“A sermon on Song of Solomon! But single people aren’t supposed to read that book!” This was my friend’s surprised and sarcastic reply as I told him I was working on this sermon. I laughed one of those rather somber “this is too real” kind of laughs, realizing the great irony of writing a sermon on a book that has had a painful history of being repressed or denied for those of us who are single.
I grew up in the I Kissed Dating Goodbye era of evangelical church history (for which my mother has recently apologized for ever having me read).1 The purity culture was a strong force in my childhood and adolescent years, teaching all of us that sex and any form of sexual expression was to be feared.2 Men were highly sexual beings and therefore women tossed on their loose turtlenecks, baggy pants, and wore little makeup to make sure we didn’t become labeled “temptress.”3 Now before I get too far, I need to dismiss some concerns you may have about where my sermon is heading. Before my words are dismissed as the ramblings of a progressive twenty-six-year-old pastor who’s too easily swayed by modern culture—I am (at least partially) grateful for my conservative evangelical upbringing when it comes to my sexuality. For all the flaws I see within it, the purity culture did indeed keep me safe. My fiancé and I are indeed abstaining from sex before marriage and we would both advise others to do the same.
But the purity culture also, inadvertently, taught me to embrace shame. Something I didn’t realize until my fiancé kissed me for the first time and my physical reaction made me blush, lower my eyes, and feel as if I had done something wrong. From conversations I’ve had with many other single women—both older and younger—I’m not the only one wrestling with this experience. It seems as though, for single women, our sexuality is to be repressed until the marriage bed (which, of course, is then supposed to simply explode out of us on our wedding night), and up until that point we dare not let our sexual bodies speak! Knowing how hard this has been for me, who, as my fiancé and I are discussing marriage, can “see the light at the end of the tunnel” so to speak—how much more challenging for women who are not dating and deeply long for such a relationship!
And so the question I’m asking of myself, of single women, and of all those who care about a woman who is single is, “how is this working for you?” I’ve spent many years in extreme confusion for what God truly desired for my life. I am not convinced this repression of sexuality while I’m single will lead to a healthy embrace of sex in all its goodness once I am married. We cannot train our bodies to live in shame our whole lives and then simply turn off that shame once we marry. And more importantly, I do not believe a God who came to save us from our fear, guilt, and shame (and furthermore, a God who created sex and calls it “good”) would ever desire a single woman (or man!) to live this way. Therefore, it was with a bit of fire in my bones that I approached this sermon on Song of Songs and singleness as a subject severely lacking but desperately needed in our churches today. May God use this text to release us in our singleness to shout a resounding “yes,” both to God and to our own sexuality. So if you are single and haven’t spent much time, if any, reading Song of Songs—do so now. (And do so before you finish reading this sermon.) Perhaps you’ll notice a few of the things I noticed myself.
We have a history in the church of turning this erotic love poem into an allegory for God and Israel or God and the church, sometimes even believing this allegorical interpretation was indeed the author’s original intent.4 Now, by no means do I intend to dismiss the interpretive work of many scholars who have presented the text in this way. Reading this poem as God speaking to God’s people presents a beautiful and loving image of our God, and allegory is not out of the question. In fact, after reading the text closely I discovered the lyrics to one of my favorite worship songs actually comes from Song of Songs!5 However, when anyone reads it—even when searching for allegorical and theological meaning—we all say, “wow, this is extremely sexual,” and start to squirm in our seats. It’s the elephant in the room everyone sees but no one wants to discuss. Therefore, without denying the work of many wise scholars and Christian leaders, I believe we should also engage the text at face value. This is a poem about two people expressing their sexuality. Can it not be both allegory and a lens into our own humanity? As my professor, Scot McKnight, says, “No matter how hard some well-intentioned parent, Sunday School teacher or pastor tries to convince the young Christian kid that this book—smack dab in the Bible—is an allegory of our relationship to God, it sure does sound like love poetry. So it is.”6 Until we stop denying or masking the overt sexual imagery in the text, we will not be able to see God’s good design for human sexuality and what this means for us as single people.
