The Flesh, A Couple of Gnostic Bogeymen, and Self-Control

temptation and fallThere are always trends in our discourse about sex and sexuality. Some themes are pretty constant while others come and go. The whole ‘purity culture’ discussion is of fairly recent vintage, but seems likely to stick around, growing and developing with time.  It’s already begun to take some interesting turns.

For instance, Dianna Anderson recently criticized a new trend in sexual discourse within Post-Evangelical culture. Pointing to posts by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary (JVM) and Rachel Held Evans, she worries that their efforts to retain a fairly conservative sexual ethic when it comes to pre-marital sex, while recasting the discussion in terms of ‘self-control’ and ‘holiness’, will inevitably re-inscribe some hierarchy of holiness between those who waited and those who didn’t. Hermits are still closer to God than the rest of us.

An ethic of ‘self-control’ still carries the taint of a heretical Gnostic dualism haunting the landscape of Evangelical ethics, so obsessed with a denial of the flesh that it denies our embodied humanity in the process. Like the purity culture ethic that precedes it, we find a narrative where a weak soul loses control and gives in to the evil, physical flesh. The flesh with its natural bodily desires is not recognized for what it is, God’s creation, and integrated with a holistic conception of the embodied self, but is demonized as a ‘bogeyman’ extrinsic to the self, needing to be subdued by the soul. All the attendant evils of shame and self-loathing follow.

Now, I have no particular beef with Anderson, so I don’t enjoy the idea of focusing on a particular article. Still, this one manages to draw together a few issues worth dealing with if we’re interested in developing (or maintaining) a faithful, Christian sexual ethic.

Collapsing Flesh and Body
As a big fan of Irenaeus and, well, the Bible, I can’t help but appreciate the affirmation of creation against the Gnostics. This is God’s good world and when he made us in his Image, he created us male and female, sexually-differentiated beings whose bodies mattered, and it was very good. (Gen. 1:27) We don’t have a good God and a bad world, or a good soul needing to be set free from a bad body. That said, there is an unfortunate failure to distinguish the ‘flesh’ and the ‘body’ in Anderson’s piece that lead us into some harmful confusions.

In the New Testament, the two words are distinct, sarx being ‘flesh’ and soma being ‘body.’ There is some linguistic overlap between the two at times–for instance, ‘flesh’ can refer to simple physicality, as when Jesus is descended from David ‘according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:4), and the body is, well, the body for the most part. Still, in a large number of cases, perhaps the majority, sarx refers not to our physicality but rather our fallen nature as a whole, spiritual and physical. As Paul says, “the works of the flesh are evident” and goes on to list “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Gal. 5:19-21c) Obviously, these are not only physical activities, or normal, created, bodily impulses to be accepted and integrated within a holistic sense of self, but sins to be put off. Most of them can be comfortably accomplished away from prying eyes, within the recesses of the soul.

Dealing with ascetic proto-Gnostics in Colossae, Paul explicitly teaches us to observe the distinction between the body and the flesh:

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:21-23)

The problem with the false teachers troubling the Colossians was that they were denying the body instead of the flesh. It’s possible to do the one without the other. Instead of curbing gluttony, they denied appetite. Instead of submitting distorted sexuality to Christ, they denied the good of sexuality entirely.

Now, what I would note here is that to deny the flesh isn’t necessarily to deny the body.  The danger with collapsing flesh into body, is that we are left without categories for appropriately distinguishing between a proper, created, physical-appetite, and its sinful distortions. In affirming creation, we are tempted to forget the corrupting influence of the Fall that has wreaked havoc in God’s good world, including our embodied selves. There is a real, good sexual appetite that God has given us, and there has been a real, bad, disordering of that appetite through sin, that is to be denied and fought against.

This is why we cannot simply uncritically affirm every impulse as part of our created nature, but must construct our ethics in light of the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Christian morality is a storied-morality, in that sense. That was the Gnostic’s problem–they skipped Creation and went straight to Fall. It can be equally dangerous to act like the Fall never happened.

Which Gnostics?
At this point, it’s also important to remember that there’s more than one bad conclusion to reach after you’ve confused the story. This is certainly the case with those particularly bad story-tellers, the Gnostics. Attention is frequently called to the Gnosticism whose dualism led to an ascetical impulse–purify the body to set the soul free, etc.. As prominent as that was, Ireneaus, that great patristic foe of Gnostics of all stripes, also famously condemned differing Gnostic groups whose metaphysics led them to sexual libertinism instead of asceticism.

