Thoughts on Christian Sexual Ethics

I enter this conversation with many questions, very few answers, and a non-traditional (but common) experience of sex and marriage. Over the past few years I have deconstructed my initial understanding of sex and sexuality and just recently started to recreate my sexual ethics. This collection of thoughts is a work in progress and, honestly, will continue to evolve as I learn more.

Human bodies are important.

It’s a common misconception that our souls or spirits are more important than our physical bodies. Flesh is given a bad reputation as something that constantly tempts or deceives. (Have you ever heard the phrase, “…die to the flesh” or something like “that’s just my flesh talking”?) And yes, while we do live this side of the garden in a fallen world, the body does not lose inherent value.

Our bodies are created in the image of the divine and therefore how we use them and share them is important to God. Our physical senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste are all means by which we receive revelation from God and may also share God’s love with others.

“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others, it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship… The body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement. And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life.”

— Alexander Schmemann

The Incarnation also draws our attention to the importance of the body. Jesus came to earth through the body of a woman and he grew from an infant to young man. He experienced all the normal fluids, indigestion, fatigue, hunger, adrenaline, pain, excitement, etc. that we do. He could touch and be touched, savor food, and hear the seagulls. He was fully God and fully human.

Christ came as human and also ascended as a human to demonstrate the body, not only the soul, has eternal value and meaning.

“We cannot fully understand our bodies outside of grace; our bodies meet their true nature only as they are taken up into grace, as they are transformed in relationship to the risen Christ whose body still bears the wounds of crucifixion. The resurrected body, available to us in Jesus Christ, begins even now to make our bodies holy.”

— Beth Felker Jones,

Even now, your body is very good and self-hatred has no place. Christ welcomes you, in your body, to commune with him.

photo: Annie Spratt

Sex is spiritual, too.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are spiritual. Throughout church history people have abstained from sex with a goal to become closer to God, and likewise many have understood sex and marriage to also reflect divine intimacy.

And yet we are not only bodies. To believe this would inappropriately objectify humankind. What we think about sex and sexuality ultimately connects to our beliefs about gender, personhood, and God. These areas are intimately intertwined with each other. For example, if we believe women are inherently the weaker party, this will shape how we treat them and what we expect from them. Or if we believe God is male, this will have implications on how we view leadership and power. The list goes on.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus addresses many things in the Sermon on the Mount. The act of murder and hateful thoughts, as well as adultery and lust are equal in God’s eyes. The invisible things matter just as much as the visible. To disregard our souls, in my opinion, would keep us from a holistic experience of sex or abstinence. I don’t mean to say our salvation is dependent on our sex lives. Far from it, I believe both body and soul, the visible and invisible, are practically inseparable as one learns and discerns how to become closer to God.

Compassionate dialogue over legalism.

Have you ever asked questions like “where’s the line?” or “how far can I go?” and received all different answers? Me too. Different religious groups have more rules than others, but to my knowledge gray area isn’t popular.

In an attempt to be “clear” and draw a line between “pure” and “impure,” many have defined sex as penetrative sex. Translated, this means as long as the penis has not entered/penetrated the vagina, sex has not occurred. And while this does offer a boundary, it does not consider the range of sexual acts that many experts still consider sex. Simply put, sex is the stimulation of the genitals, either with other genitals or with a hand or mouth, thus you have sexual inter- and outer- course. (Did you know? Sex does not require an orgasm to occur.)

Although not everyone may have sex in their lifetime, everyone has a sexuality. Conversations on sex are not simply a pep talk for engaged or married couples. Guidance that assumes marriage is a reality or goal for everyone is sorely mistaken. Unmarried people, young people, LGBTQ+ people, those who are no longer married, differently-abled people, and those crowned with gray hair, are necessary participants in the conversation on sex and intimacy.

Sex, chastity, and celibacy are individual and communal practices.

Individual or communal? Private choice or public discourse? I struggle with the binary of either/or and would rather say sex, chastity, and celibacy are the business of both the individual and the community. They are deeply personal things, yet a community’s dialogue (or lack thereof) has significant impact on the private activity of individuals and families. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements revealed the imbalance between the individual and community. Many churches neglect(ed) to protect the survivors of abuse and use(d) narratives of fear and condemnation to “educate” their members on sex and gender.

Individually, one’s choices on sex, chastity, and celibacy are incredibly personal. Consent, by nature, must be an individual choice. Whether consent is given or not, it must be a choice freely made by the individual. People are also entitled to privacy in this area and should not feel obligated to share things like how often they have sex or why they choose to abstain from sex. Many other details surrounding sex and sexuality, including personal preferences or healthcare choices, may be kept private as well.

