Tag Archives: Sex


Single vs. Married Pastors: Take It from a Guy Who’s Been Both

Do singles or marrieds make better pastors? The debate is nothing new, though it’s been reinvigorated in recent years. Historically, single men predominated. Lately, the pendulum has swung toward marrieds, and some even suggest that singles should not serve as pastors. I have previously written in defense of singleness in the pastoral role. When I wrote the article, I had served as a single pastor for 19 years—14 as a senior pastor.

suitOver the past three years, something special and wonderful happened to me—I joined the ranks of married pastors. The beautiful tsunami of parenting has recently crashed into my pastoral ministry as well. Through it all I’ve seen the advantages and struggles of pastoring both as a single and as a married man.

I shouldn’t be so surprised, but my experience has followed the analysis Paul gave to the marriage and ministry question in 1 Corinthians 7.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32-35)

Both sides of the debate over whether single men should be pastors cite this famous passage. Yet Paul is not arguing for one or the other as right or wrong. Rather, he is giving wise apostolic counsel regarding how the marital state affects life and ministry experience. Allow me to present the relevant points in 1 Corinthians 7 intertwined with my experience. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and comments on this article will likely include many other worthy considerations.

The Advantages of Singleness in Ministry

1. Time

When my interests are divided, so is my time. Ministry takes time. Relationships take time. In my single years, I had a massive amount of time to spend with people, projects, sermon preparation, prayer, and weekly emergencies and surprises. I loved being a pastor, and the amount of time I could put toward pastoral ministry would have been sinful neglect of family for a married pastor. As an example, over my single years, I would spend one, two, or three nights a week in the homes of church members. I often had people and groups in my home, as it was always available. Now that I am married, those activities have lessened by necessity.

Married pastor, how much better would you know your flock if you spent hundreds of nights in their homes and they in yours? Think of all the good a pastor could do if suddenly the time spent on marriage and parenting could be put toward the church. Is that sermon a little better? Is the exposition a little more thorough? Is the pastor a little more present in those critical moments in peoples’ lives? Do the elders and staff get a little more personal attention?

2. Energy

Relationships take energy. Marriage takes energy. We all have a finite supply of it. In my single years, it seemed I had nearly boundless energy. Of course, my single years were also my younger years. Still, my wife and child demand energy and effort. I slept more and better as a single. Working out was easier to fit into the schedule. There were fewer domestic expectations and duties.

Billy Graham acknowledged this difference in a letter to the lifelong single John Stott. He said, “Thank you for your November letter. Just reading it made me a bit exhausted! How do you do it my friend? If you had a wife, five children, five in-laws—and 15 grandchildren, it would be rather difficult. Please forgive me if I am not able to keep up with you!”

3. Focus

Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7 that the married are necessarily “anxious about worldly things,” but the unmarried are “free from anxieties.” My experience in both categories would definitely affirm this teaching. For those 20 years of single pastoring, my thoughts were substantially focused on the church. I thought about ministry matters constantly. My mind moved there naturally with problem solving, creativity, prayer, sermon prep, and so on. Those thoughts produced vision, teaching, and countless other helps that assisted my church greatly.

The married pastor has much more to think about that lies outside of ministry. He must think about his wife and her needs, his children if he has them, domestic cares, health issues in the family, conflict resolution, and the ebbs and flows of family life. It is simply impossible for the best-meaning married pastor to match the mental and spiritual focus on church ministry afforded to single pastors. Who reaps the benefits? The local church does.

The Advantages of Marriage in Ministry

The advantages of singleness do not diminish the advantages of marriage, nor vice versa. This is not a zero-sum issue. Paul also calls marriage a gift, and it provides real advantages in ministry too.

1. Maturity, Love, and Spiritual Growth

I begin with this advantage, because it is the most pronounced. Marriage creates daily moments and tensions that change the man. He cannot be as he was. A man will not last long in ministry or marriage if he does not grow in his desire and ability to please his wife (1 Cor. 7:33). This is the joy of love. The highs of marriage are greater than anything I experienced in my singleness. Yet I am regularly challenged and confronted with marriage’s demand to die to self. When you are single, you read that teaching and think, Yeah, I get it. No problem. Then marriage sticks your nose in your own selfishness and, at least for me, it is not pretty. That visage brings change, spiritual growth, maturity, and a host of other pastorally helpful qualities. Here marriage does what no seminary can.

