Sexual Intimacy, Spiritual Belonging, and Christian Theology

[1] Sexual intimacy can serve as a resource for spiritual transformation and renewal in our lives. Through it, we can experience a restored sense of healing, joy, personal power to affect and be affected, passionate relationship, creative potency, and wondrous pleasure. When sexual relating functions this way in our lives, making love can be one of life’s most delightful means of grace.

[2] This is not to say that sexual intimacy is the only means of grace available to us or that it automatically solves life’s problems. The goodness of sexuality can be skewed, denied, or even destroyed by any number of means. The use of sex in an act of overpowering or coercing another, sexual abuse of children by adults, or the manipulation of sex as a tool of exploitation are examples of ways in which sexuality’s goodness is marred or destroyed.

[3] This paper addresses three issues: First, the principles that have structured the traditional Christian sexual ethic are articulated and some problems and deficiencies are highlighted. Second, sexual intimacy is defined and linked with spiritual belonging by a reflective application of the incarnation. Third, the Gospel narratives are used to critique any implied link between sexual purity and access to God’s grace, salvation, or membership in the church.

Problems with Traditional Christian Sexual Ethics

[4] Historically, Christian communities have followed loosely a three-fold standard for the moral judgment of sexual acts: They should be done with the right person (one’s lawfully-wedded spouse), in the right way (heterosexual genital intercourse), and for the right purpose (procreation). Those who follow this sexual code often are considered sexually pure, those who do not follow this code often are considered sexually impure (Nelson: 54). In this theologically and culturally constructed framework for controlling sexual expression there is little room for difference, change, or critique; the moral framework is often considered fixed, final, and absolute in its application.

[5] The inflexible quality of traditional Christian communities in regard to sexual morality serves to restrict critical reflection on its own presuppositions regarding proper sexual conduct. Many Christians assume that this very particular structure for sexual expression is the only correct way to engage in natural and loving sexual relationships regardless of the particular context involved. This approach to sexual morality locates emphasis on the form (right person, right way, right purpose) of sex, rather than the substance and quality of the sexual relationship. In this form-oriented framework there is little concern with issues of consent, love, mutual pleasure, chastity, tenderness, intimacy, and joy. Rather, the concern is with the purity or impurity of the sex act itself, i.e., is the couple married, attracted to the right gender, and is there procreative potential?

[6] There are elements of the traditional ethic that are worth promoting. For example, marital heterosexual sex is fine and wonderful in many instances and is certainly one of the appropriate contexts for sexual relating. But there are some problems with this limited approach to proper sexual relationships.

[7] First, the terms “marriage” and “heterosexual” are semantically exclusive. The terms assume that everyone is going to get married and that everyone is going to be in a heterosexual relationship. This excludes the experience of those who have been married and are now divorced, which is roughly fifty percent of all first marriages. It also excludes the experience of gay men and lesbian women, for whom marriage to the person whom they would choose, a person of their own sex, is not a legal possibility in most states. And of course, it excludes the situation of those who by choice or accident never marry. The very terms “marital” and “heterosexual” excludes whole groups of people and experiences that do not fit the terms.

[8] Second, the terms “marriage” and “heterosexual” are normatively suspect. Marital sex may not be the best norm. When we look at marital sex in our culture we learn some very distressing facts. Strause and Gellis estimate that one third of all wives in the greater U.S. population are battered in the course of their marriage and that wife rape accounts for 38 percent of all rape in the United States (Borrowdale: 68). The very place where women have assumed they would be safe is in fact not a safe place for many women–or children, for that matter. Marital sexuality is sometimes violent and abusive just like non-marital sexuality is sometimes violent and abusive. The assumption that marital sex always fits a healthy norm is a false assumption. Other relevant factors need to be incorporated in an appropriate sexual ethic.

[9] Third, Christian ethicist Karen Lebacqz argues that there are people who are living their sexual lives according to church polity (heterosexual marriage), but that their sexual lives simply do not express what God wants people to express in terms of quality of relationship (113-133). Virginia Mollenkott articulates this point well:

With the blessing of church and state, I lived in sin for years ‘in a state of permanent estrangement’ with my husband. Frightened and oppressed by fundamentalism’s structures, I dutifully committed fornication with my husband, denied my own nature, and debased the holy institution of marriage. Now, for the past eleven years, without the blessing of church, state, or society, I have lived in a healthy and holy covenant-relationship with a woman who encourages my spiritual quest and supports my ministry. My marriage was suicide by inches; my lesbian partnership is the peace, joy, and bliss of heaven-on-earth (114).

