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The Gospel and Sex
A NEW SEXUAL ETHIC
As we have seen, our character and witness are a very public matter. How we handle our sexual life can either affirm or contradict what we believe about God. God gave himself to us unconditionally in Christ, and he calls us to give ourselves unconditionally to him. God does not offer or ask for intimacy without complete whole-life commitment. If you demand intimacy yet keep control of your life, you are a living contradiction of both the way God relates to you and the way we are to relate to each other in the Christian community.
First Need: Spousal Love of Jesus
Sex is for fully committed relationships because it is to be a foretaste of the joy that comes from being in complete union with God. The most rapturous love between a man and woman is only a hint of God’s love for us (Rom. 7:1–6; Eph. 5:21–33). On the one hand, this analogy anticipates the joy of meeting God face to face. But on the other hand, we realize that sex cannot completely fill the cosmic need our souls seek and that only the beatific vision will bring our loneliness to an end.
Paul is realistic that not everyone has the “gift” of lifelong celibacy, but everyone is called to celibacy at some point, and many are called to do so even in marriage itself for various reasons, such as illness, pregnancy, or temporary separation. We can learn to handle celibacy from both a negative and a positive perspective:
+ We need to realize that much of our “burning” comes from being brain washed by the romanticist and realist views of the world, which make an idol of sex. We can then deal with it like any other idol. We can re- mind ourselves that sex as a god will never deliver on its promises; it will let us down.
+ Positively, we are called to experience the spousal love of Jesus. Our singular focus means we are more available for prayer and have greater flexibility for service. Single people are often unaware that they have greater flexibility and freedom with their time and therefore have a greater opportunity for a rich and meaningful prayer life.
Second Need: A Community Practicing a New Sex Ethic
It is typical for Christians to think of sexual ethics in purely individualistic terms, but that is not the right way to read the Scripture. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 reads, “Do not be deceived: neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexuals nor greedy nor slanderers . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. But you were washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Richard Hays, in his First Corinthians commentary, responds:
First Corinthians 6:9–11 has provided the launching pad for countless moralistic sermons that decry the types of sinners listed here. In fact . . . the concern of the passage as a whole is . . . to call the Corinthians to act as a community . . . and to assert the transformed identity of the baptized. . . . The Corinthians are to stop seeing themselves as participants in the “normal” social and economic structures of their city and to imagine themselves instead as members of the eschatological people of God, acting corporately in a way that will prefigure and proclaim the kingdom of God. . . . [Paul] is seeking to resocialize them into a new way of doing business, a new community consciousness. (15)
Hays notices that Paul is calling the church not just to individual moral behavior but to be a kingdom community in which the world’s values do not hold. Notice that Paul lumps broken sexuality and greed together. Moderns view sex as a medium of exchange for fun and convenience and view money as something sacred, special, worth sacrificing for, not something easily shared. But biblical Christianity espouses just the opposite view. Money is merely an exchange, a way to procure goods and services. It is not special or sacred; it is something to be shared, to be given away to those who need it. Sex, on the other hand, is sacred and special and to be enjoyed only in the right context of pointing us toward the eternal. Paul, then, is calling Christians not just to individual moral behavior but to form a community in which consumerism—both sexual and material — is rejected.
Christians will fall prey to the world’s views of sex unless we create a community, an alternative city. In this alternative city, singles enjoy their kingdom mission and practice sexual abstinence joyfully. They live in community with Christian families, who do not make an idol out of family or make singles feel abnormal. One of the reasons it is hard to practice the discipline of sex-free romantic involvement is that we don’t have a sufficiently large community of people creating this alternative city.
PART II: SINGLENESS, DATING, AND MARRIAGE
THE GOODNESS OF THE SINGLE LIFE
In a difficult passage, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short” (1 Cor. 7:27–28). This passage is very confusing on its surface. This begrudging view of marriage seems at odds with the exalted picture of marriage in Ephesians 5:21–33 and seems to have been conditioned by a conviction that Jesus was coming back any day.
