A High Road for Protestant Sexual Ethics

On John W. Kleinig’s Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body

“Men despise religion. . . . The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.” ~Blaise Pascal

Can Christian sexual ethics survive the sexual revolution? Churches everywhere trim in the face of the popularity of modern sexual mores. Most Protestant churches long ago abandoned proscriptions on contraception and divorce. Many have on abortion. They wink at cohabitation. They rarely complain that the state has usurped familial obligations like teaching about sexuality and caring for children or warn parishioners that public schools see themselves as ersatz parents instead of in loco parentis.

Into the breach steps John W. Kleinig, a Lutheran minister in Australia, theologian, and author of Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body, which accentuates the positive about Christian marriage. Christians, Kleinig worries “will not be heard and heeded by our critics” unless we lead with “a positive, rightly ordered vision of it in its beauty” rather than adopting a “self-righteous, censorious stance.” The Ten Commandment’s Thou-Shalt-Nots point to Shalls: leading with Shalls instead of Shall-Nots puts Christian marriage in the best light. We have reason to hope that the attractiveness of the family will reinforce the attractiveness of Christianity. Thus will good men wish Christianity to be true from the attractiveness of Christian marriage.

Equally important, the Shalls will explain to Christians themselves what they are doing and why. Modern ideologies leak into Christian churches in a thousand ways. One of them is through shaping how people understand family life. Believers get light from the “Modern American Sun” and the Light of the World. If believers follow the American Sun, they will think marriage is a prison, motherhood and fatherhood are limits on freedom, their body is their choice, or sex is merely a vehicle for personal pleasure. How should Christians think about these things?

Making Marriage Attractive Again

Neither marriage nor family life can really proceed without sacrificial love, so they provide a glimpse of heavenly love in a fallen world. To make marriage attractive again churches should emphasize making its attributes attractive. Protestant churches either misunderstand and misapply these attributes, or downplay them because of the power of the Modern American Sun. Kleinig highlights those unseen attributes.

Chastity. Sexual desire is especially corrupted. The who, how many, how, how often and with whom of sex are all subject to temptation. Against this, Kleinig preaches the “beauty of chastity.” Chastity does not simply mean “no sex” or “no sex before marriage.” It means the right ordering of sexual desire. Assume that a husband buys his wife sexy lingerie and orders her to put it on and act like a prostitute before sex. That is not chastity, though it respects, in sense, the bond between sex and marriage. Real chastity involves a man and a woman entering into an exclusive enduring sexual commitment to one another, where they love and serve one another instead of giving way to their lusts. Chastity means that sex finds a subordinate place within a larger communal relationship where husbands and wives share lives. That communal relationship is beautiful—it’s a “house of marriage,” as Kleinig sees it. 

Fruitfulness. Marriage is transformative. It is not an alliance between separate individuals. It makes a community. Husbands are less apt to look at wives as sexual objects, as happens with fornicators. Wives are more likely to be satisfied with the man they have, instead of filing for divorce at the first whiff of marital conflict. Husbands and wives joined in communal marriage are more likely to be open to bringing new life into the world. Men and women stick it out not for fear of the consequences of not sticking it out, but rather because not sticking it out is unthinkable. The two have become one. Sex creates children and responsibilities for parents. This is when the two really become one. This leads Kleinig to a deep worry about contraception. “A married couple,” Kleinig writes, “who can have children but deliberately refuses to do so commits an unnatural, life-denying act of defiance that rejects the blessings God wishes to bestow on them and the whole human race.”

Enduring. The vision for marriage is one man, one woman, one time. What God has united let man not put asunder. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman of marriage are not separated. Re-marriage from the perspective of the church is not an option. This creates the proper disposition to the inevitable conflicts and rough-patches of married life. When marriage is enduring, the petty troubles appear petty. When endurance is optional, every breeze can blow it down. Built on God, marriage cannot be built on sand. And how beautiful it is to keep the main thing the main thing, as opposed to having an itchy trigger finger for divorce. Kleinig goes as far in the direction of demanding permanent marriage as any non-Catholic thinker I have seen.

Civil Righteousness. Protecting these elements and others requires, ultimately, some support from a broader culture and thus from public notions of honor and shame, law-breaking and law-affirming. No one can practice monogamy, chastity, or enduring marriage alone. Countries that celebrate same-sex relations are bound to get more of them—to the detriment of righteous practice—and to get less fruitful marriages, and less lasting marriages. So laws and culture must ultimately support these principles if they are to be normative (i.e., normal). Christians, therefore, cannot retreat into their churches, but must be concerned with the broader marital ecosystem if they are to have healthy marriages.

Soft Patriarchy. Man and woman form a community, a “single physical community,” and experience “companionship” in marriage, as Kleinig writes. But he does not offer an evangelical, “she-is-my-best-friend” understanding of these ideas. In marriage, he writes, “the husband is the head of the wife. He is not her boss but her benefactor.” A husband serves and leads, while a wife values his leadership and appreciates what he does and “is happy to be subordinate to him.” They do not contribute the same thing to the marriage. He will sacrifice himself—and of himself—for her and their family: she appreciates the responsibility that comes with such leadership and commitment. Couples need not adhere strictly to the old public man-private woman to practice this norm, but it is probably the model most consistent with it.

