what would be termed a secular sexual ethic, and I think they can be summarized like this:

The Christian sexual ethic that we’re taught is largely: don’t have sex until you’re married!

This is what is communicated to children and teenagers. When I did the Passport to Purity puberty program from FamilyLife with Rebecca when she was 10, as soon as I told her what sex was I was also supposed to get her to promise never to have sex before she was married. Teaching about sex was always accompanied by, “but you have to wait to do it.”

But then very little else was ever said about it. There doesn’t seem to really be a sexual ethic for how you should treat each other once you are married (except for meeting each other’s sexual needs). There doesn’t seem to be an idea of what sexual ethics would look like if you’re not married.

It just seems like the important thing is don’t have anything to do with sex if you aren’t married, and then once you are–anything goes.

And what about a secular sexual ethic? 

I would argue that in our culture, consent replaces marriage as the non-negotiable. As long as it’s consensual, you can do whatever you want. Any sex act is therefore moral if it is consensual.

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

I think both versions of the sexual ethic fall short. 

I don’t think all acts are okay as long as they’re consensual. One can consent to being used and degraded, after all, and that’s not necessarily good. People can consent to something that hurts another (infidelity, porn use).

God made sex to be a sacred expression, and making it into the lowest common denominator seems to be what both versions of the sexual ethic do. Anything goes–as long as the conditions are right.

What if the starting point for our sexual ethic is wrong?

It seems like what both versions are trying to do is figure out, “is this right or wrong?”

What if that’s the wrong question?

If you studied psychology, you likely remember Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. At the youngest ages (pre-conventional), you’re just trying to avoid punishment. The conventional stages (ages 8-13), are about being known as a “good person”, and pursuing law & order and right & wrong.

But then there’s the post-conventional stage into adulthood, where it’s not about the rules but about the principle, which can be nuanced. And most people don’t reach that post-conventional stage.

What if we’re stuck in adolescence with our sexual ethic, just trying to figure out what’s right and wrong? What if there are bigger principles that are actually inspiring that can call us to more?

We’re stuck in the conventional stage, defining our sexual ethic in terms of, “is this a sin?”, rather than “is this treating people well and treating myself well? Is this honoring Christ?”

As I was thinking about this post, a commenter talking about something else left this thought, which perfectly encapsulates what I’m talking about:

Rich Villodas speaks about about how the opposite of sin is not goodness (not sinning) it’s love (Jesus ultimate act of love–dying on the cross, cancelled our debt of sin). Our calling as Christians is to love (the two greatest commandments) and when we aim to be like Jesus it should be to love more, like him.

But most Christians see it as to sin less in order to be like him.

But that leads to Christians who look at our sin outwardly and think “at least I’m not sinning as bad as that person” (that judgement itself being sinful) and as long as we feel we’re in a better position than the Christians around us then we are “good.” But if we actually took the command of “love more” seriously we wouldn’t weigh our actions as “how can I sin less than that guy?”, we would ask “how can I love my neighbour or God more?” And now it becomes an internal examination.

When our actions are to love more we will actually end up sinning less.

Exactly! What about a sexual ethic that causes us to love more–which will have the effect of making us sin less, but isn’t really focused on not sinning?

In that vein, I’d like to propose what I think can be a new sexual ethic that we can teach young, old, married, single, men, women. It calls us to more.

(And when I say “I”, I really mean Rebecca, since she thought of this first).

Here goes:

Our New Christian Sexual Ethic

Treat each other with respect and kindness, and honor the dignity in yourself and others.

That’s the sexual ethic I’d like to explore this month. 

We’ll look at each element in turn, and see what it might look like in different stages of our lives. And hopefully, through our conversations, we’ll flesh this out even more and have something that’s workable!

We Need a New Christian Sexual Ethic

What do you think of our first attempt at a new sexual ethic? What do you want to see included or talked about? What’s gone wrong with how we’ve handled this before? Let’s talk in the comments!

The New Sexual Ethic Series

  • We Need a New Sexual Ethic
  • Treat Each Other with Respect (coming January 15)
  • Treat Each Other with Kindness (coming January 22)
  • Honor the Dignity in Others (coming January 29)
  • Honor the Dignity in Yourself (coming January 31)
  • The New Sexual Ethic Podcast (coming February 1)

Plus don’t forget our book She Deserves Better is on for $2.99 on Kindle in January, and shows how our current sexual ethic has failed teens.

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Laura

    This is pretty much the exact same conclusion I came to as well. I love this!

  2. Jenney

    So can you do that outside of marriage? Or is “within marriage” included in treating others with respect and kindness, honoring their (and our own) dignity, etc? You’ll probably cover that!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, we should be doing this within marriage, and also with others outside of marriage. These should be the things that categorize how we treat one another!

      • Carol at home

        Christopher Yuan published a book entitled”Holy Sexuality”. I’m looking forward to reading it as it might provide insight.

      • Jenney

        Oh, I don’t mean “can we treat people with dignity and respect outside of marriage?” I wasn’t clear. I meant, could someone say “my sexual ethic is to treat people with honor and dignity and respect. And I do that with all the people I sleep with!” or is that impossible because restricting sex to marriage is inherently PART OF treating one’s sexual partner with dignity, honor, etc?

    • Ronda Stewart-Wilcox

      Spot on! Whatever the topic or behavior, the real question is how do I agape-love?

  3. John

    This is a great conversation to get going, we definitely need a new Christian sexual ethic. Really looking forward to the rest of these articles.

    A initial query, would be whether it is too generic a statement, as it applies to all aspects of any relationship, not just sexual?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think it pretty much applies all the time, but then when it comes to the sexual realm it takes on some unique things that I’d like to talk about.

