You might have seen my post earlier this year about ‘Doing Theology in the Local Church‘, and the three rough scripts of talky-bits that I delivered as a result. One of the big questions that came out from our first term was the broader question of how our Christianity and our sexuality are related. We decided to devote a term (three evening services) to start thinking about this, because it is a vital missional and pastoral set of conversations, questions, and issues. To start off, though, we felt that the best way to start a discussion about Christianity and sexuality was to start with Jesus. The post below represents a tweaked version of the ‘script’ of the talk from the second week. Whoever you are, and however you’ve found yourself on this blog, I’d encourage you to approach it with an open mind. I don’t believe the Bible talks about heterosexuals or homosexuals or any other identity marker – it talks about people, with certain characteristics and activities being in focus. I’d welcome your comments.
Week 2 – The Bible and Sex
What would it mean to consider the whole teaching of the Bible – the grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation in the Kingdom of God – in our conversations about sex, sexuality and following Jesus?
Sex is not the focus of this narrative.
But it is a part of the story.
We hope that by thinking about what the Bible has to say about sex – whether you are wondering how to translate complex technical words like arsenokoites or if the Bible has *anything* to say – we will be able to point you towards Jesus.
So what does the Bible say about sex?
Well, without providing chapter and verse, we believe that the Bible says three things
- Sex is part of being human
- Sex is something the Bible is positive about
- Sex is part of the challenge of Christian discipleship – which challenges us to think, who do we really love? And what do we mean by love?
The Bible is a record of God’s action with and to his people – and, as you might expect from a library spanning hundreds of years of human history, multiple literary genres, and at least two major world religions, there are not many topics on which it is entirely silent. Sometimes the Bible gives us explicit teaching on a topic – other times it gives us some timeless principles, to help us navigate the ever changing, constantly creative world that we live in.
When it comes to sex, though, the Bible offers some essential principles, which run through the whole library, and some really specific teaching – some of which is quite explicit!
[i] Sex/Sexuality is a positive part of being human – created good, fallen, redeemed, and pointing towards someone else.
Hopefully the idea that the Bible is a library, and contains a wide range of types of writing, is not new to you. If it is – or you are wondering how we can read the Bible let alone take it seriously, I’d encourage you to check out the script of one of our sessions at this evening service from last term (and particularly check out the recommended reading!).
Genesis 1-3 is the opening sequence of Scripture, and it covers quite a lot of ground. God’s creativity is centre stage, with a radical focus on human beings. In Genesis 1:26-28, the Bible talks about humankind, all humans, being made in the Image of God:
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This mysterious theme resonates throughout the whole Bible – and is a principle that means that to be human is to be made in the image of God, to have dignity and value, and that to damage or kill a human is a serious act. If you don’t hear anything else this evening, hear this: Genesis affirms and celebrates the human person as being uniquely reflective of God, of unique dignity and worth. I’ve written about this before, particularly with reference to some of the worst abuse of humans for issues around sex and sexuality.
That human kind was made male and female in the image of God is a radical idea that teaches us something about God, and something about us. About God, it challenges us that God is beyond and above sex and Gender. About us, it reveals that our maleness and femaleness are a vital, literally life-giving, part of what it means to be human. This command, fruitfulness and multiplication, is the first instance of what we might today call sexuality in the Biblical narrative.
As if to emphasise this – and also, I think to shock us (particularly in a patriarchal, male-dominated culture like much of that of the Ancient Near East), Genesis 2 tells us the same story from a different angle. Man is created – but on his own he is incomplete. Theologians call what is described here the ‘one flesh union’, echoing the complementary nature of male and female – both fully human, both fully made in the Image of God, together. The note in verse 24; “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” is the basis for Christian (and Jewish) sexual ethics. This is why Jesus explicitly quotes Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5, affirming and underlining this ethic as being common to all cultures in creation.
The story of sex in the Bible continues – but everything yet to come is to be read in the light of Genesis 3. The ideal, God’s good design and intention for sex (one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation and joy, in this thing that we have come to call marriage), was shattered. The event that theologians call ‘The Fall’ changed the way the world is. We know this world has darkness and pain in – even as it has glimpses of light. Genesis 3 describes how this came about.
[Generic image of desert – I use slides when speaking, partly to break up what I’m saying, and partly for emphasis]
The writer Francis Spufford explains the word sin with the acronym ‘HPTFTU’. The Human Propensity to F*** Things Up. This is what happens in the fall, which we read about in Genesis 3. The original sin, outlined here, is a desire to be like God, to have all knowledge. The marriage bond continues – even as the man blames God and his wife for what is happening. But note, in God’s words, what the result of this is: childbearing will hurt, desire will be for a husband, and he will rule the wife, whilst work becomes hard and difficult, and death enters the world.
The male/female nature of marriage continues.
Now, we’ve covered a lot of ground, and we’ve only moved three chapters into the Bible, which has 1,189 in total, so we need to speed up.
The rest of Genesis, which is full of sex of various kinds, is broadly the story of God choosing and relating to God’s people. Genesis blends history, myth and poetry – and so is somewhat matter of fact about some relatively shocking sexual activity.
