A proposal: sex before marriage as a Christian is not sinful.
Okay, after that dramatic statement, let’s segue directly into a disclaimer : I am not trying to make any moral or truth claims. I, like every other person on this planet, am not qualified to make such claims. Another thing I am not trying to do is tell anyone how, when, or whether or not they should or should not be having sex. It is not my intention to place any kind of judgement on the decisions made by individuals. I have not studied this subject nearly as much as I would like to, nor as much as I intend to, so bear with me as I attempt to explain how I have come to hold certain beliefs.
These are beliefs that I am trying to hold lightly.
Because I could be wrong. But I don’t think that I am.
So, I’ve spent the past few years reading on and around the topic of sex within the Christian worldview. This post will be the first of a series in which I summarise and discuss what I have learnt regarding pre-marital sexy-time. As I write each post, I will be continuing my readings and will link resources below, but if anyone has any recommendations of material, please let me know.
Let’s start at the start.
This all begins with me, twelve years old, sweat prickling my neck and spine as I typed “why is sex before marriage wrong” into the internet browser on my parents computer, ears straining for the sound of approaching feet in the hallway.
The results of this search consisted primarily of blogs written by married Christian women, or by a married couple, explaining how wonderfully fulfilled they were in their marital sex life. They might talk about some struggles they had encountered, or struggling to resist temptation. One or two might have mentioned that they deeply regretted any premarital relations they may have had. Ultimately, what they were doing was using their own experiences to justify the Church’s stance on sex.
I vividly remember one particular article arguing that masterbation is wrong because it is basically cheating on your future husband. Another author explored whether or not oral sex is okay within the context of a Christian marriage (they concluded that it isn’t clear in the Bible, but is likely not sinful).
There were a few articles or sermons by pastors, explaining that when we have sex outside of marriage, or when queer people have sex, it hurts God, because it goes against what God intended.
If that’s the case, God is pretty sensitive. Reading this particular argument, the image came to mind was of Jesus collapsing in pain onto the cloud-carpeted floor of heaven, writhing in agony because directly below him, two unmarried people were doing the dirty. (Not to say that this argument is void: we’ll get to the notion of design in a later post).
In my search for answers as a pre-teen, what I did not find on the internet was a reasoned explanation as to why it isn’t okay to have sex outside of marriage that didn’t revert to quoting bible passages without contextualising them, or retreating to the realm of anecdote. I also didn’t find an alternative perspective to the straight white evangelical one.
So this is what I want to offer: an alternative. But for fear of only finding what I want to find, I will explore arguments from both sides. I want to create dialogue, not an echo chamber. Again, all study I have done on this has been independent, and can be endlessly built upon, and really all I’m learning is how unbelievably complex God, the Bible, history, culture, and humankind all are.
The topic of this post is sex, but for the sake of thoroughness, that’s not where we are going to begin.
We are going to begin with the Lord’s Prayer.
All of us who grew up in the church, Catholics and Protestants alike, know the words like the back of our hand: the general understanding is that this prayer was taught by Christ to his disciples, but actually, this claim is a source of debate amongst theologians.
M. D. Goulder points out that,
“If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. Jesus did not commit his teaching to writing (…). To teach something by heart is the same in principle as to write it down, and there is no statement in the gospels that Jesus ever taught his disciples any other thing than the Lord’s Prayer,” (32).
It is also uncertain whether the prayer was composed in one instance, or if it is a piecing together of different prayers spoken over the course of Christ’s life. However it came to be, it appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and was translated, from the Aramaic words spoken by Christ, to Greek, and finally into English
Over a year ago, I heard a prayer said in a small mountain church. It was a prayer that made tears spring to my eyes, that made my heart race. I wanted to open my chest up and put the prayer inside, to wind it in and through the muscles of my chest, the cavities and capillaries in my lungs so that every breath I took for the rest of my life would be filtered through this prayer.
At the end of the service, I asked the pastor about the prayer and she handed me a printed out version titled “The Lord’s Prayer – translated from Aramaic by Neil Douglas-Klotz’s in Prayers of the Cosmos.”
The name made me double-take. Because surely this wasn’t a version of the actual Lord’s Prayer. This couldn’t possibly be a version – a translation – of this prayer that refers to God in gender-neutral terms, and speaks not of sin but of “knots within us.”
