Evangelical attitudes toward sex are undergoing a new round of scrutiny prompted by the announcement by pastor Ed Young that he and his wife would be hosting a 24-hour "bed in" on the roof of his Dallas church to discuss his new book, Sexperiment.
There are really only two explanations for putting the bed on the roof: either it's a gimmicky move to heighten interest in the book, or there's a subtle inversion of David and Bathsheba at work. Regardless, the former has most definitely worked. The announcement garnered attention both at home and abroad, vaulting the book into the bestseller list on Amazon for a day.
The Youngs will no doubt have their defenders, and well they should. From one standpoint, the whole exercise is simply a fun, creative way of helping evangelicals get an infusion of joy and life into their marriages, which by all accounts the Youngs have in spades.
Yet as we know, good intentions are not enough. There's no reason to be dour or straight faced when talking about sex, yet ploys of this sort invariably distract from the seriousness of the message. There's an old rule in communication that suggests that if the audience is focused on your rhetoric, you're doing it wrong. Yet in this case, the showmanship has clearly become the story, supplanting the substance.
Such "over the top" moments—and was there ever a more apt time for the description?—are troubling indicators of our woefully deficient discipleship patterns on matters of marriage and sexuality. The problems that the Youngs are trying to address are, alas, very real. Yet as is often the case, their solution is at best incomplete.
For one, while pastoral teaching and preaching about marriage is necessary for proclaiming the whole counsel of God, without a community where the "older women teach the younger women" and older men the younger, such teaching will invariably fail to take root. It is easy, for instance, to decry how little "the church" talks about sexuality until someone who isn't bound by the confidentiality agreement of the therapist's office begins asking pointed questions. Therapy is a good that some Christians should avail themselves of. Yet it is a good meant to supplement discipleship, rather than replace it.
The rationale in Scripture for this sort of approach to formation in matters of sexuality runs deep. In the New Testament, the family isn't the foundation of the new society. The church is. And that makes sexual ethics a community concern. The teaching in 1 Corinthians 5:6-11, for instance, suggests that how one member of the community comports themselves sexually affects the whole. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, "How we order and form our lives sexually cannot be separated from the necessity of the church to chart an alternative course to our culture's dominant assumptions."
In short, if there were more talk about sex elsewhere in the church, perhaps in the privacy of our communities and classrooms, we might get away with a good deal less of it from our pulpits and our publishing houses. Until then, the message will continue to get drowned out amidst the bombardment of infotainment that our evangelical world suffers from. In other words, if the message is not getting through, we might think about changing the messenger and method. Otherwise, the sensationalistic path of least resistance inevitably comes to the fore.
Just as importantly, learning how sexuality is a community concern gives a voice to those who are frequently ignored when the topic arises: those who are single, and especially singles who may be called to that state. It's paradoxical, of course, to think that those who might never have sex have something to teach the married about it. But within the community of the church, single people have an indispensible role in reminding the married that for all its joys and pleasures, life without sex is not one of drudgery or disappointment. Rather, it contains within it the possibility of fruitful adventure. As Oliver O'Donovan wonderfully puts it, "[The New Testament church] conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond to its eschatological transformation."
When we push singleness to the background, or treat it simply as a holding tank for the not-yet-married, sex itself will become ever more important to a flourishing community life. Our talk about sex will inevitably become a sensational sales pitch for its ecstatic awesomeness. Meanwhile, single people won't be shown a more excellent way than white-knuckling their abstinence until they make the marriage bed. They are never empowered to show a more excellent way of faithful Christianity without the marital delights. Just as single people need the image of Christ's fidelity and love that the married give, so married people need single people to remind us that the "form of this world is passing away." It's a hard lesson, and easy to say glibly, but it's one that none of us can do without.
The language has baggage, but cannot be helped: speaking about sex in the community of the church means remembering that modesty is more than a manner of clothing, but a way of life that transforms our speech. Duane Litfin has rightfully suggested that we should take into account the needs of others in our clothing, and helpfully moved the point away from measuring hemlines. So also in speech. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, it is shameful to even speak of what happens in secret outside the church. The point, as Carl Trueman has suggested, must reach our way of teaching about sexuality on some level.
For Christians, modesty isn't grounded in fear or shame: it is a positive good, aimed at increasing the beauty of the person and appropriately recognizing the dignity of what's covered. Some goods are so good that they require clothing. Or as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26, it is on the parts that require the greater modesty that Christians bestow the higher honors. He's referring, of course, to respective members of the church, but the metaphor has to get its roots from somewhere.
Evangelicalism's current fascination with sexuality, then, may be important for a season. But as a movement, we should consider carefully what our stunts and our salacious sermon series say about us. It is easy when attempting to escape the past to unwittingly perpetuate its deepest problems, just as it is easy when searching for a cure to replicate the disease. We have the responsibility to proclaim the "more excellent way" that we see in the gospel. The path is as deadly sobering as the Cross and as enlivening as Easter. And in order to walk worthily upon it, we need the friendship and discipleship found within the body of Christ.
Matthew Lee Anderson is author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. He blogs at MereOrthodoxy.com.
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Earlier articles by Matthew Lee Anderson include:
God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Body | It includes sex, diet, and sports—but so much more.(August 12, 2011)
The Center of the Good News | Why we can't understand the gospel—or ourselves—without the Trinity. A review of 'The Deep Things of God.' (Feb. 1, 2011)
Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable | A recent paper highlights the differences between evangelical and Catholic defense of traditional marriage. (Mar. 23, 2011)
What's New Is Old: 'America's New Evangelicals' | Today's politically liberal evangelicals may not be as different as some imagine. (Oct. 14, 2011)