John Mark Comer: 'The Church must talk about sex'

John Mark Comer leads a 6,000-strong church in Portland, Oregon. He is passionate about opening the Church up when it comes to speaking about sex and relationships, and has recently published a book on the subject, entitled Loveology.

Christian Today spoke with John Mark about his book, and why he thinks it is vital that the Church engages in debates about sexuality.

CT: Loveology is fairly explicit in its presentation of the arguments about sexuality in a Christian context. What's the need for a frank discussion?

JMC: I lead a church where 60 to 70 per cent of the congregation is single, unmarried and twenty-something or in their early thirties, and so obviously this is one of the questions they are wrestling with – their sexuality; the chasmic gap between what they read in the Scriptures and the propaganda of culture at large. That's obviously one massive impetus.

I've found that there's such a divide between how culture at large thinks about marriage, sexuality and everything in-between, and then what the Scriptures teach and what Jesus has to say about marriage and sexuality. And sadly culture at large does a fantastic job of preaching its view, but the Church has said so little, other than 'don't', for the most part. And so I think it's something we have to get after.

What the Church has done a great job on is talking about how to have a great marriage, but this book isn't about that. It's not about marriage, it's on marriage; it's a theology book so it's how you think about marriage and sexuality and all the other stuff around those two questions. It's not a relationship book, and it's written mostly for single people although there's good stuff I hope for married people. I want to help shape my generation's world view about marriage and sexuality around the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus and give a subversive vision of those two things in stark contrast to the propaganda of culture right now.

John Mark with his family

CT: What has been the damage of the Church staying silent on sex?

JMC: I think two things happen. The Church doesn't talk about sex other than 'don't have it before you're married', which creates a negative persona around sexuality in particular. The subliminal message is the idea that sex is dirty, which is really damaging. The Scriptures have such a high view of sexuality; in Genesis it's created by God and it's called 'very good', and one of the first thing we read about Adam and his wife is that they were naked and there was no shame. We have the Song of Songs, which has for centuries now been allegorised and hyper-spiritualised and explained away, but I very much believe that it was an ancient Jewish erotic love poem about sexuality between a husband and wife. God himself has such a high view of what sex is, he created it, and so when the Church doesn't join with God and say what he's saying, the subliminal message is that it's a dirty, evil thing. Obviously we can't have that.  We need to have a beautiful view of sex.

The second travesty of the Church is that though it doesn't talk about sex, culture does. And so then our minds end up filled with culture at large's vision for sexuality which is quite a bit different – very narcissistic, indulgent, based on desires and cravings – and so that's what gets imported into our world view rather than the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus. I think it's something the Church has got to talk about, or we'll end up with the wrong worldview, or a negative view on something that God has a positive view on.

CT: Even though there's a real problem with discussing sex, there's still a huge pressure for Christians to marry young. How does that fit in? What about singleness?

JMC: I think it's something to wrestle with. The New Testament doesn't address it because when it was written the average couple married around 14 or 15-years-old, and we come in a few millennia later. Technology has changed the game - with the invention of the photograph, pornography and the internet, temptation is higher than it's ever been, while at the same time we're waiting over a decade longer to get married. I don't think we should encourage all 16-year-olds to get married, but I do think it's something we have to wrestle with.

Part of the answer there is that we need to develop not only a robust theology of marriage and sexuality but also of singleness. Jesus was single and so was Paul, the leading theologian in the New Testament, and they both see singleness not only as a valid way of life, but, depending on how you interpret the text, as a higher or better way of life. So we need a theology of singleness: what would it look like to make a decision to live single in order to greater invest my life for the Kingdom. I think that could change things.

CT: How does Hollywood contribute to unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships?

JMC: I think it's the fuel on the fire. What pornography is to sex, a ton of Hollywood chick flicks and romantic comedies are to romance. Just as easy as it is for a man or woman to fantasise about sex, it's as easy - if not easier - to fantasise about 'true love', and obviously so much of what is portrayed is unrealistic. So often culture defines love as when a man says to a woman 'I love you', but often what they mean is 'When I'm around you I feel good about myself, you make me feel happy'. That's not a bad thing, but by itself it's the definition of narcissism. It's only a good thing when added on top of it is the sense of 'I love you' that Jesus means: 'I pledge to give myself away sacrificially to you, and I love to serve you for your good, your joy and your pleasure until death do us part' - that's what Jesus means by love.

We have a skyrocketing divorce rate. We have marriages that are built around feelings which are fantastic, but just aren't sustainable. They're a great catalyst to get it started, but they're like lighter fluid for the fire. You need to have something to build beyond that.

I don't want to be anti-Hollywood, because the celebration of romantic love, marriage and sexuality is all a good thing – I think God does that – but there's so much romantic pornography that it creates unrealistic expectations that mean no marriage is good enough. Pornography makes sure no man is ever content with his wife's body, and Hollywood makes sure no woman is ever content with her marriage or her boyfriend, because nothing can live up to all that hype. As we all know, most of the actors we're watching and fanaticising about are divorced and miserable when it comes to love! It's a curated image, it's not real.

CT: So where does your personal passion for talking about love come from?

JMC: Technically I'm a millennial, so perhaps we're just a narcissistic generation and I just care about myself - I'm kidding! It's my church, it comes from my context, and obviously I would be the older brother in the crowd, but it's my generation and I care a ton. I see America going the way of England as far as the decline of the Church.  Culturally overall I see it going that way. And sexuality is probably the question that young people are asking, and so this is something that we have to talk about. It's more than just marriage and sexuality.  This is about worldview, the Scriptures and whether they're trustworthy. This is about Jesus – who is he, how do we follow him? There's so much more.  This is one issue, but behind it is a whole range of issues, a whole worldview. So my passion comes from my generation, my church, and seeing the trajectory that America is on and wanting to be a part of its redemption rather than its decline.

CT: And finally, what advice would you give to young people who want to come in to line with God's view on sexuality?

JMC: I think that my first challenge would be for every single man and woman to figure out a definition of what sex is, what actually happens when a man and woman take off their clothes and make love to one another. I think that my generation has basically defined sex as recreational play between two consenting adults.  It's just physical and nothing more and it's not that big of a deal.

I think that the way Jesus and the Scripture define sex is as when two separate autonomous human beings become one flesh, and they give themselves to each other over and over again for the pleasure and joy of sex, and re-fuse and reconnect that bond, that oneness.

I would challenge people to think about what sex is and to actually get a higher, more positive view of it, to take it more seriously and to let that reframe the way that they express and enjoy their sexuality.

Loveology is published by Zondervan, and is available to buy now.