What the Church gets wrong (and right) about sex

Photo: Martine Sansoucy

Last week I looked at what one non-Christian prophet of our culture, Russell Brand, has got right about sex. This week I'm looking at what the church has to say.

We are often accused of being obsessed with sex and 'what other people do in private in their bedrooms'. I've always thought that was a slightly unfair misrepresentation. With some exceptions most of us who have grown up in the Church have not had that experience. In fact any impartial observer could quickly work out that it is our society, rather than the Church, that is obsessed with sex. Ever since Margaret Mead's 'Coming of Age in Samoa' was published in 1928, Western liberals have followed the myth that if we are 'liberated' from our 'puritan' past, we will all flourish as complete sexual free beings. Since the 1960's the downward slide into the complete perversion of human sex and sexuality has accelerated. It turns out that 'All you need is Love' was a tad too simplistic.

Even this week I came across two examples. Firstly there was this article in The Guardian arguing that sex education for school pupils should include pornography. Then I re-read an article from Prospect magazine in which Helen Croydon argued that because of "technological" advances we can be true to our desires and get rid of the shackles of monogamy. "This is a cultural trend which reflects our changing values and natural desires," Croydon wrote. "As a society we, especially women, are more independent and fulfilled. Relationships are viewed as more short-term experiences. We've been brain-washed into thinking that the ideal relationship is life-long and monogamous, but technology has given us the means to be true to our desires."

So how does the church respond?

Prudishness  We all know the stories of how the Victorians were such prudes that they even covered up piano legs, lest they cause stimulation, and of people who are happy to hear the word 'fornication' in a church service but not 'sex' because somehow it is dirty. I was once asked to speak to a youth group on 'things that cannot be said from the pulpit'. When I asked for an example, there was an embarrassed silence at the end of the phone – "You know....". It was with a great deal of difficulty that I managed to get out of the person inviting me that he wanted me to talk about sexual relations. It is disappointing that in a society which is obsessed by sex, where sexual words and innuendo are everywhere, sometimes the last place a young (or older) person will hear about sex, is in the church. We need to have the frankness and openness of the Bible in this – always of course remembering the appropriate cultural context.

Puerililty – Because that of course is the other problem. The devil always loves extremes. Just as some churches have been unbiblically prudish, others have shown themselves to be unbiblically puerile. Never mind the biblical exhortation not to let there be even a hint of sexual immorality...obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking (Ephesians 5:3-4), there are some writers and preachers who just cannot wait to show how liberated they are. Personally, I loved much of Mark Driscoll's preaching but the series on the Song of Solomon with warnings how x-rated it was... Seriously? Do we really need a pastor who is made famous because he gives advice on oral sex? The problems with both the prudish and the puerile is that they both seem to regard sex as somehow 'dirty'. And that is surely a perversion of God's good gift of human sexuality.

Perversity – Speaking of perversity, I'm afraid that much of the contemporary Church is heading down the perverse route. The OED has this definition of the verb 'to pervert': "1. change the original form or meaning of something so that it is no longer what it should be. 2. lead someone away from doing what is right, natural or acceptable".When we take it upon ourselves to re-write the scriptures, to tell our creator that he doesn't really understand his own creation, we are perverting what he intended. Christians then become even more perverse –not only perverting God's gift of human sexuality, but then perverting his scriptures to justify our own perversions! When pagans behave like pagans then at least they have the excuse they are pagans. The sad thing about the aforementioned Margaret Mead was that she was a leading Anglican who had a profound effect upon the Episcopal Church in the USA. Her acceptance of the 'free love' philosophy resulted in her being married several times and in her having at least two affairs, one of them lesbian. Her idea of primitive sexual utopia turned out to be completely false (indeed she was dishonest and deceitful about her 'research'). She sowed the wind (as did others) and we have reaped the whirlwind. That perversity is seen in different ways – the horror of child abuse done by religious leaders is a sin that reaches to heaven and deserves the lowest pit in hell. But there are more subtle forms of such perversity. The bottom line is that anything that moves away from the biblical teaching of the sacred gift of sex within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman for the purposes of companionship, procreation and the good of society, is perverting the design and purpose of God. Just as I finished writing this column I read Gavin Peacock's excellent article which summarises how the issue of same-sex marriage is a foundational issue for the modern Church.

Purity – Thankfully not all Christians and churches are prudish, puerile or perverted. There are some who still teach, believe and practice the biblical idea of purity. In my city, Dundee, the kids use the word 'pure' a lot. ("That's pure dead brilliant!") Pure in that context means complete and good. It's not a bad definition. The dictionary definition also adds free of contamination and morally good. So I need to rephrase my first sentence. All of us are in some way perverted, prudish or whatever, because we are all sinners in this respect as in others. None of us can claim to be without sin. None of us is yet complete and without contamination. But there are those of us who don't want to give up to the pressures of this culture, or the lusts of our own bodies. We recognise self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and because we don't want to play the power games and abuse that go along with 'free love', we try to rein in our appetites and seek to do good to all people and to treat all with respect. We recognise the wonderful gift that sex is to those who can use it in the context that God intended, yet we don't accept that in order to be a fulfilled human being you need to constantly be having sex. We stumble and fall, because we are fallen sinners. By the standards of Jesus none of us could cast the first stone. But as his followers we are not going to throw those standards aside and descend into the cesspit with the rest of our society. We aim for purity and holiness, just as He is holy. And we rejoice that our Saviour died and freed us from all our sins so that we might "become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation" (Philippians 2:15).