Two Challenges to a Christian Sexual Ethic
In 1 Corinthians 5-6, Paul addressed sexual practices which clearly transgressed the boundaries of acceptable behavior for a Christian. On the surface, these behaviors were impermissible because they involved people who belonged to the same sex or family, because they reduced sex to an economic exchange, or because they involved entanglement in idolatrous rituals. In each case, however, the act in question was suspect for the same reason. It gratified a selfish and illegitimate desire for pleasure, status, or power.
We face this problem, too, in our contemporary context. There are many who would boil sex down to nothing more than a consensual exchange which gratifies the desires of both parties. But we also face another problem which cannot be easily dismissed or ignored. It is the problem of romance.
Romance is one of the rarest and most beautiful treasures of human experience, but it does not easily accommodate discipline. Romance is about taking a leap of faith. It is about taking a step into the unknown, perhaps in defiance of societal conventions or the wisdom of our friends, and seeing it turn out for the good. It is about embracing danger for love’s sake and being rewarded with a passionate love affair that endures the tests of time and tribulation.
A Common Solution
We can call these two challenges to a Christian sexual ethic the hedonistic challenge and the romantic challenge, respectively. Both, however, center upon a single question. What is the purpose of sex?
Karen Lebacqz’s article (see Part 2) reminds us that Christians have usually described the purpose of sex in terms of procreation and union. While I acknowledge the utility of this traditional rubric, I would like to broaden, and slightly reformulate, our thinking about the purpose of sex. I would like to do this by calling us to reflect upon what it is sex accomplishes when it is done in accordance with God’s beautiful design.
As we think about Genesis 1-2, Song of Songs, the general witness of Scripture, and the data we have derived from the natural sciences, it emerges that sex accomplishes three important things in the lives of those who engage in it.
- Psycho-Somatic Pleasure – Sex is designed by God to give pleasure to those who participate in it. This pleasure does not come exclusively, or even primarily, from the physical sensations involved. Rather, the most enduring source of pleasure in sex is the admiration each participant expresses through sex for the beauty, strength, and nobility of the other. In this sense, it actually comes closer to what E. James Wilder would call “joy” than it does to hedonistic notions of pleasure.
- Relational Connection – Sex as God intended it also creates a deep sense of connectedness between its participants. This connection manifests itself in the twin acts of bonding and knowing. Bonding and knowing, in turn, drive out shame. That is, as a couple draws deeper into a committed relationship of physical intimacy, they lay aside their fears of rejection and their sense that they are “not good enough.” That, in turn, allows them to be more truly themselves and to give themselves more fully to one another.
- Ontological Oneness – Moreover, sex as God intended it creates a merging of the physical and social self. The man and woman remain distinct personal entities, and yet their identities merge so that they experience the oneness of personhood. That oneness of personhood becomes manifest in the life that is generated through their sexual union. Sex does not have to be procreative to be consistent with God’s design.
When sex is what God intended it to be, these three activities are not only present in all of their variety and vividness, but they also mutually reinforce one another. Mutual admiration contributes to bonding and knowing, and bonding and knowing deepen mutual admiration (and even physical sensation). Likewise, ontological oneness is both the result of and the prime motivator of the acts of bonding and knowing.
This vision of sex is quite different than the one promoted by the hedonistic and romantic challenges to Christian sexual ethics. It construes sex as a psycho-spiritual reality that is embedded in a narrative bigger than itself, not a biological accident or a symbolic expression of individual fulfillment. It is other-focused, whereas its alternatives are self-focused.
More to Consider
My wife likes to boil all of this down this way. Every sex act “must glorify God and edify the other person.” It must bear witness to the goodness, beauty, and trustworthiness of God while simultaneously functioning as an instrument of God’s gentle care for the other person involved.
But how do we call people to this standard—to say nothing of living it ourselves—without compromising God’s Word, encouraging legalism, or facilitating what Christian Smith called “moralistic, therapeutic deism”? That is the challenge we will tackle in the next blog.