“Sex makes everything complicated,” said Cameron Diaz to Jude Law in a 2006 romantic comedy called The Holiday. “Even if you don’t have it, the not having it makes things complicated.”
She’s right. Sex is complicated. This may be because sex is one of the most misinterpreted and misrepresented things in our culture…and I include church culture in that statement. As such, this post is going to look at sex not from a typical evangelical Christian standpoint, but from a Jesus standpoint.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Throughout His ministry, in every word He preached and every parable He told, Jesus was concerned with matters of the heart. This has never been as abundantly clear to me as it has been these past few weeks as I’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus seeks to reframe a legalistic understanding of the law by showing us that we tend to focus more on the action than on the intent. As the Pharisees demonstrated, it is often easier to regulate and micromanage our actions than it is to undergo a radical change of heart. The former requires control; the latter, surrender. It is more difficult to navigate the ambiguity of the heart than it is to impose fixed outward regulations.
The church’s teaching on sex has become a vicious cycle. Most teenagers growing up in Christian homes are admonished to save sex for marriage. However, for some, this has created a stigma that makes it impossible to have guilt-free sex even within the context of marriage. How can something that has been bad, bad, bad, suddenly become okay? This deeply rooted mindset cannot be overcome in a 15-minute exchange of vows when our minds have been shaped our whole lives by a warped understanding of sex.
And so as it became more acceptable to talk openly about sex, churches began talking about it. A lot. To combat the shame associated with sex, Christians began teaching their children how great sex is, explaining that it’s a special gift from God that we don’t want to “open too early.” Obviously this approach is hardly better, as it dangles sex like a carrot that they can’t have for another 8 years or so. The pendulum has swung too far — now we focus on sex more than we probably should.
With this new understanding came another misconstrued notion about sex, which claims either explicitly or implicitly that if you save sex for marriage, your sex life will be far more gratifying than it would otherwise be. Youth pastors become statistical machines teaching us that monogamous couples have more sex, pure couples have better sex, and it’s all about sex, sex, SEX.
But I’m going to be so bold as to say that Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, teaches that sex is not really about sex at all. And searching “sex” in your concordance to figure out what God thinks about it won’t get you very far, because a well-developed theology of sex is found in:
1) A true understanding of creation. “In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Our humanity is uniquely defined by its status of being “in the image of God.” When we truly understand this, not just with our minds but with our hearts, it changes the way we see the rest of humanity. Each person is incredibly valuable regardless of gender, age, race, or social class, and we must treat with reverence whatever God’s holy hands have touched.
We must also understand that God’s creation is what it is; it is neither more, nor less. Pornography is damaging to relationships because it presents an unrealistic expectation of women and of sexuality. It not only causes men to see women as sex objects, but as inferior to the porn stars that feed their addiction. This is a horribly distorted view of creation — a woman’s body is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Her beauty should be loved and appreciated for what it is, and should not forced to compete with unrealistic fantasies. God created each woman, and each woman is a good creation. Respect her, because she is the image of God and the work of His hands.
And to the women — we tend to be pretty hard on the men because they struggle more with the physical side of this, and sex is a physical act. But if Jesus is right, and lust is a matter of the heart, where does that leave us concerning emotional affairs? When we dreamily indulge in steamy romantic movies and fantasies of Prince Charming, this is also a distortion of reality that the good, honest men in our lives can never live up to. Don’t spend your time wishing that the perfect man exists, because there is no such thing. God created each man, and each man is a good creation. Respect him, because he is the image of God and the work of his hands.
2) A true understanding of surrender. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1st Corinthians 6:20).
A theme that I see running through each teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is this unspoken phrase, “It doesn’t belong to you.” You don’t have a right to be angry (Matthew 5:21-24); you can’t just dismiss your wife because she isn’t your property to dismiss (Matthew 5:31-32); don’t resist the one who takes your tunic, because it’s not really yours in the first place (Matthew 5:38-42). If even you are not your own and therefore must honor God with your body, then it must surely be true that because she is not yours, you must honor God by the way you treat her body. To use someone in any way (not just sexually), is to objectify them and demean their created status. Lust and pornography are so damaging because they declare that God’s creation exists solely to satisfy our appetites and is not worthy of our respect. We must understand that whatever we desire is not ours for the taking. The creation belongs to the Creator.
3) A true understanding of relationship. “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
The Bible speaks of equality, of mutual submission, and of sincere love far more than it speaks about sex — but I think that every one of these relational qualities is inseparable from a true understanding of sex. Sex is only one of the many ways that we can choose to selfishly gratify ourselves at the expense of another, but it so easily reflects an imbalance of power and further contributes to chaos and brokenness within the creation. If we were to outdo one another in showing honor, women would not seduce and men would not solicit. There would be no “If you love me, you’ll show me.” Instead, valuing each other as equals, we would seek the highest good of the other.
Marriage doesn’t automatically make sex right. If it’s still a power play within the context of marriage, it’s just as wrong as adultery, because it devalues your partner in the exact same way. If your marriage fails because you’re “sexually incompatible,” you’ve missed the entire point of covenant faithfulness. If your demands cause your partner to feel inferior or ashamed, you have failed to honor him or her. This is what I mean by the phrase I used earlier, “the ambiguity of the heart.” Because there’s not one straightforward rule that divides appropriate sex from inappropriate sex, we have to critically examine the motives of our hearts. And sometimes that can be more difficult and painful than following a set of rules.
How does this change the way we teach about sex?
1) These foundational principles apply to far more than sex.
If you reread the first two, you’ll find that a theology of environmentalism flows just as easily as a theology of sex. If you understand the second two, you’ll learn that leadership in any capacity is a matter of servanthood, not of coercive power.
If we teach our children these fundamental truths of Kingdom living as a framework for their lives, rather than rules about sex that have little or no context to support them, it will make far more sense in light of the big picture.
2) It shifts the focus from sex to purity.
Creating rules about sex is like treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the cause. When we constantly teach abstinence, the focus is still on sex, when sex is clearly not the main point of sex at all. When we teach relational (not just sexual) purity, questions like “How far is too far” become irrelevant. These principles shift the question from “How selfish can I be?” to “How unselfish can I be?” They don’t just tell us why sex outside of marriage is wrong; they teach us why purity outside of marriage is right.
3) It reframes the whole biblical discussion of sex.
Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible? It represents a loving, egalitarian sexual relationship.
Under the law of Moses, why would a man who raped a woman have to marry her? Because he had dishonored her, and now he was bound to care for her.
Why did Jesus say that divorce is tantamount to adultery? Because both treat your spouse as disposable, rather than caring for him or her as a precious creation of God.
When we seek to understand the Word of God, proof texting misses the mark. All of Scripture is bound up together in a beautiful mosaic of Kingdom values, and until we see the big picture, we won’t understand where each piece fits in. If Scriptures about sex aren’t about sex, they must be about far more.
So take a moment and examine your heart. Do you view your brothers and sisters in Christ with reverence, or with objectifying lust? Does your sexual relationship honor and validate your spouse, or does it just satisfy your desires? Is sex about sex for you? Or is it an expression of something far deeper?
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for one another, love one another deeply, from the heart. –1st Peter 1:22.
For further reading that has recently helped to shape and refine my understanding of sex and relationship, you can click on the following links:
The Porn Myth — Naomi Wolf
My Virginity Mistake — Jessica Henriquez
Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex — Rachel Pietka