Sun, Aug 04, 2019

Sex in/and Context



we’re obsessed with it, aren’t we?

And, by we, I mean both our culture andthe Church.


in recent years there’s been much concern in the media about the sexualisation of young children––

girls in particular––

and the increasingly young age at which they become sexually active;

at the same time, nudity and sex-scenes are common in movies and even on television shows;

although naked or scantily-clad women are seldom used to sell car tyres these days…

the old adage that “sex sells” still underlies so much advertising;

meanwhile, online porn is a huge industry…

and popular magazines continue to offer advice on how to achieve greater sexual fulfilment.

And, in terms of the Church, sex seems to dominate any discussion of morality––

especially within the more conservative and fundamentalist streams––

such that most people outside the Church…

if asked to define “Christian morality”… 

would equate it with sexual restrictions and taboos…

if not outright prudishness.

And then, of course, there’s that old term, “Living in Sin”––

seldom used these days, except in relation to a recent female Prime Minister––

but which, by its very use, almost gives the impression that sin equates to…

and can be reduced to…


Google the words “sex” and “Christian” and you’ll uncover a veritable cornucopia of material.

There are pages offering advice to newly-wed Christians––

who, of course, lack any meaningful experience…

having had the fear of God put into them about the subject while growing up…

and who now have to do a complete about-face;

and there are other pages that lay down strict definitions of what sexual behaviour is “natural” and “godly”…

and what is not.

On a popular level, sex–– 

more than anything else–– 

dominates Christian morality.

The Puritan movement and the Victorian era have a lot to answer for in that regard…

but the blame, ultimately, lies with the Bible…

particularly with the New Testament…

and especially with the letters of Paul and those attributed to Paul.

In this morning’s reading from Colossians…

the author turns from theology to morality…

encouraging his readers that…

“if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is”…


Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed”.

Especially in the Greek, all but the last of these vices relate to sex.

The list could, perhaps, be summarised as: 

sex outside of marriage;

improper or ‘abnormal’ sexual activity––

however that might be defined;

sexual passion;

and lust.

These, it seems, are “earthly”––

that is, not of God…

indeed, a barrier to our relationship with God––

and, thus, things that we should not just avoid but, figuratively, put to death.

That’s what the author seems to be saying here.


And yet, it’s not as simple as that.

The first four items in the list of vices certainly seem to have a clear sexual inference.

But, to those, the author adds “greed”.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest––

at least, not for us.

But it makes perfect sense within a first century context.

Bear in mind, theirs was a collectivist culture.

They had a collective or group-centred worldview.

The individual was subordinate to the group––

especially to the family or kin-group––

such that the health and survival of the group was of paramount importance.

Individual needs, desires, and goals were always subordinate to those of the group.

Within such a context, people were not their own––

they belonged to the group.

Thus, women and girls were regarded as the property of their father…

until they became the property of their husbands;


both male and female––

were fully property and could be used however the owner liked.

Sex, for the people of the first century, was always understood within that broad context.

Thus, sexual ethics, for them, was a subset of property rights.

Greed, within this context, was to use one’s person…

one’s body…

one’s sexuality…

selfishly, for one’s own benefit, rather than for the benefit of the group.

In other words, their understanding of the human person is completely different from ours.

It’s an understanding that’s not just unimaginable or unintelligible for us…

it’s probably also repugnant.

And yet, that was what their understanding of sex and sexual morality was based upon.

For us––

as products of the Enlightenment and the modern or post-modern world…

and an individualist culture––

we think and respond as discreet individuals.

As one ethicist puts it, 

“Personal fulfilment and interpersonal relationship have become preeminent criteria of sexual morality; marriage and procreation are evaluated in relation to these goals”.

Indeed, psychologically, we now recognise that sexuality is a layer or component of the personality.

It’s not, primarily, an act or an activity.

As such, any sexual acts or activity “must be placed in the context of personal relations before their morality can be evaluated”. 

Thus, the sexual morality that we discern in the Bible isn’t immediately applicable for us…

if at all.

We can’t simply lift it from the text…

ignore its context…

and apply it as some sort of code.

And yet, that’s what so many still do.

Large parts of the church––

across its varied denominations––

still think that there’s a right and a wrong way to ‘do’ sex.

Strangely, the same attitude is propagated by many pop-culture magazines…

although they would disagree about what the right and wrong ways are.

In both cases, they attach meaning to particular acts.

Is this not a throwback to an earlier––

dare I say–– 

more primitive time… 

and a more primitive view of both the human person and human sexuality?

Rather, as one commentator puts it:

“What matters is not anatomy, but meaning and communication. Love can be expressed in the oddest of ways, and so can dutiful resentment or narcissistic isolation. What makes sex worthwhile is that it’s a communicative act between people”.

Sexual morality can only be understood or defined contextually.

It is, above all else, relational.

And, in a roundabout way… 

the author of Colossians perhaps even glimpses such a possibility.

After all, following his list of first century sexual vices, he adds a further list…

exhorting them also to get rid of things such as “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language”

and he instructs them, “Do not lie to one another”.

These are all inherently relational.

They are also the sorts of thing that can demean or detract from sex as a profound form of communication.


Being people of God…

putting to death what is “earthly”…

does not mean denigrating our sexuality…

nor reducing it to a list of do’s and don’ts.

It means embracing the wholeness that God intends for us as people…

and seeking that wholeness for other––

which will only come through right relationships.

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