417. sin, sex, and marriage (part 6) — questions/concerns

[PREFACE]

I swear, when I started this series, I thought there would be, at most, four parts. But here I am, 6 parts in.

Thank you all for your patience and for reading.

[END PREFACE]

In this post, I want to address some questions/concerns that I think some may have about what I’ve proposed in this series of posts. If you have a question I didn’t address or if you have a counterpoint you’d like to make, you can comment below or email me at churchandsex@gmail.com (no really, that’s an address I own and use).

Yes or no: is it a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?

The first thing I would say is that there’s no way to answer that question with a simple yes or no.

And maybe that sounds like a cop out, but sometimes questions that used to be clear and commonplace become complicated and nuanced because of changes in society or technology or some other paradigm-altering event.

Electric Blue
Image by: Thomas Hawk

For example, the question, “how many miles per gallon do you get in that car” used to be completely normal. But, today, if you ask someone who’s driving a Tesla about MPG, they’ll rightfully look at you with befuddlement because the question just doesn’t apply.

Similar to the MPG question, because the way we talk, think about, and engage in sex and marriage today is so vastly different than any time prior to the late 19th century, the question, “is it a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?” can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

But that’s not to say there’s no answer to the question. Take away the yes/no constriction and here’s what I would say:

It’s a sin to have a sexually intimate experience with someone if the encounter lacks clear consent from both parties and if the relationship is not at a stage where such an encounter is warranted.

I know I didn’t mention sex or marriage in that statement, but that’s intentional because the context in which we understand sex and marriage today are so outside church tradition, those words are simply too vague and undefined to be of any real rhetorical, doctrinal use.

Isn’t softening the church’s stance on sex before marriage compromising the high morals of the church and succumbing to secular society’s norms?

A premise that drives this series is this: because the way we think about sex and marriage are so radically different than any time before the mid-twentieth century, we need to rethink how/if/why sex outside of marriage is sinful.

Thing is, the radical shifts in sex and marriage are not simply the product of an increasingly secular/liberal society. One of the primary drivers of these shifts was the (protestant)1 church. This happened in two stages.

First, the church severed the long-standing link between sex and procreation when it tacitly2 accepted the use of hormonal contraception (aka the pill) for married couples. Second, the church moved from the long-standing tradition where marriages were arranged by parents — usually on the basis of property-related (non-romantic) concerns (and least of all, love) — to the “tradition”3 we have today where people find their own partners on the basis of compatibility, attraction, and, most of all, love.

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Image by:GabiSanda

I’ve been doing a deep dive on the topic of how the church thinks about sex and relationships for years now and one of the things that blows me away is the fact that the protestant church went along with these monumental shifts regarding sex and marriage with almost no theological reflection or support.

Given all of that, I would say a pretty emphatic “no” to this question because I don’t think I’m “softening the church’s stance on sex before marriage.” What I am trying to do is reconcile the changes the church has already made to sex and marriage with the biblical text, theology, and a view of church tradition that goes back further than just the last few centuries.

And the goal of that reconciling work is to make the church relevant to the social world we live in today.

Does your work apply to the current church debate regarding LGBTQ+ marriage? If so, how?

A proper answer to this question would require a whole other series of posts, but in brief:

LGBTQ+ Christians and their allies often get accused of “redefining marriage,” but as I’ve tried to show, marriage was redefined decades before the question of affirming LGBTQ+ marriages took hold.

Because if the protestant church is going to say that compatibility and love are foundational to marriage (breaking from centuries of church tradition), how can they deny marriage to persons who are more compatible with and love someone of the same sex?

And the argument “LGBTQ+ partnerships are not a part of God’s design for marriage because they can’t have biological offspring” falls flat because of protestant’s acceptance of contraception.

All that to say, affirming the biblical, theological blessing of LGBTQ+ relationships was a given for me right from the start. Everything I said about a consent-based Christian sexual ethic applies to straight and LGBTQ+ relationships.

Is there anything distinctive about the Christian sexual ethic you’re offering? Because the consent-based approach to sex you’re proposing looks identical to the sexual ethic that many secular liberal/progressives groups are proposing.

First, I would cite Luke 19:40. If the people of God are silent, God’s truth will find another outlet and in a world where Christian university students “see religious views about sexuality (a least what they know of them, which is typically not very much) as outdated and irrelevant,”4 is it any wonder that God has allowed the world outside the church to take up the work of crafting a sexual ethic that is relevant and applicable?

That said, I do think Christianity adds features that secular sources lack.

JustLove.jpgFirst, Christian theology provides biblical grounding for an ethic of consent. It teaches that all people are created in the image of God and thus have an inherent worth that needs to be honored. Thus, as Margaret Farley puts it, non-consensual sex violates a person’s God-given worth, reducing them to an object or a means to an end.5

Second, the journey to find one’s unique, God-gifted sexuality can be difficult, confusing, painful, and mistakes will be made along the way. Christian community, at its best,6 provides a place to receive guidance, to wrestle with questions/situations, and to provide refuge and healing after harm has been done to self or other — a place of unconditional love and acceptance.

Contrary to some strains of (especially purity-based) Christian theology, moral missteps do not disqualify anyone from being a part of the Body of Christ (Romans 8:38–39). If there is a boundary to this bounty of grace, it would be acts that intentionally violate love of God and neighbor as self (which is akin to the incurvatus in se view of sin discussed back in this post).

