Friday, August 28, 2009

An Appeal for a More Biblical "Challenge"

I’ve just come across another church doing a “sex challenge” sermon series. These commonly challenge the married couples in the church to engage in marital intimacy every day for a set period of time. The first one I ever saw was a 40-day challenge. Since then I’ve seen 30-day challenges, 20-day challenges, and finally the 7-day challenge.

Whenever I come across one of these, I always take 5 minutes to listen to the intro of the first message in the series. I don’t listen to hear something I’ve never heard. I listen to hear the one thing that every one of these pastors says in that first message: “Most churches are afraid to talk about sex. But not [insert name here] Church.” I always find that ironic. They each claim to be breaking the mold, daring to do what no one else will, and yet they all say the same things, tell the same jokes, use the same double entendres, advertise the same risqué sermon titles, and give the same local news interviews.

Is it wrong to preach about sex in church? Yes and no. It’s wrong to preach unbiblical things about sex. It’s not wrong to preach about sex straight from the biblical text. The wrong message that is often communicated by “challenge” sermons, either explicitly or implicitly, is that sex is the purpose of marriage and if you get that area working well, all other problems will melt away. “So, engage in relations everyday for forty days, and just see if your marriage doesn’t improve.”

There are numerous problems with this, but I’ll just address a few. First, there is absolutely no authority whatsoever behind these kinds of messages. What happens after the forty days or thirty days or whatever? Do we then go back to being selfish? What kind of preaching is that? These pastors are exhorting their people to do something that is not commanded in Scripture, i.e. have relations everyday even if neither of you want to. Therefore, when the challenge is over, the people are free to go back to their former routine. Preaching God’s Word on the other hand, draws a line in the sand between obedience and disobedience. It has no time limit and it has ultimate authority. It beckons people to conform to the truth everyday for the rest of their lives. The “challenges,” rather than convicting people of sin and pointing them to the grace and power of Jesus Christ, come across sounding more like an advice column from the local newspaper.

Second, these challenges teach absolutely the wrong thing about the purpose of marriage. As we saw in our sermon series on Ephesians 5:22-33, God ultimately created marriage for His own glory. Certainly, sex is a part of marriage, it is a gift from God for marriage, and He is glorified when it is mutually enjoyed. However, it is not the defining purpose of marriage.

And yet the way the issue is framed in these “challenges,” sex becomes the whole point, which can lead to one of two conclusions. 1) If the point is that after completing the challenge then all of a couple’s problems will be gone, then sex has become the means to their happiness, and that simply cannot be supported scripturally. God is not concerned about making us happy – He wants to make us holy. 2) If the point is that after completing the challenge, the couple will see how great life has become and will want to just keep going through an endless cycle of forty-day challenges, then it seems that sex has become the means and the end, and that cannot be supported scripturally either.

Third, sex does not sanctify. Increasing the frequency of marital relations will not make self-centered people selfless. It will not make someone more dependable, forgiving, kind, honest, or humble. In other words, all of the problems that existed before the challenge will continue to exist after the challenge because the challenge addresses a symptom, not the heart issues that precipitated it. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit using the Word of God as His tool of choice does sanctify. His Word lays the heart open so that the actual issues can’t be ignored. If people were exhorted from God’s Word to deal with their sin and pursue Christlikeness, they would find many areas of their marriages improving, including the area of intimacy.

Fourth, the motive is completely self-centered. One sermon series I saw was quite open about this – the series title was “Get Some.” This is exactly the opposite of what the Bible directs regarding sexual relations in marriage. In a stereotypical marriage, the husband might be thrilled about the challenge, and the wife might be hating it. Both are motivated by self-centeredness. The very framework of the challenge lends itself to this kind of selfishness.

Why do pastor’s resort to these gimmicks? I won’t speculate about their motives, but in a practical sense, it may be that they do not know the Word. Most of them reference Song of Solomon, which is fine, but typically they do so to prove that “God thinks sex is cool.” We find far more explicit instruction regarding sexual relations in marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. It prescribes an arrangement far more demanding, far more selfless, far more Christlike, and far more fulfilling than a 40-day challenge:

1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."
2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)

Did you catch that? Rather than “engage in relations every day for 40 days,” this text teaches that a couple should engage in relations every time either partner desires it for the rest of their lives. The only legitimate reason mentioned for abstaining is prayer, and that only by agreement. Sex is about giving, not getting. In fact, rather than “Get Some,” a more biblically accurate series title would be “Give Some.” Every married person should view his or her own body as a gift for the pleasure of the spouse. Whenever the wife has the desire, the husband is to provide. Whenever the husband has the desire, the wife is to provide. And it's not a challenge, as if you can take it or leave it. It's a command, and if you deprive your spouse, you are sinning.

This passage calls us to selflessness. It calls us to service. It may not pack pews, but pew-packing is not the purpose of preaching. Preaching is expounding God’s truth from God’s Word with a view to the salvation and sanctification of God’s people.

God’s Word is sufficient to address all issues of life and godliness. May the Lord raise up an army of preachers with a deep conviction about that. I pray that someday rather than coming across a seemingly endless trail of "40-day challenge" kind of preaching, the mainstay of the spiritual diet of this country will be verse-by-verse exposition of God’s Truth. Then people will be taught the truth about sex, its place in marriage, and the true keys to dealing with problems in marriage.

My challenge to all the "40-day challenge" preachers out there: there is no reason to innovate. God's Word is sufficient. Just preach what's on the page.

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