Thinking Biblically About Sex — A Brief Introduction

In Your Mind’s Mission, I suggest that the biblical story creates a framework for thinking about what it means to be human and the things that humans do. Take sex, for example. Too often, churches teach about sex in largely a what-to-put-where-when sort of way. For those not-yet (or never) married, the teaching is largely negative (don’t do it!) while handwaving at the positive (when you can, it will be good!) The broader culture does little to help us. Consider how the language around the act of sexual intercourse has changed. The biblical metaphor was “to know” someone. By the 1950s, we could speak of “making love.” Within the last few years any connotation of mutuality, intimacy, or commitment has disappeared. We just “get some” or are “doing it” – as if sex were merely a transaction accomplished between…friends with benefits.

However, if we think through human sexuality using the creation-fall-redemption-consummation framework, we have a robust, positive, engaging picture of sex. And a healthy picture of human sexuality will help the church become a credible witness in a sex-saturated, intimacy-starved world. It will give us a place from which to engage in conversations – both inside and outside the church.

Creation: And It Was Good

God designed us to work, to study, to define, to communicate, to relate to others, to fully express ourselves without self-protection or shame. He intended us to engage in all of this authentically human activity before sin distorted the world. When we do these things well, we glorify God as he originally intended us to do.

Consider how these facts might shape a biblical sexual ethic:

  • Because we are created in God’s image, we define our identity primarily in terms of God’s image rather than secondary issues, including sexual orientation.[4]
  • Because humanity was created sexually dimorphic and because we “image” God as men and women together (Gen 1:27), heterosexuality is a creational norm.
  • Because it is not good for us to be isolated from relationships (2:18), our desire for companionship and our feelings of loneliness are natural and normal.
  • God intended to create in Eve a perfect ally and partner for Adam (v. 18, 19). As a result, when we look for partners, not playthings. (This is why pornographic or fantasy constructs are sub-biblical. We use them to get what we want. They ask for nothing in return. They are playthings, not partners.)
  • The first condition for sexual union in marriage is total identification and intimacy with one another (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” v. 23). Sex both recognizes and cements this union. (This is why masturbation is a sub-biblical. It doesn’t create or to cement intimacy. It selfishly turns our attention inward, away from the reciprocity that sex was designed to accomplish.[5])
  • The second required condition is a radical commitment to one person which relativizes all other relationships (“Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife” v. 24) (This is why premarital and extramarital sex is forbidden. God designed our relationship with our spouse (including our sexual relationship) to be unique.)
  • The third required condition is absolute trust (“And the man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed” v. 25). After all, so many of the embarrassing things we hid from other people in our youth (e.g., our erections or our menstrual flow) become both visible and the necessary topic of conversation when you’re in a sexual relationship. The marriage sexual relationship assumes absolute trust and complete acceptance. (This is why dating or marrying a non-Christian is problematic. The non-Christian may be more moral, more mature and more healthy than the Christians you know. But they cannot accept all of who you are – your soul and your allegiance to Jesus. You certainly would not date someone who said, “I only want your body, not your mind.” Why would you marry someone who said, “I only want your body and mind, but not your soul”?)

Fall: A Self-filled Choice

As a result of Adam and Eve’s choices, the Bible graphically reflects the end result of the self-satisfying, self-justifying, self-aggrandizing, self-protecting, selfish behavior that defines our sin. We continue to hide from God – behind religious programs or legalistic practices, underneath the skirts of powerless idols or floating on empty ideologies, through self-induced spiritual blindness or self-deifying megalomania. And the physical world writhes with earthquakes and tsunamis, famines and floods, eruptions and extinctions.

It takes little work to extrapolate how these behaviors affect our sexual relationships. The predilection to replace God’s choices with our choices results in desires are degraded and misdirected (Rom 1:21-27).[6] Not everything which feels natural, comes naturally or seems good to us is, in fact, good. If we’re honest all our desires are twisted, our discernment questionable, and our standards self-referential. This is one of the reasons that Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, dislikes the use of the term “straight” in opposition to “gay.” He writes, “I am not a homosexual – but neither do I feel very “straight” as a human being. I am a fallen creature – bent, crooked, broken. This bentness affects all of my life, including my sexuality.”[7]

Sex – originally designed as God’s good gift to us – overpowers us with its lusts and often degrades us. A biological urge with spiritual significance, sex seems to have become a spiritual power as a result of the Fall. Rather than bonding man and woman, it often catalyzes manipulative or abusive behavior. What was our servant has become our master. We feel powerless against its lusts and like victims to its lure.

Redemption: God Breaks In

God’s proclivity to renew the broken represents good news when we think about sex. Consider Paul’s words of warning and hope to the Corinthians: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9b-11, emphasis added). The Church – at its best (although we often see the worst) – is a people defined by repenting and rejoicing. Our sexual misconduct, deviancy, or fantasies don’t define us. We are defined by God’s work in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are not at the mercy of our sexual urges. We have the promise of forgiveness and restoration when we fail. And the one who intercedes for us experienced all of the temptations we experience (Heb 4:15). He knows the extent to which we struggle, and he will continue to transform us into Christlikeness (Phil 1:6).

Consummation: Making All Things New (Not All New Things)

One day, God will act to restore everything so that it matches his initial vision. The universe will be demonstrate his reign which will extend throughout the cosmos unopposed. It will be marked by justice and peace, diversity and harmony, joy and abundance. The evils and oppressions which mark our existence will be judged. The oppressed will be vindicated.

The Church will be united with Christ. Both Paul and the book of Revelation use marriage imagery as the primary metaphor to describe the qualities of the relationship (Eph 5:31, 32; Rev 19:7-9; 21:2). Joy and pleasure, intimacy and exclusivity, vulnerable and unashamed, commitment and union. No other human experience captures what God intends for his relationship with his people. This also suggests one of the reasons Christians treat the topic of sexuality so serious: it points to something of ultimate significance.

 


 

[4] For a unique take on sexual identity, see Janel Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2011.)

[5] John White identifies this as the primary theological problem with masturbation, calling it “sex on a desert island” in Eros Defiled (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 33-46.

[6]  Paul seems to suggest that homosexual activities may be a reflection of man worshipping his own image and women doing the same.

[7] Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, rev. and expanded. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 94.

[8] John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 226. This book revolutionized my understanding of the cross and deepened my love for Jesus in a way that no other book ever has.

[9] What it won’t be is what we often imagine: disembodied spirits milling around the clouds, trapped in an never-ending choir and harp concert. Ugh.

[10]  Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p 11.

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