Jesus and Sex, Part Two: Procreation or Pleasure? The Purpose(s) of Sexuality

In my last post, I showed how the church has an ambivalent relationship with sexuality – sometimes seeing it as a gift from God, other times seeing it as dirty or sinful.

Similarly, the church is divided about what it considers the primary purpose of sex – whether it’s mostly for the creation and raising of children, or for the mutual pleasure and unity of couples in love.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have tended to favor the procreative aspect of sexuality – sometimes going so far as to say that the creation of children is the only redeeming factor in what would otherwise be dirty or sinful behavior. Even today, both of these segments of the church teach that sex must be “open to the transmission of new life” (a Roman Catholic phrase) to be holy.

Protestants, meanwhile, tend to favor the unitive aspect. Indeed, it’s common for an evangelical Protestant to say that as long as a couple is married and not doing anything harmful, “anything goes” in the bedroom. (Among liberal Protestants, even sex outside of marriage is sometimes seen as acceptable).

Bracketing for a moment the issue of pre-marital sex, it’s safe to say that both the Protestant and the Catholic/Orthodox positions have support in Scripture.

Those who favor the procreative aspect can point to God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), the Old Testament prohibitions of homosexual activity, bestiality, and sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev 18:19-23, etc), and Saint Paul’s description of non-procreative sex acts as “unnatural” (Rom 1:25-27).

Those favoring the unitive aspect, meanwhile, can reference the creation of Eve as a cure for Adam’s loneliness (Gen 2:18-25), as well as verses such as these:

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love” (Prov 5:18-19).

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Solomon 2:3).

Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (Song 4:16).

“I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates” (Song 8:2).

While Jesus Himself says nothing about this subject directly (other than affirming marriage), He does say something relevant in another context, when He tells His disciples that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:15-21).

While Jesus is talking here about “clean” versus “unclean” foods, His main point is that purity is more of an inward matter (based on the intentions of the heart) than it is an outward one. When applied to sexuality, this would seem to favor the unitive aspect more than the procreative.

As for me, I see the unitive aspect of sex as its main purpose. I have two main reasons for this:

  • It’s no secret that human overpopulation is harming our planet, and that the current population is unsustainable. In light of this, encouraging procreation seems a bit irresponsible – and suggesting that people who don’t want kids should never have sex (or should rely solely on “natural family planning”) is extremely unrealistic!
  • While not everyone can (or necessarily should) have children, sexual desire is almost universal – and everyone can learn to express their sexuality in ways that provide mutual pleasure and bring people closer together.

Many people I know have found non-procreative sexual practices (oral sex, mutual masturbation, etc) to be deeply pleasurable and fulfilling – and this would not have been the case if pregnancy were involved!

Children are a gift from God, to be sure; but not every gift is appropriate in every season. And if God’s mission is to reconcile the world to Himself (Col 1:20), sexuality can serve that purpose in more than one way.

It’s my opinion, then, that at least within marriage, sex can be a glorious gift from God  whether or not it’s “open to the transmission of new life.”

This naturally leads to another question – what about gay and lesbian relationships? Can they too be an expression of God’s unitive purposes?

While this question may have been unthinkable in other ages, it’s a pressing one in ours – especially in nations where such relationships are afforded the legal status of marriage.

 

(Coming Next – Jesus and Sex, Part Three: Holy Homosexuality? Gay and Lesbian Relationships in the Church)

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