I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home
Lesson 6: Have Sensible Sex – By now, I’m sure some have declared me a full-fledged heretic. Brace yourself, there’s more. Now for something totally uncomfortable—the subject of religion and sex. In my experience, with some noble exceptions (there are some excellent evangelical marriage manuals on sex), the evangelical church has largely been sex-negative, in other words, either it has suppressed open discussion or portrayal of sex for fear of promoting immorality, or it has condemned certain sexual behaviors, from nudity to masturbation to oral sex to all pre-marital sex, based on misinterpretations of the Bible. 31
My historical studies reveal today’s church views on sex have more to do with Greco-Roman Platonism and Augustine’s warped perspective—despite his wisdom on other topics—than a rational reading of scripture. For instance, the Jewish tradition from which Christianity arose was sex affirming. Correspondingly, contrary to popular belief, the Greco-Roman world, in which the early church grew, was not wholly a debauched sexual culture. The sex-negating Platonists and Stoics, who had fearful attitudes toward “irrational” sexual pleasure, influenced much of it. 32 This had impact on early church fathers like Augustine.
One specific is how these sex-negative Greco-Roman values influenced the English translation of the Greek New Testament word porneia. Raymond Lawrence calls it “perhaps the most deliberately mistranslated word in the biblical literature,” 33 when it is rendered “fornication,” and I would argue when it is also translated “sexual immorality” (as in ‘flee sexual immorality’ 34). Conservative Biblicists have condemned a host of sexual behaviors under that one word, commonly summing it up as perverted sex or all sex outside of monogamous marriage, without understanding what it meant to the original audience. One scholar believes a better translation is “harlotry,” 35 for the connotation of porneia is selling oneself to break covenant. Moreover, it is not always about sex, as is evidenced by the times it or its Hebrew equivalent is translated as “idolatry.”
Despite the fact that I would never endorse polygamy as a good idea, the fact is polygamy is never condemned in the Bible nor is monogamy strictly endorsed. In fact, the Torah commands polygamy in the case of the Leverite law 36 and supports it at times. 37 Polygamy and concubinage were practiced by Old Testament heroes of the faith from Abraham to Jacob to Gideon to David and never censured by God, except excessive polygamy with foreign women outside the faith. The truth is that if Bathsheba had not been married to Uriah, David would not have committed adultery. The biblical literature defines adultery differently than we do in our modern context. 38
Likewise with pre-marital sex, the Bible puts limitations on it because of the Jewish concern for pure lineage and because unmarried women were considered property of their fathers. There was no equivalent of today’s single woman, living outside her family’s home. Therefore, the Bible does not specifically condemn all singles sexuality. 39
This is not to say that we should emulate the male-dominated society of the Bible or married men have license to run out and grab the first single, pretty woman they see bathing on a rooftop (how David first saw Bathsheba). Promiscuity rooted in selfish, personal gratification cannot be defended. However, it does mean, if we are honest, that we should take the above facts into account when we decide on a sexual ethic for today.
In sex, let the admonitions to love one another, treat each other kindly, and be responsible in our relationships, be the guiding principal, not absolutist rules that were never a part of the Bible’s historical and cultural milieu.
31 Thelos, Philo, Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition
32 Lawrence, Raymond, The Poisoning of Eros
33 Lawrence, Raymond, Op. cit., page 2
34 I Corinthians 6:18
35 Countryman, William, Dirt, Greed, and Sex
36 Deuteronomy 25:5-10
37 Deuteronomy 21:15-17
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 159
38 Countryman, Op. cit., page 264.