This past Sunday at Christ’s Church of Oronogo, I got to teach part of a class to parents of teenagers on the topic of sex. I always feel a little weird speaking at things like this – not because I’m embarrassed about the topic or afraid of discussing controversial issues – but because I don’t feel at all like an expert. Fortunately, on Sunday I had the help of one of the other parents who also volunteers teaching sex ed in our junior high. Given her experience teaching students and answering their questions, she brought a lot more credibility to our discussion.
My job was to offer a very brief summary of a biblical sexual ethic. I narrowed it down to just three points, and I thought it might be useful to share and expand on those points here. Each one of the points is a counter-point to the conventional wisdom of the culture that our young people are growing up in.
- Conventional wisdom says that what you do with your body can remain disconnected from your emotional and mental well-being. A biblical sexual ethic says you are a body and a soul. Increasingly, the only morality surrounding sex is the morality of consent. Sex is simply a social interaction entered into by adults who have consented to the act. We have become children of Alfred Kinsey who said, “Sex is a normal biological function, acceptable in whatever form it is manifested.” Sex is simply something that happens between bodies. Our emotions, our mental states, and our souls have little to do with sex. This is the assumption of hook-up culture. And this assumption is leaving a trail of brokenness in its wake. Read this article in the New York Times as the author laments a culture that asks for consent before sex but never even thinks to ask for consent to leave the next morning without so much as a good-bye. Scripture says that you are a body and a soul. What you do with your body has an effect on your soul whether or not you chose to acknowledge it. This seems to be one of the points Paul is making in 1 Cor. 6:12-20. The Corinthians had come to believe that sex was just something that you did with your body while forgetting the real spiritual dynamics of sex. It is against our very nature to treat sex as if it were little more than a naked handshake, and whenever we try to treat it that way, it has devastating effects. Even if our culture is losing the vocabulary of spirituality, there is plenty of evidence all around us that less sexual partners actually leads to more happiness and less alienation. Or, to put it negatively, we routinely warn children about the negative physical consequences of sex, but we must also warn them of the deep, abiding emotional and soulish consequences of sex.
- Conventional wisdom says that coitus is koinos. Koinos is a Greek word meaning “commonplace.” A biblical ethic of sexuality, on the other hand, tells us that sex is sacred. Christians are sometimes accused of an overly prudish and almost hostile disposition towards sex. That is no doubt true in some cases. But it is more often the case that what one person interprets as prudishness is actually the manifestation of a sacred respect. Things that are commonplace are not precious and are therefore not safe guarded. But sacred things are both celebrated and protected with certain safe guards and restrictions. A negligent father treats his children as koinos. The children may at first appreciate the resulting freedom. But this appreciation will quickly turn to resentment when it is realized that this freedom came at the expense of preciousness. Chesterton said in his book on St. Francis, “The effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex.” That is the way with sacred things. When they are treated as precious, they are a blessing. When they are treated as common, they become a curse. The New Testament doesn’t just tell us to avoid sexual immorality, or treating sex as a common thing (porneia in Greek). It tells us to flee from it (1 Cor. 6; 1 Thess. 4:1-18). We flee from this sin, not because sex is bad, but because sex is sacred. The natural question some might ask is “What makes sex sacred?” I think there’s at least two kinds of answers – practical answers and theological answers. The practical answer is that sex acts like something sacred in its use and abuse. To put it another way, if there were such things as sacred things, we would expect them to have the type of effects that sex has. The second, more theological reason is because ultimately sex doesn’t belong to you. This leads me to my last point.
- In order to rightly understand anything, you have to first understand its end, or, what it is for. You can’t really use and enjoy sex appropriately without recognizing its end. Conventional wisdom says that the purpose of sex is rather simple. At the most basic level, sex is for gratification. Related to this is the assumption that sex is required for personal fulfillment. A person not having sex is a person who is somehow less than an actualized person. So sex belongs to the individual. My sex life is mine. This is so ingrained within us that to even question it seems backwards and maybe even dangerous. But what if that assumption is wrong? What if sex isn’t yours at all? In fact, I believe this is one of the things that makes sex sacred. Sex is a gift given to us from God. And like any gift, it has the potential to bless or to become an idol. So it is somewhat ironic that in our attempt to strip sex of its sacredness, we’ve turned it into one of our greatest idols. Even Christian people who have professed the Lordship of Jesus will sometimes make an exception when it comes to their sex lives. It is assumed that saying “yes” to Jesus shouldn’t require us to say “no” to our sexual fulfillment. But what is the biblical end of sex? What is it for? Christians would agree that it is for enjoyment. (Hello, Song of Songs!) We would simply say that this is not all it is for. A biblical sexual ethic says that sex is creative. By this, I mean two things. First, sex creates a new union. Jesus, echoing the words of Genesis, says that in sexual union the man and the woman become one flesh (Matthew 19:6). This is a physical union (in the complementary nature of physical anatomy) as well as a spiritual union – God has joined them together. All sex outside of God’s design for marriage is labelled sexual immorality because to God sex is marriage. When you have sex you are united together as one flesh. Sex should never be about anything as base as your personal fulfillment. Secondly, sex doesn’t just create a new union, it also carries the potential of creating new life. Amazingly, it’s become easy to miss this point. Children – at least the way many talk about sex – are a nasty potential consequence of sex sort of like getting a hangover might be a nasty consequence of drinking too much. But this is one more reason why sex is so sacred. Because life is sacred, engaging in the very activity that has the potential to create a new life should be treated with the seriousness that life demands. As the purpose of sex has been more and more removed from marriage and from creating new life, it has become more and more about the self. Christian parents must be daring enough to challenge this conventional wisdom in their own lives and in their children.
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