It is everywhere.
It is witnessed on billboards, in movie trailers and on television series that air at 8.30pm. It is talked about on morning radio and discussed in magazines, both adult and teen-focused. The reality is that ‘Sex’ is everywhere. It has permeated contemporary, secular society to such a deep extent that it may be appropriate to coin secular society, ‘sexular society.’
Society’s perspective on sexuality and sex has increasingly become lax. Sex loses reverence and respect each passing day. Instead it’s perceived as nothing more than a recreational activity or a rite of passage, to be treated casually. Young adults and youth in particular are even more susceptible to this contemporary perception and treatment of sex as we have a limited memory, if any, as to how sex was perceived and treated by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
If we go one step further and relate to young adults and youth that identify with the Christian faith then one can notice a very big challenge. Single Christian young adults and youth face a predicament that has not been experienced on a similar scale by previous generations. According to theologian Richard Foster they face a most difficult challenge of finding a way to ‘integrate [their] sexuality and spirituality within the context of the single life.’
What’s more is that this Christian young adult and youth generation are often navigating this challenge in the semi-darkness as the multi-denominational Church is unwilling to speak about it, let alone teach on it. All this generation hears is, “Do not have sex outside of marriage!”
…thanks for stating the obvious.
Unfortunately, the Church’s silence results in a large and ambiguous ‘gap’ as to what exactly the above rule entails other than the obvious. Young single Christians who are both serious about their faith and struggling to navigate their sexuality appropriately are subsequently left confused about, and lacking knowledge of, their sexuality and how to express it.
If this silence isn’t leading to confusion and lack of knowledge then it may be leading to something worse and more dangerous: abuse of one’s sexuality. In some cases members of the young adults and youth generation use the church’s silence as a scapegoat for irresponsible and immoral sexual expression and behaviours. The silence is falsely seen as ‘permission’ to engage in sexual acts.
With this all in mind, how should Christian young adults and youth respond to their own sexuality in a sex-dominated society, especially when people are now single for much longer than they were in previous generations?
Despite being single for much longer than previous generations, and despite secular society’s fixation with, and casual treatment of sex, single Christians – particularly young adults and youth – should remain strong in their attitude toward single sexuality, choosing instead to adopt a theocentric ethic towards sexuality rather than adopt the societal norms of the day.
Single Christians should learn to adopt a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, ethical foundation when it comes to sexuality by looking at sexuality in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as a basis.
The Old Testament and Sexuality
The people of the Old Testament understood sexuality as explicitly relating to marriage, procreation and family. The primary focus in Hebrew society was that of the need to procreate and bear children, especially males. It was essential to have a strong family network as large numbers could provide more production and security. Male children were especially crucial, as males were perceived as legitimate heirs to the family possessions and as heads of the house. This need to procreate is supported quite clearly in Genesis 1:28: ‘God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it,” and in Genesis 4:1: ‘Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”’
One thing worth noting is that marriage, as a term, was understood quite differently in the Old Testament as it is now understood in the 21st Century. This Hebrew society was a patriarchal society and as a result, ‘to marry’ meant the same as ‘to possess,’ and wives were therefore treated as part of a man’s property. As a wife was seen primarily as a man’s possession, and due to society’s primary focus on procreation, there was no dating or courting stage. Instead women were betrothed to suitable men and it was usually arranged for them to be married at a much younger age, just after menstruation began (12-14 years), as this was the age that conception was possible and family building could commence.
The action of sexual intercourse would, no doubt, be essential in order for people of the Hebrew society to procreate and build family networks. As such, the Torah – the law books of the Bible – provided the proper context for sexual intercourse as seen in Exodus 20:14: ‘“You shall not commit adultery.”’ The term ‘adultery’ is defined as voluntarily participating in sexual intercourse with someone who is not your spouse. Thus, the only socially and religiously acceptable context for sexual intercourse was within marriage and as a result, marriage was a societal norm.
Ethicist Lisa Cahill states that biblical teaching for other sexual behaviours are fairly clear ‘despite uncertainty of the exact meaning of certain terms, prohibitions and injunctions.’ Leviticus 18:6-29 prohibits sexual behaviours that appear to be incest, adultery and homosexuality. Biblical outlines for sex in the Bible was therefore assumed to exclusively belong to faithful heterosexual marriage, as this was the only way to procreate.
