The direct answer to this frequent complaint about the church is a very practical one: American churches are obsessed with sex because American culture is obsessed with sex, and American churches are full of Americans. Seriously; the best selling book at the moment is straightforward verbal porn based on Twilight fan-fiction–I don’t think you can lay this one at the Church’s feet. Now, God obviously has different things to say about sex than our culture does, and churches are supposed to pass along God’s teachings rather than the culture’s, so the shared obsession does take the form of a cultural war between Christian and mainstream views of sex. This conflict makes many people uncomfortable at best and outraged at worst, which is what leads to people asking this question in the first place
But for offended skeptics, both inside the Church and out, another question usually lurks behind the straightforward one. Why does God teach the strange things He teaches in contrast to our culture’s entirely sensible views on sexuality (you know, the ones that lead to the popularity of Twilight fan-fiction porn)? Where they don’t consider it blatantly harmful, skeptics usually consider God’s view on sex to be either archaic, unimportant, or both. Without any reason for its existence, one naturally asks why one should bother wasting a breath passing it along–let alone the many argumentative breaths wasted by churches today. Accordingly, I would like to take the opportunity to provide two reasons: one for Christians, and one for everyone (including Christians).
We like to think of our bodies as things that we have and use rather than things that we are–as though a body was some kind of shell that we inhabit. The upshot is that we can use a screwdriver as a chisel if we like without any kind of deeper meaning, and we think we can use our bodies for fornication if we like without any kind of deeper meaning. This false dualistic view is often held to in response to atheists and materialists who proclaim that we’re just our bodies or no more than our bodies. If we are our bodies, aren’t we just soulless bags of meat walking around an absurd world? Not at all. We are our bodies, but we are not just our bodies. It is not that we are no more than flesh, but that we are no less than flesh–there is no “me” without my flesh. This can be seen quite easily. I can change how you feel by pumping you full of hormones. I can change what you know by hitting you in the head. Having sex with someone against her will is not the same as wearing someone’s sweater against her will. If I punch you in the face, I’m not just punching some flesh and bone that you’re particularly fond of–I am punching you.
Because we don’t do things with our bodies but simply do them, we don’t get that extra layer of abstraction to moderate what our doings mean and accomplish. You can use a screwdriver to accomplish one thing or to accomplish another, but you can never strangle a person without accomplishing hate and destruction. Strangulation can never mean “I love you” no matter how hard we try to use it for that purpose. Strangling an innocent man means hate and accomplishes murder–we don’t get a choice in the matter. In the same way, sex means things and does things regardless of what we would like it to mean and do. When we sleep with someone, it bonds us to that person (what the Bible calls a “one flesh” union). For example, upon orgasm, a flood of the hormone oxytocin is released that emotionally bonds one to one’s partner (the same hormone is released during childbirth and contributes to a mother’s bond to her new baby). Like it or not and regardless of agreements not to think differently of each other in the morning, sex attaches you to a person in a way that other activities do not. Instead of two people with two fleshes, the result is two people in one flesh.
Another thing sex does is create children. Here the complainers scream, “But nowadays we’ve separated sex from procreation!” Have we? Think about it: the procreative tendency of sex is so strong that despite absolutely unprecedented amount of time, effort, money, education, equipment, and drugs all dedicated to making conception optional, nearly a million unintended children are murdered before their birth every year and still more “accidents” run the gauntlet successfully. Once again, we cannot change human nature as much as we think. And so sex not only creates a bond, it creates new life that requires that bond to thrive. Two persons in one flesh bring yet more persons who share the same flesh as the parents. To Christians, this should begin to sound very familiar. We are created in the image of God–specifically a God who is three persons in one essence. Our families are an image and proclamation of Him. To simply create and then tear apart our one-flesh unions is to desecrate the very image of God Himself. And so one reason Christians should appreciate for the Bible’s teachings on sex is that our culture’s view of sex is rank blasphemy. A Christian should have no desire to go around putting graffiti on pictures of Jesus.
The reason that everyone–including Christians–should appreciate is that fornication harms ourselves and our neighbors. Because our sexuality is a bonding agent, there are negative consequences for tearing apart those bonds we make and become part of. J. Budziszewski provides a brilliant example in the form of duct tape. It doesn’t matter whether you tell a piece of tape not to stick; sticking is simply what tape does. So if you put it on your arm, it will stick. When you tear it off, it will hurt. Do it again, and it will stick less and hurt less. After repeated sticking and tearing, you may eventually reach the point where the tape no longer does what tape does and it can be removed without causing any pain, but that is because the tape is destroyed. Nothing in the world will make that tape stick again. In the same way, abusing our sexuality by using it outside of marriage (a lifelong promise to love and never separate) damages it along with that of our partner. Eventually it will no longer do what sexuality does, and the ability to be emotionally intimate with another in that way will be lost. There is a reason people speak derisively of “sloppy seconds” and “damaged goods” while still others think such shaming language shouldn’t be used at all: the truth hurts. “Sleep with whoever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone” is just about the stupidest ethic ever conceived. You might as well say “strangle whoever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone” (and, of course, euthanasia proponents say precisely that).
God’s law also does what God’s law does. It shows us how bad we are, instructs us on how to love our neighbors, and restrains our wickedness so as to reduce the harm to our neighbors. His law on sexuality is no different, and churches are right to proclaim it in the face of a culture desperate to cover up even the limited portion of the law written on their hearts. For the sake of our neighbors, the church must speak out on the subject. It must do more, for our responsibility is to proclaim the whole counsel of God and not just the parts about sex. We therefore must resist the temptation towards obsession. But though the Church must do more, it can surely do no less.