How Much Did Jesus Care About Sex?

If you have been following the Sullivan vs. Dreher contretemps, a spinoff of Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story, Forget the Church. Follow Jesus, you may have noticed that Rod Dreher’s surrebuttal makes strategic use of the most famous work of a much-revered figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dreher quotes The Cost of Discipleship to make the point that following Christ (discipleship) means you cannot pick and choose which parts of Christ’s teachings to follow, and that Christ himself was clear enough on the need to lay aside carnality in order to live close to God.

Citing Bonhoeffer in this way is meant to clobber Sullivan into submission, obviously. Dreher writes that the loophole Sullivan gives himself on the matter of sexual freedom is the characteristic heresy of progressive Christians: “It is to progressive Christianity as the heresy of the prosperity gospel, or nationalism, is to conservative American Christianity.”

Just two points about this.

First, it has not been my experience that progressive Christians are blind to the problems of a hypersexualized culture or that they/we are saying libertinism is acceptable—that anything goes. Religious progressives have done a lot of serious work on the importance of fidelity in all relationships and the difference between fully-realized relationships that participate in the sacred vs. liaisons that fall short of that mark.

Religious progressives, after all, are the ones who have tried to enrich, not degrade, the marriage sacrament by arguing that God blesses all deeply committed marriage bonds, not just marriages made by heterosexuals. What progressive Christians won’t do, however, is renounce all sexuality or follow people like Dreher in imagining that sexual desire is always and simply the enemy of godliness. 

Yes, as far as we know, both Jesus of Nazareth and Saul/Paul of Tarsus (“Our Founders”) were deeply ascetic people. Others walking in the Way have not been. For some, sexuality has represented a terrible struggle; for others, integrating a healthy sexuality into a thoroughly Christian life has seemed to pose no difficulties at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such disciple: not obsessed with or tormented by his sexuality and in love with and engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of one of his patrons, just three weeks before his arrest. 

Segue to my second and primary point: Bonhoeffer’s discussion of cheap grace in The Cost of Discipleship was meant above all as a critique of the so-called “German Christians”—the Lutherans who readily went along with the Nazi program—as against the much smaller group of Lutherans who chose the path of resistance through their Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer recognized that the Lutheran emphasis on salvation by grace alone had always been problematic but that now, with Hitler in power, the doctrine of sola gratia was more than problematic: it was heretical.

Here is the heart of Bonhoeffer’s critique:

A nation became Christian and Lutheran but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called upon to pay was all too cheap…We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale; we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition…Was there ever a more terrible and disastrous instance of Christianizing the world than this?

It’s regrettable, I think, that “cheap grace” has turned into a kind of meme that Rod Dreher can toss into his debate with Andrew Sullivan without any reference to the context in which Bonhoeffer coined the term. 

The Gestapo didn’t hang Dietrich Bonhoeffer in April 1945 because he had taken a stand for sexual abstinence (which he hadn’t). Heinrich Himmler ordered Bonhoeffer to be hanged for treason: for insisting in word and deed that one has to choose between the religion of nationalism and an authentic Christian faith. 

Which Bonhoeffer—Dreher’s imagined anti-sexual scold or the actual resistance fighter—do we think is more relevant to the contemporary American context?


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