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A short summary of Christian teaching on sex, singleness and marriage

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

We must not forget our calling as the Church. We are those called by Christ to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And we are promised that we are not alone “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[1]


As we approach the issue of sexuality we must not forget that ultimately we are here as heralds of good news, as those who proclaim the truth which will set people free. We must stop treating sex as taboo for we have no need to apologise for what we teach for it is good news. Christian teaching on sexuality like all Christian teaching follows the gospel paradigm.


As St Augustine put it sin is man turned in on himself; we sin whenever we stop looking to God for direction and for blessing but instead look to what we can do with our own hands. When Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” If anyone needed a list of goods to justify an action here it is! You see it wasn’t the deadly nature of this action that Eve had in mind but the good; it was good to eat, good to look at, and good for wisdom. Surely God if he is good would want them to have all this, Eve thought, Adam concurred “and he ate”.[2] Here we have the birth of sin, not in some obviously heinous act like murder but in a simple act of disobedience, a decision that I know best. This attitude that I know best decieves us so we believe that we can do good without God even to the point where we believe we can do more good when we don’t obey God than when we do. It is this lie that I am greater than the great I AM which lies at the root of all sin.


The good news comes with a realisation that I do not know best but God does and whilst without God I can do nothing with him I can do all things.[3] Repentance is a change of allegiance from team ego, the flesh, and the worlds way, to team God, his Spirit, and his ways. We aren’t going to be in step with the world around us as Christian’s because those in the world haven't yet understood and accepted that God knows best.


It's not enough simply to acknowledge God knows best and that we should follow his ways but we must also acknowledge that we can not walk in the Way without God's help. The good news is that we are not alone for the Holy Spirit dwells in each believer and reminds them of the way and draws us back when we have strayed. Jesus is in heaven interceding for us and preparing a room for us in our fathers house and yet he is also near to us by his Spirit and so as our friend and brother he shows us the way and helps us to walk in it. We are not alone for God is with us! We must not lose sight of this amidst life’s storms and so when we like like the disciples are filled with fear thinking that we will perish; let us hear the loving rebuke of Christ “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”[4] Let us take courage for we are not alone, God is with us in the boat, and he will bring us safe to eternities shore.


Salvation is not free but came at a huge cost, Christ’s life for ours. Jesus lived the life we could not live and died the death that we deserve so that we can live in freedom. Jesus trampled death through his death and resurrection and so we need not fear. We live a live of thanksgiving knowing that Jesus has achieved for us what we could not achieve ourselves. We live life in total dependence on the source of life. Our battle we fight with arms lifted high in surrender to the king of kings, as we pray: Make a way, show me the way Lord God.


So what does the gospel paradigm mean in terms of sexuality?


The gospel paradigm means we are not deceived that sin is good simply because goods are attached to sin for we know that was the case from the beginning. It enables us to reject sin despite the fact we want the goods because we know sin brings death. It teaches us that we will be at odds with what our body, our flesh, craves and at odds with what the world around us teaches. In regards to sexuality as to any other area here we only learn the way of life through surrender, through saying God you know what’s best, show me the way.


So what does our flesh say?

Well in terms of sex it often says, looks good, feels good, and gains me…

So what does the world say?

It is about what you want, as long as everyone involved concurs, then its okay…

And what does our ego say?

It proclaims “I know best” and it reaches outs, grasps and takes...

But the reality is these lies go all the way back to the garden. They aren't true for the truth is that God knows best and wants what is best for us. We we are not meant to live lives grasping and taking but freely receiving the good things God wants us to have.


What does God say?

Jesus has this to say to us “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”[5]

Jesus shows us there are two paths of godly living, firstly to live life within the family, as a brother or sister, a daughter or a son, a form of life which is not sexual, or the second path which is to leave and cleave, the marriage of a husband and wife, and this state of life is sexual. Both paths either to live as a single man or woman within a family or to be married are good and both are ways God responds to the problem of loneliness. Whereas sin makes a good out of man being alone for sin sees no responsibility toward the other for in sin each person is only responsible for themselves so through sin man is cut off from the blessing of community and cursed with loneliness. This loneliness is overcome for the Christian through the community of the Church, those set apart from the world for God as we spend our lives amongst brothers and sisters living as children of God.


A Christian understanding of sexuality is one which rather than turning in on itself opens itself out for the good of the spouse, and opens up to the possibility of new creation, of life, and through this is open to the community. The couples relationship is opened out in service to the wider community as the family provides a space into which others are welcomed.[6] Fornification is sinful because it is not ordered towards the creation of a stable loving community and the good of the other, whereas marital sexual union is. This does not mean once married sex is always a good because sex can still be a means by which a husband or wife turn in on themselves. It is possible to seek only our own end in sex, and when we do this then sex in marriage is sinful too. Sex that objectifies the other and treats the spouse as a mere grounds for comfort or pleasure is sinful. Sex that harms the spouse either mentally or physically is sinful. Sex which closes itself off to the possibility of new life, of the giving of self in service of the other (children) is sinful. This does not mean that sex is sinful where new life is doubtful or humanly impossible for it is the openness to life that is important as it is not man who gives life but God. In a similar manner we will not be judged by how many have come to new life through our ministry (service) here on earth, but we will be judged on whether we have sowed the seed of the Word.

The priority of the gospel leads Paul to explain that a married couple can deprive each other of sex by mutual agreement for a time for the purposes of prayer. It is this seeking of the kingdom before all else which makes uniting of Christians to non-Christian’s harmful. One cannot live by the flesh and the Spirit, by God’s ways and the worlds. The union of the believer and the non-believer will inevitably bring conflict whereas we are called to peace in Christ. Whilst it is true that Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword, it is important that we recognise the violent action being here being described is that of rescue; Jesus said that he would build his church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it. Those who have been rescued from the power of death the Church can not surrender, the Church can not unite them with those who are yet to cross over from death to life. Furthermore marriage for the Christian is the environment for the discipleship of children, each other, and others as the family become an example shining as a light in the darkness. The Christian then looks for more than a romantic partner in marriage but a mission partner who will help them in their walk of faith.


The dynamics of sexual relationships that God has designed requires the receipt of that which is other, that which we can not attain ourselves. In sex between a husband and wife, the wife gives an egg and the husband sperm, both gives what the other can’t, both admit ‘I am not enough’, both are open to the gift of the other and in doing so the way is opened to the gift of life. This mirrors, though imperfectly, our declaration to God that ‘I am not enough’ and our need of him, and here too, as in salvation, new life is the free gift of God.


This pattern for sexual relationships that I’ve outlined here is not easy, after all our ego, our flesh and the world all militate against it. This does not mean that it is impossible, no for with God all things are possible. What it does mean is that whilst commending such living to those who are non-Christian’s we do so as part of commending the faith once delivered, we offer it with a call to repentance, a call to move from dependence on oneself to dependence on God. We bring this teaching with the good news that in Christ God has done what we could not do for ourselves. The commendation of the ways of God come alongside the pardon of God, and with the assurance that comes from God’s promise that even when we are faithless he remains faithful. A Christian’s reflection on our own sexuality should be marked by a joyful reception of the goods God has given us, forgiveness, the Spirit’s help and, our state in life whether singleness or marriage.


When those who are married reject their state in life either through harm or rejection of their spouse they commit a grievous sin. For whilst it is only God who gives life, man can take it, what Jesus teaches is that in marriage there is a new creation, the two have become one, and so as in life God gives and takes, in marriage God joins and separates. In this we can see how divorce, adultery and abuse are analogous to murder, for they take away what God gave for good, they bring to an end what God began. It is for this reason it is not usually appropriate for the Church to remarry the parties who have committed this crime of destruction of God’s good creation. It may be possible if a time comes when there is sincere repentance and when the other party is dead, or remarried (for if their is an innocent party who has suffered rather than perpetrated this action they may freely remarry). In other circumstances we can not remarry Christians for otherwise we make those we join together in Holy Matrimony adulterers and this should not be.


When those who are unmarried reject their state they too are at great risk of harm to themselves and others. The human impulse is to see the good and take it regardless of the consequence. There are many men and women living lives in no mans land neither secure in love, married and free from the fear of rejection, nor free to pursue life in the single state. Instead they live lives fraught with danger, never quite knowing whether there will be victory or defeat, their lives are not filled with the peace and security that God has willed for them so that they may flourish. Children are often exposed to this insecurity, this lack of peace, to their harm. For others this state of conflict has become a ceasefire and life in many ways has gone back to normal, yet in refusing to give of oneself to the other there is not true peace but a semblance of it. This is a state of arrogance, a refusal to accept the needs of the other, a refusal to admit God knows best, an assertion instead that I know best and so I will maintain my control, I will not surrender to God or give myself to the other. For others still the landscape of their relationship is more like that between warring tribes, there are moments where there is a temporary truce and both benefit, but, at other times it is more like raiding parties were they take what they can. Here each uses the other to their own benefit, and oft this state of affairs is accepted with its instability, creation and destruction, as those in it are unable to see something beyond this fragile state. This too is harmful, it is not the peace the God has called us too.


There is no half-in half-out state, its not God’s will for anyone to be in limbo, instead we are either to embrace the goods of marriage or the goods of singleness. The Christians call to be giving of self to God and others is in many ways easier in the single state. The married person must look to provide for the needs of their spouse and children before others, they are not simply free to serve but bound to their spouse. This division of interests will perhaps be most obvious in marriages between christians and non-christians as in these relationships spouses will at times pull in different directions. However, whilst this is most obvious in these relationships it is true to all marital relationships as all spouses are like us sinful human being who will not always be faith to God’s call.


It is important for us all to recognise but especially in relation to those gifted with singleness that the human family often does not provide the company, security and peace God created it for. For us as Christians God has given us a spiritual family with real mothers, brothers and sisters which should provide all of this and more yet often it doesn’t. For this the church must repent so that she may be transformed into what God created her to be. To not change would be to deny our brothers, to withhold our love, and in doing so we would show we do not love God, for God has given us these brothers and sisters, and so if we do not love them we condemn ourselves as we declare ourselves to not be part of the household of God. It is not enough for those in positions of authority to have clear and correct teaching in relation to sex and marriage for if they do not prioritise love, particularly of their single brother and sisters, then their words are hollow and jarring like a resounding gong or clanging symbol.


For Christianity's teaching on sexuality to be received as good news today we must not loose sight of eternity. It is by looking forward to the resurrection when people will neither marry nor be given in marriage that the Christian teaching on sexuality becomes grounded. You see sex is the lesser good which can provide for the greater good of new life in a loving community. Whilst there will be a time when there is no more sex, there will never be a time when the God of life and love does not sustain and refresh us and guide us into ever deeper love in community. Even now while all need to be held in loving community and to begin to fulfil the creative potential God has placed in them this does not require sex. Whilst sex and marriage are good they are not essential, no all that is essential we receive from God in Christian community. This is good news! Christianity shifts the focus for no longer is life to be judged by whether one is married with children, but rather by whether one has surrendered themselves to God and given ones life in service of others.

[1] Matthew 28:19-20[2] Genesis 3:6[3] John 15:5-6, Philippians 4:13[4] Mark 4:40[5] Matthew 19:4-6[6] I owe this insight to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est

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