If the husband is worth his salt, he learns to concern himself primarily with the needs of his wife. This is the essence of love and the hallmark of self-giving ministry. Marriage is a blast furnace. The man goes into marriage made of one set of material, but the heat and pressure change him. The furnace forcefully produces qualities that make not just better husbands, but also better servant-leaders. The better the husband, the better the pastor, for pastoring at its core is leading and loving as a servant.

2. Sexual Desire

Our sexualized Western culture so resembles ancient Corinth that Paul’s Corinthian letter is as relevant as ever. Throughout 1 Corinthians 7, sexual desire factors into Paul’s argument for the purpose of marriage. Sex in marriage is a mutual right and a weapon in the fight against sexual temptation. It is at least a consideration when deciding whether to trade the gift of celibacy for the gift of marriage. Marriage’s sexual freedom is a great aid in the struggle for purity, as it provides a righteous outlet for sexual desire.

In ministry, singles are caught in a quiet stereotype. You can be viewed as either not having normal sexual desire or possibly having errant ones. The assumption is that a single in ministry probably has some issue with sexuality, because normal people get married to deal with it. From this perspective, a single pastor is a ticking bomb, and it’s only a matter of time before he compromises.

Really? Does God not give the grace we need, sexual desires included? Dealing with sexual desires is a matter of the heart, and a marriage ceremony doesn’t change that challenge. There are many, many godly singles in ministry who are honoring God with their bodies. They are as sexually desirous as any healthy human being but are patiently waiting for the righteous context to express it. A married pastor is blessed to have a righteous place to go in dealing with sexual desire. Marriage doesn’t guarantee purity, but it wonderfully provides for it.

3. Emotional Breadth and Empathy

Pastoral ministry deals with the sticky points of life—often related to marriage and parenting. While the sufficiency of Scripture teaches that a single pastor can adequately apply God’s Word to all of life, he may still struggle with experiential wisdom and empathy in those categories. I was blessed to fill this void with fellow staff who were better at ministering with those special needs than my life situation allowed. The joys and sorrows of marriage give an emotional depth and breadth that people instinctively sense and to which they can relate. Singleness does have its own unique emotional pains, which God can and will use; they are simply more narrow and specific. The married pastor has a broader emotional experience of humanity and its relational complexities.

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I am happy to be married. And it was a joy to serve the church as a single man. Too often this debate forces us to choose sides. But the Bible doesn’t rank them; it honors both sides. The church should as well. As a man who now has lived in both worlds, I would urge churches and search committees to evaluate men for pastoral ministry based on their character, gifts, and maturity, not on their marital status.

We can praise God for how he mightily uses singles in ministry to do what married men and women cannot do. And we can deeply appreciate how God uses marriage to refine and mature men as they shepherd their family and their flock.

Rosaria Butterfield

You Are What—and How—You Read

I just returned from a well-known (and well-heeled) Christian college, where roughly 100 demonstrators gathered on the chapel steps to protest my address on the grounds that my testimony was dangerous. Later that day, I sat down with these beloved students, to listen, to learn, and to grieve. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview. This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I’m culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost.

Rosaria ButterfieldWhen I started to read the Bible it was to critique it, embarking on a research project on the Religious Right and their hatred against queers, or, at the time, people like me. A neighbor and pastor, Ken Smith, became my friend. He executed the art of dying: turning over the pages of your heart in the shadow of Scripture, giving me a living testimony of the fruit of repentance. He was a good reader—thorough, broad, and committed. Ken taught me that repentance was done unto life, and that abandoning the religion of self-righteousness was step number one. The Holy Spirit equipped me to practice what Ken preached, and one day, my heart started to beat to the tempo of my Lord’s heart. A supernatural imposition, to be sure, but it didn’t stop there.