      I think what has often happened is that we have made this into a dichotomy: This is how we treat others (kindness, love, etc.), and then this is what we do in bed. But it should all be one and the same, though the practicalities may differ.

      • Jen

        Yes. So often spouses are treated far worse than others outside of the marriage. Our spouse should get our best care, simply because we can care for them in the most intimate of ways (sexually, emotionally, physically, etc). When the few God has given you to care for (your spouse and children) get the worst care (or are neglected), something is definitely out of balance. We can treat everyone we encounter well without leaving the dregs for our spouse. Sexually, this would look like giving all of your time, attention, and energy to everyone/thing else and then coming home and “taking” sexual release from your spouse because that’s “what s/he’s there for.” Add in someone who gets aroused by the world, and you have a very poor marital sexual ethic.

        Excited for this series!

        • Cheyenne

          Great points about making a choice to give your best to your spouse Jen. Thank you!

      • Dr Kevin Jenson

        Deeply appreciate this exploration! “A New Christian Sexual Ethic” is the subtitle of my recent book (which refers gratefully to your work, by the way).

        One of the challenges I observe in what you’re doing here is that many Christians are more comfortable with narrowly defined in-groups and out-groups than with the personal responsibility of freedom.

        I am curious to see how you will navigate bringing this conversation to your audience, which is more conservative than mine… and would love to connect further if you’re open to dive into this topic or collaborate at some point.

        • Laura O'B

          I think Kevin Johnson hits the nail on the head with the statement that Christians are uncomfortable with “the personal responsibility of freedom”. So many evangelical churches, especially the fundamentalist ones (of which I once was a part), are so afraid to trust their people to exercise that personal freedom in Christ in “the right way”, and so they focus heavily on “thou shalt not!” instead of “Love God and your neighbour”. This leads to the heavy burden of legalism, and trying to find a set answer for every possible moral question.

          Sheila, I feel you’re heading in a great direction, the perfect alternative to that legalism, by encouraging Christians to focus on the NT imperative to LOVE. We have been freed from the need to be preoccupied with our sin; we have a foundation of imputed righteousness. With that as our benchmark, the answers to our moral questions become clear in any circumstance. I look forward to seeing how this is fleshed out in the coming weeks.

  4. Cheyenne

    Where does the scripture fall in this discussion of Christians creating their own sexual ethic?

    Seems like it would be foundational and essential to look to the One who created sex in the first place, then in His love for us gave us a manual of how He wants it to look.

    Attempting to create some type of new sexual ethic without first referring to Scripture seems akin to building a house on sand instead of on rock.

    Happy New Year and interested to see how this discussion progresses.

    • Donald Johnson

      Where does Scripture fit? is my question also.

    • Jo R

      It would be nice if the Christian sexual ethic, especially in marriage, encompassed all the “one another” verses, “do unto others,” “think of others more highly than yourself,” “it is more blessed to give than receive,” and all the other myriad verses that speak to how Christians should be treating one another in ALL areas if life, rather than assuming all those verses go out the window just because the guy has been taught he needs to orgasm on demand.

      • Cheyenne

        Why does a calm, reasonable question posed to a group of self professed Christians provoke such a harsh, sexist response from Jo R?

        Nathan, thank you for your calm, respectful answer. I agree with you that mutuality, and mutual compromise in a marriage, is scriptural, practical, and helpful.

        • Jo R

          Because “Christian” teachers taught me, and my husband, that only HE mattered during sex.

          Because that message continues to be propagated in a large, vocal swath of Christendom.

          Because it’s WOMEN who have a God-given body part whose only known function is sexual pleasure, and yet women have spent centuries been brainwashed into believing that that little bit of flesh can be ignored by the one person on the planet who ought to be most attentive to it—and the husband is called to focus on his own pleasure at the expense of the wife’s.

          Why aren’t more people bothered by those facts than by my pointing them out?

          • Nathan

            This happens on political sites as well. Calling out evil is worse than the evil act itself.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, exactly! That’s what we’ll be looking at.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s what we’re going to do in the next four posts as we spell it out.

      Also, Jesus said to love your neighbour as yourself, and that this was the greatest commandment. I kind of took that as a given!

    • JoB

      I would clarify that “new” in the context of this article doesn’t mean “different from the sexual ethic that Christians have been following since Jesus walked the earth or since Paul wrote his letters.” It means “different from the sexual ethic that gained widespread popularity in the Western evangelical church in the last 50 years, typified by the Purity Culture movement that was at its height in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, which resulted in an explosion of marriage/sex resources which had the label of ‘Christian’ but often caused harm.”

      Hope that distinction might help the conversation.

    • Kent

      I think where Scripture fits into this is where Jesus says the first greatest commandment is love God, and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself, and then he says
      **on these two commandments hang ALL the law and the prophets**
      According to Jesus, the foundation and point of ALL the rules is to love well

  5. Nathan

    Good starting point. We can build something good here.

  6. Nathan

    Yes, our ethic should be based on scripture and pleasing to God. Being good to one another is a very solid Jesus-like principle.

  7. Jeff

    I would somewhat agree with Cheyenne above. If we’re looking for a sexual ethic, it would be related to sex. Otherwise, it’s just an ethic. I agree that love, kindness, and respect are essential to any relationship. We do have some very clear direction in scripture regarding a sexual relationship with a husband and wife. Song of Solomon and some Proverbs, and several NT scriptures show us how to have a beautiful, mutually enjoyable, mutually respectful, relationship together. But I’m open to see what comes out of this!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      In the next four posts we’re going to look how to apply these principles to the bedroom. But I also want to include single people in it too. So it will look different married or single, but it still applies.

    • Cheyenne

      Thank you Jeff! Yes, any attempted “Christian” sexual ethic would require the scripture and in particular the passages you cite below.

      Otherwise we should not call it “Christian” sexual ethic!

