414. sin, sex, and marriage (part 4) — the purpose of sex

I ended the last post in this series stating that much of the world inside and outside the church both have an inadequate understanding of the purpose of sex and because of that, a lot of confusion and harm is occurring. I also stated that if we can understand the God-given purpose of sex then we can define sex, talk about how to engage in it in a God-honoring way, and talk about how to minimize harm/abuse.

Defining Sex — Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act

One of my favorite books about the theology of sex is Christine Gudorf’s Body, Sex, and Pleasure, and one of her key ideas is, if the purpose of sex is no longer procreation (because of the acceptance of contraceptive use), then the purpose of sex must be pleasure. I mean, why else are so many people wanting to have sex if not for the pleasure it brings? One illustration Gudorf uses to support this idea is the fact that

the female clitoris has no function save sexual pleasure — it has no reproductive, urological, or other function in the body… If the placement of the clitoris in the female body reflects the divine will, then God wills that sex is not just oriented to procreation, but is at least as, if not more, oriented to pleasure as to procreation.1

As I stated in the previous post, once you understand what something’s purpose is, you can definite it and discern how to use it properly and safely. Given that, if Gudorf is right and the purpose of sex is pleasure, then I propose defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. But is there biblical support for this definition?

Gudorf’s example of the clitoris is an argument from natural theology, but Song of Songs is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to the thrills and pleasures of partnered sex.

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Image by Herr Olsen

The language of the book is dream-like. It’s full of lush metaphors and its precise meaning and structure are notoriously difficult to pin down. But here are a few examples highlighting mutually pleasurable intimacy.

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! Song of Songs 2:4–6

Although it’s transparent to modern readers, a number of contemporary biblical scholars highlight the erotic subtext here. Richard S. Hess:

The metaphors and symbols of this poetry imply that the drinking house may refer to a particular place where the lovers meet, one that is private and embodies the sensual pleasures of lovemaking already suggested by the image of wine (Song 1: 2, 4, 6).2

Tremper Longman:

She needs sustenance and calls for raisin cakes and apples. The emotion of love can overwhelm a person psychologically, and the physical rigors of lovemaking can wear a person out. The context does not make it clear whether one or the other, or perhaps more likely both, is meant. Raisin cakes and apples may provide more than physical sustenance and may have been understood stood to be aphrodisiacs.3

And take a look at this scorcher:

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. Song of Songs 5:4–5

Hess:

The central theme of this passage is this pleasure, or more precisely its expectation, that the female lover yearns for. The myrrh, in an olive oil compound, might well represent a physical oil that exudes from the flesh of her hands. However, it also expresses fervent love and desire.4

Leave it to a (male) biblical scholar to suck all the erotic force out of a passage like this. To really get to the core meaning, we need to hear a woman’s reading:

This sounds like a woman who is quite comfortable touching her genitals and appreciates her own sexual response as she yearns for her lover. This does not sound like a woman who kept her fingers away from her own dripping honeypot before inviting the “thrust” of another’s hand.5

That’s more like it!

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Image by Javier Enjuto

Defining Sex as Mutually Pleasurable Act – Sex on a Spectrum

The problem with the word “sex” in the phrase “it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them” is that sex is understood as a line or boundary. If you cross this (never adequately defined) line, you’ve had sex and therefore sinned.

But if you’ve ever been to a Christian youth event where the topic of sex gets discussed, you’ll almost always hear the question, “where is the line? How far can I go with my partner and not sin?” At this point, the person leading the group starts to squirm and hem and haw and say something unhelpful like “instead of thinking about where the line is, maybe it’s best to stay as far away from the line as possible.”6 And that’s an answer that shuts down conversation because what else is there to say?

In contrast, if the church can talk about sex as something God gave us to bring a profound sense of mutually intimate pleasure into our lives, then instead of thinking about sex as a line that can’t be crossed, we can think of sex as a spectrum that we move along.

Because there are different kinds and levels of pleasure one can experience. Holding hands with a partner is one sort of pleasure, kissing is another, and the percussive thrill of orgasm is yet another. Each experience brings a different level of pleasure and vulnerability, and if Gudorf is correct in her assessment that God’s purpose for sex is pleasure, then the fraught, unhelpful question, “are we having (sinful) sex or not,” morphs into a number of interrelated questions that invite curiosity and conversation: “what sort of intimacy are we sharing? Are we both comfortable and enjoying what we’re doing? Is what we’re doing honoring to God and our-selves at this point in our relationship?”

And from the point of view of the church, instead of saying, “stay as far away as you can from an ill-defined sexual line that we won’t clarify for you,” defining sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act makes room for a much broader, more vulnerable conversation — one that encourages inquisitiveness and honesty. It reframes the topic so that the church can teach people how to talk to one another about intimacy, mutuality, consent, and pleasure as relational, embodied elements related to sex.

To Be Continued.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I know I said that once a thing is defined, we can also think about how to use it properly and safely, but I’m going to address how that plays out in the context of sex and Christian ethics in the next post. Because to do that well, I want to reintegrate what I’ve previously written about sin and marriage.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

[END POSTSCRIPT]


  1. Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1994), 65.  ↩
  2. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), Kindle Edition.
  3. Tremper Longman, Song of Songs (NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 114.  ↩
  4. Hess.  ↩
  5. Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 30.  ↩
  6. Which is still useless advice beause if the line isn’t defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?  ↩
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414. God needs my sexual desire

29527670A few weeks ago at my church, Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman delivered a sermon that touched my heart, blew my mind, and basically rocked my world; so much so that I want to take a break from my latest series of posts to talk about it. But first, some context is in order.

