Sex and the Church: Why We Need a Theology of Sex

Today I am excited to post the last piece in my guest series on Sex and the Church. I am even more excited to have my friend, Karissa Knox Sorrell, sharing her thoughts and experiences on a topic that we are both so passionate about. Karissa is an internet-friend-turning-real-life-friend which is one of the best things about being part of the blogging world. She is a beautiful and thoughtful writer whose self-described “faith wrestling” challenges and encourages me.  

If you missed the other parts of this series you can read them here, here, here, here, and here.

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The teenager stared at her reflection in the girls’ bathroom mirror, tears spilling down her cheeks. Suddenly, someone else entered the bathroom and rushed to her side. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m  – I’m – pregnant!” she choked out between sobs.

“Don’t you know you’re supposed to use a condom?” the friend asked.

The girl’s brow furrowed. “We did use a condom!” she exclaimed.

The video went on for about twenty more minutes, and then my youth pastor turned it off and talked to us about waiting until marriage to have sex. “You don’t want to find yourself in that girl’s situation,” he said. “Remember I Corinthians 6:19 and 20? 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.” I underlined that verse in my Bible when I went home that night. I agreed with every word my youth pastor had said, internalizing the idea that sex had consequences and promising myself that I would wait.

I grew up in the True Love Waits era. I wore the T-shirt, signed the card, and once even wrote a newspaper article for my high school newspaper about waiting until marriage. Like a good Christian girl, I waited until my wedding night to have sex. But there was one problem: I still had an enormous amount of guilt and shame. I was afraid of my own body and its impulses. I had no idea how to embrace sex without feeling dirty. The scare tactics that had been used to get me to avoid sex had a side effect: They taught me that sex was bad, not beautiful.

I have come to believe that one of the problems with sex and the church is that we base our beliefs about romantic relationships and marriage on Bible verses that are about sex, not about romantic relationships and marriage. We need to be teaching our young people how to have healthy relationships, not simply to avoid sex.

I decided to do a little experiment and using Bible Gateway.com. I did a search of the NIV version of the Bible for the word sex. There were 77 verses about sex. The Old Testament had 42 verses and the New Testament had 35 verses.

23 of the 77 verses about sex had the words “do not” or “abstain.”

24 of the 77 verses about sex had the word “immoral” or “immorality.”

There was not one verse that had a positive connotation.

Let me say it again: Every single Bible verse about sex is negative. 

Is it any wonder that early in my marriage I was plagued with shame even though I was finally “allowed” to have sex? No. Because no one had ever told me how to have a marriage. They’d only told me how not to ruin a marriage. But unfortunately in process of trying not to ruin my future marriage, I damaged my understanding of sex, the body, and loving relationships.

Why wasn’t anyone teaching us about respect and listening and compromise? What wasn’t anyone teaching us how to express anger or disappointment or confusion in a healthy way? Why wasn’t anyone teaching us how to have a great sexual relationship? Why were we taught to hate our bodies, to cover up, to be afraid of our impulses, and to shame ourselves for any sexual feeling? I mean, six one-hour sessions of premarital counseling can not make up for years of being told that marriage is about one and only one thing: being sexually pure.

Now obviously my little internet search doesn’t make me a theologian who’s spent time on exegesis and hermeneutics. Song of Solomon is obviously a very sensuous book, and there are plenty of verses in the Bible that speak about love and speak to husbands and wives. And most of the verses about sex were encouraging believers to avoid sexual promiscuity, not sex itself.

But the fact remains that generally, sex is spoken of negatively in the Bible. When I couple that with the teachings I grew up on that always framed discussions about marriage and relationships around sex, I feel like I can confidently say that we have based our theology of romantic relationships and marriage on a handful of verses that are addressing sexual acts and that have a negative connotation.

So where does the church go from here? We can start by treating young people and singles as whole persons instead of walking hormonal messes. We can embrace a more holistic view of relationships and marriage, acknowledging the many facets of making a life with someone rather than simply focusing on sex. We can stop avoiding conversations about sex once the wedding rings go on. The church talks a lot about sex before people are married, but once they are, the topic becomes taboo. But that should be time to talk even more about sex and how to enjoy it!

It’s time for the church to do better. It’s time to rework and reframe our theology of relationships, sex, and marriage.

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Karissa's BioKarissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and poet from Nashville, Tennessee. She also works with ESOL students and teachers. Karissa writes about faith wrestling, cultural intersections, reading, writing, and family life. Read more of her work at her blog or follow her on Twitter

 

 

Featured Image Credit: Jesus1st-Anime2nd at Deviant Art 

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36 comments

  1. Love this. I completely agree with you. I was also given the “talk” but it was from Sex Ed at school. They had joined forces with a local church and we were not actually educated on safe sex at all but rather to abstain from it altogether. I joined all 9th graders at my school by signing a piece of pink paper stating that I would wait until marriage and anything other than that would be frowned upon. I honestly think it did no good.

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  2. Four words: Theology of the Body. It’s by John Paul II originally, but there are a bunch of other (less theologically heady?) versions out there too. I don’t know your denomination but I can tell you that this stuff is true for humanity, across the board, regardless of denomination. I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. Let me know if you want more info 🙂 you’re already well on your way… we have a lot of learning and growing to do as a Christian community, don’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually read Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West which is one of those simplified versions of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I thought it was quite good and more comprehensive than most material I’ve seen on this topic. I didn’t agree with every detail, but I thought a lot of the perspectives were really good. I am Protestant and Karissa (the author of this post) is Orthodox, but agree that we can learn a lot from other traditions as well.

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      1. My husband and I read that one too! 🙂 we had a few issues too but nothing that won’t be worked out over time. I hope to eventually break out the big book: Love and Responsibility. These are the best ones I’ve seen so far, but there is so much room for growth and communication. Hopefully we can help change the mindset from negative condemnation to awe, wonder, and mutual respect.

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      2. I probably should have clarified in the post that I was really speaking of my evangelical upbringing. 🙂 oh well!

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  3. I will have been married for 27yrs in a couple of days time and I grew up EXACTLY the same. I was taught that sex was dirty and to abstain until I was married but nobody told me how to flick that switch once I was married. I spoke to our minister about it a few months after we got married but he really didn’t help much so my husband and I had to work through it ourselves. I promised I would never teach my children that sex is wrong but rather to wait until they find the special person that they want to share such an intimate act with.
    Sometimes the church has a lot to answer for. Thanks for showing me I’m not the only one who felt like this.
    Have the best day !
    Linda

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree. And it gets even more complicated when we, without knowing any better, begin to confuse sex with love. Yes the two can be melded but there is a distinction between the two. What the Bible and church teach is that sex shouldn’t happen without love. But in this age of broken homes, children/young adults seek the love and affection they may not get at home in all the wrong places. They run into the arms of someone promising them the world, in part because that someone would say or do anything just to have ‘sex’, and we all know how such stories end.

    I appreciate that you took the time to do the Bible research. And I do agree – – it’s mostly negative/forbidden. But therein lies the problem. Even though the Bible is meant to be our guide, the human brain is programmed to do exactly what it is told NOT to do. Just like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Some would say ‘resistance is futile’, just go with the flow. But if one Is willing to cultivate the will to abstain then the ultimate reward of such self discipline would be great.

    Sex was never discussed in my house as a preteen or teenager. I was simply handed a book from which I was supposed to learn about the ‘birds n bees’ but it was so outdated it was just laughable. So yes I understand the Christian taboo shenanigans all too well and hope to do better with my kids when the time comes.

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    1. Yeah, I think a better message about sex is that it is part of a loving relationship! I also think that once Christians are married, they have nowhere to learn about sex other than “the world.” So one side tells me to be chaste and modest, and other says be sexy and wild. How do we find the balance?