Communally, we have a responsibility to protect our neighbors from sexual assault/rape, child marriage and pornography, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, sexually transmitted diseases or infections, human trafficking and exploitation, and incest. To do so requires self-restraint or the enforcement of laws created to impose restraint on behaviors considered dangerous to others. Additionally, is it very important for us to support sex in safe contexts and advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive, sex education for all people. All of this requires prioritizing the subject amongst families, churches, and local/national groups.

In another sense, I believe the marriage relationship is a small community. Spouses commit their bodies to each other and also choose to not have sex with others. There are certain periods where abstinence is appropriate, after childbirth, during illness, perhaps in a bout of grief or traumatic experience. (This is not an exhaustive list.) If the couple choses to have children, their union increases the impact they have on their nuclear community and the broader community they live in.

Was Mary actually a virgin? And other hard questions.

Did the Levite’s concubine sin? Did God actually condemn Esau, Jacob, David, and Solomon for their sex lives? Can we be sure the couple in Song of Solomon were actually married? And does it matter?

Perhaps this deserves another post, but since researching purity culture last year, I get a lot of good questions. Especially on premarital sex. I have so many questions on this term alone. What exactly is marriage? What is marriage when women are considered property? Economic contract or covenant? How have our definitions of sex changed?

Our English translations of the Bible are historically the interpretations of white men, for the most part. Translations are always interpretations. And these interpretations have shaped our theologies and language for God and God’s people.

Food for thought, for now.

photo: Priscilla Du Preez

FAQ: Is premarital sex wrong?

Before you jump to a yes or no answer, consider these questions instead.

  • What is this situation teaching me about God?
  • What about this situation gives life to me? Where do I feel life is being drained from me?
  • Am I able to see and honor the other person as imago dei? Am I able to see and honor myself as an image bearer? What does this mean to me?
  • Am I being coerced or attempting to exert my own power over another?
  • How am I prepared to address the potential emotional and physical outcomes of my choice, whether it’s sex or abstinence?

I am not able to answer these questions for you. I trust you to answer them honestly and make your own decisions. What I can tell you is that you, body, mind, and soul, are created as good. You are loved. You may ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and reveal more of God’s love for you.

Safe sex is, in my opinion, a non-negotiable. Consent between parties, understanding of applicable contraceptive options, and comprehensive sex education are foundational elements. The more specific definition of healthy sex will differ based on who you ask, but it should not exclude the elements of safe sex.

Wherever you find yourself, I’m with you and I’m for you.

Read (or listen) more:

Impure: Taking the Next Step

In this series we’ve covered many topics but you may be left wondering what you can do — right now, this week, in your lifetime — to prevent abuse and respond to sexual violence appropriately.

At the bottom of this post you will find a myriad of helpful resources including books, podcasts, blogs, even instagram accounts to check out and consider for your next step.

Advocacy

Pastoral Advocacy

Members of the clergy have a significant role in the life of the survivor. They can be a trusted (or highly mistrusted) figure. This role has too frequently been mishandled and research finds survivors are not likely to share their experiences with them. Because not all clergy are trained and ordained consistently, not all pastors are professionally equipped to counsel those impacted by violence and trauma and this can potentially re-traumatize those seeking help.

  • Clergy should not counsel couples where abuse or violence is suspected or reported. The context in which counseling takes place requires an openness and vulnerability that may be used against the victim outside the office. (Remember, abuse is centered on power and control.) To maintain safety, victims should be counseled idividually if possible.
  • Clergy should communicate their professional boundaries clearly and not assume they are appropriately trained to handle survivors’ often complex needs. If you find yourself in this position do not be afraid to refer someone to a licensed counselor, therapist, or social worker.
photo: etienne boulanger

While church leaders can be seen as a spiritual or physical shelter from harm, it is healthy for a pastor to admit they do not have all the answers. Just as survivors should be able to ask for help, clergy should, too. Pamela Cooper-White offers encouragement for clergy saying,

By simply offering presence, belief, and an unshakable confidence that she [or he] deserves a life free of violence – especially when she herself [or he himself] does not share that confidence—we are giving a gift of healing and empowerment.

Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response

The Church as a Mediator of Healing

Community is powerful. It can be severely damaging but it can also provide healing. Just as members of a church can pass on legacies of shame and judgement towards recipients of sexual violence, they can also be the hands of hope and justice towards survivors.