This story could be repeated many times with other cases of repressed or condemned gay and lesbian sexuality, or with cases of battering or marital rape. The point, whatever the particular situation, is this: Living out our sexual lives in accordance with church policy does not, necessarily, bring intimacy, joy, and right-relationship to sexual relating. Heterosexual marriage is a holy and wonderful institution for some, but for others it can be “suicide by inches.”

[10] Fourth, a common theme in Christian sexual morality, particularly strong in the Catholic Natural Law Tradition, is the view that the major, if not the only valid, purpose of sexuality is reproduction. Sexual activities not open to reproduction are said to produce negative moral and spiritual consequences for people who engage in them. Therefore, the potential link between sexual activity and reproduction should not be blocked by the use of birth control. Non-procreative sexual activities, such as masturbation, homoerotic activity, or heterosexual practices that cannot result in pregnancy, are discouraged as ‘forbidden fruit’ and detrimental to spiritual development.

[11] A typical historical trend in Christian sexual morality is to distinguish between sexual sins “in accordance with nature” and those “contrary to nature.” Natural sexual sins include heterosexual fornication, adultery, incest, and rape. Unnatural sexual sins include masturbation, gay and lesbian sexuality, and sodomy. These unnatural sins do not have procreative possibilities. In this ordering of sins masturbation may be considered worse than rape and gay and lesbian sexuality may be considered more sinful than incest.

[12] Clearly there are problems with the traditional criteria for evaluating sexual relationships. An obvious question becomes what does the marital, heterosexual, form-based procreative approach to sexuality leave out? Amazingly, it excludes the quality of the sexual relationship itself. In the traditional framework there is very little concern with issues of interpersonal relating, self-respect, the fullness and diversity of human life, or even issues of appropriate sexual expression such as mutual pleasure, joy, tenderness, intimacy or even basic issues concerning sexual consent.

[13] Quite frankly, we need to begin developing a new Christian sexual ethics wherein the quality of the sexual relationship itself is addressed as fulfilling and empowering or degrading and coerced. We need a sexual ethic that incorporates the potential for exploitation and abuse and addresses basic issues of power and consent. The traditional approach focuses almost completely on externals (what goes where, with whom, when) and does not seem to be concerned about the intention and motivation that grounds the relationship. Christian young people are often addressed with silence concerning issues regarding the sexual body and sexual desire or a series of don’ts: don’t have sex, don’t take pleasure in it, and don’t talk about it. Christian churches might consider engaging in more positive ethical dialogue where young people are encouraged to talk openly about their sexual desires, frustrations, indeed, their sexual lives without fear of immediate condemnation or guilt.

[14] Perhaps one way to begin such a dialogue might be to discuss what is meant when the terms intimacy and sexuality are linked. The term intimacy, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, stems from the Latin word ‘intima,’ which literally means “the inner-most layer or living membrane of an organ, artery, or vein.” Therefore intimacy represents the very biological core that gives life, vitality and agency to our bodies. To talk about intimacy is to talk about that which sustains life, that which serves to create, nurture, and care about the wholeness and welfare of human bodies.

[15] In startling contrast to the definition of the term intimacy, popular culture often uses the term “intimate” only in terms of the sex act. A more fundamental understanding is, however, that sexual intimacy requires more than simply having sex. For sex to involve intimacy it must be mutually empowering, intentionally consensual, and motivated by loving-kindness at the very least. Any hint of abuse, manipulation, coercion, or violence negates the presence of sexual intimacy.

[16] Any sexual ethic that is concerned only with the external context of the sex (marital or non-marital, heterosexual or homosexual, procreative possibilities or not) is not an ethic that is concerned with sexual intimacy. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are concerned fundamentally with external purity boundaries and largely ignore the substance and quality of the sexual relationship itself.

Incarnational Theology, Spiritual Belonging, and Intimate Sexuality

[17] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1, 14).

These verses speak to the core of Christian faith, the embodiment of God in human, flesh-and-blood encounters. Jesus was embodied in a particular history, a particular culture, and a particular body. That Jesus should be a laughing, crying, sweating, bleeding, sensuous bundle of flesh just as all humans are seems incomprehensible. Yet the incarnation, the embodiment of Jesus Christ, is at the core of the Christian message. The liberation that Jesus talked about was a liberation of bodies. The significance of incarnational faith is the importance of our bodies. It is as bodies that people share creative, intellectual, ethical, emotional, and spiritual power. Incarnation suggests that it is in the particularity of embodied experience and embodied relationship that whatever is common among people can be recognized and shared.
[18] Christian theologian Dorothee Soelle argues that sometimes human beings fear and distrust the God of the incarnation because Jesus was not the kind of God that was desired and expected: God the all-powerful and sovereign King. It is not power and control but a notion of God’s vulnerability that is at the heart of the incarnation. God takes the risk of being misunderstood and unrecognized in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God does not act as an independent all-powerful agent but seeks companionship, friendship, and community with human bodies in human history (3-17).