The Loophole

I’ve done a ton of writing about how the hyper-conservative teachings around sex and sexuality really messed me up especially when it came to how I approached dating relationships. But here, I want to go a bit deeper and talk about how those teachings affected my sexuality.

In the most recent post in my latest series, I shared the story of a Christian man who had his penis in his girlfriend’s vagina and yet claimed (through some mental gymnastics) that they had not actually had sex. I used his story to show that the church has a vastly inadequate ideology about what sex is…

But I have to make a confession.

I empathize with that man because for most of my life, I’ve done something very similar. Like him, I was taught a very strict no-sex-before-marriage message, but found a loophole and milked the hell out of it. But unlike him, my loophole didn’t involve any sex. At least not for me.

And here, I want to confess that my loophole was lesbian porn. Let me (try to) explain how that worked.

In the conservative Christian context of my youth, it wasn’t just having sex that was sinful; I was taught that even lustful thoughts were sin (because Matthew 5:27–30). And while it was never stated outright, the assumption was that “lust” referred to thoughts about penis-in-vagina sex. So, horny teenager me, I figured that if I could be aroused by lesbian porn in a voyeuristic sort of way — aroused by watching their pleasuring of one another — then I was not sinning since my penis was not involved in any of their vaginas. That idea led to me watching and fantasizing about lesbian porn almost exclusively.

And no, that supposed workaround doesn’t actually make any sense, but here’s the thing. In his book, Embodiment, James Nelson argues that suppressed sexual desires can become “demonic.”1 And by that he means that suppressed sexual desires take unnatural, life-sapping forms.2

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Photo by keso s

The Consequences

Sexual desires are an intrinsic part of our God-breathed humanity, so denying them is akin to not breathing. A pouty kid may hold his breath in protest but the body’s need for air will eventually win out. Likewise, even with the most steadfast attempts to suppress one’s sexual desires, they will find a way through. And deprived of “natural”3 outlets, they will take warped (or demonic, to use Nelson’s terminology) forms.

As a young adult in an extremely strict conservative Christian context, I suppressed my sexuality so severely that the outlet my desires eventually found (lesbian porn) was completely disconnected from a healthy, embodied sexuality – my own bodily pleasure played no role in my own sexual fantasy life. Likewise, the bodily, relational pleasure of a partner also played no role.

Looking back now, it would have been great if my sexual fantasy life reoriented toward something closer to my cisgender heterosexuality once I stopped believing those overly strict teachings, but arousal patterns (especially ones formed during adolescence) can carve deep grooves in one’s sexual psyche. That, coupled with the fact that I remained single until my early 40’s (meaning my fixation on lesbian porn remained for over two decades) meant that when I eventually started seriously dating someone, the physically intimate aspect of our relationship was strained by my severely mis-oriented sexual fantasy life.

The Sermon – Light, Sweep, Search

Returning to where I started, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago blew my mind because it spoke directly to issues related to my writing. Her sermon was based on Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:8–10 about a woman who loses a coin, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches to find it.

Dr. Coleman uses this idea of a lost coin to talk about vital, life-things that we need but have lost somehow. And in order to find it again, light is needed in the dark closets of our lives where we may find unexpected, unsavory things. And as we sweep through various compartments of our life, shit will get stirred up. But through a diligent search, the parable suggests that we will find… or be found.

(And I’m glossing over much of the nuance and poetry of her sermon so I encourage you to watch or listen to it for yourself.)


I’ve been writing about relationships and sex(uality) for well over ten years now. And as I listened to Dr. Coleman’s sermon, I realized all the thinking, reading, and writing I’ve been doing was akin to the light/sweep/search journey that the woman with the lost coin was on — a search for something so important it’s worth turning the house upside down to find.

I saw how so much of my writing has been about shining a light on the ways the problematic aspects of purity culture showed up in my life; namely how it taught me to “shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.”

My writing, has also been about sweeping through the rooms of my life and in the process, kicking up the latent, hidden residue of the purity movement’s teachings. In the sweeping, I literally ugly cried when I found how much it had cost me, “all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch…”

Lastly, my reading/writing/research has been part of a careful search. My capstone project in grad school was one where I tried to find new ways for the church to talk about relationships, sex, and sexuality. It’s been over five years since I graduated but my latest series of posts are proof that I’ve never stopped working on the topic. I’ve been re-searching, rethinking, and refining my ideas all this time.

It was quite a delight to make the connection between Dr. Coleman’s message and all the writing I’ve been doing. That alone would have made the sermon a huge blessing, but it turns out God had even more in store for me.

A Beautiful Sermon Turn
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Dr. Monica’s sermon makes a beautiful, surprising turn near the end. She points out that because Jesus is using the woman in this parable to personify God and God’s search for those who are lost, there’s another way to read the parable:

God is like a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one.
God is like a woman.
God is like a woman who needs every coin she has. God is like a woman who could not do what she needed to do without that one coin.
God is like a woman who turns on the lights, sweeps up the dirt, and turns her house upside down because she needs you.
God needs you.
She needs you to do what has to be done.
So come celebrate with me that God has found her lost coin.
Come celebrate with me that God is looking for you. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind you that she needs you. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for you.
Come celebrate with me that God needs you.

By the time Dr. Coleman got to this part of the sermon, I knew what the vital thing I had lost was.

Shame is (quite literally) a hell of a thing. It’s slippery and sly.

