Deconstructing the Desire for Christian Sex Rules
Friday, May 3, 2013Tweet
Here's a snapshot of some of the search terms that land people on my How Do Christians Have Sex? post:
having sex as a christian
can a christian talk dirty to their spouse
can christian married couples have sex for fun
how should christians have sex
what kinds of sex are allowed in christianity
are christians allowed to have passionate sex
christian way of doing sex
how christians should make love
how should married christian couples have sex?
is it wrong for christians to like sex
sex activity allowed in christian marriage
sex the christian way
You get the idea.
There are a lot of people out there wanting to know what rules their sex life should follow if they're a Christian.
We talk a lot about rules in Christianity. The Old Testament, in particular, is full of rules -- the book of Leviticus is itself essentially a long list of very specific rules about how God's people were to behave. And today's Christians spend a lot of time debating which of these rules, if any, Christians are supposed to follow today. We debate whether Jesus overrode the old rules by giving us a more important commandment (Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:9) or if Jesus reaffirmed the importance of the old rules by saying not a single one would be erased (Matthew 5:18). Sometimes Christians say that other people aren't Christians if they don't follow specific rules.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are ready to tell you exactly which rules you should and should not follow to be a true Christian. It's no different than in areas outside religion -- how many parenting experts are there, ready to share the one right set of things you should do to be the best parent ever? We know that people raised in any number of different ways grow up to be healthy, happy adults. And yet when people are faced with too many possible options, they often look for rules to follow, to spell things out in black-and-white. And thus there will always be someone there to provide that security by doling out rules.
In the case of parenting, the end goal is clear: People want their children to be happy and healthy, and so they want to find out what rules to follow to "guarantee" a happy, healthy child -- or at least to maximize their chances of such. What I want to know is, what exactly are people seeking when they look for faith-based rules about sex?
Here are some possibilities.
Identifying Oneself as Christian
The purity codes in the Old Testament were, among other things, a way of marking the Jewish community as different -- set apart -- from the surrounding cultures. By observing certain restrictions in food and clothing, marking the males' bodies through circumcision, engaging in certain rituals, and abstaining from behaviors common to other cultures' worship rituals, the Jewish people signified that they were God's people.
Some elements of Christianity retain this idea. (Think "They will know we are Christians by our love.") And when it comes to sex, premarital sex (or the lack thereof) is one way that some people assert their Christian identity -- in a culture where most people have sex before marriage, proclaiming, "I'm saving sex for marriage" can be a way people choose to show "I'm different! I'm a Christian!" But other than these kinds of proclamations, sexual activity is generally something private. People wanting to know what kind of sex to have with their spouse as a Christian are unlikely to be thinking, "Which kind of sex will show our neighbors that we are Christians?" since their neighbors will almost certainly have no idea what goes on in their bedroom.
Many of the "rules" in Christianity nowadays are focused on defining sin so that it can be avoided, since much of the Bible talks about God telling people to turn away from their sin (which, in the Old Testament, about 90% of the time involves people worshipping other gods). Of course, not everyone can agree on what the rules actually are. And when there is a rule, it's a little bit murky what actually happens if you break that rule. When people turn away from God in the Old Testament, God generally responds by punishing people in this life -- killing them or their families, bringing plagues on the Jewish community, etc. Now we tend to talk about an afterlife and how the actions of this life determine where you end up after death. Or your actions have no effect on your salvation because it's all about what you believe. Or that's true, but how you act is an indication of whether or not you actually do believe.
It depends on who you ask.
So the desire to have and follow a specific set of rules around sex may come from a desire to avoid sin (whether you can sin unintentionally is another debate) and thus secure salvation (if salvation is actually dependent on not sinning). Yet I believe this kind of thinking is problematic because it leads to people talking as if there were such thing as heaven points, where God was adding points for not having oral sex and subtracting points when you enjoyed sex too much. Is having "perfect" sex really necessary for salvation?
Having Better Sex
Here's another argument often made both about the Levitical purity codes and when drawing an analogy of God as a parent. It's the "rules are for your own good" argument. So people might point out that in the days before antibiotics and disinfectants, not touching a person's exposed sores or bodily fluids was a good strategy for limiting the spread of infection. And just like your parents wouldn't let you eat all the candy you wanted because they knew it would make you sick, the analogy goes, God gives us rules because God knows better than we do what is best for us.
Following this logic, someone seeking a set of God-given rules about sex might be thinking that they will have the best (most enjoyable, most fulfilling, however you want to define it) sex if they follow those rules.
I don't claim to be an expert after only a few years of having sex, but it seems to me that basing your sex life on what is supposedly the "right" or "wrong" way to have sex is unlikely to lead to the best possible sex. Good sex requires a lot of things -- open communication with your partner, an awareness of your own body, balancing an openness to novelty with knowledge of your and your partner's comfort levels -- and relying on some external list as some kind of guarantee for good sex seems like a disastrous proposition. This is particularly true if this is accompanied by an anxiety about "getting it right," as I can't think of a situation in which adding anxiety into the mix makes sex better.
Having a Better Marriage
OK, so maybe these rules about sex aren't actually supposed to make the sex better, as that would imply some sort of hedonistic self-centered pleasure-seeking intentions that are supposedly antithetical to living a Christian life. But maybe people are seeking guidance about having sex as a Christian because they believe that having the right kind of sex will have positive effects for their marriage as a whole, or maybe just their life generally.
Again, I'm not going to pretend to speak for anyone but myself, as there are most certainly people out there who believe that they are having the holiest kind of sex (whatever that is) and that that is bearing fruit in other areas of their life. It just seems to me, from my own experience and from all that I've read about other people's experiences, that any time a person or a couple is trying to fit into some one-size-fits-all model, they're going to encounter more difficulty than when they're seeking the right fit for themselves. For my own marriage, I see more benefits when I treat Mike as a unique individual and seek to serve and engage him as such -- and when he does the same for me -- than when trying to apply some model of "how men are" or "how a Christian marriage should be." And so it makes sense that the same should be true when it comes to sex, that seeking to love and serve my spouse by approaching him as an individual with his own unique body and mind is going to bear more fruit for the whole of our relationship than by trying to make a pre-set list of rules work for us.
There may be other reasons that someone would seek a detailed list of what Christians are allowed to do sexually, and I welcome your insights. But as you may have gathered, I think this approach to sex is unlikely to produce the end result a person seeking such rules is looking for. And I think it's a shame that Christian culture has tended to place such an emphasis generally on rule-following, such that people are seeking more rules for something that is so intimate and so unique to each relationship.
I believe that reducing anything, including sex, to a list of do's and don'ts is in direct contradiction to the message repeated over and over and over again throughout the New Testament, the message that acting out of love is far more important than going through the right motions. Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say the same thing about sex. Sex is a gift from God given for us; we were not created for the purpose of having perfect, righteous sex.
What might cause someone to seek a set of rules about what they can do sexually? Do you think there is a value in such rules that I'm missing? If so, how do we know which are the right rules to follow?