Is Bodily Autonomy a Christian Value?

Is Bodily Autonomy a Christian Value? April 20, 2021

Photo by Sam Burriss on Unsplash

When it comes to bodily autonomy, Christianity doesn’t have much to say about it. In fact, as one TikToker put it, “Bodily autonomy is not a Christian value.” And I’d like to expand on that. Furthermore, I would like to illustrate how bodily autonomy is in fact, a Christian value. I did some digging around. I Googled, “Is bodily autonomy a Christian value?” The first result happened to be from a Reddit thread. Disclaimer: This was the first time I had ever been to this website and I did not like what I saw. Not the point.

What I found was that a particular verse was referenced as proof that the Bible is, in fact, opposed to the idea of bodily autonomy. Here’s the verse:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have receive from God? You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20, NIV)

The verse is often referenced as one of those “clobber passages” that shut down abortion conversations, too. If you are a Christian, the theory goes, you must also denounce abortion (of course, that logic doesn’t remain consistent when you consider the death penalty and Black Lives Matter, but I digress). The verse is proof that you do not own your own body and therefore abortion would be a sin against the body of God. The words of the Apostle Paul are used as a direct refutation of the mantra “My body, my choice.” The argument continues on to say that as a Christian, you do not have sovereignty over your own body (when you are a female and carrying a baby, anyway). Therefore, abortion violates God’s ownership of your body.

This Patheos blogger shared why he does not believe in absolute bodily autonomy.

Does God own my body? If God is love, and love is not controlling and does not try to contain or confine or control, then doesn’t that also mean love doesn’t seek to own? And if that’s the case, God doesn’t own my body. Ergo, my body is not an object that some sky Daddy owns and controls.

My body is a temple. But if I acquiesce to the sentiments that God owns the temple that I am, does that make God a realtor? I just can’t see God buying up properties and claiming ownership over them, can you? Perhaps in your church, it’s OK that God just owns women’s bodies, which seems to me to be the more obvious nature of utilizing passages the way many Christians do.

Maybe we should consider a new way to read the verse and examine if it is really a direct refutation against bodily autonomy or something else.

When I looked up the Greek translation of the verse, I came across a pairing of two similar words that reference “sexual immorality.” Πορνείαν (porneian) and πορνεύων (porneuon). The first term, Πορνείαν, means “from fornication” and “from what is strangled.” This comes from the root word porneia which means fornication, idolatry, and whoredom. We can see that the word is related to sexual activity of some nature. Even in some definitions, idolatry itself is connected to terms like “fetishism”, “adulation”, “extreme admiration, love, and reverence for someone”, and “paganism.”

The second term, πορνεύων, refers to a person that commits fornication or sexual immorality. Now I asked the question, “Does that also mean a person that strangles?” I discussed this with a friend of mine who is also a linguist by expertise, and he could not find any correlation of the usage of the word πορνεύων (porneuon) to mean “a person who strangles”. Now, that doesn’t mean the words are not related, but it also doesn’t prove they are. With that being said, I want to expand on this for a moment under the guise that the two words are related. Hear me out.

Let’s go back to the verse. Verse 18 says to flee immorality. That every sin a man commits is outside the body. But there’s a distinction here between sins, which is very odd considering the same Apostle makes a claim in another letter that no sin is greater than another because we are all “under sin.” (Romans 3:9-11, NIV) But in this verse, the sin of sexual immorality is greater than the sin that man commits outside the body. Meaning there are external sins and internal sins, perhaps? And the internal sin is sexual immorality and fornication?  But what is sexual immorality? What is fornication? I do not believe the Bible— in any translation—distinctly defines either. (I know many people can provide proper and formal—academic—arguments against what I just wrote, but I asked you to hear me out.) The other translation “from what is strangled” has me curious.

Let’s think out loud and be bold enough to ask some questions…

What if sexual immorality is “from what is strangled”? Meaning, sexual immorality or internal sin against the body comes from strangling our true identity? “But our identity is in Christ!” the naysayers will proclaim. Yes, and, we are unique individuals and each of our identities represents a reflection of God. God is big, right? So big that the image and likeness of God could not possibly be reflected in just one or two individuals, right? This is probably why God said, “Be fruitful and multiply” back in the beginning. We are all a reflection of God, and while our identity is in Christ—if you define Christ as in the whole universe as I do—then that doesn’t really limit us to holding a personal and individual identity that we call our own. I mean, fingerprints, y’all.

Let’s say that sexual immorality is a result of strangling. This is not a BDSM reference, and I am not going to try and use Bible verses to qualify BDSM. That would require a whole separate blog. When we strangle ourselves, we deny the truth about ourselves. Which means we deny the truth about God in us. God reveals Godself in a variety of ways. Everyone is an expression and revelation of God. Often, however, we deny that inner divinity because it doesn’t match the status quo. That is sin.