As Old Testament believers were strictly adherent to God’s law – as set out in Genesis to Deuteronomy – ethical sexuality determined that the only morally, socially and religiously acceptable and righteous sexual intercourse was to be performed within the context of a faithful, heterosexual marriage. By participating and adhering to Scriptural law the society of this time subscribed to a deontological and absolutist ethical approach in that it was one’s duty to marry and procreate and that the only ‘right’ or ‘moral’ way to express one’s sexuality (intercourse) was within the context of faithful, heterosexual and exclusive marriage.
The New Testament and Sexuality
The New Testament saw an age of additional security and stability as societies were structured around permanent cities and the Roman Empire. As a result procreation, whilst still prevalent, receded in importance and a believer’s understanding of sexuality shifted from the physical family to the spiritual family.
The spiritual family – represented by the community of the church – now focused on expressing their sexuality in a community of fellowship, in discipleship and in the following of the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Both men reaffirmed Old Testament law when it came to sexual conduct but also challenged the hearts and attitudes of the people in society they came into contact with as seen in Matthew 19:3-9.
Jesus essentially championed the second-class, the oppressed, the ostracized and the despised in society. He also openly associated and affirmed women as friends, taking compassion on them. This may be best seen in John 4 where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. Not only does He take the time to build spiritual relationship with her but also challenged her own to examine her own relationships and understanding of sexuality. Through Jesus and his teachings, which Paul later expands on, we witness a shift from physical, familial-focused sexuality towards communal and spiritual sexuality.
Paul, in his letter to Corinth, emphasizes and even encourages that a believer’s sexuality can be suitably expressed through celibacy. Throughout the time of the Roman Empire and the Early Church (under the Caesars) sex served social purposes and was a symbol of domination. As a result celibacy not only served as an opportunity to devote one’s self more wholly to God but also counter the societal cultures at work within the larger Roman Empire. We see in this teaching that sexuality is linked to spirituality.
This spiritual sexuality would have no doubt led to the building up of the church community as each believer supported each other in their celibate or abstinent journey and moments of temptation. It was also understood in the early church that sexual sin was not the isolated sin of an individual but rather a communal sin as it created disunity and disruption in the community, most likely due to the fact that sexual sin often involves more than one individual’s emotional or physical participation.
BUT! Paul doesn’t leave without sound theological teaching on how to express one’s self sexually in and outside of marriage. One of the main reasons his first letter to Corinth was written was in order to teach the church of Corinth on how they should conduct themselves and their behaviours – particularly to do with appropriate sexual behaviour – in a manner that conforms to the gospel and Kingdom of Heaven. He teaches that sex should not be withheld from marital partners (1 Cor. 7:1-7) and that those currently married should remain faithful to one another and not seek divorce (1 Cor.7: 12-16). Paul also teaches on what meaningful love looks like which is, in turn, an expression of sexuality (1 Cor. 13).
However, he also provides some guidelines as to what should not be included in a person’s sexual behaviours. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 he speaks out against sexual immorality and as Paul himself was educated as a Rabbi (religious teacher) we can safely assume that Paul would advocate for genital sexual expression within the context of a mutual, exclusive and heterosexual marriage as taught in the Torah.
Therefore, the New Testament Christian community followed a clear theonomous approach to ethics in that believers were led by the Spirit on how to express their sexuality whilst some were spiritually called to celibacy. They were also instructed on moral sexual practices and expressions of sexuality through the Old Testament Scriptures, as well as, the teachings of Jesus and Paul. This strengthened their spiritual connection with God. Furthermore, this morally spiritual sexuality would have called upon believers to practice and develop the fruits of the Spirit and this would have also been an example of virtue ethics at work within the New Testament Christian society.
The Developing Church: Between the New Testament and Now
If anything, sexual behaviour and sexual pleasure has been seen as suspect and even sinful in the time period spanning between the New Testament Church and the contemporary Church today. It appears that the Church, in this time period, adopted a largely absolutist and heteronomous approach to sexuality in that sexual expression was bound by clear moral axioms, prohibitions and injunctions as set out in Scripture. Furthermore, sexual pleasure and passion, even within ethical sexual expression, was seen as guilty until proven innocent and dangerous. It was therefore, taught, or at least suggested, that the only truly obedient and safe option was celibacy and virginity.
