Okay, maybe NOW I’ve actually got to write this thing. I’ve been putting it off for months, writing about Christian sexuality. It’s such an important topic, but honestly, it’s so loaded with inherited moralistic and church tradition baggage — plus, the theology is incredibly subtle — that I didn’t want to open that particular can of worms. People are already questioning my salvation, LOL.
But today I saw one more post on Facebook. A friend shared an article about some guy who didn’t want to start PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis: taking an HIV anti-viral med to prevent becoming infected) because he didn’t want people to think he was a whore. See, there’s this whole “#TruvadaWhore” meme thing going around. I think it was originally a joke; kinda like, “yeah, I can sleep around now because I’m on the meds.” Some even wear the term as a badge of honor, feeling the empowerment of embracing their sexuality. I’ve seen the t-shirts.
And that’s what my friend was saying: “What’s wrong with being a whore? Why do we blindly accept someone else’s value judgements without thinking about them for ourselves?”
Many gay men have suppressed their sexuality for so long they finally reach a point where they realize it is their body to enjoy as they want and it’s none of anyone else’s business. They’re reclaiming sex as a valid way of interacting with another person they’re interested in — even when not married or in a committed relationship.
And that’s where the Christian morality comes into play. Because we all know that sex outside of marriage is fornication, and the bible clearly says that’s a sin. Right? Or is it? So let’s crack open this can of worms and see where we end up.
First, it’s important to note that the bible is a book loaded with sex. And that’s how it should be. God made sexuality a hugely important part of our humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would be relegated to topics like gluttony and laziness: yeah, it’s an issue, but who really cares? So, since the bible is full of stories about humans, it’s bound to talk about sex. A lot. Like Abraham with his wife and his concubine/second-wife. Like Jacob and his four women. Like David and Bathsheba and his little harem, or Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. There was Judah, one of Israel’s patriarchs, and his adventures with a prostitute; and Samson, the hero of faith, with his multiple dalliances with ladies of the night. They didn’t seem too uptight about sexuality back then. So what happened?
When it comes to limitations on sex,
the bible is primarily focused on adultery and idolatry.
Well, let’s start with the 10 Commandments. Nothing at all in there about sex outside of marriage. In fact, the only sexual reference is to a married person having sex with someone else’s spouse. And this may be an important key. Sexual morality was originally about loyalty to a spouse — specifically, about a wife being sexually exclusive with her husband alone. Men were given a lot of slack here; even married men could fool around with other women as long as they were not married. Well, at least that’s how it was practiced. The text doesn’t say that. It simply says “don’t commit adultery.” So, let’s ignore for the moment what men in the bible actually did, and focus on the original intent: when you are in a committed relationship, your sexual activity stays within that relationship. Married couples give themselves to each other, that whole “the two become one flesh” thing, so joining your body with someone else was a betrayal. It was a form of theft. Men still had the upper hand, though. They could take on a second or third or fourth wife.
It gets more interesting in the New Testament. Jesus said if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s like committing adultery with her. Note the choice of words: adultery. In the social context of Judaism at that time, the working assumption was that men would be married. It was a rite of passage, a part of being a man and fulfilling the duty to populate the nation and take one’s place in society. Bachelors did exist, but they were a rarity, frowned upon by society. (In fact, there is no biblical Hebrew word for “bachelor” — but there are a few words for unmarried woman.) So, Jesus is presumably speaking to married men, and is saying that thinking sexual thoughts about someone else is being unfaithful to your wife, and tantamount to actually having sex outside your marriage: ie, adultery. What’s cool here, is that Jesus is now equalizing the field. Men got away with infidelity all the time — “adultery” was generally only applied to the unfaithful wife. But here, Jesus lays the burden equally on the (married) guys with their sexual fantasies.
But what if you’re not married?
For sex and the single person, we have to move on to the Apostle Paul. He’s the one who really adds the bricks to the morality wall. He’s the one who spells out that whole, “the man’s body belongs to his wife, and the woman’s body belongs to her husband” thing. Again: when you’re committed, honor that commitment.
