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:

Crafting a Mission Statement for Marriage

On the topic of marriage, one of the more meaningful topics Aaron and I have recently discussed was a mission statement. It’s come up at a perfect time, too. We’ve been challenged in recent months to be more mindful in our relationship, vocation, and patterns of rest. A mission statement, although kind of corny upon my first impression, (can we find another name!?) has offered renewed focus as we enter our fourth year of married life.

Similar to developing a rule of life, a mission statement considers several categories. Aaron and I opted to keep it simple and chose to include spirituality, the physical body, the heart, and the mind. (We also included a statement that introduced the categories we chose.) You might prefer more general or specific areas. Just like the rule of life, this should relate to your particular context.

photo: steven schultz

This activity may stir up easy and not-so easy conversations. These are important but if you find yourself continually down the rabbit trail, focus on the ultimate goals for the relationship. What’s the big picture? How would you like to be remembered? This statement can be helpful by showing you where you’d like to go as a couple, even if your present circumstances aren’t what you’d like them to be.

Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • What makes you come alive, as an individual/couple?
  • What factors strengthen the relationship?
  • Where do you want to grow together?
  • Where would you like to be in 20 years? 40 years?
  • Who would you like to be known as?

Below you’ll find the current state of our mission statement with a few descriptions. We expect it to adjust as we grow together and potentially expand our family. I hope that you’ll be encouraged and inspired to write one for your own relationship.

We aim to humbly honor the complete imago dei found in each person, in spirit, body, heart, and mind – reflecting the Trinity, which has no hierarchy. (In this introductory statement it was important for us to recognize each other as whole, individual reflections of God. We do not believe the act of marriage “completes” us, nor do we believe hierarchy, especially gender-based, is appropriate in our marriage.

We aim to engage with scripture, as well as offer up holy questions and creativity, to grow closer to the Creator and in our worship and witness to God’s eternal faithfulness. (We believe embracing uncertainty and mystery, as well as divine creativity and curiosity, is important to our faith and study of the Bible. It is also important to us that we refer to God with gender-neutral language whenever possible.)

We aim to holistically care for and share our bodies with love, respect, and wonder. With proper nourishment and rest we hope to be sources of generous hospitality for one another and others. (Although we have very different methods of achieving physical health, we both believe our bodies are extremely important to not only our individual wellbeing and also communal wellbeing in marriage and society. We recognize the human body is impressionable and powerful – something that requires deep respect and care. Physical spaces are important too, and significantly impact all other areas of life, thus our hope of generous hospitality either in presence or place.)

We aim to listen to one another empathetically, speak to the other with gentleness, and strengthen each other with truth and patience. (We could list the fruit of the spirit in this category but we’ll save that for another day. Both Aaron and I feel our emotions pretty deeply, and I’m stubborn as hell, so this is something we’re actively working on.)

We aim to pursue wisdom through thoughtful study of scripture and our world, in history and present day. We encourage the exploration of art, ideas, and stories to sharpen our minds (and imagination), direct our energy, and increase compassion for others. (Thoughtfulness and intellect are God-given gifts that we believe should be encouraged and continually developed in marriage. We hope to be lifelong learners.)

I only include the italicized descriptions for the purpose of this post, otherwise this statement isn’t too long. Your statement can be playful and concise, or detailed and romantic – as long as it reflects your mutual vision for marriage.

I created a reminder for us to hang somewhere in our home. (Still figuring out the perfect spot.) If you’re up for sharing, I’d love to see or hear about yours!

Impure: Purity Culture is Rape Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of rape culture 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.)

Research identifies rape culture, or a space where rape or sexual violence is normalized, by a few things: acceptance of myths about rape, victim blaming, traditional gender stereotypes, and hostile and benevolent sexism. Purity culture embraces many of these elements.

Rape Myth Acceptance

Rape myths are false beliefs about the definition of rape as well as the victim and rapist. Unfortunately, these myths can create an environment where perpetrators are often protected rather than victims/survivors. To my surprise, I found both men and women believe and promote these false beliefs.

