EXPLORING THE ENDLESS
What Rob Bell Says about Sexuality and Christian Spirituality
When I was writing A House Divided
I read Bell’s book, Sex God,
as part of my quest to see what various evangelical Christians
have said on the subject.
Bell, a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller
Theological Seminary, founded the evangelical Mars Hill Church in Grandville,
Michigan. His bestselling books have sometimes promoted controversy within
Christian cultures because of his nontraditional views on classic teachings
about such doctrines as salvation. He has been associated with the emerging
church movement. In my book, I cite Bell as an example of the views of
progressive Christians in contrast to those of conservative Christians.
As with most of Bell’s writings, Sex God
is an easy-to-read poetry-like collection of essays aimed at a
general Christian audience. It is neither a sex manual nor a theological
treatise but he does offer helpful insights into several ways human sexuality
is connected to Christian spirituality.
Appropriate to his somewhat confusing thesis, he begins with stories
illustrating the close connection between people and their creator and makes
the point that honoring God is intimately connected to honoring God’s image in
people-- including their sexuality.
Bell takes up the interpersonal connections following the
introduction where he reminds readers that sex is often disconnected from a
loving relationship as in the extreme example of purchasing sex, and not a
relationship, from a sex worker.
God’s love for humanity is at least a secondary
theme popping up in this work. This theme made me wonder if Bell is out to
share a message of redemption and renewal with many people who have experienced
the downside of sex and distorted love.
As is common among many progressive, but not conservative,
evangelicals, the relationship between a man and a woman is presented as a
relationship between equals. Not surprisingly, Bell addresses the concept of
submission in romantic couples. His address to women about their worth might seem a bit
odd coming from a man rather than a woman but a more generous take
might be that he is trying to counter the approach of many male preachers and
their traditions that keep men elevated above women in marriage and the church and consider women as
incomplete without a man.
It may be of some interest to contemporary Christians to
read Bell’s analysis of one aspect of "godly marriage" in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Christian Old
“The sexual bond is central to what it means to be married.
No consummation, no marriage. (p. 130).”
That’s clearly succinct but he does provide the text
references to support the close connection between the sex act and the recognition of the marital bond.
read other old texts, you see how women were treated as property. Even when raped, the
woman has no say in her future-- she’s stuck with a rapist for life if he wants her and
pays a fee to her father (see Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 22). How can Bell be so generous with such language? Essentially, Bell believes the biblical text was progressive
for its time and the treatment of women improved by the time of the New
Bell tosses in a few other bits of biblical information but
I do not see a close tie-in with his theme. For example, he makes a point to
remind singles of their worthy status, which is often not recognized in
Christian cultures. That must be nice to know for singles but what should we make of the focus on the illustration of sexual relationships reflecting the uniting of God with humanity?
And he reminds readers that girls used to marry at ages 13
or 14 in the first century. He affirms, but does not spend much time on, abstinence until marriage. I wondered if he was thinking about the decade or
so that sexual desire must be suppressed to comply with the current purity culture
expectations of abstinence until couples can enjoy sex.
Overall, Bell appears to be concerned with a broad
understanding of Christian sexuality as bound up with spirituality. Uniting
with a mate is spiritual and it is very much like uniting with God.
Bell has spoken about same-sex marriage elsewhere (Relevant,
) but not in this book. That’s not surprising given the publication
date (2007). Given the heterosexual examples and focus in God Sex,
it is not easy to discern how he might use the same
framework to write more broadly about sex and Christian spirituality. A hint is
probably in a quote from a Relevant
article “I am for love.”
I think this book would be appreciated mostly by young evangelicals who are not ultraconservative in their worldview. Sex God is an example of the genre, Progressive Christianity. I do not think his book fits well with the views of feminists, Christian fundamentalists, or even conservative evangelicals.
A few more observations and comments
Extending Bell's logic, cohabiting Christians might have a biblical marriage.
Women were a man's property in pre-Christian biblical texts.
Christians remain divided about a woman's role in a "Christian marriage."
The Bible offers different views about sex.
Christian writers find many ways to pair sexual activity with a spiritual meaning.
Many religions link God or gods with sex.
A few discussion questions
How are Bell's views of sex different from those of other Christian leaders?
Why do so many Christians want to connect sexual activity with a spiritual meaning?
What biblical texts affirm being single as of equal value to being married?
How helpful are Bell's comments on "progress" to deal with the old texts about rapists marrying their victims?
Do biblical metaphors work differently for men and women in relating to Jesus as a bridegroom?
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