Christians are obsessed with sex.
Well, that’s certainly what we are told – that Christians have an unhealthy and damaging obsession with what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms. We are always telling people to stop having fun.
… Our society is in the grip of a sex obsession which is equally damaging.
One of the 20th century’s greatest critics of Christianity, Bertrand Russell wrote a book called Why I Am Not a Christian. In that book he has lots to say against Christianity, but he says that Christianity’s attitude towards sex is the worst thing about it – he calls it “morbid and unnatural.”
Russell said: “The Church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should involve very little pleasure and a great deal of pain.”
If you have seen any of TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, you certainly would have got that impression. It’s a tale of a dystopian future where fertility rates decline and the US is taken over by Christian fundamentalists. The few remaining fertile women are forced into a kind of sex slavery in elite households, where they have to submit to a form of ritualised rape.
You get the impression, from the discussion I’ve heard around the series, that some people think that this is exactly what we Christians would do if we got the chance.
But the irony of this accusation is that our society is in the grip of a sex obsession which is equally damaging.
Pornhub tells us that it had 28.5 billion visits to its website in 2017 while, during that same year, 68 years of porn were uploaded. Now, the sex industry loves to market porn as a harmless recreation, but study after study is coming out showing that porn is having a devastating effect on our sexual selves, and especially on the sexual selves of young people.
We live in the most sexualised culture in history. Being obsessed with sex is just what we are.
But I would say that Christians are obsessed with sex – but not in the way you think. Christians are obsessed with sex because Christians are obsessed with people, and sex is deeply personal. You never have sex with just a body; you have sex with a person. And so sex is sacred, because people are sacred to God. Christianity understands human beings, men and women, as precious to God in their whole existence, body and soul.
Sex is a deeply personal thing for human beings
We actually know about the sacredness of sex in two ways: from personal experience and observation, and from the Bible.
You might remember a song from 1999 by The Bloodhound Gang which basically went “you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals / so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.”
Now that’s a classy way to seduce someone, isn’t it? But it’s the view that “it’s just sex, and nothing more.” Sex is just a recreational activity, a bit like golf, or sailing, so you can have a buddy who helps you out in that area, or a friend with benefits, and we all walk away unaffected.
But we know that this isn’t true. Sex is a deeply personal thing for human beings because we know we are more than just mammals. Sex is where we are at our most open and vulnerable – where people have a power over people and they have a power over us. We know what deep damage sex gone wrong can do. This is the plaintive cry of the #MeToo movement. Child abuse and rape are horrible crimes against someone’s very personhood.
This isn’t just true about abusive or non-consensual sex, either. I read an article on a mainstream news platform which was basically advice about having commitment-free sex; and it said, whatever you do don’t cuddle after sex, because your body releases a hormone called oxytocin which is designed to bond you to your partner … So even our bodies are telling us at a deep level that sex is relational and personal; it is designed not only to make babies, but it’s designed to bond sexual partners together.
Sex involves not just your body, it involves you. And it involves another person, and not just their body. We talk about safe sex and protected sex, because we use contraceptives to prevent what can happen when we connect two bodies – unwanted pregnancy and STDs.
The Bible is much more sex-positive than we realise.
But for the personal part of us, all sex is unsafe and unprotected. As Lachlan McFarlane, a friend of mine, says: “You can’t put a condom on your psyche.”
And this is what the Bible says about sex, too. The Bible is much more sex-positive than we realise. But it also tells us of the ways we human beings hurt each other and ourselves with sex.
The first human couple were created not just to reproduce, but because it was not good to be alone. Genesis records that great moment when Adam met Eve for the first time: “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” he says in surprise and wonder. She is a true collaborator for him, and he for her.
And, we are told, the two of them became the paradigm of marriage – “the two shall became one flesh.” Husbands and wives become a unity of two – not just because their bodies unite, but because their lives intertwine and overlap, and they now belong to one another.
And in the Garden there was, in this relationship between the two, a complete openness – “the two were naked, and they knew no shame.” (Genesis 2:25)
Their relationship was about more than sex, but the sex between them expressed what their relationship was.
Has our culture really got sex sorted out?
The specialness of sex and our vulnerability in it is something we all know. This is why the apostle Paul suggests there is something particularly sharp when we get sex wrong. In 1 Corinthians 6, he is trying to tell the Christians why it’s really not ok to visit the prostitutes who were part of the local pagan temple. He says, to paraphrase, “when you sin sexually, you sin against your own body.” Our bodies are precious to God, they are sacred, and to misuse them is to take something holy and totally trash it. It’s like taking a Picasso and using it for wrapping paper.
This is why God has given us marriage as the proper and exclusive context for keeping sex sacred. Yes that’s right: the Bible teaches, and Christians have always taught, that sex belongs in marriage, which is a lifelong union between a man and woman.
Now I can imagine you saying: “It’s 2018!! How out of date! That’s a pre-historic sexual ethic!”
And I agree that what Christians are saying about sex is really strange in the 21st century. But we should remember: it was strange in the first century as well. The norm in Greco-Roman society, especially for wealthy men, was to be promiscuous with sex.
But has our culture really got sex sorted out? We’ve made the only boundary to sex with another person “consent.” If they want to, and I want to, then who cares?
But consent is an extremely vague idea. It doesn’t protect us at all. We know that people can consent to sex they don’t want. We know that people’s ability to consent can be distorted by drugs and alcohol, or by manipulation, or just by feeling powerless.
… Just being married is no guarantee that sex is great or that sex will be what it could be.
God gave us marriage because in marriage we promise to give ourselves entirely to the other person, and to receive the other person as a whole person. The promises we make in marriage say to the other person: I bind myself to you not just for my pleasure but so that you will flourish. And the far boundary of my promise is not the fading of my desire for you but my death. You are safe to be naked with me, body and soul, and I am safe to be naked with you. And we make those promises publicly in front of God and with our friends and families because we know that we need help to keep them, as weak human beings.
God gives us marriage not because he is rule-obsessed and forbidding and wants to fill us with shame, but because this is good for us.
Now, of course, I should stress that just being married is no guarantee that sex is great or that sex will be what it could be. That’s one thing Christians have sometimes got wrong – we’ve assumed that marriage can solve many of our deepest problems, and we’ve forgotten that it doesn’t work that way.
But the ideal for which we strive in marriage is something we see in God himself. In the New Testament we hear about Jesus being like a bridegroom who lays down his life for his wife, the church. The kind of loving faithfulness and self-sacrifice and forgiveness it takes to make a marriage between human beings is demonstrated for us by Jesus himself.
And this leads me to the next thing I need to say about sex from a Christian point of view. You may know all too well your sexual brokenness. You may feel deeply ashamed by your behaviour as a sexual being.
And churches haven’t helped this by preaching law and condemnation, and not the message of God’s surpassing love. Maybe your church experience has filled you with self-disgust and not with freedom and hope.
But this is where we need to hear the most important thing to hear about sex. God’s love in Jesus Christ is for you even in your pain and regret about sex. Jesus died to make you holy – including your sexual self.
The struggle for us is often to believe how good the good news actually is.
The Bible has plenty of examples. Of Rahab the prostitute who turned out to be the ancestor of Jesus; of King David, who was an adulterer with Bathsheba, another of Jesus’ grandmothers; of the woman of Samaria, who had five husbands and was living with another man; of the prostituted women who gathered around Jesus because he accepted them and ate with them and didn’t take advantage of them; of the woman caught in adultery, who Jesus forgave; of the Corinthians who had been part of all the sexual adventures of their city before the gospel came, and struggled to free themselves from that culture.
The struggle for us is often to believe how good the good news actually is. Shame can get into us so deeply we can’t imagine living without it. And yet: Jesus shed his blood to cleanse us from our guilt and shame, so that we can live as new people. We think that once we are sexually damaged that there’s no return; once we’ve cheapened what is meant to be sacred, we are worthless. But Jesus’s death says to us: I bought you and your body at the price of my own body. You are more precious to me than you know.
So, then: sex is sacred because it is about people, and people are sacred to God.
And there are two ways to live honouring the sacredness of sex and the preciousness of people – yourself and others. One is to be single and celibate. That might be your current state of life – you may be never married, divorced or widowed. The best way for you to honour the worth of your own body is to abstain from sex.
The other option is to be married and faithful. As I said, just to be married guarantees nothing. Sex in marriage is a product of giving yourself, body and soul, to your partner. It expresses love exclusively and consistently, just as God himself does. And with the blessing of a lifelong sexual partner comes the deep responsibility of caring for them as you would care for your own body.
But both single and married people need to hear the great news of Jesus’s love for his people – that he died to make them whole, and to purify them. God’s grace to us in Jesus is a detergent to wash us clean from the deepest stains.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.