This is the second of a series of three articles on human sexuality first presented at a conference entitled “Scripture, Sexuality, and Society,” in Cape Town, South Africa, March 2014.—Editors.
I once heard of a woman who felt uncomfortable when she came together with her husband in the bedroom. The source of her discomfort was a picture on the wall. She could not relax with her husband sexually until she had turned the picture of Jesus to the wall.
Another Christian woman with an honest heart shared her conviction with her husband that since they were finished having children, there should be no more sexual contact between them.
These incidents reveal a flawed view of sexuality and the role God intends for it to play in marriage. The vital connection between our sexuality and our spirituality is missing.
On the other side of the issue is a theology of sexuality still alive in some Christian communities that can be summed up in the expression “two clean sheets can’t soil each other.” The idea is that once a person is baptized, he or she is clean. Therefore, whatever takes place between believers with mutual consent is also clean, because “two clean sheets cannot soil each other.”
These experiences in the lives of sincere Christians are based on beliefs rooted in a philosophy that came into the church as an alien influence; it was never part of the teachings of Jesus. But thanks to the Holy Spirit speaking to us from the pages of Scripture, we can rediscover the spiritual significance of our sexuality as creatures made in the image of God.
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27, NKJV):1 the male and female of human nature is an expression of the image of God in humanity. Just as God reveals Himself to be plural in nature (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three who are one), so humanity in the image of God is also plural in nature (male and female, two who are one). This relational oneness in humanity has a basic ontological meaning—that is to say, “male and female” interrelatedness lies at the root of what it means to be human. And this concept is relevant to everyone, whether married or single.2It is not the idea that every man must have a wife and every woman must have a husband in order to be whole. That would make Jesus less than human. Marriage is a choice; nature is not. “Male and female” in Genesis 1 and 2 refers to human nature, a specific expression of plurality as creatures made in the image of God.
Because the church rarely says anything positive about sex, it exists in a vacuum that the world fills with “yes.”
It is true that as individuals we all bear God’s image. We are rational, moral, and spiritual creatures, after the order of the divine nature. Rationally speaking, we are endowed with the power of reason: the ability to think, plan, and engage in reflection. Morally, we have an innate sense of right and wrong, the “sense of oughtness,” a conscience. Even Gentiles who do not know the law of God are possessed of a conscience (Rom. 2:14, 15). And spiritually we know that deep within us “there is a God somewhere” to whom we must give account. We have the “sense of deity.”3
But the greatest of the divine attributes is love: God is love. And love requires relationship. The fullest expression of our rationality, morality, and spirituality, then, is in the context of relationship. Isolated rationality becomes irrational. Moral aloneness has no meaning, as it cannot be put into practice. Spiritual life becomes unbalanced without community to complement solitude. We are relational creatures, made to complement each other as male and female. This is a human principle, expressed in our sexuality in the broader sense—not just the “sex act,” but in all of our interrelatedness. Our sexuality has to do with our entire being, not just our physical bodies. Our failure to consistently teach Christian sexuality in our churches, our schools, and our homes is a large part of the crisis of sexuality we are now experiencing.
Ever since the church gave sexuality away to the world, the spirituality of sexuality has been lost sight of. The very idea that sex is something spiritual is alien to many of us.
As the Christian church moved west through the Mediterranean, it became more and more Hellenized. The influence of Greek philosophy began to affect the teachings of the church that came through the ministry of the apostles. John, Paul, and Peter were among the leading voices of Christian thought in the church’s first generation. The following generations (i.e., the patristic period) saw Christian thought shaped by Clement, Origen, Augustine, and others, mostly trained in the religious and philosophical principles that developed in the school of Alexandria.
The Alexandrian mix of Christian theology and Greek philosophy had a syncretizing effect on church doctrine. Biblical interpretation incorporated Platonic thinking into Christianity. Greek dichotomy contemplates a good spiritual realm in conflict with an evil material realm. This principle applied to human nature led to the false teaching of the immortality of the soul. Applied to sexuality, it distorted the biblical teaching and in the church has yielded two streams regarding sexual practice, both issuing from the same tainted pool of Greek dichotomy. The main form, Gnostic theology, led to the sexual extremes of asceticism and licentiousness.4
Under the doctrine of asceticism, all physical enjoyment was to be rejected in favor of the mortification of the flesh. Rituals such as self-imposed silence, the social seclusion of the cloistered life (monasticism and nunnery), the glorification of hardships, self-flagellation, celibacy, and other austere observances came into practice. The idea was that the body is evil and all of its appetites must be denied. Physical pleasure was to be avoided at all costs; the body must be policed and punished.
