Note: Given the recent discussions about Revoice–a conference at which I am speaking–I asked Jake if he would republish the two chapters from my first book that are directly on questions of sexual desire. Today’s essay takes up how evangelicalism has depicted sex, and whether it comports with the Gospel (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). While I still agree with most of what I wrote, I also recognize it is woefully incomplete in some very important respects. Tomorrow’s essay will consider the question of homosexuality. 

If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning.

Evangelical Christianity has undergone in the past three decades what is tantamount to its own sexual revolution. Since 1973, when Marabel Morgan’s book The Total Woman was released, evangelicals have maintained a profound focus on maximizing pleasure between the sheets—or wherever else we happen to be when inspiration strikes. We are living in “the golden age for Christian sex manuals,” as writer Mark Oppenheimer has dubbed it.[1]

Like much of our thinking about other areas of life, the evangelical sex manual has an apologetic undercurrent. The implicit—and occasionally explicit—argument is that because God designed sex to be kept within marriage, Christians should be having better and more frequent sex than anyone else.[2] Or as two scholars who analyzed evangelical sex manuals in the early 1980s put it, we are apparently “God’s chosen people in matters of sexuality.”[3] The increasingly common challenges from evangelical pulpits to have daily sex suggest the calling is irrevocable.[4]

“Rapture,” “bliss,” “ecstasy,” “powerful transcendence”—this is the sales pitch that evangelicals have made for the goodness of sex within marriage, and by all measurable accounts, it’s worked. When the University of Chicago did a massive study on sex in America, they found that conservative Protestant women experienced sexual satisfaction far more often than any other religious demographic.[5] A more recent study confirmed the research, finding that evangelical Christian women have sex more frequently and report higher satisfaction levels than other demographics.[6]

This story is rarely told from the pulpit or in the media, both of which seem content to continue to present exaggerated stereotypes of evangelicals as sexual rubes (like the prudish Kenneth on 30 Rock). Younger evangelicals—particularly those raised within the evangelical subculture—seem to have an acute sense that something has been missing in the evangelical approach to sex. Whether that is expressed through frank talk about sex from the pulpit or calls for connecting sex with God —as Rob Bell did in his book Sex God—everyone seems to have the impression that traditional evangelical understandings of sex are deeply messed up.

There is good reason for that, I think. Most young evangelicals were raised within youth groups where discussions of the goodness of sexuality were inevitably drowned out by the understandable attempts to remind everyone to keep their clothes on. Of course, some of that may have been the fault of the youth. When all you can think about is reaching inside the cookie jar, Mom’s lectures about the goodness of cookies will be far less memorable than her restriction to wait until after dinner. Young people with raging hormones need little persuasion that sex within marriage is good. Further, presenting healthy sexuality that is enticing enough to make young people want to wait for sex until marriage while at the same time not exacerbating their temptation to engage in sexual fantasies is something of a high art. And evangelicals certainly have not mastered it.

But the disenchantment with evangelical teachings about sex also points to a different, more problematic cause. For all our efforts to recover the goodness of pleasure, our understanding of human sexuality still does not go very deep. The loud arguments within evangelicalism that pleasure is good border on defensively shouting, “Hey, we’ve got pleasure too!” in a world that cares about little else. Evangelicals can and should win the pleasure war but not on the same terms as the world. And judging by our literature and manner of life, we are closer to treating sexual pleasure as an idol than we have ever been to treating it as a curse.

Naked and Not Ashamed

God’s gift of sexual pleasure started in the garden. But the account of human sexuality seen in the first pages of Genesis is far less clear than we might like. In fact, its ambiguity allowed early Christians to hold differing beliefs about sex, ranging from it being a good, natural part of human creation to it being the inevitable result of the fall and a necessary way to overcome our mortality.

But what is murky in the garden becomes clearer throughout the rest of the Bible.[7] The canon of Scripture interprets itself, commenting on, expanding, and clarifying passages that might otherwise be ambiguous. Theologian Robert Jenson points out, for instance, that the intensely erotic Song of Songs functions within Scripture as “the chief biblical resource for a believing understanding of human sexuality, of the lived meaning of ‘Male and female he created them.’”[8] The Song of Songs depends for its poetry and allusions on a rich affirmation of the goodness of the created world (see 2:16–17; 4:12–15ff.). As something of an elaboration on the first pages of Genesis, it affirms that sexual desire can still be as it once was—“very good.”