I’d believed gender and sexuality were socially constructed and that I was the mistress of my own destiny and desire. Through the lens of experience, this was self-evident. I’d built my whole house on the foundation of “gender trouble” (the title of Judith Butler’s book), and then stood by, helpless, as it burned to the ground. But the Bible was getting under my skin. Hours each day I poured over this text, arguing at first, then contemplating, and eventually surrendering. Three principles became insurmountable on my own terms: the trinitarian God’s goodness, the trinitarian God’s holiness, and the authority of Scripture. And then, Romans 1 nailed me to the cross: “claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts . . . because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1:22-26).

Homosexuality, then, is not the unpardonable sin, I noticed. It is not the worst of all sins, not for God. It’s listed here in the middle of the passage, as one of many parts of this journey that departs from recognizing God as our author. Homosexuality isn’t causal, it’s consequential. From God’s point of view, homosexuality is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of a worldview transgression inherited by all through original sin. It’s so original to the identity of she who bears it that it feels like it precedes you; and as a vestige of original sin, it does. We are born this way. But the bottom line hit me between the eyes: homosexuality, whether it feels natural or not, is a sin. God’s challenge was clear: do I accept his verdict of my sin at the cross of Christ, or do I argue with him? Do I repent, even of a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin but normal, not-bothering-another-soul kind of life, or do I take up Satan’s question to Eve (“Did God really say?”) and hurl it back in the face of God?

I had taught, studied, read, and lived a different notion of homosexuality, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong.

Three Unbiblical Points

As I write and speak today, 14 years have elapsed since my queer activist days. I’m a new creature in Christ, and my testimony is still like iodine on starch. I’m sensitive to three unbiblical points of view Christian communities harbor when they address the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. Everywhere I go, I confront all three.

1. The Freudian position. This position states same-sex attraction is a morally neutral and fixed part of the personal makeup and identity of some, that some are “gay Christians” and others are not. It’s true that temptation isn’t sin (though what you do with it may be); but that doesn’t give us biblical license to create an identity out of a temptation pattern. To do so is a recipe for disaster. This position comes directly from Sigmund Freud, who effectually replaced the soul with sexual identity as the singular defining characteristic of humanity. God wants our whole identities, not partitioned ones.

2. The revisionist heresy. This position declares that the Bible’s witness against homosexuality, replete throughout the Old and New Testaments, results from misreadings, mistranslations, and misapplications, and that Scripture doesn’t prohibit monogamous homosexual sexual relations, thereby embracing antinomianism and affirming gay marriage.

3. The reparative therapy heresy. This position contends a primary goal of Christianity is to resolve homosexuality through heterosexuality, thus failing to see that repentance and victory over sin are God’s gifts and failing to remember that sons and daughters of the King can be full members of Christ’s body and still struggle with sexual temptation. This heresy is a modern version of the prosperity gospel. Name it. Claim it. Pray the gay away.

Indeed, if you only read modern (post 19th-century) texts, it would rightly seem these are three viable options, not heresies. But I beg to differ.

Worldview matters. And if we don’t reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn’t live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen’s work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin’s tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we’ll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don’t fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

In short, we honor God with our reading diligence. We honor God with our reading sacrifice. If you watch two hours of TV and surf the internet for three, what would happen if you abandoned these habits for reading the Bible and the Puritans? For real. Could the best solution to the sin that enslaves us be just that simple and difficult all at the same time? We create Christian communities that are safe places to struggle because we know sin is also “lurking at [our] door.” God tells us that sin’s “desire is for you, but you shall have mastery over it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin isn’t a matter of knowing better, it isn’t (only) a series of bad choices—and if it were, we wouldn’t need a Savior, just need a new app on our iPhone.

We also take heart, remembering the identity of our soul and thus rejecting the Freudian ideal that sexual identity competes with the soul. And we encourage other image-bearers to reflect the Original in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, not in the vapid reductionism that claims image-of-God theology means he loves you just way you are, just the way your sin manifests itself. Long hours traveling the road paved by Bible reading, theological study, and a solid grasp on hermeneutical fallacies gets you to a place where as sons and daughters of the King, people tempted in all manner of sin, we echo Owen: “The law grace writes in our hearts must answer to the law written in God’s Word.” We also take heart, remembering that God faithfully walks this journey with us, that victory over sin comes in two forms: liberty from it and humility regarding its stronghold. But it comes, truly, just as he will.