Christians hardly see that they have deeply communal marriages—but they often do. What is beautiful about them is precisely what represents the unity of Christ and the church. Churches in a world hostile to Christianity must double down on the Christian distinctives, unapologetically, to maintain their integrity and doctrine and seek to inform parishioners about what they are doing—otherwise the light from the American Sun will overwhelm and blind them.

Three Foundations for Christian Marriage

Seeing marriage and family life in terms of the Christian Light means understanding the role of the body in Christian ways of thinking. How should human beings use their bodies in marriage? Why is marriage superior to autonomy or to the hedonism of eating, drinking and being merry? 

Two very earthy metaphors revealed Martin Luther’s old answers to these questions. For Luther, marriage was a hospital and a school. The hospital metaphor reveals how all-consuming sexual temptation can be. “The temptation of the flesh has become so strong,” Luther writes, “that marriage may be likened to a hospital for incurables which prevents inmates from falling into graver sins.” Without marriage, we burn! With marriage, our disordered sex lives are reduced to a species of order and given a Godly end. The school metaphor reveals how living together with someone at close quarters and facing daily challenges and necessities can improve one’s character. It teaches patience, kindness, thanksgiving, and other virtues, while humbling our pride and autonomy. Marriage fosters sanctification, almost. 

Luther’s pair of metaphors is the dog that doesn’t bark in Kleinig’s book. Kleinig appears to think Luther’s metaphors are insufficiently respectful of the body and insufficiently positive for today. Luther emphasizes how marriage fixes what is necessarily wrong with us, not how the body remains wonderfully made. 

Kleinig opposes the separation of body from soul; they are different but inseparable in human beings because God dwells within us. Human beings are embodied spirits or spiritual bodies. Partly physical and partly spiritual, the body is a bridge between the eternal, invisible realm of God and the visible, dying realm of his creatures. Human sinfulness complicates God’s perfect creation in their life and behavior. Through Christ’s redeeming sacrifice our bodies can again become “agents of God and instruments by which he shows himself and gives himself to other people on earth.” While Edenic bliss is not available, “life is still relatively good” on earth, as Kleinig writes, and marriage is a vehicle for this not-so-bad life. From this Kleinig builds his positive vision.

No one explained the positive Christian vision and the place of the body better than John Paul II. John Paul II’s teaching on sexual ethics is contained in his Love and Responsibility (1960). His sermons from the 1970s and 1980s are collected in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (1997).

The loadstar of John Paul II’s teaching is personalism. Simply put, personalism thinks of human sexuality on two planes—one on the bodily, animal plane; the other in the order of persons.  Sex drives, sexual pleasure, and the reproductive system are on the animal plane, for instance, while the order of persons sees all within the common goods of a unified marriage: bringing forth new life, ripening a relationship through sex, and ordering desires are common goods that supersede the selfish individual standpoint characteristic of animals. The fact that human beings can share common goods is traceable to man’s rich inner life and his special kind of striving after wisdom and community—the Imago Dei. Both planes existing together make us persons; sexual and marital ethics involve ordering the body so as to respect the unique personhood of the other.   

While Kleinig embraces John Paul II’s description of Christian marriage, he does not accept the personalistic premises. Most crucially, getting from Lutheran total depravity to personalism’s transformed and sanctified will is no easy task. If human beings are totally depraved, the achievement of marital and sexual common goods is fatally compromised. Sexual desires and the ordering of priorities, even within a well-functioning marriage, corrupt human motivation, thoughts and actions. Personalism expects too much of human nature.

Marriage and family life may be the arenas of human life where the ongoing work of sanctification plays out most vividly. They cannot make human beings holy, but they open the human heart to accept God’s grace and to understand it.  

Evangelicals tend to baptize only those elements of marriage consistent with the Modern American Sun. Kleinig’s defense of orthodoxy in the face of this tendency is trenchant. Kleinig can only do this, it seems, by edging closer to the Catholic teaching and its basis. But not the whole way.   Human beings are wonderfully made, for Kleinig, because they are baptized into Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. God sees them as wonderfully made, that is, though they remain corrupted. From the Catholic point of view, Kleinig represents a species of Catholic-envy—wanting the teachings of the Catholic church (this time, on marriage) without adopting the Catholic superstructure on sin.  

Both Kleinig and John Paul II diagnosed Christian churches losing their way on marriage and family life. Each, in turn, turned to the theological resources in Christian history to understand our present challenges. They emphasized distinctively Christian elements in marriage in order to better arm Christians in our cultural turmoil. Perhaps the positive vision is the way to go but it must always be accompanied, it seems to me, with a healthy recognition of the temptations and sins that plague human sexual and communal life. Thou-Shalt-Nots are not so easily done away with.

*Image Credit: Pexels

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

One thought on “A High Road for Protestant Sexual Ethics

  1. Good work. Thank you for taking the time to dig into these deep and weighty matters and the writings of the saints on them.

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