Let’s Talk About Sex

A few thoughts sparked by beginning to lead a discussion through the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon in the Young Professional’s class at The Crossing:

I’ll start by posing a question: what’s your initial reaction to the fact that we’re offering this class? Judging from the short conversation I had with someone at the gym yesterday, there are at least some of you that are surprised.

In many cases, I would imagine that has to do with the fact that the Song of Solomon can get, well, “steamy” at times. A few passages are overtly sexual, and many more are sensually suggestive.

On the other hand, the Song is a part of the Bible. And as Paul noted, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis mine). This means the Song of Solomon is God’s useful word to us, intended to equip us to lead a life pleasing to him.

Over the centuries of the church, many have considered these two points difficult to reconcile. In fact, they’ve led a host of biblical interpreters—several of whom would make a proverbial who’s who list of scholars and pastors—to treat the song as an allegory that in some way speaks to the relationship between God/Christ and his people.

However, this approach is problematic for at least two reasons. First, there’s no overt clue in the song itself that tells us to read it this fashion. Contrast that with reading Pilgrim’s Progress or the gospel accounts of many of Jesus parables. Second, if we insist on treating the book as an allegory, we have no clear direction as to what the various details of the text signify. This has led those who’ve taken this approach to come up with a dizzying array of interpretations—with nothing really to control them.

Consequently, rather than explaining away the sex and romance of the book, we might need to ask ourselves if why we’re surprised or even uncomfortable that God would give attention this particular subject matter in his word. Some interrelated things to think about:

1. Sex isn’t a product of mankind’s fall into sin. It was designed by God as a part of his good creation. Genesis 2 underscores this fact, noting that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (v. 24). (While I think it’s fair to say becoming one flesh involves more than sex, it doesn’t involve less.)

2. Still, when the subject of sex is comes up in Christian circles, the discussion is most often of a negative character. By that I mean the discussion usually concerns what the Bible defines as sexual sin. Please don’t misunderstand. Calling attention to the prohibitions God has put in place regarding sex is a vitally necessary task, especially in a culture that so easily warps it into an idol. But if that’s all we do, we can easily come away with the perception that sex has little positive value. Add to this the tendency for Christians to treat the physical aspects of our existence as somehow inferior to what is often erroneously defined as “spiritual” (a subject I’ve discussed previously here). In light of all this, it’s not so hard to see how Christians, whether consciously or unconsciously, develop a negative view of sex on the whole.

3. It’s certainly not good to ignore or take things away from the instruction that God has given us. But neither is it helpful to be more restrictive than his commands. For example, when the Colossians were beset by those who urged the observance of man-made rules, Paul said this: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:23). Ironically, what supposedly was to encourage holiness was powerless to do so. In fact, adding restrictions to God’s requirements may contribute to a spirit of self-righteousness. The gospels demonstrate this was a problem for the Pharisees.

4. Like any passage of Scripture, the Song of Solomon needs to be read in light of the rest of the Bible. This means that its portrayal of sexuality is meant to be understood within the context of marriage, not as some kind of forbidden escapade.

5. In the class on Sunday, we watched a video presentation in which the speaker mentioned a handful of ways that sex (again, in the proper context) is a good gift from God. In our discussion afterwards, I asked the class what stuck out at them about what they heard. There were a few comments on some of the points the speaker made, such as the fact that sex within marriage helps couples fight sin (see 1 Corinthians 7). Tellingly, however, no one mentioned his very first point: that it’s a source of pleasure and enjoyment. And yet, the Bible doesn’t exactly appear to be apologetic about this. Consider Proverbs 5:18-19: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.”

All this leaves me thinking: shouldn’t we have, not less, but more discussions in the church about a full biblical perspective on sex?

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