Paul and Sex

What Paul said about sex is not what the church cares to talk about. What the church says about sex is not what Paul particularly cared about.

How so?

Contemporary Christian churches, and here I’m lumping and it’s not entirely accurate to lump the church on a topic like this, are more or less committed to building good marriages, and seeing marriage as a(the?) goal (or close to the goal) of the Christian, and to see the church based in family life — in other words, we tend to focus on the family. The single life is not desire. In fact, one well-known evangelical leader has argued that if someone is not married by mid or late 20s they are living “in sin.” (I think that is how he said it. Doesn’t matter because his words illustrate that getting married is near the top of the list for Christians.) Not for Paul. (Reeves thinks Paul was single. Many agree with him.)

How do you respond to this sketch of Paul’s teachings on sex and marriage and devotion to Christ?

That, anyway, is the contention of  Rodney Reeves’ in his excellent Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ. Yes, that’s what he contends. The issue is whether or not this is what Paul says about sex.

Every think about Paul and sex? The basics are in 1 Corinthians 7, and here are some major points sketched by Reeves: Marriage was about economics and status. Christ was returning, so Paul says Christians should not be concerned about marriage — both status and economics were about to go under.  Time is coming to a close (1 Cor 7:29); what’s important to the world is fading fast (7:31); making a better life for yourself, and securing through marriage and kids, is not important (7:20); the highest priority is Christ (7:35); all relations are designed to promote the Lord (7:15, 39). So Paul just wishes all were as he was (single; 7:7).

Put simply, marriage is not the main goal. What matters is devotion to Christ. Marriage is after that. We have turned this all upside down, Reeves contends. Marriage matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as devotion to Christ.

Reeves contends using 1 Cor 13 in a marriage ceremony is odd since for Paul that chp is about church life, not married life. (I think Reeves is right on this.)

And what Paul says about sex is not the way we talk about, esp when it comes to disordered sex: Paul disciplined the church (not just a person) for sexual disorder in 1 Cor 5 — sexual sins affect the church. Sexual disorder is individual for us: it is not about corporate purity. “We think sin is a private matter. Faith is an individual response. Sex is personal. Marriages are not arranged. Church is an option — take it or leave it.” Not for Paul: the primary thing is devotion to Christ in the new creation family called the church.

When someone sinned the church suffered. Today we hope the sin takes place in someone else’s church. Paul didn’t think there was another church. Baptist pastors may be relieved by Catholic priests sinning; maybe Catholics are glad it’s someone else this time. Not for Paul: one church, one body, one grief.

For Paul sex had two orientations: the present order is crumbling so marriage and family are second compared to devotion to Christ; sexual disorder is an ecclesial problem more than simply a personal problem.

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  • Amos Paul

    Of course Christ is the center. I think the whole NT is, quite clearly, the revelation of this.

    That being said, I do wonder how relevant Paul’s teachings here are to life in general when we take him as un-interested in the idea of family.

    A thought occurred to me awhile back when reading Matthew 12–specifically 12:48-50. When Jesus says:

    “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

    At first glance, the verse seems to de-value the construct of family and emphasize, rather, the spiritual union with other believers. This would be, of course, quite shocking a traditional familial system like the Jews he was speaking to. But it hit me–to emphasize the importance of the spiritual union of believers, Jesus actually had to *raise it* to the level of the family. That is, add the believers onto the family to see how important they are.

    Does this really negate the essential value of family or, rather, does it in fact retain and enhance the value of family by putting it in the right context (spiritual union with all believers)?

    Jesus, like Paul, told his disciples that marriage was hard work and that it was easier, in a sense, to follow Him singly. But I’m not so certain that the emphasis upon the church and discipleship necessarily negates the model of the family whole cloth, rather than clarify it. Even Christ seem to accept certain specific responsibilities to one’s immediate family members like making certain his own mother was taken care of, chiding the Pharisees for giving their money to the Temple instead of taking care of their own parents, calling marriage holy and ordained by God, etc.

