Is Sex Outside Marriage Dehumanizing? The Problem with Tim Keller’s ‘Biblical’ Sex Ethic

Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Image:

There’s a reason Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York, enjoys a greater degree of public respect than many conservative evangelical leaders who clearly crave respectability. When you take a mild jab at Tim Keller on Twitter, instead of blocking you like snowflake Ed Stetzer, Keller trolls you back—in ways that are admittedly funny.

Even when he’s “exhorting” Christians to greater faith, Keller can be charmingly quirky. Take the time he explicitly channeled Darth Vader:

Leonid Brezhnev, typical eyebrow day.

But while Keller’s ability to disarm his ideological opponents with humor might invite comparisons to the famously charismatic (but disastrously reactionary) Ronald Reagan, there are times when Keller tweets as a no-frills moral scold with about as much charisma as Leonid Brezhnev, ca. 1981, on a bad eyebrow day.

Such a moment came on the morning of March 31, when Keller tweeted, “Sexual love—if it’s not expressed in an exclusive, life-long covenant relationship—is dehumanizing.” In response to an immediate deluge of (deserved) criticism that he frankly should have anticipated, Keller defended his offensive tweet with an assertion that its content was nothing more than “basic Christian teaching from the beginning of the church,” adding the dubious historical contention that we owe our understanding of the concept of mutual consent to Christianity.

Apparently still surprised by the “more-than-usual antipathy toward my tweet about sex only within marriage,” Keller’s Twitter account has remained mostly in moral scold and conservative Christian apologist mode right up to the present, as he continues to double down on his hardline, anti-pluralist, and (from the perspective of human psychology and health) simply wrong take, pivoting from quibbling over the definition of “dehumanizing,” to—apparently without irony—comparing any sexual activity outside his narrow, heteronormative understanding of marriage to driving a car without changing the oil, which will “ruin” the car, because that’s definitely not objectifying and this is clearly how sex works.

One of these things is not like the others.

After that, Keller adopted a ‘kids these days’ flex, decrying what he sees as an “individualistic, therapeutic understanding of the self,” from which he pivoted to quibbling over definitions again, now with more dismissal of his critics’ supposed embrace of “post-structuralism.” Yesterday, Keller tweeted yet another lengthy thread about this ‘insidious’ therapeutic ‘self,’ attempting to appropriate non-white cultures in his crabby critique of “Western individualists,” who are apparently the only people Keller can imagine—and in fairness, these bogeymen are largely imaginary—who don’t agree that straight married couples are the only people who should ever be having sex.

As for the ‘kids’ these days and their “more than usual antipathy”? Perhaps ex-evangelical blogger Emily Torres summed it up best:

Mr. Keller, your truth statements do not remain true when contradictory evidence has been presented. The naysayers in your threads were not trying to “sway” you to their “point of view.” They were showing you their own lives as evidence. Evidence in the form of complex trauma, spiritual abuse, failed relationships, sexual assault, marital rape, low self-esteem, negative core beliefs—the list goes on and on and on. You want proof? We have scars to last us a lifetime. Ask our therapists, our partners, ex-partners, parents, siblings, friends and neighbors. This isn’t a plea for you to see things our way. This is us telling you that lives have been destroyed by your “biblical” ideas of sex and marriage.

As I remarked in my previous piece here on RD, evangelicals “protesting too much” over continuing media scrutiny of evangelical purity culture is a clear indication they’re concerned about losing the narrative. As for Keller, he gave the game away on (appropriately) April 1, when he tweeted, “To say that the biblical sex ethic automatically and inevitably leads to ‘purity culture’ is like saying government taxation automatically and inevitably leads to communism. Neither do [sic].” 

Does Keller have a point there? Maybe. I don’t personally think one can hold to the prescriptive notion that everyone should have sex only within a one-man, one-woman marriage without participating in purity culture. But when I asked Bradley Onishi, an ex-evangelical podcaster and associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, to comment on Keller’s tweets, he suggested that a prohibition on sex outside marriage itself does not constitute purity culture, which he sees as “a set of accoutrements that are damaging to all people, especially women, but including men,” and which “go beyond sex to the theme of modesty, self-hatred, repression, guilt, and shame.”