Common rape myths:

  • “They were asking for it.”
  • “She could have resisted if she wanted to.”
  • “Only bad girls/boys get raped.”
  • “Rape only happens at night.”
  • “Your spouse can’t rape you.”

Myths in purity culture can be included in subtle themes or direct messaging. These false beliefs are not exhaustive, nor are the examples, but cover a broad range of purity culture’s doctrine.

  • Girls/women are responsible for boy’s/men’s sexual urges.
    • The double standard of modesty between males and females.
    • “A guy will have a tendency to treat you like you are dressed. If you are dressed like a flesh buffet, don’t be surprised when he treats you like a piece of meat.” (Lookadoo and DiMarco, Datable, p. 118)
  • Heterosexual marriage is a reality for everyone and will always result in amazing sex.
    • Almost all forms of purity culture literature and media convey this “foolproof” assumption about their audiences.
  • A woman’s worth or status is tied exclusively to her virginity.
    • Abstinence-only spaces refer to girls/women who have had premarital sex as second hand gum, dirty tape, a disheveled, unwanted rose, etc. Have you heard these examples?
  • Martial rape does not exist.
    • Spouses are often viewed as and spoken of as property.
    • Consent is rarely, if ever, defined clearly.
    • Women who say “no” are considered “selfish lovers” according to Mark and Grace Driscoll in their book, Real Marriage.
  • Victims of sexual violence are at fault and should repent.

If you’re interested in finding more specific examples of these messages in Christian literature these articles are helpful and straightforward:

Traditional Gender Stereotypes

(Gender roles, commonly referred to as either complementarian or egalitarian, are not clearly defined in the Bible. While inconclusive, both perspectives have scriptural merit. However, research has found traditional or complementarian gender stereotypes create a friendly environment for abuse and oppression. My goal is not to completely dismantle traditional ideals, but encourage all family structures to evaluate if the power dynamics in their home are helping each member of the marriage/family flourish in a safe and healthy space.)

photo: Benita Elizabeth

Gender roles, according to purity culture, are different but complementary. According to this train of thought, men and women have “biologically hardwired” mental/physical/spiritual differences at birth that serve different purposes in society. If you remember the fairy tale message, men are the rescuers and women are to be rescued. (Cue stereotypes.) Especially in conservative religious circles, men may be assumed to have primary responsibility outside the home, they are strong and natural leaders, they are to protect their family. Women may have primary responsibility inside the home, they are meek and gentle, and nurture their families. Church may also assign “different, yet complementary” roles. These are very, very broad and not universally bad, yet not universally good. Stereotypes can easily restrict men and women’s engagement within their community. This provides ample space for religious legalism and abuse.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists have used these stereotypes to in efforts to protect their communities from the perceived danger of sexual immorality. John Piper advocates for patriarchal authority over women and argues #MeToo has been caused by the lack of male protection over women. His statements and sentiments have caused controversy over the years. If we believe these gender stereotypes apply in our context, we must also be aware of the increased potential to practice sexism, even with those we love. The pursuit of “protection” can result in an imbalance of power.

Whether you have instilled traditional or egalitarian roles (or neither!) in your home or church, you may want to ponder the following:

  • Does this relationship/doctrine value mutual submission or exclusively female submission?
  • Are my God-given talents and gifts welcomed and utilized in the home, church, and workplace or am I expected to engage with activities/responsibilities perceived to better suit my gender?
  • If I am not physically/emotionally/sexually safe at home/church is there a space where I will be heard and helped without being blamed or questioned?

Benevolent Sexism

You might not actively believe or promote a prejudice against or distrust in women in the workplace, politics, or at home. (This would be called hostile sexism.) It’s still possible you may believe in a hierarchy between men and women. Subjectively, benevolent sexism has a positive view on women. This type of sexism respects the role of wife and mother and believes women deserve (or require) male protection. Women are often romanticized as sexual or love objects. Families and churches who promote this variation of sexism aren’t always obvious since they’re usually perceived as likeable. Both forms are dangerous as they each insist upon male power over women.