Notable Church thinkers frowned on sexuality and sexual pleasure claiming that it was not spiritual. Most notably, St. Augustine expressed that sexual pleasure was dangerous as it led to an inability to resist sex, which in turn, caused people (and believers) to neglect their own moral duties, causing selfishness instead. He even went so far as to call sex a conduit for the original sin participated in by Adam and Eve. We can see that St. Augustine’s perspective has influenced the outlook Christians and society have on sex today.
Christians today can most definitely perceive that moral teachings on sexuality were largely negative in this time period. We are no doubt the recipients of the remains of this negatively held teaching on sexuality. We are left ‘psychosexually stunted or disturbed’ as we attempt to piece together a suitable ethic to sexuality that fits both today’s contemporary society and the theological teachings of the Bible. This is made many times harder by the simple truth that sex is pleasurable and the guilt that Christians encounter when they experience these pleasurable thoughts, feelings and urges. So how should we respond today to sex as both Christian singles? First we need to understand our contemporary view of sexuality.
Contemporary Understanding of Sexuality
A 21st century understanding of the term ‘sexuality’ has almost become interchangeable with the term ‘identity.’ Secular society is increasingly adoptive of a teleological approach to sexuality in that sexuality has become so closely linked with person-oriented approaches to this moral area. Rather than the heavily absolutist approach to sexuality in the developing church, theologian and ordained pastor Karen Pack states that an ‘increasingly “open” attitude to sex within our culture has permeated the church, influencing the practice of Christians…and often leading to revisionist theology[/ies].’
As Christians are single for much longer – at least in Western society – due to dating and courting stages, engagement periods and the absence of arranged marriages, the church has steadily agreed to the cultural sexual norms of the day. The single stage is even more noticeable due to progressions in social justice which have resulted positively in females having an equal status today, as well as, also being able to have their own careers, dreams and pursuits too; a stark contrast to pre-WWI and WWII generations let alone, the Old Testament period.
Changes and developments witnessed in the 21st century have undoubtedly changed and developed society’s perception of sexuality. ‘Sexuality,’ being so closely linked with ‘personal identity,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘self’ raises an obvious dilemma for the practicing single Christian. According to Philip Turner, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, this link ‘amounts to an ego-centric teleological ethic in which to deny a sexual relation to oneself or to anyone else simply on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation or gender identification…is tantamount to denial of one’s sexuality and so oneself.’
This perception of sexuality for the single Christian results in a dilemma as it can cause the single Christian to feel trapped, denied, isolated, confused and most notably, tempted. If a single believer pairs these feelings with the greatest assurance and truth of the Christian gospel – ‘For by grace you have been saved by faith’ (Eph. 2:8) – a dangerous scenario arises. Grace, if separated from the immense cost it took for us to receive it, can be used cheaply as a scapegoat for the expression of inappropriate and immoral sexuality: genital sexuality outside of the proper context of faithful, exclusive and heterosexual marriage. In expressing this immoral form of sexuality the single Christian hopes to express their personhood through genital sexuality in order to achieve intimacy and identity, yet does nothing but limit the power of the Holy Spirit and reinforce this ego-centric and teleological approach and construct to sexuality which ultimately leads to individual and communal sin.
Unfortunately, this egocentric teleological ethical approach to sexuality is also resulting in academics calling for a different teaching on premarital sex (in all its forms). Philosopher and theologian Dick Westley argues that sex outside of marriage “need not be immoral, and may even not be sinful either. Whether it is sinful for the Christian will depend on whether it negates and contradicts one’s fundamental option of commitment to God and his dream of the Kingdom.” He goes on to argue that committed and relational sex outside of marriage should be accepted as aligning with God’s Kingdom. Westley clearly promotes a teleological and virtue approach to ethics – which is supported by academics Clare Amos and Adrian Thatcher – in that if the expression of sexuality does not conflict with one’s own personal perception of their relationship with God and that they perform pre-marital genital sex (in any form) out of the virtue of committed love than it is morally acceptable. However, this reasoning is seriously floored as a relationship with God is a two-way street and whilst the individual may not see pre-marital sex as damaging of their relationship of God, He may see differently. Furthermore, we, as the human race, do not have the authority to determine what is and isn’t a sin depending on what teleological outcome we want. Rather, sin is defined as ‘missing the mark’ or ‘falling short’ of God and therefore, what is defined as sin can only be determined by a Creator God.
