I Corinthians 7:1-10
For some reason the Christian tradition looks almost exclusively to Paul’s writing for the basis of Christian sexual ethics. A particularly favorite text in talking about appropriate and inappropriate sexual activity is I Corinthians 7. When we look at I Corinthians 7:1-10 we find Paul not overly excited about the institution of marriage. He states that he would prefer that no one get married but if there are married people that is ok. He offers advice about sexual engagement inside the sanctity of marriage, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (Corinth 7:3). He advises the unmarried to remain unmarried but concedes that celibacy is a spiritual gift (Corinthians 7:7) and if one finds abstinence too hard then “they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (Corinthians 7:9). It’s important to note that Paul isn’t excited about marriage because he believed that Christ was about to return at any moment. And he believed that Christians should be less concerned with settling down and getting married and more concerned with reigning in the kingdom of God.
With that being said, I am not exactly sure why his ideas about marriage and sex are the foundation for Christian ethics but so it is. The Christian Tradition capitalizes on Paul’s words to clearly and explicitly state that sex should only happen within the confines of marriage. The Tradition states that any sexual encounter outside the Holy Covenant of marriage is a sin. We have used the word “fornication” to describe a sexual act outside of marriage and we believe that is it sexually immoral, sinful, and wrong.
Now, I could trouble this argument if I wanted to. I could begin by pointing out that by his own admission, celibacy is a spiritual gift that not all are gifted with (I Corinth 7:7). But I am not going to do that. Or I could point out that outside of Paul’s reflections on sex and sexual immorality, the Bible is full of sexual encounters that are beautiful, that are prescriptive even- that do not take place within the confines of marriage. But I am not going to do that. I could show, if I had time to teach you all ancient Greek, that the word “fornication” does not mean “sex outside of marriage” – that is a very lazy and uncritical definition of the word. But no, I’m not going to do that. Or I could show how our present, Western, modern understanding of marriage today looks absolutely nothing like marriage as it is depicted in the Bible and so perhaps our sexual ethics should evolve just as our understanding of marriage has evolved. But no, no, I am not going to do any of those things. It is not my intention nor my end today to argue with the Tradition. So as the Pastor, as the guarantor of our tradition and the mantle holder of our faith, it is incumbent upon me to stand flat-footed and proclaim these words:
Sex outside of marriage is a sin.
There. I said it. And if the Bishop comes by asking you how I feel about sex outside of marriage, I want you to be able to clearly state these words. Say it with me, “Sex outside of marriage is a sin.”
Now, I could speak for 20 minutes about how bad it is to engage in any sexual practice outside of marriage, use my words to cut and convict you- make you cry and run to the alter full of shame and remorse but I am not going to do that today either. I am not going to do that because I am not stating anything that you do not already know- everyone was taught from a young age that sex outside of marriage is wrong. But the reality is
The masses of men and women are having sex. Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
People are having sex. And the church has only two responses to that reality, the Church either says nothing at all or the church says “wait until you are married.” It is clear that this “wait until you are married” rhetoric is anachronistic and unhelpful for the masses of Christians for several reasons:
First, generally speaking, many if not most Americans have their first sexual encounter – they are faced with the opportunity to engage in sex or some sexual activity, before the legal marrying age. Teenagers, Sometimes even younger, are experiencing, exploring, and experimenting with their sexuality and because of that reality it is unusual- although not unheard of- but unusual for one to be a virgin at the point of marriage. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.
Second, generally speaking, marriage happens a lot later today than it ever has before. 60 years ago, the average American entered marital bliss around the age of 18. Now it is not uncommon for marriage to take place almost ten years later. Or 12. Or 15. or 30. Many people are choosing to get married later on in life and are cultivating sexual ethics outside the lens of marriage. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.
Third, marriage, today, has a pesky tendency to end. The divorce rate is rising higher than the marriage rate. And there are many Christians who have tried marriage, hated it, and find themselves unmarried trying to figure out what their sexual habits should be now that they are single again. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject. What’s more, there are those who have had long, happy, prosperous marriages but their spouses have died. There are many widows and widowers who are no longer in the “married” category but may not be ready to just “get married again” as Paul recommends in I Corinthians 7, but who nevertheless have sexual desires and sexual needs and are wondering what they should and should not do. The Church should have something to say about this. But we are silent on the subject.
