In the first part of this two-part post, I set out what I perceive as the first four of eight affirmations about sex and sexuality in the broad narrative of the Scriptures. Look at this ‘big picture’ is an essential complement to the discussions about detailed texts, and without it the debate can sometimes get lost in the details.
The first four affirmations were that: sex is a good gift from good; that we are bodily creatures, not merely spirits trapped in bodies or purely material creatures; that our bodies are sex-differentiated into male and female (sex dimorphism); and that God intends us to live lives of integrity, where our outward actions, include our experience of sex, should line up with our life commitments.
The second set of four affirmations offer some essential counterpoints to the first four, and the theology of sex and sexuality we find in scripture lies in the connection and tension between all eight affirmations.
5. Sex is potent
You don’t need to read the Bible to know that sex is a powerful force in the world. In his 1985 book that followed on from Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster address the questions of Money, Sex and Power. He wrote:
No issues touch us more profoundly or universally; no topics cause more controversy. No human realities have greater power to bless or curse. No three things have been more sought after or are more in need of a Christian response.
Sex has the power to end our loneliness, to bring us into the deepest, most profound and most fulfilling communion with another human being. But, when misused, it has the power to destroy lives, and those who have been harmed by it bear the deepest of scars.
National destinies are also shaped by issues around sex and childbearing. Historically, we are in a strange place in the West; with our near-universal adoption of contraception, we have become a culture where sexual activity is almost seen as a right, but childbearing is becoming perceived more and more in cultural narratives as problematic, an obstacle to the fulfilment of our desired lifestyle in terms of earning power and career progression. The result of this is epidemic-levels of sexually transmitted diseases alongside a birthrate that has, for some time, been below the ‘replacement level’ necessary to maintain a steady population. (Ironically, in both these regards we are moving closer to the pre-Christian reality of the Roman Empire.) In many Western countries, population growth has only been sustained by immigration (note Angela Merkel’s amnesty for around 1 million immigrants in Germany last year), and the immigrant communities typically have a much higher birth rate than the indigenous population, increasing the ethnic and cultural mix of the population as a whole.
In some contexts, such differential rates of birth have serious political consequences. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) once said that ‘the womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon’; he knew that if the refugee Palestinian population continued to grow, then they would be impossible to ignore in world politics. 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from the infant nation of Israel in 1947–8; there are now 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip alone. In fact, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians are engaged in a demographic war of childbearing.
Scripture recognises the power of sex. The first commandment of God to humanity is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; having families and raising them is depicted as the primary way in which humanity is to exercise the power of God’s delegated dominion over the earth. The narratives of the Old Testament are littered with examples of desire and sexual relations that go wrong, wreaking havoc in the lives of individuals and families. David’s desire for Bathsheba, as he sees her bathing on her roof when he should have been leading his troops in battle, destroyed the life of her husband Uriah and nearly destroyed both David and his kingdom (see 2 Kings 11).
For both Jesus and Paul, sexual immorality, along with other vices like greed and malicious thoughts, has the power to ‘defile’ (Mark 7.21) and prevent our inheritance of the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6.9).
Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!
6. Humanity is fallen
A central theme in the Bible’s description of humanity is that we are ‘fallen’ in some sense. God created the world good, but things are now often far from good; we were made to be in intimate relationship with God, and at peace with each other and the world, but all these relationships have become distanced and distorted. Scripture sometimes describes this in terms of the deliberate choice of individuals to do the wrong thing rather than the right; at other times it describes sin as a power which spoils and breaks our lives; and at still other times it talks about the whole world being out of joint, groaning in futility.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you (Gen 3.16)
The reciprocity of equality-in-difference that was so carefully spelled out in chapter 2 has now been twisted and distorted, so that there is asymmetry of both desire and power.
