Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You can’t have it both ways…

Remember the error of “Situational Ethics”?

It was a much hotter topic when I was younger, but Situational Ethics claim that nothing is always wrong, but rather its morality is determined by the situation. By contrast, the biblical understanding is that if something is morally wrong, then it is always wrong. We cannot consider an activity to be intrinsically sinful, but then give it a pass in certain situations.

I know that issues are rarely as cut and dried as we might like them to be, but if something is an offense to God’s nature and contrary to His design for us, then it is sin no matter when or where it happens. If it is not always an offense to God, then the activity cannot be considered sin by itself. We must instead exercise wisdom—in love—and apply biblical principles to know the godly way to assess a given situation.

“Social Nudity is wrong!” – Moral Absolute or not?

So… what about social nudity? The current view of most Bible-believing Christians seems to be that we must never expose our nudity to anyone of the opposite gender except our own spouse. This is considered a “moral absolute” for the very fact that God has only authorized sexual intimacy between husband and wife, and it is quite “automatic” that when a man sees a naked woman (and to perhaps a lesser degree, when a woman sees a naked man), there will always be a sexual response with sexual desire.

For the purpose of this blog post, I’m not going to directly challenge the portions of that position that I believe are in error (it’s certainly not all in error).

Also, for the purpose of this post, I am going to use the term “non-spousal nudity” in reference to any context outside of marriage where one’s nudity is exposed to someone of the opposite gender.The term “Social Nudity” is more associated with mixed-gender recreational nudity, and I believe the issue at hand has to be more comprehensive than that context alone. Clearly it is also “non-spousal,” but social nudity is a subset of the larger issue.

I intend in this blog to investigate whether the claim is consistently applied by those who profess it as a moral absolute. In each of the situations described below, I observe that the supposed “moral absolute” is not applied by those who believe that non-spousal nudity is wrong.

Situation 1a: Family — Children being seen by their parents.

I know of no one who would claim that a child cannot be seen naked by his or her parents. It’s no problem for a woman to change the diaper of her son, nor is it a problem for a man to change the diaper of his daughter.

Some might consider it silly to even mention this situation, but I do so to simply point out that it is a “situation” where the “moral absolute” does not apply in the minds of Christians who believe that non-spousal nudity is otherwise wrong.

Situation 1b: Family — Parents being seen by their young children.

While children are still nursing, of course, the boys will regularly see and touch their mother’s breasts. Beyond that, of course, would any mother really be hesitant to change clothes in front of her baby boys?

The natural response to this observation would probably be, “For crying out loud [uh, no pun intended…], they’re only babies!”

An appropriate response, no doubt, but it also underscores and confirms exactly what I wish to point out… here is another “situation” to which the “moral absolute” does not apply.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone who holds the view that non-spousal nudity is wrong would extend that prohibition to the two contexts that I have spelled out above, but for most, there would come a time in the child’s development that they make an intentional “shift” and begin to invoke the prohibition. That very fact underscores my claim that within a family we apply the “absolute” in some situations, but ignore it in others. Scripture gives no guidance on when (or if) that should happen.

Situation 2: Medical necessity.

It can certainly happen with a female doctor and a male patient, but it’s typically an issue with male doctors and female patients, so that’s how I’ll address it.

When a woman visits a male gynecologist, the exam often includes an examination of her entire body. He may never see her fully nude, but he will specifically uncover and examine the parts of her body that are normally covered by her underwear. Not only will they be exposed to his view, but he will also touch them with his hands.

Of course, his purposes are not sexual in the least (or he could go to jail!), nor is it the woman’s intent to express her sexuality when she disrobes before him. Clearly, the purpose and motivation of both doctor and patient have nothing to do with sexual misconduct, so this activity is not considered immoral by most Christians.

I would agree, of course. But it constitutes another “situation” to which few apply the “moral absolute” forbidding the exposure of the naked body to someone other than one’s own spouse.

Situation 3: Elderly care.

My mother died some years ago of cancer. As her health faded, she eventually could not move from her bed. Any bathing that she needed had to be in the form of a “bed-bath.” My wife once had the opportunity to honor my mother by serving her that way.

One day more recently, I asked my father if he thought it would have been improper if the situation had called for me to perform a bed-bath on my ailing mother. He said that he would not consider that to be forbidden.

Maybe others would disagree, but my father is a conservative pastor who does not agree with me regarding naturism. Yet in this situation, he would not have applied the “moral absolute” which would forbid me to see my mother’s naked body. It amounts to another “situation” exception.

Situation 4: Nudity in Art

Perhaps many Christians would discount the moral neutrality of nudity in art, considering it simply the ancient form of pornography used before our current media forms existed. But the reality is that unless we altogether cast aside the visual arts as a valid discipline, we cannot avoid the presence of nudity in art as a significant facet of cultural and art history.

Serious students of art (and shouldn’t there be some Christians who are?) simply cannot ignore such a prominent area of study spanning the entirety of human and art history. The consensus among art teachers and practitioners is that if you can master the representation of the undraped human form, you can draw/paint/sculpt anything. For this reason, courses in figure studies are a required for art majors in every secular university art program in the world…

But what about Christian college and university art programs? Must they settle for some lesser means of accomplishing the same goal? Should they use a model in a bikini instead? Indeed, some do.

One Christian College has very thoughtfully and purposefully crossed “the line;” they use nude models for their figure studies classes.

A bold move, no doubt – and not one without its critics. I invite you to read their reasoning in the public statement they posted explaining why they took that position. You can find it at Art Policy On Nude Models (Gordon College).

