416. sin, sex, and marriage (part 5) — church, consent, and tea

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Image by: Kajsa Wikman

In part 3 of this series, I argued that once we understand the purpose of something, we can properly define it and also think about how to use it properly, safely, and in a way that minimizes the chances of abuse or harm. In part 4, I argued (via Gudorf) that the purpose of sex was pleasure and from there, I defined sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act. In this post, I’ll get to the bits I missed — how this new way of understanding sex can help the church talk about how to have sex properly, safely, and in a way that minimizes harm.

And I want to start by going back to part 1 where I proposed that sin might best be understood as a violation of the two Greatest Commandments — as a failure to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34–40). With that in mind, I believe the proper, safe, harm-minimizing way for the church to think and talk about sex can be summed up in one word: consent.1

Consent

In her book, Just Love, Christian ethicist, Margaret Farley argues that the idea of consent is important “because it directly safeguards the autonomy of persons as embodied and inspirited, as transcendent and free.”2 And that’s kind of a mouthful but basically what Farley is saying is that consent is important because it respects the God-given rights of one’s partner, which, I would add, is a way of loving God and neighbor as self.

But let’s take a look at what consent actually is — how it works. To that end, I’ve never seen a simpler, more concise explanation than the metaphor used in this video:

The video talks about how if you offer someone a cup of tea, and they don’t want it, then don’t force it down their throat. It goes on to explain that the desire to have a cup of tea can be withdrawn even if that’s convenient for the person making the tea. And unconscious people do not want tea even if they said they wanted tea before falling asleep. And the point of it all is:

If you can understand how completely ludicrous is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea and how hard is to understand when it comes to sex. Whether tea or sex, consent is everything.

Of course asking for/obtaining consent can be awkward, but when seen in relation to loving your neighbor (or partner, in this case) as yourself, respecting consent becomes a way of obeying the second greatest commandment. In other words, there’s a Christian mandate to push past the awkwardness and do the work of ensuring consent.3

And while cultural/historical considerations must be taken into account, there is a kind of principle of sexual consent modeled in the Bible:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! (Song of Solomon 1:1a)

Here, we see a woman who is very clear about what she desires from her partner,4 and yet, she does not impose her desire on him. “Let him kiss me” implies an invitation, not a demand.

Why Consent is a Better Approach

One of the problems of the abstinence-only, purity-based approach is that it disconnects people from their embodied desires and boundaries. The purity approach really only has one key teaching: “don’t.”5 This leads to the situation where couples who have saved themselves for marriage find themselves grossly unaware of how to have mutually pleasurable sex.

And this can lead to disasterous effects even (maybe especially) for couples who live up to purity’s stringent standards.

”My husband and I both came from good Christian homes and were virgins when we married at 21 years old,” she said. “Both of our families hadn’t talked about sexual matters when we were growing up. For most of the first 30 years of our marriage, I had low sexual desire and my husband was the constant initiator. It set up a bad dynamic between us. All I knew was what I ‘should’ do and nothing about what I really wanted as a wife or a sexual person.”6

Contrary to the abstinence-only, purity-based approach, one of the benefits of the consent-based approach to sex is that it requires a level of embodied sexual self-awareness. But loving your partner as yourself presupposes that you know how you want to be loved. It also presupposes that your partner knows how they want to be loved.7

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Unfortunately, as we see in the quote above, the church’s emphasis on the purity message can undercut these presuppositions, leading to the situation where someone may not know how they want to be loved in relation to their sexual self.

Brass Tacks

Let’s get real here. I don’t like to paint with a broad brush, but I think it’s warranted here. In general (meaning there are always exceptions), males tend to know a lot about how to pleasure themselves because they’ve likely done a lot of masturbating. In one of his podcast episodes, sex columnist Dan Savage said something like, “if a man needs a goat and a canoe in a room in order to have an orgasm, he will make sure there is a goat and a canoe in the room whenever he has sex.” The point is, men tend to have a good idea of what they need in order to get off and aren’t afraid to ask for it.

In contrast, generally (meaning there are always exceptions), women tend to know less about what they want in an intimate encounter and/or are less able to ask for what they want.8 And while this isn’t entirely the fault of the church, the church certainly hasn’t done much to remedy this situation. Which is one of the reasons why my friend Christine Marietta wrote:

There’s only one way for the Church to repair all the damage She has done to generations of her daughters. And that is to instigate an ecumenical, global-church-wide, female masturbation program.9

Thing is, in church and in society10 the contours of women’s desire have often been defined by men. In the Ancient Near East, rabbis who wrote/compiled the Talmud (circa 3–6th century) believed that women’s libido was so high, they had to dictate how often they could ask for sex.11 Fast forward a few thousand years and the situation flips and then flips again:

In the mid-nineteenth century, wives may have been anxious when they experienced intense desire because society told them they were not supposed to have any. A century later, wives were made to feel anxious if they did not experience sexual desire and satisfaction…12

Given this frenetic back and forth regarding women’s desire, perhaps it’s no wonder that many (especially young) women today are caught up in the impossible virgin/whore dichotomy where if they express too little desire they’re seen as a prude but if they express too much they’re seen as a whore.13 And again, some parts of the church have done little to combat this situation while others have exacerbated it.

