The Church has changed a lot since the time Christ walked on earth, especially since the Bible came to be easily available to almost everyone. But there are a few things that haven’t changed much at all. Take the subject of sex, for example. We talk about sexual immorality as a problem and can look back long before Christianity to the very first Old Testament book of the Bible, Genesis, and see that much has been written about it. Church sermons and classes on sex teach a lot about sinful things we must not do, but little to nothing about pleasurable things we can and should do.
Before the philosopher and Church Father Augustine of Hippo1 (Saint Augustine, 354–430 AD), not much about sex, from a Christian perspective, was ever talked about, concerning the events surrounding the fall of humankind in the garden of Eden. It seems that the Church fathers weren’t comfortable talking about all that stuff—you know—all that nakedness, clinging to each other, becoming one flesh, being fruitful, and multiplying stuff. That sounds like some churches, even today. But that was the way it was, before Augustine. An article in The New Yorker actually went so far as to state “he rescued Adam and Eve from obscurity” by devising the doctrine of “original sin.”2
Augustine started out living a fairly sexually active life and even admitted so, writing that at the age of sixteen “the frenzy gripped me and I surrendered myself entirely to lust.” This continued for another sixteen years, and as he later detailed in writings, he “was a frequent loser in the battle with lustful passions.”3
In his book series, The Confessions,4 he wrote about his battles with being a slave to his sexual impulses. He had a very negative attitude toward sexuality. A scholar said, “desire for Augustine is almost a compulsion, an irrational impulse that he feels incapable of controlling without God’s help, a bondage that he is too weak to escape. Desire becomes the last obstacle between Augustine and a complete commitment to God, because he is certain he cannot live a celibate life.”5
It is because of sex that he thought it was impossible for humans to behave morally saying, “Original sins makes human moral behavior nearly impossible: if it were not for the rare appearance of an accidental and undeserved Grace of God, humans could not be moral.”6 He thought sexual relations were for procreation purposes only and insisted that the experience of arousal, unless for that reason, is in itself a sin. He wrote, “such disobedience of the flesh as this, which lies in the very excitement, even when it is not allowed to take effect, did not exist in the first man and woman.” Since we experience desire apart from free will, sexual desire naturally involves shame, therefore “a man by his very nature is ashamed of sexual desire.” The truth of that assertion, Augustine believed, was the universal practice of covering the genitals and of shielding the act of intercourse from public view.7 To him, the shame came from the sexual desire, a consequence of disobeying God’s command—maybe a punishment, so to speak.
“How weird it is, Augustine thought, that we cannot simply command this crucial part of the body. We become aroused, and the arousal is within us—it is in this sense fully ours—and yet it is not within the executive power of our will. Obviously, the model here is the male body, but he was certain that women must have some equivalent experience, not visible but essentially identical. That is why, in the wake of their transgression, both the first woman and the first man felt shame and covered themselves. Augustine returned again and again to the same set of questions: Whose body is this, anyway? Where does desire come from? Why am I not in command of my own penis? ‘Sometimes it refuses to act when the mind wills, while often it acts against its will!’”8
Yes, Augustine did have a very negative attitude toward sexuality; he probably didn’t discuss these feelings with his wife, who could have, at least, given him a feminine viewpoint (or he just didn’t listen to her). Maybe it just didn’t dawn on him that the sexual pleasure was to be shared with his wife and was a gift of God, not something to be battled against with all his might. If God made woman from the first man, isn’t it logical that there would be an attraction, a desire, to be one again? But, at that time, it wasn’t a subject that could be easily discussed, I guess.
Sex for pleasure, instead of procreation, was sinful to him and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t control it. Anyway, Augustine’s manuscripts and philosophy had a great influence upon the Church for a very long time. Unfortunately, some of the attitudes attributed to him are still echoing in the classrooms, sanctuaries, chapels, and halls of Christendom today.
Don’t get me wrong, as I’m not advocating that churches not speak about sins that are actually related to sexual matters, but what about joyful sex in marriage—what about romance? Doesn’t God want us to indulge in sexual pleasures? It surely doesn’t seem like it according to the hundreds of sermons and Bible studies I’ve attended over the years. There are indications in the Bible that suggest God approves of sexual and romantic pleasures, but not many pastors speak or teach about them.
There is no need for specifics in a sermon, of course, and we must be careful of age-related situations, but a well-worded overview along with suggested Bible scripture would do wonders in letting members know that God not only approves of sexual pleasures between husbands and wives, but that they should actually be encouraged.
