“God does not exist.” – Psalm 53:2
“Wives should be subordinate to their husbands.” – Ephesians 5:22
“And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” – Matthew 27:46
Just about any bible scholar would tell you that those passages are quoted grossly out of context, and they would be right. But at first glance, they look bad, don’t they? Why would the psalmist write that God does not exist? Why would Paul tell the church in Ephesus that wives should be subordinate to their husbands? Why would Jesus cry out saying that God had forsaken (or in some translations, abandoned) Him? If we take those passages out of context, they not only look bad, they miss the point entirely.
The same is true with affection in relationships.
The Church teaches that passion, desire, and sex are good things, but in the right context, i.e. marriage. Passion and desire for another is a good, even holy thing. So is sex. But, when we have sex (and foreplay and the like) outside of marriage, it is not in the right context. What exactly is sex? Sex is the consummation of marriage vows. Therefore, if we engage in sex outside of marriage, it is no different than quoting something out of context. Sex makes sense in the context of marriage because it affirms the marriage vows – the free and total gift of one spouse to the other, until death parts them. Without marriage vows, what would we be affirming if we had sex? That we’ll love each other in the moment? That I’ll care for you as long as this moment of passion lasts? Is sex, outside of the context of marriage, really a free and total self-gift, from now to eternity?
Christopher West writes in Good News about Sex & Marriage, “Similarly, physical behaviors that aim to arouse the body in preparation for intercourse…are not appropriate expressions of affection for the unmarried. When there is simply no moral possibility of consummated love, it is, in fact, unloving to arouse someone to the point of physical craving for intercourse.” The context of marriage, the sacred vows that a couple takes, sanctifies sex and puts sex in the right context, that is, in a holy, graced state. Sex, and, as West writes, behaviors that aim to arouse the body in preparation for sex, divorced from the context of marriage, lack the context that makes sex so beautiful, so holy, so life giving.
If we look at those Scripture verses above in their context, they make sense. The psalmist writes that only the fool says that God does not exist. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. Wives are to submit to their husbands in the same way that Christ submits to His bride, the Church (in case you missed this part of Scripture: Christ lays down His life for His bride). Christ quotes the beginning of psalm 22 (a common practice in Christ’s time, which referenced the entire psalm), which ends with the psalmist praising the Lord, vowing to live for Him. In the right context, we see the beauty of those quotes, but outside of that context we are left confused and misunderstood. The same principle applies to sex and foreplay outside of marriage. In a nutshell: context matters. Context is what makes the details come alive, beauty resonate, and the message simple and clear.