Sexual Ethics

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  • Created on: 26-11-19 13:43

Is sex destructive?

According to Michael Ruse:

The starting point for sex is the sheer desire of a person for the body of another... this gets dangerously close to treating the other as an object, rather than an end.

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Is sex more than this?

According to Jean Hampton:

When sex is about pleasing the other as much as it is about pleasing oneself, it certainly doesn't involve using another as a means and actually incorporates the idea of respect and concern for another's needs.

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Peter Vardy

Three priciples underpin any understanding of sexual morality today:

  • Psychology has found that sexuality is an essential part of human nature. The ability to love/have relationships depends on experience had as a child. We must move away from the negative Christian ideas and take a more positive approach.
  • Sex should be between two people that are free and autonomous, not using each other as a means to an end. It is about love and tenderness.
  • Love-making is a deep and mysterious thing. No set of rules meets the complexities of human relationships.
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Ancient views of sex

  • Pythagoreans: Sex is purely for procreation. You should live as an ascetic to free the imprisoned soul.
  • Plato: Dualism. Your desire needs controlling, as it is a distraction from the true goal.
  • Cynics: There is no shame in sex, even in public.
  • Greeks: There are no laws to control sex, but they do feel a need to advocate for individual self-discipline.
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Biblical references: Lot and his daughters

In Genesis 19, the men of Sodom gather around Lot's house and demand to **** the two guests (disguised angels).
Lot offers his two daughters instead, noting that they are virgins. (19:8)
Since the mob refuses Lot's offer, the angels strike them blind. They warn Lot to leave the city before it is destroyed.

Lot and his daughters escape to a cave in the mountains of Zoar, fearing that all other cities have been destroyed.
In Genesis 19:30-38, Lot's daughters got their father drunk, and over two consecutive nights had sex with him without his knowledge.
They may have done this because they feared that they were the last humans on Earth and wanted to preserve the human race.

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Biblical references: Judges 19

19:25 - So the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go.

19:29 - And when he was come into his home, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel.

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Biblical references: Adam and Eve

Eve encounters a serpent who cinvinces her that she will not suffer if she eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Eve shares the fruit with Adam, and the two are immediately filled with shame and remorse.
Eve is cursed to suffer painful childbirth and must submit to her husband's authority.
Adam is cursed to toil and work the ground for food. They are banished from the garden.

Sent out into the world, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel.
Cain kills Abel and is exiled.
Adam and Eve give birth to Seth.
The human race begins to grow through Cain and Seth.
Ten generations pass, and mankind grows more evil, leads into the story of Noah.

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Biblical references: Ruth and Boaz

Boaz, the landowner of where Ruth came to find grain, knew of her situation and told workers to leave grain for her to find.
Naomi, Ruth's mother-in-law, noted that Boaz was a close relative who, according to Jewish law, had the right to marry Ruth after the death of her former husband.
Ruth went to Boaz in the evening to present herself as ready to accept a propsal.
Boaz accepted, but noted that there was a relative closer in line to marry Ruth.
Boaz met with the relative and presented the situation - the relative turned down the offer and Boaz took Ruth as his wife.

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Biblical references: the Song of Songs

Celebrates sexual love, giving the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proferring invitations to enjoy. The two are in harmony, each desiring each other and rejoicing in sexual intimacy; the women of Jerusalem form a chorus to the lovers, functioning as an audience whose participation in the lover's encounters facilitates the participation of the reader.

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Biblical references: David, Bathsheba and Uriah

Despite knowing that Bathsheba was married to Uriah, King David sent for her and slept with her. She later sent word that she was pregnant.
Nervous that his sin of adultery would now be found out, David called for Uriah to come home from the war and spend a night with his wife. However, Uriah refused to sleep with his wife while his fellow men were out fighting.
David sent note to the army with instructions to put Uriah at the frontline and withdraw, so he would die.

The prophet Nathan visited King David and told him of the lord's disapproval. Even though David repented of his sin, Nathan told David that the son Bathsheba was expecting would die.

