Not simply how we have sex, but how and what we think about sex.
Figuring all of this out is seldom simple because the extremes views—represented by contemporary hook-up culture and purity movement—dominate the conversation even as they mislead us. The former advocates that we divorce the emotional/relational component from sex and use it to leverage our social status. On the other end of the spectrum, the purity culture relies on shame and manipulation to demonize any and all sexual feelings outside of marriage, leaving us confused and shut-down.
In light of these extremes, one might wonder if a healthy, middle ground even exists. Writer Katelyn Beaty mourns “the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer” and refuses to accept that “consent culture” is our only valid option. (The New York Times)
Perhaps surprisingly, an understanding of sex that’s rooted in Scripture contradicts both errant narratives. Wheaton College professor Beth Felker Jones offers this counter-cultural thought:
We’re told that it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies.… If we can be convinced that sex is not “real,” that sex doesn’t have meaning,… then we will be vulnerable to use and abuse…. But if sex is real, if bodies matter, then we are accountable to something beyond ourselves, something beyond whatever is in fashion or whatever the market will bear. We are accountable to reality. To truth and goodness and beauty. (Faithful: A Theology of Sex)
If we want to get to that deeper reality, we’ll need to have a holistic understanding of who we are as men and women intentionally created by a loving God. In that framework, sex must be about more than procreation. Otherwise, why would arousal, orgasm, and the subsequent flood of hormones be so profoundly pleasurable? But if we view and practice sex solely or even primarily for pleasure, we’re missing the deeper, more meaningful components that God intends for us to experience: oneness and bonding.
Nancy Pearcey writes in Love Thy Body, “Sex is not only about biological drives and needs, whether for pleasure or reproduction, but also about the communion of persons.” The obvious and inarguable physical oneness of intercourse should provide a window into the emotional and spiritual oneness that results from sexual intimacy.
By design, sex within the confines of a covenanted relationship should be—as Felker Jones states—true, good, and beautiful. Committed monogamous relationships engender trust which encourages more freedom in the bedroom. When we don’t have to worry about whether our lover will be there in the morning or how our performance will be evaluated in peer circles (or on social media), we can offer all of who we are without reservation. According to Mike Mason, “To be naked with another person is a sort of picture or symbolic demonstration of perfect honesty, perfect trust, perfect giving and commitment, and if the heart is not naked along with the body, then the whole action becomes a lie and a mockery.” (The Mystery of Marriage)
Jonathan Grant goes even further when he asserts, “There is no such thing as real sex outside marriage. Sex is marriage, or else it is self-annihilation. Although sex outside of marriage often feels like a powerful bond, it simply cannot carry the weight of this deeper commitment and is prone to a manipulative dynamic by which it is ‘traded’ rather than ‘shared.’” (Divine Sex)
Dismissing this perspective runs the risk of “turn[ing] sex into a hobby or a low-value biological need.” (Beth Felker Jones) Furthermore, by ignoring or rejecting God’s design for our sexuality, we often unwittingly bring shame onto our bodies. Those burned by purity culture sometimes develop an adverse reaction to any hint of shame. While it is deeply disturbing that religious communities rely on shame—and fear—to control sexuality,
if we fail to process the pain that results from bad theology, we’re in danger of creating our own bad theology.
One of the unfortunate consequences of such reactivity is the assumption that any shame connected to sexual behavior should be avoided or ignored.
There are two types of shame: toxic shame and godly shame. Toxic shame leads to death. Godly shame leads to life. Toxic shame cripples us. It is typically foisted upon us by external sources (often during early parent-child relationships) and convinces us that we are inextricably and irrevocably flawed. No matter how hard we try to overcome our flaws or wash away shame’s stains, they remain like permanent birthmarks. Conversely, godly shame reveals those places where we’ve missed the mark, or, in what is now considered to be archaic language, sinned. When we admit our sin and turn from it, shame dissipates and relationships can be restored.
By discerning the Bible’s through line as it pertains to sex and sexuality, it becomes clear that God did not intend for marital sex to be shameful, to be leveraged as a form of power, or to be solely for momentary pleasure.
He created us for more and calls us to a holistic sexual ethic.
As we faithfully, lovingly, and sacrificially offer our bodies to our spouse—and only our spouse—we proclaim God’s faithfulness and goodness to one another and to the world. We can then boldly and unashamedly state “I am my beloveds and he is mine.”
In Beauty, Order, and Mystery, Todd Wilson writes, “It is time for evangelicals to rediscover the historic Christian vision of human sexuality. Now, more than at any time since the first centuries of the church, we need a countercultural Christian sexual ethics and, at an even deeper level, a distinctively Christian view of human sexuality.”
I agree and I long for the day when holy, fulfilling, and beautiful married sex is the norm.
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