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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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.  

403. an open, honest admission (part 3): sex and scripture

[PREFACE]

Sigh. You know, I really did intend to wrap this series with this post, but here’s the thing about my writing process. I may have a clear idea in my own head about what I want to say, but when it comes to putting what’s in my brain into words, sometimes it takes far more words than I thought it would. All that to say, it may take a few more posts to fully lay out my ideas regarding how the church talks about sex outside of marriage.

And yeah, I’m altering the name of the series. Explanation in the postscript.

[END PREFACE]

Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer

So here it is, my explanation as to why, as a Christian who goes to church regularly, takes the Bible seriously,1 and does his best to live a live pleasing to God,2 I don’t have a problem with having sex with someone outside of marriage (henceforth referred to as being a “sex-positive” Christian).

In my previous post, I made the point that the church has never clearly defined what they’re referring to when they talk about “sex.” So let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with engaging in the full range of sexual intimacy that I and another person consensually agree to, up to and including penis in vagina intercourse.3 At the same time, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about who I have sex with and when in the course of a relationship that takes place — it certainly does and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

As for how I justify this stance, let’s start by looking at scripture. The passage that comes closest to specifically prohibiting sex outside of marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-7:2. This bit begins with Paul talking about why it’s not cool for Christians to be having sex with prostitutes

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (NRSV)

Notice that word “fornication?”4 That’s a translation of the Greek word pornea,5 and fornication is typically understood to mean sex with someone you’re not married to.

[SIDEBAR]

Fornication — sex with someone you’re not married to — is generally thought to be distinct from adultery (moicheuo) — sex with someone else’s spouse.6 The Bible talks a lot about adultery, but next to nothing about fornication, and there’s a good reason for this. In the time of the Bible (and for most of history, really) women typically got married in their early teens (and the men whom they were married to7 might be similar in age or up to a decade older). And marriage was the cultural norm of the biblical world — everyone was expected to get/be married. In other words, there really weren’t very many unmarried people around who would have been able to have sex before they were married. Thus the ubiquity of adultery (rather than fornication) language in the Bible.8

[END SIDEBAR]

Photo by: Johan Karlborg
Photo by: Johan Karlborg
So from 6:13b-20, it’s clear that Paul is referring to having sex with a prostitute when he uses the word that gets translated “fornicate.” But when Christian pastors/teachers talk about sex before marriage, they usually look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (NRSV)

See that word pair, “sexual immorality?” In the Greek, it’s the exact same word that got translated as “fornication” at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 (pornea). So it’s possible that Paul is still referring to sex with prostitutes in 7:2, and not sex before marriage. However, things aren’t that clear cut. Paul begins chapter 7 with the phrase, “Now considering the matters about which you wrote…” suggesting that Paul is making a break from his previous train of thought and is now talking about something new. So it might be the case that Paul is indeed talking about prohibiting sex before (or outside of) marriage.

But.

But we can’t be sure. And even if someone can make a strong case for the idea that Paul is no longer talking about sex with prostitutes here, it’s not at all clear what specifically Paul is referring to. Paul is obviously addressing something the church in Corinth wrote him about in a previous letter regarding sex, but we don’t know what that letter said — what specific question Paul was answering. That bit of information is lost to history so (barring the miraculous discovery of that lost letter) we can never know for sure.

One of the core principles regarding Christian teaching is the idea that you don’t base Christian doctrine on ambiguous scriptural passages. And I think it’s evident that this passage in 1 Corinthians is clearly ambiguous. There very well may have been a bunch of people in the Corinthian church having sex before marriage, and that might be what Paul was addressing here, but the inescapable reality is that we don’t/can’t know for sure. And if that’s the case, then the church shouldn’t be preaching the no sex before/outside marriage as definitively as it does. Rather, they should be honest about and and acknowledge this ambiguity.9

Photo by: Heather Kaiser
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
The bottom line is, the Bible has nothing specific or definitive to say about sex before marriage, at least not as we think of it today (and this bit of nuance desperately needs to be unpacked, but that will have to wait for the next post). The Bible does specifically prohibit sex with prostitutes and sex with someone else’s wife/husband, but has nothing specific to say about sex outside of marriage as it’s practiced today.