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Biblical references: Onan (Genesis 38)

Asked by Judah to provide offspring for Tamar so that the family line could continue.
Tikva Frymer-Krensky explains that this could have substantial economic repercussions, with any son born deeemed the heir of the deceased Er, and able to claim the firstborn's double share of inheritance. However, if Er was childless, Onan would inherit as the oldest surviving son.

Onan performed coitus interruptus. His actions were deemed wicked by God so, like his brother Er, he died prematurely.

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Biblical references: the destruction of Sodom and

The exact nature of the damning wickedness of the cities has been the subject of debate. Traditionally, Sodom and Gomorrah have been associated with homosexual acts. The mob of men that accosts the angels had demanded of Lot, "where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them." (Genesis 19:5)

This has long been interpreted as 'carnal knowledge,' and many believe that it is the widespread homosexuality of the inhabitants that earns their obliteration.

Other biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah, including Jude 1:7, wihich mentions sexual immorality and 'unnatural lust', and the 'abominable things' of Ezekiel 16:50, are seen as support for this view.

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Sex and the Old Testament

OT reflects the mixed ideas of the time:

  • Moving love stories
  • Incest
  • Adultery
  • Celebrations of sex
  • Sex for procreation
  • Male bias and anti-female stereotypes
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Women, sex and the Bible

  • Women should be virgins until marriage so men are assured continuation of the family line.
  • Creation stories - No direct superiority is given to men, apart from man naming woman. Ownership rights?
  • 10 commandments - 'You shall not covet your neighbour's wife,' women as possessions?
  • Women in the old testament - men had rights over women, wife seen as possession. Female purity rules- menstruation and childbirth.
  • Jesus' view of women - challenged stereotyping of time mixing freely with women. Equality is the most important commandment. But he said very little specifically.
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St. Paul

  • Had a limited interest in sex, not when the imminent return of Christ was expected.
  • Influenced by the attitudes of the time and Jesus - this resulted in inconsistent teachings.
  • Sex was once pure, but contaminated by the Fall.
  • Causes conflict between the body and soul.
  • Sex should be controlled within marriage, but celibacy is the ideal.
  • The most important thing in life is to focus on Christ's resurrection.
  • Marriage should only be considered if sexual desire is uncontrollable.
  • Had mixed views on women - said they are equal in a relationship and the church, but do need to stay silent in church andor mindlessly obey their husbands. But they are equal.
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St. Augustine

  • Sexual activity is prima facie (at first appearance) morally wrong.
  • It undermines rationality - leads men away from reason.
  • Lust is an evil implanted in us at the time of the Fall, an invention of the devil to lead men astray.
  • Sex acts need justification, i.e. the biblical command to go forth and multiply.
  • It is to be avoided unless stringent conditions are met: must be in marriage, must be for children, but chastity is the ideal.
  • To make love for pleasure is to treat one's wife as a whore. A man must always undertake the task with a 'certain regret.'
  • Peter Vardy blames Augustine's attitudes for why society has continued to have a negative view of sex.
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St. Thomas Aquinas

  • Reflected in Roman Catholic views - sex has the function of procreation (Natural Law)
  • In the Summa Theologica, sex is morally wrong in two ways:
  • When 'the act of it's nature is incompatible with the purpose.' E.g. using contraception.
  • Morally wrong even if natural if 'conflicting with right reason.' E.g. ****.
  • Women have the duty to make themselves available to their husbands if asked, unless menstruating. They must play a passive role.
  • Women are subject to men because they are wiser.
  • Sexual pleasure is an apparent good, not the focus.
  • Sex in marriage fulfils the primary precepts (love God, ordered society, educate children)
  • Cohabitation and extramartial sex are apparent goods and at odds with the primary precepts.
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Matthew Fox - sacred sex approach

  • A contemporary Christian thinker. Religion has devalued the true meaning and purpose of sex.
  • The Song of Songs in the Old Testament praises human sexuality as a sacred gift.
  • Jesus condemns adultery, but never stigmatises ****** impulses as evil. His message was of love & inner motives.
  • We shouldn't wish sexuality away.
  • Gabriel Marcel argued: to reduce a mystery of sexuality to a process of morality is to make us guilty of intellectual perversion.
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Jack Dominian