In the gospels, Jesus often teaches about money and its seductive dangers, and he is often opposed by those whose power and influence he threatens. But, as John Nolland has demonstrated, he teaches about sex and sexual morality at least as often, including reference to sex in all his vice lists. In his exposition of the true meaning of the law in Matt 5.27–48 (‘You have heard it said…but I say to you…’), he begins by expounding the true meaning of sexual morality in relation to adultery and divorce and remarriage.
Paul explanation of his understanding of the gospels to Christians in Rome starts by demonstrating (in chapter 1) how Gentiles are captive to sin and, in parallel, how God’s people the Jews are also mired in sin—so that he can conclude that ‘all [i.e. both Jew and Gentile] have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ and are therefore all in need of the offer of grace, forgiveness and redemption that is found in Jesus. In the first half, the critique of Gentile life and culture, he deploys a traditional Jewish argument highlighting Gentile sexual sin: Gentile acceptance of same-sex sexual activity demonstrates how far they are from God, since they reject the bodily form of male and female and in so doing so reject God’s expression of himself in creation.
Paul is not here merely demonstrating an obsession with sex; he is showing how complete is the effect of human sin and our turning from God, that it penetrates to the very heart of human relationships. He locates that at the centre of all the other ways in which sin is manifest (‘They have become filled with every kind of wickedness…’ Rom 1.29)—and is clear that his Jewish readers, cheering him on in his Jewish condemnation of Gentiles, are also quickly silenced, since ‘you who pass judgment do the same things’ and are affected by sin in just the same way (Rom 2.1)
7. Sexual activity is strictly bounded
When I did chemistry at school, we used to sit on stools at benches in the chemistry lab, and at the centre of the benches, sitting on glass trays, were intriguing thick glass bottles. The most intriguing were labelled ‘Concentrated Nitric Acid’, ‘Concentrated Hydrochoric Acid’ and ‘Concentrated Sulphuric Acid’. We could tell that these things were powerful; if the teacher brought out some ammonia, the tops of these bottles smoked with potential for action! We also thought that these things could do some good—they were obviously important in certain kinds of reactions. But in the hands of teenage boys, they could clearly do a lot of damage, which is why they were in thick glass bottles. I suspect that nowadays they would be placed in securely locked cabinets for that very reason.
This is how we need to read the strict prohibitions on sexual activity in the Bible. Within its various cultural contexts, the different parts of the Bible are quite distinctive in the limits and prohibitions they put around sexual relations. Same-sex sexual relations were allowed in certain contexts in all other parts of the ancient near East; the Old Testament is unique in prohibiting such relations in all forms. Israelite law contrasted sharply with the Egyptian context from which it emerged:
To the Egyptians, sex was a life staple, on a par with eating and sleeping and therefore not something to be sniggered at, embarrassed about or avoided. The Egyptian language for example – like modern English – had many words for sexual intercourse, with the most common being nk. This was used to describe the male agent of the sexual act and was acceptable in daily parlance.
Incestuous relationships were not uncommon, and gave rise to congenital malformations and still births which gave rise to a fascination with grotesque forms and images. Tutankhamen suffered from congenital malformation of his legs, most likely as a result of his incestuous conception; his father and mother were brother and sister, and he went on to marry his half sister.
In a similar way, the Christian sexual ethic set out in the New Testament, which carried forward the restricted Jewish ethic of the Old Testament, was distinctive in the first century in its prohibition of sex outside marriage and in its symmetrical ethical demands on both men and women. Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, notes the measurable impact of this ethic on the growth of the early church. In chapter 5, ‘The role of women in Christian growth’, he notes how the rejection of female infanticide and abortion, the lower level of sexual diseases, and the greater care of women through childbirth all contributed to biological numerical growth amongst Christians.
The restrictive sexual ethic in the Bible which is then manifest in a restrictive ethic in the church is commonly interpreted (both within and without) as either a prudishness or an expression of fear and anxiety about sexual relations—and when it is detached from the earlier affirmations that sex is a good gift from God, then it can become this.
But when held together with the other things Scripture says about sex, our identity as bodily creatures made male and female, and God’s good intention in creation, these restraints are properly understood as limiting the damage done by a good but powerful force that is subject to human sin.
