On the evening when Cecile first came to church with me, a group of us went out afterward to a Big Boy restaurant. Pastor Bill, our College and Career pastor, came out to eat with us—probably to get to know Cecile better and witness to her—and sat down with Cecile, me, and my best friend Dave. He was asking her questions, and I was mostly nervously listening. I didn’t really know this woman all that well, although I knew enough to know she was liable to say anything. I felt that whatever she said would reflect on me, even though it wasn’t as though we were dating or anything.
After learning about her background, her divorce, and the loss of her children, Pastor Bill asked her, “So have you ever thought about becoming a Christian?”
“Well, I did for a while, but then I heard that you had to give up sex, so I thought, Forget that!”
Cecile didn’t betray that Pastor Bill was getting to her, but she went home thinking about the conversation, and within a week, she had given her life to Jesus. That was to be the beginning of living celibate for two years before we got married.
Church AttitudesThe church has been terribly muddled about sexuality for a long, long time. (tweet this) The true story isn’t quite as simple as the one most people imagine, which is that the church has always been puritanically repressed and treated sex as, at best, a necessary evil, up until very recently, when we’ve become much more enlightened and sophisticated. Nonetheless, this imagined history has actual roots that begin with the early church’s reaction to the pagan cultural background from which most Gentile believers had come. Rampant sexuality surrounded the early converts in their pagan culture, and was doubtless for most of them a part of their personal histories. It’s unsurprising that they would have had problems regarding it.
We read about some of these problems in 1 Corinthians. Corinth was one of the most sexually notorious cities, so much so that “a Corinthian” was a euphemism for a prostitute. Paul has to deal with one group of people in chapter 6, who are continuing to use prostitutes, since they consider that the physical body is meant to engage in the functions it was designed for—“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” they would say. The material world was going to be destroyed anyway, so why bother worrying about what the physical body does? Paul responds to them that the body was meant for the Lord, and not for sexual immorality, that far from being permanently destroyed, the body would be raised just as Jesus had been, and that the body is actually the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). God is the God of the material world, not just the spiritual.
But then in the following chapter, Paul has to deal with the opposite issue: another group of people who think that sexual relations should be eschewed even in marriage. Paul’s response is that, no, because of the temptation toward immorality, husbands and wives actually have a duty to fulfill one another’s sexual needs. He goes on to say that those who are unmarried and widows should marry if they “cannot control themselves,” although he personally prefers the freedom for ministry that celibate singleness offers, and counsels believers who are married to unbelievers to remain in the marriage (including the sexual relationship) unless the unbeliever leaves. He discusses different groups of people and situations, but his overall point of view remains constant: sexual indulgence outside marriage is wrong—is actually a sin against one’s own body—but within marriage it is good, especially since it acts as a safeguard against immorality. Those who are unmarried should consider staying unmarried “because of the present crisis” and because it offers undistracted devotion to the Lord—and this is Paul’s personal preference and counsel—but he recognizes that to do so is a gift, and not one that everyone has.
Like all of Paul’s letters, this is counsel given on a particular occasion to a particular group of people. While it embodies timeless truths, it is expressed in ways that are relevant to the original readers and might be misunderstood when taken out of that cultural context. In writing to both groups, Paul is dealing with people heavily influenced by Greek philosophy: specifically, who assumed that there was a Platonic dualism between matter and spirit, the physical world and the world of ideals. Plato viewed the material world as inherently corrupt and only his theoretical world of Forms as perfect and pristine. Greek converts to Christianity carried this cultural and philosophical baggage with them into their new lives in Christ, and split into two groups: those who believed that the physical world was transient and didn’t matter, and those who believed that the physical world was evil and needed to be suppressed. The libertine group saw sexuality as irrelevant to the spiritual life; the ascetic group saw sexuality as an inherently evil temptation that shouldn’t be indulged. Neither group was right, and Paul responded to each of them on their own terms.
