Sexuality – Inside and Outside of Marriage: A Christian Counseling Perspective

Sexuality: Inside and Outside of Marriage

With very rare exceptions, all animals[1] engage in sexual relations.  Human beings are not one of the exceptions.  However, human sexual relations differ from those of their fellow animals in one very significant way; human sexual relations have a moral component.  Unlike other animals, human beings are made in the image of God.  Thus, while it can be biologically correct to refer to humans as “animals,” it is spiritually short-sighted.  Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes or fully considers this delineation between animals and humans.  For this reason, the moral element of human sexual relations can be overlooked or ignored.  Additionally, moral prohibitions of sexual behavior can also be flouted by people who neither overlook nor ignore the inherent moral elements of human sexual relations.  Such people just choose to sin knowingly, willingly, and often-times unrepentantly. This is due to the fallen state of humanity, about which the word of God teaches.

It is also the word of God that informs mankind about sexual morality.  God’s standards for all human interaction, including sexual interaction, are contained in Holy Scripture.  Scripture clearly teaches that sexual intercourse is only acceptable within the bonds of marriage.  However, due to the fallen nature of humanity, scriptural prescriptions and proscriptions regarding sexual interaction are not always followed; even among professing Christians.  Sexual sin outside of marriage is an affront to the very image of God in man.  This is a matter that requires counseling in and of itself.  The word of God is the proper basis for this type of counseling.  Although sexual interaction within the bonds of marriage is certainly not sinful or an affront to the image of God in man (quite the opposite, in fact), it, too, is a matter which sometimes requires counseling.  This type of counseling is not necessarily of a moral nature, but of a practical nature.  While the Bible provides us with examples of healthy sexual expression, it is certainly not a how-to manual specifically instructing readers how to have enjoyable, mutually edifying sex in the marriage bed.  Therefore, scientific and psychological resources may be more practical aids in counseling married couples who encounter sexual difficulties.

Sex Outside of Marriage

 As Western culture has progressed,[2] sexual intercourse outside of marriage has become less and less of a taboo practice.  This trend is not limited to Western society. Even in historically prudish societies like China, public talk of a sexual nature is becoming more common.[3]  This is happening despite the growing Christian influence in China, which is home to the largest number of Christians of any country on Earth.  Could it be that the influence of the contemporary church has little to do with the way in which society views sex outside of marriage?  It’s certainly no secret that the Christian Church has become less influential in Western Society within the past decades.[4]  Is it fair to credit the mainstream acceptance of sexual intercourse outside of marriage to the waning influence of the church?  The truth is, engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage is common for Christians and non-Christians alike.  On the surface, this seems like an inane statement.  After all, everyone sins, Christians included.  (Christians are by no means perfect moral agents.)  However, it isn’t necessarily the acts of sexual sin among Christians that should cause Christian counselors and other church leaders alarm.  It’s not just that Christians sin sexually outside of marriage; it’s that many Christians just seem to be okay with it.  It’s not a matter of sinning and repenting, it’s a matter of sinning and ignoring the sin. 

This reality may be the sad result of pragmatism and economics winning out over sound theology and faithful biblical exposition in the church.  Boys will be boys, kids will be kids.  It’s certainly not unreasonable to expect hormonal teenagers to engage in sexual behavior.  Knowing this, some youth and education pastors choose to teach teenagers about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, the inconvenience of unwanted pregnancies, and the unreliability of various birth control methods.  Teaching such as this, while not false, ignores the plain biblical fact that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is sinful and, at the very least, sends a mixed message.  As Richard Land put it, “teaching kids about contraception in…church is like saying, listen, we want you to wait until you’re married, but we don’t expect you to listen to us, so here’s how to use a condom.”[5]   The message is, “Don’t have sex, something bad might happen to you,” instead of “Don’t sin; fornication is a sin.”  Sex education that isn’t founded in Christian spirituality is just sex education akin to that which is taught by secular authorities.  Young people need to be discipled in Christ and taught the scriptures, not taught just to fear worldly consequences. 

