I can never watch when the bride kisses the groom.
As the climax of the wedding ceremony, it should be a moment of rapt attention, even fawning. But I inevitably end up staring at my shoes with cheeks gone warm. I’m not a prude if that’s what you’re thinking. Perhaps I just feel the weight of what the kiss represents, that coming consummation, and find it not mine to share in. Get a room, you two.
I recognize that I’m the foolish one here. Of course sex is intensely personal. But we can’t escape that it is just as intensely social. However, as Christians, we should never blithely accept that an is legitimates an ought. How should we respond to the social nature of sexuality, as a community that is ostensibly different from the world on this point?
Specifically, what should we do with that pungent aspect of the social side of sex: reputation?
Reputation is powerfully packed in names. Notice how I defended myself quickly in paragraph one: I’m not a prude. To be one is laughable, shameful. Any of us who went to public school are well acquainted with the opposites of prude. I won’t name them here, but they cut quick, like a sucker punch. Especially if you’re a woman.
If you’re a man, of course, we valorize your promiscuity. “Locker room talk” makes someone a hero in certain circles. I can’t help but wonder if sexual conquests play like fishing stories, growing with time. Women have gotten in on this course of action as well, attempting to be “sex-positive” in backlash to the excessive shaming they’ve received.
Some of the most destructive forms of reputation surround same-sex sexuality. I was never mistreated for dating girls, but I grew up under the rain of “that’s so gay.” I’ve heard from brothers who were targeted with gay epithets, sometimes coupled with fists. Some of these men weren’t even gay—but attackers who traffick in reputations don’t always care about the truth.
Our reputations don’t simply crop up in contemptuous relationships—they affect our daily lives. Even when our reputations are rooted in the truth, it’s often a truth wielded for pain. Is the proper response of the church to fight it? To demand that sex stay private, none of your business thank you very much?
For individualistic Westerners, this can hold intuitive logic for us. This is between me and my partner, or me and my computer, or me and my God. Everyone else can stay out. It plays well for Christian ears as we know that gossip should have no hold in the church, even when it comes in the form of “prayer requests.” And sticking closely to privacy could combat the shaming and blaming that flow from these sexual reputations. We sense too that prurience is not befitting the call to walk worthy of Christ, in response to the grace we’ve been given.
But what if complete privacy isn’t the full Christian answer? What if what God calls us to is grace-filled truth-telling—having a sexual reputation of holiness? This kind of sexual reputation as Christians serves both the world and the church.
Serving the World
God has a beautiful vision for the gifts of our bodies and for the gift of sexual expression. How will the watching world know unless they are told, unless they see the truthful fruit of that in us who are united to Christ?
I want to be clear that I’m not using “told” as a stand-in for “wag your finger and talk down.” That posture wins exactly no one and plays into the shame-and-blame of worldly reputation. The woman of the city, who was a sinner, felt not only safe to come into the presence of Jesus, but also felt able to worship him with abandon in front of self-righteous religious folk, knowing that Jesus knew entirely what she had done. No, I don’t mean told as combative, but I do mean told as provocative.
Consider this passage:
“For the time that passes suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” 1 Peter 4:3–5
Maybe not our first choice passage to stitch on a pillow, but instructive nonetheless. The passage assumes the culture around these first century believers was raucous, something many of us feel in our own time today. And notably, it involves gaining some sexual reputation: they begin to know what we won’t do with our bodies.
This passage is in the same letter that commands, “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Yes, the text in 1 Peter 4 recognizes that some who malign us for our fight for sexual holiness will eventually face judgment—just as we all will. This reality should break our hearts. And yet couldn’t this sexual reputation of ours also drive the watching world to ask us where we get this hope that we will be pronounced, unthinkably, not guilty?
This becomes most likely when we are realistic about sex. We don’t denigrate it, saying “Oh sex is no big deal, so sure I can give it up for Jesus.” No, we recognize that God created sex as a very good gift, and say, “Sex is very good, and I can only say no to doing it in my own way because I’m saying an even bigger yes to something even more delightful: Jesus himself.” This is a stronger testimony to his worth.
Is it possible to wield our sexual reputations like this for our neighbors? For those of us who have often failed, to be able to speak of forgiveness and the power of the Spirit in the midst? For those of us who have mostly experienced victory, to be able to embrace God’s goodness in it, and not feed self-righteousness? All of us need the death of Jesus to cover our sin, whether on a human scale those sins are large or small.
In my own life, speaking about how Jesus became my present and future in a way that de-centered my same-sex attraction has been a stimulating way to engage all kinds of people with the gospel. They are surprised that we experience it as good news. It doesn’t match the world’s counter messaging that sex and romance will save us.
Serving the Church
The church is having good conversations about how the “purity culture” of the recent past wasn’t as healthy as advertised. Some people might react that sexual purity in itself is to blame: it’s unrealistic, or repressive. But true holiness is never the problem, otherwise God wouldn’t command us to be holy as he is holy. Instead, the problem is us. We are broken and sinful. When we do well in something, we puff up with pride—even in the church. When we do something poorly, we hang our heads in despair, or cover it up, or run away—even in the church.
Can we wield a truth-telling sexual reputation inside the church that gets us out of this crazy cycle?
The truth is that God made us in his image, male and female, very good. That he created sexual union as a good thing. But we also rejected him, and we now all experience and express our sexuality in ways that fall short of God’s design. The truth is that Jesus came to save us—that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. He didn’t die for us to trudge into an obedient line. He died that we could rejoice in him, because our sins are wiped away and we’re brought into a new family.
The Apostle John pastors us well in his first letter:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” 1 John 1:8–2:6
What if we approached sexuality with this kind of pastoral honesty? That our goal is a love-fueled obedience, and that we need both grace and truth along the way for when we mess up. What if we were able in our small groups to share how God’s Spirit has intersected sexuality for each of us? To not betray each other’s vulnerability, but learn from it and grow? Never bragging over success, or taking refuge in it instead of in Christ. Never bragging over sin, but never dismaying either. We have an advocate. No reputation of failure can harm us, nor can any reputation of success add to his work.
Perhaps a holy, truthful sexual reputation will open up gospel doors we’ve never had the eyes to see.
Cover image by Jen Palmer.