The Sexless Church
by Jenniffer Ogden
Please welcome Jenniffer Ogden as a new columnist for Adventist Today. Jenn is the Children & Family Pastor at the Walla Walla University Church. A recent transplant to the Walla Walla Valley, Jenn loves the wonders of academia, locally grown produce and PNW beards. Having recently finished visiting all 50 states, she is now anticipating topping 50 states with 50 nations.
Let’s talk about sex. Birds and bees. Song of Solomon level passion. Intercourse. Where babies come from. Neural pathways that solidify connection with each sexual encounter. Let’s discuss intimacy and vulnerability. Let’s talk about sex.
Uncomfortable yet? Yeah, me too.
Sexuality may, in fact, lead the list of awkward topics in Adventist communities, closely followed by haystack explanations and bragging rights to Kellogg history. Because we embrace a Victorian view of appropriate conversations and actions—bordering on puritanical—conversations are a minefield for awkwardness.
This awkwardness leads us to decidedly sexless conversations. Our Sabbath School classes hover past sex-laden stories, sermons slide around passages that are deemed inappropriate and racy, and our parochial system limits classes to biological function, with a serious nod to abstinence, as sex education. Sex and healthy sexual relationships are left, like orphans on a doorstep, for individuals to muddle through.
And our unwillingness to talk honestly about sex may be leading to disaster.
With great awkwardness can come great shame. Driven out of a safe place to learn about biblically-principled sexuality, many have turned to alternate avenues for exploring it. The rise of pornography in Christianity paces the culture. While pornography is primarily used as a means of arousal, it is now commonly accepted as a combatant of boredom, a means of satisfying curiosity, and a source of fun.(1)
In 2014, the Barna Group conducted research of Christian men, with 77% of men(2) aged 18-30 acknowledging viewing pornography at least once a month. Three out of four men in faith communities are looking at pornography. Of men aged 18-30, 44% admit to pornography being an addiction. The statistics of a 2015 study by Josh McDowell Ministries indicate that Christian women are dealing with such addictions as well.(3)
Pornography proliferates. In a digitally savvy world, with ready access to videos and images, every person has access to pornographic material. Between 1998 and 2007, pornographic websites multiplied by 1800%.(4) And pornography has poured out of the internet and off the printed page into mainstream areas: video games, sports equipment decorated with provocative images, even children’s toys have become more sexualized. The E.L. James series Fifty Shades, an erotic trilogy published June 2011, sold over 125 million copies and remained at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list for over 100 weeks.(5)
With this expansion of readily accessible material, our relationships, families, and communities are seeing dismaying effects. Globally, human trafficking has risen sharply in recent years. The majority of trafficking victims are women and girls, some who are sold repeatedly. Of the 1,654 calls to The National Human Trafficking Resource Center this year alone, 1,220 have been about sexual trafficking victims.(6) With pornography use, violence against partners escalates, especially toward females.(7) In 2002, 62% of divorce lawyers said that pornography addiction played a large role in the divorce cases handled that year.
So what are we to do as a group of Christ followers, who want to dwell in this world and not get caught in the caustic swirl? How do we develop deeply satisfying relationships and establish healthy sexual relationships? How do we as a community reclaim the gift of sex?
We can reclaim sex by learning Godly principles for sexuality, teaching these principles in clear ways, and living these principles in our own lives. In order for us to pursue healthy sex, we must learn what scripture says about it. While the Bible is filled with stories of sexual encounters, not all of them are healthy. Not all of the relationships highlighted in scripture are meant to be examples for us to follow, but rather to serve as warnings or cautionary tales about what can happen when godly ideals are ignored or violated. In his book Flame of Yahweh,(8) Richard Davidson builds a theological understanding of sex and sexuality based on the Old Testament texts and culture. This book is one of the first of its kind that digs into the text to help us learn why these stories and relationships are significant. To be able wisely to advise and guide our own lives in the realm of sex, we must have a theology of sexuality.
As a church we have not begun to examine sex in a healthy way. While our Fundamental Beliefs cover marriage and family, specifically in belief 23, there is no discussion of healthy sex. Divorce and remarriage are covered, as are adultery and fornication, but no indication of what healthy sex and sexuality could be. Maybe it will take a formal committee, or maybe we will step into this conversation together and begin to build a deeper understanding of sex. But we must begin to build a theology of sex and it’s healthy use and exploration.
So we must talk about sex. Perhaps it will begin in awkward conversations, or in stumbling presentations in classrooms, or even poetic sermon series, but we must begin to talk about sex. We can expand Adventist education, both in schools and in our Sabbath school curriculum, to include more than biology and a list of do not’s. Speaking of wise choices: teaching life-long benefits, safe practices, and outcomes of flourishing sex life will go a long way toward heading off curiosity that leads to a harmful trap.
Finally, after learning a healthy sexual theology, and speaking of it with clarity and conviction, we must live it. Fidelity and intimacy celebrated. Bonded spouses growing in delighting in each other. Parents reflecting selfless joy to children. New relationships rooted in wise choices. Yes, it sounds idealized, but a world where divine ideals are chosen and followed will be just that—ideal.
So church, let’s chat. Let’s talk about sex.
(2) 2014 ProvenMen.org Christian Porn Survey (conducted by Barna Group)
(3) McDowell, Josh. The Porn Phenomenon study.
(4) “Websense Research Shows Online Pornography Sites Continue Strong Growth.” (2004). PRNewswire.com, April 4
(7) Boeringer, S. B. (1994). “Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Associations of Violent and Nonviolent Depictions with Rape and Rape Proclivity.” Deviant Behavior 15, 3: 289–304; Check, J. and Guloien, T. (1989). “The Effects of Repeated Exposure to Sexually Violent Pornography, Nonviolent Dehumanizing Pornography, and Erotica.”
(8) Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard Davidson – Hendrickson Publishers – 2007