I thought all these years of reading/thinking/writing at the intersection of church and sex meant that I had overcome all the old sexual shame that had been ingrained in me. But that was only one aspect of my search, one part of the process of reclaiming my long-lost, God-gifted sexual desire.

Thus far, my work has been laying the theological, intellectual framework needed to understand the goodness of my sexual desire. But God used Dr. Coleman’s sermon to show me that it’s now time for this search to shift from thinking about the goodness of my sexual desire to experiencing it, to living it.

Contrary to the purity-based messages I was raised with, I came to see that God was right there with me, down in the dirt and dust, looking for my long lost sexual desire — a desire that, unlike the disembodied/dissociated lesbian porn that purity culture had led me to, was one that is actually aligned with my cisgender heterosexuality.

And so, to reframe the words of Dr. Coleman,

Come celebrate with me that God is looking for [my heterosexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is turning the couch over, throwing the pillows to the side to remind [me] that she needs [my sexual desire]. Come celebrate with me that God is sweeping the house for [my sexual desire].
Come celebrate with me that God needs [my sexual desire].

And if purity culture has marred or robbed you of your sexual desire, I hope you can know, can feel that God is right there searching with/for you too.

But I want to be like David
throwing his clothes to the wind
to dance a jig in my skin
and be remade by your cleansing again

I give you myself, It’s all that I have
Broken and frail, I’m clay in your hands
And I’m spinning unconcealed
Dizzy on this wheel
For you, my love

From Dizzy by Sixpence None The Richer


  1. Regarding sexual desire, Nelson writes, “whatever our desires, they do not embarrass us in such a way that we need to push them out of consciousness, for to do that is to make them demonic. Instead, we can recognize them for what they are; we can name them and thus take the compelling power out of them” (emphasis mine). B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Ausburg Publishing House, 1978), 82.  ↩
  2. And let me be clear here that I’m not saying that lesbian sex is unnatural. What I am saying is that a sisgender heterosexual man exclusively watching lesbian porn as a way to exploit a poorly defined purity ethic is pretty fucking unnatural.  ↩
  3. By which I mean desires that are aligned with one’s sexuality.  ↩

413. sin, sex, and marriage (part 3) — defining sex problems

[PREFACE]

Again, I’m a week late in getting this post up. I was struggling to get all of my ideas across in one post and it was becoming way too long. So I finally decided to split the topic of sex into multiple bits.

Here, I talk about the problematic aspects of how the church talks about sex. In the next post, I’ll talk about the possibilities for how then church can talk about sex.

Note: click here to see all the posts in this series.

[END PREFACE]ladybug-248481_640

Defining Sex — Do We Really Need to Define Sex?

Sex is everywhere. Sex sells. Freud might say that everything is ultimately about sex. With all the attention it gets, does sex really have to be defined?

Hell. Yes.

Take a look at this account from an Evangelical college student talking about an experience between him and his girlfriend:

We are both devoted Christians who are devoted to virginity until marriage. We fell to temptation and for ten minutes we lay together, me inside of her. We did not move or create physical pleasure for it hurt her too much to move. We stopped before we had sex but we did engage in intercourse, at least this is how we have come to see it (emphasis mine).1

Here’s the thing. If a Christian man can claim that being in bed with his girlfriend, with his dick in her vagina, is not sex then yeah. I think it’s abundantly clear that the church needs to be more specific about her definition of sex.

Thing is, for most of history, there was a time when the church had a very specific definition of sex.

Defining Sex — Sex as Procreative Act

Up until the early to mid 1900s, the church did have an understanding of what the purpose sex was: it was to make babies. Thus, in almost all church contexts, the accepted definition of sex was intimately tied to procreation. In fact, even today, there’s a part of the church that holds this definition.

While I disagree on many aspects of Catholic theology around sex, they do have this going for them: they’re consistent. Because they still believe that God’s primary purpose for sex is procreation, anything that gets in the way of that God-mandated link between sex and procreation — things like contraception, abortion, same-sex partnerships, to name just a few examples — is sin.2

Again, I take great issue with all of those stances but I have to admit that their theology is consistent with their prohibitions.

But on the protestant side of the church, things are far less clear.

Defining Sex — The Purpose Problem

In the early to mid 1900s, safe, reliable forms of birth control entered the scene3 and while the Catholic church held firm on their theology of sex, protestants put up next to no criticism or condemnation regarding the use of modern forms of contraception in married relationships.4

But that creates a huge, throbbing, unresolved theological problem: if the primary purpose of sex is no longer procreation, then what is its purpose?

I think the fact that the church has never adequately addressed this question lies at the root of why so many (especially young adult) Christians see the church as irrelevant to how they think about sex. But that’s just one part of the problem.

Defining Sex — The, uh, Defining Problem

Take a look at this thing.
Kerneler
In trying to determine what it is, a good first move would be to figure out what it’s for, what it’s purpose is. Because once you know that, it’s pretty easy to define it, to use correctly, and to know how to use it safely.

Once you see that it’s used for taking the kernels off of corn, it’s easy to define it as a Corn Kerneler, to use it correctly, and to use it safely (don’t put your boto inside).

The point I’m trying to make is that because the church hasn’t addressed God’s purpose for sex (post-contraception), it can’t really define what sex is, how to use it correctly, or how to engage in it safely. And that’s left Christians to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating their sexuality.

