If you want to take every word of Christian scriptures as inspired and inerrant, I Corinthians 5-7 is a quagmire. Part of what is written Paul says is not a word from God, but is simply his own advice. Part is obviously culturally conditioned and should only be understood that way since we do not arrange marriages like they used to do, nor do we demand proof of virginity on a wedding night. Paul holds up his own life as a single man as an ideal, allowing that not everyone is called to live as he does, and in other epistles talks about how conflicted he is. So where does Paul’s opinion (which his personal struggles show he himself cannot follow) end and the Word of God begin?
Then we have the conundrum of God’s commands and the God’s actions in the history given to us in these same scriptures. Murders are not put to death (Cain, Moses, David…), Abraham takes his sister as his wife, Jacob takes two sisters as his wives, Judah goes to a prostitute who turns out to be his daughter-in-law (two wrongs on this one), the prostitute Rahab is taken as a wife and gives birth to the great-grandfather of King David. The list goes on. In all these situations, the law given as the Word of God says that these people should either be “cut off from the people” or put to death. Neither penalty is enforced – not by the people of Israel, not by God.
Relying on the Bible for clear guidelines for morality is not as easy as we would like. The advice, the commands and the realities are three different things. Which do we use?
As a follower of the Way of Jesus, I recommend using unconditional love as the filter for anything we read in sacred texts of any kind. Believing that the Source of Life loves all the living, we can develop guidelines that work for our day and our culture. Dr. Margaret Farley, who taught at Yale University Divinity School (1971-2007), in her book Just Love has developed guidelines for sexual relationships that take into account our current understanding of sexuality and human relationships in the world of today. With thoughtfulness like she reveals, we can keep the command to love others as we love ourselves and still have advice that fits the reality of today.
My own guidelines come mainly for Dr. Farley’s work. Is there mutual consent and mutual benefit? Who would be harmed? Does the relationship allow for personal growth and development of the individuals involved? I am going to leave this in the form of questions because when something is written in stone it can no longer adapt to the changing conditions in which we find ourselves as human beings. And this is advice…