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What the Church Needs is Some Good Sex

It is a tough time to be a Catholic Christian. The current scandals of sexual abuse, by priests around the world, follow a nearly 20-year run of similar episodes. But the lack of transparency in the Catholic Church is no news. Two decades ago, I discussed the problem with my dear friends from Rome. They were shocked that Americans were so shocked. “What is the big deal? Why the fuss?” they asked, waving their hands above their heads. “We Italians have always known better than to leave our children alone with priests!” I found their response both hilarious and appalling. But can we expect any real change of behavior in the Catholic Church as long as it remains a male-dominated monarchy?

It’s a tough time to be an evangelical Christian, too. The #MeToo wave swept away hard-core fundamentalist Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson, among others, for verbal abuse of women. It’s a victory for Southern Baptist women, but how lasting will it be in a church that denies women equal access to leadership positions? Contrast it with the United Church of Christ, which went through a wrenching “me too” period thirty years ago when some pastors were outed for abusive sexual behavior. Our church is fully democratic and has a very high proportion of women in ministry and leadership. We shaped up quickly, long ago, by popular demand from within. We set up a process for rooting out sexual abuse and training pastors on sexual boundaries. Bad sexual actors seldom last long in my denomination.

Sexual abuse in the church is a serious long-term problem. But it is a symptom of a bigger problem with roots all the way back in the Roman Empire. That was an era when sexual abuse was rampant. Male masters raped male slaves. Husbands raped their wives and servants. Children were routinely abused sexually, and there was no legal resource. The male head of a household had total impunity. In this toxic mess, the Christian church emerged as a very welcome sanctuary. St Paul believed that the return of Christ was imminent, within the lifetimes of the Christians his letters addressed. He taught that having sex was a distraction from preparation for the culmination of Christ’s kingdom in heaven and on earth. He told his followers to get married only as a means of preventing themselves from committing sexual sin. His anti-sexual message is baked-in to the Christian scriptures.

The Roman Empire took on Christianity as its state religion. The “second coming” didn’t come. Times changed. But celibacy remained an ideal for the Christian life, modeled by priests and monks and nuns. Homosexuality and premarital intercourse are considered sins in most churches. Much of Christianity devalues and closets sexuality to this day, exacerbating the problem of sexual abuse.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if a man lusts after a woman in his heart, he has committed adultery. You can read this at least a couple of ways. One is that it is indeed a sin for a man to feel lust for a woman who is not his wife. Another is that Jesus was making it crystal-clear that it is impossible for a heterosexual male to avoid being an adulterer. Therefore, we must live by a different law than the elaborate, complex, long list of rules that are found in the book of Leviticus. We must live instead by the law of love for God and for neighbor. And this love does not squelch lust, which is a natural part of our lives. On the contrary, love channels lust in the direction of creativity and kindness and warmth in our relationships with each other. If we act on our lust in ways that hurt hearts and wreck relationships, that’s the opposite of love. Rigid rules are not the guide to dealing with our lust. Love leads us.

Love can liberate us from the sexual hangups that resulted from the church’s lingering over-reaction to the abuses of the Roman Empire’s culture two thousand years ago. Yes, faithful Christians can have sex before marriage with clean consciences if they do so in the context of kindness, care, and sensitivity to the impact it can have on their own souls and the souls of those around them. For some folks, in some cases, love clearly leads to sexual restraint. And for others, in other cases, it leads to beautiful sexual expression, whether inside or outside of marriage. And masturbation has its place, too, in healthy sexuality. At its best, it opens our hearts, enlivens our bodies, and makes us more able to treat ourselves and others with loving kindness. Of course it can be abused, like anything else, but masturbation itself should not be a cause for shame.

I have performed hundreds of weddings in my career, and almost all of those couples had sex, and plenty of it, before they got married. After countless conversations with these couples, it is clear to me that premarital sex is just that: pre-marital. Sex between two people who love and care for each other very often leads to a deepening commitment that flows into marriage. The old-school Christian prohibition against premarital sex makes zero sense to me and most other folks today.

What the church needs is more good sex, because that will lead to less of the bad kind. In our churches, let us celebrate sexuality in all its natural, healthy forms, whether heterosexual or LGBTQ. Let us teach our children in church that loving kindness and deep sensitivity should always surround and guide their sexual expression. Let us preach that our sexuality is a gift and a treasure to be cherished, only to be a means for compassion and never to be a cause of hurt or harm. The church is two thousand years old, but it got stuck in awkward early adolescence on the subject of sex. Christianity has a lot of growing-up to do. And the latest sex scandals ought to be our wake-up call to get busy with it.

(A sane and spiritual curriculum for churches to use regarding sexuality, for kids and adults: Our Whole Lives)

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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