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Editors’ note: During The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando, Rosaria Butterfield will lead two workshops: “You Are What You Read” and “Homosexuality and the Christian Faith.” Visit TGC.org/2014 to find more information on the conference and register.

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When Women Lust

We all know that men struggle with lust. But what about women? While it’s becoming more common to hear of women’s struggles with pornography use, many women still perceive that they have the moral high ground over men. Such comparisons don’t help because men and women often struggle in different ways.


When a beautiful woman walks in the room or flashes on a screen or billboard, all eyes are transfixed. While men might be thinking about sex, a woman might be thinking, I wonder what it would be like to have such a body? Men want the body, women want the body. They want the body that attracts everyone. Lust can be either a strong feeling of sexual desire, or a strong desire for something.

We know when a man has sinned as he takes the body he wants through indulging in pornography or visiting a prostitute. But what does it look like for a woman to act out on her lust? She cannot take the body she desires to have, so what does she do? For the most part, her sin remains hidden. Still, there are some tell-tale signs of her sin, which I will describe in the first person because I struggle with this too.

Signs of Struggle


The first feeling lust produces in a woman is dissatisfaction with her own body. We have compared our body with someone else’s and fallen short. We imagine the other woman is sexier, more confident in herself, and overall better off. This leads us to self-pity.


Feeling sorry for ourselves makes us feel insecure. We feel threatened in our own femininity and start worrying about our husband or fiancé or boyfriend finding a new woman more attractive. We transpose this subjective fear into reality. Because I am struggling with lust, I assume my man must be, so I fear our relationship is threatened anew with every new attractive woman we encounter.


We feel the need to put down other women. We rationalize our struggle by leveling the playing field in our own minds. The thinking goes like this: “Well, she may be very sexy, but she probably isn’t very intelligent,” or, “Her hair is perfect, but I’m sure glad I don’t have those legs.” We would never say anything cruel, but we think it to make ourselves feel better.


If none of this makes us feel better, we embark on a never-ending cycle of self-improvement. We feel the need to regain ground because our place at the top has been threatened. This is a form of works-righteousness in which we attempt to prove to ourselves, the world around us, and ultimately even to God that we can change ourselves into our own image, the perfect one we’ve created, one we so desperately want to attain. We make new dietary resolutions, new and better workout plans, and buy new clothes and cosmetics so we can look sexier.

Putting God on the Dock

Lusting after some other woman’s body is a symptom of deep dissatisfaction with the way we look. It’s a matter of pride. We feel we deserve better. When I was a teenager struggling to accept my body and all of its changes, my mother once said to me, “Complaining about you figure is like slapping God in the face!” That really caught my attention. My dissatisfaction with my body was shouting out to God, “You made me wrong!” But as my maker, did he not have the right to make me as he pleased? Does not God look over his creation and pronounce it good? Who was I to contradict him?

Our bodies are important to God, so we need to care for them as good stewards. We need to eat right, exercise regularly, and sleep enough. Nevertheless, the fall affects our bodies so that they age, wrinkle, sag, and eventually die. God knows this process and in his mercy, he sent Jesus to die on the cross to reverse the deadly effects of the fall.

Through the resurrection, God has assured us that he is capable and in the process of making all things new. But interestingly, God is in the business of renewing us from the inside out, not the outside in. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV). He starts with our hearts because that is where the core problem resides. He sees into the recesses of our hearts, where those dark, lustful, self-destructive thoughts lie, and he chose to plunge into that cavern to shine his light. When we start seeing our hearts through his redemptive purposes, we will see where the Spirit is initiating change, bringing us to repentance and giving us new longings. The rest of the effects of the fall will be overcome on the final day, and then we will also receive perfect bodies to go along with our perfected hearts.

Maybe that is why he constantly frustrates us in our striving to renew ourselves from the outside in. He wants us to realize that we are made for something more. To be a self-made woman based on the ideals put forth in women’s magazines or comparing ourselves with other women we admire is not God’s goal for us. It’s far too small! In fact, those magazines can be just as bad for our souls as pornography is for men.

