Adult Consent: An Inadequate Ethic

The White House security guard thought he had seen it all. But there they were: a young couple, clothing strewn about, making passionate love on the White House lawn. As he and another guard hustled out to confront them, he only hoped the couple wouldn’t become another D.C. tourist attraction, but tourists gathered at the fence surely had a full view.

“Leave us alone,” the young man told the guards. “We’re both consenting adults. What business is this of yours?”
morality.jpg“This is the White House lawn,” the guard responded. “Property of the federal government, and more than your consent is required.”

Morality always involves more than adult consent. Admit the notion of God—even the watered-down God of pop religion, much less the full and fierce biblical God—and the entire universe becomes one big White House lawn. More than adult consent is required. And yet I’ve heard it, and you’ve heard it, too. The same people who generally agree there is a God resort to justifying sexual deviancy with, “They’re consenting adults. Leave them alone.” As if God is there to protect ladies from rape and children from molestation, but He doesn’t give a rip about what we do in our own bedrooms, as if this institution called marriage was given to us as nothing more than a convenient but nonessential way to run a society.

The Authority of God

I suspect most people would not object to the idea that God wields authority. I suspect that the breakdown occurs in their response to the Bible. Is it really God’s Word and reliable? Some people would say it’s not thoroughly reliable. Others conveniently do not read it through. It sits there, closed, as if God’s authority can be kept at bay with a few millimeters of bonded leather. As long as they don’t have to see what God says, they don’t have to worry about what He says. (My daughter is nine months old, and this is how she plays peekaboo. She can’t see us through the blanket; consequently, we can’t see her. This little flight of irrationality makes peekaboo more amusing to us than it is to her.)[1]

God has a way of reminding us of His authority. No, He does not legislate every last move we make, but He stakes His claims here and there. He picked out an ordinary tree and told Adam and Eve that if they ate from it, they would die. He told Naaman to dunk seven times in the Jordan. Not six or eight times and not some other river. Was there something magical about the tree or something magical about the number seven? No. Simply, God said so. Similarly, the dietary laws and laws of sexual purity God gave to the Israelites reinforce the idea that God has a say in every area of their lives. I do not take the hygienic view of the dietary laws, that somehow God was one up on the South Beach Diet and giving His chosen people the best way to stay fit and trim. (If one takes such a view, what does one do with “Rise, Peter, kill and eat”? Is this God’s bumping off a key apostle with salmonella?) The Book of Leviticus repeats the refrain: “I am the Lord.” Apparently, God does not shy away from the simple rationale, “Because I said so. What part of ‘I am the Lord’ don’t you get?”

And while God limits the scope of His actual legislation, His authority knows no bounds.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. For one thing, the odds are a million to one that anyone who reads this article has access to a Bible in his own language. For such people, they are aware that there is a religion out there that claims that there is an omnipotent God who made the world, hates sin, has sent His Son into human history to die for sinners, and will judge sin. The least they can do is check into such a weighty claim. [2] Most of them probably have an unused Bible lying about the house. For another thing, anyone—inside or outside Christendom—who pleads ignorance must confess willful ignorance. Peter tells us, “For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water” (2 Pet. 3:5, KJV). They know who made them. “Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished” (3:6). God was justified in destroying a civilization that flouted His authority. “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (3:7). He will do it again.

The Sanctity of Marriage

I have already touched on this theme in another article, [3] but it cannot be overemphasized. Maleness, femaleness, marriage, and procreation are placed in Genesis 1–2 smack dab against verses about God’s making mankind in His own image and verses about subduing the earth. Marriage, sexuality, and procreation are a central part of what it means to be human. For God, marriage, sexuality, and procreation are front-burner issues. While society looks at crimes that harm an unwilling victim as somehow more serious than “private” matters between consenting adults, God regards such purportedly “private” matters as somehow more serious than others. I do not wish to quibble over the relative heinousness of murder, homosexuality, adultery, and premarital sex; each has its own species of seriousness. I do wish to reiterate what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body (15–18, ESV).

The act of union somehow transcends biology.

Testing the Limits

God exerts His authority everywhere, and the “private” matters of the bedroom are just as important as—in some ways more important than—“public” matters. But even if one does buck against God’s authority in “private” matters, where is the limit to the “consenting adults” ethic? The example I am about to offer is disturbing, kinky, and absurd; but it will serve.

A German man named Armin Meiwes met (via the Internet) a man named Bernd Juergen Brandes. Meiwes had fantasies of being a cannibal; Brandes had fantasies of being cannibalized. After meeting for sadomasochistic sex, each fulfilled his fantasy. Lest you think that Meiwes forced himself on Brandes, BBC reported that Meiwes had let another man go who changed his mind at the last minute. From all accounts, these men were consenting adults.

Jesus said, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:26-27, ESV). If you step off the rock of revelation, your ethics will be built on sand. When cases like Armin Meiwes come along, you have nothing with which to handle them, and your ethical house will collapse. Praise God that common grace ensures that our average citizen will react with horror to cannibalism. But why should we stop cannibals if they are consenting adults? Where should we draw the line? Kinky sex, pornography, strip clubs? While Armin Meiwes exceeds all boundaries of current social sensibilities, there are plenty of similar examples of stuff we’d prefer to keep out of our backyards.

If we consider the prospect of such lifestyles and practices moving into our own neighborhood, suddenly the idea of a God who is there and who does care about these things becomes a lot more attractive. When we consider what world we send our children into, suddenly we want more than an adult-consent-regulating society.


1. Consider this perceptive observation in Augustine’s Confessions. “For whither fled they, when they fled from Thy presence? or where dost not Thou find them? But they fled, that they might not see Thee seeing them, and, blinded, might stumble against Thee (because Thou forsakest nothing Thou hast made); that the unjust, I say, might stumble upon Thee, and justly be hurt; withdrawing themselves from Thy gentleness, and stumbling at Thy uprightness, and falling upon their own ruggedness. Ignorant, in truth, that Thou art every where, Whom no place encompasseth! and Thou alone art near, even to those that remove far from Thee (Augustine, Confessions, trans. Edward B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999), available online here). Consider also Psalm 10:1–11, a discussion of what the wicked man thinks he can get away with because God does not see.
2. John Frame writes, “We see that Christianity, both as philosophy and as good news, is the alternative to the conventional wisdom. This uniqueness of Christianity is itself of apologetic significance. Uniqueness does not itself entail truth, but when all the other alternatives march along like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, all claiming implausibly to be able to explain the personal by means of the impersonal, all claiming autonomy (and thus denying God’s sovereignty), all claiming to find ultimates not in God but in creation, all offering as a solution to our predicament nothing more profound than works righteousness—indeed, without a dime’s worth of difference among these conventional ideologies—it certainly makes sense to give high priority to investigating Christianity and its claims. Indifference to such uniqueness is not wise.” Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), pp. 54–55.
3. I had considered setting a SharperIron record for longest footnote and pasting the whole article here but decided to link to the archives instead.

osborne07.jpgMike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He co-authored the teacher’s editions of two BJU Press high school Bible comparative religions textbooks What Is Truth? and Who Is This Jesus?; and contributed essays to the appendix of The Dark Side of the Internet. He lives with his wife, Becky, and his infant daughter, Felicity, in Omaha, Nebraska, where they are active members at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue a further degree in apologetics.
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