The true sexual revolution took place in the 50s and 60s, not the 1950s and 1960s. It was in that generation, more than in ours, that a new vision of sexuality burst in upon an unsuspecting world. The implications took several centuries to work their way through society as a whole, changing sexual relationships forever. But all of them trace their history back to a handful of letters written by the apostle Paul to a group of churches in the eastern Mediterranean. The most striking of these – we might even say notorious – was to the church in the city of Corinth.
Roman Corinth, like the contemporary West, seems to have had a view of sex that was both too high and too low at the same time. In some ways they prized it too much, treating it as something of a god, and needed to be taught that a celibate life was not just possible, but actually preferable. But in other ways they prized it too little, seeing it merely as a natural bodily function, with no mystery or spirituality or transcendence. Our culture does much the same, seeing sex as everything one minute (how can you live a full life without it?), and as nothing the next (why does it even matter who we have sex with?)
History, theology and culture
That makes Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians hugely valuable for us, in at least three ways. At a historical level, it reminds us of something which we easily forget: that we have been here before. Ours is not the first generation to be characterised by an obsession with sex, widespread immorality and abuse, boastfulness about sexual licence, and confusion about who gets to sleep with whom. If anything, the Greco-Roman world was more messed up on this stuff than we are. The real sexual revolution, as historians like Kyle Harper have shown, was not the promiscuity that has transformed the West since the 1960s. It was the insistence on faithful monogamy – in a way that constrained men but liberated women – that transformed the Roman empire through the influence of early Christianity. 1
At a theological level, Paul gives us some priceless teaching that explains not only how sex should and should not be used, but why. And his reasons are not the ones that Christian young people are often given today. They are not trivial or self-interested (‘if you wait until marriage then your sex life will be better’, for instance, or ‘you’re less likely to catch a sexually transmitted infection that way’). Rather, they are unashamedly theological.
All of his reasons are connected to the big picture, to the central themes of Christian teaching. Paul connects sex to our doctrine of the Church: ‘A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough’ (1 Corinthians 5:6). He connects it to our understanding of salvation: ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified’ (1 Corinthians 6:11). He links it to our anthropology: ‘Your bodies are members of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 6:15), and then a few verses later, ‘your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). He connects it to eschatology: ‘The time is short’ (1 Corinthians 7:29). Paul is continually drawing us back to the theological reasons for Christian sexual ethics, rather than simply giving the Corinthians a list of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’. That helps us understand the restrictions God places on sex and makes those restrictions a lot more compelling.
Paul is continually drawing us back to the theological reasons for Christian sexual ethics, rather than simply giving the Corinthians a list of ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’
And at a cultural level, Paul’s method here has a huge amount to teach us. For those of us who are following Jesus in the contemporary West, Christian sexual ethics look increasingly arbitrary. (I heard someone remark that God’s preference for sex within heterosexual marriage, rather than sex outside of it, can look to many people like a preference for red and black Jelly Babies rather than green and yellow ones.) In that cultural context, it is crucial that we learn from Paul’s method here, and continually look to frame our teaching on sexual ethics in the context of a much bigger story about God, the world and the gospel. It is only by communicating what sex is – what it means, what it represents, what it is for – that we will be able to help people make sense of why God cares who we sleep with, and why his instructions are good.
My friend Sam Allberry tells the story of a friend who has a very bizarre spoon in his sugar bowl. It is a bit larger than a teaspoon, but it has a big hole in the middle, so it is unable to carry sugar, salt, cocoa, or pretty much anything for which you would need a teaspoon. When he has people round, he enjoys watching them try to work out how to use it, and whether they are doing something wrong. Eventually he reveals that it’s an olive spoon, and that it is meant to have a hole in it so that you can drain the liquid as you lift the olive to your mouth. ‘You can’t make sense of the way the spoon is without understanding what it’s for’, Sam explains. And then comes the punchline: ‘It is true of my friend’s olive spoon and it is true of our sexuality.’ 2
It’s an important observation. Frequently, cultural conversations about sexual ethics take place on the basis that everyone knows what sex is for – basically, physical enjoyment and/or emotional connection – and the only disagreement is over what limits you should put on it: age, consent, the number and sex of your partner(s), whether you are related to them, whether you are married to them, and so on. Sex, so the thinking goes, is just an enjoyable physical bonding experience between two consenting adults, like tandem skydiving, only cheaper (and without clothes on). The only question is whether you’re going to be bigoted about who gets to do it with whom.
But the Christian vision of sex is far deeper than that. It is not less than the contemporary view – it certainly is an enjoyable physical bonding experience between two consenting adults – but it is an awful lot more. So, before we get into a debate over who gets to do what with whom, we need to do what Paul does, and ask a much deeper and richer question. What is sex for?
