How Sinful Is Sex?

Part 4 of the Series “Questions of Faith
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 9, 2011
Song of Songs Solomon; 3:1-5; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

Song of Solomon 3:1                      Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
2                   “I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but found him not.
3                   The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
“Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
4                   Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
5                   I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!

1 Corinthians 7:1   Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”  2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  6 This I say by way of concession, not of command.  7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.  9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.


You know how there are some events that you look forward to on the calendar and some that you dread?  Preaching this sermon falls into the latter category.  Especially since for the past month or more I’ve had to endure members of the worship committee referring to this Sunday as “Sex Sunday”.  (For those of you who showed up here tonight expecting something other than a church service, I am sorry. There will be free snacks afterwards if that helps.)

This is one of the dicier topics to address because while I’ll probably get more hate mail from last week’s sermon, this one is likely to make more people uncomfortable.  Because sex is one of those things we don’t talk about.  Well, I should say, we don’t talk about in any constructive way.  Either we avoid talking about it altogether, we commercialize it in order to sell products, or we usually issue statements condemning it. This last part has been the domain of Christians and other moralists for a long time.

In fact, sex has such a bad rap in Christianity that it often appears that sexual sins have somehow risen to the ranks of the worst sins we have.  Christians will overlook idolatry and greed, we’ll overlook injustice and killing, oppression and dehumanizing of others, but the idea of two people engaged in sexual activity will light a fire under the religious like few things will.  It is so often the case that when religious leaders talk in public about ‘values’, they don’t usually mean things like ensuring a living wage for workers or protecting the Creation from environmental degradation.  They usually mean ‘sexual propriety’.

Somehow, sex—and sexuality related conduct—has become the number one sin in western Christianity. So much so that it is hard to imagine a sermon on sexuality that does not involve some measure of judgment.  Hardly ever does the church talk about sex in some constructive way. But was it always so?


An examination of the scriptures doesn’t lead us to that conclusion.  The Bible is actually pretty matter of fact on sex.  Throughout Genesis sex is described by the fairly blunt phrasing So-and-so “went in to his wife”.  Close examination of the scriptures reveals that sins of sexuality usually have more to do with property crimes than strict morality.  That is, sleeping with another man’s wife is a sin because it threatens the integrity of his bloodline and adulterates, that is contaminates, the other man’s property.  For this reason, the adulteress and the man who has sex with her are to be put to death. (Lev. 20:10)  If a man has sex with a virgin woman, he is to pay the bride price for her and make her his wife.  But if the woman’s father refuses to allow them to marry, the man must pay the virgin bride price for her. (Ex. 22:16-17).  That is, because she is now damaged goods, the man must pay for her as if he were getting a virgin wife, especially since he has now helped diminish her value.

There is very little of this system that reflects a sensibility about sexuality that we would understand.  The ancient law code was much more concerned with preserving bloodlines than with punishing sexuality per se.

The prophets speak a lot about fornication and adultery and things like that, but when the prophets speak of sexual immorality, they are usually using it as a metaphor for idolatry.  That is, idolatry is like cheating on God.  Israel is supposed to be the faithful bride of God and instead is out whoring it around with other gods.  So, even when they were talking about sex, the prophets weren’t really talking about sex.

And then we come to something like the Song of Solomon: powerful, romantic, and sometimes downright erotic, love poetry in the middle of the Bible.  It is a poem that is very direct about human sexuality, in ways that have made people uncomfortable for a long time, particularly since it is not entirely certain that the lover and the beloved in the poem are married.  In the First Century the rabbis allowed it to be canonized because, they claimed, it was really about the love of God for Israel.  Leaders of the church argued that it was about the love of Christ for the Church.  You’re not fooling anyone, folks.  We know what it’s about.

And, to be honest, the Old Testament tradition never had quite the view of sexuality that later Christianity had.  The Bible usually presents sexuality as a good gift of God.  In the Jewish tradition, sex was a mitzvah, a commandment between husband and wife.  It was expected to be enjoyable and good.   And to this day, Judaism has a much healthier attitude toward human sexuality than Christianity does.

So, how did we get here?


A. Paul

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he responds to a number of issues that they have raised with him through previous correspondence.  Among the issues Paul addresses is an assertion that “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”  Paul disagrees, as well he should.  As a Jew, Paul would know that there is nothing “dirty” about sex or male-female contact.  But it becomes obvious that the reason he disagrees in this instance is for primarily pragmatic reasons.  Because of sexual desire, it is better for people to be married.  That is, people won’t be able to be celibate, so they should marry, and in marriage should not deny each other in matters of sex. But then he continues:

This I say by way of concession, not of command.  7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.   8   To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.  9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Marriage (and thus sex within marriage) is the fallback plan for people who just can’t handle celibacy. Not like Paul: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”

Now it should be made clear that the reason Paul advocated celibacy was not related to sex, it was related to eschatology.  That is, Paul expected the end of the world any day now. Christ was about to return and usher in the Kingdom of God, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life Everlasting.  There was no point in getting married.  Paul argued that people should stay in whatever status they were—married or unmarried—rather than make any big changes with the end of the world being so close at hand and so much work to be done.

Now, the other thing that should always be made clear when talking about Paul is that he is no systematic theologian.  He writes to address the issues of a particular community.  I don’t think Paul ever imagined that people who live on a continent he wasn’t even aware of, speaking a language that did not yet exist, would be reading his letters two thousand years later.

And so, Paul’s words, appropriate to the occasion, sound differently to us.  In fact, they almost sound like Paul is saying that there is a better way to go than sex: that is to remain unmarried.  Allowing people to be married is a “concession” not a command.

It would be hard to believe that this did not affect Christian attitudes toward sexuality.  It didn’t necessarily convince us that sex was a bad thing, but what it did suggest was that it was some how less than fully spiritual.  The fully spiritual person would be able to abstain, as Paul does.  This idea puts our understanding of sexuality on a trajectory toward being a negative thing.

B. Augustine

A trajectory that picked up speed with St. Augustine.

Augustine of Hippo was one of the most influential figures in early Christianity.  His writings form the foundation of much of Christian theology in the West.   His conceptions of human depravity, of Christian responsibility, and the nature of the Church have been profoundly influential.  But perhaps none more so than his treatment of human sexuality.

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was, well… how shall we say it… had something of a high libido.  He “sowed a lot of wild oats”, as they used to say.  They’d say something else today, I’m sure.

In his great work Confessions, in which he all but invents Western self-introspective literature, he even records that he had had a child out of wedlock with a woman. And it is clear in Confessions that he viewed his highly sexually active past with some degree of disdain.  He writes:

But, wretched youth that I was — supremely wretched even in the very outset of my youth — I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

That is, “God, I know I shouldn’t sleep around so much so make me more responsible, just not this weekend; I have plans.”  Now, Augustine believed that all humanity was in some sense “wretched”—incapable of accomplishing anything on their own, especially our own salvation, but it is interesting to note how his wretchedness is linked here to his sex life.  If it had stopped here, with Augustine’s ruminations on his checkered past, things might have been alright.  But elsewhere in Confessions he reflects on the Biblical narrative in Genesis, and that interpretation has had long-lasting repercussions.

When struggling to understand Original Sin—the sin of Adam and Eve—and its transmission from generation to generation, Augustine concluded that it was passed down through sex.  Augustine made a link between the Fall and the sudden realization by Adam and Eve that they were naked and in that link, saw sex as the culprit.  And so, it is the sex act itself that is responsible for perpetuating humanity’s fallen state.  We are born with the consequences and the guilt of Original Sin because we are conceived through sex.  Personally, I think this explanation has more to do with Augustine’s own guilty conscience than it has to do with a close reading of the Biblical text.

C. Nation States

This is all compounded when the church shifts its attention from societal ills to personal ills.  Theologian Tex Sample talks about the rise of the nation state and how these nation states wished to take control of the temporal arena, relegating the church to the spiritual one.  As a result, social ills became the province of the state and the church was left to deal with personal ills and “spiritual” matters.

D. The Effects

But as a consequence of this, Christian thought on sex—defined by an apocalyptic ethic, expanded upon by an Augustinian theology of the fall, and confused by prophetic judgment—has often been fairly negative in its view.  As a result, Christians have often considered sex an inherently sinful act, whose sinfulness could only be mitigated by the propagation of the species through the creation of children.  And because of the emphasis on personal, individual sin instead of the societal, social sins,  coupled with Augustine’s emphasis on sex as the perpetuator of Original Sin, sex and sexual conduct vaulted over everything else to become the great sin.

Indeed, the Church has often struggled to figure out how to incorporate such a fundamental part of human nature into its theological view.  The Catholic Church, ultimately developed a dogma that sex was supposed to be uniative (bringing people together), procreative (having the possibility of children), and pleasurable.  If sex did not meet these three expectations, it was not something that could be affirmed.  It is from this teaching, among others, that Catholic teachings on contraception and homosexuality derive.

The United Methodist Church does not have this same rubric but does state that sexuality is only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond. (Social Principles, ¶161 G) suggesting that it is a conduct that does need to be proscribed in some way.  There is still an underlying suspicion about our sexuality, a sense that it needs to be controlled.

Which only raises the question that we came here to address tonight: how sinful is sex?


This is a question that weighs heavily on the minds of a lot of Christians and there is an awful lot of guilt associated with sexuality.  I have known Christians who cannot even address the topic without anxiety.  Others who seem obsessed with discerning the exact rules governing sex.  One young woman I used to go to church with said that she knew that sex before marriage was wrong, but how much was allowed short of that?  She began to wonder which sex acts were permissible and which weren’t and how did we know?

It occurs to me that there is something very wrong with this approach.  Any rule-based approach to an issue so central to our human identity as sexuality seems not only to fail to recognize the complexity of human sexuality, but is also indicative of a petty and fickle God, who is more the bureaucrat than creator of the Universe.

And so, I don’t think a rule based approach works.  Even a rule based approach like the Catholics have.  There are no checklists, there are no rubrics to determine whether sex is sinful or permissible.  But I don’t think the question is unanswerable.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about an idea concerning the material world.  A colleague of mine, Dean Snyder at Foundry UMC, gave a sermon in which he once stated that “all life is a sacrament”.  All life is a sacrament.  As soon as I heard that, I knew I liked it.  There is something inherently right about affirming the sacramental nature of the world.  That is, without claiming that the church is about to add the Sacraments of Bowling, Fly-fishing, and Knitting, I think it is important to be able to view the world through a sacramental lens.

A sacrament, after all, is a visible sign of an invisible grace.  It is a material means through which we experience the love and grace of God.  In our theology, we proclaim that God’s grace is known to us through the free gift of the waters of baptism, and in the free gift of the meal shared in the communion.  Through these ordinary, physical, material things, God’s grace is conveyed to us.  By that reasoning, a meal over beer and pizza with an old friend in which relationship is maintained and grace shared, could be seen as sacramental.  A game of catch with a child, can be a sacrament.  Probably not the kind we’ll see in church, but nevertheless sacramental.

Sex can be a sacrament.  Again, probably not the kind we’ll be having in church.

But why cannot sex be thought of as sacramental? It should be thought of that way.  Indeed, do we not speak of the sacraments as mystery?  Is not our sexuality one of the most powerful—and mysterious—elements of our human existence?  And when sex is used the way it is meant to, does it not convey love and grace?  Is not sex about making oneself vulnerable, open for the sake of the other, with tenderness, love, caring, and commitment?  Does healthy sex not require that?  Do we not see something of God in that vulnerablity, that commitment, that love?

Imagine if we saw sex not as something dirty, something taboo, something sinful and forbidden, but as something sacramental?  How would that change our perceptions?  How would we treat sex if we saw it as sacramental?

I am reminded of the reverence that Catholics have for the Eucharist.  They don’t drop crumbs on the floor, they don’t pour the leftover wine down the drain.  There is an air of reverence for the very thing through which they encounter the grace of Christ.  We don’t have quite the same practices of piety, but we are not without reverence for the sacrament.  Would we baptize with water we’d gotten out of a muddy puddle outside?  Would we seek to offer baptism to someone with whom we had no relationship?  Would someone seek to be baptized who didn’t know the congregation or who had no intention of making a commitment in faith?  Would we serve communion using stale bread and spoiled juice?  Would we carelessly throw the bread on the floor or gargle with the juice?  No, of course we wouldn’t because we know that that behavior would not respect what that sacrament means for us.

And so it should be with our sexuality.  We should treat our sexuality with the same reverence, the same respect, the same dignity, the same awe as we would any other sacrament.  As we would any other means through which we encountered the love and grace of God.  We would more fully understand the meaning of the verse from the Song of Solomon that says, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.”


And so what this means is that there is no simple answer to the question of this sermon.  How sinful is sex?  How sinful is wine?  If we use wine to escape our problems, to dull our senses and to avoid responsibility, wine can be quite sinful.  If we use it to share in fellowship, to celebrate with one another, or as a sacrament to grace, it is not sinful at all.

How sinful is sex? That depends entirely on you.  The church has had a number of bright line tests over the centuries, but I don’t know that there are any bright lines that really speak to the mystery and power of our sexuality.  Every time we try to set up some kind of rules we seem to create a circumstance that causes more trouble.  When we forbid pre-marital sex, we unwittingly declare marriage to be primarily a way of obtaining a sex license and then fail to pay attention to whether sex in marriage is healthy and loving.

Sacramental sex has no bright lines—but that only serves to make the question more difficult.   For it requires thoughtful and prayerful consideration.  It requires sensitivity and respect. In short, it’s going to require you to think and be responsible, rather than live your life trying to follow a pre-set pattern of behavior or alternatively ignoring that code on the grounds that it’s outdated and outmoded.  Viewing sex sacramentally requires you to own your own sexuality and to make judgments that cannot be given to you simply by handing you a list of do’s and don’t’s.

But when we view sex sacramentally, we are not only freed from narrow dogmas, but we are freed from the viewing sex either clinically, fearfully, or cynically.  We can view it reverentially, affirming a positive sexuality while understanding our need for care.  Because sacraments are mystery.  Our sexuality is still very much something we do not fully understand.  And seeing it sacramentally reminds us of that reality.  Just as we do not understand the mystery of the eucharist or of baptism, we can be reminded of the mystery that is at the heart of our sexuality.

But there is also a final, important point.  If sex is to be seen as a sacrament, something capable of conveying love and grace, then we had better be reminded of that grace.  All too often our sexuality becomes a reason for judgment of others or guilt about ourselves.  But if we understand sex as a sacrament then we cannot help but be reminded of grace and the God who is behind that grace.  A God who does not judge us, but seeks us to be whole.  A God who would not have us wallow in guilt, but seeks to open us to love.   A God who is ever present with us in the struggle as we wrestle with the mysteries of our being.

2 thoughts on “How Sinful Is Sex?

  1. I have always admired your wisdom and eloquence. Increasingly, I also admire your willingness to stand in the pulpit (both real and virtual) and discuss challenging and controversial topics. Thank you.

  2. I have always admired your wisdom and eloquence. Increasingly, I also admire your willingness to stand in the pulpit (both real and virtual) and discuss challenging and controversial topics. Thank you.

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