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If Not “Sola Virginity,” What Do We Teach? Part 1 of 2

Many articles in the past few weeks have critiqued the damaging messages about sex and marriage passed on by conservative churches. They emphasize virginity alone so heavily it  a sixth “Sola” – Sola Virginibus or “by virginity alone.” [The Protestant Reformation rallied around what we call the “five solas:” “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory).]

couple wearing sunglasses and hugging

Those of us who reject Sola Virginity are asking the million-dollar question: how do we teach what we believe to be God’s ideal for sex without passing along the shame, false expectations (the comments here include numerous examples of the way unmet expectations can hurt or embitter a person), and empty promises of the so-called “purity culture?”

As I’ve thought and read and talked and listened, I’ve concluded that in all the “Just Say No (to Sex)” and “True Love Waits” messaging about virginity, we’ve skipped over two important foundational steps: 1) define healthy human sexuality, and 2) define intimacy in marriage (spoiler alert: it’s more than sex). They are closely connected, but I’m going to start with the second one.

What is intimacy? This word encompasses far more than being naked and not ashamed or engaging in sexual intercourse. Intimacy connotes knowing someone extensively, trusting someone with all of you, and being vulnerable.

Dictionary.com defines intimacy as:
1. the state of being one or more of the following:
– associated in close personal relations (as in an intimate friend)
– characterized by or involving warm friendship or a personally close or familiar association or feeling
– very private; closely personal
2. a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.
3. a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, period of history, etc.

The Bible also describes intimacy in comprehensive terms, but it also draws in some very different connections – spiritual connections. Some of the language around intimacy, marriage, and sex in the Bible is oblique, mysterious, or just plain confusing. For example, passages like the one in Ephesians 5 compare marriage to God’s relationship with the church (or is it that God’s relationship to the church is like marriage?). I think most people agree that when Paul says this (either God and the church or a man and a woman or both) is a mystery, he means there is much that we cannot understand about this dynamic.

I am not going to pretend that I know what is going on here. Far greater minds than mine have spent far more time on the subject. My point is that this is difficult to wrap our minds around. Or at least it’s difficult for me. I don’t know what intimacy in marriage should look like or feel like or be like. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that. My husband is my one and only, and we have been officially together for 15 years (he proposed on Valentine’s Day 15 years ago). But I don’t know if we’ve reached that elusive “oneness” I read about in the Bible. All I have are questions.

  • What is spirituality? I mean, I know it’s part of being human, this consciousness of Something Bigger and this desire to find answers to questions like “Why Am I Here?” and “What’s It All For, Anyway?” But what is this spiritual self?
  • How is my spiritual self different from my mental/intellectual, emotional, and physical self?
  • How is my spirituality connected to those other aspects of myself?
  • What does it mean to have a spiritual connection with someone else?
  • What is the one-flesh union or one-flesh union or “two-become-one” the Bible talks about? Is it this spiritual connection? How is it different from the intimacy we are called to with others in the church?
  • If the one-flesh union of marriage has a sexual component (because sex is one thing that sets the marriage relationship apart from all others), what does that even mean? How does our sexuality connect to our spirituality and how do those aspects of myself connect to those aspects of another?
  • How is it that I remain me and my husband remains him and yet somehow we are supposed to become one? We disagree. We see things differently. We love each other, we forgive each other, we try to understand each other, but for all of that, we remain individuals. We are a team, and we work together. We both love the same God. We are incredibly vulnerable with each other. But is that the intimacy and oneness we’re supposed to have? Because, to be brutally honest, it doesn’t feel like something I would describe as “two become one.”

Zack Hunt wrote recently about another part of the Bible that addresses sex and intimacy: The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon. He says that this book has a deeper meaning that illustrates the spiritual intimacy we are to have with God.

As Denys so wonderfully put it yesterday, “This is where Freud has messed us up. We think the real thing is about sex, but the monks say “No, the real thing is God.”

In other words, Song of Songs isn’t really about sex. And if we think it is, it’s because our modern sexually saturated minds can’t let us see anything else.

The great church father Origen had a way of talking about this. For him, there are two ways to interpret scripture: the literal sense and the spiritual one. New Christians, or as the apostle Paul might call them, children in the faith, read the Bible in the literal sense, what is simply written on the page. They are not quite ready for spiritual meat, so they must settle for spiritual milk.

But God does not intend us to stay as children, reading Scripture merely in the literal sense. God wants His children to grow into mature adults, to eat spiritual meat, to read the Bible in the deeper, spiritual sense God intended. Such is the case with a book like Song of Songs. When we read Song of Songs as nothing more than a handbook on sex, it’s because we are spiritually immature. Spiritually erotic literature is not to be read as sublimating sex. What it’s really about is Christ and the church. [emphasis mine]

He goes on to say, “As the medieval monks so brilliantly observed, this ebb and flow of expectation and fulfillment isn’t just about sex. It’s a description of the entire Biblical narrative.” You should read his entire post.

