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The Gospel and Sex
PART I: A BIBLICAL UNDERSTANDING OF SEX
Three different personal and cultural attitudes toward sex have been predominant through the centuries.
Sexual Realism: Sex as natural appetite.
Many of the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed sex as similar to any other bodily activity, such as eating or sleeping. When you felt like doing it, you should do it—just be careful not to overdo it, as with all appetites. This modern view of sex has been called “realism.” Realists claim to be neutral about sex; they see it as just one human activity among many, but one that must be demystified. Their message, prominent in today’s public school sex education, is that we should understand the natural biological drive of sex, realize that if we are not careful sexual activity can have negative consequences, master it like any other skill, and be responsible.
Sexual Platonism: Sex as animal passion.
One of the most influential branches of Hellenistic philosophy viewed the spirit as the highest good and the body as “lesser.” That is, the lower, physical, “animal” nature was seen as chaotic and dark, and the higher, more rational, “spiritual” nature was seen as civilized and noble. This led to viewing sex as a degrading, dirty thing, a necessary evil for the propagation of the human race. Premarital sex was forbidden because sex in general was dirty and was allowable only for the higher good of having children and building up the family name. Unfortunately, this view took root in many places in the Christian church. Truly spiritual people should refrain from sex, sex is allowable only if you are trying to have children, sexual pleasure is not appropriate for high- minded people—these notions grew out of a kind of sexual platonism.
Sexual Romanticism: Sex as repressed creativity.
While Hellenism located the source of evil in the physical, the Romanticists located it in the cultural. They thought that human beings in their unspoiled original state were brimming with natural goodness and creativity; it was society that stifled it. Goodness would be achieved by liberating the basic, primal instincts, which were in themselves pure. Opposed to Romanticism was Victorianism, the assumption that goodness could be achieved only by suppressing the primal instincts, which in themselves were evil.
While the first perspective sees sex as an inevitable biological drive and the second view sees it as a necessary evil, the last view sees sex as a critical way of self-expression, a way to “be yourself” or “find yourself.” For biological realists, all sex is right if it’s safe. For Platonists, the flesh inhibits the spirit, so sex is naturally tainted in some way. For romantics, the quality of interpersonal love is the primary touchstone that makes sex right or wrong.
THE CHRISTIAN VIEW
The Christian attitude toward sex is popularly thought to be the Platonist view, but most definitely it is not. It differs quite radically from each of these three prominent views.
Contrary to the Platonist view, the Bible teaches that sex is very good (Gen. 1:31). God would not create and command something to be done in marriage (1 Cor. 7:3–5) that was not good. The Song of Solomon is filled with barefaced rejoicing in sexual pleasure. In fact, the Bible can be very uncomfortable for the prudish.
Contrary to the realist “sex-as-appetite” view, the Bible teaches that sexual desires are broken and usually idolatrous. All by themselves, sexual appetites are not a safe guide, and we are instructed to flee our lusts (1 Cor. 6:18). Our sexual appetite does not operate the same as our other appetites. To illustrate this point, C. S. Lewis asks us to imagine a planet where people pay money to watch someone eat a mutton chop, where people ogle magazine pictures of food. If we landed on such a planet, we would think that the appetite of these people was seriously deranged. (1) Yet that is just how modern people approach sex.
Contrary to the romantic view, the Bible teaches that love and sex are not primary for individual happiness. What the Bible says about sex and marriage “has a singularly foreign sound for those of us brought up on romantic notions of marriage and sex. We are struck by the stark realism of the Pauline recommendations in 1 Corinthians 7 . . . but [most of all by] the early church’s legitimation of singleness as a form of life [which] symbolized the necessity of the church to grow through witness and conversion.” (2)
The Bible views sex not primarily as self-fulfillment but as a way to know Christ and build his kingdom. That view undercuts both the traditional society’s idolatry of sex-for-social-standing and the secular society’s idolatry of sex-for-personal-fulfillment.
SEX IS A SACRAMENT
Christian sexual ethics make little sense unless we first understand the lofty vision of sexuality in the Christian faith. Sex is sacred for three reasons.
Sex Procreates: The Politics of Sex
Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul. Sex propagates the human race (Gen. 1:28). Its purpose is not merely for the building up of a family name. The purpose of sex is to create families of disciples, to establish new kingdom communities. And, ironically, the main way we learn this is through the Bible’s remark- able attitude toward singleness.
Christianity, unlike most traditional religions or cultures, holds out singleness as a viable way of life. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were single. Jesus spoke about those who remained unmarried in order to better serve the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:12). Paul says singleness is often better for ministering as a sign of the coming kingdom (1 Cor. 7:29–35).
One of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . Singleness was legitimate, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that “between the times” the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. . . . And we must remember that the “sacrifice” made by the single is not that of “giving up sex,” but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. (3)
Therefore, we are to choose between marriage and singleness not on the basis of whether we want the personal happiness and status of a family but on the basis of which state makes us most useful in the kingdom of God.
