Theology of sex

A recent post on fornication and adultery has generated some interesting comments and commentary in other places, but reading the responses reveals that I was not careful enough in making one of my points. So, I will try again by asking a question.

Does God care what we do with our genitals?

Much of our conversation about sex in the church acts as if such a question is beside the point. Our sexual theology tends to devolve into sexual ethics. We talk a great deal about sexual behaviors as “bad” if they hurt us or hurt others and indifferent or “good” if they do not. We take a “first do no harm” approach but measure harm entirely in social, physical, and emotional terms. Or frame of reference is human and only human.

Of course, theology is concerned with how humans treat other humans. But it is concerned with human relations within the wider context of the relationship between Creator and creature. We tend to ignore the context when we talk about sex.

This, I asserted without much argument, is why most people condemn adultery — although in our culture we commonly have movies or other entertainment that suggest adultery can be redemptive or healing — but find fornication much less objectionable. We might worry about “the risks” of pre-marital or promiscuous sex, but absent any harm to people, we see it as natural, good, healthy, and part of who we are as people.

What I struggle with in this conversation is the absence of reference to God.

Many resist the use of biblical injunctions on sexual behavior to guide our theology, which is why in matters sexual we become atheistic. We end up with no theology of sex because absent Scripture and tradition we are left without any materials from which to construct a theological understanding of sex.

The oddity of this, of course, is that the Bible seems to deal a great deal with sex. It deals with it in conflicting ways at times, true, but to judge from Scripture, God cares. Shouldn’t we?

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Fornication, adultery, and the UMC

Traditionally, the Christian Church has considered both fornication and adultery sinful.

Fornication is sex between two (or more?) people who are not married. Adultery is sex by a married person with someone who is not his or her spouse.

In our culture, we tend to frown much more on adultery than fornication. My theory is that we do this because we don’t really consider either a sin. What we object to is the broken promise. Cheating on your spouse hurts that person and violates a commitment. We almost never speak of it as an affront to God, though, which explains why we find adultery easy to condemn but speak hardly at all about fornication – unless it is concern about diseases and pregnancy.

In matters relating to sex, we buy into the cultural standards. If two (or more?) people consent to a sexual relationship and they don’t have an obligation to someone else then we act as if it is really no concern to anyone else.

But does such an attitude comport in any way with Scripture? Whether we can agree on the exact outlines of a biblical view of sex, it is pretty hard to argue that the Bible expresses no interest in the topic. On the contrary, it gets repeated attention. The Bible – at least – appears to believe that God cares about who we have sex with.

The conduct of United Methodists as a whole, however, suggests to me that we do not consider such behaviors as affronts to God. We do not believe that the adulterer or the fornicator is placing his or her salvation at risk. We don’t fret about God’s righteous judgment on those individuals. We are practical atheists on matters of sex. So long as no one is hurt, we say, it does not matter.

How did we come to this position? How can it possibly be biblical or loving to our brothers and sisters who get caught up in such sins?