    But I don’t really know where this is going. I guess I’m just talking at this point.

  • Ben Thorp

    I have preached a couple of times on the fact that sin affects the entirety of the church, and isn’t isolated to the individual. It’s one of the most challenging things to preach on, and is very uncomfortable for people to hear. Glad I’m not the only one thinking this way 😉

  • I’ve been involved with a lot of different churches over the years, from fundamentalist to evangelical to charismatic and others, but I have never seen it taught or heard it taught in any other church that marriage is the goal and devotion to Christ is secondary. Indeed, in every tradition I have seen that there is a recognition of the legitimacy of being single for the sake of the kingdom. So it is hard to me to take this kind of claim seriously — it sounds so very much like a straw man.

    Also, though 1 Corinthians 13 is given in the context of Church life, why should we think it inappropriate for the context of marriage, especially among those who are part of the Church?

  • Dan


    Since Paul’s imminent 2nd coming expectations help determine his understanding of marriage and sex…do u think our delayed expectations (2Peter3) should cause of us to have a different view in some sense?


  • re: #3 Jeff,

    While it might not be as wide-spread some folks imagine it to be (myself included) the claim the author makes is very much not a straw man. I’ve been in a church where marriage is so central in the teaching and the understanding of God’s purposes in the world that Christ becomes secondary, even if it’s unintentional. It might not be expressed that plainly from the pulpit every Sunday, but functionally the focus of the teaching, the small groups, study groups, and counseling materials, and the constant drumbeat proclaiming the need to “protect the sanctity of marriage” all the while neglecting to talk much at all about the importance of Jesus as more than a chance to go to heaven makes for the environment Reeves is describing.

    While he might push Paul’s thinking too far in the other direction, there are at least congregations in which the true goal of society, life, and the kingdom is to become a Christian family built on a Christian husband and wife because that is the center-piece of God’s creative intentions (and I have heard this last part taught that plainly before).

  • Scott, I agree with the emphasis on the corporate implications of sin in general, and sexual sin in particular, from Paul. I also agree about the value of singleness, etc. Two thoughts to add: on the positive side, let’s not forget 1 Cor 6:12-20, which is critical to understanding sex from a Christian perspective. And about 1 Cor 13: I favor continuing to use it in weddings since the marriage and the family are Christian communities, or what Catholics call the “domestic church”) and since, if interpreted well, it portrays love as the most Godlike and Christlike thing once can imagine, and not mere sentimental emotion.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, the eschatological imminency of Paul, which is clearly a disputed concept, does shape Paul’s statements … and, yes, for those who don’t believe in imminency like that there would be a difference. (I didn’t see that Reeves addressed this hermeneutical issue.)

  • If there is an emphasis on marriage and the family in the teaching of the church, it might just be because most of the people in the church are married and/or part of a family. It does not mean that devotion to Christ is secondary, or that getting married is the goal of devotion to Christ, or even an obligation of devotion to Christ. But it one is in a marital/family relationship, one should function in that relationship in a way that honors Christ. I do not think the Lord Jesus intended that our interpersonal relationships should somehow be exempt from discipleship. And if there are a lot of marriages and family relationships among believers, as indeed there are, then it is reasonable for the church to spend some time on having good, God-honoring marriages and families.

  • Rebekah

    As a single woman in the church, my impression is that many churches do overemphasize the importance/significance of getting married and it sometimes comes across in churches as though next to being saved, it is THE big focus here on earth.

    It is wonderful to provide solid programming and resources for married people so that their marriages can be healthy and strong, yet, I wish that there was more room for those of us that don’t fit that category to also be recognized as interested and gifted in discipleship and leadership. The balance often swings in the direction of perceiving that married people and married couples with kids are the ones to invest in and equip for future leadership roles.

    That said, God can use all things to His glory, so I’m asking Him to help me trust that there is a place for singles like me at the table.

