Christian teaching on sex is too often negative, narrow and profoundly unhealthy. It's time for a 'better story', one that transcends clichéd Christian condemnations of sex and invites people into a 'bigger picture' of sex, relationships, and human desire.
So says Tim Yearsley, the author of Sex.Life, a Bible study guide produced by Christian discipleship charity The Navigators. Christian Today spoke with Yearsley about what Christians get wrong on sex, and why it's time for something better.
Yearsley writes in Sex.Life: 'Our culture tells a story about sex. Through film, music and adverts, we are shaped to believe that sex will fulfil our deepest desires and help us become the people we want to be. And yet, our reality seems to fall somewhat short of this dreamy aspiration. Relationships are still hard work. There is a gap between the intimacy we long for and the intimacy we experience.'
It is time, Yearsley says, for a 'better story': 'A story that our sexuality is only a window into the true intimacy with God that all of us are made for. The scope of God's epic plan for our sexuality stretches from the first to the last pages of the Bible. It is for all people, in all times and places, to recapture our imagination for what sex can be and what, one day, intimacy will be.'
Launched at the Navigators' 'Sex.Life' weekend, this new resource takes the form of seven studies, which follow the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, with real life stories and comment alongside. The guide is aimed primarily at those aged 18-30, but is open to anyone, Christian or not, and no prior knowledge is assumed of the audience.
While Christians have previously said much about how sin corrupts every aspect of life, Yearsley wants to explore how the gospel redeems every area of life. Yearsley, who works with University students, is answering what he sees as a dangerous void in contemporary Christian teaching.
'If I went on campus and asked people to give me 'the biblical vision' [of sex], I would be met with blank faces,' he says.
He says that Christians are often taught about sexual immorality, but he asks: 'What is good sexuality?'
'In my experience, the students I'm working with haven't been equipped to think about sexuality in a healthy way. They'll have had a seminar about why porn is bad and accountability is good, but there's much less talk about God's vision for our sexuality in a holistic way...what it means to be physical, embodied being with sexual desire.'
This lack, alongside 'conflicting messages', leads to confusion and nervousness about the 'live issues' of sexuality and gender, and people 'figure stuff out as they go along'.
Sex.Life then is a 'gateway' into a bigger vision of sexuality, one that moves from 'defensive reactiveness to proactive positivity'.
Yearsley says: 'It's not something we need to be scared about.
'If we can equip ourselves to think well and speak well and live well in regard to sexuality...this is good news for people.'
Yearsley says the studies were inspired by an 'Augustinian' way of thinking, one that focuses on God as the fulfilment of human desires, and understands sin not so much as 'bad behaviour' but as 'disordered love'. He quotes the Jesuit James Martin, who wrote: 'It may be difficult to identify what you want, but at heart you long for the fulfilment of your desires, which is God'.
The study invites readers 'back to the source', to help people 'see the biblical vision for themselves'.
This is instead of simply telling people what to think: 'When you come up with an answer yourself, you own that,' Yearsley says.
As increasingly vocal and intense Church disputes have shown however, Christians disagree on how to interpret the Bible, especially when it comes to sex.
Of course, Yearsley admits, all Christians think they're doing what the Bible teaches. But his approach is not to push an agenda or interpretation, but show people Scripture in a way that allows the Bible to speak for itself.
The study doesn't focus on the 'traditional texts' that often dominate debates about the Bible and sex, but rather looks at a 'narrative theological framework' exploring the 'arc of God's great plan'.
Yearsely has his own convictions about how one might live according to the Bible, but he wants people to draw their own conclusions from what they read. He isn't he says, using the texts as 'ammunition for any one point of view'. The study is designed to be open and facilitate conversation.
This isn't an 'anything goes' approach to interpretation and Christian ethics; Yearsley is simply attempting to get beyond the traditional labels that many often use to dismiss a perspective out of hand. The Navigators, from what I saw at their Sex.Life weekend, aren't tearing up Christian orthodoxy, but they are trying to present a more challenging and compelling vision of sex than people might have seen before.
Yearsley says that in today's culture 'no one really cares about truth any more...what works and what is better is much more important'.
In the light of that, Yearsley says: 'I'm trying to show that the gospel story is a better story, that there's goodness and truth and beauty in this.
I want people to taste and see that it is good.'
Sex.Life is available to buy here. Online digital copies will be available soon.
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