Origen, called the “father of Christian theology,”5considered all sexual activity to be sinful. Marital intercourse was permissible only for reproduction. And after intercourse one should not take the Lord’s Supper. According to Reinhold Niebuhr, Origen actually castrated himself in order to eliminate sexual passion from his life.6
Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), known as “the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity,” considered sin to be “basically sensuality, of which sexual lust was the principal example.”7For him, all sexual desire was considered lust, even a man’s desire for his own wife. Augustine surmised that before the Fall sex would have been completely rational, with no pleasure or excitement involved (“procreation without recreation”).
The vestiges of this philosophy still exist in our churches, and perhaps even among us. We may not go as far, but we still find something a little suspicious about sexual pleasure, even in marriage. The apostles wrote emphatically against such teachings (see Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5).
Jesus Himself came “not to destroy the sacred relationship of marriage, but to exalt it and restore it to its original sanctity.”8 God does not forbid marital sex or simply just permit it. God celebrates sexual intimacy in marriage when it takes place in the context of pure and genuine love. In fact, sexual intimacy between husband and wife is God’s own idea (see 1 Cor. 7:3-5).
Licentiousness is the reverse application of the philosophy of dichotomy between good spirit and evil body. It teaches that though the body is evil, it does not matter, because it will eventually pass away and leave only the immortal soul. Therefore, what is done with the body is of no consequence. “Eat, drin
k, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” In licentiousness, pleasure is pursued as an end in itself. It is the concept of sex without boundaries, whatever consenting adults agree to. Sex is looked upon as harmless fun, a merely physical act, denying the profound implications of sexuality for mind and spirit.
The popular example of this is the nightclub pickup where sexual partnership depends only on willingness and attractiveness. As to the latter there may even be some flexibility. As one car bumper sticker puts it: “Drink until he’s cute.”
Commenting on the monstrosity of sex outside of marriage, C. S. Lewis wrote: “The Christian attitude doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasure of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.”9
Unfortunately, that is the concept our children grow up with, especially because the church has been silent on the issue and left it to the world to define. In the highly sexualized culture they inhabit, sexual messages are being thrown at them all the time, overt and subliminal. They grow up in a world of alternative sexuality as the mainstream, where marital sex is boring, and the real excitement is in the secret, steamy, lustful extramarital affair. This is where true love is “rekindled” and a man is delivered from a stifling relationship and leaves his wife and children because “he deserves to be happy.”
Beneath it all is the principle of self-worship, “my right to myself.” This is the bankrupt sexual script of our culture, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Sex is about self-gratification and the selves entitled to it.
Because the church rarely says anything positive about sex, it exists in a vacuum that the world fills with “yes.” The church’s problem may be its “no” without a corresponding “yes” to sex. Of course there is no “yes” to sex outside of God’s plan. Sex outside of marriage is destructive. Even within marriage, same-sex activity is against the integrity of our nature as male and female.
But sex in accordance with the divine plan is a joy to God. It pleases Him to see it expressed in genuine love between husband and wife. It is not something God just permits. It is something He celebrates. He could have made sexual intercourse a neutral activity. But He made it intensely pleasurable because He wants us to have pleasure in our marriages. “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4, NKJV). The bedchamber is a place “where angels of God should preside.”10
For those who do not marry, our joy comes in keeping ourselves sexually pure for God’s glory, so that His name may be glorified in our chastity. Our sexuality belongs to God.
The Christian church has historically embraced opposite extremes with regard to sexuality. It has espoused “love without sex” in asceticism, and “sex without love” in licentiousness. The Bible rejects them both. There is no need to turn the picture of Jesus to the wall. The Bible has a message concerning sex in the marital relationship, and it is a message of joy. No church is better positioned to recover the biblical teaching of the spirituality of sexuality than the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This is not a function of conceit or spiritual superiority. It is because of our wholistic theology of human nature. We are not immortal souls trapped in a body waiting to be released at death, but an indivisible union of spirit, soul, and body, each one related to the other and impacting each other. When we understand our sexuality in the wholistic context, the beauty of its spirituality can truly come to light.