    • JoB

      I also think it’s important to recognize that the Bible is more than just a how-to manual of find-the-verse-there’s -your-answer. It’s a complex book that should cause us to think. Case in point, SoS and Proverbs were influenced/written by Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And the big problem was not the polygamy, but his taking of foreign wives who worshipped foreign gods. There is no verse in the entire Bible that says “Polygamy is a sin.” Although you can argue that the subtext is there that it’s less than God’s ideal, it never says it’s a sin.

      Along with his teachings on marriage in the NT, Paul also strongly encourages people *not* to marry, in order to serve the Lord better. These passages are almost *never* taught, especially in their “plain reading”, in the modern evangelical church.

      I don’t mean to create a side conversation about specific issues like these, but just to point out that there is a temptation to present the Bible as uncomplicated when it isn’t, and to skip over the uncomfortable or difficult to understand passages that don’t line up neatly with 20the century American evangelical interpretation.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, exactly. I think people would be surprised about how much of what we assume is in the Bible about sex actually isn’t there explicitly. We’ve come to believe these things because of the totality of Jesus’ teachings and what we know of God, but these things are actually not clear cut. So rather than proof text our way through it, I think it’s important to wrestle with what we know of Jesus.

  8. Laura

    Love this! As Jo R. mentioned, the “one another” verses seem to be scriptural foundations for this new sexual ethic.

  9. travellinghope

    I like the what/how of the sexual ethic as you have stated it so far (and I’m very much looking forward to it being fleshed out further), but I think the why is also very important, and might be helpful to include. Maybe something along the lines of “Seek to glorify God in your sexuality by treating each other with respect and kindness, and honoring the dignity in yourself and others.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I like that! That’s a great addition!

    • Angharad

      I like that too.

      I also think it’s important to include unmarried people when thinking about a sexual ethic, because sex is about so much more than just intercourse. If the teaching for singles is purely ‘don’t have intercourse until you’re married’, it leaves out so much around issues of boundaries and consent – e.g. I know of men who would say sex should definitely only happen within marriage, yet who have no issue in pressuring a girl they date into giving them a kiss (and even kissing girls who object) or in making comments about a girl’s appearance that leave her feeling uncomfortable. And the ‘no sex until marriage’ rule just doesn’t begin to cover that because they would argue that talking and kissing is not sex! But focussing on things like respect, dignity and honour also include these areas.

      • Amy

        The “don’t have intercourse until you’re married” message is so simplistic and messages that the only acceptable life path is for young virgins to get married and live to an old age. It completely dismisses the divorced and widowed populations. In addition, older never marrieds (whether virgins or not) have a different set of circumstances to grapple with than those in their early 20’s.

        Looking forward to the discussion on a robust sexual ethic that includes everyone and not just the simplistic get-married-young-and-grow-old-together message promoted by evangelical culture.

  10. Erin

    Love your work and have been reading you for my whole marriage – 16 years! I’m a huge fan but rare commenter.

    Please check out Theology of the Body/Christopher West. The Christian sexual ethic you’re defining is all there – and really, all the years I have read your writing, I have always thought everything you’re describing is actually contained in Theology of the Body. Check it out!

    • Abby

      Erin, I agree with you! I’m not evangelical but have friends who are that I deeply respect, and talking with them about this topic, and then finding this blog, revealed all of the lies that I had been taught by my surrounding culture growing up, even though my immediate family was Catholic. The ideas that Sheila is fighting are pervasive, and caused damage in my marriage even though we got them from the general Christian culture rather than our marriage prep. I will never forget the night where I lay on my back, thinking “It was all a lie. This was never for me. This was never for women.” And this blog started to give me hope again.

      And, to bring relevance to this post, I’ll throw in the one-word universal sexual teaching that I learned from Theology of the Body: chastity. It is applicable in all stages of life, in different ways.

      And please, because I’ve refrained from commenting because I’ve seen negative responses to Catholic posts in the past- we’re all seeking Truth, and no one keeps Truth in their pocket.

  11. Codec

    I am curious will you be spending ant time analyzing and answering red pill ideas? If so I know what people and arguments I would like you to respond to.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m not sure, Codec. I think I do a lot of that when I talk about Emerson Eggerichs, but that whole area of the internet is so toxic! I don’t know that I want to dedicate whole posts to it explicitly, because I don’t want to have to defend women’s right to personhood. It’s kind of like how we shouldn’t have to argue against racism. As soon as you start arguing against slavery, for example, you actually are saying, “there’s an argument FOR slavery that I think is solid enough that I’m willing to refute it.” By engaging in the argument at all, you’re giving credence to the other side.

      So much of the red pill movement sees women as the property of men, and I don’t really want to have to argue that, because it gives credence to it, if that makes sense.

      • Codec

        I get that. I do hope you continue to help people.

        Young Men like me are as impacted by you as thousands of women are.

      • Jennifer B

        Sheila, I intend to MEMORIZE this comment. And then recite it every time I come up against an argument that women are somehow not created by God for service in the kingdom.

  12. Olivia

    How does this sexual ethic consider things like premarital sex? Will it just be a nicer way of saying save sex for marriage and that you dishonor yourself and your partners by having sex with them when you’re not married? If so, that’s not much of an update to the Western evangelical purity-based sexual ethic.

    Christians have historically preached that premarital sex is a no-no, but it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Yes, there are passages in the NT about not uniting oneself with a prostitute to avoid becoming one flesh with the prostitute, but that says nothing about consensual relationships where neither party is paying for sex or has a high number of past sexual partners. And that’s not considering historical contexts in which ancient humans lacked birth control and a child born out of wedlock represented social suicide. Nor do most Christians’ sexual standards account for the fact that Paul encourages people to abstain from marriage. In essence, the Bible is not highly prescriptive in how it tells people to engage with others sexually, and much of what is there is up for interpretation. And the highly prescriptive parts (like Paul’s guidance) are ignored.

