This is part 3 in a 5 part series of a response to Carter Heyward’s essay “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialim,” which can be found in Sexuality and the Sacred:Sources for Theological Reflection, edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow. Part One and Part Two are here.
The second premise of Heyward’s work is that Christian tradition has been “antisexual” in its teachings. Heyward places the behavior of sinful, fallen, and fallible man as the standard by which Scripture is judged. Rather than declaring that mankind has been wrong in its portrayal of women, especially when such behavior is judged through the glaring Light of the Gospel, Heyward seems to make the assumption that, because church tradition allowed such behavior to occur, then such behavior must be condoned in the Bible as well. Much time is spent by feminist theologians pointing to Old Testament passages concerning the ceremonial uncleanness of women after childbirth or menstruation as examples of men writing oppressive religious codes against women. The apostle Paul is accused of being a homophobic misogynist. Heyward actually goes so far as to declare the Bible as “antisexual” because its supposedly antiquated rules set up a sexual ethic completely unrelated to today’s society. She states:
The christian church plays the central formative role in limiting and thwarting our sexual phantasie, or sexual imagination. Most historians, sexologists, and others who are interested in how sexual practices and attitudes have developed historically seem to agree that in the realm of sexual attitudes, Western history and christian history are so closely linked as to be in effect indistinguishable. That is to say, the christian church has been the chief architect of an attitude toward sexuality during the last seventeen hundred years of European and Euroamerican history—an obsessive, proscriptive attitude, in contrast to how large numbers of people, christians and others, have actually lived our lives as sexual persons (Heyward, 12-13).
Even though Heyward repeatedly calls herself a “christian,” such a statement can only be made by one whose sexual ethic is not grounded in the concept of God as the Holy and Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Instead, such an ethic can only be grounded within one’s self. Heyward’s above observation of the church and human sexuality is correct—the church has been the guardian of the holiness of God, and in an attempt to keep the church holy as God is holy, certain sexual behavior has been limited by that same holy God. This limitation and thwarting of sex is not the work of close-minded men who wrote Scripture of their own accord. This limitation instead is the good work of God for His creation. These boundaries are, in the very words of God, for our own good (Deut 10.13).
Heyward would have her reader believe that the Bible declares all sex to be sinful. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:
Modern people are always saying, “Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.” [If they mean,] “there is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself a certain way , nor in the fact that it gives pleasure..” If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same. … I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked that as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. They were wrong (emphasis mine).
There have indeed been many “muddle-headed” Christians who have declared sex to be inherently sinful. Church father Augustine said of women that “it is a shameful thing to intend to use one’s husband for passion.” He went so far as to say that all Christians should desire to remain chaste because the sooner humanity died out, the sooner Christ’s reign on earth would begin. Those who marry only do so because they lack self control. Early church fathers nearly unanimously claim that sex is solely for the purpose of procreation. Justin Martyr said, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children.” Lactantius made the bold statement, “There would be no adulteries, no debaucheries, and prostitution of women if everyone knew that whatever is sought beyond desire of procreation is condemned by God.”
Heyward gives the example of the Council of Elvira in 309 A.D. as an early indication of the “church’s antisexual preoccupation” (Heyward, 13). At the fall of the Roman Empire, Heyward surmises that the church sought to establish some amount of control over the ensuing chaos. Heyward uses Historical theologian Samuel Laeuchli’s work as support for this belief. According to Heyward, “Laeuchli…[suggests] five reasons why the church’s elite became preoccupied with sexual control of the clergy and, to a lesser extent, the laity.” These five reasons were: 1) the transition from contending with the state to vying for control of the state; 2) a “new sociopolitical context” that centered church power in Rome; 3) the exacting task of becoming true members of Roman culture, 4) the increasing urbanization of Christians, and 5) the widening gap between the religious mythologies of both pagans and christians (Heyward, 13).
Later in the article, Heyward proclaims, “Understanding sex historically might enable us to also experience sexual pleasure as good, morally right, without need of justification…. We do not need to justify pleasure” (Heyward, 15). Again, Heyward, is correct; pleasure should not be justified or explained away. Heyward’s subtle destruction of the truth occurs in the fact that she equates all sexual pleasure with biblically correct, God-honoring, holy and good sex. By making a sweeping claim that Christians declare sex to be bad, Heyward seems to echo the oldest lie told to mankind: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen 3.1). Heyward’s twist of truth has caught many a Christian in the trap of sexual license. By asking for this one “clarification” of facts, the serpent is shifting the focus from the plethora of blessings showered upon man by his Creator to sudden desires that seem unfulfilled.
C.S. Lewis explained this lie best when he stated: “Like all powerful lies, it is based on truth—the truth, acknowledged above, that sex in itself… is “normal” and “healthy,” and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal.” Lewis is correct in assessing that sexual pleasure and desire are not inherently sinful. In fact, these things are, when practiced within the boundaries designed by God, good and right. Sex in God’s perfect design is pure and holy and pleasurable. Sex outside of God’s design is ultimately none of these things.