“Sex is everything,” goes the idea in the 21st century. “And sex is nothing.”
This paradoxical view of sexuality in our society requires a paradoxical response from the Church. Our Christian witness must “put sex in its place” – meaning, we will need to take sexuality more seriously and less seriously than the rest of society.
“Sex is Nothing”
Let’s begin with the first claim – that sex is nothing, or at least not a big deal.
We live in a society where pornography is rampant, where young people trade nude pictures of each other as currency, where all sorts of sexual practices and partners and casual encounters are viewed as natural and beneficial. Many in our society believe sexual activity is no big deal, and so they scratch their heads as to why anyone would make a judgment about consensual sexual behavior. The categories of “right” and “wrong” impose a moral standard that does damage to people.
In response to this radical downplaying of the seriousness of sex, the Church must step up and say, “Sexuality is far more serious than you think.” Casual sex is a myth. It is a radically diminished view of sex that kidnaps it from its covenantal home and strips it of its spiritual dimension. That’s why the Church must say and show how sexuality is a serious matter.
Saying: We teach the seriousness of sex when we explain how the union of a man and woman within the covenant of marriage points to the spiritual union of Christ and His church. There is a glorious mystery here – of two becoming one flesh, of a union that is oriented toward the creation of new life, of a new family that leads to more image-bearers of God. N. T. Wright places the Christian view of sexuality within the grand narrative of Scripture:
“The male/female relationship, woven so centrally into the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, is not an accidental or a temporary phenomenon, but is, rather, symbolic of the fact that creation itself carries God-given life and procreative possibility within it. Even to consider the question from this angle poses a sharp contrast to the way in which, in our present culture, sexual activity has become almost completely detached from the whole business of building up communities and relationships, and has degenerated simply into a way of asserting one’s right to choose one’s own pleasure in one’s own way. To put it starkly: instead of being a sacrament, sex has become a toy.”
Showing: The Church must not only say that sex is serious, but also show this to be the case. To “put sex in its place” means that Christians will need to take sexual sin more seriously than our culture does.
Jesus puts sex in its place when He calls us to implement radical measures as we pursue a life of single-minded devotion and purity (Matthew 5:27-32). So, get ready. Our actions will shock the world, especially when people see us confronting each other over something as “normal” as pornography, or kicking an unrepentant adulterer out of church, or finding ways to fight lusts of various kinds.
The silence of the Christian church in regards to sexual sin among its own members reinforces the societal myth that sexuality can be casual and free of consequences. And if the Church does not take sexual sin among its members seriously, how can we speak prophetically to the world about God’s good design for sexuality?
“Sex is Everything”
To a society that says, “Sex is nothing,” we say, “It’s much more serious than you think.” But our society also says “Sex is everything. This is where I get my identity, my fulfillment, my life.” To this, we say, “Sex is less serious than you think. You are pinning too many hopes on sex.”
Many people today believe that the purpose of human life and the measure of human flourishing is in the freedom to express oneself, to deliver one’s unique inner essence to the world by “being true to yourself.” Apply this expressivist philosophy to sexuality, and you wind up with a society in which sexual self-expression becomes vital for happiness. To question the validity of someone’s sexual attractions or practices is to call into question their personhood, to do damage to their identity, to radically dehumanize them by submitting their desires to scrutiny.
In response to this idea, the Church must say, “Human dignity means you are not defined by your sexual attraction.” Staking your identity in sexuality or pinning your hopes for happiness on sex is too low of a goal for a human being made in God’s image.
In this case, we put sex in its place — not by saying “sex is no big deal” but by telling people, “you are so much more than your sexuality.” We will not reduce our human self-understanding and self-expression to sexual urges. It’s not that we diminish sex, but that we elevate human dignity.
The Church must reject the often-unstated assumption of society that human flourishing is, in some way, dependent upon sexual relationships. Richard Hays argues that the biblical witness undercuts our cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment:
“Scripture (along with many subsequent generations of faithful Christians) bears witness that lives of freedom, joy, and service are possible without sexual relations… Never within the canonical perspective does sexuality become the basis for defining a person’s identity or finding meaning and fulfillment in life.”
Elevating and Demoting Sex
Sex is not a matter merely of biology or physicality; it is a spiritual reality.
Ironically, one of the reasons our society is so sex-saturated is because we are so transcendence-starved. Unable to reach the heavens, we go under the bed sheets. It’s because our society senses that there must be something more to life, something more to sex than casual encounters, that people continue to amp up the experience – trying new methods, new partners, new medicines, staking their identity in their sexuality – whatever it takes to achieve sexual satisfaction.
When our age of expressive individualism leads people to assume sexual behavior is one of the only ways a human life can flourish, the Church must be ready to put sex in its place: elevating the significance of the sexual union, and demoting the significance of sexual identity.