Notice To Readers: This article contains material which some readers may find uncomfortable to read. Some may even consider it to be heresy.
When I was young, one of the first glimpses I had into the world of sexuality was when I picked up my Bible and found a book called ‘Song of Solomon.’ I didn’t really understand what I was reading, so I asked my parents, only to hear the response that it was purely metaphorical and should never be read as literal. When I asked them ‘why,’ they couldn’t answer. Teachers couldn’t answer. Pastors couldn’t answer. So I began questioning why a book in the Bible was so surrounded in mystery and taboo when I couldn’t find anything in Scripture itself justifying it. Nearly 30 years of study later, I still find myself searching for answers about Christian theology and doctrine concerning sexuality, and mostly what I’ve found has been based upon a lie that is so deeply buried in long-accepted doctrine that few Christians ever even think to question it. I’ve discussed and argued this topic quite a few times in person, but some have suggested I write on it. I believe this is the first real article I’ve written on it, so I hope that it serves to stimulate the minds of Christian readers and serves as a starting point to encourage them to research it for themselves.
Conflict of Interest Statement
I’d like to take a moment to clarify that I am not criticizing accepted theology on sexuality simply out of need for justification for something I have done, am doing, or intend to do. My own sexuality is a very serious and sacred matter to me. When I was young, I made a promise to someone I’m still trying to find, a promise I’ve kept for a very long time. What I am about to say has nothing to do with justifying my own sexual liberation. Rather, it has to do with truth.
What The Bible Says About Sexuality
I’m an advocate for reading the Bible for what it says rather than for reading things into what it says. Concerning what the Bible says about sexuality, it’s pretty simple:
– Don’t have sex with someone unless you’re married to them. This includes fornication (I Co 6.18, others) and adultery (Ex 20.14, others).
– Don’t commit incest (Lev 18.6, others).
– Don’t commit homosexuality (Lev 18.22).
– Don’t commit bestiality (Lev 18.23).
That’s pretty much it as far as explicit instructions. There are some instructions concerning Old Testament purification ritualism, but as far as the ‘don’ts’ that apply to Christians today, this pretty much sums it up.
As it turns out, what the Bible says about sexuality wasn’t enough. Enough for what, you ask? Enough to form a doctrinal statement on the topic. That’s where philosophy stepped in to fill the void, and Natural Law was born. Though the idea may have been much older, the modern principle of Natural Law as we know it was formulated by the philosopher and Catholic monk, St Thomas Aquinas. Without going too deeply into the philosophical aspect (a more detailed article on his theory can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), he proposed the theory that man is a ‘rational animal’ who has the capacity to discern good and evil. According to his theory, man is made of a lower, more animalistic side, as well as a higher, more divine side. He created Natural Law as a method of determining what acts originate from each side, the acts originating from the animalistic side being sin and the acts originating from the divine side being virtue. Using this method, he established a list of ‘Principles,’ or things that are good at their very core, things such as Prudence and Justice. This list eventually became the Cardinal Virtues and theological virtues.
The methodology of Natural Law is purely rational. According to the theory, our power of reasoning is what separates us from animals. Thus, using our reasoning to determine what things we do and do not have in common with animals will enlighten us to what is sin and virtue. Essentially, we can use our minds to shun our animalistic side and adhere to our divine side, causing us to become less animal (sinful/fleshly) and more divine (sanctified), built only upon a set of basic Principles. This ability to use reason to extrapolate moral law from a principle gave Natural Law the power to fill any void and answer moral questions that the Bible does not specifically address. It gave the Church the power to say why something was a sin rather than just that it is sin. Therefore, thievery is a sin because it does not contribute to social harmony and Justice, as a very simple example.
The Catholic Church adopted Natural Law because it makes sense, because it’s easy to apply to Biblical teachings, and because they had nothing else that enabled them the power to answer difficult question that were being asked by their subjects. After Aquinas was deified in sainthood, Natural Law was elevated to the level of established doctrine and was beyond questionability. Why the Protestant and Anglican Churches retained Natural Law as part of their doctrine when they split from the Catholic Church is anyone’s guess, but it was likely due to the same reason – there wasn’t anything else to use. It crossed into many schools of thought, and even political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke were influenced by it. Even the teachings of modern Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis are based on Natural Law. Thus, it has made its way steadily through centuries of Christian history, crossing multiple denominations, and is alive and well in Christianity to this very day.
