The Song of Sex

Christians have sex. Shocking, isn’t it? Not only do Christians have sex, they have good sex: rollicking, passionate, blood-pumping sex. And yet, despite the myriads of children filling the cradle roll and primary Sabbath school rooms—evidence of active sex lives—we often act as though sex is taboo. In our zeal for purity and premarital abstinence, it seems that many Adventists have squashed the idea that sex isn’t just good, it’s great!

As a thirteen-year-old entering high school, I was terrified into purity by a popular, well-meaning Christian book on dating. The book asserted that boys only had one thing on their minds and it was girls who held the responsibility of maintaining the boundaries of intimacy. I spent the whole of my freshmen year quaking in the presence of older boys whose gaze sometimes wandered across my adolescent body. By the time I got over my fear and even began dating, I had read several other Christian relationship books—some more balanced than others—that influenced my thoughts on intimacy. Often it seemed that I had to view sex as either disgusting or dangerous, but rarely desirable. Popular movies of the time, such as The Notebook, depicted an altogether different scenario. So which was true? Was sex something to avoid like the plague until it suddenly became desirable and appropriate on one’s wedding day? Or was it something to rush into headlong in the heat of passion?

The lovers in Song of Solomon straddle the passionate desire for sex and the (often impatient) desire for purity. “I am sick with love,” moans the Shulamite, only verses before she advises not to “stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (2:5, 7). The woman, rather than merely being the object of sexual desire, is an active participant in a sensuous exchange of poetry, praising her lover’s kisses and expressing her arousal in his presence (1:12). After their wedding, Solomon gushingly admires her body from her eyes to her breasts (4:1–5) before the Shulamite invites him to enjoy her “garden” which is now also “his garden” (4:16–17). In this moment of consummation, a third voice, perhaps that of God Himself, counsels “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” (5:1).

Somehow, I managed to get through the confusing and contradictory advice offered by the church and popular society. By the time I got married, any fear of or disgust toward sex had long disappeared. Thanks to healthy support systems and the living examples of my parents and other married couples, my approach to intimacy had balanced out. But many are not so fortunate. It is no small wonder that young couples cohabit or engage in sexual exploration when presented with the option of either stunting intimacy or embracing it. Our sexuality is a God-given gift and the innate drive is hard to ignore. However, today’s culture is so sex-obsessed (partly in response to tight conservative Christian approaches to sex?) that the Christian response often swings the opposite direction.

What if we talked about sex like the Bible does? What if we read and preached the Song of Solomon? Granted, people might squirm in the pews a little at some of the suggestive descriptions, but if positive, rather than negative, models of sexuality were presented, perhaps we would see a shift in people’s attitudes toward sex. For one thing, sex is not a one-sided affair: men are not the only ones who enjoy or desire sex. Women can and should feel comfortable asserting their needs and desires. For another, wanting sex, even before marriage, is normal. Rather than bashing this healthy desire, we should discuss how to approach abstinence in a more positive and balanced manner while affirming the importance of intimacy. What are the differences between love, lust, and objectification? Why is it important for dating couples to enjoy all the different stages of intimacy rather than rushing straight into sex? And what should married couples do if one party loses interest in sexual intimacy? How can that desire be reignited? Is sex necessary for wholistic well-being (thinking of Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, and others)? If not, how can the need for intimacy be satisfied? The Bible has wisdom on all of these subjects. And if the Bible talks about it, shouldn’t we?

Sarah Gane Burton is a freelance writer and copyeditor residing in Ooltewah, TN.

Photo from Pexels.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9604
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Iam very happily married to the girl I met in 1948 and married in 1949 we have three children, Three grandchildren and three great grand children. Sex is needed for bonding and for posterity. We have enjoyed both.

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Not sure if I want to comment or not. Here goes.

While I agree with the author, who makes the point that the SDA church offers confusing, contradictory and often unhealthy messages regarding sex, I’ll suggest that even the author is not being “real” as the way the article is written suggests that when she reached young adulthood, her confusion cleared up, she found Mr. Right and all was perfect in the heaven and earth and her virtue remained intact until God sanctified her change in status through marriage and obedience to God (and man???).

In the SDA church (and other churches) we don’t know how to deal with issues surrounding sex and sexuality. If from the pulpit, I asked the question (and everyone was required to answer) “how many have had sex outside of a marriage relationship”. The number of raised hands would be astounding. Way more than what we think by how people talk. We don’t know how to deal with that. We certainly are hypocritcal with our young people on this issue.

My wife and I will have been married 32 years in a couple of months. We both grew up SDA and met at an SDA college. But not only did we have sex before marriage we lived together for a year and a half. My parents knew (neither were then affiliated with the church), my wife’s parents did not. I always felt bad that we lied to them.

It’s not just today’s young people. I graduated from academy in the 80’s and most of my peers had sex before marriage. It’s not too different today. And yet, we have no idea what to say to our young people, other than lecture them on purity, make sure they are ignorant about sex education and prevention - then ostracize them (actually just ostracize her, not the man), when a pregnancy occurs.

