Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sex and the Church

When was the last time you thanked God for your sex life?  When was the last time you and your spouse together thanked God for your sex life?  For some people, this is a really, really weird question.  After many years of pastoral premarital counseling, I’ve noticed that often couples who grew up with a strong church background are the ones most reluctant to see sex as a spiritual blessing.
For the sake of full disclosure, let me say up front that I believe sex is meant to be a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman and kept within the context of marriage for the purpose of procreation and recreation.  I believe that from the beginning God created husband and wife to engage each other sexually.  Because God created sex, sex is good.  But I also believe God, knowing infinitely more than us, provides boundaries for sexual expression between a husband and wife.  Those boundaries protect us and enhance intimacy and spiritual growth.
The problem is, most churches only teach about sex from a negative aspect, and only address the physical side of the act. I get it why they do that.  I really do. The desire is to protect the sanctity and integrity of marriage, and also to keep teens from making potentially life-altering choices before they are ready to make them.  But if all a person ever hears growing up is “Don’t do it,” and if we remove the spiritual aspect from sex, then (whether intentionally or unintentionally) we label this gift of God as “shameful feelings that must be controlled if they can’t be squelched altogether.”  Think about it.  Did you ever have a Bible class on 1 Corinthians 7 in which the main message of the class was “When you’re married, you should have sex, and have sex often because this brings you closer to each other and to God.”  Instead, when a couple marries and they suddenly have “permission” to engage each other sexually, sex is seen as nothing more than a strictly carnal act that is no different than the way the world views it.  Physical pleasure becomes the only goal and we have inadvertently robbed the sexual relationship of any real intimacy.
There is another epidemic problem associated with separating the sexual relationship from the spiritual relationship.  The shame-culture created around sex through constant negative teaching contributes to a “forbidden fruit/guilt” mentality that can drastically affect a couple’s sex life.  After marriage, a couple engages each other sexually because it is expected and even “okay,” but at least on some level one or both partners may still feel a sense of having done something lewd or inappropriate.  These negative feelings can then open the door to pornography.  Often Christians who are addicted to pornography feel shame because of what they are doing, but if shame is connected to sex, then through pornography the shame can at least be kept private (and with today’s technology, the addiction is easily hidden), thus creating a self-perpetuating, destructive cycle.  In essence, the person trades one kind of shame for another.  Since the person was never taught the spiritual/intimate connections to the physical act, he or she engages in a “now-acceptable, shameful action” in the marriage bed, but still pursues a hidden shame through pornography that seeks a heightened physical response.
So what’s the answer?  Obviously every marriage situation is unique, and I certainly don’t believe that everyone who was told “don’t do it” as a teen will have an unfulfilled sex life or become addicted to pornography as an adult.  Also, discussions with children about sex should always be age appropriate.  But when you teach your children about sex, teach them that God created sex.  Sex is good.  But God put boundaries on our sexual expression; boundaries that give us better, more fulfilled, more intimately connected lives.  And, if we wait until marriage and keep our sex lives fully enmeshed in our marriage relationship, then sex will become a foundational part of a wonderfully fulfilling union that will draw us closer to our spouse and to God.
           Certainly there is much more to this discussion than can be covered in a short blog entry.  And there are many good sources out there for further information.  But if we hope to break the shame-culture that can damage a marriage for life, we have to consider how we talk and teach about sex in our churches and Bible classes.

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