Sexual Expression, Identity, and Jesus

One of the big questions that comes up in many discussions about gender and sexual identity today is whether limiting sexual expression (as Christianity and other religions do) actually suppresses a person’s fundamental identity and self-expression by not allowing them to express love in the way they feel inclined.

In his book Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, Sam Allbery points out something that has been widely recognized and discussed: that Western society has made sexuality the foundation of self-understanding. Sexual behavior, in this way, is seen as the primary means of self-expression. To restrict sexual behavior, therefore, is seen as stopping someone from being who they are.

As Sam explains, this is a very problematic way to think.

The problem with this is that it leads us to think that a life without this is barely a life worth living: that those who, for any reason, are unable to fulfill their sexual desires are missing out on the one true chance they have of being fully who they are.

We need to realize how damaging this message could be to someone. It raises the stakes dangerously high. To say to someone that the person they sleep with is their primary means of self-expression is to imply that a sexually unfulfilled life is no real life at all.

Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, pp. 102-103

See also: Book Review: Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?

Does Sex = Love?

The assumption, common in modern pop culture that sex = love leads to the assumption that anything which seems to curtail sexual freedom is accused of being unloving.

However, everyone would agree that there is more than one way to love, and that different contexts call for different types of love. For example, the way you love your mother is different than the way you love your spouse, which is different than the way you love your dog. Each is a love, but the loves are different, and they are necessarily different. The love for a spouse should look different than the love for a dog, or the love for pizza.

Allberry goes on to explain that obedience to God will never mean we end up loving people less. God isn’t calling people to love others less, only to love them differently, which will really mean loving them more.

Allberry also points out that there are several cases in which the Bible limits sexual expression. For example, the Bible forbids sexual activity between biological siblings, even if they are romantically attracted to each other. This is not saying that they can’t love each other, only that the way they are wanting to love each other is not actually how they have been designed to love each other. Furthermore, God’s command is based on what is truly best for us.

Allberry then points out something that everyone can relate to and agree with:

Virtually all of us will find ourselves attracted to people whom God says we shouldn’t sleep with. All of us have to say no to certain romantic and sexual desires. It’s not because we’re against love – it’s because we’re for it, in the right sense.

Sam Allberry, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, p. 116

A Full Life and the Only Love that Has the Power to Define Us

It is important to remember that Jesus Christ, the truest and fullest person who ever lived, who the Bible tells us was “anointed with the oil gladness above all his companions” (i.e.: He was a fulfilled, happy person!), lived a celibate life. What we learn from Jesus and from Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 7, is that a person can live a full and rich life apart from sexual expression. Sex, according to the Bible, is a gift of God to humanity, but not the basis of human identity.

Sam Allberry also points out how the Apostle John shows us a better way to think about identity. John was the disciple who in his Gospel account referred to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” Rather than finding his ultimate identity in his attractions, he found his identity in the person who loved him the most: Jesus. This, above all else, is the love that has the power to truly define us.

Reader Questions: Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy & Responding to Christian Perfectionism

There is a feature here on the site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Here are some recent questions that came in:

Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy

Is there a book or message series you can recommend to help rebuild sexual intimacy in marriage?

I’m sure there are other resources out there, but the one I am familiar with and can recommend is Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage

Responding to Christian Perfectionism

I have a Christian forum at my place of employment. One employee regularly posts statements in line with a ‘sinless perfection’ doctrine and encourages others to listen to Jesse Peterson (which I know nothing about.)  

Essentially, this employee constantly insists that if we are still sinning we are hypocrites and is adamant we shouldn’t listen to others or read the Bible but should just ‘know’ God, we should ‘just be’ (insert confused emoji here), and sin is hate, the only way to receive eternal life is to forgive. I dismiss his theology – he makes no sense – and despite support from the Word of God, he continues his posts – because he doesn’t value the word of God.  

Do you have any thoughts on how I can redirect his skewed theology, while helping the other members of this group also dismiss this line of thinking?

One way to respond might be to point out how this kind of theology has been dismissed and rejected by Christians throughout history. John Wesley, for example, who taught a form of Christian perfectionism at one point (unsurprisingly, when he was younger), later changed his position on the topic.

My guess is that other people on the site probably see the wackiness of what he’s writing and aren’t swayed by it. A smart, simple response will be gladly received by most people in the group therefore, but don’t let the group get focused on responding to everything he says. Don’t let the squeaky wheel get all the grease, in other words. You’ve got bigger fish to fry. Sorry for piling on the idioms!