And, the church does not give good guidance to parents on how to speak with their kids. I have two daughters. The oldest in college knows that we lived together. The youngest in high school does not. We struggle with how to have these conversations in a Christ-like, relationship-affirming way.

Some year’s back at a previous church when my oldest was an earli-teen we did not let her take part in a church “purity weekend” (and got the side-eye about us not caring about our child in this spiritual matter), but given that the people putting the program on were all singles and all sexuality active - my kids aren’t stupid, what you do speaks much louder than what you say.

So if the author (or other authors) want to write in a way that is relevant on this subject, here are a couple of thoughts:

  • How do we talk about sexuality to young people knowing that only 3% of all Americans wait until being married to have sex.

  • That among those who take purity pledges on average delay having sex - but only 19 months longer than those who don’t take purity pledges.

  • That those who take purity pledges are equally as likely to contract HPV as those who don’t.

  • That of the women who don’t take purity pledges and who were unmarried, 18% were likely to become pregnant within 6 years. While those who had taken purity pledges and broken it (which is most of them) 30% are likely to become pregnant while unmarried.

  • The average age of marriage in the US is 27.4 years. That makes it much less likely you will find your perfect, virgin, SDA spouse while in college. Do we think that all of these SDA’s are waiting until they are 27 before having sex?

  • What about divorced people and sex? You’re no longer saving yourself for that one, pure person. edit: my mom left the church after a divorce. She had joined a church singles group and discovered that they were all having sex with each other and she couldn’t be a part of the hypocrisy and lies (among other reasons).

  • What about senior citizens and sex? They aren’t going to have kids any more. It’s not about a nuclear family or household. Are we going to require them to get married, just so they can participate in this intimate act with someone?

We have elevated sins of the flesh to be equal or higher than things like murder.

Spectrum - this is a great place to have conversations on this subject. You’ve addressed women’s ordination and (somewhat) LGBTQ issues. A bunch of perspectives on sexuality and SDA’s in today’s world would be valuable.

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Really good thoughts here, and honest. I appreciate them! I grew up in the church and to this day my wife and I really struggle to have a healthy sexual relationship. It’s been difficult to extract it from the mess of obligation, shame and judgment we were both given from an early age.

For us, at least, I’ve discovered how much our challenges in this area are directly related to the overwhelming sexism that is baked into every level of the SDA church. I wish there was more examination of that here. My wife’s views on sex and her body are still tied to regressive ideas of what she was obligated to provide to her husband, and the misplaced responsibilities she felt for managing other people’s desires and behavior.

It’s not just an SDA problem, either. In my opinion it’s a problem in the source–the Bible. Yes we may be able to derive some sex-positive values from the Song of Solomon, but if we look at the way Yahweh apparently commanded his people to behave in Israel, it’s pretty atrocious. And these values are where traditional Christian “purity” originates. Women today feel like the responsibility and expectations for purity fall more on them than men for good reason–that’s what the Bible seems to teach!

Purity (virginity) was required of women but not men before marriage according to Levitical laws. The entire concept of sexual purity as we think about it today is hopelessly entwined with sexism and the systematic abuse of women. Women and their bodies are treated as the property of men, and God’s laws codify these values. Daughters could be bought and sold for sex, and Israelite men were welcome to capture pretty war slaves for their own sexual gratification. How can we possibly expect SDA children like myself to develop a healthy view of gender and sex when we have examples like that? I think for the church to truly change it needs to reckon with the inherent sexism not only in the church, but in the Bible.

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You betcha !!!

In fact ignorance of the ‘sexy’ Song of Solomon is actually involved very closely with the anti-intimacy epidemic that has increasingly infected the SDA church since the time it was called the ‘church in Philadelphia’ in the 1844 era. I believe that both James and Ellen White realized in the 1850s that the SDA church had become, instead, the ‘church in Laodicea’.

In order for the Bible to be ‘eternal’ or ‘timeless’ – in application at least – it must resemble a ‘Swiss Army Knife’. Not only are there multiple tools in such a neat package, but there can be multiple uses for each of those tools if a person adopts a use-what’s-on-hand ‘MacGyver’ approach to problem-solving as Jesus, Himself, did in the ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’, attributed to the apostle, John.

