Why is the Church Obsessed with Sex?

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.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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8 Responses to Why is the Church Obsessed with Sex?

  1. Pingback: You DO, not do WITH your body | Outer Rim Territories

  2. Erin C. says:

    Matt, you’re my brother and I love you, and I know better than to engage you on the rest of this, but are you seriously, SERIOUSLY, suggesting that Jesus would have us refer to women who have had sex outside marriage as “damaged goods” and “sloppy seconds”?

    • Matt says:

      Erin, thank you for that affirmation, and know that I love you too.

      In answer to your question, maybe it’s because I publicly (and accurately) describe myself as a “poor miserable sinner” every week, but I really don’t see “damaged goods” as being beyond the pale. The solution to this very real problem is that we are forgiven in Christ. There is therefore no longer any need to pretend that our sins don’t harm ourselves and others, nor any need to pretend that our loved ones haven’t also harmed themselves and us by their own sins which are likewise forgiven in Christ. This includes sexual sins.

      And yes, I think Jesus would have us be the prostitutes who say “God be merciful to me, a sloppy, damaged sinner” rather than the Pharisees who say “God, I thank you that I’m not like that slut over there, for I was totally in love with each of the 20 guys I’ve slept with… at the time.”

      But you’re no doubt thinking that there’s a difference between pointing out one’s own sin and pointing out the sin of others. That’s fair enough, to a point. So no, I don’t make a habit of calling women “sloppy seconds” or “damaged goods” anymore than I make a habit of calling negligent chainsaw users “stumpy.” However, I do affirm the reality of the damage that leads people to use such terms (which is what I did in the original post.)

      The fact is, most modern Americans want to pretend it’s no big deal. This breeds self-righteousness in the perpetrators and resentment in the victims whose pain is deemed to be illegitimate. And so the damage needs to be affirmed. The Law kills us when we hear it; that’s naturally rather unpleasant. But the solution that actually helps people is to find life in the Gospel rather than trying to nerf the Law.

  3. Erin C. says:

    Hey Matt, thanks for the thoughtful reply. While I’m not convinced that (for example) someone who has sex X number of times with X number of people prior to marriage won’t be able to be intimate with their eventual spouse, I genuinely do appreciate your more compassionate expansion of this.

    • OKRickety says:

      Erin, while I agree that previous sexual experience with others does not prevent intimacy with a spouse (and there certainly is no way to quantify such a limit if it did exist), I’d like to suggest that it likely does have an impact, regardless of the truth that God’s forgiveness of our sins gives us freedom. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1)

      God’s forgiveness does not always remove temporal consequences. For example, vaginismus is a physical condition that has been linked to past sexual abuse or trauma, past painful intercourse, and emotional factors, all of which I suspect would have a strong correlation with the degree of previous sexual activity. Prevalence seems to be, maybe, 5-15% of women.

      There is also the possibility of psychological difficulties resulting from previous sexual activity causing problems with marital intimacy, both generally and sexually. I have no idea how one would determine the prevalence of this consequence or how much it would impact intimacy.

      While previous sexual activity may not prevent marital intimacy, it seems clear that it commonly would make intimacy more difficult to achieve. We cannot undo the past, but I think it would be loving to others to strongly discourage others from taking that path.

  4. Malcolm Smith says:

    “The upshot is that we can use a screwdriver as a chisel if we like without any kind of deeper meaning . ..”
    I would reverse the imagery. Fornication is like using a chisel as a screwdriver. A screwdriver is a blunt instrument; it cannot function as a chisel. But a chisel is a fine instrument. You can use it as a screwdriver. The trouble is, it will then be ruined for its original purpose.

  5. OKRickety says:

    Matt, knowing that many, primarily women it seems from the statements I’ve seen over the years, object vigorously to the idea of “damaged goods” and “sloppy seconds”, I question that the duct tape analogy is “brilliant”, especially when the tape is described as eventually destroyed.

    I wonder if a better concept would be along the lines of considering a person engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage as “voiding the warranty”, and God’s forgiveness as being “reconditioned to engineered specifications”. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good way to extend this concept to convey the necessary recognition that consequences still exist.

    • Matt says:

      I think the vehemence of the objections demonstrates what an effective analogy it is. Women may not like how it affects them, but it A) describes the truth of the matter and B) reminds them that men perceive the truth of the matter whether women like it or not. The eventual destruction of the tape is part of what makes the analogy effective–it’s entirely possible to damage and even destroy one’s sexuality through repeated misuse. Forgiveness doesn’t undo that damage until the Resurrection.

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