A Theology of Sex: End-of-Year Reflections

theologyofsexStudying sex isn’t nearly as much fun as having sex. That being said I did learn a great deal from this year’s study on a Theology of Sex. I read a host of literature on a myriad of related subjects including pornography, lust, homosexuality, gender studies, and marriage. I read a variety of perspectives on the topics ranging from traditional conservative Christian perspectives (both Protestant and Catholic), and progressive Christian perspectives (both Protestant and Catholic), and pro-Gay perspectives. As well as secular and even Marxist perspectives. I tried my best to constantly refer back to the text of Scripture and to develop my own theology based on what God’s Word actually says about the subject, which turned out to be a lot. I read from sociological works, theological works, and autobiographical works. It was a fascinating year-long project that has proved to be helpful to me both as an individual and as a pastor.

Wrapping up a study like this is not easy. I’ve learned so much and my desire is to share everything I’ve gleaned from the pages of the Bible and the scholarly books and articles I’ve read. But I will limit myself to just a few reflections. There was, of course, much that I read that I already knew, at least in theory. But I was surprised by how much fresh and significant material I was able to gather from my studies. The subject of human sexuality is complex and deep, and it will always produce rewards to those who take the time to study, whether that study is new or merely a deepening of familiarity.

Here are some of the things I learned from this year’s study of a Theology of Sex:

  1. There is a real connection between sexuality and spirituality. If I already knew this then this year’s study has confirmed and further deepened that understanding. Most of us, even Christians, have a tendency to view sex purely in physical terms. So we think of sex and sexuality as “sexiness” in regard to physical appearance and sexual availability. Sex is, however, part of the covenantal bond between husband and wife and as such has spiritual implications.

Pagan cultures understood this reality. For so many of them had cult prostitutes and used sex as a way of accessing the gods or giving their bodies to the gods. Even present day Satanic cults view sex as a spiritual event. But Christianity too believes in the spirituality of sex.

The Bible is replete with this idea of the connection between the two. The apostle speaks of the body as a “temple” to the living God. So that what we do with our bodies sexually is a spiritual act of idolatry or fidelity to Yahweh (1 Cor. 6:15-16). In addition, Paul can talk about sex as spiritual warfare (1 Cor. 7:5), and the union of husband and wife (which certainly includes sexual union) as an image of the gospel (Eph. 5:31-32). This means that sex is never just “sex.” What we do with our bodies, what we do in sexual intimacy with one another either leads us closer to God or further from him. It either creates healthy relationships between partners or it destroys them. Like all things sex is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

2. The church needs to focus on articulating a fully developed theology of sex, not a list of rules. Sociological studies reveal now that Christians teenagers are more likely to engage in pre-marital and promiscuous sex than their religious counterparts (Jews, Muslims, etc.). The reason being that by-in-large Christian teens have developed a principle of abstinence on convenience not on God’s standard. They don’t want to get pregnant and ruin their careers, or catch an STD, and so they abstain. But if you can remove the risk with protection, or by engaging in other types of fornication (oral sex, mutual masturbation, etc.), then teens will no longer have a reason to abstain.

In many cases the church has given teens a list of rules that says to them sex isn’t safe, it’s dirty, it’s gross, and you may catch a disease if you engage in it (then we add, “so save it for your spouse”). We have not given our people, adults and teens, a theology of sex that encompasses the God-exalting, people-loving, purposes for sex. God is not “anti-sex,” he is for healthy, happy sex within properly defined boundaries. Sex is God’s creation and when we begin with the proper foundation and we build the proper boundaries we can teach our people the Bible’s view of healthy sexuality and healthy sexual expression.

What we believe about sex reveals what we believe about God, ourselves, sin, judgment and the gospel. If the church isn’t helping people to see these relationships more clearly we are going to have shallow Christians with self-made ethics.

3. When we address issues of sexual immorality we must always do so from within the framework of the gospel. There is no sin so great that Jesus can’t pay for it. Sexual sins are no different from any other sins. And regardless of the consequences of people’s sin we need to always point them to the forgiveness they can find in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

The church has sometimes suggested, by virtue of its tone and focus, that some sins are so gross and immoral that we can’t even discuss them in a healthy way. This has been particularly true of homosexuality. I was surprised throughout my studies this year at just how much I had to learn about this subject, about how much I need to listen from others. Homosexuality is often isolated from other sins, even other sexual sins, as if it is the most revolting and ungodly thing imaginable. That is often the failure of a person who doesn’t understand the Bible’s conception of sin and of the total beauty of the gospel. The gospel ought to compel us to love all people and extend grace to all people.

Furthermore, any discussion of fighting sexual temptation or dealing with sin and its consequences that is rooted in behavioral change or performance is a devoid of the gospel. We want to direct people to what God has done for them at the cross and in the resurrection, and to what the Holy Spirit can do through them now. We want the gospel to be at the center of our help and their hope. Performance is important, but it is not the center of our focus on matters of sexuality. The gospel is always the center of our discussions on these matters as it shapes how we respond to others and to our own sin.

4. It is important to be practical. A lot of sociological books talk about the danger and damage of sexual immorality. So studies will reveal the serious consequences of cohabitation or the danger of pornography. But in the process of delineating such information they have little practical help to offer. I can’t tell you how many books I read that said something to the effect of “there are plenty of other books out there that can help you outline a plan for fighting against this problem.” There was a consistent passing of the buck. But practical help is incredibly important in this area.

As Christians we can’t simply be okay with recognizing and diagnosing the problem. If we are going to be obedient to Jesus then we have to cut out of our lives whatever is causing us to sin (Matthew 5:28-30). Josh Harris’ volume was particularly practical, as was Tim Chester’s Closing the Window.

5. The Bible is remarkably straight forwards on matters of sexual ethics. That’s not to say that there aren’t some difficult passages and concepts, but in general the Bible is pretty direct about what is good and what is bad. God leaves us with no real confusion about the boundaries of sexual expression.

There are plenty of well-educated people who want to challenge that statement, but after a year of studying, reading, and researching I am convinced by the blatant and direct statements of Scripture. It takes remarkable audacity and rhetorical skill to make the texts of Scripture not say exactly what they say.

So after a year of studying sex I remain committed to the Word of God and God’s definition of and governance over human sexuality. These are not easy subjects to discuss and they were often uncomfortable to read about and reflect on. But I am grateful for God’s love and mercy, grateful for his directness and for His Word. And, not surprisingly, I am grateful for sex.

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