The meaning of sex
An obvious answer, and one we should not overlook, is that the primary purpose of sex is to have children. 3 Everything that makes it delightful – physical, emotional, hormonal, spiritual – is designed to strengthen the bond between husband and wife and enable us to face the challenges of pregnancy, birth and parenthood together. It is easy to forget this in a society where it is so common to have sex without children (through contraception) and children without sex (through IVF). But it is clearly foundational to what sex is for, from ‘be fruitful and multiply’ onwards (Genesis 1:28). Sex points towards children, biblically speaking. To make love is to give yourself up, not just to the person before you, but to the little person who may come after you.
If we stand much further back, however, we notice that sex is about creation. Think for a moment about Genesis 1: the entire structure of creation is made up of complementary pairs, which are distinguished from one another as part of God’s creative design. In the beginning, the earth is ‘formless and empty’, and God’s creative work consists of making distinctions between things, or separating things, to bring about order and life. We get light and dark, day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, sun and moon, male and female. Sex – which until very recently just meant ‘male’ or ‘female’, rather than ‘sexual intercourse’ – mirrors the one-to-one harmony, the complementarity, the ‘fit’, that exists throughout creation.
We don’t have two days for every one night; we have one of each. We don’t get life if we have earth above and earth below (which is basically what a cave is), or sky above and sky below (which is basically what a gas giant like Jupiter is); we get life through having one of each, with the sky above producing water and the earth below receiving it and bearing forth life. (I’m guessing the sexual parallels don’t need a diagram.) And just as male and female are separated in creation, but with a view to being united again in marriage, so the heavens and the earth will ultimately be united in cosmic ‘marriage’ in the New Creation (Revelation 21). Two will become one, and those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.
Sex is also about worship. Biblically, there is a connection between the number of gods you worship and the number of sexual partners you have. The Ten Commandments demand an exclusive approach to worship (‘you shall have no other gods but me’) and an exclusive approach to sexuality (effectively, ‘you shall have no other husbands/wives but him/her’). When Israel violates one, from the golden calf incident onwards, she usually violates the other. The book of Hosea develops this image in particularly graphic detail, picturing God as a faithful husband and Israel as his prostitute wife, but many other biblical writers present idolatry as an act of sexual immorality with other gods: ‘They whored after other gods and bowed down to them’ (Judges 2:17). Paul makes the point that idolatry is mirrored in sexual immorality, with both involving the abandonment of one God/partner who is different from you, in exchange for many gods/partners who are the same as you (Romans 1:18-27). Our sexuality reflects our worship. Faithfulness in one reflects faithfulness in the other.
Sexual relations, shared between a husband and a wife within the context of marriage, offer a profound parable of the Christian message.
And sex is about the gospel. Sexual relations, shared between a husband and a wife within the context of marriage, offer a profound parable of the Christian message. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife’, says Paul, ‘and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church’ (Ephesians 5:31-32). We make promises, we forsake all others, we exchange rings, we celebrate with a meal, we share all our worldly possessions, we take on a new family name, and then we have sex as a physical seal of our commitment, trusting that out of it God will bring forth new life, and celebrating our union with and surrender to one another.
Each of those steps preaches the gospel. Jesus promises never to leave us or abandon us. We promise to forsake all other gods, as long as we both shall live. He gives us a gift that seals the covenant (his Holy Spirit), and provides a meal for us to celebrate with the whole family (bread and wine). All his possessions become ours, and all our debts become his. We take on his name. We enter into union with Christ and get baptised in water as a physical seal of our commitment, trusting that out of it, God will bring forth new life, and celebrating our union with and surrender to one another.
Sex is a beautiful thing, a loving gift from a bountiful and abundant God. But it is not an ultimate thing. It is a shadow, a parable, a silhouette whose true fulfilment is found in the love that God has for his people. It is a signpost to another reality, and it is this that makes it mysterious, meaningful and transcendent. This is the true sexual revolution.
Sex is a signpost to another reality, and it is this that makes it mysterious, meaningful and transcendent.
Many find it surprising when they discover how much of our richest teaching on sexuality, marriage and New Creation comes from single people. John the friend of the bridegroom, Paul the best man, Jesus himself, and countless priests, popes, monks, nuns and other single believers have spent decades reflecting on, praying for and anticipating the wedding of Christ and the Church.
In many ways, however, it is not surprising at all. Married people, assuming that sex is ultimately there for us and our spouse, can get so preoccupied with the picture that we forget the ultimate reality, like someone at Victoria Falls watching video footage of it on their phone. Single people often know better. Sex is a signpost. It is but a glimpse of a relationship, a union and a happiness that are grander and deeper than our wildest imagining. ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ (Revelation 19:9).
- Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013).
- Sam Allberry, 7 Myths About Singleness (Crossway, 2019), p.105.
- The next few paragraphs are adapted from the chapter on sex in my book, God of Things (Zondervan Reflective, 2021).