It is worldly consequences that prevent church leaders from addressing the pervasive sin among the single adult population, especially among unmarried Christian couples.  Turning a blind eye towards sexual sin amongst Christian singles may result in steadier attendance numbers and tithe revenues.  After all, offended parishioners don’t leave the church in droves and take their checkbooks with them.  Cutting sinners to the quick through polemic preaching may result in repentance, but it may also result in rebellion.  A pragmatic approach is to challenge the sin of “society” and let sexual sin end by attrition.  As Christian singles marry, they can no longer fornicate; they can no longer be involved in cohabitation.  However, ignoring sexual sin amongst Christian singles results in a group that is never discipled in regards to living a sexually pure Christian lifestyle.  This, in turn, devastates future marriages.

Devastated marriages result in divorce, adultery, or both.  These things devastate the church and society as a whole.  The physical act of adultery is essentially sexual intercourse outside of marriage.  Although some marriages survive infidelity, many do not.   Divorces result in a biblically unsound family model that looks nothing like the one the Apostle Paul advocates in Ephesians 5 and 6.  Even those persons who do not engage in adultery may be sexually dysfunctional (in the spiritual sense) as a result of engaging in sexual activity with their spouse (or someone else[6]) before marriage.  If sexual intercourse outside of marriage is not viewed as a special part of the matrimonial bond, sex inside of marriage may be similarly viewed.  In fact, the matrimonial bond may not be viewed as especially sacred at all.  A bond viewed in such a way is a prime candidate for divorce or dysfunction.  Clearly sexual intercourse outside of marriage is a damaging phenomenon that calls for the application of sound scriptural insight and counseling.

Sex Outside of Marriage: Scriptural Insights

It can be clearly seen that the failure to disciple young Christians in spiritual and scriptural manner about sexual intercourse creates a dangerous chain of causality that eventually ends in divorce and/or sexual dysfunction.  It is essential for church leaders and Christian counselors to teach a frank, scriptural view of sex outside of marriage.  Sex education and Christian counseling about sex must be steeped in scripture and the idea that Christians are called to live Holy lives.

Under the Old Testament law, sexual activity was highly and specifically regulated; engaging in a sexually prohibited act could result in the death penalty.  While man is no longer under the Old Testament civil law and subject to such specific worldly punishment, the Old Testament ethos of sexual regulation must still be considered.  There appears to have been a clear reason behind the regulation and punishment of sexual activity; such activity affects not only the individual but society as a whole. “Leviticus 18 sets forth the most complete treatment of biblical sexual ethics in the Bible. In contrast to the contemporary view of sex as a personal, private matter, Leviticus 18 affirms two major themes regarding biblical sexuality: discipleship and witness.”[7]  These themes are echoed in New Testament teaching about sex.

As disciples of Christ and witnesses to the world for Him, Christians must be cognizant of what they do with their bodies.  Referring to sexual sin, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”[8]  This of course is talking about the sexual act, but what about the sexual thought?  The sexual thought is really the impetus behind all sexual sin.  Jesus said, “…the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.  For out of the heart…adulteries, fornications…These are the things which defile the man.”[9]  Thus, the bible teaches that sexual sin is a heart issue that affects one’s own body as well as one’s own relationships with God and society.  These are the teachings Christian counselors must base their counsel on when they engage with counselees who are suffering from sexual sins.

Addressing Sex Outside of Marriage

A rejection of sexual sin is essentially a rejection of the sinful self; the sinful heart of man which is “more deceitful than all else and desperately sick”[10].  On a grander scale, the rejection of the sinful self is the driving act in salvation.[11] The rejection of sinful self allows one to be reconciled with God.  This is the ethic which underlies the Reconciliation-Focused Counseling (RFC) approach advocated by Argile Smith and Asa Sphar.  Promoting the Ministry of Reconciliation is the driving principle of the RFC approach.[12]  The RFC approach rightly recognizes the fall of man as the foundational factor of all human discord. 