[POSTSCRIPT]

In this post, I talked about scriptural translation/interpretation. In my next post, I’ll talk about the radical (understatement) cultural/historical shifts that have taken place in the past two or three centuries regarding how we think about relationships and marriage today compared to just about any other time in recorded (Western) history.

As for why I’m changing the name of the series from “a qualified coming out” to “an open, honest admission,” it’s because equating my disclosure as a sex-positive Christian to that of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer is frankly offensive. So I’m not going to do it and I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my irresponsible co-opting of the phrase.

[FOOTNOTES]

  1. MDiv from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. ↩︎
  2. Instead of listing all of these qualifiers, I wish I could simply refer to myself as a Christian, but I’ve had (more than) enough interaction with people who disagree with stances I take to know the first thing they go after is how seriously I take my faith. ↩︎
  3. As a cis-gender, heterosexual male. ↩︎
  4. Also translated “sexual immorality” (NIV and others). ↩︎
  5. And it’s not at all clear that the most accurate translation of the word pornea is fornication. See Malina, Bruce J. “Does porneia mean fornication.” Novum Testamentum 14, no. 1 (January 1972): 10-17. ↩︎
  6. Well, to be more accurate, biblical adultery is commonly understood as sex with someone who’s not you’re wife. Let’s not forget that the cultural context of the Bible is unwaveringly patriarchal — wives were more property than autonomous person. ↩︎
  7. And the phrasing here is very intentional. Marriage was something that was done to women, far more so than something that they entered into by choice. And let’s not forget that for most of history, marriages were arranged by parents or the community, not by the persons getting married. ↩︎
  8. Of course there are other reasons — patriarchy and the importance of paternity — but there’s not enough room to lay all of that out in the scope of this post. ↩︎
  9. As a preview, my proposal is that instead of teaching dogma, the church should be equipping people to discern what God is saying to them through scripture. More on this in a future post. ↩︎

402. a qualified coming out (part 2): inadequate answers about sex

[PREFACE]

In my previous post, I (sort of) came out about being asexual — a sexual orientation broadly defined as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” In that post, I said that I also wanted to state, in writing and in public, that as a Christian who has studied the Bible,1 attends church regularly, and strives to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I don’t have a problem with engaging in sex before I’m married. I was hoping to unpack how I justify this stance in this post, but while writing it, I realized I needed to set a bit more background/context first. So the explanation will have to wait until part 3.

Sorry about that.

A bit of fair warning: I get pretty sexually explicit in this post, and it’s not just to be provocative or to titillate. On the contrary, this specificity is necessary because I believe that it’s this very lack of precision around talking about sex in the church that’s at the root of many of the problems the church has when it comes to talking/teaching about sex.

All that to say, if you choose to read on, be prepared for some pretty sexually graphic language.

Enjoy! 😉

[END PREFACE]

Photo by: Michael Levine-Clark
Photo by: Michael Levine-Clark

The Key Question

I’ve done a lot of writing, about the problems of purity culture and how that’s affected my own life. In this post, I want to suggest that a lot of those problems (both for me and so many others) stems from one grossly neglected, yet vitally important question: how does the church define sex? To be more specific, in the common Christian phrase, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” what exactly does that word, “sex” signify?

Two (Inadequate) Answers

I want to propose that in today’s church, there have been two ways of answering this question, both of which are inadequate at best. I’ll also try to show how this inadequacy leads to harmful effects in the lives of far too many Christians today.

The first answer is actually more of an assumption. While it’s never stated explicitly, it’s generally assumed that sex is what occurs when a woman allows man’s penis to enter her vagina. And at first, that seems like a reasonable definition for sex, but what about sexually intimate acts that don’t include vaginal penetration? For example,

  • What if a man just rubs the shaft of his penis against the outer lips of a woman’s vulva?
  • What about anal sex?
  • What about oral sex?
  • What about mutual masturbation?
  • And what about lesbian/gay couples for whom either penises or vaginas are not involved at all, thus precluding the entire PIV paradigm?2