Rather, God changes us into the image of his son, Jesus, the perfect man. He wants us to experience joy in how he intended us to be. He fulfills all his purposes in us. Let’s not waste precious time trying to be someone else. Being satisfied in God alone will make you and me an irresistibly attractive women, inside and out, because his love will shine through us for the world to see.

Let’s Talk About . . . You-Know-What

Excuse me, are you glorifying God with your sex?

That’s the incendiary question on the table in Denny Burk’s What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway), a new book that traverses delicate territory, to say the least. In it, Burk seeks to bring a Christian worldview to bear on current hot-button issues ranging from gender to homosexuality, singleness to marriage, birth control to intercourse. Rooted in Scripture and written for us sinners, this readable and relevant work engages a confused culture—and many confused Christians—with a God-exalting, joy-inducing vision of human sexuality.

I talked with Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College and prolific blogger, about where this debate is heading, whether pro-life Christians should use the pill, what God thinks of singleness, and more.


Debates over sexuality aren’t new in the church. They’ve been dividing Christians for as long as any of us can remember. What can Bible-believing Christians say that’s new or likely to persuade long-time antagonists? And where do you see these debates headed in the coming years?

The sexual revolutionaries have indeed been long-time antagonists of Christian sexual morality. I think, however, that the challenge is becoming more acute in recent years because of the normalization of homosexuality. Christians are under enormous social pressure to revise the Bible’s teaching on the definition of marriage, and there are many so-called Christians who have been willing to accommodate the spirit of the age. But this kind of sellout is not an option for true disciples of Jesus.


Where are these debates headed in coming years? I think 21st-century American Christians need prepare for a new reality. The so-called “silent majority” of those who hold to traditional sexual mores is no more. Our views on marriage and sexuality draw a sharp contrast with a culture that has imbibed deeply of the sexual revolution. Christian need to embrace their calling to be a counterculture—to bear witness to an increasingly hostile culture. The Lord Jesus calls us to be in the world not of the world for the sake of the world (John 17:15-21).

Do you think pro-life Christians should avoid using oral contraceptives?

The question of contraception for unmarried Christians is pre-empted by the Bible’s prohibition on fornication (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:18). The Christian sexual ethic boils down to chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within it. Those pursuing chastity have no use for oral contraception.

Having said that, there’s great debate among some evangelicals about whether married couples are free to use hormone-based contraceptives. Our Roman Catholic friends believe each and every sexual act must be equally procreative in intent. Most evangelicals disagree with this position on biblical grounds, and so the primary issue for us is whether hormone-based contraceptives are truly contraceptive. Are there cases in which birth control pills cause the destruction of a human embryo? Some Christians say yes, while others say no.

FDA-approved labels for hormone-based contraceptives (e.g., birth control pills) indicate that these pills work through three mechanisms of action. The first is to prevent ovulation (a contraceptive mechanism). The second is to thicken cervical mucus, thereby making it difficult for sperm to pass through (also a contraceptive mechanism). The third is to inhibit the uterine lining, thereby preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus (an abortifacient mechanism). This third mechanism has caused controversy.

A number of pro-life Christians believe the existence of this third mechanism for the pill is inconclusive. Others claim the third mechanism is in play when women use it. My personal view is that if there’s any chance at all the third mechanism comes into play, then pro-life Christians cannot legitimately make use of such technologies.

How helpful are heterosexual marriage arguments rooted in natural law (e.g., the recent book What Is Marriage?)? What are the benefits and drawbacks to this approach?

Natural law arguments are good and helpful. They’re based on a teleological approach to ethics, and that’s the approach I advocate in my book. God’s intention for our sexuality has been clearly revealed through how we have been made. It’s obvious, for example, that our biology reveals a heterosexual, procreative purpose for our sexuality. Natural law draws attention to this truth and draws rational implications from this truth that are publically assessable even to those who don’t otherwise share our Christian commitment.

Nevertheless, faithful Christians should understand the limits of natural law approaches. Natural law is good so far as it goes. But some truths we proclaim about sexuality aren’t apparent to fallen minds through natural law alone. This is why we need to comprehend special revelation as well as natural revelation in framing a sexual ethic.