The effect of the fall extends from the individual to the world and society as a whole.  It is the whole world that is fallen.  Because of this, it can be tempting for the biblical counselor to focus on external, societal causes of sexual intercourse outside of marriage.  These causes include sexual convenience, liberal values, inappropriate education, and globalization.[13]  However, it’s not society that walks into a counselor’s or pastor’s office for guidance, it’s an individual person.  Thus, it is the internal causes of sexual intercourse apart from marriage that must be considered.  These include curiosity, uncontrolled fantasy, the search for identify and self esteem, the search for intimacy and closeness, escape or rebellion, distorted thinking, and satanic influence.[14]  The Bible is a wholly adequate resource for addressing each of these internal causes.  Intimacy and closeness that is much greater than of sexual contact with other people can be found in communion with the Holy Spirit.  Distorted thinking is a result of the fall.[15]  The fall itself was precipitated by satanic influence[16] and Satan still strives to attack Christians today[17], sometimes by exploiting curiosity.  All of this can be avoided through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Quite simply, counselees must heed Paul’s simple command, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”[18]  Identity and self-esteem are not to found through sexual encounters but in a relationship with Jesus Christ, who loved the church so much, that he gave himself up for it.[19]  Christian counselors should faithfully present these truths rather than focus on external, societal influences.  Extra-biblical psychological literature (even written from a Christian perspective), can present the truth that society can be a negative influence; however, external influences just aren’t relevant.   After all, Christians are called to set themselves apart from the world and be something different.[20] 

Of course, counselors should not discount psychological factors all together.  Consider the (hypothetical case) of a young woman whose father largely neglected her.  She may seek to find the male contact she desires by enticing men to spend time with her through sexual activity.  Consider the (hypothetical) case of a young woman who has been sexually abused by an authority figure.  She may engage in promiscuous sex because she has been conditioned to believe that her worth is based in being a sexual object.  Consider the (hypothetical) case of a male who suffers from a violent personality disorder that causes him to desire to dominate women sexually.  (Even a non-violent personality disorder such as Histrionic Personality Disorder could cause a counselee to view people as sexual objects.)  Whatever the psychological diagnosis, people must understand that they themselves are not sexual objects and that they are not to view others as such.  Again, this must be addressed biblically.  Still, a counselor must be vigilant to recognize his limitations and be prepared to refer patients to psychiatrists and other medical professionals as necessary, especially out of deference for the safety of others.

Sexual Issues in the Marriage Bed: Problems, Insights, and Recommendations

“From God’s perspective, the only proper place for sexual intercourse is within the context of a mutual, life-long commitment of a man and a woman in the form of marriage.”[21]

This statement is effectively the beginning and end when it comes to counseling people involved in sexual intercourse outside of marriage.  Counseling married people in regards to sexual issues is more complicated.  Outside the marriage bed, counseling to those involved in sexual intercourse can be easily steeped in the biblical texts that deal directly with the moral component of sexual activity.  Inside the marriage bed, these same biblical texts may just not apply.  There may not be a moral issue at all.  The issue could be physiological, inter-gender relational, educational (in regards to simple sexual ignorance), emotional, or related to sexual expectations.

There certainly could be moral sexual issues involved in marriage counseling which the bible could speak to from an authoritative basis.  It’s just that these issues are few and far between.  Concerning sexual intercourse in relation to marriage, the bible is very clear:  Do not withhold sex from one-another,[22] do not commit adultery (in act or in thought)[23], and do not go through with an unjust divorce[24] which God would hate.[25]  (While understanding that there may be a number of deep-seated problems which underlie such activity) Counseling along these lines can be very straight-forward and simple.  The counseling style of Richard Brown, Education and Church Growth Pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cartersville, GA is an example.  Before Richard marries a couple, he meets with them to counsel them on their upcoming marriage.  His first piece of counsel is this, “Divorce is not an option.”[26] This is a plain, direct moral teaching from scripture.  Certainly, when couples face sexual difficulty, divorce could come to mind.  So could adultery.  Teaching sexually frustrated couples that these aren’t biblically appropriate options should be counseling point #1.  But what about committed couples who aren’t tempted by divorce or adultery and who are not out-rightly withholding sex from one another?  Scripture references might not be the best tool to work through their sexual problems.

Where physiological problem cause sexual marriage difficulties, a counselor who is not a licensed physician may be unable to offer little more in the way of professional help than a possible identification of the condition and a referral.  Physiological problems can, of course, be worked through with prayer.  No matter what the situation or the counselors credentials, prayer can and should be offered.  This must not be overlooked.  Other than offering prayer, a counselor can remind the physically un-afflicted spouse that he or she has pledged to his or her spouse in sickness and in health; in a healthy marriage, the burdens of a sick spouse are borne by his or her partner.