Let’s look at some brief examples/myths from evangelical leaders in the 1970s-2000s. Emphasis added.

  • If God is like my husband, my husband is like god.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)
  • Men are uniquely equipped to be the provider and protector.
    • “One of the greatest threats to the institution of the family today is the undermining of this role as protector and provider. This is the contribution for which men were designed… If it is taken away, their commitment to their wives and children is jeopardized. (Focus on the Family brochure, 1994)
    • Little boys are the hope of the next generation.. Little girls too, will benefit because they’ll grow up with a clear vision of the kind of men who will make godly husbands.” (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 651)
  • Selfless service is a virtue of the best wives and mothers.
    • “With unbounded joy and enthusiastic effort I have poured my life into home and family, putting aside professional pursuits and personal ambitions.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 889)
    • “This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job… You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.” (Pearl, Created to be His Help-Meet, p. 21, 42-44)
  • Husbands initiate and benefit from intimacy, women surrender.
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)

These examples are a select few from countless other Bible devotionals, books, sermons, and other forms of evangelical or fundamental guidance from this time period. The implications of these elements are incredibly dehumanizing, especially for women. Without proper evaluation, some conservative churches have been systemically normalizing sexual violence and blaming or silencing those who courageously speak up. The most recent example can be found in the Southern Baptist Convention, among other ministries and traditions. Yet, it doesn’t require 700 victims for these similarities between rape culture and purity culture to be considered a disaster. Arguably, it only takes one.

Have you heard or believed any of these myths or sexist statements?

Read more in this series:

A Reading List for Christian Relationships

(Updated 04/2020)

I asked and you answered. I’ve only read a handful of these books, so I’m not endorsing them or the authors, simply reporting the answers from friends, family, and followers.

I found that most of the authors suggested are white males, who as you may guess, do not hold a monopoly on health Christian relationships or great sex. If you have suggestions, please let me know so I can add them to the list. In the meantime, I would strongly encourage you read outside the box!

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Which Christian dating/marriage books have either helped or misled you?

Here’s what helped.

These have mixed reviews.

And these seemed to be unhelpful.

If you disagree with any of the characterizations above, I’d love to hear! Obviously, there’s a lot more to say on these subjects that these few authors can cover, but it’s a start. Knowing some of the authors listed, some books most likely disagree in certain ways.

I asked this question with “purity culture” in mind. I’m curious to hear if you experienced this growing up and if there were teachings or books that promoted this in your church or religious context. 

In the Midst

Writing about something while you’re waist deep in the waters of transition isn’t always tidy. I don’t have any certain conclusion or deep insight to share, other than we’ve made some significant decisions this month — the outcomes of which we are still discovering.

I resigned from my job and we’re currently switching church communities. We’ve wrestled (hard!) with these decisions but knew we needed to adjust our priorities as we found gaps in our relationship, mental and emotional health, and spiritual growth. These gaps were incredibly discouraging as I felt stuck between everything on my calendar, a tricky commute, and a frequent lag in our communication. Inspired by Rory Gilmore, I made countless pro/con lists which eventually helped us see a clear distinction between our options.

Stepping away from my job has already given me time to build new friendships, read, talk walks around our beautiful neighborhood, and be more involved on campus. Our hope is to also explore a different tradition with our new church and become involved with the community there while Aaron considers ordination.

2018 has been the most challenging year yet for us. It’s required lots of flexibility, strength, and determination from both Aaron and I in all areas. So, we rest while we can. Maybe not for the entire academic year, maybe longer than we anticipate — either way we are thankful for an opportunity to try something different.

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Farewell summer 2018. 

Rebalance, refreshment, refocus — all words I hope to describe this season with in the days and months to come.

Have you made any significant decisions recently? When was the last time you rested?