A case in point is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. In this text, Paul’s understanding of natural law is constrained by Scripture and the gospel. Paul wasn’t the only one with a teleological understanding of the body. The Corinthians had a teleology as well. They observed the sexual complementarity of male and female bodies and construed from that observation that sex was the purpose of the body. Yet they wrongly concluded that frequent trysts with prostitutes were a legitimate way to use the body according to its purpose. They concluded that just as food is made for stomachs, so also male and female bodies are made for sex.

Here we see the limitations of applying reason to natural revelation. The fallen mind doesn’t always make the correct ethical judgments based on observation of nature alone. And that is why teleology and reason are ultimately subject to the witness of Scripture. Paul doesn’t refute the obvious sexual complementarity of male and female bodies. Rather, he quotes from Genesis 2:24 to show that promiscuity isn’t part of God’s design for sex. He also argues on the basis of the gospel that the body isn’t for immorality, but for the Lord Jesus who promises to raise and renew physical bodies. Paul does this by quoting Scripture (Gen. 2:24), and by reasserting the gospel truth that just as Jesus has been raised from the dead so also will he raise up believers to blessedness (1 Cor. 6:14).

You describe marriage as a covenantal, sexual, procreative, heterosexual, monogamous, nonincestuous, gospel-symbolizing union. Does the inclusion of “procreative” as a constitutive category risk invalidating, or at least minimizing, marriages of infertile couples or those incapable of sex?

No. The heterosexual purpose of message is not diminished by the results of the fall—which sometimes means that couples must walk the difficult road of infertility. Infertility is known in the scriptures (e.g., Gen. 11:30; 25:21; 29:31; Judg. 13:2). Still, infertility is never presented as invalidating God’s purposes for the conjugal bond. Perhaps an analogy would be helpful here. The fact that some people are born blind does not invalidate the fact that eyes are created by God for seeing. Blindness is a testimony to the tragic aftermath of living under the curse (Rom. 8:20), not an indication that other people’s eyes are no longer meant to see.

In the name of promoting a high view of marriage some complementarians have at times communicated, even if by implication, a low view of singleness. What is the purpose for gender and sexuality outside of marriage?

Jesus and Paul both commend by example and by teaching the nobility of the single life. It is not a second-class mode of existence. Indeed, it’s the life that the Lord Jesus chose for himself. It’s also the life he sometimes chooses for his disciples as well. This is why Jesus says, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matt. 19:11). The Lord gives this gift to a select few, and it allows them to leverage their lives for the sake of his kingdom (1 Cor. 7:32). This is a remarkably high calling, and every Christian and every church should recognize it as such.

Singles who have an abiding desire for the joys of conjugal life should pursue marriage. Even though the culture increasingly favors delaying marriage well into the late 20s, Christians who wish to marry should probably consider early marriage as a means to chastity and adulthood. Nevertheless, for as long as God allows a person to remain single, he or she must remain sexually pure. That means abstaining from all sexual activity outside of marriage, including solo sex and the use of pornography. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from fornication” (1 Thess. 4:3).

Can’t Get No Satisfaction?

When it comes to sex and money, Paul Tripp remarks, our culture has gone crazy. And while so many are “talking about these things in ways that lack sanity, Christians are strangely silent.” In this new video, Tripp sits down with Mark Mellinger to discuss the twin topics of his new book, Sex and Money: Pleasures That Leave You Empty and Grace That Satisfies (Crossway, 2013).

Money and possessions, while important, must never be ultimate. “Of course money can purchase enjoyable things and bring temporary comfort and pleasure,” Tripp admits. “But what it can’t do is be your Savior.” When we seek satisfaction in stuff, we’re asking it to be something it was never meant to be.

Tripp also unpacks what he calls the “individualization of sex”—the assumption that sex exists for my fulfillment, my wants, my needs, my pleasure. But sex, Tripp explains, is designed to connect to the most significant things of life—worship, relationship, and obedience. “If it’s about these things,” he observes, “then it can’t be about just me.” It’s vital, then, for Christ’s people to hold up the beauty of Christ-honoring sexuality along with a loving warning that “disconnected” sex is as dangerous as it is distorted.