More common than physiological problems are inter-gender issues.  As relationship counselor John Gray put it, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”  His book, by that title, sold more than 50 million copies and was the highest ranked of nonfiction of the 90s.[27]  It’s an understatement, but men and women are clearly different in the way they approach to and understand relationships.  They are so different, that Gray likened them two beings from different planets.  One of the issues they approach differently is sexual activity as it relates to affection.  For women, “Affection is the cement of the relationship…affection symbolizes security, protection, comfort, and approval.”[28]  Wives are sexually stimulated by affection from their husband.   Husbands are sexually stimulated much more simply.  Just looking at one’s wife can sexually stimulate a husband.  His need for sex is deeply physiological.  It is here where communication lines get crossed.  “The typical wife doesn’t understand her husband’s deep need for sex any more than a typical husband understands his wife’s deep need for affection.”[29]  Because talk of a sexual nature is taboo at many churches, many couples go into marriage unaware and unprepared for this reality.

This is where education comes into play.  A counselor should be familiar with and ready to recommend literature written from a Christian Worldview that educates couples about how to healthily meet one another’s sexual needs.  The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman and His Needs, Her Needs by Willard F. Hartley are such books that are highly recommended among Christians.[30]  Another resource counselors should familiarize themselves with are local Sunday School classes which focus on engaged or newly married couples who are certain to encounter inter-gender issues in the near future.  These “Newly-and Nearly-Wed” classes lead couples through studies such as Tommy Nelson’s Song of Solomon: God’s Best for Love Marriage, Sex, and Romance.  The Song of Solomon is perhaps the one Biblical book that deals with sexual relations between man and wife in a frank and graphic manner.  It’s also a book that is very rarely taught in church, even amongst expository preachers who like to systematically preach their way through the Bible.

Where couples have trouble getting along with one another, sexual issues caused by emotional problems come into play.  Marriage can be full of love but also rife with conflict.  People like to joke about and look forward to “make up sex,” but sex shouldn’t be thought of as a tool for covering over aggression.  Sex is a means of expressing love.  Where love is operating effectively, the need to make up is a rarity.  This is not to say that it’s abnormal, immoral, or unloving to disagree.  Disagreements will happen even in the healthiest marriages.  When disagreements turn from the issue at hand to personal attacks against one’s spouse, all the make-up sex in the world may not be able to cover over the damage done.  It can be hard for one to engage in an act as intimate as sex with a spouse when he or she does not feel valued or respected by that individual.  Thus, it’s important to disagree respectfully and essentially “fight fair.”  One way for spouses to fight fair is to judge and tackle a disagreement as a team.  This is fundamentally different that judging and tackling the character of one’s spouse.  Attacking the very personality or character of one’s spouse does not send the message, “You are a person that I want to have sex with.”  The message is quite the opposite.  Couples who engage in unhealthy argumentation are prime candidates for emotional problems.  Again, a counselor should be ready to recommend books written from a Christian perspective such as Fight Fair: Winning at Conflict Without Losing at Love by Tim and Joy Downs and The 10 Commandments of Marriage: the Do’s and Don’ts for a Lifelong Covenant by Ed Young.

Differing sexual expectations between spouses regarding intercourse itself also may cause sexual problems between spouses.  Differing expectations could be related to the frequency of intercourse, the length of intercourse, the nature of foreplay (oral and/or manual) sexual stimulation, and sexual position.[31]  These are matters of personal preference.  Navigating this area of counseling is perhaps one of the most difficult areas for the counselor.  Specific recommendations and advice may just not be plausible. In a perfect world, a married couple would be able to explore and experience the different aspects of sexual relationship together starting from a point of mutual virginity.  Thus, sexual preferences could be developed together.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case in real life.  Complicating matters is the expectations individuals may have developed from reading books, watching movies & television, or being exposed to pornography.   Mutual respect, love, and admiration are an essential part of marriage.  This is the message the counselor must drive home to counselees who are experiencing sexual problems due to differing expectations.  Spouses are not to be treated like pornographic actors or characters in a work of fiction.  The first limitation of sexual activity is what is biblically permissible.  The second is that with which one’s spouse is comfortable.  