All that to say, I think Christine is right, that perhaps the church should be encouraging masturbation, especially for women. And I realize that, taken out of context (and maybe even in context) that sentence will make some people’s heads explode, but given that the church has tacitly redefined sex as a mutually pleasurable intimate act (by accepting the use of contraception) then encouraging people to know their God-gifted, unique, embodied sexuality in a (literally) hands-on way seems to follow.

And I genuinely don’t mean to be provocative or crass, but I don’t see a better way for the church to teach her people how to know both their own desires and boundaries — a prerequisite for loving their partner in the same way they love themselves. Which is another way of saying I don’t know of helping couples to obey the second of Jesus’ greatest commandments.


  1. Sex positive educators often add other words to “consent,” things like “mutual consent” or “enthusiastic consent” or “explicit verbal consent.” I think there are really good reasons for all of those additions but I want to pare things down for the sake of space and coherence.
  2. The full quote is: “The requirement articulated in [consent] is all the more grave because it directly safeguards the autonomy of persons as embodied and inspirited, as transcendent and free. I refer here to the particular obligation to respect the right of human persons to determine their own actions and their relationships in the sexual sphere of their lives. This right or this obligation to respect individual autonomy sets a minimum but absolute requirement for the free consent of sexual partners.” Margaret A. Farley, *[Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics](Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics) (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group), 219.
  3. And there are different ideas about what constitues consent. Some argue for explicit verbal consent and while I agree that’s the safest way to think about consent, depending on the situation, I think nonverbal consent is a viable option for couples who know how to read one another’s cues. That said, if there is any ambiguity or uncertainti, the initiating partner should use their words and ask.
  4. And she is unashamed about her desire (note the exclamation point at the end of the verse)
  5. Or if I’m going to be more generous, the word might be, “wait,” but the effect is the same. And as I’ve argued before, the purity approach is seldom clear about what specific actions they’re supposed to not do.
  6. Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (New York, NY: Routledge), 4.
  7. And this same dynamic applies to the other partner as well.
  8. Because patriarchy, among other things.
  9. Christine Marietta, *Turning Inward: Essays on Finding God in Female Sexuality (Self Published, 2016), 27.
  10. And in many eras of history, they were one and the same.
  11. ”Women’s sexual needs were such an uncontested reality to Jewish thought that the rabbis of the Talmud protected women’s sexual interests by delineating the frequency with which wives had the legal right to demand sexual satisfaction from their husbands.” Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York, NY: Bloomsbury), 122
    [Yalom1]:Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York, NY: HarperCollins), 310.
  12. Yalom1
  13. Peggy Orenstein, *[New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016), 125

 

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415. 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.

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Image by Cinzia A. Rizzo

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?  ↩

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.  ↩

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.  

407 church and state and unity

It’s a done deal, Kavanaugh has been confirmed, and as much as that bumms me out (for a whole host of reasons), the rancor and dischord that the confirmation process stirred up troubles me even more.

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Photo by: Adam Polselli

E pluribus unum. It’s on all of our coinage and it’s commonly translated, “out of many, one.” It represents the American ideal that though we are an intentionally diverse nation, we are still a single, unified country. The idea is also there in our Pledge of Allegiance: “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Of the many things I love and appreciate about America, it’s this commitment to holding unity amidst diversity that I love the most.

But sadly, that theme is in short supply these days.

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Photo by: Anant Nath Sharma

In the midst of all the conflicting Kavanaugh news and commentary, it’s like we’ve completely lost sight of the humanity of people, especially people we disagree with. On social media platforms, we make assumptions, we lob insults and accusations, sometimes at strangers, sometimes at people we love. And then they retaliate. Or they disappear or block or unfriend.

It’s shitty and ugly and I hate it. Especially when I participate and replay this dynamic myself.

But here’s a strange segue.

I’ve been tempted to leave Christianity many times before. And even now, I would describe myself as barely Christian.1 But one of the reasons I remain committed to the faith is because of Jesus’ commandment to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:39). It’s a core ethical principle and while I know I could live by that ideal without the associated religious accoutrements, the thing I can’t find apart from Christianity is a community centered around this principle. Of course I’m speaking here about the church.