In interview after interview, students [at Christian religious colleges/universities] laughed out loud when asked what their faith tradition might have to say about this. They laughed at the idea that their faith had anything to say about sex — especially to gays — other than not to have it. They laughed because they see religious views about sexuality (at least what they know of them, which is typically not very much) as outdated and irrelevant. And they laughed because they were confused about the prospect of their faith having anything useful to say about these things.5

Defining Sex – The Possibilities

I’m at a bar while writing/editing this and on one of the TV screens, they’re showing the documentary, The Clinton Affair, about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. And one of the infamous lines from that whole affair was Clinton’s claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Thing is, it’s not just the church that’s unclear about the purpose and definition of sex. The world outside the church is just as unclear about sexuality and here’s a radical notion: what if the church could be a defining voice in the conversation about healthy human sexuality? What if, embedded in Judeo-Christian tradition/theology, there are clues that God has left us that reveal the purpose of sex, it’s definition, how to engage in it properly and safely?

More on that in the next post.

[POSTSCRIPT]

As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.

You can also email me at churchandsex@gmail.com (no really, that’s an email address I own and use. Thank you, Google!)

[END POSTSCRIPT]


  1. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 120.
  2. Thing is, if you look closely enough, you’ll find that even this seemingly hardline stance has its nuances. While they claim that the God-ordained purpose of sex is procreation, they still bless sex between infertile couples.
  3. In his book, *The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, Jonathan Eig points out that while use of a condom to prevent pregnancy can be traced to the 16th century, it required a man’s initiave. The modern birth control pill put control of reproduction into the hands of women and that was the innovation that revolutionized the way we think about sex.
  4. In chapter 12 of his book, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction, Adrian Thatcher lays out the flacid response the protestant church made regarding the use of contraception. They claimed that proper contraceptive use was confined to the context of marriage, but did not adequately explain, theologically, why.
  5. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 196.

412. sin, sex, and marriage (part 2) — defining marriage

[PREFACE]

According to the title of this series, part two should be about sex, but let’s face it, as a topic, sex is far more interesting than marriage and I didn’t want to go there too quickly. Besides, sex is supposed to come after marriage isn’t it? 😉

[END PREFACE]

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Event

Let me start with a little ditty about Jack and Dianne.1 Maybe Diane caught Jack’s eye or maybe it was the other way around, but someone saw something fetching in the other and they start dating. And things go great — each finds the other attractive, they have fun when they’re together, conversations are engaging, they make each other laugh, and they resolve conflicts well. Before too long, they’re both deeply in love. Some period of time passes and eventually they decide they want to get married. One proposes, the other accepts, and they’re engaged. Their parents have some significant reservations and make them known, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision. Soon enough, they wed in a church in front of friends and family, and live happily ever after.

There are many aspects of this story that are unique to our time and I’ll highlight some of them later. For now, I want to point out that in this scenario, marriage can be understood as an event-based institution. Prior to the event known as their wedding day, Jack and Dianne were single. After the event, they’re married.

In contrast, let’s dial the clock back about three hundred years and revisit Jack and Dianne’s relationship.

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Process

Jack’s father owns a large bit of land. Some of it he uses for farming, but some of it is too hilly and rocky to raise crops so nothing but grass grows there. Diane’s father owns a large herd of goats and while he’s been getting by with letting them graze on public lands, he wants to expand and the only way to do that is to find more grassy acreage.

Jack’s father and Dianne’s father realize that each has something the other needs. They meet and agree that merging their families would be a mutually beneficial arrangement so they decide that Jack and Dianne will wed when they’re old enough (arrangements like this could be made when their kids were as young as six or seven — sometimes even younger). At this point, Jack and Dianne are betrothed. I’ll say more about betrothal later, but for now, the important thing to note is that their betrothal means that they have begun the process of being married.

Throughout their betrothal, Jack and Dianne get to know one another in carefully controlled/monitored settings. Unfortunately, they discover they don’t like each other and can’t ever imagine living with or loving the other. They bring this up to their parents and ask if they can be paired with someone else but to no avail. This is something that will greatly benefit both families and that’s all that really matters.

Years pass and the two reach the age where they can marry. Because Jack and Dianne’s parents aren’t wealthy enough to afford an elaborate communal ceremony to mark the event, Dianne moves into Jack’s family household and that’s that. They’re married and live miserably ever after.

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The Arnolfini Double Portrait by Jan van Eyck


Defining Marriage – Then and Now, an Overview 2

  • Then (mid 19th century and prior)
    • Marriage arranged by parents, children have little to no say in the matter
  • Now (mid 19th century and onward)
    • Partners find one another on their own, parents have little to no say in the matter
  • Then
    • Marriage partners selected on pragmatic factors, usually finance/property related criteria, least of all, love3
  • Now
    • Marriage partners selected on relational factors like compatibility, attraction, ability to communicate and resolve conflicts, and, most of all, love
  • Then
    • Marriage was seen as a process that began at betrothal and culminated when the two were wedded
  • Now
    • Marriages begin at an event – the day of the wedding
  • Then
    • Unless the families were wealthy or of nobility, the finalization of a marriage could be as simple as the wife moving into her husband’s household – no church or ceremony involved
  • Now
    • Many couples choose to declare their marriage through ceremony and celebration

In a way, the only thing more remarkable than the radical changes marriage has gone through is how fast those changes took place – a complete upending of marriage took place in less than two centuries.

However, there is an often overlooked, surprising resonance, between then and now.