If you allow for people to have sex before they’re married, won’t that just give Christians license to just have a boatload of sex?

First off, the fact of the matter is Christians are already having sex before they’re married.7 Will even more Christians have pre-marital sex if the consent-based Christian sexual ethic is adopted?

ShamelessStudies have shown that in societies where comprehensive sex ed is taught to young men and women, teens tend to delay their first sexual experience and when they do have sex, it tends to be healthier and safer than in societies where comprehensive sex ed is not taught.8 That seems to suggest that if the church were to be more open and honest about the unmarried sex that’s already taking place, that it would help her members steward their sexuality in a way that is more embodied.

And it’s not like the message I’m promoting is “sex before marriage is okay so have all the sex you want!” The Bible makes clear that sex is something that needs to be taken seriously because it is a uniquely intimate embodied act.

There’s an amazing chapter in Nadia Bolz Webber’s book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, where she talks about the balance between indulgence and denial and how a theology of pleasure might actually help us navigate between the two.9 Indulgence and denial can both lead to a kind of numbness whereas an attention to pleasure (especially its absence) can help keep us in a healthier, God-and-other-honoring space between the two.

So there’s still lots for the church to preach and teach about when it comes to people loving God and their selves as they love others. Just as purging all sexual thoughts and actions can lead to harm, an reckless overindulgence can do the same.

[POSTSCRIPT]

My hope is that this series of posts can be the starting point for new conversations about sex and the church. I don’t know if I’m right, but we have to start somewhere.

I’ve tried to address questions and concerns that I imagine people have but self-interrogation can only go so far. Like anyone else, I’m inherently biased to my own ideas so the likelihood that I set up straw man objections/inquiries here is high.

So as I stated at the top of this post, I welcome your questions, comments, objections. You can put them in the comment section below or email me at churchandsex@gmail.com.


  1. In part 3, I talked about how the Catholic church links sex with procreation (which is consistent with the church’s understanding of sex for millenia) while the protestant church, early/mid 20th century, accepted the use of contraception in married relationships. This is significant because in doing so, the protestant church severed the long-standing link between sex and procreation.  ↩
  2. While the (protestant) church never explicitly condoned the use of contraception, statements condemning or limiting their use were tepid and widely ignored. See Adrian Thatcher, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 215.  ↩
  3. I put tradition in quotes because I think we are still in the midst of establishing traditions that are in line with how people in the church today think about marriage. One example of this is how many marriage ceremonies today omit the bit where the priest asks, “who gives this woman away in marriage?” — a relic of a time when women were understood to be property and the marriage ceremony was about solemnizing the exchange.  ↩
  4. 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.  ↩
  5. She writes, “to treat another human person as a mere means is to violate her insofar as she is autonomous; it is to attempt to absorb her completely into my agenda, rather than respecting the one that is her own.” Margaret A. Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group), 212.  ↩
  6. Unfortunately, there are some segments of the church that do not provide this sort of grace-filled, unconditional love.  ↩
  7. ”Those who claimed no religion on average lost their virginity at 16.4 years old, while those with a Catholic affiliation were 17.7 years old and those with a fundamentalist Protestant affiliation were 16.9 years old (Daugherty and Copen 2016, 8). Similarly, according to this research, while conservative Christians might believe that sex before marriage is wrong, of people who actually were virgins at marriage, 12 percent had no religion, 15 percent were Catholic, and 17 percent were fundamentalist Protestant (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referenced in Russell 2006).” Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 13.  ↩
  8. ”A sexual ethic built on the values of love and justice, combined with the 100 one-minute conversations of a comprehensive sex education over a child’s developing years, can help an adolescent to feel confident about themselves. Research shows that these kids make safer choices, become involved in sex later in their development than other kids, and describe themselves as closer to their parents overall (Martino et al. 2008).” Ibid., 92.  ↩
  9. Nadia Bolz-Webber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2019), 143.
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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

 

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?  ↩

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

[PREFACE]

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

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

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

[END PREFACE]ladybug-248481_640

Defining Sex — Do We Really Need to Define Sex?

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

Hell. Yes.

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

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

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

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

Defining Sex — Sex as Procreative Act

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

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

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

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

Defining Sex — The Purpose Problem

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

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

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

Defining Sex — The, uh, Defining Problem

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

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

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

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

Defining Sex – The Possibilities

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

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

More on that in the next post.

[POSTSCRIPT]

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

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

[END POSTSCRIPT]


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

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

[PREFACE]

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

[END PREFACE]

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Event

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

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

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

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Process

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

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

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

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

256px-Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait
The Arnolfini Double Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Defining Marriage – Then and Now, an Overview 2

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

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

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

Defining Marriage – Betrothal

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

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

MarriageAfterModernityCover
Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times

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

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

Defining Marriage – Conclusion

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

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

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

[POSTSCRIPT]

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

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

[END POSTSCRIPT]

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


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

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

[PREFACE]

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

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

But for now, let’s start with sin.

[END PREFACE]

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

Defining Sin – Sin as Violation of God’s Laws

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

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

Defining Sin – Incurvatus in Se

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

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

Defining Sin – Sin as Human Damage

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

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

Defining Sin – Sin as a Violation of the Greatest Commandments

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

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

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

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

[SIDE NOTE]

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

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

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

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

2021672_resource_document_mauritshuis_253 The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

Defining Sin – Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

[POSTSCRIPT]

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

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


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