And yes, there are many Christians who are driving precisely the sort of rhetoric that I abhor, but because of the authority that scripture holds in the church, there is a shared source to which I can appeal. This idea of a primary, shared, centering text is something I haven’t seen in any secular communities and is one of the big reasons I still claim Christianity as my faith.

I’ve written before about how I feel it’s part of God’s calling on my life to model the sort of unity amidst diversity that should be a key feture of the church, and circling back to where I started, I’m super bummed about Kavanaugh. I think his confirmation is going to have a devestating effect on many of the causes that I care about2 — it’s probably going to shift the political/ideological center of the court for decades — but there’s nothing I can do about that.

But what I can do is get back to God’s calling on my life, doing my best to dialogue with people I disagree with in a way where I try to love them as I try to love myself. Thing is, I don’t think I’m called to anything unique or special. I think this way of being in the world is supposed to be the hallmark of Christians — in John 13:35, Jesus says that people will know that we are Christians by how we love one another. I don’t know that engaging people with respect on Facebook threads is precisely what Jesus had in mind, but it’s one of the ways that I’ve chosen to live out that call.


  1. Specifically, I consider myself a very lefty/progressive Christian agnostic.  ↩
  2. Causes that I believe are in line with my theology and reading of scripture.  ↩

 

400. Lent, 2015 (part 2) – getting punched in the faith

In my previous post, I wrote about how I’ve decided to take up the belief that God loves me for Lent and why that’s not as lovely or as easy as it sounds (quite the opposite).

Funny thing. Wanna know what makes believing in God’s love for me especially difficult?

Other Christians, punching me in the faith.
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MatrixPunch
See, I have what can only be labeled as a calling:1 I believe in unity within the body of Christ. And let me be clear here. When I say “unity,” I don’t mean uniformity. My idea of unity does not include getting all Christians to believe the same things. My idea of unity is simultaneously much broader and more modest than that.

In a broad sense, I believe in a kind of unity that celebrates (or, at the very least, tolerates) a wide variety of theological/doctrinal positions.2 Because of that, my goals are modest. At the very least, my desire is for Christians who disagree on an issue to recognize those on the other side as fellow Christians.3 And even that modest goal is sometimes incredibly difficult.

Now how does going after that goal play out in my life?

Christians who disagree with one another usually only hang out with Christians who agree with them. So the only way to get them to move towards this broad/modest idea of unity is for someone to stand in the space between. And that’s where my calling places me.
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MatrixPunch
To name just one example, the issue of marriage equality is tearing the church apart and I often find place myself in the gap between those who believe that God affirms and celebrates LGBT persons,4 and those who don’t. And let me tell you, in that gap be dragons, fearsome ones.

And I often get my ass kicked because the thing about gap-standing is that one can’t be too defensive. Defensiveness tends to shut down conversation, and I want people to stay engaged, so I keep my guard down. But holding that sort of openness leaves me vulnerable to attack. And some Christians seem to take a perverse sort of delight in beating the shit out of anyone who doesn’t run or retaliate.

But again, I have modest goals.

I don’t expect to win or to change anyone’s mind.

On the issue of marriage equality and the church, I just want Christians who believe that relationships between couples of the same sex is sinful to acknowledge that Christians on the affirming side (like me) are still Christians.5

That’s it.
Denominations

Image by: Saji

 
Yes, I believe that God fully affirms LGBT persons and that one can hold a high view of the Bible and support same-sex marriage. People can disagree with me on this (or any other) issue. I’m fine with that. I readily acknowledge that I may be wrong. But I can’t tell you how often, in the midst of conversations around the issue of marriage equality, I’ve been accused of not being a Christian.6

And that hurts. Every time.

And yet, I keep entering that gap because I believe the church, at its best, is a place where differences are allowed to thrive. The scandal of the early church was that it transgressed all sorts of boundaries.7 It created a community where people groups, who would normally have nothing to do with one another, gathered around a table to eat and drink, to commune. Priests and prostitutes; mystics and magicians; slaves and slave owners; men, women, and eunuchs; rich and poor; Romans and widows and Jews and Gentiles and on and on… This radically diverse group of people passed the bread and the cup to one another and considered each other family.

It wasn’t easy then, and it certainly isn’t easy today.

I believe that my calling/curse is to model and to live into the unity-amidst-diversity of the early church. But it’s hard, especially when, in living out this calling, my Christianity gets mocked (if not outright rejected) over and over and over again.

The people of God, punching me in the faith, for doing what I believe God has called me to do.
MatrixPunch
Is it any wonder I question God’s love for me?

It’s a despicable sort of irony. The source of my skepticism regarding God’s love for me turns out to be other people who love God.