But Onishi does see purity culture in Keller’s tweets, which he called “a case in point.” Describing Keller’s “dehumanizing” take as “a radical view,” Onishi explained that it “puts most forms and instances of sexual activity on the level of dehumanizing phenomena such as slavery.” He added, “How can a culture that teaches that be healthy and nourishing?”

In any case, with his April 1 tweet, Keller clearly placed himself in the same camp as “respectable” evangelicals like right-wing commentator David French and Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both of whom made defensive efforts to decouple Christian “orthodoxy” about sex from purity culture in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa murders, which, because of the shooter’s stated motivations and strict Southern Baptist background, sparked the recent critical discussion of the issue. That Keller went on to tweet about the issue for two weeks and counting, however, shows that he, like French and Mohler, is both steeped in purity culture and upset that a light is being shown on just how harmful the Christian Right’s authoritarian obsession with sex truly is.

Interestingly, just like Keller, Mohler uses the rhetoric of “basic Christianity” to defend conservative Christians’ toxic approach to sex, sexuality and gender. After all, if the views about sex and marriage these powerful white male evangelical leaders hold are “just basic Christianity,” as Mohler claims, how dare the “liberal media” subject such sincerely held religious beliefs to critical scrutiny? But the claim that only one-man, one-woman marriage is the appropriate venue for any sexual activity or even solo exploration of one’s sexuality is certainly not common to all Christians.

When asked to comment on Mohler and Keller’s claims, for example, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, said, “It’s kind of stunning to hear this missionary talk in the mouths of modern Christian men. Really? Sex inside marriage only? Otherwise it’s dehumanizing? I’m sorry to state the obvious, but we humans are at the top of the food chain in the animal kingdom. Our animated bodies want to connect, to hug, kiss, make love, make life.” 

A public theologian and the Senior Pastor at Middle Church in New York, in which capacity she’ll soon be hosting a conference called “Revolutionary Love: The Courage to Imagine” featuring a veritable who’s who of progressive Christianity as speakers, Lewis has certainly given a lot of thought to the meaning of terms like “love” and “life.” And when she talks about “making life,” she explains, “Yes, I mean babies, but that’s not only it, nor all of it. Some of us won’t make babies—I couldn’t—but we can make life. Intimacy, tenderness, connection—that’s what I mean by life.” And such life-making cannot be forced to remain within the narrow confines of heteronormative conservative Christianity.

With respect to “basic Christianity” and sex, Lewis maintains, “It is in our nature, in our basic nature, to connect sexually and emotionally with another. The only ‘basic Christianity’ comes out of the mouth of Jesus: Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Regarding sex, I think that means be tender and respectful to your lover like you would be to yourself.” 

And Lewis has some words—or maybe, to borrow a phrase from evangelicalism, I ought to say “a Word”—for the Tim Kellers and Al Mohlers of the world: “These white evangelical men need to get their noses out of the bedrooms of God’s people and turn their missionary zeal away from who’s having sex with whom, how, and when, to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and taking care of their kin. That, Isaiah says, is the kind of worship God desires.”

Between Keller and Lewis, then, we have two highly accomplished Presbyterian leaders—of course representing more conservative and more liberal Presbyterian denominations, respectively—with two very different views on theology and sex. So, what’s really going on with Keller and Mohler’s insistence that their view is just “basic Christianity,” when that contention is clearly disputed by other Christians? I put this question to Onishi, who, citing the work of his colleague Sophie Bjork-James, explained, “For many evangelicals, defending the nuclear heteronormative family is akin to defending Christianity, and by extension, God.” Because conservative Christians ground their vision of the divine in their understanding of an authoritarian family structure, their defense of that family structure is particularly fierce.

In the United States, of course, this understanding of the family and its concomitant social politics are inseparable from whiteness, and from the history and present realities of patriarchal white supremacist social hierarchy. Indeed, evangelical purity culture is rooted as thoroughly in notions of “racial purity” and “national purity,” as Onishi himself recently noted, as it is in theologized notions of “bodily purity.” And for all their efforts to distance themselves from the excesses of purity culture, not to mention white evangelical racism—no matter whether they couch their claims in lofty-sounding theological rhetoric or seemingly “objective” appeals to history—what Keller, Mohler, French, and the rest are really doing with their vigorous insistence that heteronormativity is “basic Christianity” is upholding unjust social hierarchies. And that, if you ask me, is dehumanizing.