A common retort from pastors is that this is a subject that is not proper for mixed company, or not something to be talked about publically, or it’s just plain embarrassing to put into a sermon. “Well,” I asked, “how about in segregated Bible studies: men’s classes, women’s classes, special subject matter for special groups?” But there is always a reason or two against every such suggestion. I guess the most negative response I got from a pastor was, “Are you suggesting that I turn my church sanctuary into some sort of pornographic place?” Umm, no! That is not what I suggest at all, but if this information is in the Bible, God wants us to know about it. There are ways and means to approach such mature subjects tastefully and with class.
Allegories, Metaphors, & Euphemisms
Many areas of the Bible are saturated with allegories, metaphors, and euphemisms9 to avoid offensive, unpleasant, uncomfortable, or embarrassing thoughts and ideas. A pastor or teacher can indicate when such methods are used, so the audience can get a complete mental picture of the situation, thereby presenting sensitive biblical stories and passages acceptably. Let’s analyze scripture from the book of Proverbs for example, which by the way, speaks of both the pleasures and the sins of sex. This was written by Solomon, the son of David and king of Israel about 1000 B.C.
“Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone, and not for sharing with strangers.
Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times; and may you be intoxicated always by her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (Proverbs 5:15–20, NRSV).
Now, let’s find out what Solomon was talking about. This is a contrast between a private, rather than a common issue, concerning promiscuity and marriage fidelity. “The images of the cistern, well, or fountain are used of a wife . . . because she, like water, satisfies desires. Streams of water in the street would then mean sexual contact with a lewd woman.” She never stays home, but goes into the streets and becomes the property of many. “The point is that what is private is not to be shared with strangers; it belongs in the home and in the marriage. The water from that cistern is not to be channeled to strangers or to the public.”10
Then we learn what is good about sex. We should find pleasure in a fulfilling marriage. The fountain of sexual delight is blessed, as it is given by God. The graceful doe is indicative “imagery for intimate love in marriage” and sexual fulfillment as it was intended.11 Now let us read this same scripture selection from a Bible written in contemporary language. Although the language is modern-day, the verbiage is rather mild, but the implication is vivid, and the message is concise.
“Do you know the saying, ‘Drink from your own rain barrel, draw water from your own spring-fed well?’ It’s true. Otherwise, you may one day come home and find your barrel empty and your well polluted.
Your spring water is for you and you only, not to be passed around among strangers. Bless your fresh-flowing fountain! Enjoy the wife you married as a young man! Lovely as an angel, beautiful as a rose—don’t ever quit taking delight in her body. Never take her love for granted! Why would you trade enduring intimacies for cheap thrills with a whore, for dalliance with a promiscuous stranger?” (Proverbs 5:15–20, TM).12
There are other commentaries on the metaphorical language of these verses. Some consider the “spring” or “fountain” as referring to the husband and the “cistern” or “rain barrel” as the vagina. Some experts suggest that “drink” refers to sexual intercourse.13 Some few others (older commentaries) say that the whole allegorical book is about the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church,14 and has nothing to do with sex. As you can see, there is varied opinion, but most point to sex.
The Bible is Filled with Sexual Innuendo
The Bible is filled with sexual innuendo. Most people read over it and do not know what it means—still, it is there, but hidden in plain sight. As one person stated, about a book on this subject, some “may use the Good Book to justify sexual conservatism, but the actual text of the Bible is anything but prudish. The book is filled with innuendo, bawdy behavior, and enough obscenities to make modern, HBO-inured adults blush.”15 Yes, it tells about real life experiences.
Of course there are stories of sin, but that is only because people have been (and still are) sinful. But there is sexual innuendo about pleasures and pleasuring, too. Most are in the book of Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon, or Canticles). This book is “unique within the Hebrew Bible: it shows no interest in Law or Covenant or the God of Israel, nor does it teach or explore wisdom like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes . . . instead, it celebrates sexual love, giving ‘the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy.’ The two are in harmony, each desiring the other and rejoicing in sexual intimacy . . . .”16
You will have to read Song of Songs, which is packed with the lovers’ erotic encounters, especially since it is rarely spoken of or studied in the Church. Just keep in mind that different versions say different things, depending upon the interpretation of the translator, which varies quite differently across the full spectrum of thought. The sample below is taken from the New Living Translation.17
The man says, “You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride, a secluded spring, a hidden fountain. Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates with rare spices—” (Song of Songs 4:12–13).
