HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) -- Beliefs about sex once revolved around broadly held Judeo-Christian concepts of morality, but now sex is increasingly depicted as a civil right, the pastor of Houston's First Baptist Church said Feb. 15.
In his sermon on Ephesians 5, Greg Matte said politicians and advocates for same-sex marriage have pushed to remove sex from the realm of biblical morality. That effort makes it especially difficult for Christians to share their beliefs, and it corrupts God's design for intimacy between a man and a woman.
"Notice how it is framed even in our own city," Matte said. "What is it that everyone is praying about and talking about and having court documents and such about? The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is framed as a rights ordinance and not a moral ordinance. But when you have a lack of morality, you have a lack of clarity."
Matte said framing sex as a civil rights issue puts Christians on their heels. "If you say anything against it, you're seen as a bigot," he said.
Matte was referencing the controversy that erupted in October 2014 when Houston's city council updated its Equal Rights Ordinance. In the updated ordinance (now called "HERO" by its proponents), civil rights protections were extended to citizens on the basis of "sexual orientation, genetic information" and "gender identity."
The ordinance applies to all private businesses, housing providers and city contractors, but religious institutions were reportedly exempted from obeying parts of the ordinance that violated their beliefs. Within days of its passing, however, Houston's first openly-gay mayor, Annise Parker, issued subpoenas for the sermons of five local pastors who had opposed the change.
That action drew condemnation from nearly every conservative quarter and even from the liberal group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State. A member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission also chided the mayor and city council.
According to the Washington Times, Commissioner Peter Kirsanow said the subpoenas were "an abuse of government power" that had a chilling effect on religiously-informed speech. He also said the subpoenas were "a blatant attempt to punish these pastors for expressing their religiously based political views."
Parker was forced to withdraw the subpoenas under public pressure, but the episode set the tone for future confrontations over religious belief and gay rights in Houston.
Immediately following the withdrawal of the subpoenas, pastors in the city organized a petition drive to schedule a vote on overturning the updates to the ordinance. The city asked the court to dismiss the petition, which garnered 54,000 signatures, on the basis that many signatures were allegedly fraudulent.
In its verdict Feb. 13, a jury ruled 10-2 in the lawsuit against the city. The jury found nearly 2,500 forgeries among the 54,000 voter signatures but dismissed the city's allegations of wide-spread fraud. A judge is expected to soon rule on whether or not the referendum on the updated city ordinance can appear on the ballot.
Matte said he wanted to avoid being political in his sermon, but needed to lay the foundation for why what he said was a necessary correction to the view of sex offered by the world. He described Paul's exhortation in Ephesians 5, "let there be no hint of sexual immorality among you," as something akin to a parent with a toddler covering light sockets or locking the cabinet under the sink.
"Paul says, 'Before you get into walking, I want you to understand the love of the Father for you and the love and sacrifice of the Son for you. I want you to imitate that.'" Matte said God provided the prohibition on sexual immorality to "lock the cabinet" and protect his children as they began to walk in Christ.
Other, more sexually liberal views are being championed at the highest levels today, Matte said.
"President Obama – not trying to be political, just trying to frame it -- said in his acceptance speech, 'The answer has been spoken,' and listen to the groups he names, 'by the young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled," Matte said.
Matte said only one group in the list had anything to do with morality, but because "gay-straight" was added to the list of innate "amoral" characteristics, immoral sexual behavior could be championed as a civil right.
Matte said sexual relationships were now redefined as moral if the people involved consent to sex. He said Americans still regard pedophilia and rape as immoral because there is no consent, but homosexuality, pre-marital sex between heterosexuals or even extra-marital sex have become accepted as "moral."
"Does consent now determine what is moral?" Matte asked.
Matte also addressed the decline of marriage in America and in the church, but said marriage is God's best for society. He also said even government knows the best thing that can happen for a nation is for families in the home to have a solid foundation – a father and a mother in a marriage for a lifetime, parenting their children responsibly and teaching them about God's design for the home.
"Our Judeo-Christian heritage leads us to this place of knowledge," Matte said. "Marriage protects society. That's why it is so hard to get into and get out of, or it should be."
Matte said the instructions for a stable family life are presented in Scripture as marriage, then sex, followed by parenting. Sex is God's blessing on married people, as described in Genesis 1. That blessing is twofold, Matte said. It brings about "bonding and babies."
"There's no other act between humans like that. We're different from the animal kingdom because there is love involved, or it should be. And there's babies," Matte said. "Sex is about intimacy. It is about love. It is about trust. It is about honor. It is about care. It is about laying down your life for someone. It's about two becoming one and we've made it into something that is just about the feeling. When you get it just about the feeling, you remove morality, remove God, and you remove the soul of sex."
Matte said God's word calls people back to sex as he created it.
"It's not the 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' It's the purest white. It's not trash. It's not leaving them in the morning. It's walking with someone for absolute life. It's not something you do. It's who you are. The two become one."
Matte said he had been praying for his message "to drip with wisdom" and carry with it a clear message that the love of God provides escape from sexual immorality.
"I hope you have not heard one bit of anger in me. I hope you've not heard one bit of how we don't love as the church," Matte said. "If you've been involved in adultery or pornography or premarital sex or homosexuality or are transgendered or whatever else, Jesus loves you. "
"With every bit of love I say, Jesus Christ loves you," Matte said.
--Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes frequently on religion, politics and public policy issues. He is also assistant professor of church history with Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary.