A lot of the issues that come up in pastoral work or in people’s questions revolve around sex whether in practice or (so to speak) in theory. It is a big issue for our culture, although one about which we seem terribly confused.
It can be tempting to dive straight in to discussing questions ranging from sexuality to marriage to prostitution to singleness to IVF. Yet the more I have read specific responses dealing with any one of these issues, the more conscious I am that our answers are really determined by what we believe about sex itself.
Moreover, when we address specific questions about sexual ethics without examining what we believe sex is, what we feel it is for, and how we plan to answer any issues it provokes, our answers will inevitably be unsatisfactory or incomplete. Moreover, we can end up seeing only the problems that arise from our abuse of sex and sexuality rather than the beauty of its intended use.
For that reason I want to spend some time today looking at a truly Christian and Biblical understanding of sex, providing a vision for its use and an account of its purpose. It is my conviction that the Christian vision of sex and relationships is beautiful, life-giving, society enriching, soul-nurturing and God-glorifying. Throughout it is undergirded by the firm belief in the grace of God that can redeem anyone irrespective of where we have come from, how broken we may be, or what we may have done.
My first three posts are going to set out some foundations before I argue for four characteristics or pillars of the Christian understanding of good sex.
This week I am going to argue that Christians understand sex to be a gift.
A Christian understanding of sex is rooted in the archetypal stories of God’s creation of humanity. These stories are intended to communicate something of what God’s original design and intention for humanity was and would be in a world without selfishness, pride and self-centredness. The texts found in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 are the heart of this and were repeated and reaffirmed by both Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:25-33). These readings are central for everything else I am going to talk about.
Sex is a Gift
A Christian understanding of sex begins with the idea that we are created by God and that sex was given to us by him. So we read in Genesis 1 that:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number;
In other words men and women are designed by God to bear his image. Our bodies are not an accident. This may be difficult to believe but humanity as a whole is designed, body and soul, to be the bearers of the image of God. Our bodies are not incidental carriers for our souls that we are waiting to get rid of, they are gifts to us from God. That gift includes sex.
This contains within it ideas that are profoundly counter-cultural.
The idea that we are designed by someone and that sex is given to us is different from the narrative that Western culture has increasingly subscribed to for at least 50 years and probably longer.
Since at least the 1960s if not earlier the dominant cultural understanding of sex and identity has been that its meaning is created from within each one of us. Within this thought, I give myself meaning. I am responsible for telling both myself and the rest of the world who I am and what meaning my actions have. Sex has the meaning I give to it; it is about me. Very often this view has come to be coupled with the idea that our bodies do not really matter; they are just the physical baggage we received when we came into the world.
For Christians the position is very different. In a Christian perspective our identity and dignity come not from within ourselves but from the fact that God loves us, has given us this world and has made each one of us to bear his image.
This is an amazing liberating message. If we are loved and have meaning because of the One who made us then we are set free from the crippling anxiety of self-doubt, shame and the fear of failure.
Christians understand that sex as a part of creation is designed by a Creator and has a meaning. We have discovered that we are creatures designed and made with dignity and purpose by a Creator who has given us a gift. We don’t generate the meaning of sex from within ourselves, rather we discover the meaning it has already been given by God.
For this reason we look God to understand ourselves including the meaning and use of sex. We don’t look within, we look without to One who is unchangeable, glorious and has loved us from all eternity. We say to him, ‘we were made by you, we bear your image, what do you want intend for us?’
Generally we do this in two ways. We look to the world God has created – how does the physical nature of our bodies suggest they are to be used? This is a guide but a flawed one because creation is not any longer as God created it. Put simply, we mess the world up and nowhere is this more obvious than in our sexual behaviour. You cannot have campaigns such as #metoo or the various scandals we have seen in recent years without something having gone badly wrong with the way that human beings treat one another. This is one of the problems with debates about whether something is ‘natural’ or not. ‘Natural’ is a good category but it is flawed.
As Christians we want to look beyond that – we can see that human beings fit together in certain ways that suggests a design – but then we look to the Bible, to what God has told us about himself. We look to Scripture to tell us ‘what is the intended purpose of this thing?’; ‘what does it mean?’; and ‘how can it be used?’ In particular we look to Jesus and the Apostles.
This has three big consequences:
- It removes from us the burden of constantly generating our identity and significance more broadly, or of sex more specifically, from within ourselves. I don’t have to bear the burden of deciding who I am or of creating a sexual ethic from scratch.
This is too big a burden for individuals or a culture to bear. We cannot bear the load of being God and when we try our attempts inevitably break down. This explains the confusion in our present culture over issues such as whether bodies really are important or not, whether consent is a sufficient safeguard for women, and whether marriage is so important it should be available for everyone irrespective of the gender of our partner or irrelevant and should be abolished.
We don’t need to bear this load. Our identity comes not from within ourselves but from being made as an image bearer of God with the potential to become his child.
- It releases us from the confusion of everyone having different and competing standards for what is sexually appropriate or permissible.
Part of not being able to bear the weight of generating our own meaning is that we are pretty bad about it and it leads to us being confused.
It’s as if we have tried to construct an elaborate piece of furniture without reference to the instructions we have been given. We will get some things right but will be hopelessly confused about others. As Christians we look to the instructions given by the Creator which preserves us from that confusion.
- It protects us from the danger of having the sexual desires of the strong imposed upon us.
Human beings, left to their own devices, tend to prioritise the desires of the strong over the protection of the weak. In our natural state we tend towards chaos and the rule of the mighty. The scandals of the past few years are vivid and terrifying demonstration of the exploitation of the weak by the strong.
By contrast, the Christian view of sex and marriage protects the weak and constrains the strong.
Instead we can know that we will flourish and prosper, and receive the best from the gift of sex, when we look at how it was intended to be used.
If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:
- A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
- Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.