Once again, Paul’s dealings with proto-Gnostics, this time in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, are instructive. For the Corinthian Gnostics, a denial of the importance of the body led them to to the conclusion that they could do what they want with it. An impulse is just an impulse, “food for the body and the body for food”, and God is going to “destroy both the one and the other”, so just go along with it (v 13). Paul retorts that, in fact, the body does matter for the Lord took a body, died, and was raised in one (vv. 13-14). We aren’t to do with it as we please, not being “mastered” by our desires, but only what glorifies God–that’s why he paid out such a great price for it (v. 19).

When Paul teaches us to flee “immorality’, or ‘fornication’, (v. 18) he shows there is a proper and an improper use of the body. Appealing to the garden, Paul tells us that sexual intercourse is for uniting two into “one flesh”, teaching us that it is a covenantally-ordered act between man and wife (v. 16, cf. Gen 2:24). Corinthians are not to visit temple prostitutes, giving in to their distorted desires, for that is a degradation of God’s purpose for the body.

It is not Gnosticism, therefore, to note a proper place for curbing the ‘flesh’ in our sexuality, but precisely an affirmation of the goodness of the body and its redemption. The battle against the flesh is the confession of our need for a future resurrection in which all will be put right.  Until that day, we are called to put to death the works of the flesh, in hope of the day when our bodies will be raised into righteousness and peace with the rest of God’s new creation (Rom. 8:11).

Self-Control and Mutual Consent 
Of course, all of this will require self-control as JVM and Evans have spoken of. Again, this makes Anderson uncomfortable, as self-control discourse implies that those who do not wait, lost control or something, thereby preventing them from owning their sexual decisions. It paints all decisions to engage in pre-marital sex in an immediately negative light, an action of souls losing control of bodies, preventing understanding of our sexuality as autonomous, consenting persons, as well as growth in healthy sexuality.

Once again, Paul sheds some light for us, this time in his instructions to the Thessalonians:

 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)

There are a couple of key points to make here. First, Paul clearly tells us to exercise control over our bodies and abstain from sexual immorality. Engaging in sexual immorality, porneia, fornication, is not exercising self-control, but giving in to Gentile passion by definition. Self-control in this text is framed primarily vertically, as a regard for God and his commands, and only secondarily with respect to our impulse control.

To exercise sexual ‘choice’ in ways that violate God’s creative order and will, is to give in to our own distorted desires; it is to make our bellies our god (Phil.3:18).  “Lack of self-control” does not always imply my choice of sexual intercourse outside of the bonds of marriage wasn’t conscious, rational, and autonomous, but that it was not submitted to my Lord in obedience, according to His created purpose. Whether it was a long process of deliberation (rationalization), or a thoughtless moment, I didn’t control my self”s desires, physical or spiritual, but gave in to them in violation of God’s will.

The second point the passage suggests is that consent-based ethics are not enough. (I don’t see Anderson necessarily advocating for one in the post, but that sort of thing is being floated in some post-Evangelical circles.) Mutual consent is somewhat of a lowest-common denominator, “do whatever you want as long as nobody gets hurt” kind of morality that appeals to our late-modern, individualistic, therapeutic-utilitarian instinct. I mean,  don’t hear me knocking consent–it’s baseline for me when it comes to these discussions. Still, mere consent falls far short of a Christian ethic of love rooted in Christ’s commands and the Spirit’s work in our lives.

As Paul shows us, it cannot be loving to mutually-consent to sin, to engage our souls or bodies contrary to God’s own loving purposes for them. He tells us that God is “an avenger” in these things because participating in sexual immorality is to transgress and wrong our brothers/sisters in these matters, no matter how consensual it might be. I am not loving you by inviting you into a sexual relationship or encounter, contrary to God’s purposes. I might have enlightened intentions, a great desire to honor you, to express my soul to you, but the form is inherently unloving. Any love involved is misdirected at this point, a love that is not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:2), because it ignores the fabric of moral reality.

No, instead we are called in holiness to exercise self-control by the power of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to Jesus’ good commands for his being-redeemed people.

The Hope of Glory
I wish I could address the issue of shame that seems to be the driving factor underlying all of these discussions. I tried and realized I couldn’t in a post already too long. For now I’ll simply say that freedom from shame comes not through submitting to the false commands and judgments of legalists who distort or add to God’s word, nor through denying the real moral boundaries which God has lovingly woven into creation, but only through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He bore our shame on the Cross, died, was buried, and left it in the grave so that we who are united with him bear it no more, but only the sure hope of resurrection glory (Col. 1:27).

Soli Deo Gloria

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