This is the final instalment of my series setting out a Christian understanding of good sex. So far we have examined the way Christians understand the purpose of sex by looking to the will of God as it is revealed in nature and, more importantly, Scripture. We then examined the central values that the Christian tradition has understood characterise a good and life-giving view of sex. You can read about the first three of these (sex should be passionate, faithful, and sacrificial) in my previous posts.
This week I want to look at a central aspect of the gift of sex that is often undervalued in contemporary Western culture but for the vast majority of people across the world throughout history has been the central or one of the central purposes of sex: sex is designed to be fruitful.
As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with other texts that expand on it in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:2-9) and St Paul (1 Corinthians 7:3-5; Ephesians 5:25-33).
Sex Should Be Fruitful
In a Christian understanding, sex is intrinsically linked with bringing new life. The idea of children cannot be separated from sex. I am aware that this is a sensitive subject and I am going to address the pain of childlessness and the use of contraception in a moment. Before we can think about those situations, however, we need to see the big picture of God’s plans.
This is another area in which the Christian perspective, which has also been the understanding of the vast majority of the world (whether Christian or not) throughout at least the last two thousand years, has been neglected or rejected by our culture. It has also been seriously neglected by Protestant writers and thinkers in the area of sexual ethics. Thus in the various debates that have taken place during my life around sexuality, marriage, divorce and the depiction of sex in media I have rarely heard a contemporary commentator raise the intrinsic link between sex and reproduction unless they write as a Roman Catholic. This neglect is a serious mistake and requires us to ignore almost everything that we learn from our bodies, our desires and Scripture.
Because the link between sex, complementarity and fruitfulness has been so underemphasised in our culture, I’m going to spend a bit of time establishing it. Forgive me for being graphic in places but there are elements of this that are so obvious that they have become easy to overlook and ignore.
First of all, there is simple biology. Without wishing to be crude, almost everything about the way our bodies are designed to interact sexually is aimed at producing children. The physical make up of men and women, the body’s response to sexual stimulus, and the physical outcome of sex all lead naturally to creating life and are obviously intended in some sense to do so. I don’t need to labour the point – every sexual encounter engages some aspect of human physiology that is designed to create life. It is inevitable. The link is unavoidable.
In most cases we have to go to enormous steps to prevent sex producing life which involve manipulating our bodies to remove contact in some way or inhibit our natural biological processes either by intervening chemically (as in the Pill) or physically (as when we use a condom or pursue other forms of sexual activity).
We can and should go further than mere biology, however. Scripture showcases the link between sex and children. So we read in the beginning God says to man and woman:
‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’
From the beginning sex has been directed towards the conceiving of new life. There is something unique about this fruitfulness. It comes from two people organically being united and out of their union a third is conceived. To think about it theologically, those who bear God’s image produce others who can bear his image. It speaks of God’s love that always seeks and produces life. It pictures God’s desire for our lives that they be fruitful and through our union with him bring others to new life. Our relationship with God is not designed to be something merely for us to enjoy; it is designed to bless and bring life for others.
This inseparable link from Scripture and our experience between sex and fruitfulness poses some important pastoral and social questions for us. I can’t deal with these in detail but I do want to acknowledge and address them. I am going to be addressing other issues, such as IVF, in future so if there is something you’d like me to deal with then please ask.
What About Contraception?
First, what about contraception?
The Scripture doesn’t speak directly to this question and so I want to make explicit that I am not laying down the law; there is scope for Christians to disagree about this. That is part of the freedom we have to follow Christ according to our consciences.
Having said that, my own conviction is that it is fine in principle to use contraception to manage when we conceive children and under what circumstances, so long as our methods of contraception do not involve taking a life that has already been conceived. There is, I believe, a place for responsibly managing how we bring life and manage natural processes that we can see in Scripture. It is part of wise stewardship of the world.
I do want to add a caution, however. The widespread availability of widespread contraception has been in many ways positive. Yet it also brings serious risks to our understanding of sex, family and society. Our society has come to view children paradoxically as both a burden to be avoided and a right to be demanded. They are neither. They are, the Psalmist says, ‘a heritage from the Lord’. Children are a good in and of themselves that is given by God. They are part of God’s blessing. We should be careful, therefore, that we should not exclude conception from our sexual relationships. Contraception is a tool for managing how we conceive, not for preventing us from conceiving.
I also want to add that certain forms of contraception, even those which do not eliminate a foetus that has already been conceived, can have serious health consequences for us, particularly for women. If contraception is harming your body then I gently want to challenge whether it is really right for you at this moment.
What About Childlessness?
What about the pain of childlessness? This can be a struggle for couples who are married and are open to, even desperate for, children yet have not yet conceived. First I want to say, you have not failed, your relationship is not disappointing to God or in any way diminished or invalid. Second, God does do wonderful things even when we do not expect it. There are couples I know who were unable to conceive for years and then when they had almost given up conceived a child. Third, if you feel the calling of adoption then you echo the heart of God who adopts each one of us into his family; you are doing his work.
Yet there are those who do not have children whether because they are single or because of other circumstances they cannot. To anyone struggling with this I want to weep with you, walk with you and listen to you. Then I am going to want to gently point you to the bigger purposes of God in creation and redemption. You are called by God to play a part in filling the world with his glory. You are called to bringing others into new life, to making them children of God. Indeed, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, you are uniquely placed and qualified to do so.
This season may be painful but it can also be fruitful. I want to finish this section with the words of Katie Tumino, who writes about her own struggles with childlessness:
It is not an absolute that we will marry or that we will have children. What is an absolute is that we are called to bear and raise spiritual children within the covenant marriage of Christ and the church. Whether you are in the season of bearing and raising children or a season of painful barrenness, either physically or circumstantially (in unwanted singleness), we are called to the same task, gifted with the same blessing.
Therefore, it is my pleasure to invite you, child of God, whether bearing or barren, to go make disciples.
 Genesis 1:28.
 Psalm 127:3.