    Is the presupposition to this new Christian ethic that sex is still only allowed in the confines of marriage, or are we going to re-evaluate that perspective and consider other instances where it may not be sinful for unmarried people to have sexual intimacy? What other baseline assumptions are you making that other people need to accept in order to accept this new sexual ethic?

    • Marie

      That’s a good question. I was thinking about it in the context of forced arranged marriages or child marriages, where one or both partners weren’t really able to consent to marriage and now find themselves in a horrible situation and in love with someone else. Also, what about areas of the world where legal marriage would be impossible or even dangerous, especially for Christians? I think there are a lot of situations that could conceivably be exceptions to the marriage rule, but the current Christian sexual ethic has no room or grace for those kinds of nuances.
      I think if marriage is understood to be (under normal, free circumstances) a prefered way to honor the dignity of the individual, then we can do away with (ritual) marriage in extreme (and unfortunately common in some areas of the world) circumstances where it is not used to honor the dignity of the individual. In essence, the dignity and honor are more important than the ritual. Along with dignity and honor, I think commitment has to be more important generally than legal marriage as a hallmark of a true “married” couple, because that is a character issue that is much more widely applicable across cultures and across time. If the commitment is only made between the couple and God because that is their only option, then I would think that it is still a marriage, and leaving a marriage made in that way is still a divorce.

      • Olivia

        I was not talking about arranged marriages or unions that people are forced into against their will. I’m talking about two unwed folks having sex with each other before marriage (and with the possibility of never marrying at all). The Bible doesn’t say it’s sinful to become one flesh with multiple people; it condemns the union of a believer with a prostitute, and the error of sin seems to be on the part of the believer specifically sleeping with a prostitute who is viewed as sexually impure due to their line of work.

        Christians run the risk of falling back into the same purity message if this new sexual ethic requires marriage to be the locus by which all sexual encounters begin and end. That’s my point.

        • Lisa Johns

          Just a thought on the injunction against sleeping with a prostitute: if we take the stance that all people should be treated with kindness, respect, and dignity, then it follows that a Christian should never be in the position of taking from another what that other is not free to give or retain. A prostitute is not free to give or retain her own body, not able to give proper consent because she is not able to say no. It my have nothing to do with impurity, but be just another expression of treating others with respect and kind consideration.

    • Chris

      I noticed she never responded to your comment. I completely agree with you. There is a lot assumed by Christians in regards to premarital sex. I grew up in the conservative evangelical world and went to Christian school up through college. They hammered sexual purity into our heads, yet very few people I knew waited to have sex till marriage and even fewer abstained from any and all sexual behavior. There has to be a better way than telling young, hormone-raging, teens that they cannot engage in any sexual behavior until marriage. It is so unrealistic and the porn addiction epidemic in the church is one obvious bit of evidence that it not only doesn’t work, but it’s unhealthy and destructive.

  13. Codec

    You actually dealt with one of the big talking points with one of your latest podcast. The 70% of divorces being caused by women thing.

    I hope that your elucidation on that permeats the internet.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s true! I guess when it’s things like that it’s easier.

  14. Bernadette

    Looking forward to the series!

    Reading some comments made me think of how most of the Epistles were read out load to entire congregations. With children present. Which may have influenced how sex was spoken of.

  15. Alex

    I’m curious to read this series. While I like where you are going with it, I do hope you address specifics. The world is hyper-sexualized and I do believe as Christians we need to be very precise in our believes in regards to things like pre-marital sex, LGBTQ topics, consent, porn, etc. I have been a reader of yours longer than I can remember and just love you. But I have been noticing, especially in social media, more “liberal” minded comments and assumptions. I am not saying we want to be legalistic and show no grace, we also do need to be clear. As a parent and a teacher I find that people do best if I explain the WHY of something we are doing, and am even willing to discuss it, but ultimately it will be done a certain way. I think a healthy talk about sexual ethic should be similar.

    • Greta

      Alex I’ve noticed the same liberal minded comments you reference on social media.

      Thank you for pointing out that as Christians we do need to be very precise, just as the Bible is very precise on issues of sexuality and marriage.

      If someone wants to create a sexual ethic for themselves that differs and contradicts the Bible, that’s certainly their prerogative. But they should not describe it as a “Christian” sexual ethic in that case.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        What in the world made you think that I would try to create a sexual ethic that is different from the Bible? Honestly, this is quite flabbergasting to me. How have I ever made people think that I don’t take the Bible seriously?

        I think perhaps people are reading their culture war things into what I’m saying when that’s not what I’m saying at all.

        • Alex

          So I wrote a response that seems to have disappeared (not saying it was you, could be the way my computer is acting up because I never even saw it post. It just said something about a duplicate and deleting). And I don’t want to type it all again. Just wanted to say I hope Sheila and team didn’t think I was saying they are un-Bibical. I was just asking for a little clarity and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

      • Bernadette

        Are you sure she’d be contradicting the Bible? Or just your interpretation of it?

      • Alex

        I’m not sure what in my comment made anybody think I said this new sexual ethic “contradicts the Bible”. I was just emphasizing that I believe it is important to be crystal clear. The comments I meant were from social media users, not Sheila. I simply meant to say that being – as they say- clear as mud causes confusion. I’m sorry if Sheila or team thought I meant they are contradicting the Bible. As a long time fan I just want to 1) ensure there is clarity, and 2) check in that what they write about here still lines up with my beliefs. That is to say, through the years Sheila has shed light on lots of confusion for me, and definitely helped my understanding of things grow. But I will also never just blindly accept an author’s thoughts, but always myself verify that they still line up with my beliefs. So I am not saying anyone is contradicting, but simply asking for specific answers on hot topic issues. As I mentioned I am hoping the specifics will be addressed in follow up articles. And what I meant with the social media comments, is that I’ve observed that some people seem to be interpreting these attempts at correcting errors in the Evangelical church as some sort of agreement with the more liberal-minded / left-wing thoughts on sexuality. Because while I know that Sheila and team are focusing on hurt that has been caused within the church, there is a lot going on in the secular world too. People will wonder, and if need be fill in the blanks by themselves and then assume things are being said here that aren’t.