  • Sex is powerful and meaningful - must take place in a continuous, enduring relationship.
  • Premarital, cohabitation, and even one-off adultery do not necessarily destroy this ideal.
  • Even a loving homosexual relationship is a good one.
  • The modern Church needs to re-think it's values - a relationship is a gift from God to man, and so should be celebrated.
  • You will not be immediately and permanently condemned to Hell for a one-off mistake.
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Joseph Fletcher

  • Permissive, allows more personal autonomy.
  • People's needs come before laws- emphasis on agape.
  • Marriage is not an intrinsic good.
  • Premarital sex should be condoned by the Church for those that are mature, responsible and in love. The Church must move with the times.
  • This was contradicted by Barclay - Christianity should not adapt to society. God's laws are absolute and unchanging. Relaxing attitudes to sex results in promiscuity, and fornication is condemned by the Bible.
  • Casual sex is a problem to J.F. for the impliction that you do not / loose respect for the other person. Compliance with agape means not treating people badly.
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John Stuart Mill

  • Individuals should be protected from too much interference from governments and social expectations.
  • 'Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.' (On Liberty)
  • You should behave as you choose, as long as it doesn't harm others.
  • JSM was concerned with how much religion forbids / controls.
  • He was not opposed to marriage but felt variety in a society was good.
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  • The categorical imperative creates a conservative view, you can't universalise adultery, homosexuality, etc. Human sexuality needs a strict set of rules.
  • To use someone to satisfy your desires is to dishonour the human nature of that person - it is animal-like to use someone as a means to an end.
  • Sex for individual ends is manipulative, chauvanistic and destructive. It ignores justice, love and honesty.
  • Sexual pleasure should be anchored in and subordinate to marriage, not using and abusing each other.
  • It does not have to strictly be for procreation.
  • "Taken by itself, sexual love is a degredation of human nature."
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Religious views of premarital sex

  • Quakers say a couple can be faithful to each other in loving, non-exploitative relationships outside of marriage.
  • The Church of England states "marriage gives the proper context for sexual relationships and the bringing up of children."
  • Some Protestant churches, e.g. the Church of England allows couples who are committed to marrying to cohabit - living with each other before marriage as a trial.
  • Some Christians say that there is no reliable contraception which can enable loving couples to have sex without fear of pregnancy.
  • Theocentric ethical systems create a sexual ethic that is inhumane and therefore immoral.
  • Adolf Grunbaum argues that Christian sexual ethics is based on the narrow views of old men who claim that this is what God wants.
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Teen Aid

A non-profit started in 1981 for the specific purpose of reucing premarital sexual activity and it's many consequences. The method believed most valuable was abstinance and risk avoidance education, which stresses character development and connection to the parents.

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The Silver Ring Thing

An evangelical-based movement which promotes abstinence until marriage. Young people wear a silver ring which is only to be replaced by their wedding ring.

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Religion and marriage

  • It is a public event where commitment is declared and promises are made.
  • Intended for companionship, raising of children the fulfilment of sexual desire.
  • Intended to be a lifelong relationship, 'til death do us part.'
  • A covenant relationship where from that day onwards the two individuals are one in mind and body. For Catholic Christians, marriage is regarded as one of the sacraments.
  • Sacraments are an outward sign that is a means of receiving God's grace.
  • Genesis 2:24: A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and they become one flesh.
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Issues around premarital sex

  • Cohabitation: there has been an increase of cohabiting couples. In the 1960s, only 5% of couples cohabitated. Now is it at least 50%. They may be living together as a 'trial' before marriage, they may be cohabitating as an alternative to marriage, or they may be opposed to marriage.
  • Contraception: now available more freely. Hence people can be sexually active with a low risk of pregnancy or STDs.
  • Secularisation: the idea that sex should not occur outside marriage was largely influenced by religious teaching; these teachings are now less prominent in people's lives. Cohabitation is no longer referred to as 'living in sin.'
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Issues around extramarital sex