  • if what the author is sketching is “Put simply, marriage is not the main goal. What matters is devotion to Christ.” then sure that is what Paul (and most churches) would teach. helping people have strong and healthy marriages is part of what pastoring a community of believers – many/most of whom are likely married.

    of course using only the OP as info on the book/author’s view, one has to wonder if the author has read 1 Tim, Eph 5 etc where Paul encourages marriage as part of being devoted to Christ or a symbol of the relationship btwn church and Christ. And Paul & Jesus both taught that if you were not able to remain celibate that marriage was a good idea.

    not sure why 1 Cor 13 in a marriage ceremony is “odd”. husbands are commanded to love their wives and this is a great description of that love that they are committing too.


  • In my experience, churches give lip service to singles and attention to families (when was the last time you heard of a “Strong Singles” focus in a church?). I know a man who didn’t marry until he was 35; he was studying for the ministry. One pastor he met while still single told him: “If a man isn’t married by the time he’s 30, he’s either gay or a pedophile.” Guess the pastor had never read much on Paul.

    I would say that Paul’s emphasis on foregoing marriage was really more for dedicating one’s life completely to Christ and the church and that the persecutions believers faced were secondary. I wholeheartedly agree that the church today sees sexual immorality as a private sin rather than a matter affecting the whole body. Unfortunately, that’s how the church seems to think about most other sins as well.

  • Steve Burdan

    Good to see another post that positively promotes godly singleness as an equal choice, at least, over marriage. There is no mandate in Scripture to marry, certainly not in the NT. Too many positive examples of singles, our Lord most of all, in the Bible to make it an anomaly. If marriage were so central or essential to human experience, then it would have been expected of him.

    Rather, the primary focus is always on having an obedient and sacrificial walk with God in his community and this world. Unfortunately for Evan., for long decades most of the media air we’ve had to breathe is Marriage and Family, so it’s hard to imagine any other options or views.

    For those who are married, they must stay married and lots can be done to strengthen them through accountability and church engagement. But the same is possible for Singles – churches can be single-friendly in a world full of fractured souls. Fortunately, God can still realign our ecclesiastical perspective in his time, person by person, through his Spirit and make the Gospel work for marrieds and singles.

  • But how much of that is Paul’s own personal dilemma and mission? I, too, have been single for my entire adult life (time as a kid in someone’s household doesn’t count as single). My being single has not been the boon for the church Paul talks about, to say the least. And it sure hasn’t made my life richer as a person. On the one hand, I’m not Paul. On the other, what do the rest of us, not really called into singleness but more or less stuck with it, take from what Paul says, about the body of Christ and about sex?

  • MatthewS

    The fish famously does not know it’s wet. I think that a critical mass in many churches are swimming in the water of daily family life, just trying to keep up and somehow manage to raise their children well. It is not hard for me to imagine that in many churches singles might be much more aware of how this “water” shapes the focus in ways that are not obvious to the marrieds.

  • MatthewS

    I heard a comment on the radio last night by a young Christian singer whom I respect that a single Christian lady ought to always see herself as a bride in preparation. She is ever in preparation for the day day she will walk that aisle.

    She was making a specific point (and a good one) along the line that if you are a negative and critical person before marriage, you are shaping yourself to be that kind of spouse. But the way it was presented made me think that a single would hear the message that singleness is only preparation for getting married.

  • MatthewS,

    I have been single and I have been married. I’ve know both sides of the coin. No doubt, the responsibilities inherent in marriage and family shape the way I look at life. I am committed in particular relationships in this life (till death do us part, in regard to marriage, and my children will always be my children). So I am not just Jeff, I am somebody’s husband and somebody’s father, so following and honoring Christ in those roles is very important. My wife and my children are the ones Christ has set before me, and if I am going to be faithful to Him I must be faithful to them, even in the “water of daily family life.”

    Yes, daily life is different for marrieds than it is for singles. Those each involve particular roles. But more generally, they both require faithfulness to Christ and faithfulness to whatever relationships he has placed us in (whether married or single). In that respect, the water is not very much different.