The fundamental problem, of course, is not pleasure; it’s idolatry. As Tripp explains, “Creation is not meant to satisfy you. It’s meant to be pleasurable so that you’d run after the ultimate Pleasure who will satisfy your heart—your Creator.”

Sex, Money, and Emptiness with Paul Tripp from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

What’s the Difference Between Erotica and Song of Solomon?

What is the difference between common erotica and the Song of Solomon? Both describe human sexuality in vivid and breathless detail. Both provide detailed depictions of the human form, including at least allusions to the genitalia. Both paint striking portraits of sexuality and evoke strong passions. So what’s the difference?

Is it merely that the Canticles are one particular work of erotica taken up by the Holy Spirit and added to the Bible? If this is the case, we will be forced to conclude that either the Holy Spirit has lifted one proverbial pig out of the pig sty and dressed her up with lipstick and a party dress (or negligee, as the case may be) and hoped we wouldn’t notice the stink. Or perhaps erotica qua genre is not inherently wicked. Neither of these options, I think, is true. There must be some fundamental difference between what we witness in the Song of Solomon and what we encounter in worldly erotica.

There is one primary answer that exhibits itself in several ways. The single major difference between the Song of Solomon and erotica is the difference between means and ends. In his Song, Solomon’s primary goal is to describe love and beauty. To do so, he employs the most fundamental consummation of those virtues, human sexuality. Love and beauty are the ends, sexuality is the means. Erotica reverses that order. The main goal of erotica is to describe human sexuality, and occasionally it does this by employing descriptions of physical beauty and/or love. In erotica, sexuality is the end, love and beauty are merely means—disposable ones.

Beauty in Song of Solomon and Beauty in Erotica

Notice the difference between the way beauty is treated in the Song of Solomon and the way it is used in erotica. For Solomon, physical beauty should be celebrated with all the enthusiasm of youthful vigor. It is to be described in nearly tangible detail:

Your lips are like a scarlet thread; your mouth is lovely.
Your temples are like a slice of pomegranate behind your veil. (SOS 4:3)


His cheeks are like a bed of balsam, banks of sweet-scented herbs;
His lips are lilies dripping with liquid myrrh. (SOS 5:13)

It gets more explicit, of course: there are descriptions of her breasts (4:5; 7:3, 7-8; 8:10), her hips (7:1), her naked belly (7:2), the allure of her “garden” (4:12-5:1), and the blossoming of her “orchard” (6:11). At least some would interpret the metaphor of 5:14, “his abdomen is carved ivory,” as thinly veiled phallic imagery. But when these unashamedly erotic descriptions are taken along with the rest of the imagery presented in the Song, the overall effect is not inordinate fixation on any one or two body parts. We delight in the human body as a whole, both male and female. To put it another way, Solomon is enraptured with beauty, not sexuality.

In erotica or pornography, there is no place for real beauty. There is an aping of certain beautiful aspects of the human form, to be sure, but even those are emphasized clumsily and with adolescent hurry in an effort to highlight what is most important: the sex.

Love in Song of Solomon and Love in Erotica

Consider the place of love in Solomon versus erotica. The depictions of physical beauty in the Canticles always leads to an encomium to love itself:

You have made my heart beat faster, my sister, my bride;
you have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes . . .
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine. . . . (SOS 4:9-10)

And in one of the most evocative descriptions, Solomon asserts that tranquility itself can be found in the embrace of the beloved:

I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers;
Then I became in his eyes as one who finds peace. (SOS 8:10)

Kurt Vonnegut seems to have grasped the difference between love of beauty and mere lust when he penned “Miss Temptation,” which includes what must rank as one of the best descriptions of the feminine form of all time. His description might have been lifted right out of Solomon: “Susanna’s feathery hair and saucer eyes were as black as midnight. Her skin was the color of cream. Her hips were like a lyre, and her bosom made men dream of peace and plenty forever and ever.”

What piece of erotica can hold a candle to that writing?

