The Meaning of Sex

Christians Ethics and the Moral Life | By Dennis P. Hollinger | Reviewed by Megan K. DeFranza

Is there any inherent meaning in sexuality, or does sex simply mean whatever we intend it to mean in the moment? Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, insists that there is meaning in sexuality—several meanings, in fact, which guide Christian thought and practice.

Hollinger writes for the academy, seminarians, pastors, and church leaders modeling the best kind of evangelical scholarship: the primacy of Scripture; careful engagement with other Christian perspectives, other religions and worldviews, science, and media; and a pastoral heart. According to Hollinger, it is this loving God who has created humans as sexual beings and established sex as a good gift for humankind. But he is far from naïve about the goods and dangers of sex: “[S]ex is a powerful force in life that can shatter dreams, destroy families, kill people, and break cultures apart. But it can also be a good and beautiful ingredient in building happy marriages, stable homes, secure individuals, and virtuous communities” (19).

Hollinger’s is a refreshingly balanced voice: As good as sex can be, “Sexual intercourse is not the ultimate meaning in life, and it is not essential to our humanness, though it is a necessary part of married life” (76). “[L]ife without sexual intimacy and marriage is not a deficient life. Rather, life without intimacy with God in Christ is deficient” (15).

While he believes that non-Christians can recognize portions of the meaning of sex, full understanding is “found in the Christian worldview assumptions about marriage, the human body, and the purposes of the gift,” which are “the consummation of marriage, procreation, expression of love, and pleasure” (14). This “meaning finds its fulfillment in the marriage of a man and a woman” (14–15).

Academics will appreciate his careful overview of ethical theory and theological frameworks in chapters 1 and 2. A wider audience will benefit from chapter 3, which lays down a specifically Christian worldview and ties sex and sexuality to the creation of humans in the image of God. Chapter 4 unpacks the four purposes of sex named above, while chapters 5 and 6 apply these purposes to differing contexts—unmarried and married sexuality. Issues such as pornography, masturbation, and extramarital sex are dealt with in chapters attending to particular contexts.

Hollinger is critical of Christian teaching that argues for chastity using scare tactics or that overplays the sexual pleasure factor in Christian marriages, even while he presents these dangers and statistics (127, 136). He insists that Christians need a holistic approach to sex in order to swim upstream in our “Sex-Crazed World” (ch. 9). This can be found in Christian theology, worldview, spirituality, and churches that embody the former and reach out in love, forgiveness, accountability, and community (226–35).

Attentive to the issues facing Christians in America today, Hollinger devotes an entire chapter to the “Challenge of Homosexuality.” Every reader will benefit from his compassionate and nuanced discussion. While he maintains his commitment to sex within marriage and marriage as the union of a man and a woman, he is careful to differentiate between Christian ethics, pastoral care, and public policy.

There is much to praise in The Meaning of Sex, but a few criticisms remain. The first is his omission of the ethics of divorce and remarriage. While he allocates all of chapter 8 to explore the ethics of reproductive technologies, in his section on fidelity within marriage, divorce and remarriage are not even given a paragraph. Given his insistence that the wellbeing of society and of children are undermined by the multiple parents that result from some reproductive technologies, readers would have benefited from his thoughtful wrestling with the challenges of divorce and remarriage.

A bigger problem is the way the author conflates sex, gender, and sexuality. In this, Hollinger follows Stanley Grenz, who reads “our emotional, social, and spiritual selves” through the lens of sexuality (16). Unfortunately, both theologians fail to account for significant differences in the emotional, social, and spiritual lives within each sex, both within a particular culture and between cultures. The conflation of sexuality with emotionality, sociality, and spirituality risks unnecessary problems.1

One particular problem of great concern to egalitarian readers is the fact that not all men share the same outlook on the world; neither do all women. While Hollinger is right to point out that “brain-imaging technologies show difference in the responses of women and men to external stimulations of all sorts, even though brain responses upon gender lines frequently do not seem to represent gender differences in behavior” (74); it is also true that

few, if any, individuals correspond to the modal male pattern or the modal female pattern. Variation within each sex is great, with males and females near the top and bottom of the distributions for every characteristic. . . . In fact, although most of us appear to be either clearly male or clearly female, we are each complex mosaics of male and female characteristics.2

In spite of this, CBE supporters will be glad to read that Hollinger insists that sexual difference should not be interpreted as functional difference. He rejects gender-based role divisions in home, church, and society. Many will be encouraged by his insistence upon the egalitarian nature of marriage and his warnings against power-relations between the sexes (147).

In all, The Meaning of Sex is a welcome resource on sexual ethics, supplying wise pastoral counsel for a “sex-crazed world.”

Notes

1. See my “Sexuality and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies of the Body,” Africanus Journal 3, no. 1 (April 2011): 16–25.
2. Melissa Hines, Brain Gender (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 18–19.

 

Megan K. DeFranza (Ph.d., Marquette University) teaches as an adjunct faculty in theology at Grdon College in Massachusetts. She earned an MA in Theology and an MA in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell theological Seminary, where she has also served as a visiting instructor. Megan lives with her husband and two young daughters, in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Originally published in Priscilla Papers, Volume 26, Number 4 Autumn 2012, p. 23.

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