  • 'Do not commit adultery' is one of the 10 commandments. Jesus states that divorce is only permissable when adultery has occurred. But it is worth considering:
  • Is extramarital sex still wrong if the couple has an open marriage?
  • If a person in a committed cohabitating relationship cheats, is this pre- or extramarital sex? Is it as wrong as a married person having an affair?
  • Religious teaching on monogamous marriage has gradually evolved. In the old testament, Abraham had a concubine as well as a wife. David and Solomon had multiple wives.
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Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae

The Church, nevertheless, is urging men to the observance of the precepts of Natural Law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

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Applying Natural Law

Natural Law has at it's centre a concern for human flourishing, It holds that certain goods are required for it; to fulfil our telos, or purpose, is ultimately what is best for us. Aquinas' version of Natural Law holds that the primary precepts, including reproduction, are key to human flourishing:

  • Reproduction: the idea that the telos of the act and one of our purposes as human beings is reproduction is central to Natural Law's rejection of homosexuality.
  • Marriage: brings order to society. Catholic morality has built upon this to suggest that sexual intercourse belongs only in marriage and all sex acts must be open to the possibility of procreation. Children need the order and stability of marriage.
  • Divine Law: 'do not commit adultery' is one of the 10 commandments. This would be sufficient to rule out extramarital sex even without primary and secondary precepts.
  • Real and apparent goods: although sex may lead to pleasure, the purpose of sex is reproduction. To pursue pleasure through premarital sex, extramarital sex or homosexual sex is an apparent good. Right reasoning about our telos would lead us to reject these ideas according to Natural Law.
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Assessing Natural Law

  • The focus on reproduction and preserving life is a good thing and prevents us from assuming a casual view of sex.
  • Natural Law is linked to a belief in God and is based on human reasoning. However, it is possible to debate the benefit of these links.
  • Natural Law makes an assumption about the purpose of sex. Sexual relationships may equally have other purposes, such as being unitive or bringing pleasure.
  • The idea of doing what is natural has been used to imply that homosexuality is unnatural, yet this cannot be the case if homosexual inclinations are part of a person's nature.
  • Natural Law is legalistic in it's approach and has not kept up with modern technological developments, e.g. contraception and IVF. Sex does not have to be linked to reproduction and it is possible for gay couples to have children.
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Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics

  • "The defence agency wanted her to take a secretary's job in a Western European city, and under that cover 'involve' a married man who was working for a rival power.
  • When she protested that she couldn't put her personal integrity on the block, as sex for hire, they would only say 'it's like your brother risking his life in Korea. We are sure that this job can't be done any other way.'"
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Applying Situation Ethics

Aims to provide a middle ground between religious, legalistic attitudes and modern secular antinomialism. It has one key principle of doing the most loving thing in every situation.

  • Agape: described as unconditional love for one's neighbour. It is not to be confused with Eros, which is sexual love, although in relationships it may be difficult to seperate the two. In the case of premarital sex, Fletcher may draw a distinction between casual, promiscuous sex and sex in a committed relationship.
  • Criticism of religious ethics: especially in the case of Natural Law. Fletcher found it difficult to see how rejection of homosexuality is the most loving thing to do.
  • Extramarital sex: not impossible to justify, so long as an extreme case presents itself.
  • People-centred: key to all of Fletcher's thinking are the ideas of relativism and personalism. What is right depends on the situation and what is best for people; people are more important than rules.
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Assessing Situation Ethics

  • Helpful in drawing a distinction between casual and loveless sex and sex within a loving relationship- this is something that Natural Law, with it's focus on rules, and Utilitarianism, with it's focus on pleasure, fails to achieve.
  • Sexual ethics involve persons: hence it is right to look for a person-centred solution, such as situation ethics.
  • Overlooks religious commandments on sexuality, so too flexibble for some Christians and ignores the belief that such commands are revealed by God.
  • Seems to mainly focus on the most loving thing for those immediately involved in a situation. It needs to consider others, like children or wider family.
  • May be more helpful in extreme cases than in everyday cases. In most ordinary cases, there needs to be a clearer rule to follow.
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Applying Utilitarianism - Pleasure

At first glance, Bentham's utilitarianism is straightforward as it is focused on pleasure; provided that the pleasure outweighs the pain, any action is a good action. This makes utilitarianism fairly liberal in it's approach, and would seem to permit most cases of premarital sex and would treat homosexual relationships the same as heterosexual ones.