  • Do not assume victims can heal on their own.
  • “God won’t give you more than you’re able to handle” (and similar sentiments) are a modified version of victim blaming.
  • Community members are liable for adjusting practices that perpetuate cycles of inappropriate use of power and control and continue to harm. Do not remain silent or passive to violence of any type. Speak up about the liturgy. About representation. About the church policies, if they exist.
  • Confess corporate sin and call for perpetrators to repent.
  • Invite survivors to participate in the sacraments and other volunteer opportunities. Jennifer Beste, professor of theology, suggests, “This simple act communicates to the survivor that he or she is capable and worthy of manifesting God’s presence and grace to the congregation.”

Forgiveness is a sensitive area. The word itself can spark intense emotions. In regards to the abusive actions of Larry Nassar, Rachael Denhollander (the first woman to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse) speaks on forgiveness in her victim impact statement.

“The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”

Rachael Denhollander, read her full statement here.

Her full statement is moving. She continues to advocate for survivors.

More on forgiveness:

Accountability

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. As the church, we are accountable for both personal (Matthew 23) and communal righteousness (Isaiah 58).

People need to be called out for their behavior, but beyond that their behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of a society that creates space for that kind of behavior.”

Tarana Burke

Community Education & Training

  • Be informed on current local and national legislation that either protects (or exposes) survivors. The Violence Against Women Act, for example.
  • Conduct evidence-based, trauma-informed training for volunteers, staff, and others involved with professional or lay ministry. There are many national or local non-profit organizations that provide training.
  • Encourage participation in local efforts to protect vulnerable populations. Volunteer at domestic violence shelters or food pantries. Place cards with emergency help or hotline information in church bathrooms. Sexual violence intersects with many other social issues.
  • Establish a network of interfaith professionals who can assist survivors, domestic violence officers, therapists, social workers, etc.

Institutional Policies

  • Evaluate and adjust church policies to reflect a safe, scriptural, and ethical prevention of and response to sexual violence. Create policies if they don’t exist. Safety must be prioritized.
  • The hiring or screening process should be thorough for those serving the church, either staff or volunteer. There are ministries and consultants that can assist with the evaluation of institutional policies.
  • Hold leaders in all levels of political and religious offices (and everywhere else!) accountable for their actions. Period.
photo: nicole honeywell

Resources for the road.

Wherever your journey leads you I hope you’ve found this series helpful. Below is a starter-list of resources that may help you in your next steps, whether in your personal life or in your community. Some items are more progressive than others; each have valuable insights to offer.

Advocacy Organizations

Podcasts & Ted Talks

Books

Blogs

Instagram Accounts

  • @enagoski (Sexologist, sex educator, author)
  • @kristinbhodson (Sex therapist empowering families from LDS perspective)
  • @sexpositive_families (Discussion on raising healthy, informed kids)
  • @dr.thema (Minister, psychologist, researcher, author)
  • @sexedincolor (Podcast discussing sexuality)
  • @sixminutesexed (Podcast with short conversations on sex education)
  • @consentacademy (Teaching and discussion on consent)
  • @gottmaninstitute (Relationship experts!)

Read more in this series:

Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only campaigns, Christian dating literature and Bible devotionals have implications not only on how a young girl is to interpret her role in her evangelical community but also significantly impacts her understanding of her own sexuality.

Power and control are the foundational elements of an abusive relationship. Purity culture uses these concepts, as well as fear, to (directly or indirectly) maintain male power over women. In terms of sexuality, the combination of these elements results in young girls and women being silenced and shamed for natural sexual desires.

photo: Tamara Bellis

Consent, or lack thereof.

Women have very little, if any, bodily autonomy within purity culture. As Dr. James Dobson was building his case against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, Roe v. Wade argued for a woman’s right to privacy. Against this background, the sexual purity movement argued a woman’s body was not for herself but something to be given to others.

Fathers are tasked with the protection (or control) of their daughter’s sexual purity assuming that a virgin is one of the greatest gifts a husband can receive. (In Christian literature, the word virgin is most often associated with females.) Some even believe the father takes the place of a romantic partner, in a way, while his daughter waits for a spouse. The father protects his daughter’s gift and guards her heart (or hymen) with rituals, vows, rings, and exclusive modesty. The language of “gift,” used in many books like Ludy and Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, denotes possession and ownership.

Especially in the context of courtship, the assumed heterosexual marriage relies on parental consent, although mothers are notably secondary or not present in similar literature. Marriage involves a transference of “protection” from father to husband. In this role, a wife is taught to be submissive to her husband’s authority and sexual urges, even by sacrificing her own sexual pleasure. Within marriage, consent is rarely defined or discussed, leaving lots of room for personal interpretation. Separation or independence from either her father or husband is viewed negatively and assumes her purity is at risk without male protection, meaning single or LGBTQ+ women do not fit in the prescribed box.

“A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road.”

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

The female body is treated like property of the system and property does not require consent. And while she may say “yes” or “no” to his marriage proposal and perhaps “I do” at the altar, the decision has already been made due to the power that rests in the hands of her father and potential husband, and perhaps even her pastor.