Honestly, I’m ready to throw in the towel, but I’ve made a lenten commitment to hold on to belief (despite evidence to the contrary) that God loves me.

Prayers appreciated (I’m gonna need them).


[FOOTNOTES]

1. A vocational commitment that seems inextricably linked with my core sense of identity and passion. Unfortunately, this calling often feels like a curse.
2. In this way, the church is an expansive place, able to take in the new without jettisoning tradition.
3. Said another way, I want to stop hearing things like, “you can’t be a Christian and agree with Rob Bell.” See also: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freedhearts/2015/02/16/has-anyone-said-to-you-i-dont-think-youre-really-a-christian/
4. And the full range of relationships they choose to (or choose not to) pursue.
5. And vice versa. But I find that affirming Christians tend to be more charitable towards those on the non-affirming side.
And yes, I know that there are those on the non-affirming side who believe they are being persecuted. Maybe I’ll address this in a future post.
6. Hint: almost every time.
7. The first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38). Peter was commanded to eat non-kosher foods Acts 10:9-16). The early church promoted women to positions of leadership. And Jesus himself problematizes the binary nature of gender (Matthew 19:12 And Paul does something similar in Galatians 3:28).

399. Lent, 2015 (part 1)

I’ve never been a liturgical sort of person and as such, Lent really hasn’t held much meaning for me. Maybe because of that, I tend to think WAY outside the box when it comes to what I do with this church season.1 This year, I’m going to take up another rather odd lenten practice.

But first, some context.

There’s a kind of bait-and-switch that happens in some forms of evangelical Christianity.2 Prior to salvation, the church promises unconditional love and forgiveness. This is the bait. The switch happens after someone accepts Christ and has been at the church for a while. In the switch, the “forgiveness” bit mysteriously disappears and the “unconditional” bit gets replaced by a severe sort of legalism. Worst of all, “love” takes on a disturbingly dark hue.3

I used to attend such a church.4
love-bait

Image by: David Hayward

 
I’ve written before that this church

…taught a really strict, particularly moralistic version of Christianity. They taught a view of God where God was an all-seeing deity who was always looking for the tiniest ways that we fell short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)…

It’s as if God was on a hair-trigger pivot… We could only have a relationship with God when we lived righteously because that was the only time when God was pleased with us. But this hair-trigger God would immediately snap 180 degrees away from us any time we sinned in any way. And the back side of God radiated shame – shame that reminded us that we were weak and disgusting and not worthy of relationship with a holy God.

Our worth only came from God, but only when we lived in a way that didn’t repulse God.

(As an aside, given this view of God, it’s no wonder that I wrote a pair of posts last year talking about how I believed that God was kind of an asshole.)
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Image by: David Hayward

 
But you know what?

I’m done believing in that God. Really done.

But now what?

I figure there are a few ways I could go. I could try Peter Rollins’ atheism for Lent project. Or I could disbelieve in God for an entire year, the way this Seventh Day Adventist pastor did.5 Or I could give up belief in God altogether.

And I’ll admit, I was really tempted to take one of these non-belief stances, to join the growing ranks of the nones and dones.

But I’ve chosen an entirely different route:

This year, for Lent, I’m going to believe that God really does love me unconditionally, that God never stopped loving me, and that God never will.

And that may seem like a lovely, simple thing, but given my history with the church, it’s anything but. This is a lenten choice laden with baggage and seeded with landmines.

For me, a part of this lenten discipline will be blogging about the thoughts surrounding this decision, thus the “part one” bit in the title. I don’t know how regularly I’ll be posting for this series, but I’m hoping to get at least one post up per week.

Stay tuned!

(Prayers deeply appreciated.)
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Image by: David Hayward

[FOOTNOTES]

1. For example, two years ago, I tweeted “This year for Lent, I’m going to give up singleness.”

2. Usually on the really conservative end.

3. In a previous post, this is how I described this dark form of “love”

[Sexual] desire outside the context of marriage is dangerous, it’s unpredictable, uncontrollable, and wrong. It’s so dangerous that if you choose to entertain it in any way, shape, or form, it will seriously and permanently screw you up for life. It’s so unpredictable and uncontrollable that you should have nothing to do with it whatsoever because you can’t predict what you can’t control and you can’t control what you can’t predict. And it’s so wrong that we’re going to immediately brandish you with white hot shame if we even suspect you’re dabbling in it in any way whatsoever… because that’s how much we love you.

4. Well, technically, I attended a really conservative para-church organization that taught me these things, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to call it a church.

Also, I’ve since found much healthier Christian community, but (as I’ll outline in future posts in this series) the scars from those early experiences are still with me.

5. At the end of his year, this pastor came to this conclusion: “I have discovered no evidence that a God exists.”