But then he throws in lines about not having sex with prostitutes because you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s context, most prostitutes were temple prostitutes; they were professionals who offered sex as a form of pagan worship, and they were often in the employ of a temple. In a way, Paul is making a pun here. You are temple property, and you’re joining yourself with another temple’s property — but one outside the true faith. So sex with a pagan temple prostitute is in fact an act of idolatry — of participating in worshipping other gods. Much like eating meat sacrificed to idols. No big deal in itself. But if other people know about the meat, don’t eat it so they won’t think you’re participating in idolatrous worship. It seems to me that Paul is primarily concerned with idolatry here, with participating with foreign gods, more than about the sex itself. (What if the person you’re getting naked with is also a Christian, another temple of the same Holy Spirit? Does his argument still hold up?)
Oh, and please notice that Paul never says that sex is a “joining of two spirits,” as is often misunderstood. The phrase is “the two become one flesh”; it is a physical joining, not some mixing of your spiritual natures, so you are not defiling Christ’s Spirit who lives within you.
But, you may ask, what about Paul’s statement, “it is better to marry than to burn” with lust? Isn’t he advocating marriage as the only valid outlet for sexual urges? “Decent” unmarried women in those days were kept under the protective watchful eye of their male relatives, so the only readily available sexual outlet were temple prostitutes. Given those alternatives, marriage is the best bet. Paul knows the young men in his congregations are hot and full of hormones. And temple prostitutes are not a good idea. So, get yourself a woman of your own.
Notice also in this discussion on marriage, that Paul adds, almost in passing, “But I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am, [celibate, unmarried]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Celibacy, even Paul admits, is a gift from God, a spiritual empowerment, not something that is required of everyone.
I can’t say that idolatry/temple-prostitution is the only thing Paul was concerned about here. But it also fits with the common scholarly take on Paul’s views on homosexuality. That famous Romans 1 passage used to beat up LGBT people so often — clearly in a pagan temple context: “they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Idolatry again. And the ambiguous word he uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 referring to same-sex sexuality, arsenokoitai, seems to involve exploitive situations: either pederasty, prostitution, or human trafficking (kidnapped “sex slaves”). Sex shouldn’t be exploitive or abusive, and it shouldn’t be linked with worshipping other gods.
Fornication, Purity & Virginity
So, what about “fornication”? Isn’t it condemned in the bible? Sure. Unfortunately, that word, usually translated generically as “sexual immorality” in modern versions of the bible, has taken on a specific meaning in the Christian Church that it did not originally have. Ask most Christians and they’ll tell you that “fornication” is premarital sex.
But in the bible, that word is much broader and refers to wide range of unlawful (forbidden) sexual activities, such as incest, sex within certain family relations (step-mothers, half-sisters, aunts, in-laws, etc), sex while the woman is menstruating, and other unclean practices. Hence, Paul could condemn a man in one of his churches who was having an affair with his father’s wife (presumably his ex-step-mother, not his actual mother). That was a shocking thing to do in that culture; it was indecent, and Paul didn’t want that associated with the young faith community. But fornication did not specifically refer to sex outside of marriage as is commonly understood today.
What about keeping ourselves pure — for God and for our spouse? Yes, there’s something to be said for that. “How can a young man keep himself pure?,” Psalm 119:9 asks. The answer given in the same verse is “by living according to God’s Word.” But why do we automatically think that “purity” refers to sexuality? To a Jew, purity would be understood primarily as a life keeping the commandments — everything from avoiding pork and shell fish, to the way he cuts his hair, to keeping the Sabbath, and having no other gods besides God. It meant staying loyal to God. Go ahead. Look it up. You won’t find sex mentioned there.
Virginity was highly prized in women in biblical days — it made them more valuable to prospective husbands — but it was never a virtue or requirement for men. Still, if you choose to save your virginity and offer it as a gift to your future spouse, then that’s an excellent and honorable choice. Like taking a vow to never drink alcohol or never smoke a cigarette, it’s a personal lifestyle decision. But don’t let someone else make that decision for you. Don’t be forced into a life of frustration because you are not married and your jeans seem to be on fire.
The book of Proverbs has lots to say about sex for the young man. Beware the wayward woman, the one leaning seductively out her door, whispering “my husband is away, come in and let me entertain you.” It encourages faithfulness: “drink water from your own cistern, and don’t let your fountains overflow into the streets. May your fountain be blessed,” and “may your wife’s breasts always satisfy you.” Juicy imagery. But again, a married situation: adultery. There’s also talk about prostitutes. A dangerous liaison, she will consume all your wealth and lead you to destruction — yeah, there goes your paycheck, and you better go get your status checked. Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It’s not saying not to have sex. It’s saying use some wisdom in your hookups — adultery and prostitutes aren’t the wisest way to satisfy your urges.