Congregations today are filled with people who are not married. They are not of marrying age yet and they are having sex. They are single, never married. And they are having sex. They are single, divorced. And they are having sex. They are single, widowed. And they are having sex. The masses of men and women are having sex. And the church’s archaic, underdeveloped, unsympathetic conversation about healthy sexual ethics for all regardless of marital status or worse yet, the Church’s total silence on the issue has left the Christian community, especially the Black Christian community, in crisis.
People who are unmarried are desperate for some guide, some advice, some tools to navigate living a sexual life. They are so desperate for the water that the Church chooses not to provide that they will drink the sand. That’s how it is possible for a man like Steve Harvey to write best seller called “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” Steve Harvey, a 6 time divorcee and professional entertainer SHOULD NOT be the spokesman and expert on Black women’s sexuality. But the Church will not speak and the masses are desperate for anyone to stand and provides some ethics, some rules to live by. Your sexual ethics should not come from Love & Hip Hop, or Oprah, or Iyanla Vanzant, or the locker room, or the barber shop, or the beauty shop. Your sexual ethics should be grounded and shaped right here in your community of faith.
That means that we will have to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the abominable… We are going to have to start offering practical sexual advice for the unwed at church. Because “just don’t have sex” isn’t helping anyone. So today I am going to offer practical sexual ethics for those who are not married. In order guide this conversation, we are going to play a little game that I have named “Smash or Pass?”
I will offer five scenarios and you will have to determine whether it is appropriate to smash (engage in sexual intercourse) or Pass (Choose not to engage in sexual intercourse).
- You are 15 years old. And you have been talking to your little girlfriend for a couple of months now. Or your little boyfriend gets your nails done. He buys you whole meals from McDonald’s not just the dollar menu (I’m not just talking to teenagers, I know some of you older women think like this too… don’t lie) and you really like him. Or her. Do you smash or pass?
Yes, pass. Christians must begin to make mature and thoughtful sexual decisions at a young age. You will be faced with sexual encounters, you will be faced with the decision on what to do with your body and with whom from now until forever. And instead of bouncing from sexual encounter to sexual encounter until you figure out what is going on, you should pass. Sex is a complicated thing, to do it in a healthy way you must be able to do some very difficult things, like talk openly about expectations, safety, hopes, fears- it takes a certain maturity that you simply do not have right now. And if you can say now “I am mature enough to know that I am not mature enough to do this” and begin to make clear sexual boundaries now, the easier it will be to create healthy sexual habits later on in life.” Anyone under 18, just pass. (I am not saying that at 18 you should have sex like rabbits, that is not the point)
Now mind you, I said ANYONE under 18. We have a problem in our community in that we give young boys a license for sexual freedom and yet we want to control the sexuality of young girls. Who do you think they are having sex with? We turn a blind eye or say it is ok for a young man to stick his ding-a-ling into everything and then wonder why 15 year old’s keep getting pregnant. It’s time to change the culture of the sexual environment. Teach the young girls AND the young boys about maturity, and control, and restraint. If both young men and young women can get in the habit of learning when to say yes and when to say no, things will be different in our community.
2. You have recently met someone. You met her at a club and got her number and you two have been texting heavy. Or you met him because he’s your brother’s baby’s mamma’s cousin’s friend. You two have been texting heavy. And you decide to hang out so you agree to meet up to “watch Netflix and chill.” The movie sucks but the conversation is on point and honestly you know you didn’t come to watch a movie anyway. Things begin to steam up really fast.
You are ready. He is ready.
You are ready. She is ready.
But you reach in your pocket and realize you do not have a condom. You ask,
“Are you on birth control?”
she says, “yea and don’t worry I’m safe.”
or he asks you and you are on birth control, and he seems safe, and he’s so hot. In the heat of the moment do you pass or smash?
You all are a mess! You said pass when all the children running around here were conceived in that particular scenario! This moment will happen again and again. The goal to fostering healthy and safe sexual practices is to be able to slow down the moment enough to consider what it is you are about to do. Slow down long enough to ask yourself “Should I smash or should I pass?” And begin to practice passing when you know it is not a good idea. Self control is not intuitive, it is a muscle that must be exercised. So many get into this situation or similar situations and they quite literally do not know to stop. Men and women alike, they cannot stop themselves, they cannot stop the moment, they cannot stop their partner. You must learn to practice restraint- for the sake of your soul (remember, this is sin we are talking about) but also for the sake of your health. Chlamydia is charging through Charlotte, NC like wildfire. The average rate of infection is higher here than the NC average, it’s higher here than the national average! And that is just chlamydia, we all know that if you do not learn self control you can mess around and get something that antibiotics won’t get rid of. So remember ask yourself “should I smash or should I pass” or in other words “What am I doing?”
3. You have been in a relationship for several months now. And you think this one is the one. You are taking her home to meet your mother at thanksgiving and that is a very big deal. You have gotten to the point where you can’t imagine life without him and you have never felt that way before. You are both in it for the long haul. Do you smash or do you pass?
OK so here is the thing, sex outside of marriage is a sin, remember. But for whatever reason, in today’s society sexual compatibility is a major part of selecting a life partner. A man asks himself:
- Does she get along with my mother?
- Can she cook?
- Is she a lady in the street and a freak in the bed?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, then we can’t get married.
A woman similarly asks herself:
- Does he have a job?
- Is he faithful and honest?
- Can he lay it down at night?
If the answer is no to any of these questions then I cannot marry him.
Sexual compatibility is a big part of how Americans choose their spouses. It has not always been that way but for whatever reason it is so now. Again, marriage, how we do it and how we choose it, has changed. In order to have healthy sexual habits you must be intentional. It should matter to you who you choose to take as a sexual partner. And sexual intimacy should be meaningful and purposeful. It should lead somewhere. To marriage. You know, so you get out of sin… remember? So in asking yourself “do I smash or pass?’ ask yourself “who am I having sex with?”
4. Your wife of ten years won her battle against cancer and went on to be with the Lord a few years ago. At first the grief was unbearable and while it still hurts every single day, its more of a quiet pain, rather than an earth quaking terror. It helps that you have met someone. She held you while you cried over another woman and laughed with you as you shared cherished memories. She has been there for you in a time when you have desperately needed someone. Do you smash or do you pass?
The conversation about Christian sexuality is so narrow that is often leaves out those who have been married before. Marriage ends sometimes. Death occurs. The spouse may die or the marriage itself may die, ending in divorce. But one thing that does not die is a person’s need for love, companionship, and intimacy.
5. Last one, you finally broke it off with that no account, low down, broke ass negro (I said it) and you have sworn off men and are focused on getting your life together. Only problem is that you are so. damn. lonely. There is a guy who you invited over just to have someone around. You don’t like this guy. He isn’t your type. You don’t find him attractive. You have nothing in common. But, again, you are so. damn. lonely. He leans in and kisses you. Do you smash or do you pass?
People have sex for all sorts of reasons. Because they are lonely. Because they feel unwanted. Because they need to feel a sense of power or control. Because they want to feel desired. Because they are depressed. People have sex for all sorts of reasons. These are all really bad reasons to have sex. Sex is a beautiful thing, it is a gift from God and it should a profound expression of love. If your sex is an outpouring of tremendous unspeakable care, adoration, and passion for your partner, then by all means, smash away (It’s a sin though, just warning you) but if it is not, If you are just bored. Lonely. Sad. Depressed. Drunk. Pass, just pass.
Friends, beginning at youth and throughout the rest of your life you will find yourself in encounters where the occasion to have sex will arise. In order to have healthy, safe sexual practices you must take the time to ask yourself
What am I doing?
Who am I doing it with?
Why am I doing it?
In other words “Do I smash or do I pass?”
Learn to answer this question with honesty and integrity and you are well on your way to abandoning a life of sin.
As your pastor, as the great guarantor of the tradition and the mantle holder of our faith, I must state boldly that
sex outside of marriage is a sin.
Really, that is all I am allowed to say. You are a sinner in the hands of an angry God. And then I am supposed to remain silent.
I am supposed to remain silent as 15 year olds keep getting pregnant.
I am supposed to remain silent as HIV/AIDS continues to slaughter our community.
I am supposed to remain silent while men keep trying to find confidence and power in women’s panties, only to wake up each morning still feeling out of control and powerless.
I am supposed to remain silent as women keep looking for the love they never received as a child in the arms of this man, and that man, and that man over there, only to wake up each morning with absolutely no understanding of true love.
I am supposed to be silent. But no. I am not going to do that today. Today I am coming down from my lofty, high, holy, hypocritical seat in order to look you eye to eye and meet you exactly where you are.
I am going rogue today.
But I am not the first to go rogue, I come from a long legacy of prophets who have gone rogue. One such prophet left his lofty, high, holy seat in heaven in order to walk the streets and teach, looking at his children directly in their eyes. Jesus met people right where they were. Without condemnation. Without degradation. Rather, he met the masses of men and women with sympathy, and compassion, and with a great understanding of the human condition.
And the human condition is thus:
The masses of men and women are having sex. Married. Single. Divorced. Widowed.
So take a moment and ask yourself, “do I smash or do I pass?”