Defining Marriage – Betrothal

In his book Marriage After Modernity, Adrian Thatcher makes this observation: “the informal entry into marriage via cohabitation [or a long-term, committed dating partnership]…4 is a partial return to premodern nuptial orthodoxy.”5 And by “premodern nuptial orthodoxy,” Thatcher is referring to betrothal which is

the recognized rite of transition from friends to lovers, conferring on the couple the right to sexual as well as social intimacy. Betrothal ’granted them freedom to explore any personal faults or incompatibilities that had remained hidden during the earlier, more inhibited phases of courtship and could be disastrous if carried into the indissoluble status of marriage.6

MarriageAfterModernityCover

Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times

In other words, there’s a similarity between the lost tradition of betrothal and the modern practice of dating, with this crucial difference: whereas most churches today teach that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them, there was a time when the church allowed betrothed couples to have sex prior to a formal wedding service because a betrothed couple was understood to have begun the marriage process.7

Stated succinctly, Thatcher is saying that allowing couples to engage in sex prior to a formal wedding ceremony is not a new phenomenon – there’s precedent for it in church history/tradition.8

Defining Marriage – Conclusion

Now what does all of that mean for the phrase under consideration in this series — that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?

Well the fact that there was a time when the church allowed betrothed (pre-married) couples to have sex should open up new avenues of conversation in the church. In particular, the parallels between betrothal then and long-term, committed dating partnerships today is striking and the question, “if betrothal and dating are so alike, why did the church allow sex in one context but not in the other?” On top of that, maybe a return to the understanding of marriage as process, rather than event, could be a new way to think and talk about dating, sex, and relationships.

As with the previous post, my hope is that the (re)introduction of the lost tradition of betrothal can prompt curiosity, spark dialogue, and propose some new ways to talk about what it is that God desires for us as sexual beings.

[POSTSCRIPT]

As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.

You can also email me at churchandsex@gmail.com (no really, that’s an email address I own and use. Thank you, Google!)

[END POSTSCRIPT]

[Bibliography]
For those interested in the history of marriage, I recommend the following books:
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz.
A History Of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom.
A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition by Elizabeth Abbott.
Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel


  1. Please forgive the heteronormative nature of this introduction. If there was a popular genderqueer song that got the same idea across, I would have used it.  
  2. The story of Jack and Dianne and the differences listed between marriage then and now are based on research drawn from a number of books. I’ll include a bibliography of sources below.  
  3. Stephanie Coontz writes, “Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.” Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 6.  
  4. His book looks specifically at the issue of Christians living together prior to marriage, but I see no reason why his work can’t also be applied to dating couples who happen to live separately.  
  5. John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 47, quoted in Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 29.  
  6. Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 112.  
  7. Thatcher notes that “about half of all brides in Britain and North America were pregnant at their weddings in the eighteenth century.” Ibid., 112.  
  8. Thatcher’s ideas are thoroughly researched and clearly reasoned and deserve far more attention than I’ve been able to give them here. And lest one think his project is one where he is seeking to simply justify sex prior to marriage, his book is riddled with cautions and caveats that show this simply isn’t the case. As for why the church abandoned betrothal, that is better addressed in another Thatcher book: Living Together and Christian Ethics.  
  9. On a loosely related note, in this post, I made the argument that despite what some in the conservative Christian may claim, it’s not LGBTQ folks who have redefined marriage. The modern redefinition of marriage was the work of heterosexuals.  
  10. Sexual incompatibility is not a deal breaker for all couples, but for some, it can be a deciding factor.  

411. sin, sex, and marriage (part 1) — defining sin

[PREFACE]

I’ve spent time in a wide variety of different church and para-church contexts. From extreme conservative to extreme liberal/progressive, from home church to charismatic to liturgical to mainline to Evangelical to megachurch, I’ve been there. Despite this vast array of church experiences, almost without exception,1 one maxim got preached in overt and (more often) subtle ways: ”it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them.” And it’s precisely that phrase that I intend to address in this next series of posts.

And while I reserve the right to further nuance the series as I write it, my hope is to write posts on three key words in that phrase: it’s a sin to have with sex with someone before you’re married to them. I’ll look at the word “sin” and try to get specific about what sin actually is, biblically and theologically. I’ll talk about the word “sex” and how the church at large has far too shallow an understanding of what that term relates to. And finally, I’ll look at the institution of marriage and why I believe the church needs to nuance the way she talks about that institution. And then maybe I’ll close with some concluding remarks after everything is on the table.

But for now, let’s start with sin.

[END PREFACE]

9200579_sp3qb9fu A  withered tree bearing apples labelled with sins; representing the life of sin. Coloured lithograph, c. 1870, after J. Bakewell. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Defining Sin – Sin as Violation of God’s Laws

Sin plays a pretty central role in the church. It gets referred to all the time as something to avoid, but for all the attention that it gets, there isn’t a lot of specific talk about what sin actually is. From what I’ve seen, the most common definition of sin is that it’s a violation of any of God’s laws.2

One of the big problems with this view comes down to a critique of language. I wrote a series of posts about how language is fundamentally indistinct,3 and given that (along with the fact that our Bible is a translation of an ancient language based in a culture vastly different than our own), one quickly comes to the conclusion that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to derive a definitive list of prohibited actions from the biblical text. And if that’s the case, then defining sin as a violation of God’s law seems suspect. I mean, if you can’t be sure what the rules are, how can you hope to avoid breaking them?

