Let’s examine casual sex through the lens of modern culture. WandaVision, the new Disney+ show, starts as a black-and-white sitcom starring two beloved Marvel characters, after which the show is cleverly named. The first two episodes mimic 1950s sitcoms like I Love Lucy, even going so far as to use pre-digital special effects.
In the second episode, WandaVision makes a pointed joke about how the married Wanda and Vision sleep in different beds—a common TV trope from the 50s. When they realize the ridiculousness of that idea, Wanda uses her powers to make their two beds into one, and the “audience” cheers and claps.
Shows in the fifties had strict standards. Even though it wasn’t strictly forbidden, couples (even married ones) weren’t shown in bed together. These standards were abandoned in the 60s and 70s. Now, in the 2000s, explicit sex scenes and nudity are common on TV.
In 2020, Pew Research published a study under the headline: “Half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable.” Of only evangelical Christians, 53 percent claimed that premarital sex is always, sometimes, or rarely acceptable in committed dating relationships.
While the respondents are not saying whether they have had casual sex, or would in the future, they are making a moral claim (the survey used the word approve) that sex is acceptable before marriage in certain situations.
This points to a clear infiltration of the culture, not only on the behavior of Christians but also on their sense of right and wrong and biblical ethics.
Do Christians think sex is bad?
Let’s rewind, from seventy years ago to seventeen hundred years ago. Three early church fathers—Jerome, Origen, and Tertullian—were influential in bringing forward a negative view of sex (even in marriage).
Jerome gave a numerical value on different states of Christians, the higher the better: virginity equaled 100, widowhood equaled 60, and married equaled 30. He does not condemn marriage but rather speaks of it as “silver” compared to the “gold” of virginity. Tertullian believed sex and the passion connected with it are distractions from the Spirit’s power. Origen believed that sexual intercourse, even in marriage, coarsened the spirit. Though they disagreed on a great deal, all three held that sex was tied closely to sin and that abstinence was a better spiritual practice (unless it was for procreation).
St. Augustine reflected something similar, saying that marriage is good, but sex is merely for procreation in a virtuous couple. He thought that intense sexual desire and passion were a result of the fall. Such a view presided for centuries. This led to a spiritual hierarchy, where priests had to be chaste and were considered closer to God as a result. Rich Villodas calls this the “starvation diet.”
The good of sex and the calling of singleness
The Reformers took a slightly different turn.
Martin Luther believed that churches were putting unnecessary, dangerous constraints on sex by claiming that Christians could “wear” virginity as easily as one wears shoes and clothes and that virginity was a better spiritual status to live in.
Instead of valuing one Christian over another, Luther argued that God created sex for good and that Genesis mandated procreation as a divine ordinance. Indeed, he thought sexual desire was so strong that only a select few of God’s church would be specifically called for chastity and singleness. Nevertheless, he still believed there was always some sin in intercourse due to the fall.
John Calvin asserted that married couples should continue to have sex after childbearing years and that it was healthy to do so. In Calvin’s mind, a critical reason to be married is to mediate the temptation of lust. Marriage purifies and redeems sex.
These Reformers made the case that God had a calling for each believer, virgin or married, and that sex was a creation of God for the good of his people.
The dangers of two extremes: purity culture and cultural sexualization
Much of the stigmatization surrounding sex came from the Christian purity movement. Though the core of this movement was biblically sound, the application of it more often employed shame rather than grace and biblical discipleship. This led many Christians to struggle with sex even once they were married. Ultimately, the approach seems to have been unhelpful in most cases and hurtful in some. It propagated a false, negative outlook on sex.
On the other hand, with a combination of the sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s and subsequent years of a broadening view of freedom and globalization via the internet, it is clear that the culture has lost respect for God’s view of sex. Instead, sex is common and cheap, which leads to widespread human objectification.
Many Christians, especially young ones, have allowed the culture to influence their beliefs. For example, from 2011 to 2015, of people who had ever been married, 89 percent were reported to have had premarital sex. However, the number of couples who had premarital sex was higher in the fifties than you may assume. The number has increased some, but not by much.
The point is that sexual sin has abounded for all of human history. Even when chastity and purity were supposedly valued in the popular culture and in the purity movement, sin was still working.
Why did God create sex?
A survey of Christian history provides perspective. For two thousand years, the church has consistently held that premarital sex is a sin, that lust and adultery are sins, and that marriage is the only acceptable place for sex between a man and a woman. Until recently, the church has been united on that front. Whether reformers, early church fathers, or medieval scholars, all have agreed that sex is for marriage.
I’ve often heard the idea that sex is like a fire and marriage is a fireplace. Sex can be incredibly harmful and dangerous; on the other hand, it can be warm and life-giving in a cold world.
Jesus had a clear picture of marriage from Genesis. When he condemns divorce, he outlines the biblical plan, quoting Genesis 2:24: “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5).
Paul writes extensively about sexual immorality in his letters (though he does not mention premarital sex specifically). Paul made clear his belief in the Genesis plan: when someone has sex, they are powerfully joined together (1 Corinthians 6:16). Violation of this plan constitutes sexual immorality. Space won’t allow me to make lengthy biblical arguments for this view, but consider reading Steven Tracy’s “Chastity and the Goodness of God: The Case for Premarital Sexual Abstinence.”
And know that there is always grace for those who have messed up.
In “More Americans have cohabited than married,” Dr. Jim Denison wrote, “How different would our culture be today if each of us remained chaste before marriage and faithful to our spouse within it? Imagine a world without pornography, prostitution, sex trafficking, and adultery. This is the freedom and purity God intends for us.”
The biblical plan has an overwhelmingly positive view of sex in its proper place in marriage. It has been part of God’s good plan since the beginning. It is to be fully enjoyed by married Christians. See Song of Solomon.
What has this survey of different Christian understandings of sex shown us?
The relationship between Christianity and sex has been complicated. The best way to respond to sexualized culture is not to take a negative view of it or be influenced by the culture but to take the biblical position: sex is good and for a man and woman in marriage.
In The Meaning of Marriage Timothy Keller writes that “sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire life to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’”
Keller’s comments help us see the goodness of sex to bind two people together. God created sex for the good of humanity. It is a fire of passion to be enjoyed in the fireplace of marriage. Understanding the good of marriage helps us understand the good of sex and why God’s plan for sex has always been for marriage.