The most compelling Biblical arguments against Christian perfectionism I can think of are:

  • Romans 7
  • 1 John
  • 1 Timothy 1:15

Martin Luther famously stated that the Christian is Justus et pecator (both righteous and a sinner). We have been declared righteous in Jesus; his righteousness has been accounted to us by grace through faith – and yet, we still sin.

When the Bible talks about salvation, it is important to note that it speaks of it in comprehensive terms: it says that we have been saved (past tense), we are being saved (present continuous tense), and we will be saved (future tense).

We have been saved (think: “It is finished”) from the penalty of sin by what Jesus did for us in the past. We are being saved (sanctification) from the power of sin as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” and yet “it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). And we will be saved, in the future, from the very presence of sin, when Jesus comes and saves us from the very presence of sin.

Romans 7

In Romans 7 Paul speaks about his experience of struggling with sin. Some in the Christian perfectionist circles will claim that Paul is writing about his life before his conversion, but that argument doesn’t hold much water because Paul speaks about his sin in the present tense.

1 John

In 1 John, John says things like, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8). 1 John is a favorite book, by the way, of Christian perfectionism advocates, because of its black-and-white language about righteousness, obedience, and sin. However, it is important to note that John is talking about a pattern of life, not about individual sins.

It’s about what you practice. Think about things you practice, and why you practice them: you practice the guitar, you practice your golf swing. Why? So you can do them better. A person who practices sin habitually and willfully truly needs to ask the question of if they are actually in the faith at all.

In Christ, we have become “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A sheep and a pig are two different creations. They both might fall in the mud on occasion, but the pig lives for the mud. The mud is what the pig dreams about, and the goal of its life is to get in that mud! A sheep, on the other hand, might fall in the mud, but that’s not where it wants to be. This is the essence of John’s point about sin and righteous living in 1 John.

I wrote something recently related to 1 John and the topic of Christian perfectionism. Check it out here.

1 Timothy 1:15

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

If you read through Paul’s descriptions of himself as he progressed in life and in relationship with Jesus, you’ll notice this:

  1. In Philippians 3, he wrote that according to the law, he was blameless.
  2. Later on, in 1 Corinthians 15:9, he describes himself as “the least of all the Apostles”
  3. Even later on in life, in 1 Timothy 1:15, he describes himself as the chief of all sinners.

As Paul progressed through life, he did not become more and more enamored with himself, but he actually saw himself as more and more of a sinner – yet one who was loved by God and a recipient of His grace.

The reason for this is because, the closer you get to God, the more you become aware of your shortcomings, much like how: the more light there is in the bathroom, the more clearly you see your blemishes in the mirror – and like how, the older you get and the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

The point is not that Christian maturity means thinking less and less of yourself, but that as you become more aware of your flaws, you are more thrilled by the grace and love of God as you realize more and more how much you need it!

The Danger of Christian Perfectionism

The great danger of Christian perfectionism theology is that it places an unbearable burden on a person, and it leads to either pride or despair.

If you tell someone that if they are really in the faith that they won’t sin anymore, then when they are doing well, and not falling into temptation, they will be puffed up with pride and look down on those whom they observe sinning. Conversely, when they (inevitably) do commit some sin, they will immediately be forced to question their own salvation, and if they are even saved at all.

The good news of the gospel is that our salvation is the work of God! It is based on what He did for you, not on the things that you do or don’t do. Even if you slip, the good news of the gospel is that He is holding onto your hand, and He won’t let you go!

Submit a Question or Topic

Thanks for these questions. If you have a question or topic, fill out this form: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

Book Review: Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?

Sam Allbery is an Anglican pastor from Maidenhead, England, who also works with Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM)Cedarville University, and writes for The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of a number of books, including Is God Anti-Gay?, and 7 Myths about Singleness.

I was introduced to Sam last year when he spoke at the Calvary Global Network conference. See: Sam Allbery on Sexual Ethics and Moral Intuition

One thing that is worth knowing about Sam is that by his own admonition, he has only ever had romantic desires and sexual attraction to other men, yet he has chosen to live a celibate life of devotion to God.

When I saw that Sam’s latest book “Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?,” was being released, I preordered a copy. Upon my return from my recent trip to Europe, I was happy to see that the book had arrived while I was away, and I used the first week of my quarantine to read it from cover to cover.

The Supreme Human Right?

Sam begins his book by answering the question in the title of the book:

Just fifteen years ago Christians like me, who follow the teaching of the Bible, would have been thought of as old-fashioned for holding to the traditional Christian understanding of sex being exclusively for marriage, but now, increasingly, we are thought of as being dangerous to society.

