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Sex isn't icky for Paul

One of the fascinating results of my thesis research (IMHO) has been to realise how much we tend to impose modern evangelical conceptions of sexual purity onto the NT texts (even if we don't hold to them ourselves).  In the Torah sex has a defiling potential so, to use Lev 15:16-18 for example, an emmission of semen requires a ritual bath (for the man and for the woman if she is involved) and a wait until evening before they can be cosidered clean again.  Sex is apparently dirty and needs to be dealt with to avoid contaminating other things and rendering them dirty too.

But in NT Christianity purity ceases to revolve around that which is dirty and becomes an issue of the heart's intentions.  The classic text where this revolution takes place is Mark 7:17-23.  In this text Jesus denies the ability of any external physical thing to make someone "unclean."  As witnessed to by Jesus' ministry this included corpses, lepers, and women with bleeding, all of whom should never have been touched under the Torah's purity regulations.  And yet through his miracles Jesus showed that his "pure" compassionate intentions were stronger than the defiling capacity of those external facts, he could touch and remain undefiled.  Instead his "purity" often spread to those he touched, as evidenced by their healing.

Unfortunately readers of Paul often come to the passages where he talks about sexual purity and think that he has reverted back to the Levitical idea of sex being "icky".  That it is something dirty which will stick to you and make you dirty too.  But although Paul uses purity language in regard to his exhortations regarding proper sexual conduct, careful reading reveals that the purity Paul is concerned with stems not from a revulsion towards icky sex but from other considerations.  In both 1 Cor 6:12-7:40 and 1 Thes 4:3-8, which are the two key Pauline passages on sex, the driving concerns are not the potential for contamination but,
  1. the respect of people's sexual property "rights" (1 Thess 4:6; 1 Cor 6:20; 7:4)
  2. the demonstration of the self-control that comes from a Spirit filled life, i.e. not being dominated by the gratification of one's urges (1 Cor 6:13, 19; 7:9; 1 Thess 4:4, 7)
  3. the maintenance of the believer's right relationship with members of the community and with God/Christ (1 Cor 6:15, 1 Thess 4:1, 6, 8)
Within those concerns Paul's purity language is consistently used regarding the interior, spiritual, and social effects of sexual immorality, the consequences of the sexually immoral acts not the external fact of the act at all.  To my mind this means that contemporary Christian sexual ethical reasoning must move away from purity language because we are unable to get out of our heads that certain external actions are just plain "icky" in and of themselves.  Instead, if we are going to critique promiscuity, homosexuality, or pre-marital sex, we need to do so from a point of view of how these acts actually effect those who particpate in them and the society in which they live and what motivates those actions. 

Apart from being "Biblical," the other real advatnage to this approach is that it both allows us to argue in terms that a non-believer can meaningfully engage with (i.e. personal and social consequences), but also forces us to respect the fact that a key reason for our own sexual restraint is maintenance of a relationship with God, an aim many non-believers don't share (funnily enough).  This alone should cause us to slow down if we are under the impression we need continually agitate to legislate Christian sexual morality in our secular nations.

let me know what you think :-)


  1. This is very interesting. Thank you for posting it.

    One of the things that has always concerned me (especially when I moved in more evangelical circles) is the issue of how we see sex. I particularly remember some of the earnest discussions that we had together and with other people about things like masturbation and other things.

    I agree with pretty much everything that you say here. The only thought that I have is regarding the writings in the Torah. I don't think that this is so much about sex being 'icky'. I think it has much more to do with a view of life, and in particular the sanctity of it.

    The two main things that seem to make a person unclean are menstrual blood and semen. These are two substances inextricably linked to the creation of life, which ultimately God is in charge of. So in fact, these substances are sacred. The menstrual blood is, as we know, the lining of the uterus that supports a newly created life and enables it to grow. The sperm, again as we know, is that which fertilizes the egg. Therefore, these are sacred substances.

    Perhaps then, the issue (if you will pardon the expression) is less to do with 'uncleanness' but more to do with having come so close to substances that are so sacred, and yet 'wasted'. I tend to think that this is behind the need to wash oneself clean and maintain a certain discipline.

    Without wishing to be crude, we all are familiar with the 'icky mess' that follows having sex, and so taking a bath is good hygiene practice, rather than a rule that we must follow because we have become 'unclean'.

    Also, perhaps this is about not trivialising sex. Sex is, primarily, designed to be a reproductive act but in the sharing of sex for pleaure (which I would argue is also a holy thing) there is contact with these holy life-giving substances. These are the things of God that we must never belittle.

    Does that make sense?

  2. It does make sense Matt, but I don't know how far it represents the Levitical world view. I was using the word icky slighty frivolously but to get across the idea that this impurity of an action stuck to you and could then be passed on to other things. This makes perfect sense to us regarding bacteria, etc, but that is way ahead of anything that could have been in the mind of the authors of Leviticus. For them while the semen carried the seed of a human, the woman provided noting but "soil" to grow in, so i don't think the mentstral blood would be seen as precious in the same way as a guys "seed" was. BUt this just goes to show how hard it is to really get into what is behind these texts. If you dig that kind of exploration Mary Douglas (Anthropologist) is the one to read. What is interesting to me is that the NT totally loses sight of any kind of interest in those sort of bodily fluids, they never come into discussion.

  3. Ah! The perennial problem of the mindset of the mindview of the writers! (I suppose this partly depends on where you put your money re: dating etc. as well!)

    Though the link might be tenuous, one could mention the idea as in Genesis 9:4 of avoiding the blood in meat, which is its life, which would still make a link (i.e. that blood contains life).

    One of the issues, with the NT, is that it would appear that they were convinced that the parousia would be indeed very soon. As it is, we are left, almost 2000 years later, looking back at this all to try to get to grips with what it is all saying.

    Keep the posts coming! I am enjoying your thoughts!


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