SWM033 – Sermon – Sex: An uncomfortable topic we need to discuss

This podcast episode is a sermon I wrote and delivered in my home church while the pastors were away and I was invited to preach.  I’m not a pastor myself, but occasionally I am asked to step in while they are away.  The title I chose was “Sex: an uncomfortable topic we need to discuss”, and it had a few people upset when they came to church and saw it in the bulletin.  Particularly since there was no children’s ministry that week.  But, afterwards, nearly everyone seemed content with what I had said and how I had delivered it.

Some people asked if I would share the sermon here, so you can find the audio, as well as my sermon notes here.

A few people have asked if I’d come preach in their church.  If you want to provide transportation and put me up overnight, then I’m more than willing to discuss the possibility.  Just contact me here.

That said, here is the sermon:

Today, I’m going to be talking about sex.

How many of you feel uncomfortable right now? I do. It’s an uncomfortable topic, especially in churches. I’ve been on podcasts, radio shows and teleconferences speaking on the topic of married sexuality to thousands of people, written literally over half a million words on the subject read by millions, and it’s still an uncomfortable topic to stand up here and talk about.

Yesterday, my daughter asked what I was going to preaching about, I paused for a moment,and then realized she’s going to hear me preach, so I can really hide it. So, I just said “sex”. She gave me this funny look and said “ … that’s not something you talk about in church.” Today is her 12th birthday, and she’s already learned somehow that sex and church are incompatible. I assure you, I didn’t teach her that, because she’s also aware that most of my personal ministry involves talking to people about their marriages, including sex.

So, why am I going to preach about it here today? I asked a few people that I know through my ministry to marriages what topic are we missing from sermons. Nearly all of them said that I should preach about sex. So, I let it slip to a few people in our church that I was considering that topic, and you should have seen their faces light up. Some said “Yes! Please!” Others “Oh, I’ll be there for that one”. Some promised to protect me from the inevitable stoning that would ensue. Some just laughed incredulously. That last group is suspiciously missing today …

But I wasn’t really surprised. I learned long ago, that if you give a group of married Christians a space where they can talk openly, and feel safe, the conversation often jumps to sex. Why? Because it’s such a rare opportunity. A few years ago, Christina and I led a small group in this church discussing married sexuality using the book intimacy ignited. It started a bit slow, but after everyone sort of settled in, it was awesome to see people open up. I’d love to do that again. Perhaps this coming September.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I got a text from our pastor reminding me that I’m preaching and a passage to read. It was 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Now, I think this might have been a subtle hint that he wanted me to preach about salvation or something like that, but I figure I must be on the right track, because what other topic would bring more fear and trembling than sex? So, I’m afraid today it’s my job to make us all uncomfortable. And yes, I’m keenly aware that there are children in the room, including my own, and that’s likely to make for some uncomfortable conversations for all of us later on. I, for one, welcome them despite the discomfort.

So, to the parents, I say: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. No one said this parenting thing would be easy.
To the kids and teens: If your parents won’t talk to you about sex, or you don’t feel comfortable asking them, I will answer any question you might have without judgement, punishment, guilt or shame. I can’t promise it won’t be a bit awkward, but I can at least promise to be a safe space.

That’s an open invitation to everyone, really. If you have awkward questions you feel you can’t ask anyone else, I’m comfortable having those uncomfortable conversations.

I’m also preaching this sermon, because I want my kids to hear me talk about sex in a Christian context. I want them to hear me talk about it in a church, in front of people, because if my 12-year-old has already learned that it’s not okay, then something is wrong. If she thinks discussions about sex and Christianity are incompatible, then what is she going to do if she gets married and has questions? Or when she starts getting curious about boys in the probably not too distant future and doesn’t know how to deal with temptation, pressure or what’s right or wrong?

So, let’s start with why we don’t talk about sex in churches. Why is it that were so fearful of mentioning it?

It doesn’t come from the Bible as there seems no fear of mentioning sex in its pages. Nearly every book in the Bible has some reference to sex. It’s writers were not shy about saying “They had sex, and then they had a baby”. No myths about storks being taught to the Israelite children. It didn’t come from Judaism, where they had a healthy view of sexuality long before Christianity was founded, and has continued since.

