A lot of Christian leaders have been talking about sex lately. The publicity has generated a great deal of conversation–some good, some not so good–as Christians continue to learn about godly sexuality and its proper place in the Christian life.
As important as it is to have these conversations and to seek greater understanding, these discussions can also present a bit of a challenge to single people. When Christians talk about sex in the same way as non-Christians–namely by elevating it to the position of a basic necessity and touting its nirvana-like pleasure–I am not sure we are serving single Christians in their call to chastity.
This week, Matthew Lee Anderson wrote a terrific article for Christianity Today about this community component to our language about sex. In it he addressed the contribution that singles bring to these discussions when he wrote:
Just as importantly, learning how sexuality is a community concern gives a voice to those who are frequently ignored when the topic arises: those who are single, and especially singles who may be called to that state. It’s paradoxical, of course, to think that those who might never have sex have something to teach the married about it. But within the community of the church, single people have an indispensible role in reminding the married that for all its joys and pleasures, life without sex is not one of drudgery or disappointment.
The perspective Anderson offers here is a great reminder of how lop-sided our conversations about sex will become if we exclude particular voices in the church. When married couples alone are the key leaders and thinkers on this issue, it is possible that we can develop an understanding of sex that is somewhat distorted.
For instance, in our exaltation of sex and its many benefits, great sex is sometimes described as a reward for godly married couples. Some of this logic comes from married couples who regret their past sexual impurity and the baggage it brought into their marriage. They wish they had waited and they encourage young Christians to make different choices. In addition to these testimonies, married Christians who enjoy sex appeal to it as a primary motivator for right behavior. Some teachers promise that abstinence prior to marriage is a guarantee of great married sex. If you can wait it out, it will be worth it.
To be sure, sex before marriage can result in a lot of baggage. Sin always has consequences, a principle that is repeatedly emphasized in the book of Proverbs. Likewise, righteousness undoubtedly bears fruits.
However, the logic behind this approach to abstinence has a number of problems. First, it’s simply not true. Abstinence does not guarantee good sex. Just before my husband walked into the church on our wedding day, my pastor said to him, “Prepare to have the worst sex of your life.” By this he meant that no one is a pro at first. For a lot of married couples, sex has a slow learning curve and it takes time to really enjoy it. For most people, it’s not mind-blowing the first time–or the 20th.
Add to that learning curve the component of personal hang-ups. Some Christians struggle to transition from abstinence to having regular sex. Many women are insecure about their bodies and have trouble being intimate. For other women it is physically painful, and for some men the drive isn’t always there.
Contrary to television, sex is complicated and each couple’s sexual relationship will have its own unique challenges. Fortunately, in marriage we have our whole lives to learn about one another, to trust one another, and to grow with one another in this area. Even when a couple struggles with their sexual relationship, that commitment to struggle together is part of the beauty of sex.
Returning to the logic of reward for abstinence, there is an additional problem with it that goes beyond it’s logistical fallacies: The purpose of abstinence is not to have great sex. The purpose of abstinence is to honor God with our bodies. Our bodies do not belong to us but to God alone, so we are to live as stewards of our God-given bodies prior to marriage and within the bonds of marriage.
Toward that end, sex is an echo of the great and mysterious relationship between Christ and the church. When we join ourselves to another in sexual intimacy, we reflect the perfect intimacy between God and His people. That is our created purpose, and that is the proper category in which sex belongs, before anything else.
All of that to say, sex is not an ultimate good. When married couples speak as though it is we set singles up to feel bitter toward God for withholding such an ultimate blessing. We also tempt singles to treat sex the way the culture does–as a basic right that they should not be expected to live without.
But the purpose of sex is not to serve ourselves. The created purpose of sex is to reflect the intimacy between Christ and the church within the relationship of Christian marriage.
Let me close by suggesting that contrary to popular opinion, single people should not be dependent upon married people to develop a robust theology of sex. Yes, singles should certainly listen to married couples–otherwise they would be excluding a great majority of teachings from the church. However, the two greatest Christian teachers of all time were both single and that is a tradition we should continue. From Jesus and Paul we know that one does not have to be married to have a godly understanding of sexuality. In fact, we need the voices of single people if we are to understand sexuality properly. And we need single people if we are to conduct these conversations in a way that edifies the entire body, not just married people.
Single brothers and sisters, the church needs you. When it comes to discussions about sex, your voice matters.