Who we sleep with is seen as a supreme human right. Anything that seems to constrain our choice in this area is somehow viewed as an existential threat.

God cares who we sleep with because he cares deeply about the people who are doing the sleeping. He cares because sex was his idea, not ours. He cares because misusing sex can profoundly hurt and damage. He cares because he regards us as worthy of his care.

Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, pp. 9-10

Honoring Sacred Space

One of Allberry’s key points of argument is to show that the Bible does not take a low view of sex, seeing it as something dirty and unholy, but just the opposite: it takes a much higher view of our physical bodies and what we do with them than the secular world does, describing them as “temples” (1 Corinthians 6:19) and therefore sacred space.

It is precisely because of this high view of the physical body that God cares so much about sex, insisting that this powerful thing be used in the right ways, lest it cause pain and destruction.

He points out that when Jesus says that for a man to look lustfully at a woman is to break the commandment against adultery, Jesus is declaring that the sexuality of the person being looked at is precious and valuable: an integrity that deserves to be honored, and must not be violated, even in the privacy of another person’s mind, and to do so is to wrong that person.

Jesus’ teaching reflects something we see throughout the whole Bible: how we treat one another sexually matters a great deal to God.

Any sexual assault is a violation of sacred space.

The pain of sexual assault is not the pain of a grazed knee but the trauma of holy space being desecrated. Maybe our bodies are less like playthings and more like temples.

pp. 19, 20, 30

The reason our bodies matter so much is because of the Imago Dei (the Image of God) with which we are endowed uniquely as human beings. It is for this reason that we believe that all human life, regardless of physical ability or disability, income or education level, is equal in value.

There is something sacred about human life.

We [all] know that human life matters in a unique way. When someone treats a pet life a human, we think it a bit odd. But when someone treats a human being like an animal, we know deep down that it is terribly wrong.

When we fawn over a baby, we’re not coldly observing a mere organism. We’re beholding one who bears divine finger prints. And because a human being is the sacred product of sex, the sexual process by which that person is made is also sacred.

p. 35

Holy Fire

Sam Allberry describes the power of sex with the metaphor of fire: where you do it matters. In the fireplace of a house it can create heat and light which brings warmth and life. Lighting one elsewhere can be dangerous, destructive, and life-threatening. The context matters.

Furthermore, he points out that the purpose of sex is unification and giving. To use it in a way which does not serve these purposes is to take it out of the life-giving context.

Not Just Physical

God cares who we sleep with because God cares about us as people. Sex deeply affects the whole person: physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

When someone is sexually assaulted or when someone is sexually betrayed, it is not just their body that is attacked; they as a person are violated.

p. 51

Redemption

One of Sam Allberry’s emphases in this book is that while he wants to explain the biblical and theological reasoning behind the Bible’s sexual ethics, he also wants to communicate the Bible’s message of redemption for those who have fallen short.

He points out that not only are all of us sinners, all of us are sexual sinners – and the promise of the gospel is forgiveness, redemption, and new life in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

This book is short, informative, and engaging. It answers several very commonly asked questions, which are only going to be asked more and more in the years to come, including questions about LGBTQ and co-habitation. Everyone would do well to educate themselves on the answers to these questions, and this book by Sam Allberry is an excellent resource for doing so.

How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

photo of couple facing each other during golden hour

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have big trouble with The Song of Solomon. It’s often used for looking at marital intimacy, but I’m always thinking: ‘Which wife is Solomon talking about?’ He had so many. And it seems as if having all these wives was just a way of committing adultery (legally). So then I don’t understand why people use these verses to look at the loveliness of marriage?

I referred to the Song of Solomon this past Sunday in my sermon titled: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality”, which was the final installment in our series called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”.

The Song of Solomon is important theologically because it extols marital intimacy, showing romantic love as being for the purpose of enjoyment and the binding of spouses together, not only for the purpose of procreation. This stands in contrast to many ancient (and modern) views on sexuality which extol asceticism (the denial of pleasure) and eschew physical pleasure.

What We Know

According to the first verse of Song of Solomon, this is a song written by Solomon. This would make it one of the 1005 songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32), but the title “Song of Songs” (S.o.S. 1:1) is a superlative, meaning that this is the best of all his songs.

Based on 1 Kings 4:32, it is assumed this song was written early in Solomon’s reign.

It is a lyrical poem, and the main character is a “Shulamite woman”. Shulamite simply means “from Jerusalem” – so this woman is from Jerusalem. This is important, because the first marriage of Solomon’s that we’re told about in 1 Kings 3:1 is his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he brought to his palace in Jerusalem.

