The Bible, sex, and United Methodism

Let’s talk about sex for a moment.

No, not the kind we always write about in the Christian blogosphere. Let’s talk about the 90% or more of the people who engage in sex with those who have different plumbing.

Question: Does God care about sex?

As good United Methodists, we turn first to Scripture as we seek to find answers to this question. You can do the detailed exegesis. I’ll just note here that the overwhelming answer to the question appears to be yes. From the beginning to the end of the Bible we have Yahweh, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles speaking about sex. I will note that it is overwhelmingly in terms of prohibition and limitations. Sex is polluting, dangerous, and a gateway to idolatry and all manner of sins. Yes, there are some exceptions that get a lot of mileage — kind of reverse clobber passages. But the Scriptural references to sex appear to be mostly about limitations and boundaries rather than celebration.

My sense is that most of our conversation about sex these days has little to do with theology and a great deal to do with biology, sociology, and economics. Without saying it explicitly, we presume that the biblical view of sex was really just a god-talk cover for concerns about patriarchy, disease, and unwanted pregnancy. In our day, where these concerns are more under our control, we can ignore the biblical witness. That seems prudent only if we believe the biblical witness is just a culturally conditioned artifact that has no bearing on our world.

The traditional Christian teaching has long been that sex should be contained within certain bounds, often articulated as heterosexual marriage. I’m not claiming to be an expert on this, but I struggle to see any argument that honors the place of Scripture in our theology that does not start with a deep-seated suspicion about sex and caution about its power as a dark force in our life.

I know this puts me at odds with American popular culture. What I can’t figure out is how to avoid that conflict without undermining Scripture’s role in our theology.


66 thoughts on “The Bible, sex, and United Methodism

  1. Interesting question, John. I’m thinking about the relation to possessions and wealth. Seems that there’s far more prohibition and limitation in Scripture re: possessions than there is a celebration of the virtues of ownership and wealth. Two of the 10 Commandments (on stealing and coveting) are about possessions. Then you have the rich young ruler, the love of money as the root of all evil, and even the people in the early church who give up personal possessions and wealth so that no one will be in need.

    But most of us would argue that possessions and money aren’t inherently evil. There’s just a great deal of abuse of them – to the point that nearly everything we see in Scripture is prohibiting their abuses. There’s a relative silence regarding the virtues of possessions and money when used properly. Or in other words, I think we could also say that Scripture approaches wealth and possessions with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I wonder if the same thing is going on here…

        1. Interesting your raise that text. Morgan uses it above to make some claims about biblical views of sex. I tend to read 1 Cor 7 a bit more straight forwardly, and it does seem like an important one.

  2. Ah, so he does. Given the above, and my own reading, I suppose it depends on what exactly you mean by a “hermeneutics of suspicion” regarding sex. I could go along with you that there’s more prohibition than celebration in Scripture. And that it seems like there are a number of abuses to be wary of. (All the same as with wealth and possessions.) But if by “hermeneutics of suspicion,” you mean to suggest that the biblical stance toward sex, period, is negative, I don’t think I can go quite that far with you. It still seems like a bit too much of a logic leap. Are you arguing one of these two directions, or am I missing your point?

    1. I am not arguing for an always negative view, but given our culture’s attitude, I am saying the Bible starts with a much less celebratory stance. And, yes, the fall is crucial for understanding that. What I am suspicious of is our rather naive view of sex and our inability to conceptualize pleasure in non-sexual ways

    2. I also think we can’t, or should not, read 1 Cor 7 without chapter 6. The two appear closely related to me.

  3. These arguments have wandered off into the wilderness of arcanum imperii (the mystery of the initiate). Ah, yes, in the church we have many who are devoted to such knowledge. It seems to suit their hidden agendas.

  4. I’m not sure how a “straightforward reading” of 1 Corinthians 7 is different than what I have given. It sounds like you’re uncomfortable with the implications of the principles that Paul is putting forward there because they don’t sound stringent enough for you. If you want to add 1 Corinthians 6 to it, let’s do it. Here are some statements in there which seem like general principles as opposed to specific exhortations like kick out the guy who’s shacking up with his mother in law: All things are lawful for me but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me but I will not be dominated by anything. The body is not meant for porneia but for the Lord. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.

    Again, we see Paul’s pragmatic asceticism being expressed over and over again. The reason that we can’t say that anything goes is because there are so many addictive behaviors and idols out there that are not beneficial and make us slaves. It’s eisegetical to try to dismiss the “All things are lawful” part of those sentences and call it a Corinthian “slogan” like the NIV clumsily does. There’s no basis in the Greek to do that. The more straightforward reading would be to say that Paul is correcting and qualifying an irresponsible attitude about living in the spirit rather than under the letter of Torah. But there’s no genuinely exegetical reason to say that Paul is saying the “all things are lawful” part with any less force than the “but not all things are beneficial” part.