Defining Sin – Incurvatus in Se

A view of sin that can be found in the works of Augustine, Marin Luther, and Barth is captured in the Latin phrase, incurvatus in se, which roughly translates to “curved or turned in on one’s self.”4 The idea is that God created us to be social beings so making life choices that are so turned in on one’s self that they’re made with no regard to how they affect others is sinful.

I find this approach to thinking about sin really appealing. Rather than trying to identify specific prohibited acts, as the law-breaking view of sin tries to do, the incurvatus take looks at sin in a kind of categorical or principled way. In this way I think it does a really good job of capturing the general theme of what the Bible is trying to get at regarding sin in a way that can have a practical impact on the everyday choices we make in life. In other words, in order to avoid sinning, we do our best to avoid making choices that center ourselves at the expense of those around us.

Defining Sin – Sin as Human Damage

Critiques from liberation and feminist theology point out that despite its merits, the incurvatus view focuses too much on individual actions and fails to take into account the corporate, structural nature of sin. To remedy this, José Ignacio González Faus writes “liberation theology has been able to identify the true meaning of the Christian notion of sin: human damage.”5 This need not be read against or in opposition to the incurvatus view, rather, it expands upon it. In addition to individual sin, it allows us to talk about how the acts/choices that institutions/systems/societies make are sin when they disproportionately cause human damage.6

9200122_BibliographicResource_1000056124723 The fall of man: Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

Defining Sin – Sin as a Violation of the Greatest Commandments

Speaking of myself, I think the easiest way to think about sin is to see it as a failure to live up to the greatest commandments: to love God and neighbor as self.7 Jesus himself states that all the laws of the Bible are grounded in these commandments (Matthew 22:40), and that strongly suggests that any specific law of the Bible has to be read (or filtered) through these two commandments. Let me use an analogy to get at why this is helpful.

At the grocery store, there’s usually a checkout line designated for people with “15 items or less” in their cart.8 However, if we see someone in that line with 30 boxes of the same flavor Hot Pockets, no one will question their right to use that line because everyone understands that the purpose of the line is to help move people through the store swiftly. And because this person has 30 boxes of the same item, they’ll get through even faster than another customer who has 10 different kinds of produce. In other words, even though Hot Pocket person is technically in violation of the “15 items or less” rule, they’re well within the purpose of the rule and thus get a pass.

Just as efficiency is the purpose of the grocery store line, the greatest commandments make plain the idea that the laws of the Bible aren’t meant to strictly enforce behavior; their purpose is to teach us how to love God and neighbor as self.

Returning to the phrase that I’m critiquing, that it’s sinful to have sex before marriage, that sort of sex isn’t necessarily a sin because it isn’t always a violation of the greatest commandments. Reading laws like “thou shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) or “shun fornication” (Corinthians 6:18) through the lens of the greatest commandments nuances the sin aspect because it depends on what sort of sex is taking place. Any sex that isn’t mutually loving toward both parties involved would be sinful because that exhibits a failure to love God/neighbor as self.

[SIDE NOTE]

Sadly, there was a time when the “no sex before marriage” message was used to justify marital rape; the idea being, if sex after marriage is not sin, then it can’t be sinful to force sex on one’s marriage partner. This is what can happen when the law is read (and applied) apart from Jesus’ hermeneutic of love.

But does that mean that all sex that’s mutual and consensual is now okay? Again, not necessarily.

Reading 1 Corinthians 6:18 in context, one could argue that consensual sex that is done in a casual way (aka hookup culture) may not be the healthiest way to love one’s body/self and is thus sinful because it’s failing to adhere to the “loving neighbor as self” part of the commandment.9 As Paul puts it, your body is a temple — one’s sexuality is a uniquely powerful piece of that temple and casual sex might not be the best way to steward it.

But what about unmarried sex between two people in a committed, loving, long-term relationship? Here, I think the onus is on the church to answer for why/how sex in this context is sin when read along side the loving God and neighbor as self commandments. Or let me put that another (more gracious) way: here is an opportunity for the church to have an openly nuanced conversation about God and love and sex and the choices we make regarding all three.

2021672_resource_document_mauritshuis_253 The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

Defining Sin – Conclusion

So then, is it a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them? I hope I’ve shown that the answer is not a simple yes or no. That said, I understand why it can be so hard to have this conversation in church. Sex has become a kind of litmus test that justifies all sorts of conclusions about any given church community.

  • Don’t hold a hardline regarding sex before marriage? That must mean your church disregards the authority of Bible. Based on that, your church has no other redeeming qualities that I would ever consider relevant.
  • Believe that all marriage before sex is sin? That must mean your church is intolerant, judgmental, and probably bigoted. Based on that, your church has no other redeeming qualities that I would ever consider relevant.10

It’s a shitty, unhealthy dynamic that’s divided congregations and denominations so I empathize with churches who choose to sidestep the issue. But that choice comes with its own dire consequences.

The world’s views around sex and sexuality are changing and the church’s silence around these vital topics has led people to see her voice as irrelevant.11 And if the church has little relevant or useful to say on those topics, people may wonder, why should I trust anything else she has to say about life?

And that breaks my heart because I truly believe that the church can still be a healing, reconciling, guiding presence. Indeed, that’s her true calling. But in order to break the rhetorical logjam around sex and sexuality, we need to find new way to talk about them.

It’s my hope that this post and this series will open up new avenues of conversation, prompt curiosity, and propose some new ideas about what it is that God desires for us as sexual beings.

[POSTSCRIPT]

As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.

You can also email me at churchandsex@gmail.com (no really, that’s an email address I own and use). Thank you, Google!