Rather it came from Greek, Roman and other pagan beliefs mixed with ours. When christianity was taking its first steps, it was infiltrated by those who believed that anything physically gratifying was sinful. These early step-fathers of Christianity coming from gnostic, or neoplatonic backgrounds taught that engaging in sex was a concession to human weakness, and that belief grew.

By 200AD, Origen was teaching that the serpent seduced Eve in the garden and that sex was the source of the fall of mankind.

Augustine later taught that while he believe married couples are allowed to procreate, that it was better that they have celibate “spiritual” marriages. These so called spiritual marriages fell out of favor within a century, but these teachings later became the foundation for celibacy requirements for priests and nuns and still persisted in the idea that celibacy was more holy than marriage. This caused some of Paul’s writings on the subject to be interpreted in some very negative ways toward both marriage and sex, and some still teach those interpretations.

During the medieval era, it didn’t get any better. The church started blacking out days in which married couples could engage in physical intimacy. They blocked out Sunday because of their belief that it was the holy day. Friday because Jesus died on that day. Monday because he rose. Saturday for some reason I can’t find. Likely not because of Sabbath, because they were busy killing all the Sabbath Keepers. Then they removed all feast days, holy days, fasting seasons like Lent, and others. By the end of the list, a married couple could only have sex 44 days of the year, and even then, they were commanded not to enjoy it, as enjoying sex was still considered a sin. Sex itself was only redeemed morally by having a baby. Their official views have changed in the last few hundred years, but the idea is still pretty strongly embedded in all church’s cultures.

It wasn’t until the Reformation that the protestants started to reject the ideas of celibacy as being more holy than marriage, embracing the idea that sex was good for intimacy, not just child getting, and that God didn’t make a mistake by putting Adam and Eve together naked and alone in paradise.

Moving forward, John Calvin went so far as to say that lifelong celibacy was rash, unless given as a specific spiritual gift of grace to an individual by God.

After him came the Puritans who followed Calvin and others. While the Puritans now have a reputation for being sexually repressed, they were actually quite sex-positive. They were very strict on premarital sex, and other sexual sins, but not because they believed sex was wrong. Rather it’s because they held it in such high esteem within marriage. The reformation had encouraged them to read their Bible, and in so doing, they found out what God’s intent for sex was. According to Francis J. Bremer, a Professor of History at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, during the Puritan era, there were both church and civil cases of spouses being charged for NOT having sex with their spouse.

Sex was considered ordained by God, and blessed. They believed married couples engaging in abstinence was foolishness and shortsighted. They were bold in their writings and made it clear that they themselves had healthy drives that they exercised frequently in their marriages.

The church had finally become sex positive.

And then the Victorian era arrived.

With the age of enlightenment, came the idea that any physical pleasure was base. Undesirable, and even disgusting. Intellectualism was prized over emotionalism and marriage because of love someone fell out of fashion. As a result, the old ideas of sex being sinful and were revived. Pregnant women were encouraged to stay indoors lest they remind others of how babies were actually made. Women weren’t allowed to show even their ankles for fear of arousing a man, and they even covered the legs on their furniture as well for the same reason. Separate bedrooms for spouses became popular and doctors started teaching that sex reduced your lifespan.

In a short while, all that the Reformation had done to get back to the biblical view of sex was undone.

This is the era in which Adventist was founded, and it’s echoed in the writings of our denominations founders and early writers. An era when sex was believed to deplete your vital force or energy, which determined your lifespan. Some of our denominations founders, early writers and prevalent figures believed and taught that having sex as frequently as once a month would cause you to have a shortened and unhealthy life. Kellogg seems to have invented cornflakes in an attempt to reduce libidos, because he believed that would improve lifespans and quality of life. Now, it did in fact improve lifespans, but that’s because it also included a lot of fibre, which people weren’t getting before.

Many of them believed that sexual desire was unnatural, particularly for women.

Dr. Kellogg once wrote:

“I should say that the majority of women, happily for them, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. … The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, of children, of domestic duties, are the only passions they feel. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself.”

We now know, of course, that this isn’t true at all. I’d say in about ¼ to ⅓ of marriages, the wife actually has more interest than the husband.