This affirmation of the goodness of the original creation is also prominent in some of the key texts in the New Testament. When asked about divorce in Matthew 19:5, Jesus responds by affirming that in marriage male and female “are no longer two but one flesh.” He underscores twice in the passage that it was this way “from the beginning,” reinforcing that the original pattern for human sexuality can be found in Genesis. Paul makes the same move in rebuking the Corinthians’ understanding of sexuality in 1 Corinthians 6.

Ephesians 5, though, goes one step further, making the primary referent for marital love Christ and the church. Paul adopts the language of Genesis, but then points to its deepest, clearest manifestation: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”[9] Paul adopts this marriage imagery from various places in the Old Testament.[10] As Christ and the church are the primary referents for the marital relationship, it is Christ who is the pattern for our sexuality rather than our sexuality providing the pattern for our understanding of Jesus.

The narrative of Adam and Eve in the first pages of Genesis, then, is the heartbeat of Christian sexuality, but the dynamic of their love together is not clarified until the cross, which reopens the possibility of healthy and intimate sexual pleasure for us as humans. Whatever we make of the historical content of Genesis—a phrase not meant to minimize the importance of the question—Jesus and Paul both treat the original innocence and goodness of human sexuality as our history, as revealing a pattern that was broken by sin and that was reestablished and restored through the redemptive love of Christ.

What follows in the rest of this chapter, then, is not a comprehensive treatment of human sexuality, but my attempt to outline what I think is distinctive about Christian sexuality in a world that worships sex. My goal is to say what I think Scripture thinks sex is rather than focusing primarily on what sex is not. Naturally, I draw on the account of the body I have sketched in earlier chapters to make my case. But I should also note that much of what follows is heavily influenced by—though not a direct translation of—John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Sex As Self-Giving

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”

And with that, Genesis highlights the essentially social nature of the human person. At each step of creation, God saw that his work was good. Yet the goodness of humanity is not fulfilled in our solitude, but in our connection and relationship with others who stand before God in the same way that we do.

This is, I think, the basic thrust of Adam’s recognition of Eve: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”[11] He goes on to highlight one way they are different, but his first impulse is that they are of the same kind, unique in the order of creation and uniquely related to God. The first creation account puts it, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The third clause expands the first—male and female are made in the image of God together, which means that our relationship toward God as bearers of his image is the grounds for a healthy and Christian sexuality.

Moving on to the last phrase of chapter 2, we see that the sexuality of Adam and Eve is inextricable from the totality of their lives together. “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” There is no dimension of the other that is preserved or held back. Yet to call their nakedness a “self-revelation” is almost misleading: their fundamental lack of conscious awareness of their own bodies meant that there was no gap between their bodily visibility and their personal presence. Their self was manifested in and through the body, and vice versa. Or as John Paul II puts it, there is no “interior rupture and opposition between what is spiritual and what is sensible.”[12] There was no gap, in other words, between their bodies and their personal presence in the world.

Yet the communion between Adam and Eve is not static. The personal presence of man in the world is active and externally minded—it is a presence where we give ourselves to others for their benefit and receive their gift to us in gratitude. Human sexuality, as seen in the fact that Adam and Eve were naked in the body without shame, is constituted by this mutual self-giving. In the act of sex itself, the man gives himself to the woman and the woman (by way of freely opening herself) gives herself to the man.[13]

In that sense, Christian sexuality is not simply an expression of an abstract or vague inner desire—it is a dynamic encounter between a man and a woman in the fullness of their humanity before God, which is constituted by their mutual self-giving to the other for the other’s good.

Here again, what is murky in the early chapters of the Bible is clearly revealed on the cross: It is love that marks a Christian sexuality, but our model for love is the sacrificial self-giving on the cross by the person of Jesus Christ. As John says in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” God gives himself to man, for man, and in doing so reveals the nature of the love that has bound husbands and wives together from the very beginning. This Christ-centered sexuality is precisely what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5, when he affirms the goodness of Christian marriage by pointing to the relationship between Christ and the church.

This Christ-shaped love stands in contrast to contemporary notions about sex in one important way: it subordinates or delays the pursuit of one’s own sexual pleasure to the good and well-being of the other. Pursuing an orgasm may seem like a “healthy sexual selfishness,” as Douglas Rosenau puts it in A Celebration of Sex.[14] But our joy as Christians is not fundamentally driven by our experience of physical pleasure, but by the self-giving love that unites us together in the bond of peace. And that may mean delaying or forestalling sexual satisfaction in pursuit of the other’s good. “Count others,” Paul reminds the Philippians (2:3) in a passage that is pervaded by Christ, “more significant than yourselves.”