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Applying Utilitarianism - Tolerance

Although Mill regards sexual pleasure as lower, which may suggest that the relationship should be the most important thing, his non-harm principle that a government should only intervene if others are being harmed suggests that different sexual behaviours should be permitted. Mill might, as a rule utilitarian, also be able to permit premarital sex and homosexuality as no one is harmed. The principle arguably opposes extramarital sex.

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Applying Utilitarianism - Consent and preference

Peter Singer's preference utilitarianism argues that respect for the different preferences of persons is the most important consideration in determining overall happiness. It is not for us to express a view of the preferences of others unless those choices are directly causing us unhappiness. If I am homophobic, it is not my business what the gay couple next door are doing. However, if I am the victim of my partner's affair then that may be a different matter. Rational consent is key to utilitarians.

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Applying Utilitarianism - Evidence

Does not have a philosophical position on marriage versus cohabitation, or heterosexuals vs homosexuality, but in aiming to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, they are open to possible evidence. Recent reports suggesting that married couples are happier and healthier, and that the children of married parentss do better statistically at school would be interesting to a utilitarian. If the evidence stands, then they might adjust their views accordingly.

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Assessing Utilitarianism

  • Progressive and modern. Not dependent on outdated religious ideas, unlike Natural Law.
  • Helpful, flexible, especially when situations are both private and varied.
  • Bentham focuses too much on majority pleasure. At least in theory, Bentham could support crimes such as genocide. Bentham himself, as well as supporting homosexuality, also thought that pedantry, an older man having a sexual relationship with an adolescent boy, was perfectly acceptable. Mill's versions are no subject to this criticism because of the non-harm principle and reduced focus on physical pleasure.
  • If suffering and pain includes moral outrage then there would be a case for banning homosexuality. However, this would be what Mill refers to as 'the tyranny of the majority,' where the majority forcibly imposes views upon the minority.
  • In some cases, it requires assessment of the future, whether or not it is good to have an affair seems to be dependent upon whether it is found out.
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Applying Kantian Ethics

The idea of freedom and autonomy means that rational consent is important. In addition to treating someone as an end entails treating them with dignity; it could be argued that any sexual relationship is totally driven by lusts risks viewing the partner purely as an object.

  • Homosexuality: while it is true that it cannot be universalised as the human race would die out, the requirement to tret people as ends seems to suggest that gay people ought to be free to express this aspect of their identity.
  • Marriage: it is contractual. Persons give each other rights so that any sexual relationship that follows does not 'degrade human nature' by treating the other person as an object. Would rule out premarital sex, although it may be possible to argue that this is not the logical conclusion of the two tests.
  • Extramarital sex: ruled out by several other considerations: it breaks the promises made in marriage and Kant strongly opposes promise-breaking, it treats at least one of the parties as a means to an end and it would be difficult to universalise extramarital sex without making marriage meaningless.
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Assessing Kantian Ethics

  • The requirement that persons are respected is a useful insight and prevents a casual attitude to sex and the people involved.
  • It is a secular theory, which may prove to be more attractive in a less religious age.
  • Kantian ethics is logical whereas often our feelings about sexual ethics are diven by emotion and personal bias. Can be good to give us a way of rationally analysing our feelings, but also makes it a cold and remote solution to issues.
  • The universalisation test is not necessarily helpful as dilemmas in sexual ethics and the people involved are too varied for a universal rule.
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  • Anthony Harvey wrote, in Strenuous Demands, 'the social consequences of adulterous relationships were seen as too damaging to be tolerated.'
  • Leviticus 20:10 - if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, they should be put to death.
  • Punishments for adulterous women reflects the view of the time: temptresses who are always at fault. Adulterous men were not punished unless it was with a married woman or a virgin.
  • John 8:7 - Jesus said let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at an adulterous woman. No one died. But Jesus did not entirely excuse her behaviour:
  • 'Go your own way, and from now on do not sin again.' (John 8:11)
  • The Roman Catholic Church does not allow remarriage, only annulment will permit it.
  • Marriage did exist before Judaism and Christianity, but from it's earliest days the Christian Church began the process of gradually claiming jurisdiction over marriage.
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Genesis 1:20-7

Then God said, 'let us make man in our image and likeness'... So God created man in his own image.

