Good Sex, Bad Sex: What Is Permissible for Christians?

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, May 24th, 2010

Sex has a bad reputation these days in Christian circles. No wonder, with a church plagued by sex scandals, pornography, soaring divorce rates, teen pregnancies, and increasing social pressures, one might almost be tempted to reject sex as inherently evil–the hissing snake destroying the harmony of the garden of Eden, the rotten fruit in a life of bliss that opened human eyes to each other’s nakedness. In response, the answers are often sought in a life of abstinence and celibacy.  But sex in itself is not bad. The tempter in the garden did not introduce sex to humankind but the knowledge of good and evil. And as the story shows, both dimensions apply immediately to human sexuality.

The apostle Paul offers some advice in 1 Cor. 10:23-33 on discerning the good or evil in the context of eating meat bought in the market place. The options are either that no such meat should be eaten, since it may have been from a sacrifice made to idols, or that all meat can be eaten, since the manner of its use is of no significance. In response, Paul provides an important answer: meat itself is neither good not bad; what matters is the manner in which we engage it in relation to our neighbor! “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (v. 31). In using this analogy, I am deliberately reducing human sexuality to the idea of the flesh—-at least for a moment. As far as our bodies are concerned, no part of our flesh is bad. We are at liberty to have sex as long as it is for the glory of God.

Let’s not postpone the question of what constitutes God’s glory in this context. In Paul’s advice, the conscience of our neighbor has everything to do with it. ”Give no offense,” Paul admonishes us and continues to explain that we should not seek our own advantage ”but that of many, so that they may be saved” (v. 33). The salvation of the soul is a hallmark of the glory of God. Paul emphasizes that the soul is a significant part of the question. Speaking about sex, as we are, Paul’s advice says that sex is not just an activity of the flesh but also an activity of the soul.

The first rule of sex as an activity of the soul is simple: If our sexual behaviors affront the conscience of others, we need to stop.

Do I really need to go on? Do we need to ask what kinds of sexual behaviors affront our neighbor? Paul seems to suggest that we cannot know what is offensive to others unless they inform us (v. 28). We need to spell out what we find offensive; and I believe we have done so successfully in many areas already. But the point is not to stop here. The point is not even to seek who or what is right, or good, or acceptable. The point is rather startling: As Christians, we need to stop ANY sexual behavior that affronts our neighbor’s conscience.

The most difficult aspect of engaging sex as a matter of conscience is that we are asked to give up what we hold dear. And yet, the moment that we are unwilling to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of the other, we have become guilty of idolatry. As Christians, we are called to love ourselves; but that love is a measuring stick for the love we have for our neighbor (Matt. 22:39). And that love is representative of the glory we attribute to God.

If we removed all the confrontational, offensive practices from the sexual life of the Christian community, what would remain on the list of sex? What kind of sexual behavior does not affront our neighbor? What edifies, builds up, completes, fulfills, and satisfies? What is done for the glory of God?

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Wolfgang Vondey
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