  1. Hint, the mainline church was the exception.  
  2. That describes a sin of commission – doing something prohibited. A sin of omission is the failure to do something that one should do.  
  3. Which isn’t to say that language has no meaning at all. See the series to see why.
    12See The Gravity of Sin by Matt Jenson for more on this.
  4. gravity  
  5. José Ignacio González Faus, “Sin,” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, ed. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuría (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 200.  
  6. One might argue that systems can also be turned in on themselves at the expense of others just as individuals can, but the liberation theology perspective makes this more explicit.  
  7. This may seem to be a return to the sin-as-law-breaking I critiqued earlier, but I see it as different in that the sin-as-law-breaking idea tries to tease out specific behaviors that one can or can’t do, and my argument is that because of the inherent fuzziness of language, compiling such a list is impossible. Seeing sin as a violation of the greatest commandments takes this fuzziness into account. In a way, the greatest commandments act as a cypher that decodes all the other laws of the Bible, thus clarifying the fuzziness therein.  
  8. Yeah, yeah, yeah.  
  9. See Donna Freitas’ book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.  
  10. The more common litmus test has to do with a church’s stance on affirming or denying LGBTQ persons ability to wed.  
  11. And not just with people outside the church. People inside are feeling this as well as illustrated by this quote: “In interview after interview, students laughed out loud when asked what their faith tradition might have to say about these matters. They laughed at the idea that their faith had anything to say about sex—especially to gays—other than not to have it. They laughed because they see religious views about sexuality (at least what they know of them, which is typically not very much) as outdated and irrelevant. And they laughed because they were confused about the prospect of their faith having anything useful to say about these things.” Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 196.  

410. rethinking the story of the Prodigal Son (Part 2) — church and sex

1024px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project

(read part 1 here)

Years ago, when I was the drummer for a rock band, I wrote a song called “We Are Free” with these lyrics:

There was a time when
you thought all their words were true
Wrong and right were
black and white as a rule

But the world is wide as
the girl in the bubble was small
And you could not resist
when you heard curiosity call

And you found some things beautiful
and you found some things depraved
And you learned to be cynical
but you also learned how to be brave

They would call you
the prodigal daughter who
Ran from home
before her time was due

Could it be in the scheme of things
it’s just part of some grand design
Could it be we’re just waiting for
all the water to turn into wine

We are free

I think this song relates to my rethinking of the Prodigal Son story in that both are about how it is that God is working in our lives and how does that relates to the way we think about Christian sexual ethics.

I think the most profound metaphor for how God interacts with us is parenting. I don’t have kids but from everything I’ve ever heard from friends or learned in grad school, what good parents ultimately want is for their kids to grow into the healthiest versions of who God uniquely created them to be. That involves a process of discovery for both the parent and the parented, and this process involves a delicate balancing act. Give a child too much freedom and you risk them growing up to be a huge asshole. Raise a child with boundaries that are too restrictive and unwielding and you risk them growing up to be an entirely different sort of asshole.
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No one does parenting perfectly, but according to attachment theory, ideal child rearing may involve simply being good enough. Basically, that means providing the child support and freedom they need to experiment and explore the world and their place in it. It also means being there to comfort, soothe, and reassure when things go sideways.

Finding the perfect balance between overly restrictive and overly permissive boundaries is impossible, but I wonder if the message of the Prodigal story is that God’s way is to err on the side of being overly permissive and overly gracious if/when the child makes a mess of things.

Ultimately, this is a question of formation. How does a Christian come to live their life in a way that conforms to who God created them to be? And a crucially related question is, what role does the church play in facilitating this process?

One stark example of where the church has gone wrong can be seen in the draconian rhetoric of the purity movement and how it led to disastrous consequences in the lives of many people (including me).

Again, I think the story of the Prodigal Son is instructive. In the previous post I wrote that the Prodigal’s father gave him half the family’s inheritance knowing full well what he intended to do with it (basically partying hard). And yet, scripture records no pushback or plea from the father to do otherwise.

As with good parenting, the father (personifying God) gave the Prodigal son freedom to explore the life abundant. And despite the fact that he spent what must have been a considerable fortune on decadence and pleasure-seeking, despite the fact that these choices lead to the point where he looked at pig slop as a viable meal, the father was there, waiting to welcome him back with a party.
pig-2587046_640

Could it be in the scheme of things
it’s just part of some grand design
Could it be we’re just waiting for
All the water to turn into wine

Could it be that the church should be less dogmatic and restrictive in how she talks about sex, sexuality, and the ethical norms around them? Could it be that allowing people the freedom to make mistakes (as good parents do) and lovingly welcoming them back if they make a mess of things is more in line with how God would have us form Christian character?

To be clear, I’m not saying that the church should wholeheartedly embrace hookup culture, but I would love to see a more open and honest conversation take place – one where we don’t use shame to force conformity to vaguely-defined sexual guidelines. It would be so refreshing to hear stories of couples who may not have waited to have sex until they were married and how that decision did not ruin them.1 It would be so great to hear the church talk about mutual respect in relationships, about how to have conversations about sexual intimacy with a partner, about consent, about proper use of contraception, and yes, about our God-gifted bodies, about our inherent worth and the worth of others, about loving God and neighbor as self. And to hear about how all of that relates to the way we live out our calling as sexual beings.

Lastly, I wish the church would trust people to make their own healthy, God-honoring decisions about how they steward their sexuality and their relationships – that with the explicit message that the church will be there to nurture and love regardless of how things may go.