We don’t have to look far for a redeeming point for female sexuality—the woman speaks first! “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song 1:1 NRSV). Throughout the poem, the woman longs for, speaks to, and initiates sexual intimacy. Furthermore, there is little indicating these lovers were married in the first place!7 As a woman who grew up believing female sexuality was to be repressed, ashamed of, and always on the passive side of a relationship, this bold expression of her sexuality was eye opening. Yes—women are sexual beings too and it is acceptable, even encouraged, to express this and feel this way! To find such sexual language coming from a single woman in scripture is astounding, considering how the world of scripture was steeped in patriarchy. And yet, here is a woman, refusing to be passive, initiating love and proclaiming her desires regardless of what her society around her would want her to do. A far cry from the passive woman who “kissed dating goodbye”—a mere recipient of the love of a man. We are not called to live out the constraints of the fall where women are “simply ‘Eve,’ defined by her role as mother and destined to relate to her man only as powerful superior.” Instead, we are equal persons, designed by God to both experience and express sexuality without shame.8
The problem I’ve so often run into, not only pastoring in this purity culture generation, but living it out as well, is the extreme swing many women make to the opposite end of the spectrum in embracing their sexuality. Upon coming to the realization that, yes, female sexuality is to be embraced and delighted in, caution and wisdom are thrown to the wind. Any and all teaching that smells of a conservative sexual ethic is immediately disregarded as shameful. No one can tell me what to do with my body! This is one central reason the church must begin reshaping how we talk about sexuality! As long as sexuality continues to be repressed and seen as shameful for single people, we will continue having a broken and ungodly sexuality. One commentator writes on this saying, “The collateral damage that the attempt to use Christian faith to repress important aspects of our humanity causes is huge, for if faith and humanness are set in conflict with each other, sooner or later a human being will find the attempt to manage conflict intolerable and will choose humanness.”9 I like how theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it in a rather humorous way, “no ethic, not even the most conservative, should be judged by its ability to influence the behavior of teenagers in the back seat of a car.”10 Traditional evangelical answers to sexual ethics are no longer helpful in a post-Christendom world, and the church must now open people’s imagination for what godly sexual transformation can look like.11
Perhaps there’s a way we can redeem sexuality in the way God intends without swinging the pendulum quite so far. “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or wild does: do not store up or awaken love until it is ready!” (Song 2:7 NRSV). At first glance, her words sound like the same rhetoric of sexual repression I’ve been trying to refute this entire time! And it is indeed a warning. Love and sexuality is a great and powerful gift from God not to be taken lightly or out of the correct time and circumstances.12 But even these daughters of Jerusalem celebrate and engage in their own sexuality by rejoicing with the couple in their love.13 Therefore, I read these words and hear them quite differently from the “don’t have sex before you’re married” speeches I heard growing up. Because all of those messages, at the end of the day, stem from the fear and shame of spoiling your marriage bed.
What if, instead, our conversation around singleness and sexuality revolved around answering the question—what kind of people are we becoming? Sexual ethics is not a matter of “what can I do and not do as a single person.” It is a matter of “how can I live out the life God has called me to because I love God and desire to do so?” I wouldn’t normally quote so heavily from a commentary in a sermon, but Iain Provan’s commentary and reflection on Song of Songs says this too well not to share.