    Regarding the body being made for the Lord and being a temple, these statements capture what it means to live with an eros that is rightly ordered. Our bodies ultimately exist for the sake of worship which is our basic vocation as human beings. Worship is not a performance or duty by which we prove something to God or do something for God or earn something from God; it is rather the capacity to genuinely delight in God that He gives to us as a gift the more that we are liberated from idolatry. God doesn’t just want our intellectual affinity for the concept of His existence or to hear us answer in the affirmative if someone asks, “Do you love God?” He wants our bodies to ache for Him. While it’s true that a word search for the word “eros” with your Bible software may not turn up anything, there is a whole lot of holy aching going on the New Testament. There’s no reason to be prudishly scandalized by the thought that eros could have a positive form.

      1. Sorry no time
        It should read New LivingTranslation for that passage in particular. Note who is obligated to provide what for who.

      2. I hope the following will help to explain why those passages should be read.

        There is something called Ketuleh in the Jewish Community.
        It is a contract ( written, signed and witnessed) that came into being based on tradition and the teaching of Moses.
        In the Orthodox Ketulah you will find the conjugal rights of the woman/ wife written and promised to. The husband/ husband to be must keep the promise and oath or there would be a heavy fines to pay and the possibility of divorce at the wife’s request. Not the husband‘s.
        You will find no such promise by the wife made to the husband contained in the Orthodox Ketuleh regarding conjugal rights of the husband .
        That responsibility fell on the husband.

        In Paul’s writings that responsibility of conjugal duty is expanded to include mutual responsibility by the husband and wife to each other.
        The Apostle Paul is not teaching anything new to Jewish ears ,once again.
        It would most likely be a new concept for non-Jews.
        The marriage bed is undefiled….. Hebrews 13:4
        Anyone that thinks the Bible, Old or New Testament associates intimate relations between a husband and wife as something wrong, bad, or restrictive (within the unique, exclusive covenant marriage) does not understand what they are reading.

        Sex outside of marriage was not recognized among the Jews.
        You find that in John 4:18 “and the man you now have is not your husband“ Jesus said..

        1. How is any of this different from my claim that sex was to be kept carefully circumscribed within the marital relationship?

          You may not be doing this, but people seem to be reading a blanket condemnation of sex in my initial post.

          What I tried to write was that sex is powerful and corrupted by the fall. It was a prime concern and threat to the holiness of Israel. So there was a lot of care taken and attention given to keeping it within the bounds that the OT and NT understood to be set by God for it.

          In our culture, we appear to assume sex is harmless and under our control, but the strength of reaction when it is suggested that it is not so innocent confirm my suspicion that we underestimate its power.

        2. John ,
          My comments are related to your position on marital relationship.

          Your statement included in your original post “. I will note that it is overwhelmingly in terms of prohibition and limitations. Sex is polluting, dangerous, and a gateway to idolatry and all manner of sins. ”
          May be why they hear condemnation.

          Anyway…My point was and is ,,It must come a surprise and new to some that it is the wife’s rights that are and where included and clearly written in the contract of marriage on this topic. I do no think those rights are prohibitive in a negative way.

          I would like to know exactly what passages in the OT and NT related to the law given related to sexual conduct some find objectionable.
          Is it the passage on bestiality objectionable?
          The laws against incest?
          The law against polygamy?
          The laws against adultery?
          The laws governing health, sex and discharge?
          The law of rights of the wife written in the contract of marriage?
          What laws do people agree with God on and why do they object to others related to the topic?

      3. My contention would be that Paul is *qualifying* not dismissing the claim “All things are lawful for me,” which was probably the Corinthians taking things he said that they didn’t understand (meat) and abusing them so that he had to revert to simpler teachings (milk). Paul says that “the law” is for the disobedient and that the “weaker brothers” are those who get flustered by others eating sacrificial meat and the like. Greek doesn’t have quotation marks. There are no markers in the Greek to indicate that Paul is attributing panta moi exestin (all things are lawful for me) to anyone in particular. I do recognize there’s a pattern of dialogue in 1 Corinthians and it probably is some kind of slogan, but that doesn’t mean that Paul is categorically rejecting it rather than nuancing it.

        1. Like Paul points out.
          All the law of God is good and the Christian member, whose heart has been changed, is not hostile to the Laws of God. They follow the law willingly and there is not need for the Christian to have the laws written and enforced by authorities out side the christian community as the lawless do. They instinctively try to follow God.
          That is what John points out Wesley taught.
          That is what Luther and many other greats preached, believed & practiced.