The Effects Of Natural Law In Christianity
While Natural Law applies to every aspect of moral conduct, its effects can most easily be seen in Christian teachings about sexuality and intimate relationships. I opened this article with a story from my own life about the stigma associated with Song of Solomon. Sex is hush hush in the Christian community. It’s there, and it’s necessary to make babies. Beyond that, it’s something that needs to be kept out of sight. Why is that? Does the Bible reflect sex in such a grim light? Not at all. Song of Solomon itself is a rather blatant display of open sexuality and passion between a man and his wife. So why do Christians avoid the topic of sexuality and discount the literal interpretation of Song of Solomon as purely metaphor? The answer isn’t found in Scripture. It’s found in Natural Law. Recall from above that according to Natural Law, whatever man has in common with animals is sinful and carnal. Animals have sex, so sex is inherently sinful. Yet even in Aquinas’ time, the problem was clear that sex is also necessary to propagate the species. Therefore, Aquinas addressed sexuality as a special case of a ‘necessary evil’ which at its source is evil, though it can be tolerated under restriction for the greater good of survival. Thus, the taboos surrounding Christian sexuality were born.
This is a good time to look at the example of the Shakers in early America. You may have heard of Shaker furniture, but I’m sure you have never met a Shaker in person. The reason is because they’re all dead. They were an offshoot group of Puritans, similar to Quakers. The Shakers were so enthralled in this ‘sex is terrible’ mentality that they refused to marry even for the purpose of reproduction. Their communities had to be populated entirely by conversion from the outside world. The last of them died off in the early 20th century entirely due to their rejection of sex as sinful.
Following is a list of problematic issues I’d like to discuss in light of Biblical teachings contrasted with Natural Law. Some of these may be uncomfortable to some readers. (Unless noted, all Scripture quotes, ESV)
‘God put them on a woman to feed babies. Man is responsible for making them sexual.’ Ever heard that one? I have, even from my own parents. Let’s look at it closer.
What Natural Law says:
Sexuality is permissible only for the purpose of procreation. Breast pleasure is not necessary for a woman to conceive. Therefore, sexualization of the breasts is a carnal tendency of man. It is sin. The breasts’ sole function is to nurse offspring.
What the Bible says:
‘Let [your wife’s] breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.’ Pr 5.19
‘Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.’ Song 7.7-9
BONUS – What Science says:
I’m a biochemist, and I gave an extensive two-part seminar series on the biochemical controls of breast development and function as an undergrad. Breast stimulation results in exactly the same hormonal controls being released as does genital stimulation, so much so that breast stimulation during late pregnancy can result in uterine contractions and premature labor. Breasts are closely connected with oxytocin, which is responsible for sexual pleasure, nipple erection, and orgasm. It’s also the ‘love hormone’ which causes psychological bonding to occur when released. So the scientific fact is that breasts are very sexual, both for physical pleasure and for psychological bonding. In short, scientific fact agrees with the Bible. Big surprise.
Medical and Mechanical Contraceptives
The Church says it’s a sin, but how did they come to that conclusion?
What Natural Law Says:
Sexuality is permissible only for the purpose of procreation. Contraceptives directly violate that principle, causing sex to descend into a mere act of carnal pleasure. The use of contraceptives is sin.
What the Bible Says:
Since fertility was not understood until long after Scripture was concluded, contraception is not addressed in Scripture. This is one of the ‘gaps’ that Natural Law filled.
This is a sensitive issue that I’ve discussed with only a few people. Statistically, the vast majority of people – both male and female – participate in masturbation. Christians often feel terrible guilt and ‘conviction’ because of it, and I’ve known young Christian adults who live defeated lives because of this burden of guilt. ‘It’s nasty,’ ‘It’s wrong,’ ‘It’s dangerous,’ ‘It’s a sin!’ I’ve heard them all. Let’s break it down.
What Natural Law Says:
Sexuality is permissible only for the purpose of procreation. Masturbation has no chance of conception. It’s merely an act of carnal pleasure. It’s a sin.
A simple search on this topic in Catholic materials will confirm that the Catholic Church does indeed consider it a sin. Protestants also consider it a sin, though they’re often at a loss as to exactly why. Furthermore, there have been ‘scare tactics’ issued, such as the false claims that masturbating will cause blindness, etc. In contrast to this, science has shown that it is a healthy practice for both the body and the mind, though this doesn’t really contribute anything as to the morality of it.
What the Bible Says:
After several extensive searches of Scripture, I’ve found only two places that even remotely address the issue of masturbation, neither of which is direct.
‘If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening.’ Lev 15.16. This is part of the cleansing ritual of Old Testament law and is more about uncleanness than sin. For example, the cleansing described here is very similar to that for a woman who is menstruating. It is clearly not shown as sin, but rather something that simply needs to be cleansed.
‘But I [Jesus] say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Mt 5.28. I do not claim to have any right to tell people how they should feel concerning mental images conjured during masturbation. I am not the Spirit of Conviction. Personally, I believe Christ was pointing out that it is impossible to not sin, hence, man’s need for an Atoning Savior. A few verses prior, He says something similar about anger being equivalent to murder. In the Sermon on the Mount, he was addressing the false teachings of the Pharisees that God’s Law can be lived out without committing acts of sin. I believe Christ was pointing out the error in that teaching, showing that sin is integrated in our very nature and is impossible to overcome without atonement. That’s my own view, but even if this verse is used to condemn masturbation, the passage must also be used to equally condemn anger and other things addressed in the Sermon.
