Much of the current debate, both within the Church of England and in other denominations, when it does focus on the Bible, often gets lost in the minutiae of discussion about single verses or even individual terms, as if the debate could be settled in this atomistic way. The details are indeed important—but they also build into a bigger picture, and it is this bigger picture which is often missed, but is the real measure of any proposal to change the church’s teaching of offer an innovative ethics. The big picture also has the potential to critique aspects of the ‘traditional’ teaching on sexuality; it would be hard to argue that the Church has got its teaching consistently right or healthy in past generations!
So what does a big-picture biblical theology look like? This is what I have offered in churches where I have spoken on sexuality, so the particular debates we are having now find a larger theological context. I propose eight affirmations that we find in Scripture, which seem to me to be broadly assumed across the whole biblical narrative. I’d be interested in any observations about where this list might be revised. I am aware that this isn’t a robust, ‘academic’ exposition—but it seems to me to be a fair summary of the broad theological themes in Scripture.
1. Sex is God-given
The first conviction (in terms of priority and importance) of sex and sexuality is that it is a good gift of God in creation. This is the basic assumption made by the biblical narrative which surfaces at key points in the text.
But the church has often struggled with accepting this, and the struggle is evidence in the history of the translation of 1 Cor 7.1: ‘Now concerning the things about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to touch a woman’. Earlier English translations do not put the second sentence into inverted comments, and so read this as a statement of Paul: sex (for which ‘touch’ is a euphemism) is an unfortunate necessity, and is to be avoided where possible. But the consensus of recent interpretation is that this is not the view or statement of Paul, but of the Corinthians with whom he is arguing. Their position is that if you are truly ‘spiritual’ (a theme that Paul picks up explicitly in 1 Cor 12.1, ‘Now, about the “spiritual”…’) then you will leave behind the mundane, earthy realities of sex. Against that, Paul makes this remarkable statement:
The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. (1 Cor 7.4–5)
This is remarkable because, in Paul’s only explicit statement about ‘authority’ in the context of marriage, he is clear that authority is exercised equally and symmetrically by wife and husband over each other. But it is also remarkable because he is quite clear that sex is a non-negotiable aspect of married life, and that there is no ‘spiritually mature’ position which supersedes it. Sex is for the spiritually mature! He does concede that some might be like him, single and celibate, but he is clear that, for most, the expectation is that they would be married and have sex.
This is in line with the life of Jesus, where he is accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ in contrast with the austerity of John the Baptist’s life (Matt 11.19, Luke 7.34). It is clear that Jesus was someone who fully enjoyed the pleasures of bodily life, to the extent that is caused something of a stir amongst those who criticised him. Like Paul, Jesus was celibate and single—but like Paul, he affirmed the goodness of pleasurable bodily experiences.
One of the most startling things about the canon of Scripture is the inclusion in this narrative testimony of the story of God’s dealings with his people of the Song of Songs, with its quite explicit and detailed celebration of intimate bodily pleasure between the lover and the beloved. There might well be some deeper spiritual significance to it—but on the surface it certainly looks like a celebration of intimate sexual pleasure. I remember being quite surprised when I discovered it as a teenage boy newly come to faith!
All of this is rooted in the origins of sex in God’s creation of humanity as male and female. Having made Adam and Eve in their bodily distinctiveness, it is quite hard to imagine God being either shocked or surprised when ‘Adam knew Eve, and she conceived’ (Gen 4.1).
2. We are created bodily
The Police sang that ‘We are spirits in a material world‘; by contrast Madonna sang ‘I am a material girl‘. Christians usually are good at rejecting the materialism and hedonism of the second point of view; but we are less good at discerning the false claim of the first point of view. It was expressed long ago in Plato’s philosophy: the material world is inherently bad, and we are spirits trapped in this vale of tears awaiting spiritual release at the point of death. You find this expressed in comments at funerals: ‘He is no longer here, but has gone to be with God’; ‘This is not her, but merely the empty shell of her body’.
By contrast, the consistent view of the New Testament (also assumed in the Old) is that we are body–soul (‘psychosomatic’) unities. Our bodies are not mere containers for our ‘true’ selves which we call a soul, but the two aspects of our nature—the outer, physical, and the inner or ‘spiritual’—are integrated and inseparable.
This is why the incarnation is so important in Christian theology. For God in the person of Jesus to experience human life meant him becoming fully bodily, and so in even the most ‘spiritual’ of gospels, that attributed to John, Jesus experiences the full range of bodily emotions and experiences, including hunger, thirst, tiredness, weeping and so on. And when he is raised, he is raised bodily; in the presence of his disciples, he eats (Luke 24.30, 39, 43). He can be held, touched and embraced.
If this was Jesus’ resurrection destiny, then it is ours too. The reason why Paul is concerned with bodily behaviour in his ethical outlook is that he is quite clear that, in some sense, we carry our bodily identity into the new creation.
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? (1 Cor 6.13–15)
We will be bodily in the resurrection, and in fact we are already incorporated into Jesus’ resurrection body, so what we do with our bodies matters.
Jesus does teach that ‘in the resurrection, they will be like the angels’ (Matt 22.30), but that does not imply a lack of bodily reality, simply that there are some aspects of mundane life with which we will not be concerned (on which, see below).
So in biblical theology, bodies matter, since we are irreducibly bodily in our humanity. This implies that sex matters too.
Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!