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      1. Yes.Yes.Yes. After getting married I found myself googling like crazy, and most of the helpful tips were NOT from believers. Which is fine, its still super helpful. BUT… doesn’t it mean so much more when advice about something like sex from someone who has a similar view of the world and who won’t pop out a, “you guys should try a threesome” on you in the middle of a helpful article? #justsayin

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I just want to share that the church is not the right institution to talk about sex. The bible has taught us enough even before we went into it. And now that we are into it (sex) the church is saying that we are still daughters and sons of God despite all that has happened. The most important thing is that we have recovered.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I never had this problem myself as I never felt like I belonged to any religion and didn’t have any religious upbringing. Yet if I did belong to church, I would find it extremely difficult to understand the whole concept of sex and how I am supposed to behave, because of all the things you have stated.

    I know several people who are or used to be strongly religious, and whenever they met people without such upbringing and negative prejudice against sex, it seems to be very difficult. It’s not only about accepting sex isn’t sinful or filthy in any way, it also affects their confidence (especially girls because they tend to be less familiar with their sexuality than boys) in relationships.

    It’s sad and discouraging to see religion affect people in a negative way instead of serving its purpose and helping them. Quite often religious rules make young people feel guilty, ashamed, insecure, confused, frustrated and I feel like it’s the strictness of the rules that create the ‘temptation of the forbidden fruit’. I never saw sex as anything sinful or filthy because I don’t think it is, yet people perceive it this way and it can badly affect relationships as well as sexual life. It doesn’t help build trust and understanding between people in a relationship either.

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    1. I agree that this is one way that religion can be damaging, but I hope that churches can start to find a better way! For me, sex and body image and confidence seem to be all wrapped up together, so there can definitely be some difficult stuff to dig through.

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  7. I feel the exact same way. I feel that as long as we are in a loving and honest relationship God is cool with us expressing ourselves sexually. No sex before marriage is a man made rule. I have blogged about this I the past on my post titled “God Wants Us to Have Sex” at nobodylaugh.com.
    I enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I checked it out! Great piece. To be completely honest, I am really leaning toward the idea that sex is a normal, natural thing in the context of a loving relationship, even if it’s not marriage. But I don’t know that I’m officially ready to come out and say that in a blog post yet!! I agree that the whole waiting thing pushed a lot of people into early marriages (myself included – married at age 22). I think now as people are starting to wait until later to get married, sex is just a normal part of loving dating relationships.

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  8. Once you realize that all the anti-sex, abstinence teachings of Christianity were designed to keep women in the role of tradable property, suddenly it comes as no surprise that the resulting complications of these teachings are negative. It never had anything to do with morality or doing what was right for the people involved. It’s just one more method of control. Spending our young adult lives fighting the strongest natural urges our bodies have is folly. There are a significant number of resources and plenty of support just a Google search away for people whose lives, minds, and natural sex drives have been damaged by Christian upbringings.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A very good perspective on how church should change its approach on relationships, love, sex, marriage and commitment! The change starts in the inside and I believe there should be information, to young people specially, about these issues. And as a pastor is in a respectful position, it is a very good way to start to talk about these issues and teach people to think about their relationship with God with themselves too! Very good post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My upbringing was much like yours, and I want to encourage you to continue to put this message out. As someone who has been in a loving relationship for thirty years, I can say this; it just keeps on getting better.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Now I have to write my own piece on this, since it’s been mulling about in my head for a bit. If you want a positive spin on sex in marriage in the Bible, see Ephesians 5:21-33. A lot of people take it out of context as the “wives be submissive!” thing, but it’s really about being submissive to each other and coming together as one flesh in the same light of the union of Christ and the Church (the notes in my Catholic NAB Bible point that out, and I agree).

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  12. Reblogged this on Stalionette and commented:
    This is absolutely a great piece shared by Lily at Such Small Hands, and written by Karissa Knox Sorrell. I, too, grew up in the True Love Waits frenzy, but I did not participate in it for a multitude of reasons. I’ll post my own reflections on this topic later, but wanted to share this post with all of you in context for later.

    Liked by 1 person

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