Karl Barth on Sex and Marriage

For the last year and a half my husband has been reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics as a part of his doctoral studies. Composed of roughly 13 books/volumes that average about 700 pages each (with teeny tiny print), this task is not for the faint of heart. Lucky for me, I am often the beneficiary of whatever theological treasures Ike unearths in the process, minus the hard labor.

The other day Ike was reading Barth’s analysis of the relationship between men and women, and he shared the following quote with me:

“Coitus without co-existence is demonic.”

Barth is not one to mince words, but he is very intentional about the language he uses, so I was intrigued. What did he mean by demonic?

As Ike explained it to me, Barth uses the term “demonic” to describe any sphere that does not submit itself to the command of God. In essence, it is rebellion.

By “co-existence” Barth is referring to the nature of the marital bond. Co-existence is about more than the act of being married, but includes the full mutuality of love and respect that is to be had in marriage. It is the proper and created context for godly sex.

Of this important connection between sex and marital co-existence, Barth elaborates,

“the physical sexuality of man should form an integral part of his total humanity as male or female, and that the completion of the sexual relation should be integrated into the total encounter of man and woman. All right or wrong and therefore salvation or perdition in this matter depends on whether it is viewed in isolation and abstraction or within this whole, whether it is a transitional point in this line or not. If it is not, if physical sexuality and sex relations have their own right and authority in which man and woman and their encounter may be controlled and fulfilled, then it is a demonic business. Naturally, the command of God will always resist any such idea of sovereign physical sexuality.

These statements are part of a larger argument Barth constructed against the belief that sex can be purely physical. For Barth,  this is an impossibility. To engage in sex outside the marital co-existence of man and woman is to engage in a behavior that is not only rebellious but de-humanizing. It debases us to a level akin to mere animals (since animals are driven by their passions) and it is driven by the “demonic” motivation of self-serving gratification.

In short, there is the God-ordained practice of sex, and there is a deep perversion of sex. But there is no neutral engagement of sex by which we only gratify our physical nature and leave our spiritual selves untouched.

Most Christians won’t find this hard to accept. We believe that God created sex for marriage. No problem there.

Where this becomes a bit uncomfortable is Barth’s insistence that the marital bond alone is not sufficient to ensure that God-ordained sex is occurring. Co-existence is about more than the saying of vows, though it certainly includes them.

For Barth, the prerequisite of co-existence requires us to ask the following questions about sex within the context of our marriages:

Is there any meaning in it? Is it demanded and sustained by your real life together? Is it justified and full of promise because at any rate you are honestly and resolutely on the way to achieving such fellowship? This is the challenge of God’s command in relation to this particular human activity. If it is not heeded as a question addressed to the total life-relationship of man and woman, then it is not heeded at all.

What I love about Barth’s logic is that it pushes us beyond the “sex belongs in marriage” line to a more holistic understanding of sex. So many Christians believe that sex belongs in marriage because God commanded it, and they may even be able to articulate the practical reasons for such a commandment. But when it comes to the theological and anthropological reasons (ie. humanity’s created design) there is some incoherence.

We see this any time sex is expressed as a good unto itself. Any time sex is casual in marriage. Any time sex is imposed on church couples by dictum of the church pastor without care for the dynamics of individual marital relationships. Any time sex is used as a tool for manipulation. Any time sex is treated as a carnal need that men and women cannot live without. Any time sex becomes a reward for premarital abstinence. Any time sex is about yourself and not the other.

Sex is not an end in itself. When it becomes an end in itself it becomes a lord in competition with the Lord God. Instead, sex is only an expression of the oneness between a man and a woman in marriage, as it echoes the oneness between Christ and the church.

This is a great reminder in a culture of rampant sexual individualism that prizes sexual rights and needs above all else, a culture for which the relational aspect of sex is merely incidental. It is also a great reminder for Christians who, even in our marriages, are prone to grant sexual practices their own sort of autonomy and dis-integration from the authority of God. As our culture continues to inundate us with distorted messages about the purpose and place of sex, we must continually ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of sex in my marriage?” and “Is sex submitted to the created purpose of my marriage?”