3. We have sexed bodies
To talk of humans being ‘sexed’ always sounds odd, since in English ‘sex’ is both a verb and a noun, so that discussion about sex difference is easily confused with talk of sexual activity. For this reason, the language of ‘gender’ is often used, so people talk about ‘gender difference’. It is important to notice that this is a relatively recent innovation in language; before its use in this way by sexologist John Money in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘gender’ was only used to refer to an aspect of grammar. I think there is some value in distinguishing between biological sex and the social roles for the sexes within a particular culture—but of course the current debate is exactly what is the connection between the two. But my point here is that Scripture always and everywhere see the creation of humanity as clearly distinguished into male and female (often referred to as ‘sex dimorphism’, humanity as two sex-differentiated bodily forms).
In the first creation account, in Gen 1 up to Gen 2.3, there is central emphasis on humanity as male and female:
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)
It is worth noting here that this text is not asserting that humanity is male and female; it is assuming it. Within its context, the striking thing is that both male and female are made in the image of God; there is no debate that male and female people exist, and the text is not here arguing for sex dimorphism, but assuming it in its assertion that both halves of sex dimorphic humanity represent God’s image in the world.
In the second creation account, in Gen 2.5f, sex dimorphism becomes even more central to the narrative. As has often been noted, following the repeated affirmation in Gen 1 that the creation is ‘good…good…very good’ it is startling to meet the claim that ‘it is not good for the adam to be alone’ (Gen 2.18)—especially when that comes from the lips of God himself. What follows then is a narrative exploring the twin themes of equality and difference. The ‘suitable helper’ needed for the adam should be like the opposite bank of a river—equal but differentiated. All the animals brought before the adam and named by him are indeed different from him, but none is an equal partner. It is only when the woman is formed from the one who is then known as the man (Heb the ishshah from the ish) that we have a pair who are different but equal, suitable partners to one another.
Again, though, the narrative is not asserting that humanity is male and female; this is taken as an assumed datum that needs some explanation, and the explanation is found in the creative intention of God.
This bodily sex differentiation is seen as the foundation of sexual union. In Gen 2.24, the climax of the story is set out clearly:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
What is the ‘reason’? That in primordial creation, God has separated these aspects of humanity, and that marriage and the sexual union that takes place within marriage somehow reunites that which was divided. There is an intriguing parallel here with the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in which the various sexual desires of people are also explained by the division of primordial creatures.
Those of us who desire members of the opposite sex were previously androgynous, whereas men who desire men and women who desire women were previously male or female. When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple appetite for sex, but rather by a desire to be whole again, and restored to our original nature.
Both these accounts offer an explanation for why the sex drive is so strong, and offer an account of the existential significance of sexual union. The difference is that the biblical account is rooted in our sex dimorphic bodily forms of male and female, rather than (like Plato) inferring an explanation from the diverse patterns of sexual desire.
This observation concurs with the reality of our bodily form. Different parts of our bodies have a biological purpose: my lungs are for the purpose of breathing and oxygenation; my heart is for the purpose of pumping my blood around my body; my legs are for running and walking. This implies an understanding of biological normality; if my legs do not function properly, so that I cannot walk or run, then we are right to describe this as a disability, simply in purely biological terms. But note that, within the complex system of the body, my lungs do not need anything else to fulfil their biological function; they are able to draw air into my body without needing another organ. Similarly, my heart can pump my blood around itself, within the complex of the body. However, my genitals are biologically unique, in that they cannot fulfil their biological function of reproduction on their own, without union with the genitalia of a female body. And if for some reason they are, even then, not able to fulfil their biological function, then we are right to describe this as a disability. The rare range of conditions that are grouped under the common title ‘intersex’ do not offer a ‘new way’ to understand sexuality, but are kinds of disability.
I don’t believe in sex dimorphism because the Bible teaches it; I believe in it because science observes it. The Bible makes the same observation that science does. This is important in current debate; if it was merely taught in the Bible, then we might be free to accept or reject it. Since it is actually observable fact, it is harder to avoid.
4. God intends us to be integrated
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1.17)
Because God is one, we too must have integrity in our attitude to everything if we are to be like him, treating rich and poor alike, and speaking with integrity, not using kind words at one moment and harsh words at another. James’ teaching here is very close to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7; we are to have a ‘single eye’, a single focus in life on the kingdom of God, and our words and our actions must align with this. Our inner thoughts and our outer actions must match one another if we are to be people of integrity, rather than hypocrites, who act one part in public whilst actually playing a different part in the privacy of our own hearts.
This is the primary reason for Christian ethical commitment to sexual intimacy belonging in the lifelong and exclusive commitment of marriage. This is also the root problem behind pornography; in separating sexual activity from relational commitment, it is basically dis-integrating. Our bodily, sexual action should match the intention of our inner lives. The full bodily commitment of sexual union belongs in an inner and outer commitment of the whole of our lives, and the bodily, the personal and the social should match one another. This is reflected, for example, in the Church of England’s understanding of marriage as set out in the introduction in the marriage service.
The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh. It is God’s purpose that, as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with his Church.
Marriage is given, that husband and wife may comfort and help each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given, that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and, through the joy of their bodily union, may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children may be born and nurtured in accordance with God’s will, to his praise and glory.
In marriage husband and wife belong to one another, and they begin a new life together in the community. It is a way of life that all should honour. (ASB Marriage Service)
Notice the interweaving here of pleasure, affirmation, self-discovery, self-giving, love, reproduction, and social cohesion. The ‘joy of their bodily union’ is both a reflection and a strengthening of the union of all other parts of their life.
These first four affirmations—that sex is a good gift from God, that we are created bodily, and are sex dimorphic, and that we should live integrated lives where our bodily and sexual actions reflect our desires and intentions—are essentially positive. But they need to be held with one another and with four further affirmations which add some qualifications: that sex is powerful, that we are fallen creatures, that sex therefore needs boundaries, and that it is not the ultimate reality of being human. I will expound these in a second post tomorrow.
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