Sex As Self-Giving in Freedom

Adam’s embrace of Eve as companion and lover is his response to an awareness of his solitude in the world. God acknowledges that it is not good for Adam to be alone, then immediately gives him the responsibility to name the animals. This demonstrates Adam’s authority in the world, but also serves a role in his search for a mate. He is the first frustrated single: “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him” (2:20). This search provides Adam with a sense of his own uniqueness within the created order. When Eve is created, he celebrates her entrance on the scene with the poetic joy of someone whose longing has been fulfilled: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (emphasis added).

The body is ourselves in our external dimension. But Adam’s experience in naming the animals must have made him even more aware of the uniqueness of his body and his position before the Creator. This deepened attentiveness to how we are different from the world is at the heart of our inner life—which is why as children grow up they become more and more aware of their own and others’ internal states. This holy attentiveness prepared Adam to recognize and receive Eve’s uniqueness as a gift and give himself to her without shame or recrimination.

But gifts are given out of freedom, not necessity. Authentic human sexuality is something more than a physical act done for the purpose of bodily stimulation or pleasure. It is the mutual self-giving of two persons in their external dimensions, inaugurating a union that encompasses the totality of their lives. It is an overflow of love that starts in the heart and shows itself in the very members of our flesh.

As we said before, this love becomes clear in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who gives himself for us not out of compulsion or necessity but in the joyful freedom of love (John 10:17–18). God’s own freedom is never impinged in his self-giving—he never ceases to be anything less than God himself. Likewise, our freedom to give ourselves away in love and affection conforms to God’s freedom when the Holy Spirit is poured into our inner lives and manifests himself in our bodies.

Giving ourselves away freely, though, inherently requires self-control—a fruit of the Spirit that is essential to love (Galatians 5:22). As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–4). Paul’s suggestion that we control our bodies in “holiness and honor” isn’t grounded in the negation of sex or sexual pleasure, but in the idea that gifts are given freely rather than out of instinct or uncontrollable urges. The contemporary reduction of sexual desire to the level of an animalistic drive is nothing less than a sub-personal account of human sexuality that devalues the intrinsic goodness of God’s created order.

Sex As Union

There is an enormous amount of confusion within Christian teaching regarding the nature of the “one flesh” union. We have a deep tendency within evangelicalism to speak of sex as something like a fusion of souls. Even conservative ethicist Daniel Heimbach, whose work on sexual ethics is otherwise excellent, suggests: “Sex is truly spiritual and unites soul with soul. That much is true.”[15]

In fact, that much is probably not true—depending on what Heimbach means by the “soul.” Our bodies are the place of our personal presence, which means that our union in sex is very real. Intercourse establishes a union of persons in this visible dimension. Inasmuch as husband and wife live, move, and act toward others—including their children—they do so as one.

But from within the relationship, husband and wife remain two. The joy of sexual delight is that the union preserves rather than destroys all the differences that make love possible in the first place. Our inner lives—our souls—are still distinct from the other, providing the necessary backdrop for our interaction and our self-giving in love that constitutes the marriage. In this sense, the “one flesh” union is strictly that—a union of our bodied, visible lives in the world.

When we compare this to Christ and the church, we see that in the church’s relationship to the world around us there is no division between the people of God and their Savior. We are the “body of Christ,” and those around us make no differentiation between who we are as Christians and the God we serve. Yet from within the church, the gap is infinite. There is only one Savior, one Lord Jesus Christ and the church is not him, but is formed in response to his death and resurrection. The church is constituted in its inner life by the worship of God and in its external dimension by the ministry of reconciliation, through which God is drawing all people to himself. But the church and her Savior remain distinct from each other.

It’s worth pointing out two other dimensions of the visible union that sex ratifies. First, because we are temporal creatures, the union of our bodies in sex involves our personal histories. Our lives are inextricable from time—and when we have sex, we enter into it in ways shaped by our past and that will reshape our future. It is for this reason that Scripture says the man will “hold fast” to his wife. The visible union ratified by sex is stretched out through time, just like our bodies are; the sexual act cannot be separated from the covenant that the marriage vows express. And because we live in a fallen world, we need to be attentive to the ways in which our histories and biographies are shaping the nature of our union—for good and for bad.[16]

Second, because the union of our external dimensions is real, it gives the other authority over us. Paul’s argument that we should not join ourselves to a prostitute because we become “one body” with her (1 Corinthians 6:16) rests on this logic. Sexual immorality goes against the order God established for sexuality, and the authority the Spirit should have over our bodies does not fit with the authority a prostitute gains over us through sexual union.[17] First Corinthians 7 develops Paul’s insight: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (vv. 3–4).

