By Paul E. Boatman
For me and most people I know, sex has always been a bit perplexing. Forming a solidly Christian perspective on sexuality seems an elusive goal.
I recall a vivid moment as a 9-year-old sitting in church with some peers. Randomly skimming the Old Testament, I paused at the Song of Solomon. What I read went beyond stirring my preadolescent curiosity. Right there in the Bible I was reading about a distinctly “sexy” interaction between a man and a woman. It was not explicit by now-common media standards, but it took little imagination to discern that this was not the way such things are talked about in the church.
Since those long-ago days, our society has gone through what we called a “sexual revolution.” If it was a revolution, it was a war that nobody won. Certainly, there have been changes: sexuality can be talked about a bit more openly. There have been dramatic changes in social acceptance of such sexual patterns as premarital and nonmarital sex and homosexuality. Media from music to television to cinema to stage have not only changed the way sexuality is depicted; they often aggressively champion nontraditional sexual mores. Sexual topics draw headlines, whether dealing with the unbridled cavorting of a royal, the brutal abuse by a pro athlete, the hypocritical sexual misconduct of a religious leader, or the illegal liaison of a teacher with an underage student. Society expresses a pious “tut-tut” when a “star” steps over the line, but the migration of mores is such that it is often surprising to find any consensus on any sexual boundary. The widespread mantra that “nobody has the right to tell anybody else what their morals should be,” leaves us with a culture that cannot differentiate among things that are loving and beautiful or abusive and exploitive.
A Conflict Beyond the Headlines
But the conflict for most Christians is not centered on the headlines. Those I have heard opening their hearts in the counseling office often reflect an experience of ugliness. Note a few private statements:
• “My youth minister told me I would feel shame if I had premarital sex, but I didn’t. I just wanted more.”
• “My wife won’t have sex with me any more. I feel lonely, deprived, and resentful.”
• “My sex drive is strong, but God hasn’t blessed me with a mate. I’m 35 and the clock is ticking.”
• “Sex is not comfortable for my spouse. I feel guilty asking for it.”
• “I sometimes wake up in the midst of homoerotic dreams. I could never tell my wife about that.”
• “I had an affair. I am deeply ashamed and it is over. Yet, I keep comparing my spouse to the empathy, excitement, and adventure of that brief interlude, and my shame deepens.”
• “Porn is so much easier. I don’t have to deal with another person’s feelings.”
• “My wife was abused as a child. I thought my love would get her past it, but she withdraws and cries. I feel cheated.”
The list could go on and on. Each statement warrants examination and invites transformation, but Christian couples often experience painfully sullied sexuality.
A search for the beauty of sex must begin with biblical foundations: Scripture presents sex as part of that segment of creation which was pronounced “very good” (Genesis 1:26-31). This sex is always contextualized in that amazingly designed male/female celebration of differentness and oneness.
Culture isolates sex from commitment and relationship. The Bible sees sex as the expression of a covenant relationship. Culture sees it as the end in itself. But sex solely for the sake of erotic satisfaction is essentially narcissistic. Sex as an expression of a committed love relationship is an enhancement to the love relationship.
The beauty of sex is developed in the Genesis record. A thorough exegesis of Genesis 2 is for another article, but several clear sexual concepts emerge from the text. Humankind is intrinsically relational. The creation of man and woman is more than just a casual response to aloneness. The helpmeet/suitable-counterpart can be inferred to have both personality and physiological implications.
The simple fact of the suitability of each gender’s complementary genitalia suggests that male-female sexual interaction is part of the creator’s design. The distinctive, yet mutual, character of each gender’s satisfying sexual climax further affirms the beauty of God’s gift of sexuality.
Much may be inferred from the obvious necessity of sexual intercourse for procreation, but this does not negate its value as an experience of “recreation.” However, such recreational sex has its richest expression in the secure context of reliable covenant.
The very terminology used in Genesis for the act of sexual intercourse enhances our understanding. Yada, translated in Old English as “know,” was actually well-translated. To render the term as simply “having sexual intercourse” is an oversimplification that misses the point. Observe the same term in the prophet’s description of King Josiah: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know [yada] me?’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16). Yada implies such an intimacy with the Lord that Josiah’s whole way of living, being, doing reflected his intimate interaction with God.
Applying this perspective to the Genesis record, one might understand that Adam developed such an intimate interaction with Eve that all values were shared; nothing was withheld! Sex was clearly part of that intimacy, a natural manifestation of healthy and comprehensive intimacy.
