Sex and the Christian Body: Freedom and Faithfulness, Celebration and Restraint
By David H. Jensen
Mark Regnerus made a provocative claim in his Heyer Lecture at Austin Seminary: “Young Americans, including very many raised with some degree of faith and Christian training, seem to have little idea of what it means to bring glory to God in their romantic and sexual life. Instead, we’ve raised modern-day Gnostics, adults for whom Christianity is about faith and mental concepts, not the stuff of the body and material life. I’ve met very few Presbyterian young adults who express any significant connection between their Christian faith and their embodied life and sexuality.” This claim, of course, is contestable, but I find myself agreeing with this claim more than I disagree with it. In fact, I think his claim can be stated more broadly: it’s not just young adults who may be “closet Gnostics,” it may be the majority of all adults in American society—inside and outside the church.
What is Gnosticism? The shortest answer is to say that it is a way of thinking that leaves the body outside the order of salvation. Human beings, for the Gnostics, are saved by escaping the body and all the corruption (including sex) that it represents. The result is an extreme separation between “spirit” and “body” in ways that value the former and disparage the latter. On the surface, American society hardly seems Gnostic. We are bombarded by sexual images in media and advertising; we are the heirs of a sexual revolution that encouraged us to forget past hang ups about the body. But amid all of this talk about sex (which at times borders on obsession), we seem strangely unable to connect our deepest sexual desires to our basic commitments of faith. Sexuality and spirituality are addressed as separate, rather than interrelated, aspects of our personhood. Even, it seems, in the church.
Here are three suggestions for how we might recover these connections today:
1) A Christian understanding of sex ought to reflect the centrality of the body to Christian faith and life. Let me state this boldly: there is no Christian faith without the body and any attempt to express the faith apart from the body is decidedly unchristian. Christianity blesses the body at most every turn: in our claim that the Son of God became human in the body of a first-century Jewish carpenter, in its celebration of the body and blood of Christ given for us in the Lord’s Supper, in its stunning claim that the bodies of ordinary folk like you and me become the church, the body of Christ. And, at the far horizon of our lives, we look toward the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. A Christian understanding of sex recognizes that God’s blessing, claim, and redemption of bodies is nothing less than a celebration of all bodies—no exceptions.
2) Christians ought to recognize sex as a dimension of the freedom God creates us for in Jesus Christ. The work of Christ sets us free from destructive patterns of relationship to be for one another. This is a criterion that helps us distinguish between hurtful and healthful expressions of sexuality: when sex is experienced as coercive, compulsive, or manipulative, freedom is not present. The freedom that we can experience in our sexual relationships, moreover, makes sex joyous, playful, and spontaneous. Perhaps that freedom even offers a foreshadowing of the resurrection and the glorification of all human bodies.
3) But freedom and celebration aren’t the only dimensions of sex. Our sexual lives ought also to bear the marks of faithfulness and restraint. The Reformed heritage often expresses faithfulness in terms of covenant: God makes promises to be with God’s people, and God’s people echo that covenant when they make promises to one another. Sex is an expression of intimacy; it is a way of sharing our deepest selves with our beloved. This is why sex should never be seen individualistically, but as an expression of covenant: of giving, sharing, receiving, with our beloved. Sex can communicate promises that bind two people together; sex blossoms as it grows out of the promises of shared lives.
Liberals often gravitate toward freedom when they discuss sex. Conservatives often uphold faithfulness. But here’s the catch: both of these traits need each other, because one without the other winds up distorting our understanding of sex and the Christian body. Faithfulness without freedom can quickly become stifling and deadening. Ugliness can lurk behind “faithfulness” alone: abusive marriages, rigid gender roles, partnerships that fail to nourish the freedom of each person. But freedom without faithfulness can also become abusive: where “I” am free to do whatever I want, damn the consequences, where sexual life becomes focused mainly on what individuals “need” to the neglect of others and the claims that Christ makes upon us. Freedom needs faithfulness in order to flourish. Faithfulness needs freedom in order to thrive. Sex in the Christian body demands nothing less than both.