Both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life as the historic institution that witnesses to God’s kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world. (4)
See, then, how different the Christian prohibition of extramarital sex is from the traditional one? In traditional cultures premarital sex was taboo but so was singleness, because the family and the propagation of its economic and social status were idols. The Christian prohibition of premarital sex is clearly different in its inspiration, because singleness is now considered a viable alternative. (5) In traditional societies premarital sex was forbidden because it undermined the family. In Christianity it undermined the kingdom. Why? First, sex outside of a marriage covenant undermines the character quality of faithfulness, which builds community.
The issue is not just whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life. Rather such questions are but shorthand ways of asking what kind of people we should be to be capable of supporting the mission of the church. . . . Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community. As such, it is as crucial to the married life as it is to the single life. (6)
Second, we abstain from extramarital sex in order to witness how God works in the gospel. God calls his people into an exclusive relationship, a marriage covenant, and to give him anything less in return is unfaithfulness. “By our faithfulness to one another, within a community that requires, finally, loyalty to God, we experience and witness to the first fruits of the new creation. Our commitment to exclusive relations witnesses to God’s pledge to his people, Israel and the church that, through his exclusive commitment to them . . . people will be brought into his kingdom.” (7) So although it is common to hear people say, “Sex is a private affair and no one’s business but my own,” it is not true. How we use sex has significant community and political ramifications.
Sex Delights: The Dance of Sex
Further, sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a relationship of glorious devotion to each other, pouring love and joy into one another continually (cf. John 1:18; 17:5, 21, 24-25). Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son, as well as that between Christ and the believer (1 Cor. 11:3).
Despite 1 Corinthians 7, which explodes the romanticist views of sex as strictly personal fulfillment, the Bible rather baldly and openly celebrates the delights of sex. Sex is supposed to be wonderful because it mirrors the joy of relationship in the Trinity and because it points to the eternal ecstasy of soul that we will have in heaven in our loving relationships with God and one another (Prov. 5:18–20; Deut. 24:5).
The role of the woman throughout the Song [of Solomon] is truly astounding, especially in light of its ancient origins. It is the woman, not the man, who is the dominant voice throughout the poems that make up the Song. She is the one who seeks, pursues, initiates. [In Song 5:10–16] she boldly exclaims her physical attraction. . . . Most English translations hesitate in this verse. The Hebrew is quite erotic, and most translators cannot bring themselves to bring out the obvious meaning. . . . This again is a prelude to their lovemaking. There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality. (8)
INteresting article, and admirably brief given the dizzying complexity of almost every term therein contained. I have nothing much to add, except to sadly note that the Church, that community within which Keller proposes these norms, is largely nonexistent (as a covenant community.) Even within a particular and well-defined "church" congregation, it rings as a fanciful (even if biblical) idea, and wildly unfamiliar to American Christians. It seems to fit nicely and realistically amid the Christian churches of India that I visited e few years back, however. But the notion of Community has become so foriegn that I don't even know where we might begin to adopt or enforce these norms. Ideas anybody?
john van sloten
"Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul." Tweeted that!
I've often thought of the ecstacy of sex as a foretaste of the ecstacy of our perfect union with Christ. Something tells me that if we kept this more in mind, we'd make much wiser sexual choices. In fact, all that is sex would be transformed.
Tim, I'd love to see this article expanded into a small paperback book that could be used as instruction/discussion starter in church youth groups, etc.; even formatted so that there was a chapter per week for study. This is as concise an article as I have ever seen that focuses on the rationale within Scripture for faithfulness as opposed to the "don't's of sex". The don't's of sex do not deter many youth from the ravages of their hormones; however, some understanding of the importance of faithfulness --- throughout all of our living -- might do more to help with our obsession with sex. Added the insight that the Holy Spirit is the third person on all dates causes some second thinking, too! I could foresee a paperback study book of maybe 80 to 100 pages in Reader's Digest size booklet. Good luck on the idea!! ---- Loran
Beautiful piece. I like that it wasn't written for teenagers who are "kissing dating goodbye." Even though that is need I appreciated the "grown" tone of this article. Needles to say it spoke to me. Thank you sir.
I understand the sentiment of your comment about the lack of community that exists in the church today; however, you're using your personal experience to make a generalization which is not true. I know it is not true because I have experienced Gospel-centered community in my church community. Undoubtedly, there are a great number of churches that have rather stagnant community, but it's wrong to say that ALL churches are the same way.
I talk to my son about "our tribe" and its men that hold a different view from the rest. I use "sex as recreation" to highlight the differing view that sex is far more than recreation and that for the best sexuality we treat each other differently. The formation of family within a permanent loving relationship that will commit to each other and those children all their lives. Such love is the context for sexual union. Without such commitment we harm ourselves and our society by having broken families and a world filled with lack of lifetime-commitment-love. What if God's intention for us was to this higher level of expression that showed lifetime-commitment-love that was similar to His love? Would that be a good world? What will our contribution be to our wives and children be son? Will we chose recreation or something greater?
Always searching for words that will be meaningful to teens...
