As I have outlined in previous posts, the importance of Christian discourse about sex is that we bring God into the debate. Extra-marital sex is no exception. Sex outside of marriage is sex for the sake of sex. Its primary scope is physical, its duration temporary, its goal the fulfillment of one’s own desires. Extra-marital sex distorts the image of marriage. Its widespread practice has undermined the public idea of marriage to the extent that one might think marriage had nothing to do with sex. Stand-up comedy portrays marriage as the problem of sex. The laughter of the audience betrays that many people find truth in that caricature. Unwittingly the comedy act betrays that everyone is in on the joke; it is confirmed by their own experiences. Marriage is not sex, but it has everything to do with sex. In fact, sex within marriage is marriage’s greatest ally.
Sex outside of marriage separates the idea and the act of sex from the idea and practice of marriage. Reduced to a self-rewarding, physical act, it is discovered that sex works—without marriage. The powerful idea that sustains sex outside of marriage is the actual lack of any idea of marriage. Pre-marital sex, often seen as a testing ground for the “real” life of marriage, actually becomes a counter-practice that contradicts marriage. Extra-marital affairs, sometimes seen as an escape from married life, are more than that: they destroy marriage. More precisely, sex outside of marriage destroys the purpose of sex.
As Christians, we have to find the purpose of sex in the human relationship with God. Even in Christian families, sex is often reduced to the human spouses. The good or the bad of married sex are directly related to the good or the bad of husband and wife. What is missing in many Christian bedrooms is an understanding of marriage that is not consumed by the human persons. Augustine’s classical theory of love may again be helpful here: “Now love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love” (On the Trinity, VIII, 14). We may adapt this idea and speak of three things in marriage: husband, wife, and marriage itself. It is the latter that marks the purpose of husband and wife. All things are directed not only toward the spouses but towards the marriage. To put it bluntly, marriage is the purpose of sex.
This definition of the purpose of sex requires a thorough dealing with the Christian image of marriage. A simplistic idea of marriage as an end in itself must be avoided. A biblical image of marriage includes the union of husband and wife, physically and spiritually; it includes a covenantal relationship between the spouses ordained by God. It includes the importance of intimacy and the joy of the consummation of the physical and spiritual union in the sexual act, not to mention the possibility of the procreation of another human being as a result of the openness and commitment of husband and wife to become father and mother. In short, marriage involves a commitment to the other person because of and beyond the reality of sex. Put differently, sex is a significant part of marriage but it does not exhaust marriage. Marriage is everything that sex cannot be. Marriage is what allows us to bring God into the bedroom.
In Augustine’s view, love is the Holy Spirit. It is a gift of God in which God gives of himself. The biblical view of marital love shows clearly that it is intimately connected with sex. And yet, we hesitate to call sex a gift from God. More importantly, it is not a gift that God simply left on our doorsteps, anonymously. In the gift, God is still present. It is forever God’s gift. The separation of love and sex in extra-marital behavior is itself an act of separation, and it carries this separation into marriage. Whether due to shame, guilt, ignorance, or willful repression, the married couples who engage(d) in extra-marital sex are separating themselves from God and from each other.
What do we have to say about this in our churches and academies? What do we say to the large group of singles? How do we bring healing and restoration to marriages that suffer as a result of extra-marital sex? How do we bring God back into the bedroom?