Yet it’s important to point out that nowhere does Paul say that it is beneficial for people to claim their authority to have sex with their spouse. His point is that husband and wife should “give” their conjugal rights to the other. His focus is on the self-giving that constitutes Christlike sexuality, which he reinforces in his next breath by rejecting sexual manipulation: “Do not deprive one another” (v. 5). As in all things, it is a courtesy to ask for sex as much as it is a courtesy to give it. And relationships shaped by the love of God are constituted by asking and receiving, rather than demanding or domineering.

In fact, there is a hint that Paul would think claiming our “sexual rights” over the other person’s body might contradict our witness to Christ’s love. In 1 Corinthians 9:1–18, Paul points out that while he has the right to receive money from the Corinthians, he refuses to claim it so he might be free to proclaim the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 6:1–8, Paul argues it is better for believers to “be defrauded” than to pursue their rights against other believers in court.

The assertion of sexual rights within marriage, then, represents the failure of love and undermines the true meaning of sexuality. Paul’s focus is always on cultivating hearts that freely respond in gratitude, rather than legislating Christian behavior.

Sex and Holy Attentiveness

Because sex is a mutual self-giving in freedom and love, it requires the sort of holy attentiveness that is in short supply in our world. When Paul reminds the Ephesians: “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29), he points to the delicate care and concern for the other’s bodied life that should mark a marriage. The words nourish and cherish literally mean “to feed and clothe the wife,” but also carry connotations of “bringing someone to maturity”—a lengthy process that can be very time-consuming. Being attentive to the rhythms and movements of the other person’s body— both within the marriage more broadly, and in the sexual union itself—helps us to pursue that one’s own good more deeply. But our attentiveness is not simply to help the other gain sexual pleasure. Rather, it is fundamentally a lavish affirmation of the other’s beauty and goodness. For in marriage, we are to nourish and cherish each other—“as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25–27), who sanctifies her “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so that she might be holy and without blemish.”

Cultivating a holy attentiveness toward the other in marriage is an important part of learning to love her as Christ loves her, to delight in her and proclaim that she is a “crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” and in ours (Isaiah 62:3). If our attentiveness to the other is holy, then it will fundamentally see the other’s humanness as oriented toward God himself. It attends to the totality of the other, respecting the freedom of the other’s inner life and freeing her to offer herself as a gift in mutual love. It is, in other words, ordered toward experiencing the “communion of persons” that is an intrinsic part of our human flourishing.[18]

Singleness and Christian Sexuality

Jesus couldn’t get hired as an evangelical pastor, and neither could Paul.

Most evangelical churches are wary of single male pastors (especially young ones). The belief is that single men are incapable either of controlling themselves sexually, or of counseling married couples on the dynamics of human sexuality. This basic inhospitality toward single people in church leadership suggests, I suspect, a tacit commitment to standards of sexuality that are taken less from Scripture and more from the world around us.[19]

Celibacy has a crucial role in Christian sexuality. When the Sadducees posed a puzzle to Jesus about which husband a particularly unfortunate wife (who had lost seven of them) would be married to in heaven, Jesus responded that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.”[20] Then in Matthew 19, after affirming the goodness of created sexuality, Jesus tells us that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”[21]

This idea of a vocation—or a calling—to lifelong celibacy for the kingdom of God does not minimize the importance of marriage. Each calling bears witness to different aspects of our world. Oliver O’Donovan puts it this way: “[The New Testament church] conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation.”[22] In other words, marriage points to Genesis, singleness to Revelation.

The “communion of persons” that marriage exemplifies is, in this sense, a temporary reality. Paul tells the Corinthians in the same passage where he commends singleness, “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). The New Testament’s basic contention is that our human flourishing is not found in marriages or the natural families that they inaugurate, but in bearing each others’ burdens in love within the church.[23] The only alternative is to minimize the humanity of Jesus by treating his celibacy as an aberration rather than a possibility for our lives.

The possibility of finding full human flourishing without sex stands in stark contrast to one of the most prevalent notions of sexuality both inside and outside the church: Thanks in part to Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, sex has been transformed from an expression of our humanity to a physiological or psychological need that is essential to our human flourishing.

