Let’s admit it. Talking about sex is uncomfortable, especially as Christians. We are taught in our faith communities absolute abstinence outside marriage, and no exceptions regarding abortion, birth control, and being gay. Because of this inflexible approach, we often disengage, disconnecting our sex lives from our lives of faith which can be problematic. Can Christians express sexuality in positive and realistic ways still aligned with our faith? Yes.
When it comes to sexual pleasure in the Bible, it is often spoken of in the context of marriage. There are some Christians that feel that the only reason for sex is reproduction and there are others that believe that there are higher reasons for sex, including the ultimate joining together of a married man and woman – joining their two spirits, joining their two minds, and joining their two bodies. The Bible is not explicit on sex practices between married people. In Hebrews 13:4 we are told that the marriage bed is to be undefiled, it does not say what it means. There are a number of practices of love and sexuality in which the Bible is silent. Because of this, it is difficult to determine what is right and this is wrong. The general rule here is if it’s not from faith, it is sin. In the Old Testament, the term for sexual intercourse was “to know” a husband or a wife. The most intimate knowledge of a partner comes through this joining. Rather than prohibit sexual pleasure, the Bible shows that it is a gift from God.
So what does God really think about our sex lives? Pastor Bromleigh McCleneghan, author of “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option –And Other Things The Bible Says About Sex” talks about the sixth chapter of 1 Corinthians, where the apostle Paul rather famously charged early Christians to “shun fornication!...Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). While this passage is often cited as justification for all kinds of abstinence, is this what Paul meant here? McCleneghan calls to question this notion: “Is it glorifying God to deny our bodies – created good, created by God – the things they need for health and joy? A prohibition against all pleasure outside of very circumscribed circumstances like marriage – which for most folks, who begin to sexually mature around thirteen but don’t marry until (on average) twenty-six, means more than a decade of frustrated need for release and desire for pleasure – glorifying God?” While Christians are not called to indulge their every desire, we are called to our desires as part of living into grace. When we attempt to repress or sublimate our desires and human needs, accept the shame or condemnation of our humanity as embodied creatures, this does not connect us with God. In fact, this is when we begin to run into trouble, McCleneghan explains.
Sexual pleasure can be a sinful thing but the sin is usually more about a broken relationship, a harm done to self or other, than the nature of sexual pleasure in and of itself. The story of Onan in Genesis 38: 1-10 is a great example of this notion. It reads:
At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
In this story, Onan’s real sin is that he is neglecting his duty to his sister-in-law and having and enjoying sex with her without fulfilling his obligation and actually doing injury to her. Onan has sex with Tamar but doesn’t provide her the means to protect herself. This is the central issue in this story, not the practice of marrying his sister-on-law or giving his dead brother an heir. These were simply means that provided economic security and protection during that time. It is displeasing to the Lord when we pursue pleasure at a cost to another, especially a vulnerable other. While we can see through this story that sexual pleasure can be a sinful thing, the intent of heart is more problematic in God’s eyes.
The way we think about pleasure and about sin and incarnation has an impact on our understanding of what makes for good Christian sex. Many Christians have long thought of temptation to pleasure as the work of the Tempter when pleasure is really a gift from God. However, sexual pleasure is a nearly universal experience. It is important how we interpret that pursuit of pleasure. Sexual pleasure does not always mean turning away from God. Sexual pleasure does not always incite lust or incline us toward sin. As Christians, we don’t have to interpret that pursuit as sinful and worthy of shame. Pleasure is itself a good – not the good, but a good. Moral discernment will help us know when sexual pleasure needs to be sacrificed to other goods but it is not in itself wrong or shameful.