[19] And Jesus said, “Behold, the Basileia (Kingdom) of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21; Matthew 12:28). With this proclamation, Jesus announces something quite startling; that the Basileia or Kingdom of God is already at hand, experientially available in the midst of human history. New Testament Ethicist Wolfgang Schrage writes:
Through his ministry, Jesus brings the effectual presence of the Basileia of God into the realm of historical reality. The involvement of the Basileia with actual experience of the world makes it impossible to look for the substance and import of Jesus’ message in the difference between God and the humankind and a consequent separation from the world (20).

The thrust of Jesus’ message is not to announce the coming of a transcendent future Basileia, but to proclaim that the Basileia of God is at work in the midst of embodied acts of loving kindness experienced in the here and now. Jesus announces that the transcendent God becomes the immanent God through visible acts of hospitality. Jesus states that when you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and care for the sick “you do it to me” (Matthew 25: 40). Concrete acts of hospitality, care, and healing are recognized as embodied works of the Spirit, embodied works of grace.
[20] The incarnation invites the Christian community to experience God’s spirit and God’s grace in concrete acts of loving kindness: “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the poor are cared for” (Matt. 11:4 and Luke 7:22). An incarnational theology subverts the notion that the soul and body are distinct, that grace and embodied love in the here and now are distinct. The message of Jesus is clear in spite of the strong elements in the history of Christian theology that have created dualistic tensions that pit the soul against the body, the sensual against the spiritual, and salvation history against human history. The Christian theological emphasis of “being in the world but not of the world” has too often been interpreted in terms of “being in a body but not of a body.” Many Christian churches have not fully connected the human body with the Holy Spirit, openly acknowledging that compassionate response to people’s spirit comes through compassionate response to people’s literal bodies.

[21] If God is present in the midst of human history, if God’s spirit and grace can be experienced in embodied acts of loving-kindness, then the connections with our sexuality become quickly apparent. Bodily love may be an expression of God’s presence. Becoming a better lover may be part of becoming a better disciple and vise versa. At issue is whether or not we will recognize the spirit of God through the gift of sexual intimacy. At its best, sex is a positive, empowering, joyful, creative, life-giving force wherein the grace of God is revealed and embodied in human affection. In this context, sexuality takes on a sacramental quality, a quality of bringing God, spirit, and grace into human relationship. A sexual theology talks about God in a physical, intimate and embodied manner and locates mutual physical pleasure as a fundamentally good and desired state of being-in-the-world.

[22] An incarnational faith recognizes that theology not only speaks to the human situation, but that theological understanding arises out of the human situation. Incarnational theology refuses to make human beings into passive receptors, or waiting vessels who cannot actively engage but only passively respond to God’s initiative. When God’s grace is not acknowledged in embodied acts of loving kindness and God is considered distant and otherworldly, then God is no longer experienced as vital, indwelling presence permeating the stuff of everyday life. Incarnational faith does not attempt to separate spiritual belonging from embodied acts of sexual intimacy and passion.

[23] In the Christian context, it seems to me, a sexualized spirituality should not be completely content with physically gratifying sex done for its own sake. Sexual expression at its best, really good sex, should be both physically gratifying, and, at the same time, be a source of inspiration that moves people to expand beyond the realm of private pleasure to incorporate a more compassionate approach to people in all spheres of life. In this context, sexual intimacy might serve as a powerful resource in the building and maintaining of the human community; sometimes called the “body of Christ.” Sexual intimacy views the body with passion, so it also may view the body politic with passion. Sexual intimacy may help to create a passion for justice because social justice issues are at root material and body issues.

[24] Sexual intimacy, perhaps especially for women, is associated with creative power: the power to give birth, the power to produce life, the power to bring joy, energy, and peace into relationship with self, lover, neighbor, community and world. Sexual intimacy is recognized as one of the many fruits of the spirit in our personal and in our collective lives.

[25] The traditional Christian sexual ethic does not consider these issues but is constructed around basic purity codes: Heterosexual, marital, and procreative sex is considered pure while homosexual, non-marital, and non-procreative sex is considered impure. However, an incarnational theology suggests that the signs of God spirit have to do with the quality of the way people hold each other dear in this world and not, necessarily, with strict compliance to particular purity codes.

