So, as a Christian, there are some issues that are always going to be controversial. Actually, for that matter, there are some issues that are always going to be controversial no matter what. Like sex.
There is a somewhat vaunted opinion within Christianity, interestingly enough within most religions, that sex outside of marriage is to be avoided. This is an idea that is challenged very often now, though. Sex permeates our society. It is no longer something private, but while remaining something of a taboo, it is a very public issue. I am a 21 year old guy who is a virgin, and this seems to be something that’s quite strange now. In fact, I often feel like I’m looked down on by my peers (who aren’t Christians) because I haven’t had sex yet. It’s like it’s a deficiency on my part.
To begin with, I ought to say that, yes, I would like to have sex. As I just said, I am a 21 year old guy and have certain desires that go along with that. However, I choose not to. I don’t want to have a sexual relationship, not of that sort, not yet.
I should also say that I have a fair few non-Christian friends who are quite happy about having sex. That is, technically, fine. I don’t judge them, because I don’t expect them to live by my rules, because they’re not Christians. I think we ought to cover that issue first, and we’ll go from there. I also know Christians who have had sex but now don’t. Not a problem at all. However, I do have a problem with people maintaining they have a Christian faith, but continuing to have sex outside of marriage. Your lifestyle isn’t matching your words, in my opinion. But then, it is only my opinion.
Now, up until the last century, sex was treated very differently (I should point out at this point that I am really dealing primarily with Europe and the West). Marriage was held with certain reverence, divorce was a rarity, and sex outside of marriage was heavily frowned upon. The problem, of course, was that if you got caught having sex out of marriage, if you ended up with a pregnancy, the whole of society looked down upon you most severely. This gives us a very poor state of affairs.
So bring on the 20th Century, and two world wars leading to the degradation of religion in the west as many people become disillusioned: look what religion gave us, so why bother. That removes for most people the primary reason for abstinence, because if no one’s religious no one’s abstaining on religious grounds. Twenty years after the first world war, in the 60s, we have the explosion of sexual activity that went along with that period, and the entire sense of breaking away from the authority.
So today people have sex quite frequently, inside and outside of relationships, co-habiting is very common and considered completely acceptable, and we reap the rewards of that in teenage pregnancies, the rampant spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the constant rise of broken families. The proliferation of divorce and so many couples not even bothering to get married means that there are so many couples who have children and then their relationship breaks down, that there are now so many children who get split between their parents and who have more than two parents.
The critical point for me, the issue that I think is most central to the issue of sex, is children, and we have taken children out of sex. Sex is a pass time and a good time, it is not about having children, and pregnancy is an unwanted side-effect; if you get pregnant, it’s probably because you weren’t careful enough, and it’s not a good thing.
That is a bad state, sex is about children, it is the union of a man and a woman where they become one flesh and as a result new life is created. You shouldn’t take children out of sex. As I said before, I do not judge the people I know who have sex outside of marriage, they’re not living by the same rules as me, but I do think sex outside of marriage is a bad idea for that reason.
I’d like to bring in some psychology, as well. A big part of our approach to sex is the idea of trying to survive, and trying to make sure our genes survive. If we have children, then we survive through them. This is a different issue for men and women, because of parental investment.
A man wants to have sex with as many people as possible as often as possible, because his investment is low. Once he’s made his contribution, no more is particularly required of him. The more women he impregnates, the more children he has, the better his odds of survival.
For a woman though, she’s stuck with the pregnancy and then with the child. Her parental investment is much higher. She’s the one who has to nurse and feed the child. So she wants to snag a man who’s going to stay with her and look after her, and her baby, because that gives that child the best chance of growing older, its best chance of surviving, and that’s her best chance of surviving. That is, in brief, according to the psychologists and the behaviourists, the evolutionary reasons for the different approach to sex adopted by men and women.
I believe, very strongly, that we are supposed to have two parents, I believe that’s the way God made us. If relationships were what they should be, we would learn some things from our mothers and other things from our fathers, and have some things provided for us by our mothers and other things provided by our fathers. To split the parents and separate our experiences with them loses that, in my opinion. I think the psychologists explanation embellishes my understanding of that. I certainly don’t approve of a man doing his best to spread his seed as far as possible.
None of this means that I think you should only have sex when you’re trying to have children. I just think it’s a mistake to remove children from sex altogether. I also think sex is the truest expression of the intimacy of marriage. It’s at the point when you’ve committed to being together to the end of your days, leaving your previous life and becoming one, your situations in life joining together, and here is the physical expression of exactly that.
So does that mean it’s okay for people to live together and have sex before getting married, or if they then stay together all their lives? Well, if that’s the case, why shouldn’t you get married? Marriage is a bond, it should be a bond that cannot be broken. Jesus said divorce is permissible, but it shouldn’t be, because it shouldn’t be needed. In an ideal world, once you’re married you’ll never need to be separated. If you’re just living together, you can still break up and separate, cease to be one. Marriage is supposed to be that final step, till death do us part.