Since a woman doesn’t need to reach orgasm to conceive, is it a carnal pleasure? Let’s see.
What Natural Law says:
Sexuality is permissible only for the purpose of procreation. Since conception can occur without the carnal indulgence of female orgasm, it is a sin.
Church history varies in its treatment of this issue, but only fairly recent generations of Catholic women have had the ‘privilege’ to experience orgasm without it being considered a sin. Even to this day, a Catholic woman is permitted to experience orgasm only if she has been successfully inseminated by her husband.
I couldn’t find an electronic source to hyperlink, but I’ve found in a few books that female orgasm in Puritan England and America was considered condemning evidence of witchcraft and demonic possession (so it’s not just the Catholics).
What the Bible says:
There is nothing definitive in the Bible concerning female orgasm. I’ve heard a few translators claim that the reference in Song 5.4 (’My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.’ KJV) can easily be translated as the woman experiencing an orgasm at her husband’s touch and that it was deliberately mistranslated because such content was not acceptable in Scripture. I’m not a translator, so I can’t weigh in on the accuracy of interpretation. In the end, this is another Biblical ’gap’ filled by Natural Law.
Alternative/Deviant Sex (Oral Sex, Bondage, T&D, Toys, Alternative Positions, etc)
Have you ever wondered where the traditional ‘man on top’ missionary position came from? Let’s look and see.
What Natural Law says:
Sexuality is permissible only for the purpose of procreation. As such, sex is to be limited to the functions essential for conception, restricting those functions to the least ‘animalistic’ form possible. Animals mate in a back-mounted position. Therefore, humans should mate in a frontal, more intimate position. (Too bad Aquinas didn’t know about bonobos, which mate in missionary position, complete with kissing and fondling, remarkably similar to humans…). The missionary position provides a more divine approach. Anything that deviates from this is a sin. Anything that enhances pleasure beyond this is a sin.
Again, a simple search of Catholic doctrine reveals this to be the current practice in the Catholic Church. Protestants also seem to have serious problems with deviant sex, though they can’t really say why that is because…
What the Bible says:
…the Bible is silent on the issue. Once again, Natural Law steps in and fills the ‘gap.’
Romance and Passion
I’ll end by stepping away from physical sex to address this issue, which is somewhat special to me. As a deep romantic, I need to say that I do indeed have a dog in this fight, so to speak. But what can we say about romance and passion in a relationship?
What Natural Law says:
Man is separated from animals by his power of reasoning. Therefore, relationships should be built by reason upon the divine Principles. Romance and passion are irrational and unpredictable. They grow from the animalistic side of man. Therefore, relationships built upon the divine principle of Friendship are considered sanctified, whereas relationships built upon romance and passion are considered carnal and of the flesh.
I could get on a soap box about this, but I won’t.
What the Bible says:
I simply invite my readers to take an account of all the examples of relationships described in Scripture and make lists of those that were clearly built upon Friendship and those that weren’t. Then look a bit closer at Song of Solomon and Proverbs 5. Look for any descriptors in those passages that even indicate feelings void of romance and passion. Now think about whether your beliefs about relationships are truly based upon the Word of God or upon Natural Law.
I’d like for my readers to think about something. Think about the story from my life I used as an opening statement. I’ve written a rather lengthy article that is simply an effort to expose how the idea of one man was integrated so deeply into Church doctrine that Christians of many different denominations don’t even question it, so deeply that it has caused considerable controversy over an actual book of the Word of God. A literal interpretation of Song of Solomon conflicts with Natural Law. Christians avoid a literal interpretation as a direct result of one man’s idea. Let that sink in. One man who had an idea that tickled a lot of ears. And now that idea has so much power that it causes Christians to change how they read what is literally in the Word of God. Shame on us, Christians. Shame on us.
I’ll finish by stating that I do credit Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Luther, Lewis, and the numerous others who subscribe to Natural Law as thinkers and philosophers. It’s a sound idea, and that deserves credit. But it doesn’t deserve worship. It’s one idea among infinite others.
Concerning these ‘gaps’ where the Bible is silent, we are all free to subscribe to what we think is right. But no one has the Biblical basis to condemn others who believe differently or want something more from life than a purely ‘rational animal’ mentality. I strongly encourage my readers to be skeptical of ideas that are not found explicitly within the pages of Scripture. Any philosophical idea can fairly easily be supported implicitly. But in the end, I tend to follow only one Man – the Man who answered, ’It is written.’