Safe Sex

Friday, March 21, 2014 – Week of 2 Lent, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) // 73 (evening)

Genesis 43:1-15

1 Corinthians 7:1-9

Mark 4:35-41

I just finished teaching a unit in my Women & Christianity course that deals with the fallout from today’s second reading. We read works from medieval women who worried that Christ could not love them because they were married (and therefore not virgins). These women also bargained with their husbands to practice “spiritual marriage”—or celibacy within marriage–because they believed that sexual activity prevented them from experiencing real intimacy with God.

Paul is not entirely to blame for the difficulty that many Christians have had integrating their spiritual and sexual lives. In today’s reading, Paul does consider the celibate life to be superior to sexuality, and he describes marriage as merely a safe container for otherwise dangerous sexual desire. However, it appears that Paul is trying to offer the Corinthian Christians an attitude toward sexuality that is more wholesome and generous than the moral standards that prevailed in their community. Could Paul’s words also be offering us a more accommodating and inclusive approach to sexuality?

Paul is writing in response to the Corinthians’ blanket declaration that “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” This moral judgment probably seemed safe and sound to the Christians in Corinth: if men would just keep their hands off of women, then surely everyone would stay well within the bounds of holiness. Paul, however, tries to steer these new Christians toward a more moderate path.

Instead of insisting on rigid and purist forms of self-control that are bound to fail, Paul looks for safe and reasonable alternatives. In Paul’s context, that meant monogamous marriage: “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” I particularly appreciate Paul’s recognition that requesting “conjugal rights” is a two-way street: each partner should be able to request sex from the other. While the Corinthians were worried about men touching women, Paul reminds them that women might want to touch men too!

Paul also recognizes a diversity of sexual expression among God’s people as they pursue holiness. He says, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” Paul concedes that celibacy is simply too much to ask of human beings, unless they have celibacy as a special gift to use for the sake of God and the Christian community, as Paul did.

Today’s second reading is still a long way from the positive celebration of sexuality and the incarnate body that Christians have been reclaiming over the past few centuries. However, Paul’s generosity in recognizing and accommodating the reality of sexual desire, and Paul’s acknowledgment that we all have particular gifts from God, could nudge all Christians toward a fuller integration of our sexuality with our love of God.

We can search, as Paul did, for safe alternatives to potentially destructive expressions of sexuality, and we can offer a more accommodating and culturally-appropriate sexual ethic. We can also come to realize, as Paul did, that the choices and experiences that worked best for us might not fit the unique ways that other children of God have been created. In any case, I hope that Paul’s words of accommodation and tolerance help us all to pursue our health and wholeness, our humanity and holiness.

[NB: Much inspiration for this post comes from a recent conversation with the Ark Fellows, the young adult participants in our local Episcopal Service Corps program. Many thanks to them for their wisdom and candor.]

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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