          By the way….They did not write using paragraphs either.
          If you think that does not make a difference in the reading of scripture…….that would be a mistake.

  5. Read:
    Exodus 21:10 NlV
    Lev.18:19 only restriction for married persons
    Malachi 2:14-16
    Then read 1Corinthians 7:3-4

  6. My feeling is that much discussion of this issue (and of ethics in general for that matter) simply fails to take eschatology seriously enough, The ethical codes by which we called to live NOW (especially by Paul) are those adapted to a fallen creation. The way of life exemplified and taught by Jesus is that of the realised kingdom of God (that is a way of life consonant with a creation fully redeemed and directly ruled by God. This means that in the New Testament one finds two quite distinct teachings on sex and marriage (or on possession and property)

    1. That just seems like a convenient way to bracket Jesus’ teachings and be Paulines instead. Or are you doing the opposite of that?

      1. Jesus’ teaching on sex is completely unambiguous: he’s against it. Paul is equally unambiguous: he’s against it too. In both cases, though, this opposition is intimately linked to the full realisation of the Kingdom in resurrection life. Jesus teaches relatively little on how to live in the “between time”, since in his presence one is already in the kingdom.

        I don’t see any real opposition between them. It’s just that Paul addresses some questions that Jesus doesn’t about how to live while waiting for Christ’s return in glory.

        1. The Methodist reading is that what Christ teaches is by grace possible in this life. Sanctification is not only for the end of all things.

        2. “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”.

          “Offer the wicked man no resistance. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him.”

          So that’s no possessions and absolute non-resistance to anyone no matter how wicked. Is that the ethic you Methodists actually live by?

        3. And see the way I would narrate this is that celibacy is the choice to direct all of your eros at God instead of at flesh. It’s not somehow a repression of eros, which cannot be done except as superficial puritanical posturing to try to call attention to your piety. Case in point: centuries of celibate monks LOVED the Song of Songs. It stopped being popular after the nuclear family became the highest expression of Christianity in modernity rather than ascetic monastic devotion.

        4. I see no reason at all to see the celibacy advocated by Jesus and by Paul as anything other than celibacy – abstinence from all sexual activity. There’s absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that it is.

          Your version of the “why?” is a perfectly reasonably one and is no doubt part of the explanation. Another important part, I suspect, is the link between sex and procreation, which both Jesus and Paul thought was no longer an imperative in the new conditions prevailing after the Incarnation and the coming of Kingdom.

        5. What I’m saying is that eros is not equal to sex. Celibacy is what makes this possible: “12 It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (2 Cor 12:1-4)

        6. On what basis are you saying that celibacy makes visions possible? I see nothing in the text to make such a claim.

          And I’d say Eros is equal to sex by definition.

        7. Which kind of love is being expressed in Psalm 84:2 if your four choices are agape, eros, storge, or philos? “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

        8. I can’t really see that adding “eros” to the mix makes a difference (although I know that there are feminist theologians who want to do a sort of reversal of Nygren’s Eros/Agape opposition).. The Greek word “eros” does not, I think, appear anywhere in the New Testament not in the LXX translation of the Old Testament into Greek,

          Where the NT talks about sex it is sex it is talking about,

        9. Morgan,

          I’m about to phrase this poorly.

          I am wondering, though, if you are aware of how difficult it can be to engage with your conversation/debating style.

          In your first two sentences you beg the question (assume as true the very thing your conversation partners are debating — is eros what you say it is), assert a claim that is by no means settled (you cannot repress eros — another question begging statement), use loaded language that your debating partners would never adopt, and call into question the motives and character of anyone who disagrees with you.

          As someone in a conversation with you, this makes it difficult to respond in constructive ways.

        10. I appreciate your feedback, and I do process it. To give an example of Biblical eros, if you’re dividing love into eros, storge, agape, and philos, I’m not sure what to call Psalm 84:2 other than eros: “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” It’s not just friendship (philos) or familial affection (storge). It isn’t agape because agape is more of a calm good-natured willing the best for someone else. Eros is passionate love which can sabotage agape or awaken agape depending on how it’s directed. Eros is what makes worship ecstatic when it’s ordered rightly.

        11. Thanks for this reply. Here are my quick thoughts. First, you open a question for me. Does the LXX use eros as a word for love? That would be interesting to know.

          Second, the Psalm speaks of longing and desire, but does that necessarily mean sexual desire? I think this is where I am feeling a disconnect with your argument. It feels to me like
          there are concepts that can be used for things that you want to consider into sexual categories. Even when I say I long to see a person, I am not always putting that in sexual terms.

          I see where you make the connection, but it is hard for me to see that as the necessary reading.

        12. If you’re dividing love into storge, philos, agape, and eros, then storge is your protective love for your kin, philos is friendship, eros is the kind of love that makes you write psalms, and agape is the kind of love that makes you treat other people with kindness and patience (like overly zealous fellow bloggers who shoot first and aim later). If you’re operating with that four-fold definition of love, eros can’t be reduced to sex.

        13. Morgan, what would you gain if everyone concedes your point that the bible is full of Eros even though it never mentions it by name? The authors certainly knew the word yet chose not to use it. Does that mean nothing to you? Why is this so important to you?

          Btw I’m still curious to know how celibacy is necessary for visions and if you have a reference for Song of Songs being the most commented book in early church.

        14. Chad, I’m disregarding your line of questioning because you’re refusing to engage what I asked you. What would you call the type of love that is being expressed in Psalm 84:2 if your four choices are philos, storge, agape, and eros?

        15. John, can you understand how this discourse is frustrating to me? To say that because a word does not appear in a text, it isn’t part of it would be like saying the sky must not have been blue in ancient times because the word “blue” never appears in the Hebrew. I just don’t see any attempt to understand where I’m coming from here. That’s why it really appears like posturing to me.

        16. My apologies. My question about the LXX was an honest inquiry. I don’t know how the Bible deals with these word choice issues and was curious what the answer might be.

          I don’t have an LXX handy, but it did make me double check what word Jesus used when he spoke of the love of God. And that brings me back to not understanding why we need to introduce a novel term. If agape is the word the Bible uses for what Jesus meant, why do we want to call it eros? If Jesus said the sky is blue, why would I say his word is wrong?

          Why can’t the psalm be about agape? I don’t understand why that is not possible.

        17. It makes language more meaningful when I can analogize the passion of becoming united to Christ to the experience of physical intimacy with my wife. And I think it makes a more compelling case for avoiding the abuse of eros to talk about what it can be when it’s directed to God in worship because the squander of eros directly undermines the latter. I wrote a reflection about our debate and that ghastly Miley Cyrus performance. It’s passionate but hopefully not prickly (I tried going back over it to pull the prickles out):

  7. Based on what I’m seeing in my news-feed about last nights VMA awards and Miley Cyrus, perhaps it would be a good thing for us to explore how “eros” ought to be more celebrated in the church. *removing tongue from cheek now*

    1. Well other people’s sexuality will always be good for our self-justification. It’s a tragedy what the entertainment industry has done to the possibility of a healthy sense of Eros in our culture.

      1. I don’t quite see how anything I said implied I was self-justifying. I’m sure that is possible for any of us in any situation, but when that gets thrown around so often it’s hard to take serious. As for the rest of your comment, it’s not the entertainment industry, but sin, which has crippled us from understanding Eros in a healthy way. It’s why Scripture doesn’t speak of it, and when it eludes to it, it does so cautiously.

        1. Sure it’s sin in the entertainment industry. Or are you trying to say that we’re not allowed to talk about systemic sin at all anymore?

        2. When you say scripture doesn’t speak of eros, what do you make of the Song of Songs which has more commentaries written about it by the ancient church fathers than any other book in the Bible? “Caution” is not the first word that would come to mind to describe the language of the Song of Songs.

        3. I remember Warren Smith saying that about Song of Songs, but I’ve never been able to find any proof of that. The best I’ve found is that it is purported to be the most copied book by monks during the Middle Ages. Do you have evidence of it being the most commented book by the early church?

          As for Eros, I only mean the word is not found in scripture, and regardless of what we make of Song of Songs, I think it’s obvious the weight of scripture leans towards caution with regards to sex. A gift? Yes. One to be handled freely without caution? No.

  8. I think that this is where a propositional hermeneutics fails and a more narrative one is needed. If we go into our Logos Bible software and do a word search on Jesus’ speeches for the word eros, it won’t turn up. But if we look at Luke 7:36-50 where a woman lets down her hair and makes out with Jesus’ feet, he doesn’t say, “Hey, your heart’s in the right place but this is inappropriate.” It’s simply all she knows about how to express her love so he rolls with it. I am absolutely not saying that sex is a gift to be “handled freely without caution.” Heavens no! I’m saying that there’s a greater incentive to being cautious and disciplined with my eros than just an abstract sense that I’m disobeying the Bible or meditating upon how angry God is about my sin. When I don’t abuse my eros, my heart is able to actually *feel* as a visceral longing the love of God that I talk about having and think that I have on a cognitive level. It makes more sense to me to call that visceral longing “eros” for the sake of being able to say that it can be this beautiful, amazing thing or it can be squandered and ugly. I also agape other people if I allow God to agape me and make me agape and yes that agape is ultimately more important than eros, but for the purposes of categorizing, that agape is a different thing than the burning passion that King David felt for El Shaddai.

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