Recently the young adults church Anna and I lead, Blueprint, finished a three year series on the Book of Acts. As we considered what to teach next we put a survey out to our community. There was a resounding unity, ‘Tell us about sex!’. So it is that in two weeks we are beginning a series titled ‘Seven Weeks Of Great Sex at Blueprint’ exploring everything from the importance of consent to the very Anglican idea of Sex as a sacramental act (note that I'm not referring here to sex as one of the two sacraments, baptism and eucharist).
Even before beginning the series something amazing has happened in our little community of 100. Suddenly conversations are arising that never normally would. The other day I had an open conversation with a teenager about his first sexual encounters and how he could be better to women in the future than he had been to them in the past and it made me wonder why we, and other communities of faith, haven’t been doing this for years. There has been a collective sigh of relief as many can finally acknowledge their genitals and their spirituality have something to do with each other. Cool huh?
And it’s crazy that we don’t talk about it because there are so many times in the scriptures that Jesus walks into peoples sexual worlds and proclaims liberation. In a staunchly paternalistic Jewish society Christ if often the defender of women who have been marginalised because of multiple sexual partners (John 4), menstrual conditions (Luke 8), career prostitutes (Luke 7) and affairs with married men (John 8). While the Bible is often far from a model of liberation for women, Christ was undoubtedly a feminist in his culture. In each situation he restores the humanity of the sexually marginalised, sometimes by standing between the victim and their accusers, by healing their condition, by welcoming what they offer or by validating their desire for functional relationships even in the midst of the struggle to actually make it work. When Christ approaches someone’s sexuality it is a re-humanising and re-dignifying encounter.
The sex God wants for his people is a re-humanising experience. One that should leave us with a greater sense of acceptance, belonging, love, security and self-esteem. Good sex should say to us that we are profoundly special people worthy of the adoration of another. Sex should speak to us of the ecstasy of God’s love for us and not just of our own experience. Good sex need not be a symbol of the status quo, but instead a powerful picture of a Christ’s revolutionary counter culture that liberates us from entrapment to perverse and demeaning ideologies and systems. And so without falling into the familiar territory of a dos and don’ts list of Christian sex, there are some things I think we can categorically say Christian sex is not...
Christian sex never reduces humans to consumables
Far from sex work itself, humanity prostitutes itself to control, manipulate and achieve our ends by using sex as a bank transaction or a weapon. Sex is not something that is ‘owed’ to anyone. Sex should not be earned through the good behaviour of a partner, nor should anyone feel they have purchased it by buying enough drinks or paying for the taxi home. In the same way anything that objectifies another person as nothing but necessary flesh in order to gain pleasure has distorted sex into a deeply dehumanising practice that robs us of intimacy. This is what is so dangerous about a pornified culture which has created in us an individualised and consumerist distortion of sex that means even consensual and loving sex becomes distorted through the lens of objectification.
There is no Christ-centred perspective that allows us the license to view sex as a commodity either economically, politically or socially. This, to me, is the power of healthy Christian marriage. Yes, I acknowledge that there are many unhealthy ‘christian' marriages too, but I’m talking about a New Testament vision for marriage that means the person I lie down with has spent a long time considering whether I am worth it. Someone who has fallen so deeply for me that their desire is to serve and not to consume and someone who expects exactly the same from me. There is bad literature and good literature, there is bad art and good art, but we don’t say ‘there is no good anymore’ because of what has been bad. In the same way, there is still good marriage and a good vision of it to be rediscovered that guarantees a covenantal relationship which challenges us to a selfless rather than consumptive experience of sex with one another.
Christian sex never disempowers
Perhaps the great power and mystery of sex is it’s counter-cultural declaration of openness in a world which is so obsessed with security and protectionism. Good sex must open to receive one another, both in the physiological and emotional senses of the word. I expose myself to you, allow you to see me bared naked and allow you to know me when my defences are down. Sex is about permission giving. It is about an incredible act of trust and vulnerability that says ‘If I open myself to you I trust that you will not abuse or violate me.’ This is why rape is so abhorrent to us. Because that most sacred right I have to choose who I open myself up to has been taken from me. When you deny me the choice of vulnerability you violate my boundaries as a human and you, for a moment, attempt to de-humanise me. Jesus hates that which de-humanises us.
Trust must be earned. In the mere three years Anna and I have been married we have both changed a lot already. We are learning how to be a couple, what’s important to us and what our unique expression of spirituality looks like. Our relationship can continue to grow even as we change because of this anchor of trust that we spent years cultivating between one another. Still now that trust is tested by the many ways we are still changing. My own experience leads me to be deeply skeptical of those in their teens or twenties who believe that within some months they can establish a basis of trust suitable for sexual intimacy. I’m not saying it can’t happen, I’m saying I’ve never seen it happen.
Central to good Christian sex must be trust. Trust that I am the only one you’re having sex with, trust that I’m the only one you intend to have sex with, trust that what happens between us in this most sacred space of sex will stay only between us. The trust of our relationship comes from knowing one another long enough to trust that who we say we are has been proven to be true again and again by our actions. We know that not everyone in the world is trustworthy, so we should not entrust strangers with the care of our sexuality, our hearts, our minds and our bodies. Do you trust the person you’re having sex with? Do you know them enough to trust them? Are the things they’re whispering in your ear the same things they’ve said to countless others? Is this genuine, or just a routine?
Christian sex never takes more than it gives
Good sex should leave us with a greater sense of acceptance, belonging, love, security and self-esteem. Good sex should say to us that we are profoundly special, beautiful and worthy of the adoration of another. Good sex should speak to us of the ecstasy of God’s love for us. Sadly the brokenness many of us carry in our sexuality means that our first sexual encounters are often evocative of the opposite: rejection, disgust, hate, insecurity and self-doubt. For those Christians who abstain till marriage losing their virginity is often the opening of a pandora’s box of brokenness from bad families, abusive role-models, pornography and the unhealthy negative spiritualisation and demonisation of sex. The facade of purity is found to have just obscured years of unprocessed sexual trauma. This pain is not, I believe, the byproduct of abstinence, but the byproduct of abstinence while also abstaining from even talking about sex in the meantime. Sex must be talked about like politics, religion and which margarine we like best. The Church has done it’s young people a great disservice asking them to make a counter-cultural decision against sex before marriage without providing a theological and social understanding of ‘why?’ aside from empty platitudes about bits of paper getting stuck together.
Great sex in a great marriage has the power to be so healing to the people within it. One of the great mysteries of marriage to me has been how much Anna loves me. My life is often a litany of stupid and reckless decisions and I am ruthlessly hard on myself for them. One of the most personally healing experiences of being with Anna has been the relentless and unwavering commitment of her love. Just when I think I must have blown it enough to deserve her rejection she responds again with such grace that it’s almost uncomfortable. Gradually she is healing my self-perception and I am growing to believe, by her commitment to me, that maybe I am loveable.
And I guess that brings me to one of the key things which is that good sex begins in the mind and the heart and finds it’s way to our junk later, rather than the other way around. Good sex begins with someone who, having come to know themselves as a beloved child of God, can believe in the redemptive potential of another and want to give of themselves as a sacramental statement of their equally great value and humanity. And I guess that lands us at the most obvious thing, which is that Christian sex cannot be without Christ. Couples who are not actively sharing their spirituality should not share their bodies, couples who can’t do disagreement and conflict in a Godly manner should not share a bed together, and couples who have not proven themselves to one another (over several years I believe) should not be sharing homes and bodies with one another.
I still believe that real Christian marriage offers one of the greatest counter-cultural responses to the world's view of people as commodities. To consumeristic relationships marriage says “You are so valuable to me that I will say no all other possibilities. You are so precious to me that I will commit to you even when you don’t satisfy my needs.” To violence and power-games marriage says “we choose each other. we give permission to one another. we validate one another’s humanity whether in sickness or in health, we trust each other.” To self-interest marriage says “all that I have I give to you as a statement of your great value to me and to God.” It seems to me that the reclaiming of what sex truly can be will not be found through a greater assertion of the individual’s rights, but through a more selfless commitment to protect and love one another.