  1. I remember a story from a high school retreat where one of the Sunday school teachers got up and tearfully shared how he and his wife had had sex after they were engaged but before they were married. He talked emotionally about how he wished they had waited, but never fully explained why. He was still married to this same woman and they had two kids and life seemed to be going well for them. I couldn’t help but wonder why he so regretted the choice to have sex before he was married.  

409. language is fuzzy (part 7) — the Bible as the Site of revelation

LanguageIs1

In part 6 in this series, I wrote that when two people (or groups) have differing interpretations of scripture that one might consider that the viewpoint closer to what it is that God may actually be trying to communicate can be found somewhere in the midst of the interpretations, not solely on one side or the other.1 Couple that with the fact that words themselves are these fuzzy, indistinct things, and it looks like finding the one, true interpretation of the Bible is impossible. And there are good examples of how being too certain about a particular way of reading the Bible got the church into trouble. In part 5 I wrote about how the church has been very wrong about its interpretations in the past — their positions on heliocentrism and slavery being two obvious examples.

But given that a definitive interpretation of scripture seems impossible both on individual and corporate levels, and that the church has been very wrong in her interpretation before, how is it that the Bible can be thought to be authoritative in the life of the church and her members?

And here, I think an analogy works best.

What if we thought of the Bible, not as a source of definitive truths about God and our role in God’s creation but rather as a site where we meet and do our best to discuss and discern those things?
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The problem with seeing the Bible as a source is that a source is something you go to, take what you need, then leave. And when different people take different things away, confusion and conflict results.

Part of the larger point I’ve been trying to make in this series is that language is fuzzy. In part one and two I tried to show how language is a squirmy, squishy sort of thing. Individual words have multiple meanings and so it’s no wonder that when you string a bunch of them together that some level of ambiguity arises. And at the most basic level, the Bible is just a huge collection of these fuzzy words. Given that, I don’t think it should surprise or even trouble us that a multitude of interpretations come out of it, both today and throughout the history of the church. So it seems to be a rather unreliable source of revelation.

But rather than being troubled by this, what we saw it as a feature, not a bug. In other words, what if the fact that it can be hard to pin down any definitive interpretation of scripture isn’t something that’s a flaw in the Bible or in us. What if this is actually a very intentional part of what the Bible is?

And if I’m on the right track in saying that the “correct” interpretation of any given bit of scripture can be found somewhere in the midst of differing interpretations, then perhaps the Bible is authoritative in the sense that it is the site, the place, where we come to find God in the conversations we have about scripture and what it means, who God is, and how we are to live as a result.

I said earlier that the problem with the Bible-as-source idea is that we take truths away from the text. Seeing the Bible as a site, on the other hand, suggests that we can’t actually take truths from the Bible. Rather, the Bible best functions as the word of God when we stay and discuss it with one another.

Said another way, the Bible is the center around which we gather to find/experience/see God at work among us. It’s the thing that unites us in our discussions and disagreements because at least we’re disagreeing around the same thing: the Bible.2 The Bible may be unreliable when seen as a source of revelation but it comes alive when viewed as the site of revelation – a site that is meant to be experienced in community. And like any communal site, the experience is best when everyone does their best to play nicely together.
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Because what if what God ultimately wants from our engagement with scripture isn’t right reading but right relationship? What if he fuzziness of words and language and the Bible is something that God designed into the system? What if all that fuzziness is there to force us to wrestle with the text together?

And taking this a bit further, what if discussing/debating our differing ideas about what we think scripture might be saying in a gracious, loving way is what God ultimately wants from us? This rather than discovering its one, true, correct interpretation?

This doesn’t mean we can’t vigorously debate the meaning of any given part of the Bible but it does mean that we can’t be dismissive of the other as we do so.3 Even if one is convinced that the other’s interpretation is an utter affront to God, a reading that debases and dehumanizes, one must remember that there is some way in which they see their reading as life-giving. Only a sociopath would do otherwise.4

The trick is, if you can come to understand how they see life where you see death (remembering that understanding doesn’t mean agreeing), and if they can do the same towards you, that is fertile ground where God’s good, ongoing work can flourish.

That sort of dynamic is a radically counter-cultural witness of the life that God desires for God’s people — a community of mutual love and respect even (especially) when/where we disagree.

This idea may sound rosy and nice but it’s incredibly difficult and messy. I know because I’ve been on the receiving end of interactions where I’ve tried to understand the other but the same was not reciprocated (see this post and this related one). But still, I want to suggest a different way of thinking about scripture. The inherent fuzziness of language should humble us, make us a little less adamant that we know the mind of God via the Bible. We should spend a bit more time sitting at the text with people who read differently than we do, not to debate, but to see God revealed through the process, in community.


  1. Though not necessarily squarely in the middle.  ↩
  2. To be honest, given all of the unfortunate experiences I’ve had in the church, I sometimes wonder why it is that I still believe. Even now, I would say that I’m a barely believer. But one of the things that keeps me in is this idea of a shared text around which we gather, one that unites us even as we disagree about it. As far as I’ve seen, atheism has nothing like this.  ↩
  3. One important caveat: I’m not saying that everyone can or even should engage with people in this way. Marginalized people, people who have been discriminated against, dismissed, and/or disadvantaged need to protect themselves. And the sad fact is, some Christians can be real assholes when talking theology. I’m not asking anyone to dialogue with unreasonable people. I’m hoping for mutually respect in dialogue and that is a two-way street.  ↩
  4. And the job of tending to sociopaths is one for psychologists.  ↩