That time the apostle Paul actually gave direct instructions about sex

That time the apostle Paul actually gave direct instructions about sex April 14, 2016

"Togetherness in Bed," rt69, Flickr C.C.
“Togetherness in Bed,” rt69, Flickr C.C.

I’ve been having the usual never-ending social media conversation about sexuality, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit 1 Corinthians 7. This is the one place in the New Testament where direct instructions about sex are given and the reasoning behind these instructions is laid out explicitly (unlike, for example, Romans 1 where some form of “unnatural” sex is mentioned in passing, and 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 which reference obscure, inconclusively translated Greek words that may have something to do with same-sex behavior).

Christians who believe in patriarchal complementarity often take descriptive scriptures (“Male and female he created them” or Jesus’ gendered description of the physical unification of flesh in marriage) and make them prescriptive. But 1 Corinthians 7 is different. It is explicitly prescriptive. It’s the only place I’ve found in the New Testament. And it provides a foundation for sexual ethics that is more thoughtful and consistent with the Christian gospel than “conform to the heteronormative gender binary.”

Of course, the first awkward thing we have to deal with as Christians is that both Jesus and the apostle Paul considered celibacy to be a higher calling than marriage. Paul explicitly says that his teaching about marriage is “a concession not a command” because he wishes that everyone were celibate like he is (1 Corinthians 7:6). He says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

The implication is that those “not practicing self-control” are having sex outside of marriage. Why is this a problem for Paul? Because it makes them “aflame with passion.” Notice that Paul’s reasoning is entirely pragmatic. He doesn’t say that sex outside of marriage is an incredibly abominable disgrace that mocks God and means you’re not really a Christian because it breaks the rules. He just says it’s “better” for you to contain your sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage. A community where everyone is sleeping with everyone will quickly become “aflame with passion” which can result in drama that wrecks everything. How many free love communes from the sixties are still around today? Whether or not you think that sex should only happen with marriage, hopefully Paul’s pragmatic reasoning is at least comprehensible to you. I’ve participated in haphazard sexual intimacy that destroyed communities before, so I get where Paul is coming from.

The bulk of 1 Corinthians 7 is Paul trying to explain why being celibate is actually the best option. Part of where he’s coming from is that he believes that the Christian community is facing an “impending crisis” (aka an end-of-the-world apocalypse). But if we bracket that apocalyptic fear aside, we find three rationale for Paul’s sexual ethics that can translate across two thousand years into our completely different cultural context today.

1. “I want you to be free from anxieties” (v. 32). Paul explains that sexual intimacy makes you anxious about “the affairs of the world” so that your “interests are divided” rather than being solely focused on “the affairs of the Lord.” Whatever else is true about sex, under the wrong conditions, it can certainly breed all sorts of anxieties. Many of the anxieties in our society today have been created by the commodification of sex in marketing, whether it’s teenage girls worrying about how big their butts are or teenage boys thinking that they can’t really be men until they’ve “scored” with a girl. Any form of sex that exacerbates our anxieties is unholy and unhealthy.

2.”I say this not for your own benefit, not to be any restraint on you, but to promote good order…” (v. 35). Good order. In other words, Paul is reiterating that haphazard sexual intimacy can wreck a community. Sex is never a private interaction between two people. It inevitably impacts everyone else in your community, whether it’s your roommate who can’t get do his homework because he sees your damn sock on the door again, or your friend who dated the person you’re with before you did and had a bad breakup. This isn’t to say that sex is always bad because relationships are not allowed to be painful or complicated. It’s simply to recognize that our sexual relations always impact people who aren’t directly involved and thus the “order” of our community should be part of our thought process.

3. “And unhindered devotion to the Lord.” (v. 35). This is the toughest criterion for Paul’s sexual ethics. As Christians, part of our thinking about what we do with our bodies has to involve the question of whether we are enhancing or sabotaging our communion with God. Though it’s critically important to establish the baseline that sex must be completely consensual between two parties of equal power, if we’re concerned with our spiritual growth, that just doesn’t go far enough. If my goal is to experience union with Christ, then everything I do, including sex, is part of accomplishing that goal. And indeed sex can be! The radical self-abandon and unconditional acceptance of sexual intimacy can fill us with God’s presence, which is amazing. But if we use our bodies too cheaply, then our bodies lose the ability to “taste” the divine, which you won’t recognize as a loss if you’ve never tasted it.

Freedom from anxiety, good order, and unhindered devotion to the Lord. Love of self, love of neighbor, love of God. A foundation for sexual ethics that doesn’t require forcing people into boxes that don’t fit and demonizing difference. When we form our sexual ethics with these three criteria, we can pursue a much deeper holiness that is grounded in ascetic mysticism rather than moral legalism. On the basis of these three criteria, I can’t see any reason to condemn sexual or gender otherness as such. I would rather counsel people of every possible nuance of identity to find the best way to live an unanxious life of good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.

As a pastor, it seems entirely unhelpful for me to adjudicate and condemn sexual categories in the abstract. I’ve come to believe that the way to holiness is through ascetic mysticism. Jesus said in a parable that the kingdom of God is like a man who discovers a treasure in a field and sells everything he has to buy that field (Matthew 13:44). That describes my experience of ascetic mysticism. Every time I’ve tasted true intimacy with God through prayer and fasting, I’ve made it my life goal to return to that intimacy. That’s the reason I stopped drinking. Not because it’s wrong for everyone everywhere to drink, but because God told me it was time and having God appear vividly in my life meant more to me than even the most perfect glass of Chianti.

So I would rather help my students learn spiritual practices that put them in the position of tasting God’s presence, and let them see how that taste impacts how they understand everything else. As far as sex goes, my teaching is to consider Paul’s three criteria and continuously seek God’s wisdom through prayer. And when you fail to do this, know that we have a gracious God who simply wants us to experience the fullest delight of his love.

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