This was sensible advice given to believers in the midst of a sexually debauched society, and it’s sensible advice to us now (for obvious reasons). But in the days when Christianity began to displace paganism, certain aspects of Paul’s argument were misunderstood and exaggerated.
The veneration of Jesus’ virgin birth is the beginning point. God chose to incarnate himself into human form by supernaturally impregnating a woman without any human male component. The point of the virgin birth is not that Mary had to be a virgin for Jesus to be incarnated. The point was that only by Jesus being conceived by a woman who had not been sexually active would the miracle be apparent—even to Mary herself.
But the Christianized Roman Empire was still deeply influenced by the same Greek philosophy that had bedeviled the Corinthian church, and God’s choice of a virgin to carry and give birth to Jesus seemed to indicate a divine preference for virginity above the married state. Viewed in this light, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians, to remain unmarried if they could without falling into immorality, seemed to be a divine and absolute endorsement of celibacy, rather than the personal and practical advice that Paul obviously intends in the passage. (tweet this) Paul’s frequent references to his own state of celibacy and his unusual qualification of passages by phrases like “I, not the Lord,” “I have no command from the Lord,” and “In my judgment” (1 Cor. 7:7-8, 12, 25, 40), make clear that he was giving individual and pragmatic advice.
But the Church Fathers read Paul’s advice to the Corinthians—to engage in sexual relations within marriage and to consider celibacy for those who were not married yet—as a reluctant permission for sex within marriage. They read him as an advocate for celibacy, not as a practical option, but as a higher and better spiritual state.
This interpretation of Paul found its climax in the church father Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, who vociferously defended celibacy in terms that amounted to denigrating marriage. According to Jerome, Paul’s only reason for advocating sexual relations within marriage, or marriage at all, was as a concession to human lust. Jerome wrote:
Let us turn back to the chief point of the evidence: “It is good,” [Paul] says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness. He would never have added “let each man have his own wife,” unless he had previously used the words “but, because of fornications.” Do away with fornication, and he will not say “let each man have his own wife.” … “But, because of fornications let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” He did not say, because of fornication let each man marry a wife: otherwise by this excuse he would have thrown the reins to lust, and whenever a man’s wife died, he would have to marry another to prevent fornication, but “have his own wife.” Let him he says have and use his own wife, whom he had before he became a believer, and whom it would have been good not to touch, and, when once he became a follower of Christ, to know only as a sister, not as a wife unless fornication should make it excusable to touch her.
So in other words, Jerome considers married sexuality an evil, only excusable because it is preferable to the evil of outright fornication. He assumes that the believer is only married in the first place because the marriage happened before conversion, and that even within marriage, it would be better for a Christian man to treat his wife “only as a sister, not as a wife.” This view might be considered bizarre in today’s world, but Jerome was not alone in advocating sexless marriage. He simply expressed the logical endpoint of that view of sexuality.
Jerome was viewed as overly harsh and the church later moderated in its stance, primarily by developing a two-tier version of Christianity in which celibacy was first encouraged and then mandated for the clergy, but in which a high level of sexual ethics was not required of the laity. However, the idea that celibacy is a higher, nobler, more spiritual state, and that sexuality, although allowable within marriage, is somehow lower, baser, and tainted, persisted and continues to persist, even among Protestant churches.
We still deal with the legacy of this early church development. Although not many people still hold the attitude that sex is a necessary evil for the procreation of children, there remains a curious dichotomy, in which both sex itself and even the desire for it are considered to be sinful, right up until the point at which the minister pronounces “man and wife,” when it suddenly becomes a beautiful and wonderful gift, as long as it is directed 100% toward the marriage partner.
I think it’s fair to wonder whether it is possible for anyone to make that kind of emotional and psychological leap within the course of one ceremony.
The truth is that human beings are not sexless creatures. Ever. Especially after puberty. The desire for sex is a part of being human. And I’m convinced that it is not a part of fallen humanity, but rather humanity as God intended it from the beginning. It was God who said that it was not good for the man to be alone; it was God who created a woman as the suitable companion for him. God created us to be sexual beings. “Male and female he created them…. and it was very good.”
