Why Protestants Need Theology of the Body Now More Than Ever
or why sexual and gender confusion will go on until we get clear about why and how our bodies matter.
If you’ve followed Perishable Goods for any amount of time, you’re probably aware that we’re all about “recovering the meaning of the body for the modern age.” More specifically, we’re interested in helping Christians, especially Protestants who grew up Evangelical, recover the significance of the physical body as captured by Scripture, codified by Christian tradition, and confirmed by experience. In other words, we’re interested in outlining and exploring a biblical theology of embodiment—that is, the reality of existing as created persons who have bodies—for the contemporary Church.
For those less familiar with theology of the body (which we realize is the case for a lot of Evangelicals), we thought it might be helpful to explain why we think “recovering the meaning of the body” for contemporary Protestant Christians is necessary in the first place.
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1. Given the disembodying effects of today’s tech-saturated world, we Christians desperately need to recover, rearticulate, and rehabituate ourselves to the reality that the physical body is necessary for life, relationships, and personal identity.
As we’ve noted before, the story of the modern age is one in which the human body has become increasingly obsolete and, consequently, its necessity for day-to-day life, for our relationships, and for who we are has practically been forgotten. More than ideological developments in the academy, socio-political movements like the sexual revolution, or even secularization, the effects of modern technology are chiefly responsible for our amnesia of the body.
From telephones to personal laptops, modern technologies have increasingly liberated us from our bodies’ limitations in the day to day. In the first world, many of us no longer need to physically exert our bodies in order to make a living wage. We have only to login to a server, pitter patter on our keyboards, and “Zoom” into work meetings. With today’s smartphones, we can “see” them on FaceTime or “hangout” on Google. In fact, we don’t even need real physical people in order to have “friends.” Even procreation, which naturally takes place through sexual intercourse, no longer requires that two bodies be in the same room.
These and countless other technological advancements (in medicine, agriculture, sanitation, and beyond) have fashioned a world in which the body takes a back seat. In such a disembodying and disembodied world, it should be no surprise that a (what I’ll call) disembodied imagination and self-conception—that is, thinking of ourselves and our world apart from our bodies—has become more prevalent.
In contrast, Christianity has long maintained that the body is essential to who we are as human persons. In order to resist the disembodying effects of technology, Protestant Christians and churches need a theology of the body that not only rearticulates but actually habituates believers into a way of life where our God-given bodies are central for life, relationship, and personal identity.
Recovering a proper, biblical sexual ethic—like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have made good efforts at—is, of course, a crucial part of this. But we Protestants will need more than this, not only to resist the current culture of disembodiment, but to find a way forward for long-term human flourishing.
This is where theology of the body, in the broadest sense, comes in. First, we need to rearticulate the truth of the physical body and its necessity to our created, fallen, redeemed, and, eventually, resurrected life. Theoretical work is not enough, though. Knowledge must be put into practice. Thus, secondly, we will need to think practically about how to habituate our lives according to the truth of the body. We will need to develop practical rhythms of Sabbath rest, practice God-honoring forms of physical exercise and embodied play, preserve and create spaces that help us to be integrated with the rest of creation and its grandeur, cultivate methods of pastoral ministry and counseling that see the body as essential to the healing and recovery process, establish practices of fasting and feasting that challenge the worldly traditions of dieting and binging, and so on. The list could go on, but you can start to get the point. The bottom line: If we are to recover the God-given meaning of our bodies in an age that has obscured them, then we will need to be intentional about creating environments, communities, and practices in which our bodies are treated accordingly.
2. Protestants need a theology of the body in order to courageously embrace the reality of our mortality and minister to a world unsettled by death and brokenness.
The disembodying effects of today’s tech-saturated culture are far-reaching. One of the ways that technology has led to a more “disembodied” conception of life, relationships, and the self, is by making death and brokenness seem like the exception to the rule.
From the invention of penicillin to the Covid Vaccine, we live in a world where our bodily brokenness has become less and less common. In the past 200 years the average human life span has nearly doubled. Most people don’t often have friends or loved ones die. And, today, there’s a pill, shot, or procedure to fix our most common illnesses and vulnerabilities. When this is our day-to-day existence, most of us begin to think that death is a distant reality, and that bodily brokenness is uncommon.