So, our church was founded in a time when sex was thought to deplete your lifespan. That desiring sex was unnatural, or at the very least undesirable. That women should not encourage their husbands in desiring them, and should even limit the “exercising of their marital privilege” as they liked to call it.

Since then, we’ve officially grown out of this mindset. The General Conference put out an official statement 5 years ago in a publication called “Statement of Concern on Sexual Behaviour” in which they wrote in their opening remarks:

It is Satan’s purpose, … to pervert every good thing; and the perversion of the best inevitably leads to that which is worst.

In short, they were saying that sex, within marriage, is part of the best of all the good things God created. That’s a pretty sex-positive, and I’d say, biblically founded, stance.

Unfortunately, while we have been officially reforming, the culture of our churches hasn’t much followed suit, and it’s not just Adventism. Every denomination struggles with this topic. We haven’t quite caught up to the Puritans yet in terms of our reclaiming the biblical view of sex, in theology, church culture or marital practices.

I think part of it has to do with the the sexual revolution here in North America during the 60s. Everyone was so freely open about sex, that we shut down as a way to distance ourselves from it, and we never really recovered. Everyone is afraid to talk about sex, including, or perhaps especially pastors. Many I talk to from other denominations, are terrified to bring it up for fear of being fired. We don’t have that concern in our denomination, but still, the culture makes it difficult to talk about.

These days, our society now is obsessed with sex, teaching everyone that it’s fun and safe and should be enjoyed by anyone, anyhow, anywhere and anytime, so long as all parties are consenting. Sex has become purely recreational. Like sports, it’s considered fun, with some risks, like any good game. And like sports, the industry catering to spectators is massive.

By contrast, we in churches still have our old stigmas about talking about sex, but now compounded on it, we fear being seen as having archaic views of sexuality, pushing an ideal that includes waiting to have sex until you are married, and deciding to focus or reserve all your sexual energy on one single person: your spouse. It’s like telling someone “I’m waiting until I’m married to play basketball, and then it will only be one-on-one games, with my spouse, and no, you can’t watch.”

So, here I am. A non-pastor with no fears of being fired or sanctioned (well, few fears of being censured anyways), to bring up this uncomfortable topic and open a discussion, because it’s a discussion that needs to be had in our churches.

But first, what does the bible say about sex? Do you know?

After all, the church for years taught it was sinful, only redeemed by procreation. That it would sap your life-force and make you sickly. But what does the Bible actually teach us?

In Genesis 1, we see God creating Adam and Eve, and then commanding them to have sex. Seriously, He said that. Take a look.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28

When people ask me why I have so many kids, I like to say that we took the first commandment very seriously.

Anyways, God put Adam and Eve in the garden, perfect naked bodies, on a Friday, told them to multiply, and then left them to their own devices. I’ll let you guess what they probably spent Friday evening doing. Maybe this is why Judaism teaches that sex on the Sabbath is a Mitzvah.

I also want to point out here that God tells them to multiply, basically creates sex, and then a couple of verses later:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. – Genesis 1:31

It’s not just good, it was very good. And in English we sort of lose a bit here. The Hebrew gives this sense that it was good and pleasing, both functionally and aesthetically. Basically, God looked at what He’d designed, including sex, and said “Yeah, that’s perfect.”

If you remember our brief history lesson earlier, this is something people forgot, or tried to rationalize their way around for centuries. Teaching everything from Satan created sex, to sex was part of the curse, to the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a metaphor for sex.

But, you can’t get around this. God said it was very good. End of story.

So, is that it? Is sex for making babies? Nothing else? I think that’s what a lot of people believe the church thinks. The church tells them sex is for procreation, and the world says it’s a fun sport that anyone can engage in. So, along comes birth control, and boom. The risk of a child is gone (which, by the way, birth control isn’t perfect), thus satisfying the churches fear, and it’s easy to believe the world when it says “It’s all just fun. No one will get hurt.”

But, is that all there is?

Yes, it’s useful for procreation, but there’s more. Genesis 2:24 tells us that it promotes unity in marriage.

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24

What we know of biology tells us this as well.

When we have sex, our brain releases chemicals that make us feel successful, safe, emotionally connected, give us a desire to protect our spouse, and a variety of other things. It’s like a biologically secreted emotional glue.

Anyone want to hear an interesting tidbit about hormones and sex?
Who knows what oxytocin is? For those that don’t know, it’s a hormone that helps you feel emotionally connected, bonded, safe and secure. When women give birth and breastfeed, they produce a ton of oxytocin. It emotionally cements them to their baby.

Now, in general, women have about 10 times the oxytocin in their body than men have. That’s why they emotionally bond better and faster. It’s one reason why they can more easily have deep conversations with their good friends.

The only time that men approach the level that women have is right after sex. This is when, if you stay awake, you can have some of the best conversations of your marriage. You both feel safe and secure due to all the oxytocin running through your body. It only lasts a short time, about half an hour, but that half an hour can propel a marriage forward.

This act is not frivolous. That’s just one hormone. Add to that dopamine, which will rewire your brain to say “this is important, I want this again”, and vasopressin, which will make you want to protect who you’re with at all costs. This is not something that should be accessed lightly. You are literally reprogramming your brain to focus your life around this person.

Now, in the context of a marriage, this is wonderful, beautiful thing, because you are creating the foundations of something that ideally will last a lifetime.

In the context of a one-night stand, vacation fling, boyfriend, girlfriend, or even a fiancee, this is terrifying. Because sex doesn’t only solidify a relationship, it also impedes our judgement.

A loving doe, a graceful deer– may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love. – Proverbs 5:19

This is the only time I know of in the Bible where it commands us to be intoxicated. Sex is intended to make us lose ourselves in our spouse. That’s one reason why it’s so important to ensure you have rigorously vetted a potential spouse before making a commitment, because once you start having sex, let’s face it, you’re not thinking straight anymore. You’re drunk on hormones. Intoxicated with infatuation.

And you think it’s love, but it’s not. You just love how it makes you feel. And when that’s the emotion your relationship starts with, you’re in for a rough ride. Because a marriage only thrives when you focus more on how you make the other person feel instead of how they make you feel.

On the one hand, I want to say something to terrify all the kids away from having sex before their married, but I know that’s not how it works. So, I’ll say this instead:

Sex with your spouse is amazing. You can’t imagine how amazing it is.

Beyond the physical aspects, the sense of acceptance and belonging is out of this world. But, in most couples these days, that feeling is broken by guilt, shame and regret because of baggage from previous relationships, even if it’s with the same person you married, but before you got married.

I want to give some hope for those who have already made some bad decisions: You can get over it with time.

I also want to warn those who haven’t yet made those decisions: While you can get over the bad decisions, you will spend a lot of time getting over them. Time that could have been better spent moving forward in your marriage, rather than starting off on the wrong footing.

But, once your married, that same act that causes guilt, shame and regret with someone other than your spouse, is designed to build up your marriage.

In fact, it’s so important to a marriage, that Paul suggests you never deny your spouse that opportunity to reconnect, to get emotionally glued together unless your both mutually deciding to focus on God for prayer and fasting. To do otherwise is to invite temptation into your marriage.

Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. – 1 Corinthians 7:5

When spouses ask me how long they should go without having sex, I like to ask them how long they can go without food.

Now, one of the problems we have in our culture these days is that we awaken this desire too early in people.

Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires. – Song of Solomon 8:4

In our culture, we’re bombarded with sexual images all day, every day. I can’t even walk from the train to the subway at work without seeing a life-sized lingerie ad. Add to that that ratings for movies and tv shows are becoming more and more lax, not to mention the curriculum changes that are pushing sex education earlier and earlier as well as the increase in sexual schoolyard talk.

Our collective desires are being awakened before their time. And I’m afraid I don’t have a simple solution for you. I have been married for 17 years now, and I wasn’t good at being single before that. However, what I do know is that refusing to talk about it in churches isn’t going to make it any easier to deal with.

We need to open these discussions so that we can talk about how to deal with it. Because the old canned answers of “you just have to pray”, as much as I’m in favour of prayer, isn’t enough for a lot of people. And so, we need to start talking about this in our Christian circles, including in sermons. If we don’t, we will continue to cause a lot of problems.

If we can’t talk positively about sex, we appear to be sex-negative, and are at odds with scripture, which is very sex-positive within the context of marriage.

As well, if we continuously tell our single people that “sex is bad”, if they do get married, flipping that switch to “you have to have sex” is incredibly difficult. I know, because I’m helping to deal with the fallout on that in a lot of couples.

If we don’t talk about sex in churches, people just assume that sex is easy and comes naturally and WHEN they have problems (because almost everyone has an issue at some point), they think they’re alone, and so are afraid to ask for help.

If we only talk negatively about sex, single people will want to try it for themselves. I had a teacher in high school once say during class “Sex isn’t that good”. I remember my first thought was “Maybe you’re doing it wrong”, because everything in society told me differently. After all, the rest of the world is saying it’s great!

If we try to tell them sex is bad, either morally or that it just doesn’t feel that good, we basically push them to have sex. Instead, we need to be telling them, “They’re right, it can be great, and here’s why it’s great for marriage.”

And if it’s not great in your marriage, talk to someone about it. Get help, because it should be, and it can be. I want better for you, and I think God does too.

Not talking about sex adds to the stigma, making it more difficult to parents and children to talk to each other about it. As a result, we leave the sexual education of our kids to the world. Does anyone else think that’s a bad idea?

And lastly, we make it difficult for people who are struggling with sexual sins and temptations to come forward and get help. We make them out to be the worst kinds of sins, so bad that no one wants to talk about them, even to avoid them. We implicitly teach that sexual temptation is a sin, even though we theologically know it’s not a sin to be tempted.

We have an epidemic of porn use in our churches that we aren’t really dealing with. The last stats I’ve seen say that 1 out of every 2 men are currently struggling, whether they are pastors or members. And 1 out of every three women, and that number is growing. By the way, erotic stories and romance novels count, including the 50 shades trilogy.

The average age of a child’s first exposure to porn is now between 8 and 11 years old. Does that terrify anyone else? Studies show that this is now the primary method of sexual education. This is what our children will likely be learning from if they go to the internet to start asking questions.

As well, infidelity and scandals, not only in politics, but in our churches, both among members and leaders is growing at a frightening pace. Personally, I think what is even more frightening is the lack of sex being had in marriages. About one in ten are considered clinically sexless (less than 10 times a year) with far more on a starvation diet in terms of frequency, availability and engagement. Gatekeeping, where one spouse limits sex, and outright refusal are sins no one hears about and people rarely get help for causing a plague of zombie marriages in our churches. Marriages that appear to be alive, but are dead inside and have stopped being productive. Those are the ones I worry about the most because of the subtlety of the damage. Marriage can be a source of great strength and support, or a weight that drags you down. I know, because Christina and I have experience both kinds of marriage with each other.

I’m sorry if I barely touched on a ton of subjects here. I could talk for days, literally, on this topic, but that’s the point. We have so much to discuss, and no one is discussing it. And we need to. We need to for our children, for our singles, for our married people, and for ourselves. And we need to for all the people out there who think we’re sexually repressed and won’t step foot in a church, because they think it means becoming something akin to celibate. And who can blame them, we’re worse than the Puritans when it comes to talking about sex! That’s a pretty bad reputation to have in this day and age. Christina thinks that maybe we’re afraid that if we take a sex-positive stance that people will think we’re pro all the other topics related to sexuality these days.

But, we can draw our line in the sand and say “this far and no farther”. We can preach the gospel, including sex, while still saying that there is right and wrong, boundaries that should not be crossed. That God has a design for sex, and it’s wonderful within the proper context, and terrible outside of it.

We should be able to proudly say, “Yes, God made sex, and it is very good, and I like it”, or “and I’m waiting to enjoy it”, or “and I need to make some better choices to show I believe that” or even “but I’m struggling to treat it properly right now”.

So, while I know we’re all uncomfortable talking about sex, especially in church, I hope this might a first awkward step for some of us, so we can stop denying that God made this incredibly powerful thing that needs to be handled with respect, in the context it was designed for, so we can get the full benefit of it and be protected from it’s misuse.

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