Why Sexual Morality Matters
Erin McArdel and Ken Onstot
Scripture: I Corinthians 6:12-20
Part I: Dealing with Taboo Topics—Erin
Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees
And the flowers and the trees
The moon up above, and the thing called love
Who can guess what the topic of today's sermon is? That's right. Today, we will be talking about sex. Now you might be wondering, why? What business is it of the church to be speaking about what we do with our personal lives behind closed doors?
And in fact, generally speaking (and I realize that I am making a gross overgeneralization here) I think that the church has done a terrible job of addressing the issue of healthy sexuality. The topic of sexuality, it seems, quite often only comes up in our churches in the discussion of homosexuality, the results of which are frequently toxic in that they drive a wedge in our communities and make some feel unaccepted. I do not believe that is at all the kind of message Paul would have advocated for. Paul does, however, find it important to talk about touchy subjects which we may rather avoid or which might make us feel uncomfortable...such as sexuality...and so to answer the question of what business the church has in our sexual lives...Paul would say plenty.
Paul believes that all aspects of our personal lives have bearing on our communal lives as the Body of Christ and thus should be examined through the lens of whether they give glory to God. Sure, we have freedom in Christ, which is to say that because we are forgiven and made right with God through Christ, we are no longer bound to trying to achieve righteousness before God through the Old Testament law. However, with the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of making good personal decisions and striving to reflect the love of Christ in all that we do. One of the tasks of Christian community, in Paul’s view, is to hold one another accountable to living lives that bring glory to God. Both the individual and communal Body are the instruments through which we encounter and serve one another and God. Because of this, the choices we make in our personal lives and with our bodies matter and it also matters that we talk about issues such as these in community.
If we are not willing to strip away the masks we layer on for fear of being seen as our naked and true selves, if we do not desire to constructively and critically assess our lives and choices and perhaps be a bit uncomfortable in the process of being challenged and stretched into becoming our best selves—then we should probably avoid Paul’s writings. Because, let’s face it. He tackles some pretty tough subjects. But since Paul is speaking as an Apostle, we can learn something from him of the heart of God. Through Paul, God confronts us with topics we might rather avoid—topics like sex.
Now there are some in this room for whom this topic may be particularly challenging who have been hurt by sexual immorality, sometimes even at the hands of the church or of fellow Christians. Through Paul’s writing, God responds compassionately saying, “I hear you. I see your hurt, and it’s not okay.” And God gives directions so as to avoid further hurts and divisions. If at any point during our sermon today, anyone feelstriggered, please be gentle and gracious with yourself and do what you need to do, whether you need a time-out from the sermon or to talk with one of us afterwards. It is important to us that everyone feel safe.
It would of course be impossible for us to tackle all aspects of sexuality in one sermon. But we hope that today will begin to remove the stigma so often associated with this topic and will create a safe space to have continued dialogue as we wrestle with how to glorify God in the sexual dimension of our lives.
Being sexually moral involves engaging in consensual sexual behaviors within the confines of a committed and just relationship for the purpose of expressing love and unity. Partners should view one another as equals and desire mutual satisfaction. In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul advises the church in Corinth and us that in order to glorify God in our sexual behaviors, we must flee from fornication or sexual immorality and he gives his theological arguments for this charge, which include the argument that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We will explore the importance of our bodies—and why this message was so important for the Corinthians to hear—in the next section of our sermon: Why Bodily Life Matters.
Part II: Why Bodily Life Matters—Ken
To understand this scripture I must go back to something said by Socrates about 400 years before Jesus. I quoted this in a sermon two weeks ago, but let me read part of it again. Socrates said,
It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).
Basically, Socrates believed that bodily life was at best irrelevant and at worst a hindrance to our spiritual lives. We will only have a true spiritual life, he said, when we are quit of the body, meaning when we die and our immortal souls experience the pure light of truth.
The Corinthians to whom Paul is writing have been steeped in this philosophy. From this they drew two seemingly opposite conclusions. On the one hand, some of the Corinthians thought that bodily life was bad and that Christians should avoid bodily entanglements as much as possible. In the scripture we read two weeks ago from I Corinthians 7, they say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” meaning we are better off having no sexual relations at all, even if we are married.
