Sex and the single Christian

This is a bit personal. If you don’t come here for that, please turn away. (If my mother reads this, she may want to stop now.)

I am divorced. If I never remarry — which the United Methodist Church allows but Jesus seems a bit more restrictive about — I will not have sex again in my life, or if I do, I’ll be violating both my vows as a provisional and (someday) ordained elder and my understanding of God’s will for human sexual behavior.

Does that mean I — as some people seem to argue — am consigned by United Methodist teaching on sexuality to being less that fully human?

In our church wars over sexuality, we throw around words fairly loosely. One thing that gets said from time-to-time is that the church teaching that sexual relations are only condoned within the bond of monogamous, heterosexual marriage somehow does violence to people who wish to have other forms of sexual relationship and denies their full humanity.

These arguments are usually made in advancement of a point comparing same-sex and traditional marriage, but I wonder how often the people who make such arguments consider Christians who are single. Do we really think they are subhuman?

And let’s be clear, Christian single people do not refrain from sex because they are not interested in it. By choice or by circumstance, they do not marry. But that does not mean they have no sexual feelings or desires. It means they — we — are called upon to discipline those feelings and desires in obedience to God, just as we are called to discipline other desires that are contrary to God’s intention for human beings.

It is unfortunate that our church provides so little support for single Christians in this challenging and deeply counter-cultural stance. I will confess that it did not impinge much on my mind before my divorce. But I’ve had readers who have raised it and circumstances have given me cause to wrestle with these questions.

Are single people fully human, even if they never have sex?

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26 thoughts on “Sex and the single Christian

  1. Sex is a strange thing. I was just thinking about it the other day. (a bit of humor there) But I did reflect that my most embarrassing moment, bar none, involved sex, yet also some of my most life-affirming, sharing and literally wonder-full moments as well.
    Sex is such an overwhelming and integral part of who we are.
    I could not, given similar circumstances as yours, follow the path you are choosing to walk.

    I sometimes wonder whether we, and not God, put such strictures and prohibitions on our selves as you plan to shoulder.
    All this talk about discipline. Is it really an either/or? Must there be a war between the flesh and the spirit?
    We say sex is a good gift from God. Our bodies are a wonder, we say.
    But we always seem to be walking a tightrope, about so many things. Does God put us up on it, or do we?
    I know you have prayed for discernment. I hope God leads you into another marriage. I just have to be honest about this.

    1. Thanks for your honesty, humor, and candor, Steven. In response to some of what you raise, I’d say I’m not sure discipline is a case of war with the self. You would not say that an athlete engaging in disciplined training is “at war” with himself. I know as I have been dieting and exercising the last 6-8 months to improve my health that I do not feel that I am at war with my flesh, but I am certainly having to strive and exert effort to not let my unhealthy tendencies dominate by healthy intentions.

      Is there a “healthy” sexual activity that is expressed in the bonds of traditional marriage? Perhaps. I am trying to be humble about this on both sides, but I am also attempting to honor what I am being asked by the church to promise as a part of my candidacy for ordination.

      I am not sure where God will lead me. I do believe that sex is inherently bad or should be shunned. Far from it. But I am trying to be obedient — not oppressed but joyfully obedient — to what I believe the will of God to be. And in doing that, I want to examine the way we as a church talk about sex and singleness.

      I’m rambling a bit here.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Thank you John,
        Good point about discipline, I suppose the only war is in myself.
        I want to convince myself my desires are OK with God, and I’m uncertain whether what I feel convicted of is a true conviction of the Spirit, or simply early-age ‘conditioning’ or needless guilt.
        After I posted, I recalled the ‘mercy, not sacrifice’ passage, and was it the Pharisees who demanded strict obedience over mercy? Perhaps you were leaning that way, I thought.
        Is it not true that love is always the best choice? And is our God merciful or stern and angry?
        I did however read all I could find of Christ’s words on divorce.
        You certainly have a point. We modern Christians certainly pick and choose, and interpret.
        In the factory we’re told not to ‘interpret’ a blueprint, but to ‘read’ it.
        So when I’m exposed to theology I am often confused.

  2. This is a remarkable post and discussion! I’m so grateful to find it. I jut want to add my one-and-a-half cents. The matter of being “fully human” while not practicing one’s sexuality is an important one. In the second creation story in Genesis, the LORD makes woman because, as the LORD says, “It is not good for The Man to be alone.” A bit later on, the writer(s) notes that the man and woman had sexual intercourse, but it was without sin. It seems, then, that part of the Imago Dei with which we’ve been conferred is to be in relationship, including intimate relationship, with others. And our sexuality is part and parcel of how we relate intimately with others. Not the only way, but nevertheless an important way.

    I do think it’s possible to consider oneself “fully human” without being intimately involved with another person. I think it is disingenuous, however, to elevate Paul’s opinion on chastity to some kind of rule that overlooks the narrative and theological thrust of the creation of woman in Genesis 2; we are created in the Image of God, i.e., to be in relationship with others. As human beings, when it comes to intimate relationships, that includes sex.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that centuries of neo-Platonic denigration of the human body, of human physical needs, and in particular the horrible descriptions of women’s sexual organs (you almost never read of a penis described as horrible as a woman’s body, often called things like a vile trough of filth, with women compared to “ordure” and vomit. While I do think recognizing that our sexuality is actually a good gift from a good God (and there’s a lot of support for this view in The Song of Songs where there are a series of poems praising the beauty both of the naked male and female bodies), we still have far to go having a healthier and, frankly, mature understanding of the theology of human sexuality.

    As far as making a commitment that fits your understanding both of Scripture and tradition, as well as church law, John, I applaud you and will be thinking of you and praying for you. I would not denigrate your choice, because I know you came to it honestly. I do, however, think we as a Church – not just our denomination but the Church Universal – have a long way to go before we come to some kind of healthy theology of sex. That might or might not include chastity. Right now, however, we need to rid ourselves of many centuries of non-Christian baggage and return to the Scriptures for a more clear understanding of this gift we’ve been given, and how to use it as God intended – without guilt or shame, as The Man and Woman did in the Garden.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the encouragement. I agree that we in the UMC do not have much of any kind of recognizable theology of sex. Of course, we don’t have much of a recognizable theology of anything. The Bible does give us lots of materials to work with. Genesis, the Song of Songs, the rest of the Torah, Proverbs, the Gospels and epistles, etc. There is a lot there, for sure.

      I’m not so sure that a “healthy” theology of sex does not exist in the church universal. It may not have wide acceptance, I certainly grant.

  3. The Theology of the Body, written by John Paul II, is a well developed Christian theology/philosophy that addresses most sexual questions, including these. Do Methodists not know about such things, or do they know and simply consider them either to be in error or not relevant?

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