By Matthew Rueger
Concordia Publishing House, 2016
176 pages, $14
REVIEWED BY Tim Challies
THE TIMES are changing. Sexual morality in the West is undergoing nothing less than a revolution as traditional morality gives way to something radically different. The former morality, based on the Christian Scriptures, is being shoved aside by a new one that not only departs from the Bible, but outright rejects it. Meanwhile, Christians who abide by those traditional sexual morals are increasingly seen as outcasts, backward people dangerously hung up on ancient, oppressive principles. It is all very disconcerting.
Into the fray steps Matthew Rueger with his book Sexual Morality in a Christless World. Though the last few years have brought us no shortage of books on how to live on this side of the sexual revolution, Rueger offers something unique in examining and explaining the historical and cultural backdrop to the New Testament’s teaching on sexual morality. He shows that Christian sexual morality has not always been traditional but was at one time its own revolution. In other words, Christians have been here before, and there is much we can learn from our own history.
Rueger turns first to the Roman context in which the early Christians lived and into which the Bible was written. Here he offers a disturbing examination of what Roman culture considered good and normal. Yet it was hardly utopian. He shows that “In the Roman mind, man was the conqueror who dominated on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom. He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.” Respectable men were permitted to have sexual relations with just about anyone, provided they were the aggressors rather than receivers of such sexual acts.
Marriage existed, of course, but was not first about mutual love, but about the provision of an heir. A far purer form of love was the love of a man for a boy, so a culture of pederasty arose in which adult men carried on overt sexual relationships with adolescent boys. Prostitution was rampant. Rape was widespread and accepted, provided a man raped someone of a lower status. In so many ways Roman sexual morality was abhorrent and one of its most prominent features was the strong dominating the weak.
And then Christians showed up. Christians began to teach that men were to be chaste, that homosexual behaviour and pederasty were sinful, that men were to love and honour their wives, that wives and husbands had equal authority over one another’s bodies. Such teaching was not only seen as repressive, but as full-out destabilizing to the Roman system. No wonder, then, that the whole culture turned against Christians. “Though Christian morality promoted genuine self-emptying love and was positive for society, it nonetheless set Christ’s people against the prevailing culture. Romans did not like being told that some of their favourite activities were displeasing to the Christian God, and they pushed back.” And here is where we can draw important lessons for our day – for today, too, Christian sexual morality is seen as destabilizing to the culture around us, as a serious societal sin.
And so far we have only discussed the first chapter. In chapter 2 Rueger sets the Jewish context, showing that Christian morality was almost as opposed to contemporary Judaism as it was to Rome. This was especially true in according equal rights to men and women, in protecting women from divorce, and in putting away notions of sexual purity that harmed women. Again, Christianity offered a sexual morality that was kind and equitable and that protected the weak and marginalized.
And with all of that context in place, Rueger now works through the New Testament texts on sexuality. He shows how these Christian teachings were full-out counter-cultural, how they were radical, not traditional. He demonstrates how Christian sexual morality helped individuals, it helped the marginalized, it helped society – it was a tremendous blessing to everyone. Yet Christians suffered because their views were seen as destabilizing and harmful. Though today we see that their morality was actually a blessing, at that time it was considered a curse. And Christians suffered terribly for it.
The rest of the book turns from the roots of Christian sexual morality to modern sexual mores, offering the biblical alternative to our society’s revolution. Rueger says “My desire in writing this book is to help Christians engage the world around them in reasoned discussion.” He does so very well. And his greatest contribution is helping us understand that this is not the first time that Christians have been at odds with the prevailing culture. This is not the first time the biblical understanding of sex and sexuality has caused the dominant culture to turn on Christians, to consider them disloyal, to push them to the margins. For that reason we need books like this one to interpret the times and equip us for today and the days to come. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and highly recommend it. TAP
Tim Challies is the author of Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God (Zondervan, 2016) and hosts the website www.challies.com.