Paul (From the Bible), 8/26/2011
I, as a Christian, can certainly appreciate your dedication to God and yourself insomuch so as to commit yourself to lifetime celibacy. I can also understand that, as in many cultures, such as the "Fa'afafine" of Polynesia, the "Mahu" of Hawai'i and the "Men of two spirits" in Native American tribes, we have those in our society who are naturally single/alone. These people serve as social "helpers" if you will and allow for both cultural diversity as it relates to gender orientation and fostering orphaned children who have nowhere else to go. I get it. However, I cannot sit back and simply accept that I, as a HOMOSEXUAL male, am destined to either a life of sin (because sex outside of marriage is not celestially-condoned) or of solitude (because I must marry a woman if I'm going to have sex [ barf ]). What a dichotomy of destruction! Talk about spiritual and cognitive dissonance.
I consider myself a god-fearing individual, but not even I can see eye-to-eye with you on this one, Paul. It has been a question of mine for quite some time whether God has made me homosexual. I often wonder if it is a birth defect/gene modification (as some scientific theories suggest). Regardless of the definitive cause of my sexual orientation, I am who I am and I'm STILL a son of God. Having studied cultures and both ancient and modern texts relating to the existence of homosexuality, it has become blatantly obvious to me that this so-called "defect" is more common than most people think. It stands to reason, then, that it might have been by divine design - maybe we ARE supposed to gay!
It is my personal, unorthodox belief that God really doesn't care so much about what we do, so long as we are responsible, prayerful, and generally "Good," (as subjective as the term may be). Yes, I concede that God has laid foundations for morality and general social interaction (The 10 Commandments). These have been given to us, through the prophet Moses, to guide us, or otherwise dictate what we must do in order to return to Christ. I, with my very prideful, arrogant, yet reasonable mindset, cannot accept that God will hate/castigate me because I choose to follow the third reason for making love (as defined in the article above). I'm a realist, and I know my Creator on a personal level, not just from a book. He would never think less of me because I am who I innately came to this earth as. He loves me just the same.
I respect you, Paul, but I set aside your dichotomic resolve and substitute it for this; reality. God wants us to be happy and, beyond that, he really isn't concerned with the how or what.
I think Paul would have considered homosexuality the least of mankind's problems. The problem that we are all born with is that we don't believe what God says. We don't believe him when he says we are carriers of evil. We don't believe him when he says our means of assessing ourselves is defunct. We don't believe him when he says there is only one way out of the mess: letting Jesus remake us.
Ultimately, we are all predisposed to believe our own assessment of ourselves rather than his assessment of us. And this disbelief is going to kill us in the end, if we hang on to it. If we do let go of it, we will be shown the terrifying depth of our own culpability; and we will be shown the perfection of God, with which he offers to upgrade us. I can tell you from personal experience, that upgrade from outside the self is the only way to have real depth of joy. In this sense, absolutely, God wants us to be happy.
would love to hear more about this:
The seasons of life include many times in which active dating and marriage-seeking do not have to be pursued, such as when one enters a period of significant transition—starting a new job, beginning a graduate program, or assisting a critically ill family member. In fact, it is advisable to avoid marriage seeking during and immediately following an emotionally charged life transition, since our judgment may be cloudy and our motives suspect.
i started dating my now fiance right when i began the 1st year of my MBA program. just before meeting her, i told myself that i would focus on school and avoid marriage seeking. well, sometimes God chooses a different path for you. we have been in different cities since the start of the relationship and have pursued the relationship with the full understanding that God is always first in our lives. we even give advice to other couples who may or may not be Christians in how to engage in a God-loving relationship. i would not trade this experience for anything. through this season of my life, my fiance and i have learned how to work with one another during times of stress and longing. we have learned how to communicate and manage time with one another. i truly believe this time God has given us is a blessing. it may not be ideal for me to be in school in a different city, but i would make the case that even when i tried to avoid marriage seeking, God led me to her. that i cannot avoid.
There are so many people who look at sex differently. There are those that can sit and watch porn all day and it's just like a regular movie to them. Others are very sensitive to the issue. A good read. Thanks
It is written "My people suffer for lack of knowledge" all people need deliverance from demonic oppressions and generational curses. This is real bible and christ Jesus did it for all people.( In jesus name cast out the delvil and rebuke him) christians do not be cowards , but live a life free of earthly bondages !!
Post is nicely written and it contains many good things for me. I am glad to find your impressive way of writing the post. Now it become easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thanks for sharing the post.
Caleb Darku Mensah
I perceive sex to be a honorable gift or treasure that has to be kept for a future spouse. I it my prayer that all singles that have not indulge themselves in sexual fornication will remain pure until they are joyfully married.
Caleb Darku Mensah
I perceive sex to be a honorable gift or treasure that has to be kept for a future spouse. It is my prayer that all singles that have not indulge themselves in sexual fornication will remain pure until they are joyfully married.
I am a very spiritual person and would love souly to express myself in a way that is mattering to my basic standard of liveing And my soul partner . Which would be a female . Your inspiration was generous . Sincerely : Sal Moreno
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