Well, it might be. According to Douglas-Klotz, who is supported by other scholars, the Aramaic language is one that is fluid, and can be translated literally in many different ways – he offers up a multitude of possible translations himself.
“This would be the tradition of middle-eastern translation. That you don’t just translate words in one way, but you have to translate them on different levels.”Neil Douglas-Klotz
As you can probably imagine, there is a lot of contention surrounding the authenticity of new translations from Aramaic – Douglas-Klotz’s, and others.
(You can find a comprehensive critique of these translations here, that I will also reference below).
One of the claims made by critics is that the contemporary scholars retranslating the prayer are mystics, who found in the text what they wanted and expected to find, twisting the language to fit their expectations and/or agendas.
I don’t know Aramaic. I’ll need to learn it, eventually, if I want to continue down this line of scholarship. So it is with hesitancy that I contest:
Those translating the prayer from Aramaic to Greek, and then from Greek to English, giving us the version we have today, most likely found in the text what they expected to find. Just like the “mystic” scholars. Christ reshaped society, pushed the boundaries of what was expected and customary, but the men putting his words in writing and those translating those words were not free from bias, or from the worldview of the society they lived in. It is only natural that they should read the word “Abwoon” and see “Father” because figures of authority were male. But in that second syllable, there is the same linguistic root as that of “womb.”
That isn’t to say that the Lord’s Prayer as we know it is wrong – I love this prayer. Or that the translation we are familiar with is intentionally worded so as to conform to the patriarchal agenda. It is still beautiful and powerful. But naturally, the translators held to particular worldview and sought confirmation of this worldviews in the text.
I also think that, if a single and true version of this prayer is so difficult to grasp or agree upon, it would solve the conundrum mentioned above by Goulder – Christ was not teaching anything by heart. Nothing set in stone. Not one single prayer to be read one way. Instead, he gave us a prayer with layers and layers of meaning, words to be pulled apart, to be discussed, all revealing the never-ending depths, the incomprehensible complexity of our God. This prayer is as beautiful and mysterious and difficult to grasp as the Creator Themself.
What does any of this have to do with sex?
There are two things I want us to take away from all of this, going forward:
1. The Bible reveals the character of our Creator, demonstrates the wonder of justice and the beauty of redemption through Christ, the manifestation of God on earth. However, it was written in a different language, translated and retranslated by countless individuals (mostly men) who were living in particular times and places. It was written and translated by people who were imperfect.
Luke himself begins his book with a disclaimer: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1: 1-4, NIV)
Like a good scientist, Luke did his research. He was confident in the truth of his testimony. But right from the start, he frames his account with the eyes of humans.
2. The way that sin is spoken of in Klotz’s translation strikes me as important. Instead of using that word “sin,” that word that crushes and shames so many of us, it speaks of tangled knots. That are our responsibility, partly. In the next segment of this series, I’m going to delve deeper into the meaning of sin, because this phrase alone, pulled from a translation whose validity is shaky, is not enough to support the claim I want to make…
And the claim I want to make is this: “sin” is any act that hurts another person, that hurts ourselves, or that hurts anything created by God. It is messy, it is unavoidable, it is beyond a list of actions that individuals should or should not do. It is structural, it is bigger than, us but we are not completely powerless in the face of it.
By this definition, sex can be “sinful.” It can be sinful inside of marriage. It can be sinful outside of marriage. It can also be incredibly healing. Inside and outside of marriage. But I have talked too much for one post, so I’ll get back to all of this at a later date. Stay tuned, and also, please comment any thoughts you might have below. The goal here is not to make any blanket statements – merely to begin a conversation that needs to be had.
What I read:
The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer, by M. D. Goulder
Prayers of the Cosmos, by Neil Douglas-Klotz
The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary, by Nicholas Ayo
The Meaning of “Abwoon d’bashmaya” (First words of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkbllUt30zA
Another translation: The Ancient Aramaic Prayer of Jesus – “The Lord’s Prayer,” by Rocco A. Errico
In favour of contemporary retranslations:
Living the Prayer of Jesus: A Study of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, by Stephanie Rutt
The Aramaic Lord’s Prayer: Vibrational Alchemy, by Suchinta Abhayaratna, Th.M
Nouslife: quite a lovely, well-thought out and comprehensive post claiming that this is not so much a “translation” as it is a paraphrasing of the Lord’s Prayer.
Hubpages: A good collection of various texts surrounding the validity/invalidity of the translation. Unfortunately, some links have been removed.