When it comes to sex, different streams of thought within Christianity seem to agree in principle. It’s a good thing, it’s a gift from God, it’s to be celebrated. But when we get down to the particulars, the opinions seem to diverge. From contraception to same-sex relationships to (most recently debated on this very website) more taboo subjects like masturbation, different people use the same Bible to argue very different points of view.
Aside from delving into the particulars, there’s a larger issue that the Church, for all its divergent viewpoints, has historically found problematic: What is a healthy, God-centered view of sexuality in general? While we argue over specific aspects, we seem to have trouble even developing a healthy over-arching outlook on our nature as sexual creatures. For most of our history as a country, our deeply Puritan roots meant that the topic itself was held in the deepest secrecy. Sexuality in general was underground, and it was an issue that was to be neither seen nor heard. This started to change in the late ’40s and early ’50s when zoologist Alfred Kinsey published his reports on human sexuality, openly examining something few felt appropriate to talk about. This trend of openness continued in the sexual revolution of the 1960s as culture began to embrace sexuality as a normal and vital part of human life rather than a dirty secret.
Of course, this kind of openness didn’t exactly find a welcome home in evangelicalism, and with some good reason. The Kinsey reports certainly advocate some behaviors few evangelicals could stand by, and the love generation’s penchant for casual polyamory doesn’t fit within a biblical framework for love, marriage and sex. Still, any kind of free and open discussion of sexuality—even in a biblical context—is a recent development in evangelical circles.
So, are we as Christians still stunted when it comes to embracing sexuality in a healthy way? Moreover, what is a healthy, God-honoring view of sex? One thing is certain: If we, as Christians, are called to be counter-cultural and revolutionary, our view of sex should be very different than the culture around us.
At first glance, the prevailing culture in the United States seems to be very open when it comes to sex. It’s the crux of most advertising, it inundates our entertainment and it’s venerated in music. It’s also created a porn industry that brings in more than $13 billion a year in America alone. All these things would seem to point to a culture that is entirely comfortable with sexuality. However, when all this is examined, it actually shows a society that is terribly repressed and Victorian in its ideals toward sex, and that’s precisely why it’s so pervasive. Think about it for a moment. It’s our culture’s tacit assumption that sex is inherently dirty that makes it a selling point. It’s the allure of the forbidden and the taboo that supports the porn industry, draws people to objectification in advertising and pushes the entertainment industry to market sexuality. So, the culture’s view of sex is no more open or accepting than our Puritan forebears. It doesn’t destroy taboos. It preserves them in order to exploit them. A culture that is uncomfortable with sex, and sees it not as something natural but as something shameful, secretive and underground is the very bread and butter of anyone who wants to use it as a marketing tool. An open, healthy attitude toward it would render it too mundane and pedestrian to be of much allure
But if the world’s view of sex is closed-minded, dirty and unhealthy, the Church has played into this viewpoint far too often. Christianity is accused by its critics of vilifying sex, and perhaps it has at points in Church history, but more often American Christianity has fallen in step with the culture’s vilification of sex, rather than vice versa. We don’t become more worldly by being open about sexuality. We become more worldly by accepting the viewpoint that it’s shameful and taboo.
So, what is a healthy Christian viewpoint when it comes to sex? It seems to be a remarkable union of de-mystifying and venerating it.
Author and marriage expert Joe Beam has taken this approach. Beam—who founded LovePath International, a group that focuses on strengthening marriages—holds seminars where he speaks frankly, and often clinically, about sex.
“It’s hard to make the transition from ‘sex is bad’ when you are young and single to ‘sex is good’ when you are married,” Beam said in a recent interview with MSNBC. “Sex is the most wonderful gift God ever gave Christians.” This is common talk in evangelical circles, but after the cursory concession that sex is, indeed, good, the subject is often changed quickly. Not for Beam, however. In his seminars, on his site and in his books, Beam not only celebrates sexuality, but describes it in detail.
Evangelicals like Beam may make a lot of people who have grown up in church culture uncomfortable. Frank talk about sex seems somehow unwholesome. However, it’s this open discussion of the subject that begins to lead toward a healthy, biblical and even counter-cultural view of sexuality. Sex is de-mystified, in that it no longer seems so elusive and secretive. It becomes a subject that can be honestly discussed—and even discussed in detail—and therefore loses its taboo status. The allure of the forbidden fades when these subjects are brought into the open. At the same time, sex is viewed as something incredibly spiritual, God-given and transcendent. If anything, a healthy Christian view of sex values and appreciates our sexuality more.
This could certainly find a welcome place in Christian marriages. As Beam says, Christian couples are told from early puberty that sex is bad, then suddenly given the go-ahead on their wedding night. How can a couple on their honeymoon be expected to have a healthy attitude toward something that, the day before, was seen as an egregious sin?
It’s an adjustment, for sure, but perhaps the answer comes in the way we address sexuality prior to marriage. Before marriage, most Christians are taught to try to deny or repress the sexual side of their identity. For fear of people falling into lust, we ask singles to flee their sexuality, and focus their energies elsewhere. In following the outlook that sexuality should be a topic of openness, perhaps the Church should be teaching singles to embrace their sexuality. This doesn’t mean that people are given license to lust. It merely means acknowledging that sexuality is an inherent part of who we are, that it’s a beautiful and God-given part of who we are and that it will find its fulfillment in marriage. Not only could this help singles feel the freedom be honest about their own struggles and frustrations, it could help the newly-married better come to terms with the culmination of this part of their identity.
Ultimately, a counter-cultural, truly revolutionary outlook on sex shouldn’t make us less sexual than the culture around us. It should make us more sexual. We should understand and appreciate it more, and even feel more open and comfortable addressing it. In relegating sexuality to some kind of shameful status, we conform ourselves to the culture. A truly transformative view of sex is one that is not ashamed that we have been created as sexual beings, that celebrates this aspect of our nature, and refuses to think of it as dirty or taboo, but holds it up as a wonderful gift from God.