What are bodies for? The overarching story of our secular age is one of liberty. The main command of secular sexuality is “You do you,” using our bodies, sex, and relationships for self-expression and self-actualization. That is, bodies are for me to freely express who I am. I am free from any authority but myself. In contrast, authority is the overarching story of many churches and Christians. That is, God is the authority, so we should do what God commands. The first and greatest command of this approach is “Behave yourself.” Our core message about bodies and sex boils down to following certain rules from the Bible. Sexual purity, then, means sticking to these rules. This approach to bodies and sex often degenerates into legalism, where the focus is on me, not God, and what I do, not God’s grace.
In contrast to the focus on authority and liberty, there’s a powerful alternative that is at the heart of the gospel: fidelity. That is, a focus on God’s covenant faithfulness. Sex and bodies are for living out the bigger story of the gospel, the story of God’s faithful covenant love in the suffering body of Jesus Christ. We may not often use the word covenant, but Bible scholar Daniel Block argues that the concept of covenant is at the heart of Scripture. He defines a covenant as a “formally confirmed agreement between two or more parties that creates, formalizes, or governs a relationship.” In contrast to the me-centered focus of both individualism and legalism, this emphasis on covenant fidelity focuses first on God and God’s character. He chooses us, he makes a covenant with us, and he is faithful in keeping his promises. As Tim Keller puts it, a covenant is “a stunning blend of both law and love. It is a relationship much more intimate and loving than a mere legal contract . . . yet one more enduring and binding than personal affection alone could make. It is a bond of love made more intimate and solid because it is legal. It is the very opposite of a consumer-vendor relationship, in which the connection is maintained only if it serves both parties’ self-interest. A covenant, by contrast, is the solemn, permanent, whole self giving of two parties to each other.” We are his beloved, and he is faithful to us. We belong to him, and our identity flows from who he is for us, not who we can be for him or who we can be for ourselves. Seen from this angle, marriage and singleness give us different ways to focus on the same mission: embodying and pointing to God’s faithful covenant love.
A second component of the overarching story of liberty is the myth of romance. For many people, part of expressing themselves means constructing their sexuality and finding a romantic partner (or partners) who complements and completes them as a person. In contrast to the myth of romance, the gospel promises something different: that we are now members of God’s household. God’s faithful covenant love toward us makes us members of his family. As such, we find our fulfillment not in romance or sexual prosperity but first in God and then in being given a meaningful place in God’s family. The church family, the household of God, thus positions our smaller households (married and single alike) within God’s work and mission in the world.
Within the church’s story of authority, there’s a similar romantic myth at play as well: that of prosperity-gospel sexuality. This view says, “If you follow the rules and do what God says, you’ll be blessed with a great marriage and a great sex life.” So sex and bodies are part of a larger moral calculus where doing good means receiving blessings and doing wrong means receiving punishment. If we don’t follow the rules, we will end up “impure” and ashamed; if we do follow the rules, we’ll know God really loves us—because we followed the authority, behaved ourselves, and received the promised blessings. In contrast to the myth of sexual prosperity, we have to acknowledge that marriage is not merely an amazing reward for being good, but a road marked with suffering as we love our spouse with the love of Christ. Similarly, singleness is also a path of suffering, but it should not be the suffering that comes simply from lack or loneliness, but the suffering that comes from connection and solidarity with the body of Christ.
The third and final myth of the secular story of liberty is naturalism. According to this myth, sex has no inherent meaning, and bodies are nothing but matter in motion. Many people see this as a good thing because it means we each have the freedom to create and give meaning to our bodies and to sex. In essence, my body and sexuality become tools I can use to express my individual self. The myth of naturalism combines with individualism and romance to form the overarching myth of liberty. For broader Western culture, this is the path to true self-fulfillment and self-realization. In contrast to the myth of naturalism, the gospel says that our bodies are not merely matter in motion, but are in fact God’s temple, dwelling place, home. Far from being raw physical matter, the body is “for the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:13), the place where God dwells and makes himself known to the world.
The third myth of the church story of authority is the story of evil bodies. That is, the body is the enemy. According to this myth, sex, sexual desire, or even bodies themselves are the source of sexual sin. The body is the enemy and must be defeated, broken, and brought into line. In contrast, the story of the gospel speaks to the immense goodness of bodies, so much so that the eternal Son of God assumes our humanity, including a physical body: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Our salvation happens through the body of Jesus. His physical suffering, death, and resurrection is the basis for our salvation. Since this is true, we can ask ourselves, How does our embodied life in singleness, sex, and marriage embody the truth of God’s faithful covenant love? This way of life embodies a mission and calling far bigger than churchly behavior management or secular self-actualization.
Excerpted from Every Body's Story: 6 Myths About Sex and the Gospel Truth About Marriage and Singleness (Zondervan, 2022) by Branson Parler.
“It is hard to imagine a more timely and articulate theology of bodies, sex, and marriage. Branson Parler has masterfully diagnosed what ails both our culture and our churches' sexual thinking and practice. Every Body's Story is biblically adept, historically aware, culturally astute, and philosophically sophisticated. At the same time, it is imminently practical and hauntingly convicting. I truly wish someone would have given me this book decades ago!”
— John Nugent, professor of Bible and theology, Great Lakes Christian College
— Branson Parler serves as Director of Theological Education and Professor of Theology at The Foundry, a nonprofit ministry focused on partnering with churches to provide accessible biblical and practical training for church leaders at every level. Prior to that role, he was professor of theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for thirteen years. He also serves as director of faith formation at Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. He writes and teaches on a variety of topics related to the Bible, theology, ministry, and engaging culture. He loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, and their six kids.
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