I recently led a talk on sexuality for teen girls at my church. When I started getting into the beauty of sex as pointing to the union between Christ and his church, I could see eyes glazing over, as if to say, “Okay…but I’m not there yet. What does all this mean for me now? Just sitting around and waiting?”
I get their frustration. How could I explain to girls who had never had sex the beauty of sex as God intended? And what if some of them stayed single and never went on to have sex? Could I talk about sexuality in a way that wouldn't make them feel like they were missing out?
Our understanding of sexuality, as a church and as a society, splits us. We tend to believe there are lessons just for married Christians—for how to have great sex and fuel intimacy with our spouses—and then there are lessons just for singles and youth groups—for how to stay “pure” and find joy in the waiting.
I was relieved to find a book that overcomes this divide with a holistic view of Christian faithfulness and chastity, for married and single people, old and young: Beth Felker Jones’ Faithful: A Theology of Sex.
As a theology book, Faithful places sex squarely within the gospel narrative. Jones, a professor at Wheaton College, challenges us to see that what we do with our bodies points to the reality of who God is and what he has done in our lives. The ways that we do have sex, and the ways we don’t have sex, both serve as part of God’s kingdom work through us.
Jones frames sex beyond the usual set of rules we assume for traditional Christian sexual teachings, including misleading lines like “Possessing my physical virginity makes me pure” and “I can expect to get married as my reward for doing things right.”
As I get further from college, I know more and more Christian friends who have sex outside of marriage, live with their boyfriends, or act in any number of ways outside of the “rules.” I want to call them back to faithfulness, but I’m tempted to wonder, “Does it really matter? Does following the rules really make sense anymore in their situation?” I realize firsthand the kind of rationalization we risk when we wrongly conceptualize sexuality as just a bunch of restrictions. As Christians, we understand God’s commands and intentions for how we live in the context of the gospel that has set us free—not separate from it or in opposition to it.
Single Christians bear witness to the freedom we have in our faithful Lord. In choosing not to have sex, they embody a resistance to prevailing cultural norms that tell us having sex is “a necessity for anyone who wants to live a healthy and happy human life.” Many contemporary churches fall into a similar trap, portraying marriage as the capstone a fulfilling Christian life. Singles, however, affirm that God is our first love. Like Christians throughout history who chose celibacy as a way express their unfettered devotion to God, single Christians remind us that we don’t need marriage or children to make our lives and bodies meaningful, and that “service in the kingdom of heaven, and not family or country, [is] the measure of a life well lived.”
From the start, Jones emphasizes the created goodness of bodies – the fact that we are meant to live out in our bodies God’s work of grace and deliverance in the world. This is an unusual but refreshing and godly starting point for sex talk in many churches, where bodies may instead come up as hindrances and temptations to a faithful Christian witness.
Jones steps away from the trite Christianese phrases like “waiting for our wedding night” or “fighting for purity.” She challenges the “purity paradigm” that commoditizes bodies, especially women’s bodies, as much as mainstream society does. The emphasis on physical virginity as the epitome of purity “turns physical virginity into a possession. [It] makes virginity into a thing one needs to cling to in order to retain value” and perpetuates the unbiblical idea that we can achieve holiness just by sheer act of will.
We are called to chastity before marriage and fidelity afterward. But by framing sexuality as a reflection of God’s faithfulness in either context Jones underscores the truth that we are enabled to live holy lives only by the power of the God’s Spirit within us. Grace comes first, then holy living. Not the reverse. Any sex talk in church must start with the gospel.
As part of Zondervan’s “Ordinary Theology” series, Faithful is a book that is accessible to laypeople while still challenging for all who read it. Jones gives us a fresh lens to understand what is good sex and bad sex. Good sex is faithful, fruitful, and points us to God, for whom our hearts ultimately yearn. Bad sex tells the lie that our bodies don’t have spiritual significance. It also makes access to sex contingent on our frantic striving instead of on God’s grace.
Reading Faithful left me wanting to understand more. How does viewing sex as an embodiment of God’s faithfulness help us talk about masturbation or homosexuality in ways that enable us live the Bible’s sexual ethic? How can this give hope to a floundering marriage or help a person struggling with their gender identity?
All of these issues matter, because our bodies matter. Though society may tell us that what we do with our sexuality and our bodies are private affairs, we know as Christians that our bodies mean something more – they tell the story of a God who remains faithful to his wayward bride and gave his body for her. Whether single or married, we have the privilege of embodying this story.