Jesus, in ‘Revelation’, repeatedly refers to other, previously-written parts and scenes of the Bible – even from the ‘New Testament’. ‘Laodicea’ was the ultimate destination of Paul’s letter to the Colossians (see Colossians 4:16), but we blindly refuse to call that New Testament ‘book’ 'Laodiceans. Why ? Again, fear of intimacy, its potential burdens, since such relationships among fellow sinners often drag both down. (But Jesus is no sinner, and He sits high on the throne of the universe with His Father and the Holy Spirit . . . so what’s the excuse for rejecting greater intimacy with Him ? ‘Unbelief’. We would rather get a loan from this world’s bankers than take a free gift from Jesus, because we fear ‘owing’ debts to creditors that we can never hope to pay off., ?, ! Being ‘owned’ can be a nightmare. But ‘can be’ is not necessarily ‘must be’, especially in the case of being ‘owned’ by Jesus. )

To the Laodiceans and Colossians Paul described all that Jesus had sacrificed and done for each individual – ‘me’ – to become more intimately attached to ‘me’. That is, to be “in” me, and to ‘own’ my ‘heart’. Then Paul stresses from 2:16, on, ‘Therefore let no mere man’ – another mere part of the ‘body’ subject to the ‘Head’, themself – interfere with and judge your actions, when, as also a part of the ‘body’ you are closely-connected to Jesus, the ‘Head’ of that ‘body’, yourself, in your own ways.

Bible / ‘Swiss Army Knife’:
Few, but more than one, SDA scholars have recognized that when Jesus says to the Laodicean church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock . . . .”, He actually had in mind the Song of Solomon (chapter 5) where the ‘boiling’ male lover passionately knocks on the door of his sweetheart’s bedroom, only to hear her groaning complaints of having just washed her feet, put on her PJs and snuggled into clean cozy sheets . . . forgetting that Jesus also washes feet.

And this is how the self-satisfied SDA General Conference leadership which had once been full of ‘brotherly love’ for Jesus and for each other treated Jesus when He tried to get in closer with them in their proud, disconnected, self-fulfilled ‘Laodicean’ state. Sadly, SDA ‘sheep’ tend to follow SDA ‘shepherds’, and so the whole ‘official’ SDA church has remained ‘frigid’ in rejection of the offer of increased intimacy that Jesus tried to encourage with Him, through His increased gift of the Holy Spirit, 131 years ago and counting.

Jesus (with His gift, the Holy Spirit) has been the jilted Lover, both of Solomon’s love song and of the Laodicean Message, for at least 131 years of SDA history, as the ‘watchmen on the wall’ – the SDA keepers of the ‘Law’, merely, and not necessarily of the ‘Gospel’ – have beat up on the rest of us and judged us by the law, merely as fellow competitors, but not as Lovers such as the ‘Head’ would be, if only He could get most closely ‘in’ to ‘me’.

So, yes, there is much to learn about intimacy from the Bible. But until I decide that I’d rather risk embarrassment and the ‘boredom’ of sacrificing my autonomy for the ‘kingdom’ of my Lover . . . in short risk ‘marriage’ . . . then I will simply ‘divorce’ myself from any teachings of greater intimacy with Jesus as being interesting, but unnecessary, as I continue on as usual, alone. And the effects of such an unnecessary, lonesome ‘divorce’ are equivalent to adultery against Jesus. Self-satisfied ‘Laodicean’ adultery. Not a ‘Babylon whore’, just happily divorced.

This was, in fact, the condition of the divorced Seleucid queen, Laodice, with which the name of the city of Laodicea was very possibly associated, if only through mythology. It has also been the condition of the SDA church since the 1850s, at least. So realized 2 of its ‘Philadelphian’ co-founders at the time, James and Ellen White.

Very interesting thoughts, Sarah–I appreciate your willingness to share your questions and experience honestly.

In my recent reading of Song of Solomon, I’ve found myself wishing I knew more about the speakers in the poem, and the writing process and context. As a literature teacher (and a woman), I wonder: Who was the female speaker? Was she one of Solomon’s wives or concubines (or perhaps a composite of several of them)? If so, was she at all troubled by the fact that Solomon had around a thousand other sexual partners? Had she been given the opportunity to choose to be Solomon’s partner, or was it an arranged marriage? Did she co-author the poem with Solomon? Did he transcribe things he heard her say during their intimate encounters? Or did Solomon just write down what he imagined a woman thinking about him, an ideal woman saying when overwhelmed by the attractions of an ideally manly man? Is the poem simply an attempt to sugarcoat his abuses of power?

Maybe I’m being unduly cynical. But we know as a matter of historical fact that the gender and sexual rules of conduct in solomon’s time gave men much more power than women, that women often had little choice in their marriages, and often had difficulty escaping marriages that were abusive or otherwise harmful (one of the earlier comments has already noted this). Hence, I sometimes cringe a bit when people readily accept SoS as a celebration of healthy mutual sexual love. Much as I cringe at some other pieces of writing in which male authors try to express sexual desire in a female voice, making the female character express what male audiences obviously want to hear (for example, Mozart’s “Bati, Bati” from “Don Giovanni,” in which the bride asks her new husband to beat her–or George and Ira Gershwin’s song “Treat me Rough”).

All that being said, I acknowledge that imperfect texts by imperfect human authors often offer readers valuable insights into sexual and romantic experience (among other areas of human experience). This is why we study literature (from the Bible and other sources). But it is good to be aware of what we know and don’t know about the text–what is included and what is left out.

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