        • Bernadette

          That was meant as a reply to Greta. Your post is one that I agree with.

          Sorry for the confusion, I should have specified who the comment was for.

    • JoB

      Alex, I hope you don’t take this as an argument- it’s meant as a gentle challenge. In Jesus’ day, the Saduccees were the liberal elite and the Pharisees were the Bible-believing conservatives. Both missed the Messiah, and hated Him so much that they put Him to death. To me, that’s a reminder that labels of liberal/conservative (as equated with bad or good) can sometimes lead us astray in our search for truth. Ideas and beliefs that are worth holding on to can stand up to scrutiny- even our own scrutiny, if we take a step back and debate with ourselves or try to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who opposes our beliefs. Our beliefs will be refined this way and their true merits, or errors, will come to light. Personally, I think places where people of very different beliefs can come together and dialogue rather than just debate are sorely needed in our current moment. I am not saying you are in disagreement with this idea, just sharing a thought. I am also looking forward to reading the dialogue that will come from this series.

      • Greta

        Thank you JoB, yes completely agree that dialogue is healthy and that this not be an echo chamber of all the same opinions/viewpoints.

        Looking forward to the dialogue as well!

        • Alex

          JoB, While I agree that labels can be a bad thing, we can’t also get so hung up on them that then we just speak all wishy washy. Notice how I put quotation marks around liberal in my original comments. Sometimes we have to use a word to help other understand what we mean. Throughout my life I have usually been thought of as too “conservative” or “Christian” by many of my non-religious friends, and rather too liberal by those in the church. Believe me I know people have different beliefs, and have dialogued with people with widely different world views than mine. That being said I would like to know, and hope future articles show, specifics of what Sheila and team belief. Just like I now know (and love) her stance on abuse, marital rape, divorce, etc. I would like to know their stance on pre-marital sex, LGBTQ issues, celibacy etc. Because I have met Christians both for and against these and many other issues. Both sides with Biblical arguments (they think). Of course I think all should be welcome at church, at Christian social media sites, etc. but it should always be clear what we believe.

          • JoB

            I hear what you’re saying. And I’m glad to hear you recognize that there can be genuine, sincere Christians on both sides of some of these very controversial topics, and that sincere people can look for answers in the Bible and reach very different conclusions, and that there is value in discussing different views.

            I’m trying to think of the best way to say this, but perhaps my concern is that I’ve seen the purity culture materials get very, very into defining in a very precise way what is acceptable and what is not, and I’m not sure that it has helped anyone much. Like, when you mention premarital sex- it might seem dumb, but we could ask, “what is premarital sex? How do we define it?” I say this bc a few months ago there was a series of comments from a guy who had grown up in a purity culture church, and about 20 years into his marriage they were having all kinds of issues, and he ended up sharing that he and his wife were publicly praised at their wedding for having “saved” their first kiss for their wedding day (which they had indeed managed to do), and that they had resisted having premarital intercourse, but they had actually been very physical and both experienced orgasm multiple times before marriage. He still thought they had not had premarital sex, because they hadn’t had intercourse. He had been given very specific instructions and had technically followed them, but… I don’t think it was of any real benefit to him.

            All that to say, perhaps an ethic that teaches people to think in terms of being edifying and helpful to others and glorifying God would get them farther than one that is more focused on “this is the line, don’t cross it.” I would hope it would challenge and encourage people to think more deeply about their choices, not tell them “oh, do whatever seems best to you on the spur of the moment,” which would also be harmful.

            I know this was rambly, thanks for reading 😊

          • Alex

            JoB, I hear what you are saying about finding ways to justify that one hasn’t crossed the line. But here is the thing, without a line people tend to get even crazier. It’s just human nature. I remember hearing a DJ on a regular secular music station talking about how when she was a teen she knew the line her parents gave her for her outfits, and she crossed it as soon as she was out of sight. But she also admitted that having that line was good, and that she needed it. In other words let’s not think of it as a line not to cross, but a bar to reach. As a teacher I am constantly noticing how kids trying to reach a bar is a good thing. Education also tends to be a more “liberal” profession and so we often see some great but some also not so great changes being tried out. One of those changes is critiqued by many teachers as “lowering the bar”. The thing is it doesn’t artificially make it seem like more students are reaching the bar, instead they perform or behave even worse. When you have high expectations, kids will work hard to reach it. But when you lower the bar, it’s like you are telling them you didn’t think they could reach it to begin with. I think it is similar with God. We have a high bar to reach as we strive to become more Christ like. But if no one ever defines what Christ like means, in for example my sexuality, I won’t know what to work towards. If I just say wishy washy things, like “be a good person”, “don’t hurt others”, but am afraid to say things like “He died for my sins” then how can those searching for truth ever really learn who Christ really is.
            Just because there are Christians on both sides of many arguments, doesn’t mean they are all right. There are still truths. I have been so wrong on some of them. Fortunately God is Love and so full of grace. But truth was still truth, whether I personally believed it or not.
            We need to be careful that as the pendulum swings to the other side we don’t end up in the other extreme. Yes, purity culture made mistakes, but we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. One of the dangerous thing when religious teachings go wrong, is they can sound so right, but we can’t through away truths that were there all along just because they were covered in junk. Using your example we need to help people understand sexuality is so much more than intercourse. Or course we want people to understand there is forgiveness and grace in Jesus. But we also need to be clear about what our actual Christian beliefs are. They may seem clear to people who have grown up around church, or frequent websites like this. But take it from someone who works in public school a lot of what we assume is given is no longer general knowledge. Whether we are terrified by it or have accepted it, culture is changing. And this includes not having an understanding of what exactly Christians believe. And yes, this includes clarity on some of the hot topics. I’m not telling Sheila or anyone on her team what I think they should be saying, but the questions will come. In my observation most readers of this website have experiences with church. But there are a lot of other people out there with beliefs and questions on topics like abortion and LGBTQ or many other things I’m not even remembering right now, and they will fill in the blanks if we don’t speak with clarity (and yes, I know the rest of this series is still coming out, in my original comment I was just sharing as a long time fan what I hope is addressed, but if not, then life goes on).
            Thank you for a respectful and interesting exchange of ideas.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Alex, but here’s the other problem with lines: they made people think that as long as they weren’t crossing it, they were fine.