How God’s people treat sex has been a distinguishing feature of those who follow him since before the Christian faith was founded. God’s being is not sexed. God’s people do not involve sex in their worship. And God’s people are invited, in excruciating detail, to honour God with every aspect of their life. Leviticus, which is an example of a legal text in the context of faith in God, includes a wide range of sexual prohibitions, including incest, adultery, male same-sex sexual activity, polygamy, and even bestiality, and so on in chapter 18. I think it is important to note that these prohibitions are addressed to followers of a holy God, and refer to specific activities, rather than people in particular. I would argue that translating the words here as ‘homosexuality’, a contested term of identity that is historically quite recent, is a bad way to read the Hebrew. A better translation here is the physical act of men engaging in sexual activity with men. Interestingly, in verse 24-26, we read part of the ‘why’: “You must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things”. Whatever you might think of the Old Testament, the invitation to holiness applies to God’s people from all kinds of backgrounds, not just the Jews.
The old Testament is often accused of being polluted by patriarchy and obsessed with marraige. In fact, it’s picture of singleness echoes and reinforces this idea that sex is not fundamental to being human. It might be the case that you are, for any reason, single. It may be that you struggle with that. It might be that you are tired of hearing married people talk about things at the front of Church. This, I think, is where the Old Testament can be a powerful resource. We see a range of inspirational characters who are single. Aside from eunuchs, who could also represent a possible way of thinking about folks who don’t easily fit into traditional understandings of male and female, we could talk about Miriam (Moses’ sister), Ebed-melech, Nathan-melech, Daniel and his three friends, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and Mordecai. Indeed, it may be that God’s promise to eunuchs could apply to and give hope to those who wished to marry but were forced to stay single. God’s special eschatological promise in Isaiah 56:3-5 is perhaps particularly challenging in terms of affirming a life beyond and without sex:
“And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
We don’t have time to talk about every aspect of sex and sexuality covered in the Old Testament, whether it be some of the earthy subtext of some Psalms, profound imagery in the Prophets, or biblical wisdom on relationships in Proverbs. If we had more time, we would certainly want to delve deep into the book of Song of Songs, 8 chapters about a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. Whilst some commentators, particularly in some of the more prudish parts of church history, have tried to say that it is all entirely figurative language about Christ and the Church, it is pretty undeniable that it is also rooted in a sexual relationship, affirming and celebrating the particular kind of love that exists between a man and a woman, even as it echoes and points beyond itself. Tremper Longman III who has written widely on both Song of Songs and marriage observes that part of the beauty and joy of the lovers comes from their chastity up to this point. The man and the woman have not had sex – and so are free to celebrate God’s good gift in the context God intends. In the Old Testament, as a model for some human relationships, we also see the book of Ruth, which shows us a beautiful friendship between two women, and many other stories of the power and beauty of non-sexual relationships.
Sex is important, and it is good, but it is not an ultimate thing.
So, that is a very brief introduction to the Old Testament vision for sex and sexuality. Hopefully you can see what I mean when I say that God gives us a positive vision, which is framed in the context of flourishing, joy and wholeness, even as it is limited in certain ways, echoing the holiness of God in the holiness he gives to his people.
At this point, we took a break for discussion, snacks, and came back together by watching the following video clip from the West Wing. (I must confess that I’ve never actually watched the West Wing, but have been sent this clip dozens of times as an attempt at a slam-dunk on the way Christians talk about sexual ethics compared to other ethics, based on a perceived misreading of the Old Testament).
Hopefully you enjoyed the West Wing Clip – I’m sure you’ve all heard a version of that argument. Perhaps you think that because Jesus didn’t explicitly condemn something, we are free to engage in it. To put it simply, why do Christians still think, and think historically, that same-sex relationships are not ok, but eating pork or wearing mixed fibres are? I’m not naming same-sex sexual activity particularly to focus on it, but as an example, and because in our culture holding the Old Testament’s standard on this is increasingly looked on as being odd and eccentric at best, and downright evil at worst.
As Christians, we need to be mindful of the Old Testament – because, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”. So, when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality, we need to unpack what Jesus says, in light of the Old Testament, but ever with an ear as to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
With that in mind, I’ve got four suggestions as to how we might answer President Bartlett’s question.
Firstly, in Mark 7:19, Jesus ended the cleanliness and food laws, by declaring all foods clean. Moreover, in contradiction to explicit Old Testament commands, he also touched lepers and dead bodies, and was not made unclean by doing so. Secondly, Jesus obsoleted the Old Testament regulations concerning the Temple and the sacrificial system when he declared that he is the true Temple and his death the ultimate once-for-all sacrifice. Thirdly, by changing the way God’s people gather and live together, Jesus also replaced the way that the civil and criminal laws worked. No longer are God’s people one nation, but from every tribe and tongue and nation. Fourthly and finally, through his sinless life Jesus fully embodied and fulfilled all the requirements of the Law. Pastor and author Tim Keller summarises:
“In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.”
