In recent days, the debate over church and sexuality came into focus with North Point Church’s Unconditional conference, followed by Andy Stanley’s clarifying sermon. While it is critical for churches and leaders to grapple with practical questions about gay marriage and same-sex relationships, the conversation needs to go deeper, prompting more foundational questions of how we think about sexuality.
It is perhaps more difficult to live with sexual integrity today than it has ever been. Yes, the smartphone and internet don’t help, but the complications are far more foundational. There are certain assumptions within our culture that play into sexual sin and struggles. Instead of confronting those assumptions with biblical truth, many churches and leaders focus only on debating the morality of sexual behavior. This leaves struggling Christians trying to suppress behavior without confronting assumptions about happiness and human flourishing. If your thinking about sex is skewed, resisting wrong behavior becomes infinitely more difficult. This would be like living believing that donuts and french fries are healthy foods, yet being told never to eat them. You only have a real shot at resisting them once you are convinced that they are bad for you.
As I interact with Christians battling same-sex desire or any other sexual temptation, it seems that they are often fighting a losing battle. The impact of Jesus in our lives cannot be sustained by only a commitment to resisting wrong actions.
In Romans 1:11-32, Paul describes a culture that has devolved into relational, sexual, and moral chaos. He lists all kinds of behaviors as evidence of this, including descriptions of gay sex, greed, murder, rebellion, slander, and infidelity. But those actions were the ultimate fulfillment of wrong thinking. Paul’s description of this culture includes rejection of God, embracing lies, futile thinking, and foolish hearts.
As Christians, we cannot ultimately change our behavior unless we also submit our thinking to the supremacy of God’s truth. Few Christians are even aware of the unchallenged assumptions that fuel their sexual battle.
In your own personal battle or within your ministry to those struggling, here are three common assumptions that must be confronted on the road to sexual integrity.
1. Sexual and romantic fulfillment are keys to my happiness. Conventional wisdom portrays the God of the Bible as an unloving deity (if He exists at all) if He would prevent anyone from the possibility of romantic and/or sexual fulfillment. You’ve heard the argument. “How could a loving God tell someone that they cannot marry the person they love or that they are sexually attracted to?” This question only makes sense if you accept the modern assumption that finding your soul mate or expressing your sexual desire is core to human flourishing. While this is a prevailing psychological assumption, it certainly isn’t one rooted in God’s truth, nor does research affirm that human flourishing is dependent upon these experiences. In fact, a counter-argument can be made that the license to marry and divorce at will, sleep with whomever you desire, and pursue virtually every sexual expression is correlated with poor mental health and life satisfaction. Jesus did, indeed, come that we might have life and have it to the fullest. The life of significance, community, and freedom ironically comes through surrendering the idol of sexual fulfillment rather than serving it. Clinging to this assumption leads not only to wrestling with desires, but also to a nagging doubt in the goodness of God.
2. Sex is the same thing as intimacy. While sex is not necessary to your long term happiness and well-being, intimacy is. Many people don’t know the difference between the two. God can seem cruel to say “no” to gay marriage, cohabitation, or casual sex if you view sex (or marriage) as the only way to get your intimacy needs met. Here’s the truth. There are many married and sexually active people walking around desperately starved for intimacy. And there are single, celibate men and women who have deeply intimate relationships. God created the act of sexual intercourse to be a celebration of the covenant promise of a man and a woman in marriage. It is only one form of intimacy, and not the most significant. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that sabotages intimacy but offers sex as a shallow substitution. The Bible never communicates that either sex or marriage is foundational to human flourishing. Both are optional gifts from God and possible pathways of experiencing intimacy. The Bible presents the family of God as the primary way through which we establish belonging, intimacy, connection, and significance. Part of the work of discipling people through sexual integrity should include Christians creating communities that foster intimacy outside of simply the nuclear family model. As individuals, we also need to proactively pursue relationships and communities that go beyond surface-level engagement. This is just one of the many reasons why church hopping or virtual church perpetuate feelings of alienation, putting far too much emphasis on sexual and romantic relationships as a replacement for intimacy.
3. Your desires are your destiny. This is perhaps the most pervasive and destructive assumption underlying many sexual struggles today. It also partially explains why LGBTQ+ identification has skyrocketed, particularly among the younger generations. Eight-year-olds are claiming the label of gay or bisexual based on a “crush” with a same-sex classmate. In the absence of objective truths or religious beliefs defining identity, personal experiences of sexual desire have become the standard of identity. The language of gay, bi-sexual, and heterosexual as descriptors of self did not even exist until the late 1800’s. When “homosexuality” shows up in the Bible, it describes actions, not an identity. Friend, you are not your desires. If we are honest, we desire all kinds of things that we reject because we know they don’t represent who we choose to be. You resist the desire to steal, to lie, to cheat, or to gossip because you make a decision of the person you want to become. The same should be true of our sexual desires. They are real, but they were never meant to define us. There have always been Christians who experience same-sex desires, but only recently have those longings become a seemingly unchangeable destiny. Identity should inform desire, not the other way around.
Jesus Christ came to turn the world upside down. As people who are saved and redeemed by Him, He has called us to no longer be of this world. Paul put it well in his letter to the Ephesians describing how we were when Christ called us. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its thoughts and desires.”
None of us can live a life of godliness if we do not first reject the way of the world, the cravings of our flesh, and our natural thoughts and desires. This is why it is so dangerous to teach that God simply wants us to say no to the wrong kind of sexual relationships. Experiencing God’s power to overcome sexual sin must get to the roots of what we believe, prompting us to reject the very assumptions the world is constantly reinforcing.
Image by Clay Banks via Unsplash