Erotica is not interested in love. It will, at times, spread a thin veneer of love over certain stories, but love is never the main point. It is only ever back story. Erotica is written to titillate, the Canticles to celebrate. The one is written to provoke lust, the other to evoke beauty. It is the monumental difference between pornography and nude art, between Ron Jeremy and Michelangelo’s David.

The Song of Solomon is a monument to love and beauty and to the proper connection between them. The experience of human sexuality is the pedestal upon which the monument securely and audaciously rests. Solomon teaches us that the most ravishing beauty is a consequence of the most desperate love, that the beloved is so beautiful precisely because she is so loved.

Talking to the World

In my reading this past month, I discovered that Immanuel Kant made a case for a Christian sexual ethic but without using any appeal to the Bible or theology. In “Duties Toward the Body in Respect of Sexual Impulse” (Kant, Lectures in Ethics) he argued that sex outside of marriage dishonors human dignity. He reasoned that when you ask for sex without giving your whole self to the other person in marriage (“person, body and soul, for good and ill and in every respect”), you turn the sex partner into an object, a mere means to a selfish end, instead of an end in him (or her) self. Kant’s famous “categorical imperative” was that human beings should never be treated as means, but only as ends. Using only this belief, which is intuitive for many modern people, he argued that you should never have sex outside of marriage.

I compared this with Wendell Berry (in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community and other volumes) who also makes a case for the Christian sex ethic without appealing to overtly religious arguments or sources. Berry says that sex outside of marriage is sex for its own individual fulfillment rather than for building community. That, he argues, is a market-shaped, individualistic, consumerist approach to the human body. Instead, he insists, sex should be only used inside of marriage because there it becomes a nurturing discipline that establishes community, creating the deep stability between parents necessary for children to flourish.

What the two men have in common is that they both start with premises that most modern, secular readers share, but then they use those commonly held beliefs to drive them toward a Christian sex ethic, which has been largely abandoned by most secular people. They do this without appealing to the Bible or to other sources of religious authority.

Does this mean that it is possible to prove Christian morality is true without appealing to the Bible itself? No, I don’t think so. Though Kant believed that reason was all you needed to discover ethical truth, his high view of human dignity still was ultimately a belief. It was not the inescapable conclusion of logic or empirical investigation. And Berry’s appeal to the importance of community over individual freedom is also, in the end, a vision of human flourishing that can’t be proved rationally. Berry’s and Kant’s arguments can’t prove the Christian sex ethic to someone who doesn’t accept their basic premise-beliefs. But if you share those beliefs, then their case is quite powerful.

Here’s what I learn from Kant and Berry. First, there are ways to argue in public discourse for various features of the Christian account of human flourishing without directly appealing to Biblical texts or to God. For example, if I am a Christian in politics, and I am speaking to a body of people who I know will resonate to Kantian views of human dignity or Berryan views of community, then it is possible to make a compelling argument for practices that are rooted in Christian truth. Why? Because people without an overt religious profession still hold many true beliefs about human dignity or community that are spiritually “there” in their souls because they are created in the image of God. We should not be under the illusion that we can “prove” Christianity to secular people however. The compelling nature of our argument relies on discovering the underlying beliefs that a non-believer has that match up with Biblical truth. Only if they grant these beliefs can we make our case.

Second, I find it is often helpful even when preaching to briefly recapitulate arguments such as these from Kant, Berry, and others. Why? The ultimate foundation for what we believe as Christians is the authority of God’s Word, but often the people we preach to are not convinced of the Bible’s complete trustworthiness. Here is an example. I may first present what the Bible says about sexuality. Then I may briefly make a Kantian argument (which C.S. Lewis also makes in Mere Christianity) about how sex outside of marriage de-humanizes or a Berryan one about how it harms community. Then I can add, “These are only some of the terrible results that come from violating God’s design for sexuality. There are certainly many others.” This approach both honors the Bible as the final authority for our lives and draws in listeners who, while not yet sure about the Bible’s inspiration, share the premises of Kant, Berry, or whomever else you use.

I think that in our contemporary society, Christians’ beliefs about sex and gender will be one of the biggest points of conflict with our culture. We will need to co-opt some of our culture’s own baseline narratives (the importance of human dignity and community) in order to gain any hearing at all for our beliefs.

Editor’s Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.