So the big question is this: Who is the Shulamite woman? Several suggestions have been made, as I will outline in the next section.

Four Possible Interpretations

It has been said that “perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies.”[1] Here are the four most popular:

1. Allegorical Interpretation

This view sees the sensuous descriptions of love as a picture of the love between God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This view was very common in the Middle Ages. Its weakness is that it runs the risk of diminishing the book’s endorsement of marital intimacy. Virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, many would say that it also sheds light on the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (see Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology Interpretation

This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection of poems or lyrics, arranged around the common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—celebrating love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding rejects the idea that the book contains a narrative plot.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

This is an interesting hypothesis which became popular in the 1800’s. It says that the Shulamite woman and the shepherd boy are two peasants who are in love, and King Solomon is seeking to win the woman’s into his harem. The woman ultimately resists Solomon’s flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd.

Several evangelical interpreters advocate this interpretation, because it accounts for what we know about Solomon having many wives later in life, but its weakness is that it does not give us any way of knowing when the shepherd is speaking and when Solomon is speaking. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other) favor the idea that there are only two lovers. Also, it would mean that Solomon wrote this song, in which he portrayed himself as the bad guy, and praised the love of this couple. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

The following outline shows how the Shepherd Hypothesis understands the structure of the book:

  1. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  2. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  3. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  4. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  5. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

The most common interpretation today is that the Song of Solomon a story about King Solomon and the Shulammite woman. Here is the outline:

  1. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  2. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  3. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  4. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  5. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

The only problem with this view, is that we don’t know who this Shulamite woman is. It is possible, that Solomon is singing this about the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he dubs a “Shulamite”, since he has brought her to Jerusalem. Another suggestion is that prior to his wedding with the daughter of Pharaoh in 1 Kings 3:1, Solomon was married to another woman from Jerusalem, which 1 Kings never tells us about, and this song is a poetic retelling of that relationship.

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

According to 1 Kings, it was only later in life that Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture and started accumulating many wives. So it is entirely possible that at the time he wrote this song, his romantic interests were not yet tainted, and what we read about in this book is indeed the portrayal of something pure and beautiful.

1 Kings 11 makes it clear that Solomon turned away from the Lord in his heart, and the Lord was not pleased with what Solomon did. Many times, especially in the Old Testament, the Bible “reports the news” and leaves it to us to determine if what they did was good or not, based on what we know about God’s character and standards. Clearly, what Solomon did with his many wives was sin, and not an example for us to follow.

For more on this topic, check out: Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

Solomon is a classic example of someone who started well, but did not finish well. Whereas his early life is an inspiration, his later life is a warning.

It has been said, “The last mile is the least crowded.” May we be those who finish well in this life of faith!

 

Sam Allberry on Sexual Ethics & Moral Intuition

I spent last week in Southern California for the Calvary Global Network (CGN) international conference. There was a great line up speakers, including Ray OrtlandJared C. Wilson, Mark Sayers, and Sam Allberry.

All the messages from the conference are available online here.

Sam’s message, “Gospel Confidence in a Sexually Shifting Culture” (video below) was particularly helpful.

Image result for sam allberrySam is a pastor from Maidenhead, England, who also works with Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM), Cedarville University, and writes for The Gospel Coalition.

He recently wrote a short and helpful book about Christian sexual ethics, in which he also talks about his own experience of same-sex attraction, titled “Is God anti-gay?”.

 

Key Points from Sam’s Message

In the West, we live in a place where people’s “moral intuitions” have shifted. People are not morally relative, nor are they amoral. Rather, their “intuition” of what defines morality has changed. People now base their determination of morality on these questions:

  1. Is it fair, or does it discriminate?
  2. Is it freeing, or is it oppressive?
  3. Is it harmful, or benign?

Anything seen as limiting freedom is seen as creating an existential conflict.

As a result, whereas biblical sexual ethics in the 1950’s-1980’s, for example, were considered prudish, they are now considered immoral.

What is needed is for us to learn to listen well, show people the goodness of God and provide a true and better narrative.

It’s worth listening to Sam’s entire message. Here is the video of it, as well as a follow-up interview he did afterward.

Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

In the latest episode of the Longmont Pastor Video Series, Mike and I sat down to discuss the often-asked question of what the Bible says about sex between two consenting adults who are not married.

While the Bible clearly prohibits adultery, does it ever actually prohibit sex before marriage? Or what about polygamy? It seems that many of the Bible’s “heroes” practiced it, so why do Christians believe it is wrong?

Check out our discussion of these topics: