A meaningful discussion with a particularly interesting and articulate group of people last night has emboldened me to share a paper I wrote in seminary for a course, “Ethics of Gender, Body and Sex.” I hope it will be a helpful resource for people who think about this stuff but don’t have the time to spend 3 years in seminary. Here goes:
SEX WITHOUT MARRIAGE
December 2, 2014
I believe that many of the prohibitions the Christian church has placed on sexuality have served to dishonour this gift from God. I believe that sexuality is a good gift from a loving Creator who desires that we experience pleasure in our relationships with one another. I recognize that there are ways in which sexual acts can enhance life as well as ways in which sexual acts can diminish or damage life. I think that there are appropriate boundaries that can be asserted universally to aid individuals in making healthy, life giving decisions around sexuality. I think teaching that sex must be confined to marital relationships is not only unhelpful but also irresponsible in light of the spiritual and emotional damage this has caused both individuals and communities.
I will explore the belief that sex can be healthy, life enhancing and God-pleasing outside of marital relationships in the following series of questions and answers.
Is sex inherently good or inherently bad?
It seems to depend where you look. North American pop culture assures us that sex is not only good, but it is one of the most exciting and most important things in life. We are encouraged to embrace our sexuality in the way we talk and dress, in the games we play and the shows we watch, and with partners and strangers alike. The attention that the Christian church pays to sex also implies that sex is one of the most important things in life. Yet the church simultaneously assures us that sex outside the confines of marriage is sinful, shameful, and not to be enjoyed. So while culture tells us sex is inherently good, it seems the church tells us that sex is inherently bad. This creates an environment for confusion, shame and emotional baggage around sex for Christian youth and adults.
I hold that sex is a good gift from a generous Creator, and that we have been given sexual organs and sexual desire not only for the purposes of procreation, but for pleasure as well. Sex is inherently good, not because of the institution of marriage but because it is part of God’s good creation. While sex is inherently good it is still subject to sin, and can be destructive and damaging to individuals and communities when disrespected or abused. This is an important truth worthy of much care and consideration.
What does the Bible have to say about sex and marriage?
Genesis contains two creation myths, both of which speak to human sexuality. In Genesis 1:27-28 God creates humankind – male and female, blessing them, and telling them to be fruitful and multiply. In Genesis 2:24 we read that a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. Both of these verses have been widely understood to exclusively support heterosexual marriage and sexuality for the purposes of procreation. While I agree that these creation myths provide an understanding of the science behind procreation, I do not believe that they were intended to answer the deeper questions of how we might be faithful, sexual beings in our world.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bible is unable to provide any specific moral teaching when it comes to sexual activity – because it is beyond the Bible’s scope. As an example, many people use scripture to back the claim that virginity is a Christian virtue. I agree that the Bible holds up virginity as important, but in most cases this is exclusively for women. The same goes for marital fidelity – woman are to be faithful, while it is perfectly acceptable for a man to have multiple wives and/or mistresses. It seems that when it comes to the specifics of sexual relations, the biblical writer’s themselves can’t escape the sin they were writing about. Oppression is woven into their stories and accepted as normal. To offer another example, prostitution is rightly described as a societal evil in the Bible, but it is wrongly attributed to the sin of the women who were prostituted rather than the men who created the demand or the society that left women vulnerable with few or no other options. With this in mind, I feel confident asserting that it is dangerous to look to the Bible for examples of healthy sexuality or ideas of how sexuality ought to be “rightly ordered.”
Does the Bible therefore hold no authority?
On the contrary, I believe that the bible holds great authority when it comes to describing right relationship. It simply holds little to no authority when it comes to describing healthy sexuality. I think that most of our attempts to directly apply biblical passages that speak about sex to our own context have resulted in a shame-based culture that has perverted God’s good gift.
What does the bible say about right relationship?
The greatest commandment is that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and the second is that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. (Matthew 22:36-40) In this second greatest commandment, the bible corresponds with nearly every mainstream Internet or magazine article on how to be a good lover: Put your partner first, love them as you love yourself.
Isn’t this what marriage is about, love for the other?
There are two ways to approach this question.
- First – Yes! And this is also the foundation for many other short-term and long-term relationships that are outside the definition of marriage.
- Second – Yes! Ideally, this would be the foundation of every marriage. Yet we know that marriage is a human institution that has been defined in a variety of ways across time and place. There still exist today arranged marriages, forced marriages, and marriages of choice – some of which enhance life and some of which diminish life.
Could we still say that marriage is the ideal?
