Christian leaders talk about marriage and sex

Last week, Rick Warren sent this message to the nearly 500,000 people who follow him on Twitter: “Husbands & wives should satisfy each other’s sexual needs. 1 Cor 7:3.”

His Twitter feed lit up with amens and retweets. “Oh gosh,” exclaimed one follower.

Evangelical Christians want to talk about sex. And not in the same old punitive way. They want to talk about hot sex — as long as it’s between a man and a woman who are husband and wife. That Warren, perhaps the nation’s most prominent evangelical pastor, would take up the cause only shows how much it matters to the people who listen to him.

Warren has a huggy-bear personal style that sometimes drifts toward over-sharing, and in another tweet he recently wrote: “Sex with 1 wife for Life ISNT like playing 1 record over&over but learning 1 instrument well for yrs of beautiful music!” (I can almost see his wife, Kay, far more restrained and private than her husband, blushing.)

This sexual revolution is the inevitable result of a younger Christian generation rejecting outright the prudish “don’t do it because I said so” approach to sex and social morality of their grandfathers. According to a recent article in Christian magazine Relevant, 80 percent of self-identified Christians have sex before marriage, compared with 88 percent of the general population. According to “UnChristian,” a 2008 book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, 44 percent of born-again Christians ages 23 to 41 believe sex outside marriage is morally acceptable, compared with 23 percent of those who are older. Divorce rates among evangelicals are the same as those in the population at large.

The model Christian marriage, moreover, has traditionally been one in which the wife bows to the will of her husband the way a Christian does to God, but many evangelical women are in the midst of their own liberation movement. They are reinterpreting Scriptural verses requiring them to “submit” and “obey,” and they’re no longer content to “be known as the quiet, meek, pathetic group that doesn’t get to experience twenty-first century freedom,” as Jonalyn Fincher writes in the afterword to “UnChristian.”

By the same token, the sexual satisfaction of Christian women historically has not been of high importance. Even today, the Focus on the Family Web site includes categories such as “Understanding Your Husband’s Sexual Needs” and “When Your Husband Isn’t Interested in Sex.”

The new sex talk is a way, then, of meeting Christians where they are. With explicit descriptions of the ecstasies of the married state, Christian leaders hope to persuade a younger generation that what they call “Biblical marriage” — a faithful, monogamous, heterosexual union before God — is relevant and valuable in the modern world.

To be blunt: They hope the promise of hot sex will keep young people from drifting away from church. Their worries are not unfounded. The number of young people who say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition stands at 31 percent, the fastest growing religious cohort in the country.

Now Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has entered the conversation. He devotes the last chapter of his new book, “The Meaning of Marriage,” (written with his wife, Kathy) to sex. Keller, who ministers mainly to single professionals in Manhattan, provides readers with general (hot) guidelines on married sex, such as: “Each partner in a marriage is to be most concerned not with getting sexual pleasure but with giving it. . . . The greatest sexual pleasure should be the pleasure of seeing your spouse getting pleasure.”

The couple also confesses, in an intimate way, to their early marital struggles with sex. “We came to realize,” Kathy writes, “that orgasm is great, especially climaxing together. But the awe, the wonder, the safety, and the joy of just being one is stirring even without that. And when we stopped trying to perform . . . things started to move ahead.”

In church, Keller is an intimidating force, an intellectually demanding Calvinist who preaches frequently on sin. Passages like these compel you to imagine him at his most vulnerable. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Do Keller, and Warren, and others fall short by failing to include gays and lesbians in their vision of married love? Yes.

But with their clinical frankness, these leaders are giving real sex to Christians the way “The Joy of Sex” gave it to the masses back in 1972.