  • AHH

    I think MatthewS @14 has a good point that churches are often so caught up in ministry structures centered around the “family” that they are oblivious to the ways they are (unintentionally) sending single people the message that they are not on God’s preferred path, that their singleness is an affliction that they need to get fixed.

    I would add that essentially the same thing applies to childless couples — we don’t seem to count as a real family and without meaning to the church tends to make us feel like we’re second-class citizens of the kingdom.

  • Pat Pope

    @Bob #13, have you sought to make peace with the single life? I know that early on I did just that because I found the alternative would just make me miserable and I was able to see this with women around me who all they wanted was a man. I was determined that I was not going to be part of that group that sat around being miserable because I didn’t have someone and put all my time and energy into finding someone. I’ve chosen to live life to its fullest and if a mate is meant to be fine; if not, that’s okay too. I also have models in my life, like my grandmother who divorced early in life and never remarried. She worked, supported her girls (my mother and aunt) and seemed to live a very contented life.

  • Rodney

    @AHH #17,

    To illustrate the point you’re making, the last time I worked through 1 Cor. 7 for class, emphasizing Paul’s eschatological outlook on marriage, a student posed the question, “But, what will happen to Christianity if all of us followed Paul’s advice?” I said, “What do you mean?” “If there are no Christian couples having children, then our faith would die out after one generation.”

  • Jeremy

    In my experience, we focus on marriage in one of two ways; either by being suspicious of singles when they interact with marrieds of the opposite gender (or suspecting worse if they’re male and have passed what we consider acceptable single age), or by treating singles as less legitimate or kids. In our culture and in our churches, you aren’t really safe or legitimate until you’re married.

    The big reveal is how many pastors are single? I’ve seen churches outright require the pastor to be married on many occasions. Actually, Jesus Creed’s favorite Southern Baptist states it far better: Al Mohler on the Pastorate and Marriage.

    This requirement bleeds into everything, not just how we view the clergy. We have focused so heavily on marriage and family, that it is nearly a requirement for any sort of Christian life. This seems exactly contrary to what Paul says.

    I do wonder about the corporate effects of sexual sin. We have over-emphasized the individuality of it, but I’m not sure how to deal with it. Sure, Paul chastised the church, but that was a different era with different ramifications. Would his prescribed solution work today or would it do more harm than good? I’m leaning towards the latter in 95% of the situations I’ve seen.

  • DRT

    It seems to me that the preoccupation of the Evangelical Church with the children and families is a natural outgrowth of the evangelical mindset. What more important group to evangelize than the children!

    My extended family has many religious (single) brothers and sisters in the RCC. Grandma was a Nun, until she met Grandpa who was in seminary. I actually do believe that there are appropriate roles in the church that should be to single folk because of the difficulties in dual allegance. Bet you all never thought I would say that.

  • DRT

    It seems to me that the preoccupation of the Evangelical Church with the children and families is a natural outgrowth of the evangelical mindset. What more important group to evangelize than the children!

    My extended family has many religious (single) brothers and sisters in the RCC. Grandma was a Nun, until she met Grandpa who was in seminary. I actually do believe that there are appropriate roles in the church that should be to single folk because of the difficulties in dual allegiance. Bet you all never thought I would say that.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: I actually do believe that there are appropriate roles in the church that should be to single folk because of the difficulties in dual allegiance. Bet you all never thought I would say that.

    That’s a good point. And it runs deeper than what people often say, about married clergy having to divide their time between family and parishioners. It’s not merely a matter of time, as I see it.

    I remember a Catholic priest being interviewed on NPR episode about clerical celibacy, last summer. Something he said really struck me: that being celibate allowed him the freedom to love every person equally, as Christ loved them. Intimate romantic/sexual relationships, if they mean anything, mean loving one person more than another, and reserving special care, love and affection for that one person. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s different than the way Jesus loved us, impartially and indifferently, with equal care for everyone he interacted with.