Probably the most famous infusion of the language of “needs” into evangelical sexuality has been through Willard Harley’s enormously popular His Needs, Her Needs (of which we received multiple copies when we got married). Harley suggests that one of the main ways to prevent an affair (an instantly troubling way to frame marital advice) is for the wife to meet the husband’s “sexual need.” Nearly every Christian sex manual carries the torch, including Douglas Rosenau’s A Celebration of Sex and Ed Wheat’s Intended for Pleasure. Rosenau encapsulates most of our attitudes toward sex when he writes, “If we are always other-focused and if we always repress or ignore our own needs, we forfeit complete sexual fulfillment.”[24]

Theological ethicist Daniel Heimbach calls this mindset “therapeutic sexual morality,” in which “people fulfill or actualize themselves through sex, and everyone must have sex in order to be whole. No sexual behavior is right or wrong in itself because what matters is a person’s inner sense of satisfaction.”[25] Humanity clearly needs to procreate—at least until Jesus returns—but that does not mean our flourishing depends upon our fulfilling our sexual “needs.”

The teaching that our wholeness depends upon sexual fulfillment lies behind many of the problems in evangelical teaching about sex. We implicitly convey to young people that sex is a need by marginalizing those who are single or cordoning them off in singles groups so that they hopefully will get married. Then we expect them to live some of the most sexually charged years of their lives without yielding to temptation. No wonder young people struggle to stay sexually pure: either sex is essential to their flourishing as humans or it isn’t. And if everyone who is married thinks it is, then young people will too—regardless of whatever else we tell them.[26]

I realize there are deep difficulties here, not the least of which are discerning the call of singleness and establishing structures and systems of support within the church for those called to it. But the absence of visible, lifetime singleness within our communities suggests that our affirmation of marriage and the goodness of sexual pleasure have overstepped their boundaries. We cannot affirm the goodness of the created order as Christians without also seeing how it has been caught up and renewed in Christ—which those who are called to celibacy bear witness to by their lives and their love. A church without singles has lost one of its main ways of warning against a sexual idolatry that has driven the whole world mad.

The Problem of Pornography

We now know that every male in his twenties looks at pornography.

Researchers at the University of Montreal had been planning to conduct a study on the effects of pornography by comparing young men who watched porn regularly to those who had never seen it. But in December 2009, they announced that the research failed before it began: they couldn’t find anyone who didn’t watch pornography. Researcher Simon Louis Lajeunesse told the university’s School of Social Work: “Guys who do not watch pornography do not exist.”[27]

That’s an overstatement, but the fact that researchers at a major Western university came up empty for their study certainly isn’t good news. While things may be somewhat better within evangelical circles, the problem is still rampant among most young men—and a growing problem for young women as well.[28]

At the heart of the pornography problem is the commodification of sexuality, which turns other people—and the images of them—into objects for our own sexual pleasure. The pornography culture has taken our sexuality and industrialized, packaged, and sold it. This objectification of women in a pornified world reduces them to instruments or tools for self-gratification—which means that even if they did choose to enter the pornography world voluntarily (and many do not), it would still be fundamentally wrong to treat them as subpersonal creatures.

Yet the objectification of women—or men—in pornography depends upon a prior objectification of our own bodies. When we turn people into sexual objects so we can have an artificial sense of connection with them, we treat our bodies as machines meant to maximize our experience of pleasure. It is fundamentally depersonalizing for everyone involved—for the viewer and the viewed. Wendell Berry writes, “Our ‘sexual revolution’ is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence.”[29]

This is the fundamental problem of lust, one form of what the ancients would have called concupiscence. Disordered desires undermine our own personal integrity—that is, our own proper functioning as children made to love God and those around us. When Jesus said that anyone who looked on the opposite sex with lustful intent had already committed adultery in their hearts, he wasn’t suggesting that the consequences (in this life) would be the same as if we actually committed adultery. Rather, he was pointing to the basic corruption that happens when we give ourselves over to desires that do not conform to the reality of God’s love and his good creation.

When Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he not only gave us a commandment, he also described a basic feature of human existence. One way or another, we will ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves, which is why lust and sexual promiscuity are so often entangled with self-loathing. The more we see ourselves in light of the gospel—“You have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God”—the more we will be set free from treating our bodies as objects, instead seeing them as the place of our personal presence and the indwelling presence of God himself. The Lord has come to his temple!

