The Church has a lot—a lot—to say about healthy sexuality within marriage. But what about sexuality beyond the scope of marriage?
Our knee-jerk responses to any questions about sexuality have been reminiscent of purity culture, with slogans like “save yourself”, “flee”, and the like. With a strong emphasis on conjugally expressed sexuality, it becomes easy to believe that anything and everything else is inappropriate.
It is almost as if we believe that true Christianity means living as an asexual person until your wedding day (and after that, we mistakenly promise sexual nirvana.) And with the broader culture adopting an almost a-marital view of sex, singles in the Church are left in an awkward spot.
Debra Hirsch, author of the Redeeming Sex, is on a mission to encourage Christians toward a more integrated—and biblical—view of sexuality. She helpfully distinguishes between “social sexuality” and “genital sexuality.”
Social sexuality constitutes all the relationships in our basic social network and friendship circles. Since God created humans as male and female, all our relationships with other people are intrinsically sexual in that we relate as men or as women. Social sexuality, then, reflects the basic human need we experience as men and women for intimacy and connection.
The other is a much narrower expression of our sexuality, specifically referring to our longing for connection on more erotic levels, ranging from a purely physical act (if there is such a thing) to all the stuff of romance, wooing, chemistry and so forth.
Every relationship we have encompasses our social sexuality, while only spouses share a certain kind of sexual relationship. Sexuality, then, is much bigger than just sex and what happens in a married couple’s bedroom.
Everyone Needs Sexual Relationships
As Christians, it’s important to understand this, not least because not everyone will experience the actual act of sex, but because everyone can and should experience meaningful relationships within their social sexual friendships.
Every relationship we have within the church family, for example, is not just with “fellow believers,” but with brothers or sisters: gendered, healthy expressions of familial connection.
So for single people, what does it mean to experience and express our sexuality appropriately?
There is certainly great truth in the comfort that we can and should find fulfillment in God. Where life brings loneliness or insecurity in our identity, the Gospel promises that we are loved, accepted and made complete in Christ. Our fullest and truest selves as men and women are found in our being divine image-bearers. God promises that He draws near to those who take refuge in Him. When you’re in the awkward place of “waiting for marriage,” these words can be both balm and anchor to loneliness.
But I don’t think that’s enough.
Sexuality Isn’t Just About Sex
I believe it is not enough to tell Christians to redirect all their sexual longings in a spiritual way, since spirituality and sexuality express distinct and different elements of our lives. While spirituality is oriented around our longing to connect with God, sexuality has to do with our longing to connect meaningfully with people.
Understood this way, sexuality is not the enemy of our spirituality, but the complement. And spirituality in itself was never meant to be the complete “answer” to our sexuality, for as Rob Bell eloquently explored in Sex God, we believe God made us both sexual and spiritual beings.
In response to our human longings (both spiritual and sexual), God has given us more than Himself, He has also given us His people. “He places the lonely in families,” says Psalm 68:6.
The Christian community, far from being a place where our relational longings should be suppressed and ignored, is uniquely positioned to meet those needs. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, we have spiritual fathers and mothers: our relationships in the church as men and women with other men and women should be an expression of the warmest and healthiest gendered relationships.
Dispelling the Cultural Myth
If sexuality, at its core, expresses our longing for love and our desire to connect intimately with others, we need to reclaim the words “love” and “intimacy.” Just like we tend to think of sexuality immediately and mistakenly as only the act of having sex, so too our language of love and intimacy needs to be rescued from the clutches of a highly eroticized world.
You’ve heard the culture’s throwaway line to those struggling with being single: “You need to get laid.” But the truth is that when we experience sexual longing, it may not be actual sex that we need.
We may need to be listened to, we may need someone to laugh with, we may need company. These are needs—sexual needs, broadly defined—that the Church should be ready to meet with joy. We should be able to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (or a more culturally acceptable hug) without such physical and relational contact being viewed with suspicion and fear.
Sexual addictions are frequently touted as being the scourge of the modern church, and our answer to people struggling has too often been a simple, “flee from immorality!” Instead of this, maybe we need a more robust answer that acknowledges that there are legitimate and good longings we experience, even though we often seek to meet them in broken and eroticized ways. Denying our sexual longings is not working for anyone.
The Church needs to make space for healthy and positive sexuality. God created us with bodies, and our longings and leanings are not something we should treat with abhorrence or shame. I, for one, would love to see us explore open conversation with our brothers and sisters, courageously identifying what our deeper longings are, and how we can meet those in community.
Whether married or single, our sexuality reflects part of God’s good design in creating us as relational beings. Let’s love each other holistically, and well.
Bronwyn Lea loves Jesus, writing, ice-cream and the sound of children laughing. She writes about the holy and hilarious things in life at bronlea.com, where she also hosts a faith and relationship advice column. Find her there, or say hi on Facebook or Twitter @bronleatweets.