Paul disagrees. In chapter 7 he tells the Corinthians that becoming a Christian does not mean you should avoid marriage or sexual relations with your spouse. These are good things created by God. If you are married your job is not to leave your marriage but to serve God in your marriage, including the mutual enjoyment of sex. Paul is quite explicit about that. Bodily life is not something to be avoided; it is the arena in which we are called to serve Jesus. That’s part of what it means that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. They are the arena in which we are called to love and serve God.
But some of the Corinthians drew the opposite conclusion from Socrates. They said that since bodily life is irrelevant to our spiritual lives, it does not matter what we do with our bodies. We are free to do anything we want with our bodies.
These folks are quoted in our scripture reading for today. They say, “All things are lawful for me.” In other words, we can have sex with anyone we want, because it is just physical. It’s something we do with our bodies that has no relevance to our relationship with God.
Interestingly, this is similar to the way many people view sex today. Christian Smith, a sociologist from Notre Dame, has written a fascinating book called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. The book is based on surveys and in depth interviews with about 2,500 young adults, 18 to 23 year-olds, from across the country and from all walks of life. Among the many topics covered in these interviews were questions about how they viewed sex. Here are some responses from the young adults interviewed:
- Well, it’s more physical. You just, you don’t have to be dating them or going out with them. You just have a physical thing at a party or whatever.
- In my personal perspective, hooking up is completely different than getting into a relationship. If I’m hooking up with a guy, I don’t plan on dating them. It depends. … I don’t need that commitment. I don’t need that relationship. I don’t need that love from somebody else. I’m fine with myself. Entertainment, thrill, all of it. Just for fun.
- It’s more of a physical thing, not an emotional thing. You don’t have to worry about the emotions or the jealousy. But the only bad thing about that is someone always ends up getting feelings [for the other], and then … [well] It’s not a good way to go, but you do it sometimes (pp. 60-61).
The theme in these comments is that sex is not that big a deal. It is just something you do with your body; it does not really define you as a person; it does not really affect your soul. Except when it does. And that brings us to the next part of our sermon.
Part III: How Sex Unites—Erin
Paul would argue that there is no such thing as casual sex. Sex always affects you as a person either for good or for ill. He writes “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” He reminds us that our bodies are members of Christ and that we are united to the Lord and one spirit with him.
Paul believes that all bodily deeds are of spiritual significance and should be oriented toward God who created our bodies, redeemed our bodies, and will one day resurrect our bodies. Thus, that which we do with our bodies should draw us into deeper relationship and union with God, including especially something as intimate as sex.
Paul makes his case for the unity that can and should come out of sex by referring to one of the creation accounts wherein God recognizes the human need both for community and for intimate partnership and thus creates a woman for Adam. Adam recognizes her as his equal in that they are created of the same matter. They are created as sexual beings with mutual desire for one another and in the act of being united to one another through sex, they become one flesh.
Paul challenges us to view and experience sex in a manner similar to that of the Genesis account—as an act which unites us with the other, becoming, in effect one body. Furthermore the act of sex which has a uniting effect between two partners can also draw us into deeper relationship and union with God. How so?
Firstly, we are created by God as sexual beings. Our sexuality is a part of the order of creation, which God deemed as good. Since our sexuality is instinctive to our humanity, there is no way that we can separate it out from the way in which we relate to others or to God—it is a part of us. The gift of sex is meant to be enjoyed and to draw us nearer to our partner. Since we come to know God more through our relationships with one another, as we are drawn nearer to our partner through engaging in healthy and disciplined sex, we can also come to know God more.
Secondly, we are drawn into deeper union with God when we recognize our vulnerability and dependence on God. The Genesis account describes that the man and his wife were both naked and unashamed. Sex, when participated in equally with the goal of expressing love, unity, and achieving mutual satisfaction invites us to be fully vulnerable before our partner. Our being naked before the other, both physically and figuratively, requires trust, honesty, openness, and sensitivity to the other’s needs and desires. It’s interesting that, further on in the Genesis account, after the man sins, he becomes ashamed of his nakedness. “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself,” he tells God. He became afraid of being vulnerable before God. Practicing honesty and openness within the context of sex with our partner may better empower us to be vulnerable before God. When we are willing to be completely honest and open with God about our whole selves, then we can be more aware of and receptive to the dwelling of Christ within us and we can be better representatives of God’s grace in the world.