In other words, defining sex as the specific act of a penis in a vagina is incomplete and utterly inadequate. Because if that’s the church’s definition of sex, then a Christian couple engaging in all manner of sexually intimate behaviors is not violating the maxim, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” as long as a penis doesn’t pass through the threshold of a vagina (which would probably qualify as the biggest doctrinal loophole ever). And again, this narrow definition means that Christian lesbian and gay couples will never, technically, be in sin since the church’s Venn diagram of sex never overlaps for them.

venndiagram

In my experience, when posed with specific questions about what Christian leaders mean when they use the word “sex,” they tend to punt to the second answer which is basically, “instead of trying to figure out where the line between sex and not-sex is, why not just stay as far away from the line as possible?” Which, again, sounds good in the abstract, but when subjected to concrete application and real-world scenarios, it just doesn’t stand up. Because if the location of the line between sex and not-sex is never defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?

  • What about heavy petting?
  • What about French kissing?
  • What about holding hands?
  • What about looking deeply into the other person’s eyes?

The logic behind the stay-away-from-the-line idea is this: because (they believe) Jesus taught that even thinking lustful thoughts is equivalent to the sin of adultery, any act that could potentially lead to one or both people in a relationship to feel lust is flirting with sin. But then where’s the line between lust and interest/attraction and what acts potentially lead to a breach of that line?

  • What about cuddling?
  • What about holding hands?
  • What about spending extended time alone together, even if no physical touching takes place?

To resolve this ambiguity, some Christian leaders/teachers take the stay-far-away-from-the-line approach to the extreme — forbidding virtually all acts of physical intimacy outside of marriage. Joshua Harris’ infamous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye takes this approach to its logical conclusion: If any dating scenario leads to the potential for physical intimacy, which could potentially lead to a couple approaching (if not crossing) this undefined “line,” then perhaps it’s best to simply not date at all.

Photo by: Michael Levine-Clark
Photo by: Michael Levine-Clark

Groping in the Dark

This general lack of specificity in both approaches to defining sex leads to real problems in the lives of real Christian couples, because it forces them to construct their own answers with little to no guidance from the church.3 In other words, couples are left to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating/negotiating intimacy and sex. And this is not some hypothetical scenario, it’s happening all the time in the lives of far too many Christian couples today. And to make things even worse, a lot of the rhetoric around sex in the church is laced with toxic shame, especially for those who stray (intentionally or accidentally) past sex’s fuzzy, undefined lines.

Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul, interviewed students at a number of different college campuses about their sexual experiences. She tells the story of a nineteen-year-old Catholic college student who had committed herself to purity during high school (which at the time she understood to mean not dating until she met her spouse). By the time of her interview, while she had engaged in oral sex with a number of boyfriends, she still considered herself to be a virgin.4

Conclusion

When the only options available to people are unhelpfully vague (“don’t have sex outside marriage”) or as woefully abstract as “stay far away from the edge,” it’s no wonder that the Christian dating landscape is strewn with stories of dead ends, missed opportunities, and damaged hearts.

So what’s to be done? Is there a way of defining and talking about sex in the church that is more useful, practical, and relevant to the lives of Christian couples today? I believe there is, but it requires a rethink as radical as it is overdue.

And that will be the subject of part three. Stay tuned!

[FOOTNOTES]

1. MDiv from The Seattle School. ↩︎

2. The church at large (at least in the West) is consistently moving towards the theological assumption that same-sex relationships/marriage are pleasing and acceptable to God. I’m writing from that assumption. If you want to know more about how I justify this position, a good place to start would be Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian. ↩︎

3. Which, ironically, is the very place where they should be able to go for practical, real-world guidance. ↩︎

4. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 83. ↩︎

401. a (qualified) coming out (part 1): nature, nurture, or numb

[PREFACE]

I don’t always blog these days, but when I do, it’s totally TMI.

As I was writing this, I realized that there are actually two things that I need to be out and open about. One is the focus of this post, and the other is something I mention but don’t go on to explain — the fact that as a Christian who reads the Bible and does his best to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I have no problem exploring sex before I’m married. And so that will be the focus of part two. (How’s that for a teaser?)

[END PREFACE]

I recently read an article about asexuality. And while the topic is something I’ve casually researched (particularly via these videos and this blog), I think it’s finally time for me to out myself as asexual — an orientation broadly defined as someone with “a lack of ‘sexual attraction’ or ‘lustful inclinations’ towards others…”

A couple of caveats.

