This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/28/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 Corinthians 7:1–12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
If anything can be said about life in the 21st century, we can say this: We’ve got options. More than perhaps ever before, we are free to craft our own identity. Assuming we can afford it, we’re free to live where we want to live. We can be called what we want to be called. We can believe what we want to believe. We’ve got freedom to associate with people who think like us. We can pursue the careers and relationships that we desire – or not.
Paul spoke to an age with a lot of similarities to ours. The ancient Roman Empire was a society full of dazzling choices. He lived in a civilization that offered a cornucopia of relationship options and sexual games. He also lived in a world – just like ours – where the rules were different for the powerful than for other people. The ancient Roman world was one in which the individual – especially the wealthy, male individual – could do pretty much whatever he pleased when it came to sex. It was also a world in which women, children, and low-status men were forced to endure the desires of those who were above them in the social hierarchy.
Today we often imagine the past as being socially boring and terribly sexually repressed, as if everything before the 1960s was an age of moral clarity and unquestioned social order. But the idea of sexual liberation isn’t new. In fact, the Roman Empire in which Jesus and Paul lived was, in many ways, more libertine than our own. The reality of inequality – whether by class, ethnicity, or sex – is also nothing new. In fact, the world of the early church could be described in terms of extreme social and income inequality, the likes of which we can hardly imagine today.
It’s important to remember this. Because once we know the cultural context in which Paul was speaking, we can see that Paul and the early Christian church were not prudes, hung up on trivial matters of sex and social propriety. In the context of the ancient world, we find that they were in fact rebels, resisters pushing back against the accepted economy of the world around them. In the ancient world, as today, that economy included the human person. It included labor, freedom, and identity. It included intimate and family relationships. It included sex.
In our reading this morning, Paul lays down some clear teaching about God’s intentions for human sexuality. For Paul – and, Paul asserts, for Jesus – there are only two avenues for the Christian to conduct him- or herself sexually: To practice celibacy, or to commit to fidelity within marriage. Paul had a clear preference for celibacy, but he was also open to marriage – after all, each person has different gifts. Marriage was not a sin, but in Paul’s mind, celibacy was better.
A lot of the church has forgotten this. In our obsession with the institution of marriage, we forget that the default position of the early church was an embrace of celibacy as an expression of full devotion to God’s service.
There’s a power that comes in celibacy: the opportunity to devote one’s entire life to concern for the wider community, to prayer, and to service to those in need. While the covenant of marriage and the nurture of biological family are clearly extremely important, it’s good to remember that the Apostle Paul esteemed celibacy above it.
What are we as a community doing to affirm and equip our celibate members in their calling to service and in their need for community and social support? What does it look like for us to leverage our celibacy to subvert the status quo – the way that sex and sexuality are used throughout our politics and economy to manipulate and sell to us? What is the role of our celibate brothers and sisters in creating a community that is based in Christian love, with no sexual strings attached?
For those of us who are married or would like to be married: The means are different, but the ends are the same. How will we allow God to use our expressed sexuality in marriage to build a foundation for the family of God? What does it mean to practice hospitality, to raise children, to work to support one another – financially, emotionally, and spiritually – as part of one body in Jesus?
The church should be a place where all of us can come to be supported. We all have our place, our special gifts to offer, our needs to be met. Fellowship, community, mission. But according to the early church and to the apostles, these gifts are to be explored and fulfilled in the context of marriage or celibacy. There is no third road.
This is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of modern Christians, not to mention those who are outside the church. We live in an era where the whole society – including many Christians – tell us that sex and relationships are some combination of entertainment, self-exploration, and compulsion. On top of that, the assumption is that questions of sex and sexuality are intensely personal – nobody’s business but that of the individual. If we accept these assumptions, it’s hard to say much about sex and relationships at all, except maybe, “you do you!”
But in our knee-jerk resistance to being given limits on our sexuality, we shouldn’t miss the fact that the world’s model of sex and relationships imposes its own limits. In the ancient Roman world, these limits were clear: There was a strict, sometimes brutal, hierarchy of men over women, adults over children, wealthy over the poor, masters over slaves. These limits were applied within the family, the household, and in the broader economy. For those who were towards the top of the pyramid, there was quite a bit of freedom to act as one pleased, although almost everyone was to some degree in debt to a more dominant individual above them.
For those near the bottom of the hierarchy, no such freedom was possible. Their social, economic, and sexual possibilities were determined for them by the men above them in the social pyramid. Husbands had rights over their wives that were often not reciprocal. Child molestation was legal and common practice. Slaves were the property of their masters and had almost no rights.
This context puts our reading this morning in a different light, doesn’t it? In a world where the marriage relationship was extremely hierarchical, Paul says that women have authority over the bodies of their husbands, just as husbands have authority over the bodies of their wives. In a world of alphas and betas, tops and bottoms, masters and slaves, Paul holds out a vision of marriage that is marked by reciprocity and spiritual equality.
This vision is still powerful today, in the midst of our consumerized society that treats relationships and sexuality as a commodity just like any other. In the midst of a culture that encourages us to be discontented with what we have, Paul reminds us that God has given us good options. Rather than making us feel less-than for being single, Paul promotes celibacy – not as a fallback for those who can’t get married, but as a positive good that can be preferable to marriage.
On the other hand, for those of us who do feel called to a romantic relationship, Paul’s message frees us from the traps of consumer sexuality and the endless pursuit of personal bliss. In the place of the cheap, casual, selfish sexuality, Paul lays out a vision for stable, loving, mutual marriage. Like celibacy, Christian marriage is a way of relating to the world around us in a way that expresses both God’s love and God’s limits.
These models of human sexuality and relationships are based not merely in the desires of the individual, but in our shared relationship, as a collective, to God in Christ. The world around us hangs its hat on personal preference, pleasure, and what money can buy. But we as Christians are called to an ethic of obedience to the teachings of Jesus and the example of our spiritual ancestors. This is a life of sobriety, holiness, endurance, and joy. It’s a life of freedom.
Like the early church in the city of Corinth, we are called to a lifestyle that is profoundly countercultural, which challenges the patterns of exploitation – sexual, social, economic, and spiritual – that are endemic in our society. We are called to lives of discipline – whether as singles or married couples – in the midst of an age that despises limits and rejects any questioning of the individual’s self-expression. In a society of atomized consumers, we are called to be part of something greater than ourselves. We are called to be a body.
We are the body of Christ. Jesus gathers us together, celibate and married, so that we can become one life, one community. The limits that God puts on our sexuality are not arbitrary, but rather instituted by God to build up the whole community.
Most of us have seen the destructive potential of exploitative, casual, selfish, or just careless sexual relationships. We know from experience and observation that sexual immorality tears at the collective. And we’ve seen the emptiness of our culture’s way of doing relationship. Our reading this morning offers us a better way.