Sexual Purity and the Gospel Narratives

[25] Jesus did not call his disciples to separate from the world in order to establish sectarian communities marked by barriers of physical, cultural, and sexual purity codes. For Jesus, the Basileia was represented more by inclusive wholeness rather than exclusive holiness. Biblical Scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes:
The salvation of God’s Basileia is present and experientially available whenever Jesus casts out demons (Luke 11:20), heals the sick and the ritually unclean, tells stories about the lost who are found, of the uninvited who are invited, or of the last who will be first. The power of God’s Basileia is realized in Jesus’ table community with the poor, the sinners, the tax collectors, and prostitutes-with all those who ‘do not belong’ to the ‘holy people,’ who are somehow deficient in the eyes of the righteous (120-121).

Jesus did not conform to a decisive rule for Pharisees that said that God’s power was located in temple and Torah. Rather, Jesus locates the presence of God’s power as embodied in the people themselves, particularly in the presence of hospitality and acceptance of marginalized people.
[26] The mark of the Jesus movement is its inclusiveness, not its purity regulations. Indeed, the Gospel narratives portray Jesus as one who regularly preferred the company of the impure to that of the religious authorities of his day speaking particularly kindly about the destitute poor, the sick and the crippled, and tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. Jesus states: “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and harlots go into the Basileia of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). Jesus removed the boundaries established by physical and sexual purity codes and created new possibilities in diverse relationships and inclusive community by welcoming those who were traditionally excluded by the Pharisees purity regulations regarding food, temple, Sabbath, and many other things.

[27] The Basileia of God was and is immanent in present moments of embodied healing and the mission of the Basileia is to bring embodied healing to others. The Gospel writers rejected a strict code of physical purity in an attempt to break down the barriers that purity rules erected between human communities and against the marginal people of a given society.

[28] When we apply the Gospel teachings about purity codes to issues concerning Christian sexual ethics the implications are quite clear. The Gospel writers abolish the link between physical purity and divine favor and reject any connection between sexual purity and access to God’s grace. The practice of purity was and is wrong because of its exaltation of one’s own religious excellence at the expense of others. In the Gospel narratives physical purity remains optional, but it is irrelevant to grace, salvation, or membership in the church. Biblical scholar William Countryman writes:
The Gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature. The Christian is free to be repelled by any or all of these and may continue to practice his or her own purity code in relation to them. What we [Christians] are not free to do is impose our codes on others (243-44).

Jesus’ critique of physical purity codes did not function as a rejection of cultural distinctiveness and diversity. What it did was to abolish any perceived link between divine grace and physical purity.
[29] It is the Christian tradition and not the Gospel narratives that make sexual purity of primary importance. Countryman articulates that sexual purity “originated more in the spirit of the age than in that of the Gospel” (140). Sexual purity may be important in terms of individual Christian identity; however, it is not important in terms of Gospel identity and Christians should not confuse the two.


[30] In conclusion, let me say that the journey towards sexual wholeness and community support for diverse sexual expressions is not an easy road for Christian churches to walk. But it is a journey on which Christian churches must embark for the integrity, indeed, the survival of the church as sanctuary, a place where members feel love, safety and acceptance.

[31] In searching for new approaches to sexual relations that stress issues of sexual joy, mutual pleasure, intimacy and spiritual belonging, I do not suggest that sex is the be-all and end-all of life or the only or even the best means of experiencing God’s grace. On the one hand, there are other important means of grace: worship, rituals, meaningful work, friendships, the arts, and the world itself, to name a few. On the other hand, there are times when sex is not a rewarding or appropriate part of our lives. Sexual intimacy is not something that people must have; rather, it is something that people yearn for over and over again. Sexual intimacy can be one of life’s most delightful means of grace. Sexual intimacy can be a source that propels people to nurture not only the bodies of self and partner but also the broader human community sometimes called the body of Christ.

[32] Perhaps in time all Christian churches will be able to speak and embody the words of James Baldwin: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread (62).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James
1962 The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell Publishing House.

Borrowdale, Anne
1991 Distorted Images: Misunderstandings Between Men and Women.
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Countryman, William
1988 Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler
1989 In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian
Origins. New York: Crossroad Press.

Lebacqz, Karen and Barton, Ronald
1990 Sex in the Parish. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Mollenkott, Virginia
1992 Sensuous Spirituality: Out From Fundamentalism. New York:
Crossroads Press.

Nelson, James
1987 Embodiment. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

Schrage, Wolfgang
1988 The Ethics of the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Soelle, Dorothee
1970 Beyond Mere Obedience. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press.