Sex and the Church

My, how things have changed.

This past November, the Rev. Ed Young of Fellowship Church in Dallas drew nationwide attention when he challenged married couples in his congregation to have sex for seven straight days as a way of improving their relationships.

Many other prominent ministers also promote the raptures of physical love, and several travel the country offering wildly popular seminars on the Song of Solomon.

Outside the pulpit, on Christian Web sites, the good news gets downright purple. One site, themarriagebed.com, offers explicit advice on masturbation, oral sex and whether it’s OK to videotape your lovemaking (in a word-yes). And a Web site called Book 22–the name is a reference to Song of Solomon, the Old Testament’s 22nd book–sells everything from edible massage oils to vibrating “marital aids.”

The underlying message might be described as: Have a blast!

Critics have decried all this as a sign the church is devolving into the hedonism of the larger, secular culture.

But in conversations with Everyday Christian, several Christian leaders who extol the benefits of sex argued the opposite. They all promote traditional standards, they said: that God created sex and instituted rules for it, that it should be confined to marriage, and that it’s only one aspect of a relationship rather than the relationship’s central purpose.

However, they said, Christians have long suffered from a vacuum of information about healthy, appropriate sexuality and from a conspiracy of silence based in prudishness, not in biblical truth.

A general decline in sexual morality

These leaders agreed that sexual morality in the United States has changed dramatically for the worse over the past few decades. The result, they said, has been a maelstrom of emotional pain: broken hearts, promiscuity, divorces, unplanned pregnancies, extramarital affairs, sexually transmitted diseases.

“Rather than the church influencing the culture, the culture has influenced the church to accept far too many of the destructive aspects of sex,” said Dr. Andrew Boswell, director of crisis marriage programs at the Family Dynamics Institute in Franklin, Tenn., which teaches marriage-enrichment courses all over the United States.

Christians live in the same country as everyone else, said Kyle Idleman, teaching minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., which draws 18,000 worshipers each weekend.

The church and the larger culture always move along “parallel lines,” he said, in which Christian morality stays just a step above that of the secular society. As the standards of the broader culture have fallen, Christian standards have, too.

Idleman has taught on sex from Southeast Christian’s pulpit and participates in two or three large Song of Solomon conferences each year.

“I would call it a need,” he said. “I think the consequences of not doing things God’s way in this have caught up with people.”

Similarly, Tommy Nelson, senior pastor of Denton Bible Church, a 5,000-member congregation in Texas, said that 50 years ago American society as a whole believed sex ought to be reserved for marriage.

But today’s churchgoers, he said, have grown up in a world in which premarital sex, cohabitation before marriage, pornography and homosexuality are accepted as norms. About one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys are sexually exploited.

When couples come to his church’s staff for pre-marriage counseling, Nelson said, it’s not uncommon for the ministers to find the couple are already living together. And the ministers rarely encounter a couple in which both the man and woman were raised in intact families with two biological parents who remained married to each other.

“So the consensus doesn’t work anymore,” Nelson said.

He used to travel the country teaching 10 six-hour conferences a year on the Song of Solomon. Those events typically drew 1,000 to 2,500 people, sometimes more.

“I got tired,” he said. “I just ran out of juice about three years ago.”

Still, if a minister today isn’t willing to address sex forthrightly, Nelson said, “you’d better be Amish. Your church is going to fold if you don’t speak to it.”

Walking a fine line

Discussions of sex always run the risk of making people uncomfortable-especially when they’re sitting in church pews.

A controversy has arisen in some quarters over how plain-spoken church leaders ought to be when they talk about this subject. That is, how can they address intimate issues in terms explicit enough to be helpful but without crossing a line into titillation?

Dr. David Tolliver, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention in Jefferson City, Mo., said he’s bothered by a trend toward increasing frankness about sex from pastors.

“I don’t think vulgarity has any place in the pulpit,” he said. For some ministers, “it’s kind of a shock-jock sort of thing.”

He’s not against sermons on the Song of Solomon or sexual morality per se.

“You cross the line when you use particular words,” he said, referring to slang terms for body parts or certain acts.

When he was a pastor, Tolliver preached in favor of sexual abstinence among unmarried teenagers and fidelity within marriage, but he had limits on what he’d say.

In one such sermon, “I said, ‘I enjoy sex with my wife . . . and that’s as much detail as you’re going to get out of me.’ “

Mainly, though, the church leaders who spoke with Everyday Christian said they’ve received few if any criticisms for their teachings.

“We do not eroticize our explanations of sex,” said Terry Northcutt, a colleague of Andrew Boswell at the Family Dynamics Institute. “We discuss sex in the safe, secure confines of a healthy marriage, showing how God designed sexual union to be a beautiful expression of love, respect, appreciation, intimacy and commitment.”

Idleman, of Louisville’s Southeast Christian, announces ahead of time when he’ll be talking about sex, so those who might be offended will know what to expect.

“I’ve received a few criticisms at different times, but that’s true of many subjects,” he said.

Far more common, Idleman said, are the elderly women who come up to him after such sermons. Often they have tears in their eyes. They say they wish someone had told them how to have a joyful sexual relationship when they were newlyweds.

Nelson of Denton Bible Church thinks church leaders shouldn’t worry about those who criticize them for talking openly about sexuality.

“If you have to run the risk of being too much, go ahead and be too much,” he said.

The church has been way too timid on this subject for far too long, he said. As a result, Christians’ lives and relationships have suffered terrible damage.

“Go ahead and be strong,” Nelson said. “It’s no use being an armored soldier if you don’t go where the battle is raging.”

 

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  1. p-byerly said:

    Paul, Thanks for a well balanced article. I find it a shame that the Church did not take the lead on “sex is good” many years ago. The reality is that sex in marriage can be far better than anything other option, despite the well rehearsed lies propagated by porn and R rated movies. Imagine if the Church had been boldly stating this truth before books like “The Joy of Sex” came out?! Instead of a lot of Christians secretly buying that book, we could have had a lot of unsaved folks secretly looking into what we were offering. Am I suggesting sex as evangelism? No – but better marriage, healthy, loving, deep marriages, complete with great sex, is something that most folks want – even those who are now convinced that these things don’t exist. If the Church were full of folks who are madly in love with their spouse, we wouldn’t have to go to the world, they would come to us to find what we have. So many books and gurus promise better relationships and great sex – the Church can deliver on that, it it’s willing.

    April 4, 2009
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  2. JasonKarpf said:

    God’s word guides us in every aspect of our lives. Sex is not dirty; it is glorious, as God intended. Are some pastors playing the “sex card” to get attention? Absolutely. But if the message gets out–the church cares about healthy, happy sexuality and strong marriages–then that is one more version of the Good News.

    April 7, 2009
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