I find the claim that marriage is the ideal environment for a healthy, God-pleasing sexual relationship to be rather unconvincing. Even if the criteria for marriage were the most ideal and universally accepted – the conditions for a healthy sexual environment cannot be mandated. Marriage is not an automatic pass nor singleness an automatic fail. We desperately need a new way of considering how we can best honour this good gift from God both within and outside of marriage.
The church has long spoken of marriage as a prerequisite for sex as though getting married were as simple and natural as digesting food or falling asleep at night. Yet there are a myriad of reasons why this is inaccurate. This renders the prohibitions against sex outside of marriage both unrealistic and highly condescending. It also has the potential to be emotionally and spiritually damaging. For many, believing that God doesn’t like sex outside of marriage is like believing that God doesn’t like you. In the words of authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, “Because of this belief, a tremendous people carry great shame from their own perfectly natural sexual desires and activities.”
But surely promiscuity must cause more damage?
Sometime in the church’s past we seem to have adopted the phrase “less is more” as a Christian slogan. In many churches we see this reflected in communion practices where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month at most, so as to not minimize the effect. Less is more! I can also recall stories from my parent’s generation of their own Christian parents saying “I love you” very infrequently, as though it was a phrase not to be overused. Less is more! It seems we have this same idea when it comes to sex –somehow less sex is more virtuous than more sex. It seems that we have a hard time accepting good gifts: salvation, love, and sex. It is as though we want them back under our own control and linking them with guilt or fear seems to serve this purpose.
So should sex just be a free for all as long as it feels good to do it?
I believe that sex is a gift that enhances life by allowing us to experience great pleasure with another person. I also believe there are certain universal principles that must be taken into account in order for sex to be life enhancing. Sexual intimacy is powerful, and it requires great vulnerability. The need for mutuality, equality, and trust cannot be overemphasized. They are essential to create a safe space for vulnerability and can only be established through open and honest communication.
So if these principles are not met, sexual activity is sinful?
I don’t think it is so simple. I think that where mutuality, equality and trust are lacking, there is great risk for sex to be demeaning or diminishing for one or both partners. I do not believe that this is part of God’s plan for this good gift. I also think we need to be careful how we use the word sin when it comes to sex because it is so misused and misunderstood. I think this discussion would be well served by a basic understanding of sin as anything that takes us out of right relationship with God. With this in mind, the label “sin” has less significance. What matters is the quality of one’s relationship with God, and with God’s creation. When the goodness of sexuality is dishonoured by demeaning, exploiting, or betraying another individual, this is a straightforward an example of not being in right relationship. On the other hand, when two people consent to sex with the best intentions to love and please the other and end up regretting it the next day, or month, or year – deciding whether or not this was a sin is far less important than continuing to work towards right relationship with each other and/or with God.
Practically speaking, how do we go about making moral decisions about sex?
I believe that in order to make moral decisions, one must have a good grasp of what is at stake and the resources to make an autonomous decision. For this reason it is crucial that sex is embraced in Christian communities as a good gift and that honest education happens around God’s desire for it to be life enhancing. In Genesis 2:25, after becoming one flesh, we read that the two were naked and they were not ashamed. Sex requires people to be extremely vulnerable yet not ashamed. This underlines the need for mutuality, equality and trust.
But how do you know when you have those three things?
You need to ask honest questions of your mind, heart and body.
Mind: Have we talked openly and honestly about our feelings, our hopes, and our fears about sex? Have we talked about STD’s and pregnancy? Do I know that I could change my mind at any moment at that would be okay? Will our decision to have sex negatively affect anyone else in a manner that is within our control?
Heart: Do I trust this person to keep me safe? Do I want to be intimately connected to this person, not just physically but emotionally as well?
Body: Do I want this person’s body as close to mine as humanly possible wearing as little as humanly possible?
If you answer yes to all of these questions, there is a good chance you are ready to have sex. If your partner also answers yes to all of these questions there is a very good chance it will be life enhancing for both of you.
As a Christian, there is another set of questions you could consider.
Spirit: Do I sense the Holy Spirit in our relationship? Have we left room for the Spirit to guide us in all aspects of our relationship, including this one?
You don’t have to married to ask these questions, you don’t have to be Christian, you don’t have to be a certain age. The important thing is that you ask these questions and that you talk about them together. If you don’t, the risk of sex that diminishes or damages is way higher.
As a church, I believe the best way we can encourage healthy conversations around sex is to stop perpetuating shame. I think this involves honouring and blessing life enhancing sexual relationships both within and outside of marriage.
 Easton, Dossie & Janet W. Hardy, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Sexual Adventure,, 2nd Ed, Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2009, p. 13.
 The concept of asking “Mind, Body, Heart” questions, is from the program: SafeTeen: Powerful Alternatives to Violence, and the book by the same name, written by Anita Roberts. http://www.safeteen.ca