Christians are called, therefore, to proclaim a resounding “yes” to sexual expression, in the context of a resounding “yes” to God. It is in this proclamation, rather than repression of humanness and in our preaching of negative rules, that the goodness of God will be seen by others. . . . We have presented God to the world . . . as a God of unreasonable prohibition (Gen 3:1) rather than as a God who blesses us with freedom.14
When we proclaim a resounding “yes” to sexual expression as single people, it must first and foremost be in the context of our original resounding “yes” to Jesus Christ and living into the life for which we were truly created. We let go of the fear and guilt and shame and embrace who we are as sexual human beings within the context of who God has created us to be. My fiancé and I are not abstaining from sex because some pastor told us to or because we’re afraid it will someday ruin our marriage. We’re abstaining from sex because we love God first and foremost and desire to experience the life God has for us! I would be lying if I told you neither of us ever struggle with shame. However, not a day goes by that I am not filled with an inexpressible joy and love for him as we pursue each other and God together and embrace our sexuality in godly ways.
But before I end this message, I feel the need to say one final thing. I’m fully aware there are single godly women everywhere whose struggle with embracing sexuality is entirely different from and much more challenging than mine. I even hesitated sharing several comments about my fiancé and me because, well, I guess in a way I’m not truly single. While I am only twenty-six, I spent many years angry at God and believing the worst in myself because I was single and had no hope of a future relationship. And in those days, reading Song of Songs only brought more tears of frustration and loneliness, not an embrace of my sexuality. To these women (and men) who read my words, I refuse to make any empty (and unbiblical) promises of “just follow God and God will give you what you desire” or “just be content and God will bring you the relationship you need.” I heard these messages all the time and none of them were ever helpful. Know that I see you, have felt your pain, and haven’t forgotten how challenging sexuality can be within singleness. But God still desires to give us a new imagination for how we all embrace sexuality—single, dating, or married—one without fear, shame, or guilt and certainly without despair.
Perhaps the best definition of sexuality I’ve ever heard comes from Friar Ron Rolheiser. On his blog, Rolheiser presents a godly embrace of sexuality for which everyone—regardless of relationship status—can strive. He writes,
Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move towards unity and consummation with that which is beyond us. It is also the pulse to celebrate, to give and to receive delight, to find our way back to the Garden of Eden where we can be naked, shameless, and without worry and work as we make love in the moonlight. . . . Sexuality is not simply about finding a lover or even finding a friend. It is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it.15
Embracing our sexuality while single is not about sexual conquest and denying the life God would have for us. Embracing sexuality while single is the ability to see where our lives and our world are incomplete and finding ways to give and receive life in the midst of the brokenness. Does this image Rolheiser presents take away the sting and pain of loneliness? No, not always. But slowly and surely God begins to open our imagination to see the transformation of our desires begin to take shape around what God has for us. So may we all learn how to embrace our sexuality by giving the best of ourselves to all relationships and all goodness in life. May our resounding “yes” to God ring out and show the world a godly sexuality in all its fullness—whatever form that may take.
1. See the sermon by Dawn Gentry in this issue of Priscilla Papers. The reference is to Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2003).
2. There is an excellent article in The Washington Post about the reaction to Joshua Harris’s book and the subsequent effects on women. See Liz Lenz, “‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ Told Me to Stay Pure until Marriage. I Still Have a Stain on My Heart,” Washington Post (July 27, 2016), sec. Acts of Faith. Opinion.
3. Consider, for example, the “loose woman” described in Prov 2:16–19.
4. Robert W. Jenson, Song of Songs, IBC (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 11.
5. “You Won’t Relent,” words and music by Misty Edwards, quotes Song 8:6–7.
6. Scot McKnight, “Love in the Key of Delight 1,” Jesus Creed blog (April 2, 2007).
7. Many scholars have noted the lovers in Song of Solomon are single and the poem itself is about “sexual attraction and physical beauty.” Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, AB (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), 205.
8. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 275.
9. Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 251.
10. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 182.
11. This topic merits a whole other sermon. For further insight into our modern culture, I recommend Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004).
12. Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 286.
13. See Song 1:4, 5:1, 9.
14. Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 252. Emphasis mine.
15. Ron Rolheisher, “A Mature Sexuality.” http://ronrolheiser.com/a-mature-sexuality (May 28, 1998).