Such a world cultivates an expectation that these things won’t—or shouldn’t—happen to us for a long time—especially if we spend a lot of time and money on extensive skin care routines, workout regimens, diets, supplements, health care, and the like. For some, technology has even emboldened them to believe that death can be overcome entirely.
But neither our skin care routines nor our supplements can save us from the inevitable. For all the modern world’s mitigation of mortality and vulnerability, we are still fragile, dependent, fallen creatures whose bodies will age, break, and eventually die.
A theology of the body, unlike our present culture, readily affirms the fallen realities of death and decay. But it does more than that. As Scripture shows us time and again, our fallen limits, like our created limits, are meant to draw us into dependence on God. Our fallen limits are avenues, not obstacles, to God. Such a theology of our bodies would better equip Protestants to reach a culture that is in deep fear and denial about death.
3. Given the current confusion over gender and sexuality, Protestants need a theology of the body in order to live out the fullness of God’s good design for sexuality and to embrace the complementary gifts of masculinity and femininity, as well as marriage and singleness.
While many Protestants have already been engaged in these topics for years, the cultural debates surrounding the issues of gender, marriage, and sexuality remain interminable if we fail to answer fundamental questions about God’s purposes for the human body, both temporally and eternally. In order to grasp why sexual complementarity matters in marriage, Christians need to understand how and why God ordered the bodies of men and women with purpose and difference. Similarly, in order to appreciate both marriage and singleness as worthy callings for a Christian, we first need to comprehend what it means to be sexed (i.e. to be male or female) outside of the context of sexual intercourse. Ultimately, questions about gender, marriage, and sexuality are questions about the created order itself. Without a solid understanding of how sexual difference matters beyond biological function, our understanding of the human body as male and female will fall drastically short.
Ours is a generation that has been raised on pornography and taught that the only thing you need to make sex “safe” is contraception. We’ve been taught that sex is a mind-over-matter situation—that our bodies make no significant claims on our identities or our relationships; that traditional femininity and masculinity must be abolished unless we’re cosplaying hypersexualized stereotypes of them; that sexual intercourse is essential to a well-adjusted life, but having sex with one person for life is an archaic absurdity; that we own our bodies as commodities, and that complete bodily autonomy is of primary importance. Our culture is caught in a tangled mess of contradictions regarding sex, and results are proving calamitous.
Ultimately, our generation’s confusion about these issues stems from an underlying bewilderment about what it means to have a body that is given to us and limited. Current Western culture tells us that we can largely overcome our bodily limitations, either by means of technology, or mental toughness, or spiritual enlightenment. Because we fail to conceive of ourselves as creatures, we’ve come to despise our bodies’ natural, created limits—including sex, sexual difference, and fertility. Until we’re able to see these limits as gifts from an almighty, wise Creator, we cannot hope to flourish within them.
Many millennial men and women, now deep in the throes of marriage, childbearing, and parenting—or unmarried and disillusioned to secular singleness—have begun to realize that the cultural narratives about sex, marriage, contraception, femininity, and masculinity are deeply distorted and damaging. They are looking for answers, and for another way of life. Protestant churches must be ready to receive these men and women, questions and all, and model what it looks like to live out God’s good design for sexuality with gratitude and integrity. The Church must be equipped with a theology of the body that upholds Christ as Lord over marriage, sexuality, and reproduction, and accounts for the created goodness, fallenness, and redemption of these gifts.
These are just a few reasons why Protestants will need to develop a robust theology of the body in the years ahead. In the face of disembodying technology which only continues to develop, increasing distance from death, and sexual and reproductive confusion, the Church must articulate why our bodies matter to our lives, our relationships, our humanity, and to our lives as saints. We must be ready to give a defense for the body and the role it plays in the drama of salvation. Most importantly, we must continue to celebrate the body of our Lord in its incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification. For only His wounds are sufficient to heal our present malaise.
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