Fear of the female body and her libido.

Language of “purity” in this evangelical subculture attempts to expand upon the definition of virginity by including not only physical but also emotional purity. Myths encompass the female libido and body.

“Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me.”

Amanda Barbee (Read her article, Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture here.)

Purity culture teaches it is unnatural for women to be sexually assertive or competent. Men are assumed to have “animalistic” libidos, while women are “passive” and prefer emotional intimacy. For females, their thoughts must be carefully shielded against emotional closeness and sexual desires, though these sexual desires are assumed to be a lesser struggle for them than for men. Constantly, young girls are told to “guard” their bodies, minds, and hearts from the sexual desires of themselves and others.

  • In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” author Stepp believes only men should initiate sex. She suggests women find fulfillment in other areas, such as the kitchen or hospitality.
  • In Shalit’s book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” she argues women are naturally modest and pure, only to be corrupted by the world around them which tempts them to be sexual. Shalit does not believe female sexuality is healthy apart from marriage.
  • In Leslie Ludy’s blog and books, she suggests emotional intimacy is only for a husband. Impure thoughts must be confessed.

From very early ages their bodies are sexualized, objectified, and perceived as dangerous to the male gaze and assumed to threaten his ability to lead or fight. A woman’s reproductive functions have been interpreted as unclean and connected to the myth of “hysteria” or stereotypes of being “overly emotional.” Tertullian, an early Christian author, believed womanhood was essentially tied to destruction and sin, based on Eve’s actions. This idea has been carried into our world today, likely through benevolent sexism. If this is true, as the weaker spouse, women require male protection since they are more predisposed to sin. (This is theologically inaccurate.) If a woman steps outside of this protection, either by dressing “immodestly,” having sex outside the prescribed context, remaining single, or identifying as LGBTQ+, she is then assumed to be a threat to the group.

photo: Suad Kamardeen

Those who are single or LGBTQ+ are not the only ones cast aside in purity culture. Girls and women of color may have more challenges within purity culture than those who are considered white. Media surrounding sexual purity may appear as diverse but a second glance will prove “purity” is directly connected to youthful, slender, cisgender, white virgins. This narrow defintion is elevated above all others, which implies those outside this definition are predisposed to impurity. This contributes to the racist idea that whiteness is the default or “normal” standard in our society.

“To justify breeding, the institutionalized sanctioning of ongoing rape of enslaved black females to produce future laborers, white supremacist patriarchs had to position the black female in the cultural imagination as always “sexually suspect.” To make the black female body machine, vessel, was an act of dismemberment — a mutilation that ensured this group would always be seen as less than, as not really and truly worthy of desire…[White and black men] could dare to fantasize and/or enact sexual acts deemed degrading with black female bodies since it was impossible to ruin that which was perceived as inherently unworthy, tainted and soiled.”

bell hooks (Read her essay, Naked Without Shame: A Counter-Hegemonic Body Politic here.)

These assumptions were not extinguished with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement and have continued to be passed down in a variety of ways. I highly recommend bell hooks’ entire essay, as well as the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

Shame and silenced survivors.

Unless controlled by a father or husband, girls and women are taught to believe their sexualities are dangerous and their bodies cannot be trusted. Without bodily autonomy or an equal share of power — females are denied sexual pleasure.

“Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Purity literature in evangelical circles rarely contrasts premarital sex and sexual violence. When combined with the common elements of rape culture, purity culture views sexual assault and rape as simply sex, and specifically sin if outside marriage. Victims/survivors become perceived of as sinners who have not lost their voice but their purity. These messages can be implicit, but others are direct. Dimarco, in “Technical Virgin,” argues women are always responsible for men’s lust and the resulting thoughts and actions.

“By accepting “boys will be boys” and excusing the behavior of perpetrators we alter the accepted definition of sexual violence to the detriment of those suffering. When this definition changes, sexual violence in its objective form cannot be reported, because it has been normalized by the community.”

Heather Hlavka (Read her article Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse here.)

If sexual violence is recognized for what it is, there is no structure to report abuse or to recover from various types of trauma. The abusive cycle of power, control, and fear can begin again as rape myths and victim blaming may overwhelm any chance of being heard and helped appropriately. Purity culture is abusive to female participants but especially to victims/survivors of sexual violence and single, LGBTQ+, and “minority” girls and women. Men also suffer, although in different ways. Sadly, anyone outside the patriarchal, heteronormative definition of “purity” is likely to feel the weight of myths, victim blaming, and other forms of hostility.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together;” 1 Corinthians 12:26

Read more in this series:

More resources: