By L. Alfred James
The Christian church has an unfortunate history of encouraging people to think of sex as dirty, as a subject to be avoided, and as a source of shame. For instance, in the late 100’s the church father Origen taught that sex was inherently impure and should be carefully avoided.1 Likewise, in the 300’s, St. Ambrose echoed this sentiment. He declared that virginity was a superior form of spirituality. He even told married priests that they should stop having sex with their wives.2 After Ambrose, Augustine (perhaps unwittingly) fortified this viewpoint even further by saying numerous things about sex that seem to indicate agreement with Ambrose and the ascetics (Christians who practiced extreme self-denial). This eventually influenced the Catholic Church to require all of its priests to remain single and celibate throughout their lives. It also led to centuries of Christian teaching that viewed sex as inherently dirty and shameful.
All of this is unfortunate. This false belief that sex is inherently sinful has always been present in some corner of Christendom. At different times it has even been the dominant view. Its most pernicious form in recent history is seen in the attitudes of many (though not all) Christians who identify themselves as Fundamentalist Protestants or devout Catholics. A quick internet search will turn up a long trail of twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up in these traditions. Time after time, they explain how their parents led them to think that sex was dirty and should never be discussed. Time after time, they explain that almost nothing positive about sex was ever mentioned. It was just bad, bad, bad.
Well, anyone with hormones knows that the human body frequently feels sex to be good, good, good. Living in this kind of contradiction is very challenging. When no reasons can be given to justify this all-encompassing condemnation of sex, young people rightly feel that they are being oppressed. Rules without reason are tyranny. As a result, these young people frequently cast off all sexual restraints and joined forces with the sexual revolution, a revolution that is still underway.
So, according to the Bible, what exactly does God think of sex? Is it inherently sinful? Should we avoid it, or do everything we can to keep from enjoying it?
The Bible’s View of Sex
It might surprise you to learn that the Bible actually has a very positive view of sex when it is kept within the confines of marriage. In several passages that allude to sex between a husband and wife, the Bible is downright celebratory.
In fact, some passages in the Bible actually command married Christians to have sex on a regular basis. For instance, 1 Corinthians 7:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
Notice: Married people should only refrain from sex for short periods of time. Otherwise, they should be having sex on a regular basis. And this act of married lovemaking is not to be performed as a mere matter of duty. According to Proverbs, men should rejoice in their wives. Indeed, they should be intoxicated with the sexual pleasure they derive from their wives:
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 A loving doe, a graceful deer— may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love. (Proverbs 5:18-19)
Whoa. Sounds a little too graphic doesn’t it? Well, you haven’t seen anything yet. There is no place in the Bible that more explicitly celebrates married sexuality than the Song of Solomon. Just consider the way the book begins:
1 Solomon’s Song of Songs
2 She: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. 3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you! 4 Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers. (Song of Solomon 1:2-4)
Wow! These people are getting down to business really quick. There isn’t even any kind of introduction like “I’m Sheila and this is my husband John.” Nope. It starts right out of the gate with the woman’s exultations of how charming and lovely her husband is. Then she calls him “the king” and expresses a desire to hurry to get to his chambers. I probably don’t have to explain this, but they are not hurrying to the man’s chambers simply to play a game of cards or chat about the weather. They are hurrying there because they really want to have sex, and have it ASAP.
As if this were not enough, verses 15 and 16 (of chapter 1) are set up as a dialogue between the two lovers:
15 He: How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.
16 She: How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.
(Song of Solomon 1:15-16)
Chapters 4 and 7 carry this even further. You probably won’t find these passages being discussed in often in Sunday school:
How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!…3 Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely…5 Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies…7 You are altogether beautiful, my darling; there is no flaw in you. (Song of Solomon 4:1-7)
How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights! 7 Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. 8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, 9 and your mouth like the best wine. (Song of Solomon 7:6-9)
Well…ahem …he wants to climb onto his wife and take hold of her…”fruit.” As you can see, there are several figures of speech used in this book that sound downright tawdry. I could list a lot more passages, but we don’t need to go into any more detail. You get the point. This should suffice to show that the Bible represents sex, when it is restricted to marriage, as a wonderful thing. It represents it as breathtaking, intoxicating, and fulfilling. Scripture celebrates sexual love through passionate poetry.
Why Is the Song of Solomon In the Bible?
I used to wonder why the Song of Solomon was part of the Bible. As a young person, I struggled to derive any spiritual edification from it. It seemed to have the same effect on my spirituality as a steamy movie. Thus, I was strongly averse to reading it.
However, when I took a course in college on Old Testament poetry, I found my answer. The professor—a brilliant Cambridge-educated scholar who fluently read his Bible in the original languages—explained that God had a strategic reason for including this book in the canon of scripture. He said,
“So much of what we find in the Bible about sex sounds negative. Just consider what the Bible says over and over again: Homosexual behavior? Don’t do it or you will be condemned! Sex before marriage? Don’t do it or you will be condemned! Adultery? Don’t do it or you will be condemned! It is easy to assume, therefore, that God is saying, ‘Sex is just bad. Don’t do it or you’ll be condemned!’ That is, it is easy to assume that all sex is just dirty. But the Song of Solomon serves as a corrective. This book is in the Bible to testify that God thinks sex between a married couple is a fantastic thing. Indeed, it was his idea! It is a holy act and a beautiful thing.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
God invented sex. An entire book of the Bible is dedicated to celebrating it. God thought sex was a great idea, as long as it is kept within the confines of marriage. God commands his people to engage in it in 1 Corinthians 7. He exhorts his people to do it enthusiastically in Proverbs 5. And he encourages his people to celebrate it in the Song of Solomon.
Let anyone who thinks that God is a cosmic killjoy carefully read the Song of Solomon and be forever silenced.
2. Hirsch, Debra. Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations about Sexuality and Spirituality. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 34.