Sex within Marriage
Is it wrong to go into marriage with a high expectation of the sexual relationship? In the last chapter we acknowledged that this was not wrong. On the contrary, "sensitive, effective and satisfying sex forms the heart of wholesome marriages." Is this an extravagant claim?
An accurate understanding of the many meanings of sexual intercourse within marriage affirms it. The value of wholesome sex within marriage must not be underestimated; neither, of course, must it be over-glamorized.
Sexual intercourse is a magnificent act. Part of its grandeur rests in one of its functions; it enables two people to share with God in the creation of new life. "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man" (Genesis 4:1). This is awesome. It fulfills a command of God (Genesis 1:28). Procreation, giving birth to a child, is one of the purposes of sex. It receives much praise in the Old Testament (Psalm 127:3-5; Proverbs 17:6) and it should be regarded as one of the chief privileges of marriage. But procreation is not the only function of marital union. Since procreation is possible only during a limited period of the woman's monthly cycle, and since the longevity of her reproductive life is restricted, intercourse clearly has other purposes. In fact in these days of reliable contraception, over 90% of sexual intercourse in marriage will not be with the intention of procreation. Rather, the intention will be for pleasure. Did God envisage people enjoying sex? Genesis 2:24 finds God giving clear instructions to the couple which will safeguard their sexual and emotional unity. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." This sexual unity left the couple without shame.
The Bible's view of sex is positive and accepting. In God's
own reported words, He saw all that He had made, including the genitalia of the male and female, and He saw that it was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Thus the sexual dimension of marriage is not merely approved by God; it finds its origin in Him.
Unfortunately the early Fathers of the Christian church misconstrued the meanings of sex, even within marriage. Their warped teaching distorted the beauty of intercourse and made it ugly. Misinformed Christians became bewildered. This confusion between church teaching and biblical teaching reverberated down the centuries and its echoes do not die. They seek an answering call from Christian couples today. But we owe it to one another not to approach marriage befuddled by misconceptions which disguise the true meaning of sex within marriage. For this reason, an attempt to disentangle the erroneous teaching of the early Fathers from biblical teaching must be made.
The teaching of the church
After Paul's lofty description of marriage in Ephesians 5, an air of negativism pervaded the church's teaching on marriage. Thus Gregory of Nyssa, whose teaching was acclaimed at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, dismissed marriage as a "sad tragedy." He concluded that Adam and Eve could not have had sexual relations in their pre-fallen state. His dogmatic pronouncement, "there would never have been such an institution were it not for original sin,"1 influenced successive teaching, particularly Augustine's.
This pessimistic view of marriage was adopted by John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, who subscribed to the belief that marriage hindered the greatest possible service to God. He reasoned that there would have been no need for sexual intercourse if Adam had not fallen into disobedience.
Although these views find no support in the Bible, they were taken up by Ambrose, who condemned marriage as a "galling burden." Even St. Augustine perpetuated the claim that marriage is a blighted relationship. To his credit, he dismissed the idea that marriage was a result of original sin, but he put forward the view that the first sin of Adam and Eve was a sexual one. He therefore reached the unfortunate
conclusion that the sexual act transmits original sin. In fact he claimed that intercourse is always accompanied by sin. This sinful element is removed only if intercourse is performed solely for the purpose of creating new life, procreation.
Gregory I went further. Although he conceded that intercourse was, of itself, not sinful, the pleasure attached to it was wrong. Since couples could not avoid the pleasurable element even when they did desire to create new life, the sex act was condemned. Couples were instructed to abstain from intercourse before receiving Communion and while preparing for baptism. He further degraded sex by implying that, even within marriage, it was dirty. Hence men should not enter church after indulging in intercourse unless they had washed first. Arnobius, too, felt coitus was filthy.
As Jack Dominian shows in his fascinating survey of this early church teaching, the links with the positive approach of the Old and New Testaments were severed. Healthy biblical teaching was overlaid by a "wealth of adverse remarks," austerity and severity of thinking.
For Catholics, the wind of change was felt when Abelard insisted that intercourse itself and the pleasure which accompanies it are both good. They are good because they originate in God. In the thirteenth century, William Auvergne admitted that "Intercourse ... can involve a spiritual pleasure." By the seventeenth century, Francis da Sales pierced the gloom with his revolutionary teaching: "Marital intercourse is certainly holy, lawful and praiseworthy in itself and profitable to society."2 Gradually Catholics emerged from the sludge of narrow, constricting beliefs. The procreative and unitive purposes of sex within marriage were both recognized. Sexual relations were seen to be fulfilling.
Meanwhile the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century opposed the error in the church's teaching. As Luther expressed it: "Marriage consists of these things; the natural desire of sex, the bringing to life of offspring, and life together with mutual fidelity."3
He went further. His denunciation of clerical hypocrisy was brutal:
The pope and his cardinals, monks, nuns and priests have tried to improve things and ordain a holy estate in which they might live in holiness and chastity. But how holy, pure and chaste [their] lives ... have been is so apparent that the sun, moon and stars have cried out against it.... Why, then did this happen? Because they tore down and despised God's holy ordinance of the estate of matrimony and they were not worthy to enter into marriage.4
And so the climate changed. The biting wind of asceticism gave way to the warmth of biblical teaching. Married couples became free to enjoy sexual intercourse and the accompanying pleasures were recognized as part of God's design. Recent insights highlight the wonder of this gift from God. Unfortunately, although the church's teaching is now generally in alignment with the Bible's, confusion lingers.
What are you feelings about sexual intercourse?
Maybe you feel that couples should blush when they reflect on the sexual enjoyment marriage offers?
If these are you feelings, acknowledge them. But at the same time bring biblical truth alongside these erroneous ideas.
The teaching of the Bible
Adam seems to have known nothing of the pessimism we have studied. In the presence of his sexual partner, it was as if he burst into song (Genesis 2:23).
Love prompts another ecstatic outburst in the Song of Solomon. This love-poem implies that, far from being dirty, degraded and shameful, sex is the means of leading each partner into transports of delight. It is a language with more dimensions than words. This language conveys a dynamic message. It is the certainty of joyful abandonment to one another, passionate oneness with each other and an enduring acceptance of the other.
These unspoken joys are wholly satisfying in a permanent relationship. At least, the writer of Proverbs encourages us in this belief. "May you rejoice in the wife of your youth.... may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love" (Proverbs 5:18-19).
The New Testament takes up this joyous theme and develops it. For Paul, marriage, with its emphasis on regular sexual involvement (1 Cor. 7:5), reflects the union that exists between Christ and the church. It is a mystery; but this glorious mystery must be contained within the marital relationship. How else can it mirror and represent the permanence of the love Christ pours out on His bride? It is only within marriage, that relationship which reflects the relational dimension of the Trinity, that a couple can plumb the depths of this act. Remove intercourse from marriage and you mock at the mystery which we only partially understand.
The significance of sexual intercourse
Sexual intercourse is body language. It sometimes makes use of words, but it has no need of them. Sexual intimacy communicates its unique messages wordlessly. What are these messages?
Sexual fusion says, "I want you." That message cures loneliness. A lonely person is one who is independent, who has found no secure place of belonging. To find that security in the intimacy of the body of one who loves you brings peace.
This sense of well-being confirms our acceptability. This reassurance provides an answer to that searching question, "Who am I?" As Jack Dominian puts it:
In the sexual act there is in the physical and emotional closeness a recurrent confirmation on the part of the spouses that each matters sufficiently to the other to be accepted as a whole person, with his or her physical strength and limitations, mental achievements and failures, emotional fears and anxieties.5
Each partner affirms the other sexually; a sexual celebration takes place.
This celebration revels in the trust, loyalty and confidence the spouses have for each other. They each rejoice in the assurance that one person in this world is "all for me." And this certainty eliminates the fear of rejection, dispels the fear
of betrayal and heals the pain of abandonment. Satisfactory sex also strengthens a marital relationship. When two married people bring one another to sexual orgasm, they communicate the non-verbal message, "You are both loved and lovable." This is the message every person needs to hear. This blissful certainty is accompanied by another. Satisfying sex gives each partner a sense of achievement.
Sensitive sexual relating in marriage is wordless affirmation of the other: "You are the most precious person in my life." It conveys the silent message of gratitude, "Thank you for being there;" of hope, "I hope you will be here tomorrow: and of completion, "I discover myself completely when I am fused with you."
This mystery, this "one flesh" relationship, therefore offers many of the conditions necessary for emotional maturity. Acceptance, trust, achievement and affirmation produce whole people. Sexual oneness transcends differences. That is not to say that differences of opinion are automatically resolved when two people make love. Any conflict in the marriage must still be worked through with patience and forgiveness. But when couples enjoy sexual intimacy, they become highly motivated to preserve the total unity of the marriage. In that sense, sexual oneness transcends differences and provides a couple with the determination to continue to work at the relationship.
As Paul implies, when two people make love, something deep and irrevocable happens (see 1 Cor. 6:12-20). That is why this physical celebration should be reserved for marriage. When they come together sexually, two people fuse to become one. Robin Skynner puts it well:
In a fulfilling sexual act, the two opposite genders, at their most different and separate, simultaneously become one totally, merging with one another in an experience going beyond the capacity of either. Each is most centered in, and
aware of, himself or herself, yet also wholly open and responsive to the other. Each temporarily loses his boundary, surrenders to a greater unity. Both are as spontaneous as they could ever be, yet this spontaneity is possible because of a fundamental self-discipline, an ability to deny oneself, to wait, to adapt and adjust to the other as in the unfolding of a dance. It is non-manipulative, non-controlling; the self is offered freely, from generosity and trust, and since there is no demand the return comes equally freely and fully, each emotionally responding and keeping time with the other, each gives most generously yet takes most uninhibitedly too, without hedging or bargaining.... And the climax, when it "comes" in its own time, is productive, creative, sometimes through the beginning of a separate new life but always in a renewal of the separate lives of the partners and the joint life of their relationship, so that the wild, single act of affirmation is never tired of, never loses its fullness or the refreshing quality of a draught of spring water or mountain air.6
The good news about sex within marriage is that it is not a guilty secret. On the contrary, sexual pleasure between husband and wife is a part of the wonder of God's creation. It is a language through which couples communicate a variety of messages which rise from the depths of the inner self. With God, therefore, married couples may rejoice in this renewable refreshment. It is "very good." It is so very good that it is worth waiting for. Unwrap this gift prematurely and you strip it of many of its unexpected delights. For intercourse is a magnificent act: but it is for marriage.
Chapter 7 || Table of Contents
1. Quoted by Jack Dominian, Christian Marriage, Libra, 1977, p.26.
2. Christian Marriage, pp.55f.
3. Quoted by Julia O'Faolain and Lauro Martines (eds.), Not in God's Image, Fontana, 1974, p.209.
4. Not in God's Image, p.210.
5. Christian Marriage, p.113.
6. Robin Skynner, One Flesh: Separate Persons, Constable, 1976, p.129.