Sex & Self-Control
But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.1 Corinthians 7:8, 9
These few words of Paul anticipate much of the ancient and modern debates about sex in the western world. Is the human sexual instinct controllable or uncontrollable?
On one side of that question is the Christian ascetic tradition. Its more extreme representatives argued in the ancient church that Paul clearly says that it is good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Corinthians 7:1) and that the unmarried state is better for the spiritual life (1 Corinthians 7:32ff). They noted that the only reason for marriage was a lack of self-control. But Paul also teaches that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit for all Christians (Galatians 5:23). So all Christians can and should embrace the celibate life.
Peter Brown in his interesting book The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, Columbia University Press, 1988) shows how early the ascetic ideal emerged in Christian circles. By the early second century some were teaching clearly that celibacy was the preferred Christian way of life. In time some ascetics would actually say that sex was a result of the Fall. Some stressed celibacy as the great sign of Christ's victory over the world and the flesh. Celibacy anticipated the new world that Christ's resurrection had begun and His return would consummate. Self-control would show to the world the life changing power of Jesus. Jesus was doing away with the old structures of the world and nothing showed the radical character of conversion better than celibacy.
Most Christians today would regard this attitude as too radical and extreme, trying to live as if Jesus had returned before He does. Yet interestingly some feminist theologies today argue in a manner very similar to the ancient ascetics about how the radical character of Christ's redemption has swept away the old structures of society and the family. The modern feminists however, seem less consistent than their ancient counterparts.
On the opposite side of those ancients is the widespread modern attitude toward sex. Many moderns seem to regard the sexual instinct as uncontrollable, although many would not agree with Paul's recommendation that marriage is the solution. Especially the modern entertainment industry seems bent on teaching the world that virginity until marriage is undesirable, unnatural and impossible.
This modern attitude is also evident in discussions of homosexuality. The underlying assumption of many is that if one has homosexual desires, they must be expressed. To deny these desires is ultimately unreasonable and impossible.
Recent deliberations in mainline (liberal) Protestant denominations seem to reflect this modern attitude. Sex is so good and so irrepressible that traditional Christian morality must be modernized. Premarital sex, homosexuality, divorce and even extramarital sex are all open for discussion. The General Board of the American Baptist Churches voted in June 1992 to reject a resolution that stated in part, "We find no Scriptural endorsement of homosexuality as a Christian lifestyle." Some argued that Christians must not be judgmental but recognize that there "is homosexual behavior that is very loving and charitable" and can be "authentic and blessed by God."1
The report Keeping Body and Soul Together prepared for and rejected by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) similarly argued for the goodness of sex and the revision of Christian morality. This report was subjected to many critiques from many perspectives. One of the most intriguing was by the radical feminist Camille Paglia in an article entitled "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex."2Among her complaints is that the report "projects a happy bouncy vision of human life" that utterly fails to see the mystery and power of the dark side of human sexual experience. She observes, "Eros, like Dionysius, is a great and dangerous god. The report ... in its liberal zeal to understand, to accept, to heal ... reduces the grand tragicomedy of love and lust to a Hallmark card."
The Christian Response
Christians recognize that human sexuality certainly is a powerful and mysterious force. In the misery of this fallen world it often expresses itself in perverse and sinful ways. Sexual sin has occurred very visibly in the Christian communities throughout history. No Christian group - whether its theology is ascetic, holiness, Reformed or whatever - is exempt. When sexual sins bring down a Christian, we see the deceit and irrationality of sin and the weakness of regenerate hearts. But we do not see that human sexuality is simply uncontrollable.
Jesus warns us of the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual temptation in his Sermon on the Mount. He reminds us that sexual sin is a matter of the heart and attitudes as well as of actions. He calls us to strive for a high standard of purity: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:27f).
John Calvin commented on the Savior's words: "The lesson is, that they are rated adulterers in God's sight who not only by deliberate thought conceive harlotry in their minds, but admit even its slightest inducements." Christians must strive to attain perfect purity even if it eludes them. Calvin continued:
Briefly, He means that however difficult, arduous, troublesome or painful God's rule may be, we must make no excuse for that, as the righteousness of God should be worth more to us, than all the other things which are chiefly dear and precious... We sin gravely in this respect, that we are not properly concerned to avoid temptations, but rather choose to excite our passions to evil with a headlong freedom.3
Insufficiency of Science
The modern tendency to see sex as uncontrollable relies heavily on the insights of biology and psychology. Particularly in discussions of homosexuality the assumption is often made that religious and moral evaluations must rest on the conclusions of biology and psychology. But Christians should reject this assumption. Christian ethics do not rest on the fallible and changing foundation of human science. Christian ethics rest on the unchanging and infallible Word of God.
This is not to say that biology and psychology are irrelevant to Christian reflection and counseling. Christians should seek to be well-informed and make whatever use possible of scientific knowledge and advances. (This is not always easy with psychology since there are so many different theories and approaches.) But the Christian analysis of what is sinful and what must be repented of does not rest on science, but on the Bible.
All-Sufficiency of Scripture
Take the case of homosexuality. There are many scientific theories about the origin of homosexuality (genetics or learned behavior). There are various attitudes about whether the homosexual can change his sexual orientation. But Christians should insist that whatever can or cannot be learned scientifically about such questions, the Bible still declares that homosexual desires and actions are sinful and repentance must be the basic response.
All sexual sins and temptations, including homosexuality, must be first treated by the Christian like all other sins and temptations. They are part of the pattern of the Christian life. And that pattern is one of struggle against sin. Where there is sin, there must be repentance, prayer for forgiveness and for the grace of God to pursue holiness. The seriousness and necessity of this struggle is summarized clearly in Heidelberg Catechism, questions 114 and 115.
The Scriptures in many places call us to that struggle.
Paul says "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please." Galatians 5:16f
Paul then sets the deeds of the flesh over against the fruit of the Spirit: immorality, impurity, sensuality are set over against love (agape, love that gives and sacrifices). Drunkenness and carousings are set over against self-control. Paul makes the same sort of contrast in Titus 1:7f where addiction to wine is set over against self-control. We see this again in Ephesians 5:18 where Christians are warned not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
What all these Scriptures show is that the Christian is not perfect. The struggle goes on until we reach glory. But in the struggle, we have the Spirit and His fruit in our lives to help us. We see that self-control is both something given to every Christian and something that we must cultivate and develop. The Christian is called to break with sinful self-indulgence and to move progressively toward Spirit-filled self-control.
We need to be compassionate to those struggling with sexual sins. We should recognize the complexity of sexual behavior patterns. Especially for homosexuals, the church needs to provide an atmosphere where sins and temptations can be discussed and spiritual help and support can be found. But we must remember that the most loving thing the church can ever do is to teach sinners what is sin and to proclaim that there is forgiveness for sinners in Christ. It is hellish of the church to declare that things are not sinful that God says are sin. The church must nurture those who repent of their sin and encourage them in the life-long struggle of all Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, especially self-control.