We live in a culture that believes pleasure is the primary, and often times only, purpose for sex. Chapters 4 and 5 of Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality by Todd A. Wilson say that the Bible teaches otherwise. You might roll your eyes at “the Bible” teaching you about what you should or shouldn’t do sexually. Before you make this judgment, pause and ask if our culture’s “do what pleases you” mindset for sex has created fruitful outcomes for individuals, children, and culture at large or not.
Chapter 4 of Mere Sexuality shows how a new understanding of marriage has become normative in American society. Wilson calls it a “companionate” view of marriage, where marriage is primarily about companionship–a deep, intimate, lasting relationship with another person. The commitment you make to this other person is based on an intense emotional connection you share. Wilson argues that this is the dominant view of marriage within our culture among Christians and non-Christians alike.
In contrast to the companionate view, Wilson points us to Genesis 2:24 as the biblical blueprint for marriage. “One flesh” is a comprehensive union that joins two people together mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and bodily. Wilson makes the point that this bodily uniting, sexual intercourse, can physically only happen between a man and a woman, just as Genesis 2:24 describes. I’d add to this a point the Apostle Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6:16, that “one flesh” happens when intercourse happens, not when a wedding ceremony happens. This shows us the biblical design that sex was never designed to be experienced before marriage, something Wilson later unpacks.
Wilson gives two very helpful characteristics of the comprehensive union of “one flesh” marriage that you don’t find in culture’s “companionate” view of marriage. The first is exclusivity. You see this most pronounced in the traditional wedding vows, where we “forsake all others and keep ourselves unto this one only.” The “one flesh” uniting of bodies can only happen with two people, not three, four, or more. Wilson contrasts this type of relationship with all of the rest of the relationships we have, using friendships as one example. This relationship, the “one flesh” relationship, is set apart from friendship because you share many things with a friend, but not your body. The sharing and uniting of bodies is only meant for marriage.
The second characteristic of “one flesh” marriage is permanence. A man leaves his father and mother and unites to his wife, “till death do us part.” Jesus says, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). Today 60% of first time marriages begin with cohabitation (let alone those who never marry). Wilson quotes Sam Allberry on this, “Sexuality is a little like a post-it note. And the more that union is forged and then broken, the more our capacity for deep and abiding unity is diminished.” Wilson points out that the proposed solution of cohabitation if making the problem worse because it is attempting a comprehensive union while removing an essential characteristic–permanence. So when the couple gets married and attempts to have permanence, they are already conditioned to a sex life without it.
Permanence and exclusivity also mark Jesus’ commitment to us, his bride the Church, which we see in Ephesians 5:31-32. His is the ultimate marriage that all human marriages are meant to symbolize.
Chapter 5 is where Wilson challenges culture’s value on pleasure being the primary purpose of sex. Whether you agree to this or not as an individual, you have to admit this is true for our culture at large. Wilson points out “this purpose is very oriented to the individual. It focuses on what sex does for us–what we get out of it–and has little to do with the joining of two lives in a one-flesh union.” He goes on to talk about how the creation of babies has been completely removed from our cultural understanding of one of the purposes of marriage, and the ramifications of such a conclusion. He quotes a Vanity Fair article about Tinder and how people are gorging on casual sex with strangers, how this is happening at younger and younger ages, and how socially acceptable this has become.
God made sex as a blessing (Genesis 1:28). “At the heart of a biblical vision of sex is the bold affirmation that sex is a blessing. In our culture, sex may be viewed as a blessing because it feels good. But in the biblical vision, sex is a blessing not because of the pleasure it brings but because of the purpose it serves: to unite lives and to create life. (Wilson, 97)”
Wilson makes some great points about how children are now a “mistake” in our culture, and how you see this in society at large with abortion and with so many kids having to grow up without their mom and dad in the same home. “When sex is simply a means for our personal pleasure, we see children as a problem, an inconvenience. Children are a ‘mistake’ as we pursue our own agenda of pleasing ourselves. (Wilson, 99)”
He never says pleasure isn’t a part of the purpose of sex, but points out how pleasure and sexual gratification have become our god. This god has become our slave master–a demanding and unforgiving one that controls and destroys lives and relationships. (Wilson, 99)
I saved the best for last, in my opinion, and that is Wilson’s point that one of the primary purposes of sex is to unite lives. In our culture that is obsessed with pleasure, sex becomes about body parts, not about people. One of my main purposes in Beyond the Battle is to teach men how to retrain their brains, hearts, and eyes to see all women with the dignity of being complex humans, rather than as objects to consume. Wilson’s point about marriage being meant to unite lives adds a very helpful layer to this for married men. If your basis for sex is pleasure and body parts, what happens when your wife’s body changes over time? If sex is meant for pleasure only, you will lose interest and start looking elsewhere. But if sex is about uniting lives, then the physical appearance of your spouse becomes less and less relevant, as you are uniting yourself to them. That meaning all of them. Sex is the act that keeps your entire relationship and personhood united, and vice versa, it is the physical expression of that fully united relationship. The experience of marital sex is a celebration of the union of two whole people in an exclusive, permanent relationship. This is so much bigger and deeper than simple physical gratification. This reframe back to God’s design gives us much to celebrate in our marriages, and a new way of viewing all men and women for both singles and married, not as objects to be consumed, but as whole people designed on purpose by God.
If you are in the Flip Side Book Club, please answer two of the following questions in the blog comments below:
- What are the differences between the “companionate” view of marriage and the “one flesh” view?
- What does the Bible’s blueprint for “one flesh” sex-within-marriage have to say about the question of premarital sex?
- In light of Wilson’s points and the Scriptures he references, how should the biblical Church teach on divorce today?
- At the bottom of p.84, Wilson says that “there is nothing inherent in a companionate view of marriage that requires monogamous exclusivity.” See paragraph for full context. Do you buy his argument here? Argue for or against it.
- At the top of p.90, Wilson says “We need to see that the one-flesh union between a man and a woman is rooted not just in biology but in God’s redemptive plan for all of human history.” What does he mean here?