While looking for a good definition for “sexual ethics,” I kept coming across Walter Wink and his 1986 essay, “Homosexuality and the Bible.”¹ In this essay, Wink uses the phrase, “love ethic,” and contrasts it with the notion of a “biblical” sexual ethic. In short, this love ethic which Wink proposes finds its source in the teachings of Jesus, through whom Wink insists the entire Scriptural tradition must be interpreted.
“The Bible has no sexual ethic”
In his essay “Homosexuality and the Bible,” (which provoked a long debate with Robert Gagnon which was published in the mainstream Christian press) Wink states that the Bible does not dictate a sexual ethic binding upon Christians. According to Wink, the Bible merely records the sexual mores held by a variety of communities over a vast span of time. Wink writes: “The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history.” (Wink, 1999, 44, emphasis mine) Wink asserts that mores (pronounced “more-ays,” like the Moray eel) are “unreflective customs accepted by a given community.” He points out that “Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit.” (44)
Prohibitions Against Homosexual Behavior Not Binding
In Wink’s estimation, the Bible condemns same-sex sexual behavior. Although many Queer folk and straight allies disagree,² Wink writes that “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that.” (47) However, he takes care to state that, “The issue is whether that biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned slavery as well and nowhere attacked it as unjust. Are we prepared to argue today that slavery is biblically justified?” (47) Wink likewise condemns the patriarchal bias of scripture and proposes, “The way out, however, is not to deny the sexism in Scripture, but to develop an interpretive theory that judges even Scripture in the light of the revelation of Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique of domination in all its forms, a critique that can be turned on the Bible itself. The Bible thus contains the principles of its own correction.” (47-48, emphasis mine).
The Definition of a “Love Ethic”
Wink insists that “Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus’ love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn’t mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment.” (45, emphasis mine)
In this light, Wink does argue that Christians need to be bound by an ethic. Although not at all comprehensive, Wink suggests that “such a love ethic is non-exploitative (hence, no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence, no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving.” (45) I believe this is a good set of principles to keep in mind as we chart our way as Queer, sexual beings in but not of the world.
Let’s Continue the Conversation
What are your thoughts? I believe Wink has given us a taste of the conversations we could be having among Queer Christians and with the wider world, sacred and secular. Wink argues that the love ethic must be brought to bear on any system of morality. I think this means that this love ethic must critique purity culture. But it must also critique crass sexual consumerism, and it must critique everything in between. This is not to condemn people’s choices or set up a new law filled with prohibitions, but to investigate ways to bring our sexual practices and assumptions more into line with the mind and teachings of Christ.
This is the work of Sex & the Gay Christian and what the project is attempting to do. Sex & the Gay Christian helps Queer Christians integrate their sexual practices and spiritual understandings in a way that brings personal fulfillment and good fruit to share with the wider world. We do this by facilitating conversation and providing resources to help faithful, LGBTQIA+ Christians make sexual decisions, and create a personal sexual ethic that will guide you both in your sex life and in your faithful walk with Christ.
I appreciate your time and attention. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. If you’d like to talk one-on-one or are interested in joining a group discussion, email Jon at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll set up a time to connect.
¹ Walter Wink. “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in Wink, Walter, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. Augsburg, 1999.
² I refer you to the wonderful work of Colby Martin (Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality. Westminster John Knox, 2016) for a progressive, Christian voice, and Matthew Vines (God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Convergent, 2014) for a more Evangelical approach to refuting the use of the Bible to condemn LGBTQ+ people.