The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life

Brenda Martin Hurst

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Dennis P. Hollinger. The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

In this book Dennis Hollinger sets out to articulate the meaning of sex in a sex-crazed and sexually-confused world. He argues that there is inherent meaning in sex that is given by the God who designed sex and that is revealed through the Bible. Hollinger begins with his Christian ethicist professor hat on and lays out how the theories of consequentialist ethics, principle ethics, and virtue ethics are not adequate grounds for a Christian sexual ethic. He evaluates the worldviews of asceticism, naturalism, humanism, monism, and pluralism, and finds them inadequate as well. In contrast to these views, Hollinger articulates his Christian worldview based on the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

The author builds his sexual ethic on the “divine givens”; the primary one is that God created two ways of being human, male and female. Drawing significantly on Genesis 2:24, he bases his sexual ethic on God’s intention for male and female to become “one flesh” in marriage. Hollinger contends that the God-designed purpose for human sexual intimacy is fourfold: consummation of marriage, procreation, love, and pleasure. “These four purposes are found in only one location, the marriage of a man and a woman. This is where God designed sexual intimacy to be” (115).

In the introductory chapter Hollinger makes a helpful distinction between sexuality and sex, and declares his book is primarily about the latter. However, his use of the terms “sexual intimacy” and “sex” interchangeably obscures a range of physical acts other than intercourse that express sexual intimacy.

When one defines the meaning of God’s good gift of sexual intimacy only within marriage, the meaning of sexual wholeness for singles and homosexually-oriented persons is largely ignored. A sexual ethic that holds up marriage as the God-intended fulfillment of sexual being denigrates other ways of being sexually whole within God’s good design. Hollinger admits that churches have not done well in reaching out to singles and homosexuals. He doesn’t seem to recognize, however, that his predominantly marriagefocused sexual ethic contributes to this invisibility and inattentiveness to the sexual health and well-being of these persons. If the Creator’s orientation is toward males and females experiencing sexual intimacy within marriage, then churches that embrace this perspective tend not to address the real sexual yearnings for intimacy that all God’s children have been given.

A strength of the book is Hollinger’s focused and pastoral attention to four current sexual ethics issues: sex before marriage, sex in marriage, homosexuality, and reproductive therapies. Pastors and congregations dealing with these issues will find these chapters of particular interest.

As one who experienced infertility, I welcome more open and forthright discussion in our faith communities about ethical decision-making about reproductive options. Infertile couples are often alone in discerning the morality of the technologies offered to them in medical offices. I commend Hollinger for giving this issue attention and raising important ethical questions that ought to be considered. In the intensity of desiring to create a child, couples can lose sight of the longer-term moral implications of the procedures they accept. The broader Christian community’s wisdom and discernment is needed on these matters.

In the chapter addressing “The Challenge of Homosexuality,” Hollinger not only makes the usual distinction between homosexual orientation and behavior but also discusses homosexual identity. He claims that a homosexual orientation is not chosen, and that homosexual identity and behaviors are the result of personal choices. It is important for him also to make distinctions between Christian ethics, pastoral care, and public policy. He argues “the Christian ethic of sex cannot capitulate to our fallen impulses … [and] cannot sanction homosexual behavior” (197). He calls for churches to have compassion for those who struggle with homosexual desire without compromising the Christian sexual ethic. He urges churches to “hold together truth and compassion, righteousness and mercy” (197).

Those who genuinely need to re-examine the church’s traditional sexual ethic or explore other Christian positions on homosexuality will not find much to support their efforts in this book. Hollinger stifles ongoing meaningful dialogue and further discernment on this controversial issue with his claim that “We fail the world and struggling individuals when we continually appeal to more dialogue, ambiguity, and merely compassion” (194). Nonetheless, he does contribute to the dialogue by providing a clear, thoughtful articulation of the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of sex.

Brenda Martin Hurst, Pastor, Frazer Mennonite Church, Frazer, PA