The reality that lust destroys the viewer as much as the viewed must be kept at the forefront of our evangelical teaching on sexuality. One of the more successful recent arguments against pornography is its link to sex trafficking—a horribly dehumanizing practice that depends on pornography for its existence. Pornography fosters a climate that encourages sex trafficking and child prostitution because men (primarily) are shaping their hearts and their minds to treat human bodies as objects. But the sex-trafficking link won’t be a compelling argument forever. Evangelicals need to be prepared for the day when pornography can be entirely computer generated. The scenario isn’t an idle possibility. What will be created is a type of pornography that does not require actual women, taking away one of the most forceful arguments against the practice, a practice that destroys the lives and families of those who engage in it as well as those who create it.[30]

It is important, perhaps, to also say something about masturbation. While I remain skeptical that masturbation as a regular practice can be separated from looking at pornography or creating mental fantasies based on real women or men (the equivalent of lusting), the practice treats the body as an instrument for personal pleasure and gratification. Human sexuality is inherently social, and masturbation is not. In that sense, it represents a failure to fulfill the nature of Christian sexuality as God designed it.


“With my body I thee worship.”

It’s what I wrote to my wife in dedicating this book to her, and it’s a bit of an inside joke. We were married according to an old form of the Book of Common Prayer, and that line was part of the vows. My wife, worried that people would misunderstand it, wanted to take it out. I love the line and thought we should keep it in and add an explanatory footnote in the wedding folder. She won.

Worship doesn’t mean that I’ve turned my wife into an idol. Though she is practically a saint in every way, not even she is worthy of what is owed to God alone. But it does mean that I give her all the reverence, honor, and adoration due her because of her beauty and loveliness. And I do this with my body, giving myself up for her and seeking as much as possible, by the grace of God, to place her interests above my own.

Our confusion, though, over God and creation is at the heart of our sexual dysfunctions and brokenness. C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous passage: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[31]

We have broken sexual lives. We have objectified our own bodies and the bodies of others. We have turned sex into a technique wherein we seek to maximize our own pleasure at the other person’s expense, rather than seeing them as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the place where God himself dwells.

Yet the God who died for us, who revealed the pattern for our true humanity in Jesus Christ, has forgiven our sins and washed away our iniquities. And the Holy Spirit, his empowering presence, lives in the very sinews and bones of our mortal bodies, reshaping them and reforming our members into instruments of righteousness.

It is through this—the good news of the gospel—that we are set free from the shame of rejection and pain and empowered to respond in love to the one who gave himself for us—and then in turn to give ourselves to others. The gospel sets us free from the frustration of impotence and the fears caused by abuse, allowing us to enter into a journey of discovery filled with joy and freedom. It gives us the hope of a fulfilled, joyous, and abundantly flourishing life, even if we never taste the goods of marriage at all.

“We do not yet know what we shall be!” It is joy that awaits us in the kingdom of heaven, joy and pleasures forevermore. When we are raised up on the last day, we will not escape our physical bodies, but they will be marked by such a glorious beauty and splendor that we will barely recognize one another, and the transient moments of ecstasy will become the permanent features of our lives. Our bodies cannot hold such joys now—for all their splendors, they are too weak for the pleasures that await us, when we are transformed from “glory into glory.”

As Lewis once put it:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most un-interesting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.[32]


[1] See Mark Oppenheimer, “In the Biblical Sense,” Slate, accessed March 9, 2011, at: See also the discussion of the sexualization of evangelicalism in Janice Irvine, Talk About Sex (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 81ff.

[2] See Richard Kyle, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006), 194.

[3] See Lionel Lewis and Daniel Brissett, “Sex As God’s Work,” Society, 23–33, 1986.

[4] See the following, among others: Brian Alexander, “One Preacher’s Message: Have Hotter Sex,” MSNBC, accessed March 9, 2011, at: health/, and “Pastor Issues 30-Day Sex Challenge,” at: “Pastor’s Sex Challenge to Congregation,” at:

[5] See sociologist Bradley Wright’s discussion “Christianity and the Frequency of Orgasms,” accessed March 9, 2011, at: have-orgasms-more-often.html, or The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994), 115ff.

[6] See Diane Richard, “Christian Women Have More Fun,” Contemporary Sexuality, June 2000, Vol. 34, Issue 6.

[7] “It is indeed the case that the New Testament reaches back behind the Old, revealing and disclosing the secret presupposed but nowhere revealed or disclosed in the Old, and thus proving what the Old in itself and as such can never prove—that in all its parts it is right and speaks the truth in a way which is normative for us.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), 299.

[8] Robert Jenson, Song of Songs (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 2005), 14.

[9] Ephesians 5:31.

[10] My favorite is Isaiah 62:2–5, which was read at our wedding.

[11] See also Wenham, Genesis 1:15, 70.

