When I was invited to review Marvin M. Ellison’s Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times (Fortress, 2012), I anticipated something along the lines of a more progressive interpretation of sexual ethics than the one traditionally espoused by the church.
Ellison, the Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, is not interested in incremental change, however: he calls for a wholesale reform of the way we view sexual ethics. Rather than resorting to unthinking judgments or “moral quickies” in assuming that guidelines for moral behavior are set in stone (and consist mainly of prohibitions), Ellison calls for a careful but wholesale reevaluation of the assumption that the only option to celibacy is found within a heterosexual marriage.
Thus, he writes, “I am interested in developing a liberating method of ethical discernment that critiques outdated assumptions about gender, sexual differences, and family patterns and clarifies how ‘sexual sin’ these days is far less about sex and far more about the misuse of power and exploitation of vulnerability” (p. 3).
In short, Ellison finds the traditional rule-based model of sexual morality to be overly patriarchal and legalistic, “relying on fear and shame to keep people compliant and on the ‘straight and narrow.'” He prefers a more relationally-focused framework that recognizes that “the presumed ideal of lifelong, procreative heterosexual marriage no longer fits with, or speaks adequately to, our cultural reality” (p. 4).
Life and culture have changed, he notes. Even among married couples, sex is normally contracepted rather than procreative. People are more aware that gender identity is not a simple matter that can be written off as a perversion of universal heterosexuality. Divorce is common, and unmarried couples frequently choose to live together as a matter of course. Many single adults both inside and outside of church circles and ranging across all age groups remain sexually active while also seeking to be morally responsible. On the flip side, heterosexual marriage may harbor unethical practices such as abusive behavior, marital rape, and emotional neglect.
Ellison observes that traditional sexual morals have been shaped by the belief that authoritative moral truth is located in the past and is unchanging. The “liberating ethic” that Ellison follows affirms that “moral truth is found in the past, but also grasped anew as communities of conscientious people encounter new circumstances and inquire whether and how the past offers insight and direction” (p. 5).
Thus, while statements such as the 2000 “Colorado Statement on Biblical Sexual Morality” hold to fixed and binding principles that “God’s standard” allows for only celibacy or heterosexual marriage and denies that sexual morals “should be allowed to shift with the tide of cultureal opinion or social practice” (p. 31), Ellison prefers the approach of a 1991 Presbyterian study document affirming that “a gracious God delight(s) in our sexuality and call(s) us to wholeness in community” (p. 32).
The document, “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice,” was not formally adopted by the denomination, but has proven influential. Instead of a “sex-negative, patriarchal construction of sexuality” used to control others, the paper suggests that celibacy and marriage are not the only two options in “a reformed Christian ethic” in which the church can honor and celebrate “all sexual relations grounded in mutual respect, genuine care, and justice love” (p. 33).
Building on an ethic of justice-love in relationships rather than a system of conformity based on rules, Ellison sees the possibility that sexuality may be an avenue for personal growth and community building. From this reframed perspective, he goes on in the book to deal with specific issues such as sex among the aging, same-sex marriage, sexual violence, abortion, and sex education for young people.
Traditionalists who hold to a sexual ethic built on bedrock biblical codes that never change will be neither pleased with Ellison’s approach nor tempted to change their own. Progressives who give more weight to biblical principles of justice in shaping morality will find his work both appealing and familiar.
The book’s most important audience may be the many people who find themselves in the middle, outwardly affirming conventional views but privately adopting a less restrictive lifestyle. If nothing else, Ellison’s thoughtful analysis provides for them a more mindful approach to understanding the intersection between the Bible and behavior.