The contrast between this initial presentation of sex and common nonrelational sex-for-sex sake applies to all people in all times. An orgasm is satisfying, but placed in the context of an absolutely reliable relationship, it is, well . . . beautiful.
Paul refers to this kind of comprehensive marriage covenant in identifying an image for Christ and the church. The differentiation in types of love referred to in the New Testament speaks to this issue. Sex can play a role in agape, philia, and eros, but it is clear the creator’s intent is for the richness of agape to be the mode of experiencing the covenant relationship.
Looking for Redemption
Back to the present. We are dealing with sexuality in a world where covenant relationships are degraded, disdained, denigrated, and disparaged. Intimacy is ostensibly desired, but it is also intimidating. This de-beautification of the covenantal relational context for sex takes place in several ways.
Personal values have been altered through education. Fifty years ago one fear factor for noncovenantal sex was to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Easily available contraceptives, legally available abortion, and a cultural shift in the attitudes toward “illegitimate” birth have worked together to reduce the threat of unwanted pregnancy.
All of the complex issues related to more frequent divorce reduce the trust in covenant relationships. At least one-half of marriage covenants do not last “until death do us part.”
Sexual activity outside of marriage is exhibited in increasing promiscuity among adolescents and young adults, and in more people opting for noncovenant relationships.
The promotion of homosexual covenants as on a par with heterosexual marriage further diminishes the conception of the beauty of covenant relationship that includes sex.
Easily accessible pornography facilitates addiction to sexual practices that are nonrelational and may even stand in the way of healthy relational sexuality.
In this environment, sexual activity has shifted from being a highly valued experience within an intimately committed relationship to a tool for establishing relationship. When the climactic sexual encounter occurs in the framework of a shallow relationship, it may become the dominant characteristic and attraction of the relationship, so emphatic that the misplaced sexuality actually prevents the development of a healthy, multifaceted relationship. Many failed marriages can trace the demise to the eros-laden whirlwind romance by which the relationship began.
Is there redemption for those who have already developed a lifestyle dominated by crass sexuality? This question is more easily answered theologically than psychologically. A reasonable application of God’s grace suggests that the process of repentance and renewal can produce a type of new virginity. Not that the naiveté of an early virginity can be restored, but if God’s grace is to be implemented in life, then that innocence must begin to have its impact upon our whole being.
First Corinthians 6:9-11 speaks to this kind of transformation. Paul lists an array of persons with persisting behaviors that stand in the way of their acceptability for the kingdom of God. The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, and homosexual offenders are joined with thieves, exploiters, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers in this neither comprehensive nor exclusive list of people whose ongoing actions make them unfit for the kingdom.
But our God of grace can interrupt all of this. Addictions and enslaving compulsive behaviors do not have to be given the final word. Paul indicates that some of those in the Corinthian church were previously in that list, but not anymore! Rather than passively accepting their sinful patterns, they were “washed . . . sanctified . . . justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.”
To phrase it differently, God’s grace can accept us in the midst of any ugliness in order to transform us into his beauty. If your sexual addictions are stifling both holiness and sexual wholeness, God—with his church—wants to renew you, free you, transform you. You needn’t give up and assign yourself to a hopeless destiny.
The Only Antidote
How can the church join with God in this redemptive task? We must move way beyond our dismay with deteriorating sexual mores. Continually decrying circumstances not only sounds like negativism; it may distract from our task of changing community and cultural perspectives. A solid biblical theology of sexuality must be more “yes” than “no.” We must publicly proclaim a “theology of sexuality.” This theology will contrast to the cultural counterfeit through the following affirmations:
1. Sex is a part of God’s creation that is “very good.” Male and female differentness and union is a gift God has given to us.
2. In its purest form, sexual intimacy is akin to the intimate and unbounded way that God loves us. Purity existed before depravity.
3. Reproduction, which normally takes place only through heterosexual intercourse, need not be a “goal” of all sexual activity, but the further sexuality is removed from the reproductive context, the greater the possibility for abuse and exploitation.
4. We are born with the capacity for sexual pleasure. The intrusion of sin into the world attempts to distort, but does not prevent that pleasure.
5. Sexual interaction that is based primarily upon feelings is prone to perversion. This is true whether the chosen action is heterosexual, homosexual, or autosexual. In a fallen world, feelings are not a reliable foundation for moral choices.
6. Our Christian gospel can redeem every dimension of creation. Our sexuality is certainly included.
It is time for the church to take back the initiative, recover biblical vocabulary, and through unashamed Christian preaching, teaching, and counseling to tastefully and explicitly proclaim the beauty of sex. The presentation of that which is genuine is the only antidote to the counterfeit.
Paul E. Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.