Well, perhaps we need to discuss what sin is for a moment. And by that, I mean I am going to tell you what I believe sin means. First, Wikipedia defines it as “a transgression against divine law.” This is similar to the way I define sin—if we must quibble with the idea of “sin” at all. Sin is actively going against what you know to be true. These actions, however, do not prohibit you from eternity with God, I just want to make that clear, from my own understanding. Sin is acting against the self, against the body, mind, and spirit. Sin is denying the inner divinity of its truth and living a lie.

When we sin, I think our body knows it. Gabor Mate‘ wrote about how when the body says no and we ignore it, our physical health can deteriorate as a result. Everything in our body is connected, and if we mentally and emotionally act against ourselves in some manner that isn’t representative of identity in Christ, it makes us sick.

Sexual immorality is an illness that results from lying about who we are and what our body wants.

Regular sins are still “immoral” but those are the ones we commit outside the body. Does that mean those are the sins we commit against others? Then we have sexual immorality over here as this really bad sin because it ultimately takes a toll on our body—paraphrasing what Paul said. Now, I get it, churches often use this verse to validate their claims about the salvation marriage brings to a relationship. Meaning, our body is not a toll booth. We don’t just willy-nilly let anyone worship our temples if they pay an admission fee. So, I guess if you want to make this verse a talking point for promiscuity, you can shove it in real good and make it work, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Or, we could consider another angle. What if this verse is pointing to the more serious damage one does to their inner divinity when they lie about who they love or are attracted to?

Is it more of a sin to have sex with the one you really desire and love, out of wedlock, who is the same sexual orientation as you, than it is to have sex with someone you don’t feel sexually attracted to, who is the opposite sex, that you’ve been married to for 2 decades?

If sinning is lying, then what a dilemma this illustrates, eh? Which sin is worse, lying to another or lying to the self? And isn’t this a doubly dramatic dilemma in that ultimately, the sin against the self ends up also being an external sin against more than just one? Maybe that’s why sexual immorality seems to be an even greater sin?

If strangling ourselves from expressing the truth about ourselves is sexual immorality and is a sin, then I think the verse signifies the importance of bodily autonomy as a Christian value. Bodily autonomy is about choice over and of my body. It is my right of governance over my own body. If what Paul says is true, that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in me, that I received from God, then any transgression against my body, even by me, is a sin.

Think about this, if my body belongs to God, even if we concede and agree that God “owns” my body, then doesn’t that mean that if another violates my body, that person is then committing fornication and sexual immorality? If God owns my body, and the way God expresses God’s ownership of my body is by revealing my identity in Christ as bisexual, then anyone who tries to condemn my identity is essentially committing sexual immorality. If someone tries to strangle (alter, convert, silence, suppress) the representation of my identity, they are committing fornication. This would mean that all the parents that send their children to conversion therapy are in fact committing sexual immorality. This means that anyone who tries to pray the gay away is a fornicator.

Let’s back this verse up a bit, and start at 1 Corinthians 6:12, 13b:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything…The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

This introduction to the latter verses can help us identify the context. Paul is clearly talking about sexual matters. But often, we forget that what is sexual is also spiritual and neither can be separated from one another. With that in mind, we can consider that his words on sexual immorality relate to emotional-mental relationships as well as our sexual relationships, with ourselves and others. You absolutely have the right to have sex with as many people as you want, but here Paul cautions that it might not be beneficial to you. You absolutely have the right to make whatever choices you want, but Paul cautions us to watch out for when we no longer make a choice and do it out of habit or addiction.

That is not an endorsement of the idea of “sex addiction” because I do not support that idea at all. You can’t die from a sex withdrawal, and it doesn’t change the chemical output of your brain. But sleeping with multiple partners, for instance, can become a habit in how we relate to another, and then it becomes an unconscious program. Paul urges us to not allow our choices to make us slaves.

You also have the right to lie about who you are and put on a performance for others. But as Paul warned, that isn’t always beneficial, and it can make you a slave.

This is indeed where bodily autonomy takes shape in scriptures. Bodily autonomy is about maintaining personal integrity. That includes the body. This means that we are honest with ourselves about who we are, about what our identity in Christ authentically looks like. Bodily autonomy is an erotic embodiment. It’s about an integration of the sexual, spiritual, social, mental/emotional, and physical dimensions of our inner divinity.

And again, I want to remind you, our identity in Christ cannot possibly look the same in every form. If that’s true for you, I ask, why do you limit your depiction of how high and wide and large and unfathomable Christ truly is?

If anything, this verse qualifies the importance of bodily autonomy, it doesn’t shut the idea down. Bodily autonomy is a Christian value. If you find that it wanes in importance, then perhaps you may need to consider further deconstructing your ideas about the nature of our very erotic God.

Those are just the conclusions I draw from this little thought project. Please share your comments. I am looking forward to the feedback.


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About Danielle M Kingstrom
Danielle is the host of the Recorded Conversations podcast. A podcast dedicated to compassionately considering all perspectives while engaging in authentic, connected dialogue. She is also an erotic embodiment advisor with Naked Tree Advising. As an advisor, Danielle assists others in discovering their erotic self and helps answer questions about struggles with sexuality. You can read more about the author here.

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