One of the key words in the New Testament when talking about sexual activity outside of, beyond, or before marriage, is porneia. This was an uncommon word in Greek and Roman society, but appears over 2000 times in Jewish and Christian literature. This word occurs explicitly 25 times in the New Testament, and words rooted in it and related to it appear 56 times. The Vineyard Scholar Thomas Lyons, currently teaching and finishing up his PhD at Asbury Seminary, has written a trio of brilliant blog posts on this word and what it might mean, with particular reference to discussion of sex and sexuality in the life of the church, and I’m grateful to him for drawing our attention to it. This raises the important question – what is porneia referring too? In the ‘industry standard’ Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, it clearly includes at least what is specifically forbidden in the Old Testament:
“The NT is characterised by an unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse. A further result of this is a basically new attitude to woman. She is no longer man’s chattel but a partner of equal dignity before both man and God.”
The word ‘unnatural’ hear might hit modern ears wrong – but the TDNT makes it clear that, as Keller observes above, the prohibitions on sexual activity flow over. But there is more. Woman is now, with the coming of the Kingdom of God in Christ, a partner of equal dignity. This is an important part of Jesus’ Kingdom vision for human flourishing and relationships.
Jesus’ comments on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 end with a complex word to those who, for whatever reason, do not get married:
“The disciples said to him, ‘if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’ Jesus replied, ‘not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For their are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it”
A quick pause.
Jesus and his disciples were ministering and speaking into a context where the expectation is that we are to marry. His disciples raise the radical idea that, perhaps, it might be better not to marry. When did you last hear that in church? And, given that marriage is the only context in which the Bible celebrates sexual activity, when did you last hear anyone say ‘it might be better not to have sex?’. This is a clue as to the radical sexual ethic of the New Testament – as radical in Jesus’ ministry as it is today, that there is something better than sex. Our culture lies to us. Celibacy, the act of abstaining from sex, is not a fate worse than death.
And the reason for this is that marriage and sex are not ultimate things. In Mark 12, Jesus is asked whose wife a woman will be – who was married to seven different men, as they all died – in heaven: “Jesus replied, ‘are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in haven.’”
There is a hint here, again, of something better than sex, a more perfect form of love, that marriage points towards but is replaced by. It is a kind of love that will include every lover of Jesus, whatever our experience has been in life.
When Jesus invites us to give up everything to follow him, when the Holy Spirit calls us to make God the Lord of our life, there is nothing left out. It isn’t ‘everything but…’, but everything. And this is why I think, as I said last time, that the Holy Spirit is stirring us again, to consider whether we will be obedient to Jesus or obedient to what is convenient.
I hope that you’ve seen that the Christian prohibitions of adultery, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marriage are rooted in God’s good design for the world – rather than being rooted in a few verses ripped out of context and ignored with no wider principles of the Bible story brought to bear. I hope that you can see the concept behind this special word porneia, which makes sense of the Bible and Jesus’ attitude to sexual ethics by rooting in the bigger story, is actually an invitation to holiness. Hopefully, I’ve also pointed out that there is a love that surpasses any kind of love we experience in this life in purely human relationships, even sexual and romantic relationships.
Sex, and our sexuality, ultimately point towards our great love, Jesus. The Bible tells us the story of how creation begins with the wedding of a man and a woman – and it promises that the new creation – where no sex or marriage will get in the way of being in perfect relationship with each other and with God – will be ushered in by a wedding of a bridegroom, Jesus, and his bride, the Church.
Let me put it another way.
I love my wife. That love, for now, includes sexual activity. But, one day, it won’t, at least as we understand it now, because Christ is coming back.
The apostle John put it like this, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters… Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and truth”
If you’ve ever been to a church wedding, you may have heard the passage from 1 Corinthians 13. It is not about romantic love. It is not about sexual expressions of love within marriage. It is about a deeper love, the love that flows eternally from God, and I feel that the Holy Spirit would give us these words as we continue to wrestle with obedience to Jesus, and the reality of our broken world, and our call to a welcome to fellow image-bearers discovering the Kingdom of God:
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
We ended with a profound and powerful time of ministry. I also recommended a few books that have helped shape what I was saying, and might help people think further into some of the issues raised. Of these, Paula Gooder’s Body is perhaps the one I wish most people would read:
- Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality – TLDR? This book explains what sex is, why it matters, and what it’s all about.
- Tim and Kathy Keller – The Meaning of Marriage – TLDR? Amy and my favourite book on marriage, not least because of the superb chapter on singleness and the authors commitment to the big story of the Bible and God’s love.
- Denny Burk, What is the Meaning of Sex? – TLDR? From a conservative Baptist perspective, Denny beautifully explains and unpacks the Bible’s teaching, and orients our eyes to glorify God with everything.
- William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals – TLDR? A modern classic that helps us think theologically and hermeneutically about how we engage with the Bible’s complexity and hard teaching.
- Paula Gooder, Body – TLDR? Read this, because if you are human you are embodied, and that affects everything. (Of which sex is just a part)