            The “sin” was all about crossing the line, not about how you were actually treating the person. It was about the action itself (“is oral sex a sin”?) rather than how you acted within relationship (“am I treating someone kindly? And I pressuring them? Am I making them feel degraded?”).

            It’s like Fred Stoeker announcing that masturbating is worse than pushing on your girlfriend’s boundaries because of what’s going on in your head. But pushing your girlfriend’s boundaries is actually sexual assault, and it hurts her. But he wasn’t thinking about his effects on her; he was only thinking about the actual act or the actual thought.

          • JoB

            You make many excellent points. Thank you for the work that you do- it’s extremely valuable. The post talks about psychological stages of moral development (which was new to me), and it seems you are saying that we cannot simply skip the conventional phase of moral development, especially for those who have never been exposed to Christian ideas. The post calls this the “adolescent phase”, and if you’re working with actual adolescents, I can see where your concern comes from about the need to be more specific. People (especially young people) with minimal exposure to religious ideas would be a vastly different audience than a group of married heterosexual adults who have been in church for decades.

            The one thing I want to add is that I have seen my own perspective change over the years, and things that I thought were unquestionable 10 or 20 years ago are not so black-and-white to me anymore. Can sincere Christians be in error? Of course, but I do feel that as fallible beings who live in an ever-changing world, maybe it’s a question of how much truth or error our thinking contains, rather than whether we are completely wrong or right. Also, if a person or ministry comes down on the “wrong” side of a question that is a hot topic, does that become ammunition to invalidate many other valuable and necessary ideas that they have advocated for? I am not saying you would take that position, but I can see others saying, “we can’t take seriously anything she said about equality between men and women in marriage, if she also believes xyz.”

          • JoB

            (Sorry, my last comment was directed at Alex, not Sheila. She does important work, too! But I especially want to express my appreciation for those who work in education.)

          • JoB

            Just one more thought: this conversation makes me think about the extended discussion of the OT law in the NT. Paul said the law was like “a schoolmaster” that was meant to illustrate deeper truths and point towards relationship with God (ultimately revealed in Christ). It was intended as “training wheels” to prepare the people to seek God’s heart and receive the Messiah. Jesus was extremely angry with those who knew every verse of the law, and used it to their advantage, but had no grasp of the heart of God. In fact, they worshipped the Mosaic law to the point that it blinded them to the savior.

            When the gentiles were shown to be recipients of salvation as well, there was a lot of discussion about how much of Judaic moral and ceremonial teaching they should be expected to follow, and the council at Jerusalem sent them an abbreviated list of recommendations that would help them to coexist and avoid extreme controversy with the Jewish majority of believers. And that continued to be a theme through the history of the early church. And there were some wild times, just thinking of the church at Corinth. Which shows that everyone had a lot to learn about the heart of God, whether it was gaining self control or learning not to try to subject everything to the rule of the law.

            Rules do serve to maintain order in the moment, but they also have a higher purpose- to teach principles that lead to freedom that comes from wisdom, understanding and self-restraint. But if we never “graduate” from rule-following and learn to grasp the deeper principles behind them, then one of two things will happen: 1) the scrupulous will be ruled by fear and anxiety of breaking the rules or 2) those leas scrupulous types who were only controlled by fear of punishment will reject the rules entirely once they reach adulthood/independence.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Well said, JoB! And I think too when the point becomes following the rules versus treating people well, then we can get more upset at people breaking rules than at people hurting others. And that especially happens in the sexual realm. I remember a story we shared in She Deserves Better where a guy wrote an article for Brio magazine bragging that he made it to his wedding a virgin by God’s grace, but he was also the kind of boy that if you gave him an inch, he’d take a mile. And the lesson in his article was to tell girls to dress modestly.

            So he thinks he’s all good and he’s proud of himself for making it to his wedding a virgin, but meanwhile he also pushed past girls’ boundaries (which is called sexual assault). That’s what maddens me.

            (By the way, She Deserves Better is on sale for the month of January for $2.99! on Kindle!).

  16. Nathan

    I’m going to take a dangerous step here and address an issue above. I’ll try not to get too personal or combative (I see enough of that on political threads, from both sides of the aisle).

    > > calm, reasonable question .. provoke such a harsh response

    My guess is that many people on this site (and elsewhere) have been broken, abused, hurt, etc. by husbands, boyfriends, male relatives, etc. and that in many cases the church seems okay with the abuse, and even will often tell women that such problems are THEIR fault (not submitting enough, not praying enough, etc.). Even though such attitudes are being fought against now, with some real progress, real change takes time, and the people who have been hurt may take a while to heal.