[12] See John Paul II, Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997). General audience of January 2, 1980.

[13] See ibid., January 9, 1980.

[14] Douglas Rosenau, A Celebration of Sex (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 6.

[15] Daniel Heimbach, True Sexual Morality (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 140.

[16] There is much more to say here, but space prevents me from fully exploring this aspect of our sexuality.

[17] The definitive treatment on 1 Corinthians 6, in my mind, is Alistair May’s careful and thorough The Body for the Lord: Sex and Identity in 1 Corinthians 5– 7 (London: T & T Clark, 2004). Highly recommended.

[18] See Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, November 14, 1979. While the pope identifies this communion of persons as the “image of God,” I am not (yet) convinced that is the case. Man might have a relational dimension with another human being that is necessary for human flourishing without that dimension constituting the imago dei.

[19] On the grounds that 1 Timothy 3:2 et al. should be translated “one-woman man,” which I take it single men can be.

[20] Matthew 22:30. Most of the Christian tradition has resisted the notion that we are androgynous in heaven, including its most Platonic expositors, such as Augustine.

[21] Matthew 19:12. This is another point where Jesus and Paul speak with one voice. See 1 Corinthians 7.

[22] O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 70.

[23] See as additional evidence the statements relativizing the natural family in Matthew (10:34–39 and elsewhere).

[24] Rosenau, A Celebration of Sex, 5.

[25] Heimbach, True Sexual Morality, 284. Heimbach’s discussion of sexual issues is quite helpful.

[26] The role of singleness in sexual ethics has been acknowledged at an academic level within evangelicalism for some time. Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective has a good chapter on it, as does the more recent volume by Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family. However, this teaching has (by and large) not trickled down to popular preaching and teaching about sexuality. Barry Danylak’s contribution Redeeming Singleness is a notable exception.

[27]Charlie Fidelman, “Study Spoiled by Scarcity of ‘Porn Virgins,’” Montreal Gazette, accessed March 9, 2011, at:

[28] Bradley R. E. Wright points out that only 10 percent of evangelical men attending church every week looked at an X-rated film last year. However, he says nothing about Web sites. See his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . .and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 140.

[29] Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” What Are People For? (New York: Northpoint Press, 1990), 191.

[30] My goal is simply to make the case as hard as possible to ensure that evangelical rhetoric against pornography doesn’t depend upon current realities, but actually gets to the heart of the matter.

[31] C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 26.

[32] Ibid., 45.


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. i am going to disagree with this article on one issue. Sexual fulfillment is a psychological need, as a married woman for 21 years i can tell you that it sex helps with ones well being (psychologically).

    I used not believe this, but the longer i have been married the longer i find this to be true in my life and most people that i know married or not.

    repression in this area has caused me a lot of damage.


    1. But what does sexual desire mean? To want, to have, to express – why is any of this at odds with spirituality? The gospel says that there is a right way to be a sexual person. It isn’t just a psychological matter.


      1. I guess i don’t understand your question? sexual desire encompasses all of those things (want, express and have)

        sexual fulfillment is a psychological need, it releases endorphins that make us feel better of one’s self.

        It is hard to explain, but it is true.

        I don’t think Jesus meant for single people to live in celibecy their whole lives.

        now sexual fulfillment is not the end all of human experience, but i would consider pretty high up there. Now maybe it is just me, but i know i would be very unhappy without it.

        Their is a reason people seek this fulfillment .


        1. Ha ha. Sorry I’n not exactly sure what I was trying to say either. It was a too late at night question :-)

          I think I reacted to your statement “Sexual fulfillment is a psychological need” and thought “Yes it is a psychological need but there is also a spiritual dimension to desire – and it’s difficult to separate the two”.

          My understanding of Christian sexual ethics is that a person can be single or married and both are equally good – although evangelicals tend to ‘undervalue’ singleness.. I’m not sure the difficulties and frustrations (associated with those psychological needs) that can occur in ether situation are enough to justify modifying the ethic – for example, single people having sexual relationships or married people having affairs.


          1. The idea that desire has a spiritual dimension is one view, but one that cannot be proven or tested.

            God obviously created us to desire relationship and sexual desire is part of that. If God created that desire , then i would consider that a psychological need, just like we get thirsty, and only water can quench that thirst. You would not tell a thirsty person that they should try to repress that need or call a thirst for water a spiritual need now would you?

            As far as modifying the ethic, i don’t know, maybe it should be, we know a lot more about psychological needs now then thousands of years ago when the Christian sexual ethic was created.

