Last week I wrote about how the moral descent of the American “empire” closely parallels that of ancient Rome. In the Roman Empire, as sexual activity increased beyond the confines of legal marriage, sexual profligacy worsened, sexual perversion was normalized, and the societal benefits of marriage disappeared. Family dissolution increased—fracturing the cornerstone of society—crime exploded, productivity and creativity diminished, cynicism and apathy ensued; the Empire began to crumble.
I also pointed out that Roman officials, recognizing the societal danger of such licentiousness, enacted laws in an effort to arrest the sexual extravagance and decline of marriage. Unfortunately, these laws had little effect as the moral consensus, which was accepting of these behaviors, was well-entrenched within the culture at large.
Unlike the Romans, however, we once had a number of laws in place that were designed to protect marriage by penalizing “crimes against marriage” through adultery and fornication laws. Public policy was supported by the moral consensus that sex was exclusive to marriage. These laws have been ignored or abolished in recent years as the moral consensus has shifted. Later, no-fault divorce was established, which ushered in the era of easy divorce and, along with it, the highest family dissolution rates in the world. As a result, marriage in America has become a “loose and voluntary compact” as it did in ancient Rome. This is particularly true among those under age 35, of which more than two-thirds now cohabitate prior to marriage; the number of unmarried families has increased steadily since the 1970s.
So, here in the face of redefining marriage to now include couples of the same sex, it seems unlikely that we will be able to arrest the ongoing erosion of marriage, when over the course of the last fifty years we have been removing the very protections that have brought us to this point. The current moral consensus simply does not appear to support the desired public policy and the church is largely compromised (which I will get to). Regardless, we should make every effort to pass those measures that promote the well-being of individuals and society.
Returning to our historical analysis, it was at the pinnacle of Roman debauchery that the Christian church appeared. And as I noted last week, one historian observed, “There was nothing in which they [the Romans] did not indulge or which they thought a disgrace.” The apostle Paul, writing to the fledgling church in Rome, commented on the condition as well when he wrote, “…they became fools … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator [sexual idolatry] … God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature; and men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men … God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness and evil…” (Romans 1:22–29). Roman culture had, by this time, descended into a sexually obsessed state in which every form of perversion became permissible.
It was into this sexually immoral environment that Christians would bring forth a radically different sexual ethic. Believing that sex between unmarried men and women was a violation of the commandment against adultery, the early Christians took seriously the words found in the epistle to the Hebrews that said, “The marriage bed should be honored by all, and … kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4). So strong was the influence of this Christian “creative minority” that by the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine “revolutionized the state’s view of marriage in order to bring it more into line with Christian ideas” (Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, p. 85). This was the establishment of what we now know as “traditional marriage,” the cornerstone of Western civilization for more than 1600 years—and we owe it all to the early Christians who refused to conform to the world. Famed historian Edward Gibbon noted in his classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians” (Decline and Fall, p. 813).
The concern for the Christian today is that unlike our first- and second-century brothers and sisters, the church all too often appears similar to the surrounding culture. This is especially true among the forthcoming generation. As Christianity Today reports, “Specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths…” (Jennifer Parker, “The Sex Lives of Christians,” Mar/Apr 2003). Mark Regenerus, a sociologist and a Christian, published a study last year called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teens. Regenerus’s study reveals that evangelical teens may actually be having premarital sex at younger ages and more frequently than their nonevangelical counterparts.
Ironically, one of the most talked about subjects in today’s culture is sex and yet it is probably one of the least talked about in our churches. Is it any wonder that the next generation has adopted the values of the culture rather than those of the church when it comes to sex? Knowing this, what hope does the church have of restoring the dignity of marriage?
We need to reclaim the subject of sex by giving our young people a comprehensive theology of sex that is defined in terms of relationship, rather than merely a physical act. We must move beyond our prudishness that simply teaches teens what not to do and celebrate the gift of sex as God intended it to be. The biblical view of sex as the ultimate integrating expression of two persons united physically, psychologically, and spiritually in marriage is superior to the world’s shallow and superficial alternative. But until we start teaching and demonstrating the superiority of biblically defined sex, our young people and the world will likely continue to “exchange the truth of God for [the] lie.”
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.