"Hmmm.... WWJD?"


















































































































Christian Sex

Two recent books explore age-old questions about sex and the life of faith.

By John D. Spalding

This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

As a leader, Jesus gave lots of instructions. Pay your taxes. Turn the other cheek. Don't judge others, lest ye be judged. Go out and teach all nations, but take nothing more with you than a staff, sandals and one tunic.

Yet for all his concern about how his followers comported themselves, Jesus said little about how they should behave sexually. Which may be one reason why Christians are so divided on, and often confused about, issues ranging from homosexuality and abortion to sex education, in vitro fertilization, masturbation, divorce, sex outside marriage and virginity.

As these subjects continue to roil Christians, two books shed some much-needed light on sex and spirituality. In The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church, Carmen Renee Berry examines the sexual issues confronting Christianity today and outlines where each major denomination stands on them. The book will undoubtedly help some who haven't made up their minds on sexual matters, especially young Christians; one sample chapter title is "The Church Fathers Freak Out About Sex." But it may give the most benefit to those people who think they have all the answers.

Offering a broad historical survey, Berry emphasizes that Judeo-Christian sexual morality is not a "concrete, set-in-stone code of conduct upon which all Jews and Christians have agreed—a misconception most often promoted by Christians themselves." What religious folk consider acceptable sexual practices have been defined and redefined over the millennia. The ancient Israelites, for example, policed sexuality with strict property and purity laws, which Jesus then rejected. And whereas early church fathers were celibate and viewed purity as "the absence of sex altogether," Berry writes, Luther insisted sex should be enjoyed and that marriage, not celibacy, is the preferred state for most of God's people.

The gold standard for Christian thinking about sex, Berry says, should always be Jesus, who elevated intentions above specific activities. And though he offered few sexual dos and don'ts, Berry bows to tradition and lays down the law on at least one issue: sex and the single Christian. "As a single person," she writes, noting elsewhere that she's never been married, "I am very sad to announce that there is not a shred of biblical evidence or legitimate Church tradition that gives any credence to having 'righteous' sex outside the context of marriage…. If you're not married, you're supposed to be celibate."

But as A.W. Richard Sipe argues, celibacy can be just as valid and fulfilling a way of life as marriage. In fact, celibacy and marriage have more in common than one might think.

Like marriage, celibacy "takes practice, fosters self-knowledge, involves the capacity to relate, and the ability to endure deprivation," Sipe writes in Living the Celibate Life. And neither marriage nor celibacy is principally about sex: "They are relationship-centered or they are not real and enduring."

Sipe's book is a thoughtful exploration and defense of celibacy (he wrote it partly in response to the Catholic sex-abuse scandal that has brought into question mandatory celibacy for priests), and it's unique among celibacy books because he approaches the subject from the "point of view of the natural"—that is, human experience—rather than from a theoretical or theological perspective.

In other words, Sipe, a former priest and the author of seven books on religious celibacy, views sexual development as a process that "involves the deepest physical, psychic, and spiritual capacities of what it means to be human."

That's why priests who think of celibacy merely as a prerequisite to ordination are bound to fail, as are people who view celibacy as a negative. Why? "Because these persons will subject themselves to an inevitable self-deception, thinking that if they can rid themselves from the start of any sexual thought, word, desire, or action then they are celibate," Sipe writes.

Practicing celibacy successfully, on the other hand, requires one "to be able to tolerate, think through, struggle with all sexual thoughts and desires, and to ask and answer the question: What do these sexual thoughts and desires mean for the individual and about him or her?" Indeed, self-knowledge is one of the rewards of celibacy. And in a culture so saturated with sex yet simultaneously so confused about it, perhaps less sex and more self-knowledge is just what we all need.


If you’d like to comment on this article, click here.


Email article Print article

John D. Spalding is the editor of His last piece was Just as I Am.

Back to top


May 7, 2010

The Mother of Mother's Day
By Mary Beth Crain
Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day, hated flowers, candy, and greeting cards. Our kind of mom!

January 28, 2010

Securing Your Pet's Post-Rapture Future
By Mary Beth Crain
What will happen to Christians' pets after the Rapture? No worries. These animal-loving atheists will feed them.

January 13, 2010

Whither Wheaton?
By Andrew Chignell
The evangelical flagship college charts a new course.

December 21, 2009

Ho, Ho, Hollywood
By Mary Beth Crain
My four top Christmas Movies.

December 14, 2009

Bad Dream Girls
By Mary Beth Crain
Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean remind us that in America, dumb and dumber equals rich and richer.

July 16, 2009

The New, Updated Gospel of Mark
By Stephanie Hunt
In South Carolina, Vacation Bible School gets Sanforized.

July 16, 2009

Why Is a Spiritual Advisor Like a Lay's Potato Chip?
By Mary Beth Crain
Answer: Betcha Can't Have Just One!

December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Blues
By Ondine Galsworth
Your best friend is dead. Your mother is bi-polar. And you've lived your life as a fake Catholic. Where do you go from here?

December 23, 2008

Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
By Mary Beth Crain
What would it be like if today's techno-spoiled kids were forced to have a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas?

November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks in Thankless Times
By Mary Beth Crain
In times of fear and despair, gratitude is sometimes all we've got left.

November 16, 2008

Seeing Red
By Stephanie Hunt
Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.

October 29, 2008

Ghost Writer
By Mary Beth Crain
Our senior editor talks about her new book, "Haunted U.S. Battelfields," the perfect read for a creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, altogether ooky All Hallows Eve.

October 26, 2008

The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations
By Matthew Streib
Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.

October 11, 2008

Palin Watch V: Troopergate, Poopergate!
By Mary Beth Crain
Confronted with a scathing indictment of abuse of power, Governor Palin thumbs her nose at the "Troopergate" report.

October 4, 2008

Palin Watch IV: Post-Debate Musings
By Mary Beth Crain
This hockey mom belongs in the penalty box.

To view more articles, visit
SoMA's archive

Copyright © 2019 SoMAreview, LLC. All Rights Reserved