Despite sex being a good gift of God, and despite sexual intimacy within male-female marriage being assumed as the norm for most people, the New Testament offers us a startling challenge to the idea that sexual experience is essential of human happiness—or even a necessary part of life. Both Jesus and Paul were single!
Although not completely universal, it would have been normal for a rabbi in first-century Judaism to have been married, not least in order to model what a good Jewish family life might be like. In fact, it would have been normal for any man to be married, and being single would have been unusual though not impossible. Despite ill-informed and sensationalist speculative by Dan Brown and others, there is no doubt that Jesus was not married. And we need to pause here and consider the enormity of this fact:
The person who lived the perfectly fulfilled life, the one who offered us ‘life in all its fulness’ (John 10.10), lived out that full and perfect life without experiencing sexual relationships. If he could, then we can too.
This presents a major challenge in at least three directions: communities without and outside the church that present marriage and having children as the way to live a fulfilled life; contemporary culture which finds it hard to imagine a satisfying life that does not involve sexual experience; and Jesus’ Jewish context which held on to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as the first and essential commandment.
Paul’s offers some practical reasons for his own singleness: ‘an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided’ (1 Cor 7.32–34). There is a danger that we interpret this as mere pragmatism, rather than having theological significance. But Jesus’ reworking of kinship identity around loyalty to him makes the theological issue quite clear.
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12.48–50)
In the first creation, we exercise the dominion of God by being fruitful and multiplying—by marrying and having children. And the existential condition of being alone is addressed by the gift of intimacy with another through sexual union in marriage. But in the new creation, which we are stepping into as we are baptised into the death and resurrection life of Jesus, all this changes. We see the reign of God now come as we share the good news of new life in Jesus and as others receive it: it is through effective evangelism that we are fruitful and multiply. And the end of aloneness no longer comes only through marriage and the associated formation of kinship groups; now, our kinship comes through Jesus our brother, and the brothers and sisters we have amongst fellow disciples in the family of believers. That, at least, is the vision of the New Testament, even if it is poorly realised in practice in church life. It is striking that, when the believers come together in sharing their possessions in Acts 2.42–47, they are enacting the sharing of possessions between husband and wife that was set out in Gen 2.24.
All this means that sex and sexuality cannot define human identity. It is not that the Scriptures are ignorant of the power of and claims made by sexual desire; in the first century world the whole range of sexual relations and desires were known. Rather, Scripture rejects this way of understanding what it is to be human. ‘Orientation’ is not a fundamental constituent of human being; it is being made bodily, male or female, in the image of God which is primary.
And the reasons for this become clear when we consider where we are heading. The intimacy and union of marriage anticipates the intimacy and union that we will one day enjoy with God. In the New Jerusalem, the giant cube that is the holy city has become both the location of the people of God and the Holy of Holies where God himself dwells. The space inhabited by God and the space inhabited by his people are coterminous, as they live in intimate union with him. This is why the coming of the city and the final revelation of the age to come is described as the ‘marriage feast of the lamb’ with his bride (Rev 19.6–9), the people of God who follow him.
The singleness of Jesus and Paul, and the singleness of any of his followers, points forward to this reality.
These two posts together set out eight affirmation that I find in Scripture:
- Sex is a good gift from God
- Humanity is created bodily
- Our bodies are sex dimorphic as male and female
- God intends us to live integrated lives
- Sex is powerful
- Humanity is fallen
- Sexual activity is bounded
- Sex is of penultimate, not ultimate, importance
My conviction is that we need to hold all eight affirmations together. If we emphasise one at the expense of others (for example, thinking sex is a good gift without recognising it is not of ultimate importance, or thinking that we live out our inner life without recognising the boundaries around sexual activity), then we get into problems.
And a Christian sexual ethic needs to be shaped by the wider vision of sex and sexuality in the Bible, and not just by the details—though the details, rightly understood, build together into the whole.
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