But immediately following these verses, Paul wrote: “From now on, those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy as if it was not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29–31). Here we see that behind “the time is short” phrase is a much more sophisticated view of history. Paul, like Jesus, taught the overlap of the ages. The kingdom of God—God’s power to renew the whole of creation—has broken into the old world through Christ’s first coming. The kingdom is here in a substantial but partial way (Rom. 13:11–14). On the one hand, it means that the social and material concerns of this world still exist. But on the other hand, the gospel brings us an internal peace and a hope in the future that transforms all our earthly relationships (Rom. 14:17). Therefore we must not over-invest ourselves in anything besides the kingdom. Though we have possessions, we should live as if they weren’t really ours, for our real wealth is in God (Luke 16:1–16). Paul applies this principle to marriage and singleness. We are to be neither overly elated about getting married nor overly disappointed about not being so—because Christ is the only spouse who can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us. The Christian gospel and hope of the future kingdom dethrone the idolatry of marriage.
Christianity upholds single adulthood as a viable way of life. Prior to Christianity, nearly all religions and cultures made family and childbearing a foundational cultural value. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no lasting significance or legacy without heirs. By contrast, the early church did not pressure people to marry, as we see in Paul’s letters. Moreover, it supported widows so they did not have to remarry.
Should they be widowed, Christian women also enjoyed very substantial advantages. Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to remarry within two years. . . . In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected and remarriage was, if anything, mildly discouraged. . . . The church stood ready to sustain poor widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry. (16)
This striking countercultural view of singleness was a further sign of hope in the future kingdom of God.
The First Theological Purpose of Marriage
Do you see how the gospel changes our view of marriage and singleness? Christians are to choose between marriage and singleness not for the basic contemporary motive of personal fulfillment, nor for the traditional motive of propagating family legacy. Rather, we are to marry or to remain single on the basis of which state best makes us a sign of the kingdom. Hauerwas says that single Christian adults were a startling witness to the coming kingdom in that ancient world by showing that their hope and significance was not in family or heirs but in the kingdom.
It follows, then, that being married is also a way to be a sign of the kingdom. Because one of the main purposes of marriage is to build kingdom-exhibiting community—to show the world how Christ transforms everything, including marriage—God forbids Christians from marrying nonbelievers. A Christian who knowingly marries a nonbeliever shows that his or her motive is not mission or kingdom exhibition. One of the main ways—and perhaps the main way—that married Christians witness to Christ is to show the difference Christ makes in a marriage.
This explains why many single Christian adults do not marry even though they desire to do so. If one non- negotiable reason for marriage is kingdom exhibition, then that removes a lot of otherwise good prospects! When a single Christian remains single largely because he or she will not compromise on this point, then he or she is paying a price for the kingdom and will be blessed for that (1 Peter 4:13–14, 19). Furthermore, God will use the Christian’s singleness to minister to others in ways that married people cannot (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32–34).
In summary, then, the purpose of both singleness and marriage is to create communities that reflect the glory of the coming kingdom of God. Every church, then, needs a combination of Christian married couples and Christian singles. Couples and singles can minister to each other; there are advantages and disadvantages in ministry for both singles and married members. The world needs to see both.
A High View of Marriage Equals a High View of Singleness
Paradoxically, the lofty view of marriage in Ephesians 5:21–33 provides support for the goodness of being single. Ephesians 5 tells us that marriage is not ultimately about sex or social stability or personal fulfillment; rather, marriage was created to be a human reflection of the ultimate love relationship with the Lord. This exalted view of marriage, however, shows us that marriage is only penultimate. It points to the true marriage that our souls need and the true family our hearts want. No marriage can ultimately give us what we most desire and truly need. According to Ephesians 5, even Christians married to Christians will do a terrible job of conducting their marriage if they lack a love relationship with Christ. If we don’t have that, married people will put too much pressure on their marriage to fulfill them, and that will always create pathology in their life. Similarly, if singles don’t have the same fulfilling love relationship with Jesus, they will put that pressure on their dream of marriage, which will create pathology in their life as well. But if singles rest in and rejoice in their marriage to Christ, they will be able to handle single life without devastating loneliness. Singles must realize that the very same idolatry of marriage that is distorting their single life would (or will) distort their married life.
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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