Friday, July 03, 2015

Christian Married Sexuality (part 2)

The following post is adapted from the chapter, "Sexuality," from my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God. 

Check out Part 1 of this series by clicking here.

Sex and the Christian Marriage

The previous post of course leads to the question: what is healthy sexuality in marriage? A favorite text that seems to address this topic is Hebrews 13:4, which reads in the King James Version, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” This looks like an endorsement of marriage itself and of married sexuality (take that, Jerome!), and I recall having heard a number of sermons that focused on this endorsement as an affirmation of the goodness and rightness of married sex. Not only that, but it was pretty much interpreted to mean that anything goes within the marriage relationship. Married couple in bedNonetheless, contextual indicators lead most modern translations and commentators to take the passage as an imperative: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (NIV). While this is doubtless the correct translation, it reopens the question of what keeps the marriage bed pure. Is an undefiled marriage bed one in which sexuality is restricted only to procreation? Is it one in which only the missionary position is used? Is there stuff that’s allowable and stuff that isn’t for a married couple?

Those looking for specific techniques and detailed strategies will have to go to other writers. However, the immediate context seems to spell out the intent of the author of Hebrews: what would defile the marriage bed is adultery and sexual immorality. That is to say, it wasn’t anything happening between the married partners, but rather when one of the partners committed infidelity of some sort. The kinds of things that defile the marriage bed are the same kinds of things that eventually lead to permissible divorce and remarriage, according to Jesus. When the author of Hebrews says that the “marriage bed [should be] kept pure,” he essentially means to keep other people out of it. (tweet this)

So as long as sexuality remains restricted just to the married couple, is it truly “anything goes” in marriage? Well, the Bible doesn’t give much more specific advice, but the commands to love one another and to submit to one another would seem to come into play. Married sex is sometimes rhapsodized about in terms of being a wonderful expression of married love, and it certainly can be that, but it can be other things too, for good and for not so good. Sometimes when the world has taken its toll, sex is a way of feeling better, feeling validated, feeling secure. Sometimes it’s a release of pent-up emotions. Sometimes it’s a way of expressing pride in the spouse’s accomplishment. Sometimes it’s the pure physical enjoyment. And sometimes it’s giving all these things to the other person because they need it, even if we’re not really in the mood. In other words, it can be an expression of lots of different types and aspects of love, or of need for love, even when a grand declaration of one’s love for one’s spouse is not really in view.

But then sex can also be something that wouldn’t serve as much of an expression of love in any event. Sex can be a means of dominating or even demeaning the other person, of using that person for one’s own pleasure without regard for that person’s feelings or needs. It can be a means of manipulation, withheld or parceled out as a means of obtaining something else that one wants. It can be cruel and thoughtless and selfish. It can be rude and demanding and petulant and unkind. None of this is made any better by the presence of a marriage certificate. (tweet this)

We humans—and I daresay, we Christians—have a tendency to want hard-and-fast rules. We want to have it spelled out that this technique is okay and that one is sinful, this practice is approved and that one is not. The truth is that what matters is less the specific act than it is the motive behind the act, the willingness to serve and honor and bless the other person more than just satisfying one’s own desire or curiosity. Is it “anything goes”? I suppose anything goes that the spouse can enter into joyfully and without being demeaned and degraded.

And that might mean that there are some activities that really are beyond the pale. It seems to me that there are certain things that cannot be done with mutual enjoyment by both parties, and it doesn’t really help to have an agreement that says, “I’ll get mine this time and next time you can get yours.” If something is degrading to the person you’ve committed yourself to love for a lifetime, should you be getting pleasure from it? And it seems to me that some things are inherently degrading—that the point of them is to be degrading. Once again, specific lists and activities will have to be found elsewhere. But we should understand that the specific act is less the issue than the intent. Do we want sexuality to be a mutual blessing, or do we want it to be a means of dominance? And this can be an issue even with activities that may be offensive to some couples but not to others.

Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 deal with “disputable matters,” things that different people have different convictions about. These passages are not very often brought up regarding marriage, but with regard to sexuality, they seem very appropriate. The upshot of both passages is that there are issues which are not objectively sinful in God’s eyes, but may be thought of as sinful by a specific believer, possibly based on one’s background. Paul’s advice in such matters is to let each person follow his or her own conscience, and not to judge or look down on another person for having differing convictions. However, there is one caveat: if exercising your own freedom in an area might induce another person to violate their own conscience in that area (sometimes referred to as “causing your brother to stumble,” Rom. 14:20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13), then you should forgo your freedom for the sake of that person.

So, there may be activities among married couples that are disputable—that are not objectively sinful, but may be felt to be sinful by some, who should not engage in them due to issues of conscience. Where this becomes problematic is when the two partners in a marriage relationship have differing convictions about sexuality. What to do then?

A stereotypical but common example might be most informative. The wife might have grown up in a home where sexuality was extremely repressed. She tends to think that sex is dirty, although she also wants a sexual relationship with her husband. She might be able to make her peace with what she thinks of as “normal” sexual intercourse, but not be at all adventurous in bed. Her husband, meanwhile, might have been influenced by pornography or even by sexual references in pop culture, and might want to try out various things in order to spice up their love life. Don’t let the stereotype throw you—the situation could as easily be reversed with regard to the male and female roles, or the person with more sexual experience or exposure to pornography might be the person who feels guilt over it and therefore is more inhibited in the marriage bed.