Finally, through the act of sex we both give and receive love. A major attribute of God is love. I said previously that one of the major purposes of sex is the expression of love between two consenting and committed individuals. Since all of love comes from God, then we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s love for us when we engage in loving acts with one another, including sex between partners. This love can be cheapened, however, if out of the context of a committed relationship—wherein one can be fully united, vulnerable and intimate in the way God intends, and Paul would argue that sexual acts that are absent of commitment are immoral.
Paul writes that the body is meant not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the fornicator sins against the body itself in that he or she defiles the bodily temple where the Holy Spirit dwells. Because our bodies are members of Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we should treat them with reverence and honor. In the act of sex, one should treat both his or her own body with respect and also the person with whom they are having sex. There are all kinds of ways that sex can be used dishonorably and destructively—some more obvious than others—such as sexual abuse, incest, pedophilia, pornography, or having an affair. But there are other, less obvious ways that sex can be destructive. Some examples are having sex before one is ready as a result of peer pressure, engaging in sexual behaviors as a result of one’s own insecurities in an attempt at seeking approval from another, having sex to make another person jealous or because we feel jealous of them, or any situation where there is an imbalance of power within the relationship.
As the body of Christ, it is important that we examine our own sexual lives to ensure that we are engaging in moral and unifying behaviors and also that we speak out against sexual immorality so that we are not complicit in silencing the voices or experiences of those who have been hurt or are hurting themselves. As God’s representatives in the world, we should stand with God in validating the hurt caused by sexual immorality, responding to it with compassion, love and justice, and creating a safe place for people to heal.
If engaging in sexually immoral behaviors ourselves or silencing the voices of those hurt by sexual immorality, thenwe are cheapening the gift of sex from God—a gift which is intended to bring unity between two partners within a committed relationship and draw them closer to God.
Part IV: The Connection to Commitment—Ken
After describing some of the attitudes about sex which Christian Smith encountered in his interviews, he writes,
A significant number of emerging adults, it seems, have suffered devastating breakups involving romantic partners with whom they thought they were very seriously involved, probably on the path to marriage. … We interviewers were taken aback, actually, by the number of traumatic breakups we heard described, since we had embarked on the interviews with the belief that emerging adults generally want to hold off on seriously committed relationships. But the fact is that while most emerging adults do want to hold off, they … also yearn for the kind of intimacy, loyalty, and security that only highly committed relationships can deliver (p. 61).
And that brings me back to Paul’s theme in I Corinthians. Sex is not a bad thing we should avoid at all costs; it is a good thing meant to bind us together in lasting relationships and give us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
I find it ironic that at the very moment in history when some heterosexual couples are playing down the importance of marriage, homosexual couples are fighting for it. Isn’t that ironic? I have known numerous heterosexual couples who said to me, “Marriage is not that big a deal. It’s just a piece of paper.” And yet there are now homosexual couples thrilled to have that piece of paper.
Let me say that today’s scripture, by itself, does not address the issue of homosexuality. This will not be a sermon about homosexuality. There are other places where Paul addresses homosexual relationships, and those scriptures need to be looked at in their own context. Unfortunately, Bible scholars are in fierce disagreement on what those scriptures mean, so that’s why we have faithful Bible believing Christians struggling with this issue. We are not in agreement in this church, in this Presbytery, or in the worldwide body of Christ on how to understand homosexuality.
But here is what comes through to me in this scripture passage: sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, only achieves its true purpose when combined with commitment. When sex is separated from commitment, it produces jealousy, anxiety, fear, and sometimes a desperate need to control or dominate the other person. Then something meant to give us loyalty, security, mutuality, and hope gives us just the opposite. Instead of being a sign of God’s steadfast love, it casts doubt over whether steadfast love is even possible in human bodily life.
Sex is meant to make two people one, and when it does, it gives us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, the kind of steadfast love and faithfulness God wants for us all.