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?  ↩
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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.  

396. God is kind of an asshole (part 1)

[PREFACE]

Yeah, I haven’t been writing in a while. Life has been… overfull with stuffs. I hope to get to the last installment of the Language is Fuzzy series soon, but there’s something more pressing on my mind right now.

[END PREFACE]
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Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
My girlfriend and I broke up recently and due to some of the circumstances surrounding that breakup, I’ve been feeling something pretty heavy lately. Put bluntly, I feel like God is kind of an asshole.

But let me backtrack a bit to give that statement some context.

There are many things I learned from my most recent romantic relationship and one of them is this: you can speak about the truth of your own experience even when you know that your truth is not the other’s truth.

For example, my ex has lived through some pretty shitty life experiences and because of this, sometimes she could be really critical of me (often for good cause). Now our relationship was one where we always tried our best to talk everything out, and I mean everything. And so when she would be critical of me, we’d talk about the criticism as well as what might be going on behind the criticism (sometimes an artifact of earlier life experiences).

I’ve written before about how much of my life has been one where I’ve focused solely on the needs of other people. That tendency is still with me (thankfully, to a lesser degree) and so in these times when my ex and I would talk about some issue she had with me, it was really easy for me to just focus on her side. It was much harder to talk about how I was experiencing the issue.

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Photo by: txmx 2 Art by: SAM3

 
Internally, I’d think: “well, yeah, what she’s saying about me does sting a bit, but I know that it actually comes out of this or that experience from her past, and so I should just focus on her and keep my hurt feelings to myself.”1 And one of the cool things about our relationship was that she didn’t want me to do that – she wanted me to express myself and what I was going through, even when they didn’t line up with where she was at.

And that brings me back to feeling like God is kind of an asshole.

Why? Because…

And I feel like God is kind of an asshole because all these things turned out to be utterly untrue. Even worse, these untruths played a role in my ex and I breaking up because even though I’ve rejected those teachings a long time ago, their residue is still with me.

Now at this point, I’m tempted to say, “well it was the church that taught me those things, so I should blame the church, not God.”

Yeah, maybe, but it was God’s church and God’s people who taught me, and that suggests that God didn’t care enough about me to intervene. And if that’s the case then yeah, I think I’m totally justified in feeling like God is an asshole.2

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Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
But here’s the thing.

The relationship between my ex and I was often at its best when I was able to stay true to myself and say the difficult, honest thing to her. This was really hard to do (again, partly because of what God’s church had taught me) and even though I did my best to pay attention to myself, and she did her best to help, the times when I was able to do this well were too few and far between. And that took a toll on our relationship because when I wasn’t able to connect with and/or express what I was feeling, that would leave her feeling alone.

Robust, loving relationships only happen when and where the people in relationship are able to bring the fullness of themselves to the other, including what feels true to them when they know it may not represent the whole truth of the matter at hand. That’s what it means to show up in a relationship and that’s what ultimately leads to good, healthy, strong, mutually loving interactions.

And so I want to believe that my relationship with God only gets better when I’m able to pay attention to my feelings about God and express them in a way that is raw and real.

And right now, I want to say that I feel like God is an impotent, worthless asshole.

And I’m betting that in hearing me say that, God is overjoyed and thinking, “YES! Randall is finally showing up!”

And God is ecstatic because that’s the only place where true relationship happens.

And that’s ultimately what God wants from and for me, and from and for us all.

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Photo by: SantiMB Art by: SAM3

[POSTSCRIPT]

Stay tuned for part 2!

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Thanks for reading!


1 Often, this dismissal of myself was transparent to me – I didn’t even realize I was doing that.

2 I’ve actually moved to a process theology view of God and so I believe that while God did care deeply about me, God actually couldn’t intervene even if God wanted to. But I’m trying to focus on myself and my experiences/feelings in this post so please pardon the theological shorthand. 🙂