Hiestand has served as president of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. He has degrees from Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and serves currently as the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park.
We live in a time when sex has become has become radically depersonalized. This is undoubtedly related to the depersonalization of the body that began with the demise of Aristotelian teleology during the dawn of modernity. (But before we fall into the customary habit of making Modernity the favorite whipping boy, it should be noted that pre-modern and medieval notions of the body weren’t fairing much better). Regardless the cause, the body is now largely viewed in the West as a “mere” material object, a possession, a tool; it is no longer viewed as extension of the person. This general depersonalized view of the body, leading in turn to a depersonalized view of sex, has been compounded by the advent of birth control and the (seeming) ability of our culture to separate sex from children. (As a side note, this hasn’t worked out. Out of wedlock births hovered right around 5 percent until 1960—which marked the advent of the pill. The percentages have risen steadily every year since 1960 so that as of 2009 over 50% of children born to mothers under the age of 30 are born out of wedlock. We thought the pill would help us separate sex from children, but all its done is separate children from marriage. It’s been a colossal disaster for our culture.)
The net effect is that sex has become in our age primarily a past time, a hobby. It is viewed primarily as a recreational activity that two people (or more, in some cases) engage in — just one of the many recreational options available to us. A favorite for some perhaps, and rather low on the list for others; but the extent to which it is valued by our culture as an activity among other activities is only a difference of degree, not of kind.
And even many Christians have bought into this recreational view of sex. We mark our difference from the world not by offering an alternative understanding of the ontology of sex, but merely its context. In other words, we think our notions of sex are distinct from the world simply because we insist that this particular form of recreation be set within the context of the marriage relationship. But fundamentally, we still tend to view sex primarily as a form of recreation. A divinely given one, perhaps. A unique and special one for married couples, perhaps. But still primarily a form of recreation, even if sanctified.
The one exception is perhaps when we view sex as a means of procreation. But realistically, this accounts for very little of our overall perspective on marital intimacy. In the majority of instances that Christians engage in marital sex, they are very much trying not to have children (this is true even of those who practice NFP, and are, on the whole, “open to life”).
But this is not the Scripture’s notion of sex. Sex is not fundamentally a means of recreation, but a means of personal communion. It is more akin to a conversation than an activity. It is an exchange of selves that witnesses to the life-giving communion between Christ and the Church. And what makes it such, is the way the Scriptures tie together the body and the person.
In Romans 12:1, Paul instructs the believer to “offer your bodies” as a living sacrifice. The metaphor employed by Paul harkens to the Levitical sacrifices, when a man would present his offering at the altar as a gift to the Lord. And it is worth observing here that Paul certainly intends the offering of our bodies to be an offering of ourselves. As Augustine writes, “And this also is the sacrifice of the church celebrated in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God” (City of God, X.6). The gift—in this case, the body—contains and communicates the giver, or it is really no gift at all. God does not want us to offer our bodies, as something distinct from our person. He wants us to offer our bodies as an expression of our selves.
We know this is true, because of the way Christ offers his own body to us. In the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus clearly personalizes his body. “I am the bread of life” and “the bread that I give is my flesh”; and again “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” To eat the bread is to eat his body, which is to eat him. All of which is to posit a deep personal connection between the person of Christ and the body of Christ. (As John Paul II has said, we don’t just have a body, we are a body.) Thus in giving us his body, Christ gives us himself.
The very material reality of the gospel is that we give ourselves to Christ through the offering of our bodies to him as a sacrifice, and he gives himself to us through the offering of his body to us as a sacrifice. We do not render to Christ a disembodied obedience, and he does not grace us with a disembodied love. And most fundamentally, it is in the free, mutual, and sacrificial exchange of our bodies that we give ourselves—our very persons—to each other—Christ to us, and we to him. Thus the body is, for every human being, the incarnation of the person, and the means by which we express love and fidelity.
In as much as the body was created by God to serve as the means by which we offer ourselves to the other, sex is not fundamentally a form of recreation—a mere pastime among pastimes—but is most fundamentally an exchange and communion of persons. It is, as John Paul II puts it, the “gift of self to the other.” In as much as the body is indeed the means by which we communicate our person, there is no other deeper form of personal intimacy than that of sexual intimacy. Considered in the ideal, the bodies of the husband and wife come together in form of loving communion so profound that their love is itself manifested in the creation of a third distinct body—a third person. The child is the living incarnation of the loving communion that exists between the husband and wife, and the visible manifestation of their “one flesh” relationship. (We are reminded here of the Edwardsian, Augustinian and Thomistic notion that the Holy Spirit is the personification of Love that exists between the Father and the Son).
This is not to say, of course, that every act of sex produces a child, or that every act of procreation is filled with intimacy. But it is to say that sex, when considered in an ideal state, presents us with a picture of profound personal communion that has potential to be creative, to actually produce the imago dei. No other form of bodily communion can come close to achieving this.
It is this mutual exchange and communion of persons via our bodies on a human level that offers us a picture of the mutual exchange of persons on a heavenly level. Or again, the profound personal/relational communion that occurs when a husband and wife come together bodily is a picture of the even more profound personal/relational communion that takes place when Christ and the church come together spiritually. As the Apostle Paul informs us, the “one flesh” union of the husband and wife, “refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:29).
So in sum, the bodily/sexual union within marriage is meant to convey the deeper personal union of the husband and wife, which in turn is meant to convey the even deeper personal union of Christ and the Church. To divorce bodily union from personal union, or personal union from it’s typological telos of Christ and the Church, is to embrace a reductionist view of sex that can never satisfy.
All of which is to say, Christian sexuality re-personalizes the body in the face of a culture that has made a radical attempt to depersonalize it.
First published on the “The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology” website on July 21, 2012. Reprint by permission.
The Worldview Church staff recommends “Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach”