Sexual Morality in a Christless World was written in 2016 by Pastor Matthew Rueger, an LC-MS pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Hubbard, Iowa. Rueger is uniquely equipped to speak to this timely topic after his son-in-law volunteered him to his college professor as a counterpoint on the topic of sexual morality. Rueger’s lecture went so well that the professor has continued to invite him back every semester to offer a Christian perspective on this topic. Since then, Rueger has become somewhat of an expert as he continues to study the issue and gain practical experience in debating it.
In this book Rueger offers a well-rounded approach to the Bible’s teachings on sexual morality. He focuses heavily on matters of homosexuality and sexual orientation, but he also has a number of things to say on matters ranging from monogamy to marriage to men’s and women’s roles. His goal in writing is to equip Christians to be better prepared to answer those who disagree with them.
The first half of the book focuses on the history of sexual morality during Bible times. In chapters one and two Rueger offers a thorough examination of how the Romans and Jews looked at matters of sexuality. In chapter three Rueger then explores common Bible verses that relate to the topic (mostly from the New Testament) within the context of the writers’ audiences. In the second half of the book, Rueger shifts his focus to contemporary issues that surround sexual morality. In chapter four he talks about how we ought to respond as Christians, in chapter five he talks about the inconsistencies that mark the “mixed bag of objections” of the world’s views on sexuality, and in chapter six he offers excellent reason-based arguments against unbiblical views of sexuality.
As a pastor I felt there were large portions of this book that merely provided a review, especially in the first half. As an example of this, Rueger spent much time looking at the importance of context for the proper interpretation of the biblical languages. He followed that discussion with a lengthy look at the classic Bible verses that pertain to homosexuality. I can’t say I gleaned anything new from this section personally, but I thought he explained these verses in a well-written and concise manner. As such, while I may not benefit as much from this approach, I believe my members would. It is one reason I don’t imagine I will pick up this book often, but I am glad to have it on my shelf to hand out to members who have questions about the topic. Rueger approaches things from a solid law-gospel hermeneutic, and our members would benefit from his educated yet concise approach that looks at things through a Lutheran lens and points the reader to Jesus.
I still took several things from this book that made it well worth reading. I genuinely appreciated how Rueger framed his argument in the first half of the book. The world around us often talks about how Christians are just trying to return to “traditional” or “old-fashioned” ways, but Rueger proves time and again that the Bible’s views on sexuality went against the Roman and Jewish norm of the day and were always countercultural. That may not be surprising to us with Roman views on sexuality, but Rueger also makes a strong case regarding Jewish norms. For example,
“A view of womanhood as less than men was entrenched within Jewish teachings [such as the Mishnah or Talmud]. Marriage was not a union of equals, and women were, in large part, the sexual property of men. Paul’s doctrine broke with Jewish cultural attitudes. As he described marriage, he treats women with a much higher regard and gives them equal importance within the family.” (47)
Rueger provides more examples of this, and in doing so he creates a compelling narrative for the Bible’s teachings. In a nutshell, we believe what we believe because it comes from God, not because it was ever easy or popular. Additionally, when we get attacked for our beliefs, we can take solace in the fact that we are experiencing nothing different from what believers have always experienced. Rueger explains,
“Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them. The sexual morality they taught and practiced stood out as unnatural to the Roman world just as Christian teachings about sex are labeled as unnatural in our day.” (17)
As for how the Roman world looked at sex, Rueger included a number of things I have read before, but his research at the beginning of the book amounts to an impressively concise compilation of Greco-Roman views on sexuality that is not replicated by other books on my shelf. If I need a quick reference on this point, it is one part of the book to which I can definitely see myself returning. Even more, the information Rueger included on pederasty (the sexual relationship between an adult male and an adolescent boy) and the practices of the Caesars was especially illuminating, if not disgusting. An example on the topic of pederasty:
“For a thousand years, pederasty was the norm… the purest form of love. In both the Greek and Roman mind, the relationship between man and woman in marriage was not a union of equals. A man’s wife was often seen as beneath him and less than him, but a sexual relationship with another male, boy or man, represented a higher form of intellectual love and engagement.” (16)
The more we understand these views of the past—views which show that today’s perspective merely constitutes another day “under the sun”—the more we see the wisdom of God’s design for men and women. It is another asset in the larger debate. Although today’s world more openly treats women as equal to men, Rueger demonstrates that Christianity did this this long before it was “cool,” and “when a broader compassion for humanity is joined to biblical sexual morality, it is much more difficult to label Christians as unloving” (35).
I benefited further from the more practical second half of the book, especially in chapter 5 as Rueger details the problems with various objections against the Bible’s position on sexuality. For example, Rueger excellently shows how politics rather than science prompted the American Psychological Association to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. “The decision was not reached by new studies that proved the normalcy of homosexuality. It was a decision made under fire through threats and intimidation by radical homosexual groups” (148). It is worth the read for anyone who does not know the history of these events.
My favorite part of the book is found in the same chapter as Rueger exhaustively addresses the question of whether homosexual individuals are “born that way.” I approached this book with the opinion that it is possible for people to be “born that way.” I never intended that to be an excuse for such sin; rather, since we are born with sin, it always seemed to me that people may be born with predispositions to certain sins also. For instance, someone may be born with the “alcoholic gene” turned on, and it explains why they struggle with alcoholism where somebody else does not.
While Rueger agrees that people may have predispositions to certain sins, he effectively destroys the explanation that homosexuality is an expression of genetics. As thoroughly as one can in a work of this size, Rueger discusses the various studies that have “proved” genetic causes for homosexuality. His issues with the famous Bailey-Pillard Study, for example, demonstrate where such studies typically err. This study looked at identical twins and found that 52% of the time when one twin was homosexual, so was the other. A compelling case for being “born that way”? Not so fast, Rueger explains.
“The twins used in those studies were volunteers. Yet, other studies prove that those who volunteer for studies on sexuality tend to be more educated and possess more liberal attitudes than those who do not volunteer…. Instead of random sampling, Baily and Pillard recruited volunteers from gay publications, and instead of direct questioning about sexual preference, they accepted secondhand judgments from a twin about his or her co-twin.” (140)
In studies that sought to eliminate these biases, 52% fell to only 7.7% (among boys) and 5.3% (among girls) concordance between twins, which indicates environmental factors for homosexuality. Even if the 52% were accurate it would suggest likewise, as one would expect nearly 100% concordance between identical twins since they also share identical genes. In that case environmental factors would only preclude the rare few from being homosexual.
I still wonder if it is worth accounting for “spiritual genetics” in the sense that we know from the Bible sin is hereditary and we can observe how certain families struggle with certain sins. I worry that Christians do more harm than good when they immediately dismiss someone who says, “I was born this way.” Instead, we should focus on how—regardless of “how” we are born—God’s love in Christ transforms us, and we can still follow his will no matter how strongly we feel. To be fair, Rueger does not dispute any of this, and I genuinely appreciated his insights. It leaves me better educated for such discussions in the future and able to witness more clearly.
In summary, I appreciated this book. Unless you have other resources on your shelf that serve a similar purpose, it is well worth the purchase. At the very least you will find something of practical value in Rueger’s Christ-centered approach in speaking to others about a difficult issue. In all likelihood, you will encounter a few personal insights yourself. Most significantly, this is written from a confessional Lutheran perspective that you can trust, which makes it an excellent resource to hand out to inquiring members.