    There’s also something to be said for what celibacy tells you about a person and their commitment to Christ. My spiritual father is a celibate Episcopal priest, I’ve known him since I was in high school and he’s a big part of why I’m a Christian today. I don’t know much about his sexual orientation and I don’t really care, though I know he did have girl friends in college, before he entered the religious life. The fact that he has lived as a celibate for almost half a century is an indication that the religious life, and his faith, really mean something to him. It’s clear that he believes in what he preaches: if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have sacrificed so much for it. The fact that he sacrificed romance and family for the sake of his faith, to me, is an indication of his sincerity, and that he’s not just another time-server who sees the priesthood as a job like any other.

    Of course, I don’t believe that celibacy should be mandatory. The Roman Catholic church is wrong about that. But I do have a special respect and admiration for Christians- religious or lay- who take up vows of celibacy for the sake of their faith.

  • TJJ

    Is it true that evangelical churches do not emphasize singleness as a lifestyle/state to aspire to? Yes. But is it true that those same churches preach teach that people should/must/ought to get married? In my experience, no. Do most people in churches and out of churches ger married?

    Yes, of course. That is cultrural, and human sexual/relational need at work to be sure. But not because the church or pastors are preaching and teaching that everyone should get married. I have never heard such a sermon. Sermons on how to stay married, maximize marriage, yes. Those sermons and that emphasis may may singles feel uncomofrtable, yes, but churches cannot neglect helping marriages.

    I would agree that sexual disorder is a church issue as well as a personal issue, but not more a church issue than a personal issue, I think that is overstating Paul.

  • TJJ

    Singleness is one issue. Celibacy is another. For Paul, singleness included celebacy. So Paul was not just advocating singleness. But also celibacy. I think that must be made clear.

    And, Paul recognized that if someone cannot/will not stay celebate in singleness, then they should not seek singleness/celibacy, rather, they should get married. Singleness had no advantage or superior status if it was practiced in sin, not as a celebate.

    Maybe Paul, pursuant to his experience, thought that the issue of sexual desire overriding celebacy might apply only to a minority. But it seems that as it turns out in terms of historical experience, that caveat apparently applies to most people. So I do not really agree that churches are getting Paul’s focus wrong.

    Do most churches want/seek married Pastors, especially senior pastors? Yes. For many reasons, most of which are quite reasonable and should be very self evident. The experience of the Catholic Church with sexual abuse and disorder among it’s priesthood is particularlly instructive here.

  • Steve Burdan

    Good comments, esp. about difference/similarity between singles and celibacy. I wouldn’t throw too many stones at Roman Catholic priests – not with us Evan. have lots of people who can’t maintain self-control… Churches should want qualified men, single or married, who have the “fixins” – the right gift mix with self- control.

    If we start with the reality that marriage does not extend into eternity, it helps give perspective on setting priorities – time, talent, treasure, now. That’s where life devotion to Christ, and his own comments on life priorities, come in.

    Evan. churches may not hard demand marriage as normal behavior, but there is soft expectations throughout. Look at the program focus of the typical church – marriage and families. Plus there are all the parachurch organizations who have vested interest in keeping the status quo…

  • Certainly, devotion to Christ would be the primary focus. However, I think Paul’s recommendations, need to be taken in the context of the situation Paul and the early church were facing. Overall, I’d say the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1 & 2 still need to be taken seriously, hence marriage and vocation need to be taken seriously.

    I agree with others that there is often an over-empahsis on marriage (or assumption of it) and a lack of support for singleness. That certainly needs to be corrected, but not by misapplying Paul in de-emphasizing marriage (as I’ve seen some also do).

  • is it paul who says that the person who doesn’t take care of the needs of his own family he denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever?

    interesting comment about corinthians 13.

    i wonder if our resurrected bodies will be able to have sex? i hope so. 🙂

  • @ kevin #28 –
    I’ve wondered that too, or maybe more precisely, why it is so commonly held that we won’t. I haven’t studied it in-depth, but I’ve never heard a real good reason not either. No worries though, if not, we’re guaranteed God has something even better things in store.