            I mean we don’t tell someone that has a mental illness not to take their medications now do we?

            We don’t burn women as witches anymore either?

            I mean why do we continue to fault people for seeking what are normal psychological needs? people have needs and it is not wrong to desire to fulfill those. We need to stop stigmatizing normal human desires.

          2. Even with medical advances, I wouldn’t go so far as to say we have a better understanding of psychological needs than 2000 years ago. The ‘timelessness’ of the Christian message in many ways depends on our accepting that what it means to be human hasn’t and will probably never change.

            And I think we could agree that some propensities – such as hating people who treat us badly – are still sins. The rule that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on” is a tough one for ordinary people to follow. My feeling is that many of us living safe, prosperous countries, tend to forget how agonizingly difficult it is to “love your neighbor as yourself” if you happen to live in a time/place where your neighbor is trying to rob or kill you. I know of one person who walks out of any talk or sermon on forgiveness because he “can never forgive” the person who brutally tortured and murdered his parents. His “damn the church and it’s rules” response is normal, natural, understandable (and thankfully rare) but it can’t be the basis for teaching a different gospel.

          3. I know what you are saying, “loving our neighbor” in certain instances can be challenging. The problem i have with Christian moralism is that it teaches people that we must live the ideal instead of letting people learn by experience which is really the true teacher of life.

            Christianity does not account for experience of the human life and wants to short circuit normal living experience and try to get people to live the ideal by imposing rules and the do’s and dont’s.

            We human beings learn by living by experiencing the good and the bad. I feel Christianity in some ways in incompatible with the human experience. We try to stifle normal living in my opinion.

            One does not learn that the stove is hot if one does not touch it and burn one’s hand.

            In Christianity we teach no don’t touch, don’t do, basically don’t live, and we teach people rules not lettting people develop on their own.
            I think God knows that we will not live up to the ideal, only Jesus can. I actually think God does not expect perfection, yet we try to discount people’s experiences and try to get them to fit a standard.

            Yes i do believe that we are fallen, but we cannot help our condition, and not all of our desires are wrong or as a result of the fall. As I said earlier, do you fault someone for wanting water because they are thirsty?

            Yes loving our neighbor can be a challenge, but i think God knows . that. All you can do is pray for that person in your congregation that his heart would be changed, that is all you can do, let God deal with him.

            Sorry for the lenghty post.

          4. On some level the anti-gay thing does seem arbitrary, heartless and stupid. And an imperfect church enforcing such a rule will seem doubly so. As you say, “Would you fault someone for wanting water because they are thirsty?”

            I get that “by their nature” gay people won’t be anything other than gay. My entire friendship network is made up of gay/ssa people and straight allies – so I risk offending just about everyone I know by sticking to the orthodox line on this issue.And I lived an ordinary gay life myself for 20 years before becoming a Christian and experiencing an entirely new ‘need’ to walk away from that life..

            I’m never 100% sure if people who were raised as Christians and then realized that they were gay (the vast majority of SSA Christians) are doing the celibacy thing because they have been indoctrinated or they are repressed or some other cultural reason. I guess a more charitable view requires me to trust that they are responding to the same thing that compels me to carry on chasing after an “ideal”. Heck, it might all be BS in the end but I can’t somehow convince myself that it is.

            The spiritual life is a form of madness.

          5. thanks for your charitable response. I guess in a lot of ways we are all on this journey together. I have decided to neither “affirm” or condemn” the gay lifestyle.

            I have decided to let God be the judge of these things.

            Since as human beings we will never have this life completely figured out and i know that none of us will attain sinless perfection. I just trust that God will judge everyone fairly.

            I used to chase the ideal, now i just accept myself as i am even with my shortcomings. I trust that God will accept me even with my shortcomings.

          6. I understand that but the ideal still haunts me. Which is why I can never get too upset by “legalistic” Christians.

            Having said that. I have also never had the experience of feeling condemned/controlled by conservative Christan culture.

          7. i guess our experiences are different. I have felt more of the latter controlled by conservative Christian culture and repressed. I guess i am breaking free from that now, and i feel much better.

            I consider myself of a more of a progressive Christian now.

  2. This sets forth a good principle.

    As Joe noted below, desire is a tricky concept. I’m not sure that we ever have independent desires that can be easily separated from our own perceptions of social value. Do we desire something in and of itself, or do we desire the social value that possessing it affords?


  3. […] Mere Orthodoxy: The Body and its Pleasure: Toward an Evangelical Sexual Ethic […]




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