General Principles Regarding Sexual Counseling

No matter the nature of sexual counseling (inside or outside of marriages); it is important to stick to two fundamental truths: (1) Sexual intercourse is only permissible within marriage and (2) sexual desire is a perfectly normal and healthy part of human life.  No counselee should ever be encouraged to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage and no counselee should ever be made to feel ashamed for having sexual desires or sexual problems.  Honest, open talk about sexuality should be encouraged and a biblically faithful sexual ethic should be taught. A sexually pure single life should lead to a sexually healthy marriage.  There will always be awkward moments and a learning curve when two sexually inexperienced people enter a marriage.  This is normal.  This is healthy.  In a healthy, biblically modeled marriage, love and mutual respect should more than make up for any kind of sexual problem experienced.  Sex is a gift from God and it can be received with joy.

Works Cited

Associated Press. (2006, November 7). Vatican decries waning influence of Christian values in Western society. Retrieved November 21, 2012, from USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2006-11-07-vatican_x.htm

Chapman, G. (2009). The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Northfield Publishing.

Collins, G. R. (2007). Christian Counseling. Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Hartley, W. (2204). His Needs, Her Needs. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell.

Hazelton, S. (n.d.). Effects of Absent Fathers on Daughters in Relationships. Retrieved November 21, 2012, from Ehow: http://www.ehow.com/info_10053400_effects-absent-fathers-daughters-relationships.html

Lyons, T. &. (2003). Fight Fair: Winning at Conflict Without Losing at Love. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

Martin, R. (2007, March 13). Church Tries Its Hand at Sex Education. Retrieved November 21, 2012, from NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7867316

Meeker, M. (2007). Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know. Random House.

Nelson, T. (2007). Song of Solomon: God’s Best for Love Marriage and Sex. Plano, TX: Hudson Productions.

Rathel, M. A. (2010, May 17). The Sanctity of Sex. Retrieved November 21, 2012, from Florida Baptist Witness: http://www.gofbw.com/News.asp?id=11700

Reuters. (2012, November 19). After long night, Chinese sex toys see new dawn. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/20/us-china-sex-toys-idUSBRE8AJ03N20121120

Sphar III, A. R. (2003). Helping Hurting People: A Handbook on Reconciliation-Focused Counseling and Preaching. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of American, Inc.

Stark, C. a. (2004). Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prositution and Pornopgrahy. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Wikipedia contributors . (2012, October 2). Histrionic personality disorder . Retrieved November 21, 2012, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. : http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Histrionic_personality_disorder&oldid=515652409

Wikipedia contributors. (2012, November 21). Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venu. Retrieved November 22, 2012, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. : http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Men_Are_from_Mars,_Women_Are_from_Venus&oldid=524251877

Young, E. (2003). The 10 Commandments of Marriag: The Do’s and Don’ts of a Lifelong Covenant. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers.


[1] To use this language is not to imply that humans are not a special creation, made in God’s image.

[2] I am strictly speaking in temporal terms.

[3]  (Reuters, 2012)

[4]  (Associated Press, 2006)

[5]  (Rathel, 2010)

[6] Which includes watching other people engage in sexual activity on the internet

[7]  (Rathel, 2010)

[8] 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

[9] Matthew 15:18-20

[10] Jeremiah 17:9

[11] Mark 1:15

[12] (Sphar III, 2003) p. 41

[13] (Collins, 2007) p.345

[14] ibid

[15] Romans 1:24

[16] Genesis 3:1

[17] 1 Peter 5:8

[18] Galatians 5:16

[19] Ephesians 5:25

[20] Romans 12:2

[21]  (Collins, 2007) p. 353

[22] 1 Corinthians 7:5

[23] Matthew 5:27-28

[24] Matthew 19:9

[25] Malachi 2:16

[26] I’m my own resource on this.  Richard performed my wedding ceremony.

[27]  (Wikipedia contributors, 2012)

[28]  (Hartley, 2204) p. 38

[29] Ibid p. 49

[30] The Five Love Languages is highly recommended by me!

[31]  (Collins, 2007) p. 364

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2 thoughts on “Sexuality – Inside and Outside of Marriage: A Christian Counseling Perspective

  1. steve

    I love your approach but this does not cover sexuality in general if I have sexual desire etc then according to some’s view in the subject every time I am aroused I am sinning.. That is what prompted me to look up sexuality to began with and I am not finding any answers I guess I just need to pray even more..

    Reply

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