This perspective on pre-marital genital sexuality and sexuality as identity is not theologically accurate and therefore, unethical. Instead the single Christian young adult or youth, despite increasingly longer years of singleness, needs to adopt a theocentric ethical approach to single sexuality.
Theocentric ethics as an appropriate response to Sexuality
It is important to acknowledge that humans are sexual creatures. Sexuality is part of our existence as embodied persons (our soul / spirit existing within the body) as seen in the resurrection of Jesus and the creation of Adam. In the creation of Adam we witness him created as both a physical (formed from the dust of the ground) and spiritual (breathed life into) life. However, the Creation story also reveals that we are incomplete and have a need for community and human bonding. The Creation story reveals this need for community as God himself is a triune and communal God and this is reflected in Adam’s need for a, ‘helper suitable for him [not animals]…[for] it is not good for the man to be alone’ (Gen 2.18). Acknowledging that we are sexual beings created as male and female in the image of God and that sexual pleasure is good is the first place for single Christians to start.
Once we acknowledge that we are all sexual beings in need of community it is then required of single male and female Christians to approach our sexuality from a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric or egocentric, perspective. Theologian and ordained pastor Karen Pack argues that Christians, particularly single ones, should approach sexuality with a ‘Trinitarian, Incarnational Ethic.’
Christian singles need to understand that God is defined by his triune (God – Jesus – Holy Spirit) nature. This Trinitarian perspective, according to Pack, ‘mandates that ethical living takes place within the context of a redeemed community, not individual isolation,’ and that Christian singles therefore, are mandated with the challenge of upholding their biblical values within the relationships experienced in the church community (1 Pt 1:13-25). A Trinitarian ethic recognises that we have been created as both needing and wanting intimate human relationship however, it does this without sexualizing relationships (i.e. genital sex).
Christian singles also need to understand that our God is incarnational within us as mediated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who guides and empowers us to live righteous and holy lives despite the temptations and pressures we may face. This incarnational Christian ethic allows single Christians to express healthy non-genital, single sexuality in a way that does not leave single Christians feeling trapped, confused, denied or isolated. It instead leads them to rich and deep relationships. We only have to look at the example of Jesus.
It is so easy for single Christians to argue that resisting sex is impossible. However, if we take a moment to acknowledge that Jesus was human then we also need to acknowledge that Jesus was able to navigate sexuality in a way that was both Trinitarian (communal) and incarnational. The single Christian needs to remind themselves that Jesus was tempted in every way yet he did not fall into sexual temptation or sin (Heb 4.15). Pack states that Single Christians, ‘can therefore embrace Christ as…[their]…foundational model for…[their]…sexuality.’
Embracing the example of Jesus means that single Christians should embrace the ethic of abstinence from genital sexual expression outside of marriage. In abstinence, single Christians should learn to accept and control their sexual feelings with the help of the Holy Spirit who is incarnate within each Christian and who empowers them to live a life that pleases God.
Therefore, the church and its community of believers provide the opportunity for expression of one’s sexuality outside of marriage. Healthy, respectful, joyful and social relationships can be developed and strengthened between all Christians in the church and these relationships release the single Christian from their isolation and teleological egotism. This allows Christians to support each other by providing both spiritual and communal encouragement and accountability to one another as they navigate their own sexuality (1 Thess. 5.11).
All people can love others separate of genital expression. Love and sexuality can be intimate without being genital or marital. Love can encompass a range of virtues and actions that can be expressed separate of genital sex. Emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical intimacy can all be experienced in a way that upholds a theocentric ethic regarding sexuality. Suitable physical touch (hugs, handshakes, smiles), the sharing of one’s emotions and thoughts, praying and discussing spiritual journeys with other believers and having academic or intellectual conversation can all lead to a theocentric ethic of expression of sexuality.
Application of a theocentric ethic for Single Christians on the topic of masturbation
Masturbation is a ‘grey’ area when it comes to Christian sexual expression and is one of the most frequently and universally practiced sexual activities with 95% of men and 50-90% of women having masturbated at one time or another. Why do people participate in masturbation? Because it is physically pleasurable. Participation in masturbation is definitely the result of a teleological approach in that the act of masturbation achieves the desired result of physical pleasure: orgasm. Nearly all youth masturbate and this habit can carry on into the age of young adulthood. Tradition, contemporary society and medical research have all told us a diverse range of things with regards to masturbation.
Tradition has told us that masturbation leads to sexual impotence, disease, stupidity, defective offspring and even, homosexuality. On the other hand, contemporary society today tells us that it is a rite of passage and allows the individual to explore and discover themselves and sexual pleasure. Medical research tells us that masturbation may even be a healthy genital outlet, both mentally and physically, when sex isn’t possible. This again leaves the single Christian with conflicting thoughts about sexuality, particularly to do with masturbation: guilt, defeat and self-hatred at having participated in masturbation versus ‘discovery’ of self and pleasure.
Unfortunately, for the Single Christian the Bible does not directly teach on the topic of masturbation. There are no injunctions or prohibitions that make it clear that it is a sin and not to be participated in and therefore, it would be misleading to state that masturbation is wrong or sinful. However, in saying that Christian singles can still adopt a theocentric, or ‘Trinitarian, Incarnational sexual ethic,’ and apply it to masturbation.
Whilst the Bible does not teach on masturbation and it is not a sin in itself, it isn’t an accurate reflection of a Trinitarian, communal God. Perhaps the largest issue with regards to masturbation is that it is a self-centered and isolated activity. It depersonalises as it requires a person to turn to one’s self to satisfy sexual desires rather than turn to others and develop healthy and deep personal relationships that express sexuality appropriately, as well as, develop and promote rich spiritual community. Or, if we use the words of Richard Foster, masturbation is “sex on a desert island.” Masturbation does not promote or build community and healthy, meaningful relationships which is a major hallmark of the Christian gospel and the inclusive message of salvation for all.
Furthermore, masturbation can be dangerous due to its ability to lead to sins that are prohibited and taught against in the Bible (both Old and New Testament). Masturbation is closely linked to sexual fantasies, lustful thoughts and pornography. It is a nigh on impossible for masturbation to occur in an imageless or thoughtless void. Erotic, lustful and pornographic images, thoughts or feelings come to mind during masturbation and these images are clearly spoken against by Jesus in Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Masturbation can also become obsessive. Obsession can quickly lead to forms of idolatry. People obsess over money, fame, influence and more. Sex, and masturbation, can also lead to obsession which can be dangerous grounds for idolatry, which is a sin as seen in the 10 Commandments. The Commandments reveal that we are to have and worship only one God: the Trinitarian God. The only legitimate ‘obsession’ Christians should have is the one true God and therefore, control over our bodies, thoughts and actions are required to demonstrate this.
Masturbation versus a Trinitarian, Incarnational ethic of sexuality
Therefore, as Single Christians or married Christians, we are called to express our sexuality in a way that builds spiritually healthy and meaningful relationships and that build up the community of believers around us. Masturbation endangers this as it does not promote or reflect the Trinitarian and communal God but rather, fosters isolation and the turning in to one’s self for pleasure. Furthermore, masturbation endangers our ability to reflect a righteous and holy God due to the sins that it can so easily lead to. Single Christians again can overcome these issues by recognising the incarnate role of the Spirit in their lives that empowers them to not only resist dangerous, tempting and sinful activity but also to seek healthy and appropriate non-genital sexual expression in a spiritual community of like-minded believers.
Concluding thoughts: What should Single Christians (Youth and Young adults) take away from this blog?
Thus, single Christians, including young adults and youth, express their sexuality socially and spiritually within the inclusive church community with the aid of the incarnate Holy Spirit at work within them. They do this by remaining abstinent of genital sexual expression outside of marriage. Despite living in an age where people are single for much longer – due to a myriad of reasons – the single Christian is still called to an attitude and ethic of sexuality that focuses on the theocentric, rather than the anthropocentric, realm. They are called to live theonomous lifestyles that call upon the guidance of both Scripture and Spirit within a community of believers.
Sexual intercourse and genital sexual expression remain solely for and within the context of faithful, exclusive and heterosexual marriage. This needs to be protected and perceived as holy and sacred by the single Christian as non-marital and unfaithful sex will affect both the embodied individual, as well as, the community.
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