Biblical IssuesSo what, then, are we to make of the passages dealing with lust? That’s the real sticking point. The general attitude of the church can be summed up as a syllogism:
- Sex outside of marriage is a sin.
- The passages on lust make it clear that the mere desire for illicit sex is in itself sinful.
- Therefore, anyone who is unmarried and desires sex is committing sin.
This post is about marriage, not singleness, but the problem here is that people bring these attitudes with them into their marriage relationships. Young men and women afflicted with the ingrained belief that their natural human desires are inherently sinful are not going to be able to turn this feeling off on the wedding night and suddenly rejoice in the wonderful gift of married sex. (tweet this) This applies, incidentally, to couples whether they have engaged in premarital sex or not. I’m not necessarily talking about naive innocents who have been completely repressed until marriage, as though a simple dose of carnal ecstasy would have been the answer. The issue here is not merely about experience, but about ingrained attitudes.
But this still leaves open the question of what to do about the passages dealing with lust. The most obvious one, of course, is in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says in Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So there it is. Lust = adultery. QED.
Well, it’s not quite so simple. First of all, we get deceived by the fact that the word “lust” is used in English translations. The Greek words epithymeo (verb) and epithymia (noun) refer to desire, not just for sex, but for anything, and are translated as desire or longing in most other contexts. The words do not always have a negative connotation: in many cases the object of desire is a good thing, and the desire itself is positive. For instance, Jesus said regarding his own coming into the world, “For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed (epethymasan) to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17). He says of the rich man and Lazarus that Lazarus was “longing (epithymon) to eat what fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:21). At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “I have eagerly desired (epithymia epethymasa) to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). And Paul wrote to Timothy that “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires (epithymei) a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Desire itself clearly is not bad. When we change our translation from “desire” to “lust” any time the context indicates that it is sexual in nature, we make desire out to be a separate and inherently evil thing in these cases, something the Greek text does not support.
It also seems that there is a reason why Jesus makes specific reference to adultery, and not to the more inclusive term, fornication (porneia) in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. One has to be married for adultery to occur. Could it be that Jesus’ primary target here is not simply to condemn sexual desire in general, but rather to preserve the integrity of the marriage relationship from a husband’s wandering eyes? Certainly what follows in vv. 31 and 32, dealing with divorce, would lend credence to this idea.
What NIV translates by the single word “lustfully” would be literally rendered, “in order to desire her.” Rather than simply saying that sexual desire is equivalent to adultery—and is therefore inherently sinful—Jesus seems to be saying that a man (presumably married) who is looking at another woman in order to desire her (rather than his wife) has then committed adultery against his wife in his heart. The issue that Jesus is dealing with is marital faithfulness, not sexual desire in and of itself. Once the man has a one-flesh bond, he has no business looking outside that bond for sexual satisfaction—or, for that matter, anything else he might be tempted to desire about her. (tweet this)
By focusing on Jesus’ use of the term “adultery,” and therefore on the marriage relationship, I am not saying that single people are immune, due to a technicality, to sexual sins of thought. 1 Corinthians 6:18 tells us to “flee from sexual immorality” (porneia)—not merely adultery—and Paul advises Timothy to “flee also youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22—although here again it is not necessarily only sexual desire that is in view). These commands are both broader than the narrow limits of adultery and include more than just married people. What I am saying is that if we teach young people to feel guilty about the simple fact that they are sexual beings and desire sex, then we are setting them up for sexual dysfunction within marriage. If they are led to believe that sexual feelings, in and of themselves, are sinful, then they are not going to stop believing that as soon as the wedding ceremony is over.
Read the second part of this post here: http://www.schooleyfiles.com/2015/07/christian-married-sexuality-part-2.html
To know more about Cecile's and my story, and for more of my perspective on biblical marriage and family, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .