Sharing God’s unconditional love
Sex is a heated topic in the church today. But sadly, for all their fervour, our conversations have failed to get at the underlying issues. Arguments focus almost solely on defining appropriate sexual behaviour. As MBs, we have a clear and healthy stance on sexual behaviour that affirms, “Disciples maintain sexual purity and marital faithfulness and reject immoral premarital and extramarital relationships and all homosexual practices. To be a disciple means to be true to Jesus in everyday life.”
But we often talk about what is and isn’t permissible without stopping to ask how God views not only the mechanics of sex, but also our sexuality. Jesus makes it clear in the parable of the two builders (Matthew 7:24–27) that our lives are to be built on the foundation of clear thinking about God in Jesus Christ. In a society full of confusion regarding the purpose of sexuality, this task is even more important.
North American culture has labelled sex a commodity, like money, meant to be used without constraint to bring us pleasure. Our society grants complete freedom to define sexual preference and sexual identity unshackled from any moral belief. With birth control and fertility treatments, we’ve mastered the procreative aspects of sex. Through daily spam for cheap Viagra and Cialis, we’re reminded that even sexual dysfunction can be pharmaceutically overcome.
Popular culture defines sex in animal terms: for pleasure and procreation. We’ve forgotten the deep theological, or God-shaped, dimension of our sexuality. So how can we understand sex from a Christian, biblical, and theological standpoint?
No marriage in heaven
To begin, let’s look at an important text in the gospel of Luke. The author records a conversation between some Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, and Jesus. The Sadducees raise a question about widows who are given to another husband. Who will they be married to in the resurrection?
Jesus replies, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage … “ (Luke 20:34-35).
Jesus seems to say that marriage belongs to this age. In the age to come it will no longer be necessary.
Jesus, in whom dwelt the fullness of God (Colossians 1:19), didn’t marry and was, presumably, celibate. This, I think, forces us to admit that being fully and truly human doesn’t require us to be either married or sexually active. We can conclude that both marriage and sexual activity belong to this age. In the resurrection, sex and marriage as we know it will have little significance. In the age to come, when our sexuality is fully redeemed, humans will live without sex and without marriage.
Glorifying God with our bodies
Some have concluded from this that what we do with our bodies sexually doesn’t matter. They’ve opted to chase away all sexual desire, or to try and satisfy every sexual whim and pleasure.
Paul, however, warns against both these approaches. Against the pleasure-seekers, we can draw wisdom from what he says in 1 Corinthians 6. Here, Paul takes issue with members of the church who regularly visit prostitutes, likely those connected with pagan ritual.
To these people Paul exhorts, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins people commit are outside their bodies, but those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20, emphasis mine).
Against those who try to suppress all sexual desire, Paul also has choice words. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, he warns married couples not to abstain too long. He says to them: Have sex! While celibacy is the calling of some, it’s not the calling of all. Paul tells us that what we do with our bodies matters to God. Even though our bodies are often filled with impure desires, God invites us to use our sexuality to glorify him.
Yearning for us
Let’s summarize where we’ve been so far. We’ve laid down two planks in a Christian understanding of our sexuality. First, in the age to come, when our sexuality is fully redeemed, humans will live without sex or marriage. Second, in the here and now, God calls us to glorify him with our sexuality – which necessarily means to constrain our sexual desire, but not obliterate it.
This leaves some obvious questions. Why, in the resurrection, will marriage and sex cease to exist? Why, in the here and now, should we strive to live sexually pure lives? Do married people, celibates (people who have taken a lifelong vow of abstaining from sex), and singles have different callings with regards to their sexuality? Can we find a way to think about Christian sexuality that equally encompasses the married, celibate, and single?
We can answer these questions by thinking about redemption through grace.
Redemption tells us that God desires us. He yearns for us with overwhelming love. In Romans 5:8, Paul writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” With his love that brought Jesus back from the dead, God the Father saves us and redeems us from sin and death.
The meaning of redemption can be simplified in one sentence: God loves and redeems us because of who we are – God’s special creation – and in spite of who we are – people who rebel against and resist God.
God doesn’t love only our souls or the life force within us. But God, “who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11, emphasis mine). Because God redeems all of who we are, including our bodies, Paul can instruct us to glorify the Lord with our bodies.
So, what does redemption have to do with Christian sexuality? Most significantly, it tells us that for sexuality to be Christian it must affirm that we are loved, wanted, desired, and delighted in because of and in spite of who we are. True sexual fulfillment only occurs when we grasp this truth in all its incredible depth.
Sexuality is all about learning that we are loved by God.
Now we can understand why people will not marry, nor be given in marriage in the resurrection. In the kingdom of God, a perfect union with God will fulfill all our needs and desires. All believers will share in this fulfillment when God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Our sexuality will be finally and fully completed.
Sex in marriage
For married people, the task is to reflect God’s grace – his unconditional love, acceptance, and desire – to their partner. Marriage is meant to awaken the knowledge in one’s partner that they are loved because of, and in spite of, who they are.
When I look at my partner’s body, do I see it as something beautiful, or do I notice all the ways it doesn’t match the airbrushed bodies on the magazine racks at the grocery store? Or, when we have sex, is it an occasion for joy? Christian sex is filled with joy, because it gives us the opportunity to rejoice in God’s unconditional love (Isaiah 62:5)!
We can also understand why marriages are permanent relationships. God’s love and desire for us never changes; it’s constant throughout our lives. Approaching marriage as if it can simply be dissolved when our tastes change doesn’t reflect God’s ways with us.
In its permanence, marriage also provides security. It allows husbands and wives freedom to grow and deepen in their reflection of God’s grace to one another.
Only within the permanence and exclusivity of marriage can sex perform its true purpose: to proclaim the permanent and exclusive love of God for his people. And, if it’s self-seeking, even sex in the context of marriage can fail in this category.
We constantly need to evaluate our sex lives against God’s standard: am I reflecting God’s love through how I have sex with my partner?
The same call for singles
Finally, we see that celibates and singles share the same call as the married. They must also rejoice in the fact they are loved unconditionally by God.
For the unmarried, the task is to see themselves as loved and desired by God without a partner to reflect this truth to them. They are called to find sexual fulfillment primarily through their relationship with God, but also through friendships and community. As churches, we should affirm the calling of some to live celibate lives. In a sex-obsessed culture, this speaks volumes about where our allegiance lies.
Paul Tillich famously remarked that a Christian is called “to accept and affirm oneself as acceptable, despite being unacceptable.” Not only does this say something important about redemption, it also says something about Christian sexuality.
Within our sexuality, God has planted our deepest human longing – the longing for acceptance. Some are called to find this acceptance only through their relationship with God. Others are called to use their sexuality to affirm that, in the lives of their partners, they are indeed loved and accepted by God through Jesus Christ.
—David Eagle is pastor at Saanich (B.C.) Community Church.