Regardless of what you may think about their reasons, this once again underscores the fact that there exists an inconsistency in the Christian community regarding the “moral absolute” forbidding non-spousal nudity. If we are to reject nudity in art, then we must also reject much of our cultural artistic heritage throughout our history and around the world.

Some Christians are unwilling to do that.

You can’t have it both ways…

God’s true “Moral Absolutes” are exactly that… absolute. They are not subject to “situational” application based upon human wisdom or reasoning. They either apply in all situations, or they are not absolute at all.

So, either the “moral absolute” against non-spousal nudity is false, or we need to apply it to parents, doctors, and artists as well. We cannot say that it’s a moral absolute, but then allow for “situational” exceptions according to our own evaluation of the context. You can’t have it both ways.

To even suggest that doctors and parents should not be permitted to see their patients and children is ludicrous, of course. Consequently, we must conclude that the exposure of our nudity to someone other than our own spouse cannot be intrinsically unethical. Rather, it must be governed situationally by principle rather than moral absolute.

What is the principle?

What is the Scripture principle that we can apply equally to all the situations I’ve listed above… and any others that we may need to consider? What kind of measure could be use that would allow non-spousal nudity in the home and for healthcare, yet forbid it when the nudity is pornographic and sinful?

The primary principle has to be found in the Scriptural instructions that govern sexual conduct. Therefore, the proper assessment of a situation will focus on the attitudes and actions of the people involved, not on the presence or absence of body exposure.

Clearly, for parents and doctors, if there is any sexual motivation or misconduct, we will correctly find those guilty of such things at fault rather than the mere fact that nudity is present.

Likewise, in art, it is not the simple portrayal of an undraped human form which renders an image as inappropriate, but rather the intent of the artist to incite sexual response from the viewer. Or, as is often the case in our culture, it is the sin of the observer if he/she objectifies an innocent portrayal of the human body and responds with sexual lust.

Let me restate it this way:

If a child/patient/artist exposes nudity for the purpose of inciting an illicit sexual response, it is wrong. If a parent/doctor/observer sexually objectifies the innocent nudity that they see, that is also wrong. If neither party treats the nudity as a sexual expression, then there is no sin in the nudity by itself.

This is the principle that needs to be applied to whatever situation arises.

Who gets to determine the “situation”?

But what about naturism (recreational non-spousal “social” nudity)? Can’t we apply the same principle in that situation?

If doctors/parents/artists can be around nudity without sexual misconduct, who is to say that naturists cannot? If patients/children/models can expose their own nudity without any intent to arouse sexual responses in others, why must anyone assume that the motives of naturists are impure?

Are personal/health care and artistry the only valid contexts for the experience of nudity? Are recreation and relaxation summarily disqualified from being pursued free of clothing?

Certainly, in any context it cannot be guaranteed that all who expose their own nudity or observe the nudity of others will do so in a pure manner. However, this fact does not by itself disqualify the context. If it did, then we would have to disqualify male doctors from treating female patients, and fathers from caring for their daughters… it is a sad reality that both of these contexts have been abused.

The principle must be applied fairly and equally to the motivations and actions of the individuals involved, regardless of context. Those that violate the principle of sexual purity are the ones to be faulted, not the context itself.

Chaste Non-Spousal Nudity

Perhaps one of the most surprising things I learned when I first looked into the claims of Christian Naturists was the fact that in the main, naturists (Christian or otherwise) subscribe to and uphold high moral standards in reference to sexual conduct in naturist settings. For example:

  • Responsible resort owners actively screen their membership and guests for any history of sexual misconduct and refuse them entrance. They respond swiftly to eject from the resort anyone who violates their sexual conduct policies.
  • AANR and TNS clearly promote family-oriented social nudity and refuse association with resorts that cater to prurient interests.
  • Naturists themselves are intolerant of those that pursue social nudity with sexual motivation of any sort and they have no interest in putting their own bodies on “display” for voyeurs.

In other words, I have found this to be true:

Naturism can be practiced without violating the biblical principle of sexual purity.

I have observed and experienced this truth first hand. I would not be a naturist if this were not so.


As biblical Christians—naturist or not—we cannot make the mistake of calling anything a “moral absolute” when it is not clearly discernable in God’s Word. When we do find an “absolute” in Scripture, we must treat it as such—without exceptions in its application based on human reasoning. If there is not a relevant absolute, then every situation must be evaluated according to biblical principle. This requires us to do the hard work it takes to fully understand the principle and apply it with wisdom.

Matthew Neal


Eric S. said...

While reading (and agreeing) with your blog this month, about halfway down I began to think about the current health-care bill and the debate about abortion. How would you respond to the idea of abortion when this same argument (the idea of the absolute in abortion as murder vs. situational 'life of mother') would be offered? Even tho one is on abortion and one on nudity, the idea of "absolute" and "situational" sin would be the same.

I have no response, because I am not sure how I myself would handle such an argument. Just curious.

Dave Dunn said...

I totally agree with your blog. You have given a thoughtful way for anyone with a reluctant spouse to encourage their participation in casual, non-sexual nudity.
As for the comments Eric S. has about abortion, abortion is the PURPOSEFUL taking of a life. Who knows for certain whether the mother will die or not. There is no situational ethics here. The life of the mother is in God's hands, the life of the baby (that's right it IS a baby) is in the abortionists hands.

Dave D.

FatherOf4 said...

Ectopic pregnancies are almost always fatal to both the mother and child. I have no issue with abortion to save the life of the mother. Just as I have no issue with killing an intruder who threatens my family.
From what I understand from Scripture, my first responsibility is to my spouse, so even if the intruder is my child, my spouse comes first.

Aaron Frost said...

Wow! Good answer.