People occasionally ask me whether I think some or other sex act is okay within the confines of marriage. In general, I think that what couples can get up to in the bedroom is one of the greater freedoms God grants us. Other Christians would probably consider mine a shockingly loosey-goosey attitude, but I am not oblivious to how a default liberty quickly leads into what one might call—with a hiss—license; so in the first leg of this series I’ll lay out a basic theology of sexuality. Once that’s done, I’ll hold it up in the second leg to some examples of more and less common sexual predilections, to see what we can decide.
The natural place to start in building a theology of any kind is with what the Bible explicitly says. So let’s have a look first at the prescriptions and permissions given in Scripture; then at the prohibitions.
For the sake of time, I’m presupposing the biblical view that the marriage covenant sanctifies sexual relations; given my audience it doesn’t make sense to lay groundwork we already share.
Biblical prescriptions & permissions
Curiously, aside from the obvious oblique commendation of vaginal intercourse (e.g. Genesis 2:24), Scripture is silent on what kinds of sex acts are explicitly permitted within marriage. What is clear—without prejudging what acts are permitted—is the manner in which they are to be conducted. 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 is explicit on the requirements of sexual intimacy:
- They are to be mutually entitled;
- They are to be mutually agreed upon;
- And they are to be frequent.
Paul states these requirements to ensure that Christians avoid any temptation to sexual immorality. In other words, his main moral concern is not what couples might get up to within marriage, but what might happen outside the bounds of the marriage covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9). This concern for the fidelity of the covenant itself, rather than the nature of the intimacy within it, is also reflected in Scripture’s proscriptions on sexual activity:
Just as with prescriptions and permissions, very little is directly said about what is prohibited within marriage. Only adultery, and sexual immorality more broadly, are said explicitly to defile the marriage bed (e.g. Hebrews 13:4; Matthew 5:32).
What constitutes sexual immorality in turn is implicitly defined in terms of Old Testament laws (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:1; cf. Leviticus 18:18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20), which give virtually no instructions at all about what husbands and wives may do together. Although many issues of private conduct are addressed in the Law, when it comes to sexual ethics the focus is very heavily on public unlawful relations rather than private unlawful acts. That the New Testament also commands us to avoid sexually immoral people—e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:9—reinforces that the nature of these sins is primarily public unlawful relations.
It seems noteworthy to me that Scripture is so silent on a matter of such great import to just about everyone. A cursory google will reveal that questions about permissible sex acts are on plenty of Christians’ minds today; it beggars belief that these questions would never have occurred to believers of ages past. Even given that ancient cultures were less visually sexualized than ours, it’s not as if the plethora of sexual predilections, acts, techniques and niches now regarded as more or less commonplace were all invented in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of them are straightforward instinct or common sense, and many appear in history. Ancient Mesopotamia—a culture with which the Old Testament shows remarkable fluency—was surprisingly sexually explicit; many kinds of sex acts are depicted in clay reliefs, and anal sex was commonly used as a method of contraception. Ilan Ben Zion, 4,000-year-old erotica depicts a strikingly racy ancient sexuality in Times of Israel (January 2014). The New Testament was written in a Greco-Roman cultural milieu which, though not as thoroughly debauched as many people seem to think, certainly knew significant sexual liberation.
Given the propensity for God’s people to pick up the ideas of those living around them, one would expect at least the occasional comment on any sex practices which God considered especially egregious, just as we have the more than occasional comment on religious practices which merited his disfavor. Yet the only such instructions we have are ones about unlawful relationships—prostitution, adultery, incest, homosexuality, bestiality. The repeated emphasis of Scripture is on protecting the form of the marriage covenant itself, rather than regulating what happens within that covenant.
The one exception is Leviticus 18:19, which most Christians would agree no longer applies, being part of the “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10). Life fluids generally were a key concern in ritual defilement—but cleanness laws were a shadow to point us to things to come, and are not relevant to God’s new covenant people.
Now, I hope it goes without saying that this can hardly be taken as carte blanche for doing whatever we want. The fact that the Bible doesn’t explicitly remark on a particular sexual activity doesn’t imply that it’s permissible. But since we are lacking clear biblical proscriptions (and, indeed, clear high-context cultural prohibitions), there is surely a presumption that what is permissible within a marriage is up to the spouses to decide.
How are they to go about making such decisions? Obviously one’s views and instincts are heavily conditioned by far more than the Bible. We need some kind of principles to keep our consciences anchored as we try to discern what God would have us do—and what he would not. So in the next part of this series I’ll look at how the Bible indicates we should keep ourselves anchored—and draw out specific criteria that we can judge our questions against.