The women’s chorus says, “Oh, lover and beloved, eat and drink! Yes, drink deeply of your love!” (Song of Songs 5:1).
The woman says, “I slept, but my heart was awake, when I heard my lover knocking and calling: ‘Open to me, my treasure, my darling, my dove, my perfect one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.” Then she teases him by responding, “. . . ‘I have taken off my robe. Should I get dressed again? I have washed my feet. Should I get them soiled?’” (Song of Songs 5:2–3).
But she dallied too long, for when she finally took action, it was too late. “My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me. I jumped up to open the door for my love, and my hands dripped with lovely myrrh as I pulled back the bolt. I opened to my lover, but he was gone! My heart sank,” (Song of Songs 5:4–6).
Song of Songs is filled with such verses, including these from chapter 7 when the man says, “You are tall and supple, like the palm tree, and your full breasts are like sweet cluster of dates. I say, ‘I’m going to climb that palm tree! I’m going to caress its fruit!’ Oh yes! Your breasts will be clusters of sweet fruit to me, your breath clean and cool like fresh mint, your tongue and lips like the best wine,” (Song of Songs 7:6–9).
Some scholars studying Song of Songs believe the “Lover compares the Beloved’s virginal sexuality to a locked garden full of fruit and spices (Song of Songs 4:12–15), and the Beloved beckons him to come in . . . for a banquet (Song of Songs 4:16). Their visual feast includes descriptions of both male and female bodies (Song of Songs 4:1–5; 5:11–16; 6:4–7), incorporating each of the five senses . . . .”18
The New Testament also demonstrates that sexual pleasure is God’s gift to humankind and in marriage “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:2-4, NRSV). “In the human animal, sexual desire and activity continually exist—not just in periods of female fertility [like most other animals]. For us he made sex to be more than just the joining of two bodies for procreation. He made it so that when we join another person in sexual union, a spiritual union of sorts takes place at the same time.”19 So, we can and should satisfy the other’s sexual needs and pleasures, and enjoy this spiritual coupling all with the blessing of God.
Maybe you, or someone you know, is currently living under inaccurate ideas about sex and shame handed down by your church organization or taught by your parents, who in turn were taught those same inaccuracies by the generation before them. It is amazing how saturated Augustine’s antisex influence has been in the Church. I pray that more Christians realize that erotic love between a husband and wife (male and female) is sacred. Since husband and wife are two parts of a single unit, what they agreeably do within their union is blessed.
Copyright © 2019, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- “Augustine of Hippo,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 8 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo
- Greenblatt, Stephen, “How St. Augustine Invented Sex,” (The New Yorker, 12 June 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/19/how-st-augustine-invented-sex
- James, Frank A., “Augustine’s Sex-Life Change: From Profligate to Celibate,” (Christianity Today, 1987, issue 15).
- “Confessions (Augustine),” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 May 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessions_(Augustine)
- “Critical Essays Augustine’s View of Sexuality,” (Cliffs Notes, retrieved 11 July 2019), https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/s/st-augustines-confessions/critical-essays/augustines-view-of-sexuality
- “Augustine (354—430 C.E.),” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved 11 July 2019), https://www.iep.utm.edu/augustin/
- Pagels, Elaine, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 111-112.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, “How St. Augustine Invented Sex,” (see above).
- (a) allegory – imaginative comparison; using fiction to generalize broader human experiences
(b) metaphor – figure of speech that makes implied or hidden comparison between things; denotes a similarity
(c) euphemism – an inoffensive expression used to replace delicate ideas and substituted to get the point across
- The NET Bible, First Edition Notes, (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Proverbs 5: 15-23.
- Peterson, Eugene H., The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005).
- Bramer, Stephen J., “Drink,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), p. 188.
- Beal, Matthew, “Sexuality,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry, et al. (Eds.), (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Gordon, Bennett, “The XXX Bible,” (Utne Reader Magazine, February 2010).
- “Song of Songs,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 10 July 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_Songs
- Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation (NLT), ©2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Beal, Matthew, “Sexuality,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry, et al., (Eds.), (see above).
- Beam, Joe, “Sex and the Bible,” (Beam Research Center, retrieved 15 July 2019), http://www.joebeam.com/sexandbible.htm