AceSymbol144First, asexuality is just another point on a spectrum, which is to say, it’s not that there are sexual persons, asexual persons, and people are either one or the other. There are a variety of designations within the ace community and if I am asexual, I’m not sure what sort I am yet.1 And while I can say that I do long for a physically intimate, monogamous, romantic relationship with someone, having actual penetrative sex is not something I’m particularly drawn towards. It’s not something I think or even fantasize about. That said, I do find pleasure in touch and cuddling and making out (and OMG, kissing is the best thing ever!), but I just don’t consider actual intercourse as something mandatory or, speaking for myself, desirable.

That said, I’m totally GGG — good, giving, and game. If PIV intercourse is something my partner wants, I’m totally up for providing it (consensually negotiated), but it’s not something that I’m likely to pursue on my own initiative.

Related to this is the fact that I have a pretty low sex drive.2 That white-hot, almost animalistic hunger for sex is something I just don’t experience in life or in relationships, even after it’s gotten to the point where we’re making out. I do enjoy conversing in the warm, buttery language of touch, but even that isn’t something I feel compelled to pursue. Rather, it’s something that’s nice if it comes along, but I don’t feel the need to go after it. It’s deep conversations — sharing the scarred bits of our lives and reveling in joyous memories — that I truly enjoy about being in a relationship.

Second, I just can’t help but wonder if the toxic purity/shame messages that got ingrained into me as a teen and young adult plays a part in my low sex drive and disinterest in penetrative sex. I was 41(!) years old before I got into my first serious relationship, and I’ve done a lot of writing about how it took years of therapy to realize how deeply rooted those teachings had become and how they played a large part in why I found myself sabotaging so many previous almost-relationships.

This post in particular speaks to this pattern. I wrote about how an especially strict Christian leader in my life led to me developing an extreme fear of vulnerability and authenticity. I wrote about how his brutal, relentless shaming techniques (under the guise of discipleship) taught me to put up a front — a surface that looked authentic but was actually masking my deeper, more honest self.3
godsfacepalm300

 

As for how that affected my dating life, I wrote that…

… the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lockdown mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses, because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.

It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from someone who longs to make my shields unnecessary.

In another section, I made this observation:

Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real, unfiltered self is reserved for the ones we love deeply, the ones who love us deeply. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive bits that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).

That last parenthetical is key. As hard as it can be for me to be open and vulnerable, relationally and emotionally, it’s SO much harder to do so bodily — to progress towards being butt neked with someone. Of course not all of this difficulty stems from the church. The experience of exposing all of one’s body to another is awkward and frightening for almost everyone when a relationship reaches that stage. But in my case, the weight of what I was taught in those early Bible studies exponentially compounds that awkwardness and fear.

8CC006EE-3CFF-41CA-9FE4-2E83F5BD5635

And I can’t help but wonder how/if all of that relates to my low sex drive and/or asexuality. Is there a causal connection or is it merely coincidental or something else? In other words, am I an ace because of nature or nurture or because I’m just still numb from all of that old, religious shame? I don’t know, but I’m planning on finding a new therapist soon to help me figure that out.

See, this is the thing that the purity message does in so many people’s lives. It teaches people to deny their desires, even the mere thinking them! They give us techniques like bouncing eyes in the hopes of squelching desire well before it even starts. They use shame as a stick and a perfect marriage as the carrot, but there are many who find that even after doing things “right” (saving themselves for marriage), that the smoking, blissful sex and relationship that was promised was a ruse.

It’s my contention that “Christian purity” as it’s commonly defined these days, is not necessarily the same thing as what God wants for us. And yeah, I fully realize what an inflammatory, controversial statement that is, but there it is.

And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in part 2.

Stay tuned!

[FOOTNOTES]
1. The designation demisexual is a likely candidate.

2 I actually got testosterone level checked about a year ago to see if this had some physiological basis. And while my (total) testosterone level was a bit low, it wasn’t enough to clinically qualify as being outside the normal range for men my age.

3 In the post I’ve been referencing, I described our Bible studies this way:

Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.