One might think that the right thing to do in this situation is for the person who wants to experiment more to understand his partner’s inhibitions and restrict their sex life to what she feels comfortable with. Doubtless, in the short term, that’s probably what should happen, but over the long term, it once again holds the person who has more freedom hostage to the person who doesn’t. Going back to 1 Corinthians 7, Paul seems to have been responding to people in marriage relationships who wondered if the sexuality in those relationships was sinful and whether they should abstain from sex even within marriage. Many post-apostolic church fathers, for a time, did in fact advocate sexless marriages in which one treated one’s spouse as a sibling. So we can see that allowing the more inhibited person in a marriage to hold all the cards can end up being very destructive, which is why Paul responded that the husband and wife, in some sense, own one another’s bodies, and that they should not abstain from the sexual relationship, except for times devoted to prayer by mutual consent, because such abstinence left them open to sexual temptation.

Note that Paul doesn’t condemn them for that temptation. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even talk about the temptation as such; he merely says dia de tas porneias, “because of immorality.” Because there is immorality out there, no matter how spiritual we think we are, we are not immune from it, and husbands and wives therefore need to satisfy one another sexually.

So there’s a tension between avoiding things that we feel convicted about, or that draw other people into violating their own convictions on the one hand, and needing to satisfy one another’s sexual needs on the other. Kindness, love, and a lack of selfishness need to rule. (tweet this) But one little-discussed aspect of the issue of varying levels of freedom and conviction is that the matters that Paul is discussing are not sinful in and of themselves. The “weak” brother in Romans 14 is the one who is carrying an unnecessary scruple. God’s does not want his children to remain weak in this sense forever, much less to become the kind of legalistic person who uses their perpetual weakness to inhibit forever the freedom of the strong. Carrying this back into the bedroom, this would mean that while the less inhibited person needs to have respect and patience with the one who struggles with more inhibitions, the one who has more inhibitions needs to examine carefully the source of those inhibitions. Are all of my convictions really scriptural? Are there reasons other than moral for the fact that I pull back from certain things? Am I struggling with guilt for a sinful past that has been forgiven? Was I taught convictions on the subject that are not biblical? Are there aspects of my upbringing or previous sexual experiences or influences that are holding me back from the freedom that my spouse wants to enjoy? Am I using my unwillingness as a means of manipulation or control? Does God want me perhaps to be freer than what I am now?

The goal of all this is not for the more adventurous spouse to have it all their way, either. He or she also needs to ask some questions. Is what I want possible within a mutually loving and satisfying relationship? Am I being selfish in pushing for my desires to be satisfied? Am I actually wanting to subjugate or degrade my spouse?

The end goal of all of this is to have a sexual relationship within marriage that is mutually satisfying and rewarding for both people, where freedom and enjoyment of the gift God gave us is celebrated, and where dominating and degrading our spouse is out of bounds. And what this will require, in the long run, is for God to purify our sexual desires, making them a means for expressing love, not gratifying self, for enjoying pleasure without guilt, for renouncing manipulation and control. Like everything else in the Christian life, we ultimately find that it’s a work that only God can do. He’s the one who created sex in the beginning, and he’s the only one who can ensure that it is “very good.”

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 .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God


  1. "When the author of Hebrews says that the “marriage bed [should be] kept pure,” he essentially means to keep other people out of it. (tweet this)"

    No, I am not.

    He essentially means three things:

    * open to life (no contraception)
    * open to each other asking
    * and therefore not to others.

    The two later things are called fidelity, the first fertility or offspring, as goods of marraige.

    1. Hi Hans. Welcome!

      I understand that the teachings of certain churches would affirm these three points, but I don't see how one can get all that from an exegesis of the particular passage under discussion. The second half of the verse states, "for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral." The word "for" indicates a ground statement--it gives reason to support what came before. So adultery and sexual immorality are contrasted with keeping the marriage bed pure; they are, therefore what would make it impure. Adultery has a clear and precise meaning. Sexual immorality (Greek porneia) is a broader term meaning any kind of sexual sin--primarily extramarital sex of any type. This is what I meant by "keeping other people out of it."

      So we are quite agreed on your third point, "and therefore not to others." Your second point, "open to each other asking" is, I think, not well supported by this verse but certainly well supported by other passages, primarily 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.

      Your first point, "open to life (no contraception)" is more problematic. I don't think the verse in Hebrews under discussion supports it, and there is no clear scriptural prohibition. What I would say is that the relationship that fosters sexuality should be the same relationship that includes childbearing and raising a family (i.e., marriage). I write more about that in my post entitled, "Marriage, RIP." But I don't think that every instance of sex within marriage must contain the possibility of conception, otherwise continuing sexual relations after the wife undergoes a hysterectomy, for example, would be sinful. So I don't agree with a blanket prohibition of contraception, and I don't think scripture supports it.

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion.

  2. If even porneia is to be strictly avoided, so much more sin against nature. Cfr sins of Onan, Sodom, confer also a list in 1 Cor 6:10 which begins with a word meaning wankers.