by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
The recent National Catholic Prayer Breakfast got me to thinking about the cultural co-belligerence of different Christians and the debt that I owe Catholics for their great work in the theology of the body. Recent trends within evangelical and post-evangelical circles regarding sexuality led to a serious brouhaha earlier this year. One of the main criticisms against my own arguments deserves an answer: Christians must not simply be against bad sexual morality but should also affirm a good one.
Space forbids a satisfactory exploration of human sexuality, but I think we can garner from the Genesis narrative and subsequent biblical exposition that sex is good, unifies man and woman into “one flesh,” produces physical fruitfulness and blessing in offspring, can yield spiritual fruitfulness in virtue and co-formation, and serves as an icon of Christ and His Church. Whether sex is good or not has never been up for debate in thinking orthodox Christian circles. Education, however, has become difficult on the moral front thanks to an overly-permissive society that complies with a pornography culture, a purely biological anthropology, and increasingly delayed maturity and marriage (the two go hand-in-hand). On the whole, the evangelical approach to talking about fornication in particular has been ham-handed and warrants criticism. Nevertheless, the role of chastity outside of marriage remains not only admirable, but crucial.
Because sex rightly understood is such a good and important gift, it is not wrong for Christians or anyone else to try to defend it from harm or perversion. Both pornography and fornication—as well as lust in general—threaten the sanctity of the marriage bed. In Christianity, the husband loves his wife qua his wife; the wife loves her husband qua her husband. As Canon Scott Houser so clearly illustrated in one of his Anglican Way Institute lectures (starting around minute 26:11), that forbids imagining your spouse as someone else. You are not loving your husband himself or wife herself when you are trying to ignore their self or unique personhood while extracting pleasure from them as an object. In such a case, sex itself becomes a selfish end rather than a sacrificial means to union.
Visceral images and experiences come back to haunt those who have engaged in pornography and fornication. In other words, these lustful stumblingblocks to marriage only become an object of thought once you commit the sin. The great harm of sexual sin is not that someone becomes “used goods” but instead that these behaviors become a liability in a marriage, whether future or present. People that trespass sexually and are repentant should not be shamed, but they will have to wrestle through some difficult issues in their matrimony. There can be healing, yet the possible burden of past indiscretions can weigh one down in the race set before all Christians.
Sex is a means of producing children as well as the physical-spiritual union between a man and a woman. Since it is more than mutually-consented pleasure, it is meet and right for the church to enforce any clearly revealed limits and ends, marriage being the most significant. Sex has covenantal and sacramental commitments tied to it that can only be fulfilled in marriage. Evangelicals—sometimes awkwardly—are grasping to explain and defend these notions. Attempts may fail, but at least they are trying. It was just as much a cruelty for the relatively liberal mainline church of my childhood to never warn about sexual sin, much less talk about it. Furthermore, just because some Christians fail to communicate or even instantiate this does not mean that every Christian gets to trespass in the sacred realm of sexuality.
So, to critics of Christian standards for sexuality, fornication does indicate a lack of commitment. In marriage, spouses give all of themselves to be united as one; they must not treat one another as a toy while past encounters wander through their mind. Because the marital covenant demands everything for the other, “trying out” people before matrimony is a lack of commitment and moral courage. Much-maligned sexual purity frees a person from burdens that could inhibit or pressure marriage to a future spouse. And yes, this means denying appetites from the “flesh”—not the good body God gave us, but that part of our humanity that has not yet been fully transformed by the Gospel.