This expectation and fulfillment pattern sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is a pattern we experience throughout life. It is a pattern we celebrate through the church calendar. We observe it during Advent – expectation of the coming Messiah which is fulfilled at Christmas. We observe it during Lent and celebrate fulfillment at Easter. Recognizing and experiencing this cycle is one purpose of fasting – to connect in a physical way to the hunger (expectation) we have spiritually.

Things are beginning to fall into place for me. These ideas begin to fill in the answers to some of my questions. And then remember another writer’s insights into spiritual intimacy.

Ann Voskamp, in her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, wrote about intimacy with God with the same language the Bible uses to describe intimacy, words reminiscent of sexual union and the words of Paul to describe the relationship between Christ and the church.

“But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him,” reads 1 Corinthians 6:17. I run my hand along the beams over my loft bed, wood hewn by a hand several hundred years ago. I can hear Him. He’s calling for a response; He’s calling for oneness. Communion. …

God is relationship and He woos us to relationship and there is nothing with God if there is no relationship. …

This invitation to have communion with Love – is this the edge of the mystery Paul speaks of? “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:31-32). The two, Christ and the church, becoming one flesh–the mystery of that romance. Breath falling on face, Spirit touching spirit, the long embrace, the entering in and being within–this is what God seeks? With each of us? …

I would later read the words of John Calvin, Protestant Reformer, and wonder fresh at the meaning of the mystery: “God very commonly takes on the character of a husband to us. Indeed, the union by which he binds us to himself when he receives us into the bosom of the church is like sacred wedlock.” [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion]

As she goes on to write in that chapter, it’s no wonder we’re terrified and shy away from this  kind of union with God. To be one with the Divine in our very much-still-imperfect humanity is a soul-deep vulnerability like nothing else. And it’s no wonder that, to help us understand and overcome that terror,  God has given us a taste of the beauty and fulfillment and wholeness of such oneness in a human-to-human form: marriage and sexual union. Suddenly, a sexual act is more than two bodies coming together to enjoy an orgasm. It is a dim reflection of something so much bigger and better.

What do you think intimacy and oneness is supposed to be like, either between people or between human and Divine? How does marriage help you understand God, or vice versa? 

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  1. I’m wrestling with this, Joy.

    See, I HAVE known two becoming one in my marriage, which does happen for me during sex, but it also happens outside of sex, in the intimacy that comes from knowing and being known. Pete and I are both individuals retaining our own identity, yes, BUT if that identity is found in being in Christ, then the intimacy we would have with any other believer on that level is simply heightened in marriage, two becoming one in the flesh, not merely on a spiritual level. My identity isn’t found in being “a wife,” per se – that is just a descriptor. Who I AM is “the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus,” whether I had sex before marriage or came crazy from the purity movement. My sexuality and physicality do NOT identify me. The name of Jesus that I bear does.

    I think starting at the physical and taking it backward to the spiritual isn’t the way to go on this front, because even Paul was starting at the spiritual and taking it to the physical, for lack of a better analogy. It is, at its core, an identity issue, and if we consider our sexuality to be our identity, then we are writing off Jesus as our identity. If He is our identity, then sexuality is just one more area of our lives in which we get to acknowledge and honor Him, just like marriage, or church-going, or parenting, or anything.

    Let me put it another way. For some people, saying “I’m a virgin” is like saying “I’m gay.” They’ve made their virginity the be-all, end-all of who they are as a person, and I would NEVER advocate that, even in the name of purity. NOR would I ever advocate “purity” as the be-all, end-all, because again, “purity” becomes the identity, and we have to start parsing definitions for it. What many have done is say that “marriage” can be defined as “sex with a license” and “fornication” is “sex without a license.” But they’re giving definition and identity to one thing with another thing entirely.

    Love itself fosters true intimacy, and that starts in the heart. But not everyone walks the same path or has the same story, and God KNEW that was going to happen. It doesn’t take Him by surprise, which is why He sent Jesus to be “God with us,” to meet us where we are and not where we’re supposed to be. And the only “supposed to be” He handed us in Christ was “come to Me.” When we come to Him, walk in Him, learn from Him in real meekness, then His Spirit produces His fruit in us. We are literally transformed as His Spirit renews our minds. The arguments are pointless. I’ve heard them for years and years and years, and I still don’t understand them, and I think this is because there are some things I just do not have to know until or unless I need to know them, and because God is more invested in our living our lives abundantly on grace in Christ Jesus so that we can know Him and the reaches of His love for us.

    And then there is the simple thought I had reading your post, that making a child is two becoming one…

    I am looking forward to tomorrow.

