Could it be that God is using a Canadian Supreme Court decision to teach me something about the meaning of the seventh commandment for the 21st century? In an unusual case, the court ruled that refusing to wear a condom during sexual intercourse could be considered sexual assault, if one’s partner only consented to intercourse with a condom. While some dismiss this as trivial, others consider it precedent-setting for the meaning of consent in intimate relationships. Consent is not just about the act; it includes conditions. More importantly, this ruling advances respect for the equal agency of both partners in an intimate relationship.
A recent book about consent titled Rethinking Sex: A Provocation also led me to think again. In it, Christina Emba argues that the current “no means no” approach to consent provides a floor for sexual ethics, but it is inadequate as a norm for good sex. Drawing on extensive surveys and interviews with young adults, she provides empirical evidence about the importance of respectful and caring relationships, and she proposes a second norm: “willing the good of the other.” It sounds Biblical. That is not surprising, given her Roman Catholic childhood, but she uses language that relates to her millennial-age, secular audience.
New questions about the meaning of chastity, the seventh commandment, and the Heidelberg Catechism are also being asked in Reformed circles. “Do not commit adultery” appears in the middle of the second tablet of the 10 Commandments, which God gave to Moses as a covenantal expression of what loving relationships with God and other people look like in society. That perspective on the ten commandments is the gift of the Heidelberg catechism. The fifth command, respect for parents, provides guidance on intergenerational relationships and the sixth, “do not kill,” includes “do no harm,” according to Heidelberg question and answer 107. Intimate relationships are the focus of the seventh command on chastity, which includes “looks, talk, thoughts and desires” in the answer to question 109. The eighth command, “do not steal,” roots economic justice (Q and A 111), while the ninth, on false witness, is about respect for reputation and identity (Q and A 112). These commands flesh out the core principle of respect for the dignity and agency of every person, equally called by God to live in covenantal relationships with other created beings and the God of creation.
Jesus spotlighted dignity in the respectful way he treated the woman accused of adultery, up-ending the purity codes of his day. Chastity, in the context of God’s covenant with humanity, is about dignity and commitment to the good of the other in intimate relationships – freedom from exploitative relationships – more than specific sexual acts. Focusing on relationships is also what characterizes effective sex-education, as shown in the research done for a good adolescent education program known as the Fourth R for respectful relationships.
Shifting the focus from specific sexual acts to relationships between whole persons would be good news for the young adults in Emba’s surveys, who are walking away from churches pre-occupied with today’s versions of purity codes. It would also be good news for women who have found secular courts more supportive of their moral agency than their own churches. Are we listening?