And then there’s the Song of Songs in the bible. The entire book is dedicated to the joys of physical intimacy and being in love. Even before their wedding day, the young woman yearns achingly for her lover, and takes him to the bedroom. The descriptions are so steamy and explicit, in fact, that the only way the book could be included in the Hebrew Bible was that the sages declared it to be an allegory about the love of God and his bride Israel. And later Christian leaders understood it as a description of the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church. Spiritual interpretations aside, the book celebrates the pangs of desire, and the joys of physical love and companionship. But above all, it celebrates love. And this is a good qualifier. Let love be your goal, not just getting your rocks off.
Let me point it out again. In ancient Israel, adultery (for women) was punishable by death. But marital faithfulness was less expected of men, and both prostitution and “harlotry” (unmarried women engaging in promiscuous sex) were completely legal and tolerated. That, of course, does not mean they were socially respectable — just like today, unmarried women who enjoy their sexuality tend to have a bad reputation (“whore”, “slut”), while guys generally get a free pass.
Having said all that, though, I am not saying that the bible is only concerned about adultery and idolatry when it comes to sex. But what I am saying is that the strict code of sexual purity we think the bible endorses is actually more a modern interpretation. With all the commandments given in the bible, nowhere will you find the explicit statement “thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage.”
So what then …?
Should you hop from bed to bed just because you can? Probably not. Paul’s injunction holds true across the board — whether over-eating at the buffet, drinking too much and getting wasted Saturday night, cutting yourself or doing harm to yourself … or sexual promiscuity: “glorify God with your bodies.” Over-indulgence is never applauded. And that kind of libertine sexuality was deemed “licentiousness” in the bible: a sin of excess. “Don’t use your liberty as an excuse to indulge the flesh, but serve one another in love,” Paul tells us — but the point is that you do have that liberty. Someone else’s stricter “moral code” is not binding on you. Your conscience and your personal relationship with God is. How you express your sexuality in real life is entirely up to you. What is sin for one may not be sin for another. We are individuals, with our own individual relationships with God. If you meet someone you’re really connecting with, if things get hot and steamy, is God going to count one more sin against you? No. God is not a prude, and he’s not a sin-counter. But like the book of Proverbs advises over and over, use some wisdom, use your intuition, don’t be stupid, and never put yourself in dangerous situations. Use your head and use your conscience. Like Paul says, “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.”
Look, I’m not saying that the bible would condone you hooking up with a new guy weekend after weekend. What I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to me to be much to support the idea that you need to wait until you’re married. There’s a wide space of territory between those two extremes, and you need to navigate it according to your own Spirit-prodded conscience.
The bible is a big book, with a collection of 66 separate smaller books, written by 40 different authors on 3 continents over a 2000 year period. It’s got a lot to say about the human condition, and each author emphasizes different aspects of the God-human interaction. Whatever position you happen to take on a topic, you’ll likely be able to pull support from somewhere in that big collection. And obviously there is plenty of room for disagreement here. So we’re back to that basic premise: you gotta use a bit of wisdom, a bit of maturity, and apply with a spiritual sensitivity. And that includes your sex life.
Sex is an inseparable part of being human. It is a gift from God, and a legitimate way of connecting personally with another human being. And when you commit to someone, you should keep your sexual fires within that relationship. But if you’re still single, there doesn’t seem to be any clear restriction against enjoying another person’s body — as long as it’s not exploitive, abusive, dangerous, involve worshipping another god, or a betrayal of someone’s bond.
So, use some common sense. Sex is deeply personal. It’s not just like eating a Big Mac. It will impact you emotionally, psychologically, physically, and even spiritually in some way. And randomly sharing your body with every stranger you encounter is bound to have consequences: over-indulgence is never healthy. So, when you’re in that situation, and you wanna go home with that guy you just met, ask yourself what this hookup will do to you? To the person you’re sleeping with? Don’t be too casual about it. But if you’re both single and you feel that spark, God gave you sex as an intimate and pleasurable way of connecting with someone. Enjoy it, and thank God for it.
Oh, and by all means, use protection. Use a condom. Get on PrEP. That’s part of the wisdom. And if your friends jokingly call you a whore, well, so what? They’ve got their own issues to deal with — and they’ll probably want to hear all about the details later anyway.
This post originally appeared on IMPACT Magazine.