    • Kelly, Good that you understand comparing marriage and fornication in sexual terms is invalid. Marriage is a well defined concept and covenant relationship (Malachi 2:14). Fornication, however, is not well defined and often completely misunderstood by the church. Sex and sexual intimacy is NOT always sinful for an unmarried couple. That is difficult for the church to understand and accept, but like other important doctrine, every believer needs to understand and accept the full truth as it is taught by God without errors. I commented about Brideship here. It is something that God wants all His children to walk into and offers things that no believer should ignore.

  2. Hi Joy
    I loved all the questions about spirituality and sorting out the differences between your spiritual self, your mental, intellectual, emotional and physical self.

    I wrote a blog about this specially for you, with it being too long for a comment really.

    Find it here:


  3. Joy, true Freud was daft and all wrong about sex, but the monks were as well about interpreting God’s Word. There is more to understanding the Bible than “literal and spiritual” meanings. It is very important to get God’s interpretation of His Word because interpretation belongs to God alone (2 Peter 1:20, Genesis 40:8). All other “literal” or “spiritual” meanings come from man, which often is incorrect. Every Christian needs to know how to correctly follow God’s Spirit so that they can let God interpret everything. It isn’t an automatic thing that just happens. Important principles must be learned, which brings me to the “mystery” you mentioned about the church’s union with Christ. That Marriage is called Brideship and it brings believers closer to God in the kind of intimacy God wants from His Bride. This mystery was fully revealed to people in the last decades because it is time for all of God’s children to take part in it. There is a lot of information involved to understand Brideship completely, but the principle parts are easy to get the basics from. My documentary video explains Brideship more and shows why it is so important for everyone to take part. No one should be fearful of fulfilling Marriage with God. It is meant to unite soulmates together for eternity – God and His Pure Bride, who is Christ’s Wed Wife. Like human soul mates being together in marriage, Brideship shares a perfect union between God, individuals and His entire church, that can’t be quantified because it is so good. I invite everyone to learn more about it in this video, Walking In Righteousness, http://3rdcompass.com/core/network?c=jrnl&obj=5046731480754762728 , and then follow through with the more detailed information on the website. God will surprise you when you don’t think He could have done so any further.

  4. Joy, I love your idea that one of the ways God “woos” us to Him may be through the intimacy we experience in marriage, including sex. Trying to describe intimacy with God is beyond words, which may be the essence of mystery, as well as intimate sex. I’ve probably mentioned in a prior comment that I am a single (divorced) mom, and while my marriage wasn’t ideal, it did have moments of incredible intimacy. I’m remembering when we bought our dream house, having hunted for and imagined it endlessly. When we pumped a basement full of water out the back door and saved our newly-finished basement. And little moments, like the Christmas Eve when we both knew at the same instant that we needed to disengage the “moo” from the Fisher-Price barn because our 1-yr old daughter freaked out at loud noises. (And when our daughters were conceived.) Whenever we worked together to accomplish a shared vision, it was especially intimate.

    Where I’m going with this is where you were going with God drawing us to Him. At age 50, having been a believer for 30+ years, I’m starting to get it. I know what intimacy can feel like in a human relationship, but I think I used to treat God as an acquaintance or a boss, not an intimate partner and friend. And I think the process of developing intimacy with Him has to be the same as that with another person: one that takes time and lots of different experiences shared together. Challenges as well as triumphs. (I’ve had my share of the former, and that’s why I appreciate your blog. You talk about that stuff.) I remember the period during which I truly felt forsaken by God and could only visualize wordlessly opening my heart to Him because I was in so much emotional pain. I could hardly speak to people, much less to God.

    That period was followed, incredibly and immediately, by another seriously challenging time, during which I had to learn to pray for my enemies, continue to put one foot in front of the other and hang on, again for my children’s sake–and more than I knew it, my own. I couldn’t believe that God would allow the one painful period to follow the other–for several years, without relief in sight. In both cases, in some nearly imperceptible ways, and in other seasons of my life, God’s hand in it all was so evident, I could feel it. So why the PAIN? Sooo confusing. But that second recent time of testing has shifted lately, and it’s so strange, I’m the one who is different in the relationship. God’s still there, but now He is the One in Whom I trust. Intimacy, not fear, not duty or obligation, not distance–and here’s the strangest part–without Herculean effort on my part. And not perfection. After years of desperately hanging on to God because He was the only faithful one, because He told me I should, now He’s just there. Like those little moments in my marriage, probably like a good marriage much of the time. Like a good friendship. Talk about a mystery.

    [This is long, but your transparency deserves a good-college-try response.]


  1. […] also been some thoughtful pieces on how Christians and Christian culture can do better defining healthy sexuality and healthy intimacy and better sexual ethics and here […]

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