    I myself can’t imagine what that would be like if it was me and the gender arrows were reversed. If I was being abused and betrayed by my wife all the time, and the church that we both grew up in tells me that my thoughts, feelings and safety don’t matter and only SHE mattered, and that I have to suffer and even blame myself, and if I try to get out of the situation, then God will hate me, and so on.

    We as a group are starting to reverse this, but slowly, and the people who have already been hurt will continue to be hurt and angry for a while. All we can do is try to be good to each other and help to heal each other.

    And, for the record, I don’t believe that anybody on this board is a sexist. I think that the person you’re talking about hates many attitudes and practices adopted by some men, and is also angry at churches for upholding and defending those actions, but I don’t think that she hates men in general.

    End of rant.

    • Jo R

      Thanks, Nathan. You hit that nail so on the head that it went all the way through the board.

      It’s absolutely fascinating to me that I bring up the teaching that has a hyper-focus on male orgasm, while millions of Christian women have been denied billions of orgasms, and ***I’m*** the one who is sexist. Uh, what? 🤔 🙄

      • Nathan

        Because you’re doing something far worse than a abusing women. You’re rocking the boat! (don’t stop)

        • Greta

          You say rocking the boat with conversation is worse than abusing women?

          Huh? I suspect most abused women would disagree with you on that.

          • Taylor

            I think he’s speaking tongue-in-cheek. He’s not saying that rocking the boat is actually worse than abusing women. He’s pointing out that alot of our religious structuring creates an environment where people are often more tolerant of abusive behavior than they are of people calling out the abuse (rocking the boat). (Which obviously does not reflect the heart of Father God, Jesus, or Holy Spirit.)

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            In far too many evangelical spaces, yes, rocking the boat is worse than abusing women. That’s what Nathan was saying, and it’s very true. See John MacArthur’s church, for instance.

  17. Jo R

    “You say rocking the boat with conversation is worse than abusing women?”

    In quite a few of the more vocal segments of Christendom, this is absolutely the case. Go read The Roys Report or The Wartburg Watch for story upon story of abused women receiving church discipline for outing their HUSBANDS’ infidelity, child abuse, marital rape, and more. Sheila just did one about
    Naghmeh Panahi.

    Even here, on a website that frequently functions as a gigantic, online group-therapy session, plenty of women, and a few men, have objected to my “tone” or choice of vocabulary while very conveniently ignoring the substance of my comments and observations. That’s actually quite common in this same swath of Christendom.

    “Huh? I suspect most abused women would disagree with you on that.”

    Many of those same stories will report that the abused women didn’t recognize they were being abused, and instead the women were told they need to pray more, be more submissive, have more sex, and, yes, “stop rocking the boat.”

    Too many women have believed the spiritually abusive lie that they’re maliciously sinning towards their husbands and even towards God Himself, when in fact they are simply having the completely normal reaction to abuse.

    That makes some people very uncomfortable. Tough. The survivors and victims need our sympathy, not the perps, and not the people who protect the perps.

    • Angharad

      “plenty of women, and a few men, have objected to my “tone” or choice of vocabulary while very conveniently ignoring the substance of my comments and observations.”

      Yes – the argument so often is that if women only corrected their ‘tone’, they would be listened to. But the interesting thing is that sometimes you will make a comment that covers the same content as another person, only the other person words their comment very carefully so as not to offend or upset anyone. Your comment gets criticised for tone. But the other comment gets ignored completely! I’ve seen this happen time and time again, far too often to be a coincidence. So let’s ditch the idea that women just need to ‘correct their tone’ to be taken seriously. The reality is that if some folk can’t find something nasty to say about remarks they disagree with, they just won’t say anything at all!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  18. Nessie

    Sheila replied above, ‘here’s the other problem with lines: they made people think that as long as they weren’t crossing it, they were fine. The “sin” was all about crossing the line, not about how you were actually treating the person.’

    Just my two bits’ worth… many people in Jesus’ day wanted Him to clearly define lines. They often tried so hard to trip Him up with a heart of getting Him into trouble with the law. He often gave answers that seemed evasive. I believe He realized the great nuance in many issues though, and that so much of it depended not on the hard and fast line to not cross but on the motives of the heart.

    There was a clear line for the woman being stoned to death. She had broken the law(rule) and stoning was her punishment. Jesus intervened though and said that he who was without sin may cast the first stone. It wasn’t so much about who had crossed which line but about who had compassion to give other sinners.

    Certain animals were considered unclean for the Jewish people. God flipped that script around later, saying that all things were allowed but not all were good. So which was it? Were they sinful or not? The heart motive of oneself and our hearts for not causing a weaker brother or sister to stumble was of greater importance. If even God gave gray area for things of the time that had been hard and fast rules, maybe we should try to extend grace and nuance even if it is uncomfortable for us.

  19. Nathan

    Yes, I was pretending to be a typical evangelical whe I said boat rocking

  20. Melody

    As a woman who is recently divorced from an abusive husband, there are sexual issues that come from being refused and ignored sexually. As well as teachings from the purity culture that i used to believe. Such as the husband is the only sexually important one in the marriage. I had a high drive and never had pleasure in that relationship and so I am now trying to figure out what I believe about masturbation. I always felt was against marriage and now I have no idea. I don’t even know at this point what to teach my daughters when they are old enough. Some guidance and clarity on those types of sexual issues would be helpful in the healing process and learning the truth to replace lies and toxic beliefs.

    • Taylor

      First, I am so sorry for what you’ve been through. Sexual neglect in an abusive marriage where purity culture has contributed to the damage … it’s so confusing and heartbreaking.

      Second, you are not alone. I don’t know how common it actually is because it seems like it’s so little talked about. But I believe it’s more common than it seems. Being sexually neglected and rejected as a wife, particularly in purity culture, increases deep feelings of shame. And shame usually keeps people silent. It’s something that broke me over and over in my marriage, but it’s not something I share much. Because it’s too painful.

      Third: I don’t what Sheila’s take will be. I don’t speak as her representative. But regarding masturbation. I can’t find one place in Scripture that talks about private masturbation. There are many sexual expressions and relationships that are forbidden–prostitutes, close relatives, adultery, same-sex, etc. But nothing about private sexual exploration and release.

      Here’s my take on it–it has more to do with the heart than the action. If masturbation in and of itself was sinful, I think God would have made that very clear. So I think it’s a bit of a nuanced area. Scripture is clear that lust is sin–so masturbating to porn, or lusting after another person would be sin. Using masturbation as a form of escape from reality, or turning into an addiction would be wrong–it’s self damaging. But personally, I don’t think it’s wrong to experience self pleasure, and it can be a lust-free experience.

      That said, each person needs to use their own discernment. Like wine. It’s totally possible to to enjoy responsibly. But there may be people who can’t go there because their heart and motivations would go into ungodly and damaging areas.
      In 1 Corinthians, Paul says whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God. So if masturbation is gonna take you somewhere that really doesn’t glorify God, than don’t go there. But could a person experience self pleasure in a way that glorifies God in treating one’s own body with love and dignity? And in a way that creates a constructive outlet that can guard against immorality? Yea, I totally think that’s possible.

    • Taylor

      Also, regarding truth vs toxic beliefs. For me, one of the biggest messages my ex husband communicated to me was, “you’re garbage, you’re trash, you’re something to throw away.” This went deeper than all the sexual crap. One of the things I’ve had to dig into is that I’m made in God’s image, and I matter to Him. And what He says to me and about me is true, and trumps anything another person says.

      Finding Scripture and putting it up where I would see it all the time (like, over the kitchen sink) really helped me reorient out of lies and into truth.

      Melody, God sees. God sees you. He made you in His image. He is love, and He loves you. And you matter to Him. He is not going to abandon you in this.

  21. Derrick Roy

    Your approach id philosiphical – The notion that we need a “NEW CHRISTIAN ETHIC” maybe true to some extent.
    However, the Biblical Principles are there to govern our morality.
    The created “Grey Zones” by the new morality seemingly lends itself to reason.
    There is a seemingly trend to attemp to liberate us from former enslavements by reason but cunningly leads us into greater bondages as we are much money makers that freedom fighters.

    • Cheyenne

      Agreed Derrick, and many commenters here share your concern.

  22. Willow

    When looking to the Bible for guidance on human sexuality, it’s important to remember that the whole first half of the Bible covers the survival of a tribe of people who lived at a time when the overall human population was low, and so was life expectancy (the 7x centarians of Genesis notwithstanding, assuming those numbers are exact and not symbolic).

    Many of the ancient Levitical “rules” surrounding sex are centered around ensuring a human population grows as much as possible, while surviving as a distinct sect/people group in a world of competing sects: women are ritually unclean except their most fertile time of the month; men should not have sex with men or animals; men should only orgasm during intercourse with a woman; various types of incest are prohibited (broadens the gene pool); certain intermarriages are prohibited (ensures clan survival); widows should be married back into the family; etc. The fact Moses had to emphasize these rules meant that people weren’t following them; furthermore, as others have mentioned, nearly every prominent man in the OT had multiple wives/sexual partners.

    Jesus and his inner circle, as portrayed in the Bible, certainly did not exemplify “traditional Western social norms” of marrying an opposite-sex partner and raising a family.

    Even the obsession with virgins has a non-Biblical basis.

    This isn’t to say there isn’t useful and even beautiful content about human sexuality in the Bible. The repeated phrase in Song of Songs not to hurry love is an excellent example. There is a lot of great content about how to treat others and oneself that can be extrapolated to the sexual realm. But the Bible is not a sex manual, and trying to read it as one gets you painted into some very tricky corners.

  23. EOF

    Yes, we definitely do need a new ethic. The current day one is messed up and abusive, straight from the pits of hell — I am not exaggerating! I’ve been a victim of it for over 20 years.

    Christianity teaches that men aren’t to objectify women — except for his a wife! He gets to objectify and abuse her to his heart’s content! All because she owes him since she said “I do.”

    It’s just one more church-approved way that men get to abuse and their wives and be kings of their castles.

    I’m recently separated from my husband, and not having to have sex is one of the best parts of being separated! No more unwanted groping, no more passive-aggressive remarks, no more getting yelled at for us not having sex “enough” (whatever enough means for that week), no more being treated like a sex toy, no more one-sided sex, no more having to do things I don’t like or face his temper… No more of any of it!!

    When I was a young married (20+ years ago) I was literally taught anti-consent. Leaders told me straight up that I couldn’t tell my husband no, that I couldn’t tell him I didn’t like something in the bedroom (I was in fact told to “learn to like” things that are harmful to my body because my husband likes them), etc.

    For over 20 years, I’ve been having sex that I don’t like and getting yelled at for not initiating enough and for not acting like I like it.

    I am free!

  24. Christina Hitchcock

    I completely agree with your assertion that we (Christians) need a new sexual ethic. However, the one you propose isn’t specifically Christian. What I mean by that is that it’s a sexual ethic that a non-Christian could come up with and endorse. A Christian ethic should have Christ as both its origin and telos. A good book on this subject is The Significance of Singleness: A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church, published by Brazos Press.

  25. Carla

    A big problem seems to be that we have substituted sex for love, and expected marriage to provide everything when some needs are to be met in community. We have pressured and utilized women to provide “love” to men at great cost to, and without care for those women. It also leaves single people outside of the circle of care. By substituting the signpost for the destination, the current paradigm is destined to fail. If we can learn to love well, the sexual ethic will essentially take care of itself.


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