The criticism that many people aim at me at this point is that that isn’t realistic, and a criticism aimed at the church for holding on to the value of purity and abstinence is that we haven’t moved with the times, and that living in the 21st century brings things along with it, like the fact that now sex is okay.
I disagree. Christianity has always been radical, or it certainly used to be. The words of Jesus were massively controversial because everything he had to say was totally radical. The early church swept through the Roman Empire and was shockingly radical. And as it happens, that Hellenistic culture was incredibly similar to our own, our society and our post-modern worldview is almost an exact recapitulation of Greek culture. There was a proliferation of sex then, too, it was completely acceptable and normal throughout the Roman Empire. The church was totally separate from it, maintaining a cry of holiness, and part of that distinctiveness was in abstaining from pre-marital sex.
John Wesley came up with what’s often called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for thinking about any important issues. When facing anything like this, as a Christian, he said you should consider it using Scripture, tradition, experience, and wisdom.
To begin with, what Scripture has to say about sex. The first thing I have to say is that I don’t know of any verse in Scripture that actually says directly “Do not have sex outside of marriage”. If I’m wrong about that, please tell me where to look. However, I can only think that if it is said, even if not quite so directly, it must be somewhere quite obscure, in which case the efficacy of such a text is immediately dubious. I mean, if you can find it somewhere in the purity laws in Leviticus, how much weight can we give it, considering that we ignore most of those things anyway?
However, the bible certainly isn’t in favour of it. Jesus quite obviously never says anything so direct because he didn’t ever need to: it was just the assumed opinion of his Jewish audience inside Israel. Go to Rome or Greece and you’ll find plenty of sex, but not in Galilee. For the Jews, it was wrong, it went without saying.
That’s implicitly obvious when Jesus talks about divorce or about committing adultery in your heart, its all from an assumed position that sex outside of marriage is wrong. He says in Mark 10 that, referring to the beginning of Genesis, God created us male and female and so a man will leave his parents and be joined to his wife. The two become one. That’s marriage, and that’s sex. Let man no separate what God has joined. Sex is for marriage, when you are joined, one to another.
Similarly, when Paul says anything about sexual immorality, when he gives big lists of these sexually devious acts, he never bothers to include sex outside marriage, because everyone already knew they shouldn’t be doing that.
In fact, Do Not Commit Adultery is right there in the 10 Commandments, and while they may themselves be mostly ignored, they’re still authoritative and should be followed. We can argue over the definition of adultery if you want to. I suppose the essential definition would be to cheat on your partner. In the context, I think it’s really intended as married couples rather than just a relationship. Don’t sleep with someone outside your marriage. I cannot prove it, so you disagree with me if you want to, but I think it’s pretty obvious adultery in this context is referring to sexual relations with someone who isn’t your husband or wife.
So I come to the conclusion that according to the bible, sex outside of marriage is wrong. What about tradition? Turn to any of the great figures of the church that you want to. Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Karl Barth. From Justin Martyr to Tom Wright, they all hold the view that sex outside marriage is wrong. The overwhelming strength of church tradition is against it, and all of those people are cleverer and wiser than me and probably you as well. I respect their view. I mean, Origen emasculated himself based on Jesus’ saying “If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off.” I think that shows his ideas on the subject quite clearly.
I was discussing this with a couple of people recently and someone said to me that I shouldn’t use tradition as an argument, because someone people in “ministry”, especially Catholic priests, are paedophiles. I’m afraid that, as a criticism, holds very little strength. Of all the Catholic priests they are, I suspect it to be a very small minority who are paedophiles. Too many, certainly, but not so many that they tip the scales as to what’s right and wrong. For that matter, I suspect that most of them know what they’re doing is wrong. As I said before, the overwhelming strength of church tradition maintains that sex outside of marriage is wrong.
The final two elements of the Wesleyan quadrilateral are subjective, which is why Wesley agreed that they have less weight. My own experience is limited, and I won’t say too much about. My own wisdom, my strength of reason, comes back to things I’ve already said. Sex outside of marriage isn’t good, isn’t what God intended, takes children out of sex, isn’t a positive environment for children to be born into, and is very often harmful. That’s what my reason tells me.
All of these things are only my opinions and my thoughts, though. They aren’t authoritative for anybody else. This is simply what I think. I also don’t intend to offend anyone. However, I do believe that living as a Christian means living in a certain way, and I do think this is part of that. To use a cliché, talk the talk and walk the walk.
I’m a strong believer in holiness, and I believe to love a holistic lifestyle means maintaining a certain purity in relation to sex. I am a Christian, and so I am trying to live in this way. Yes, I fail, I mess up a lot of the time, praise be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, for he delivers us from this body of death, as Paul says in Romans 7.
My thoughts and opinions don’t have to impact anyone else, and maybe in years to come I’ll look back at this with a completely different set of thoughts, ideas and values. But this what I think.