We need to talk about sex. But what I have to say might be unpredictable. It would probably result in my being relieved of duties from about fifty percent of churches worldwide, and my being ignored in another twenty-five percent. But I’m not employed by those churches, which means I have less to lose than those who need to hear this. And they should hear it.
As is well-known by now, John Gibson, a pastor and seminary professor, committed suicide after being identified for his involvement with the company called Ashley Madison, which arranges extramarital affairs. Regardless of the finer details of this tragedy, many have given cause for its public discussion. Some cite forgiveness and guilt as a reason; others cite adulterous relationships; still others claim the story has merit for the topic of religious leadership; and yet still more people may point to a perceived epidemic of sexual addiction. While each of these topics is worth attention, they are merely the branches on a tree with a serious issue of root decay.
Those roots are unreasonable expectations resulting from the direct idolization of both celibacy and the marital vow.
If you’ve continued reading: congratulations. You may be one of the twenty-five percent I mentioned earlier that would expectably listen. So you’ll be interested in what is meant by the claim just above. That claim means this: we as Christians have become so addicted to expecting perfection that such an expectation not only sets people up for failure, it results in serious emotional, psychological, and physical damage.
Do we expect marriage to be entirely satisfying? Then we should not marry. Do we expect sexual relations in marriage to be closed off and functional? Then we can expect to experience something similar to the pastor’s Ashley Madison scenario.
Why is this so? Consider how often, if you are somewhat seasoned in church life, we hear of people vowing to remain celibate until marriage. Are we aware that the harder people vow such a thing, the more likely they are to abandon such a commitment? And those who abandon it are not, in this church climate, going to be very forward about breaking it to their future intended spouse. So marriages of this arrangement are already set on a weak foundation not because of premarital sex, but because of the already practiced over-zealousness to protect secret sexual acts, acts that—within reason—should not be so big an issue as to warrant deceit.
Consider as well the issue of sexual abuse in the church. A specific number of Roman Catholic priests are not the only perpetrators of such a behavior, but the situation in which they find themselves is worth discussing in this context. One of the vows Catholic priests make is to remain chaste while ordained. This means no sexual activity of any kind.
Many Roman Catholic theologians have argued this stance is justified because Christ claimed that some eunuchs (those males who are unable to have sexual relations to the fullest extent possible) “have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12). And yet in context, Christ’s words are about those who have been castrated (especially justified by the phrase prior to the quoted verse, which states some eunuchs “have been that way since birth”). This theological position of celibacy therefore begs the question: unless the Roman Church is willing to castrate males set aside before puberty for the priesthood, which at this point would be seen as barbaric, the insistence on celibacy seems to be playing a game with the natural laws of God, and it results in some cases in an already barbaric act: a violation of those who are already functional eunuchs—children. Those who are able to have sexual relations to the fullest extent possible should not be led to deny that such a state of being exists within them. To do so only defines the act of sex as if it is something wicked, when in reality it is a natural God-given endowment for specific purposes. In addition, those that argue priests are “married to the Church” create problems of their own, namely that it logically infers a number of troubling issues: the Church can be polygamous (since all priests are married to it), and marriage does not and/or cannot involve sexual relations (which it always has, by Roman Catholic standards). Perhaps denying something God has ordained from the beginning of creation is one good reason (and the only one necessary, I might add) for negative consequences to result.
And yet, Protestant theology has not been immune to its own irrational collective behavior surrounding sex and marriage. The issue of the untenable claim to remain celibate until marriage has already been discussed, but it is not the only untenable practice. Those who claim that premarital sex is immoral often claim that such a definition is justified since premarital sex is “extra-marital”—in other words, outside of the marriage bond. To this, the following counter might be leveled: what marriage…the marriage that does not yet exist? If so, how can one be having relations “outside” of it? If, strictly for example, I do not have a pool in my backyard, am I guilty of standing outside of its boundaries? Those willing to claim marriage already exists as a foreordained “given” would have some explaining to do at this point, since even if the pool is mine in the future I cannot be outside of it until it exists. And this begs another question: what value does the actual act of a marriage ceremony have, if one is to behave as if the marriage already exists in some way? Apparently none more than to reveal what has always existed, instead of to declare, commit and henceforth exclusively support each other as partners. And if this were true, the ceremony and vows wouldn’t need to be done—all that two married people would have ever been doing is “within the marriage covenant,” whether knowing each other or not, with each other or not. Such a stance would seem to be, in actuality, more tantamount to the desecration of marriage than any sexual act before it.
And still, many people expect that if they stay chaste, their marriages will be perfect; that if they stay away from sex, then they will automatically be sexually compatible with their partner once married; that if they sexually experience as little as possible as a pair, sexual behavior in the marriage will be satisfying for that pair. Well. Please forgive me, but no one has an affair because their marital sex is hot, heavy, indulgent, satisfying and openly explored by the two people involved. They have affairs sometimes due to unrealistic expectations that it should always be satisfying, and sometimes due to unrealistic expectations that the bare minimum or an ignorant de-facto state of being should be enough. When we continue to hold marriage as the be-all-end-all of our relationship involvement and sex as the be-all-end-all of our level of commitment, we not only sequester ourselves from experience and discussion that might indeed save a marriage or help it thrive, we also put far too much of a burden on our partner, which can only foment adultery.
Celibacy and marriage had better not be our affairs against God.