Christianity’s 2,000-year-old sexual ethic is not normal in the contemporary West and hasn’t been for some time.

The notion that sex should be confined to the bounds of a lifelong covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is not simply out of step with a culture reshaped by the sexual revolution and the LGBTQ movement. Many now consider our ethic to be something far worse than outmoded. It’s hateful, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center; “dangerous,” per the Human Rights Campaign; and a source of “great harm,” says prominent ethicist David Gushee.

Evangelical responses to these new norms have varied. Some have doubled down on traditional beliefs as a matter of basic orthodoxy. Some have remained quietly traditional while avoiding public confrontation. And some have joined exvangelicals and mainline Christians to propose a theological revisionism that affirms LGBTQ relationships and sex outside of marriage.

Despite their differences, all three postures understandably have a foundational assumption in common: that our traditional sexual ethic is deeply unpopular. That, at best, it’s a matter of difficult but necessary faithfulness, an obstacle to overcome in evangelism and discipleship—or, worse, a major cause of dechurching, deconversion, and rejection of the gospel.

But is it possible that Scripture’s view of marriage and sexuality is seen by a small but growing crowd outside the church as a feature, not a bug?

It might be too much to say the West is like G. K. Chesterton’s sailor who, having set off for adventure, found himself enchanted by the light of his own home shore. But I don’t think it’s too soon to say that the last decade of upheaval and alienation in our culture of sex and romance have made Christianity’s always-strange sexual ethic freshly attractive.

We’ve already seen this pattern with other elements of Christianity. Most famously, women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali shocked the world late last year when she announced her conversion from atheism to Christianity (after previously deconverting from Islam). She embraced Christianity, she said, because she found the “desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition” to be the “only credible” option to unite the West in opposition to “great-power authoritarianism,” “the rise of global Islamism,” and “the viral spread of woke ideology.”

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Christianity, Hirsi Ali discovered, is the source of the rights and values she wants to defend, and where many progressives see our faith as repressive, she sees it as a great cultural asset. In this, she is not alone. The New Atheist thinker Richard Dawkins expressed his enthusiasm for “cultural Christianity” this past spring. And author Paul Kingsnorth, who moved from atheism to Buddhism to Christianity, similarly described his philosophical journey as one of coming to value some of the very elements of Christianity that modern Westerners are most likely to reject.

“I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint,” Kingsnorth wrote. But Christianity “taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all, but enslavement to the passions: a neat description of the first thirty years of my life. True freedom, it turns out, is to give up your will and follow God’s.”

British journalist Louise Perry has not likewise announced her conversion, but she seems to be impressed, not repulsed, by Christianity’s sexual ethic. Her provocative 2022 book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, questions the merits of a sexual order based only on consent and begs for a better ethic, “one that recognises other human beings as real people, invested with real value and dignity. It’s time for a sexual counter-revolution.”

Though she hasn’t embraced Christianity, Perry looks longingly at the very ethical teachings that many evangelicals see as burdens or liabilities. Here she is, writing in First Things last year:

Whereas the Romans regarded male chastity as profoundly unhealthy, Christians prized it and insisted on it. Early converts were disproportionately female because the Christian valorization of weakness offered obvious benefits to the weaker sex, who could—for the first time—demand sexual continence of men. Feminism is not opposed to Christianity: It is its descendant. …

What if … we understand the Christian era as a clearing in a forest? The forest is paganism: dark, wild, vigorous, and menacing, but also magical in its way. For two thousand years, Christians pushed the forest back, with burning and hacking, but also with pruning and cultivating, creating a garden in the clearing with a view upward to heaven.

In recent decades, Perry warns, the pagan forest is creeping back, crowding out that view.

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This is only a collection of anecdotes, of course. Though recent polls show a slight decline in support for same-sex marriage and a similarly small reversal on sex and gender identity, the traditional Christian ethic is clearly still a minority position. Yet this trend among thought leaders of fresh interest in Christianity as a positive cultural force is noteworthy—and perhaps may trickle down to the general public.

What’s more, there may be a lesson here for evangelicals: Rather than being defensive about the countercultural aspects of following Jesus, maybe we can see anew that the very strangeness of Christian ethics can be inviting to those stuck in the thicket of cultural confusion.

This is the approach that theologian N. T. Wright took when asked in 2019 if he is embarrassed by the Christian take on sex and gender. “In the early Church, one of the great attractions of Christianity was actually a sexual ethic. It is a world where more or less anything goes, where women and children are exploited, and where slaves are exploited often in hideous and horrible ways,” he told The Atlantic. “So a lot of people, particularly the women, found the Christian ideal of chastity amazingly refreshing.”

Wright was not naive. When his interviewer pushed back, arguing that a “restricted sexual ethic” that appealed “in the horrible world of ancient Christianity, where it was a terrible thing to be a woman,” might not have the same persuasive power today, Wright acknowledged the “constant difficulties”—but didn’t cede the point that the way Christians live can be attractive in our culture too.

Could our sexual ethic be part of what Jesus had in mind when he urged his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)? We aren’t accustomed to thinking of it that way. Yet we must remember that the Spirit “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8)—even toward the aspects of Christianity that we’ve been conditioned to deemphasize in our desire to get a hearing in a hostile culture.

That’s not to conflate the cultural fruit of Christianity and the coherence of its worldview with the miracle of conversion itself. We must be wary of what theologian Carl Trueman rightly describes as “instrumentalizing” Christianity “in the service of a different cultural campaign,” as well as the tragedy of King Agrippa, who answered Paul’s articulation of the gospel by declaring himself “almost” persuaded (Acts 26:28, KJV). And as the writer Andrew Menkis said in his appeal to the almost-persuaded author Jordan Peterson, mere rules “cannot sate the hunger of our soul.”

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Still, blessed are those “whose delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:1–2), and we should not be so surprised if people outside the church begin to see the blessing of Christian sexual ethics in a world bereft of meaning. Perhaps, like former skeptic C. S. Lewis, they are realizing that the “hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Daniel Darling is the director of The Land Center for Cultural Engagement and the author of several books including Agents of Grace, The Dignity Revolution, and the forthcoming In Defense of Christian Patriotism.