Imagine going through twenty-four hours without seeing a single sexualized image, hearing inappropriate sexual innuendos, or learning about another sex scandal. For this to be possible, we would have to remain at home or immerse ourselves in nature, turn off all of our electronics, and refrain from reading newspapers or magazines—because on a normal day, we are barraged by hyper-sexualized imagery and content. This hyper-sexualization can easily confuse and mislead us regarding God’s purpose for sexual intimacy within marriage.
For centuries, both religious and secular culture have largely failed to offer a healthy, balanced perspective about sex and sexual intimacy. Many of us who are over thirty-five were inculcated by one of two diametrically opposed philosophies regarding sex: the anything goes, no-rules-apply approach (prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s) or the highly repressive everything-is-forbidden approach of the extreme abstinence movement. Neither of these ideologies accurately capture God’s creative intent or help married couples to create a healthy, holy intimate life.
By contrast, Scripture provides clear structure and context. As stated in Genesis and then reiterated by Jesus, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one (Matthew 19:5, emphasis added). Marital sex is to be mutual (1 Corinthians 7) and exclusive (Exodus 20:14 and Hebrews 13:4). Though some of the male heroes in the Old Testament deviated from this, God’s plan is—and always has been—monogamy. Finally, the Bible seems to offer us three overarching purposes for a marital sex: procreation, bonding, and pleasure.
Despite this clarity, confusion and misinformation often prevail. This is partially attributable to the enemy’s strategic attack against God’s creation. Satan understands that by design, sex within a covenanted marriage relationship is intended to be transcendent and foster profound connection. As Jay Stringer writes in Unwanted, “Evil hates the beauty of sex, and because it cannot abolish its existence, it works to corrupt its essence.” That corruption looks like sex trafficking, hookup culture, sexual abuse, and the production and consumption of pornography.
The narrative of broken sexuality is so powerful and so pervasive it can make us forget that our faith should help us to understand, integrate, and steward our sexuality. After all, we serve a God who asks us to surrender the whole of who we are to him—including our genitalia.1 If that seems hyperbolic, remember that God required circumcision as a sign of his covenant, effectively saying, “Even this—male genitalia—needs to be submitted to me.” (How many of you have ever heard that preached on a Sunday morning?)
The church’s failure to clarify and uphold God’s creative intentions for human sexuality has resulted in tremendous personal pain and to some extent a loss of credibility. This happens whenever the church abdicates responsibility, follows cultural norms, overlooks sexual indiscretions—particularly by its leaders—or swings wildly in the opposite direction and becomes controlling. These two polar opposites manifest as anything goes or extreme abstinence. The former aims to remove all barriers, including godly shame. The latter uses shame to hem us in. Both miss the mark.
Sex without Borders
The anything-goes version of sexuality (currently rebranded as the sex positive movement) purports that sexual desires are of penultimate importance and should be pursued without reservation—assuming that both parties consent and no one is physically harmed. Though this is perhaps best epitomized by the free love generation of the 1960s, such beliefs and behaviors have always existed.
As part of the larger cultural push-back against authority, moral restraint was neither highly valued nor widely practiced during the sixties and seventies. If you are over forty and did not grow up in a conservative Christian home, the anything-goes mindset probably influenced your adolescence and early adult years. When I was in high school during the mid 1970s, heavy drinking, pot smoking, and sexual exploration were normal weekend activities. Such formative experiences can leave us with shame and powerful memories (some good, some bad).
No Sex—and Lots of Borders
The extreme abstinence movement represents the opposite perspective. This teaches that you become damaged goods if you engage in any kind of sexual behavior prior to marriage. Here in the United States, some youth leaders used scare tactics to drive this point home. In one iteration, a cup was passed around the circle and each teen was instructed to spit in it. When it arrived back at the starting point, the leader communicated premarital sex rendered participants equivalent to the contents of the now-vile cup: disgusting and undesirable. Teachings of this ilk rely on shame and fear to corral sexual expression.
This philosophy can be traced back to ancient Gnostic teachings that erroneously divided the world into two separate realms: the spiritual and the material. Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis or knowledge) denied Jesus’ incarnation and his bodily resurrection. Because they believed the corporeal world, including our bodies and sex, to be inherently evil, their understanding of sexuality and bodily pleasure became terribly warped. The Gnostics’ misguided mindset has endured through the centuries and continues to seep into the church’s teaching on sexuality. In Faithful: A Theology of Sex, Beth Felker Jones states “Christians, like the Gnostics, have sometimes had a hard time imagining what it could mean to be both sexual and redeemed.”
The purity culture movement determined that the best way to avoid sexual immorality (which they defined) was to erect fences around fences. Leaders in the purity movement determined that dating was ungodly and that any form of arousal or physical engagement (including kissing) was sinful—until marriage. Once married, an internal switch would magically flip, facilitating awesome, orgasmic sex from day one. Scripture does communicate that God calls us to celibacy until marriage, but when manipulation, fear, and shame are employed to enforce that call, damaging effects often linger—sometimes long after we have exchanged wedding vows.
Many people, both inside and outside of the church, reduce Christian morality to an expansive list of rules. In its purest essence, the gospel isn’t about rules. According to Christopher West in The Theology of the Body for Beginners, “The Gospel is meant to change our hearts so that we no longer need the rules.” A binary understanding of our sexuality (e.g., we can either turn sexual desire on or off at will) does not reflect our created reality. We are gendered beings who walk around every day in flesh and blood bodies that are wired for touch and sexual pleasure: something the anything-goes narrative understands all too well. Hence the use of sexual imagery to manipulate our thoughts and habits.
How might we tell each other a better, truer story?
This is part one of a three-part series on marital sexuality. Part two will focus on how faulty teaching and cultural conditioning derail us from the beauty and wonder of sexual intimacy. Excerpted and adapted from Marriage in the Middle, by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. You can read more about this book on my website.
Photo credit iStock, Bartek Szewczyk.
I am indebted to Beth Felker Jones’ work, Faithful: The Theology of Sex, regarding this point.