Christians believe that this means God loves everyone, as he made us all. There is an inherent special link to God in every human being, so we are all valuable.

If God created an individual to be gay, then it would be fine. That person should be free to be who they are.


It does not necessarily follow that God approves of everything we do, as he gave us free will. So it's not alright.

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Leviticus 18:22

You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman; this is an abomination.

Means that being gay is clearly an issue to Christians, and to act upon this attraction is unthinkable.

This interpretation necessarily involves having sex, some say gay relationships can be fine as long as they remain celibate.

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Matthew 7:1-2

Do not judge or you too will be judge. For with what measure you judge others, it shall be measured against you.

Even the most pious of Christianswill have some inevitable sins, so one should not judge.

People shouldn't judge homosexuality because it is not their place to.

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Romans 1:26-27

Even women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts. In the same way men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passions for each other.

Reinforces that sexuality is for the purpose of procreation, linking with Natural Law. Men having sex with other men are perverting sexuality because there is no possiblity of procreation.

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Traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality

  • St. Paul condemns gay and lesbian practices, which he uses to illustrate gentile (not Jewish) depravity in Rome and the reason for God's judgement. He argues that these practices go against the natural order and against conscience.
  • Any seperation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sex undermines the sacramental dimension of marriage and degrades the relationship of husband and wife. Homosexual sex is regarded as improper and misdirected use of the sex organs.
  • Though they are called to chastity, disinterested friendship, and self-mastery of their sexual urges, homosexual people must be treated with 'respect, compassion and sensitivity', according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
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The Anglican Church on homosexuality

  • The worldwide Anglican community has debated the issue of gay priests and gay marriage and commented that the ordination of 'practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the holy scripture,' according to the Kuala Lumpur statement on human sexuality.
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Church of England attitudes to homosexuality

In some issues in human sexuality: a guide to the debate, the House of Bishops group noted that the Church of England remained divided on homosexuality, noting real disagreement about:

  • Whether homosexual relationships can have ethical validity.
  • Whether it is right to give blessing to long-term same-sex relationships.
  • Whether practicing homosexuals are suitable for ordination.
  • Whether the normal requirements of heterosexual relationships are suitable for bisexuals.
  • Whether a person's God-given idenity is determined by their physical nature or self-perception.

In 2017, Bishops issued a statement reaffirming that marriage is between one man and one woman, but also that gay men and lesbian women were entitled to a place in the Church.

A minister may not conduct a same-sex marriage, but may pray with the couple after a state ceremony. Clergy in same-sex relationships are to remain celibate.

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Liberal Christian attitudes to homosexuality

  • Argue that the Bible must be read in it's historical context and from the perspective of what it means to be in a gay relationship and not focus solely on the physical aspects of sex.
  • Argue that Christianity from it's earliest times has had a strong sense of justice, supporting the marginalised. So it is only right and proper that all human relationships can be considered valuable, as all people are made in God's image and have intrinsic worth. Being gay is not chosen, but God-given. It should be valued.
  • Alan Wilson, CofE Bishop: the church should support same-sex marriage in church as an enrichment and healthy development of marriage. Wilson is, however, a minority among Bishops.
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Homosexuality in the UK

  • Sex between two men was a crime before 1967 and people were often imprisoned if they were found out.
  • Homosexuality was also considered a mental illness.
  • In 1967 parliament made it legal for gay men aged 21 or over to have sex, the age of consent was lowered to 18 in 1994, and to 16 in 2001.
  • The first same-sex marriages took place in England and Wales on the 29th March, 2014.
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