08 Apr (#16) WHAT CHRISTIANS BELIEVE ABOUT SEX
As you read this, you are probably wearing pants. Which is why you may be interested to learn that some of the most animated discussions in our focus groups for this project had to do with pants. “When can I take off my pants?” “Where can I take off my pants?” “Who can be in the room when I take off my pants?” No, I don’t mean literally. But figuratively, one of the biggest problems people have with Christianity is all about the right you have over your own pants. “These are my pants, you can’t tell me what to do with my pants, and just because you quote a really old book called the Bible doesn’t give you a right to tell me what to do with my pants.” And this tension really hits home when it comes to the hot-topic social issues of our day. Half of our survey participants (50%) agreed that “the Christian religion and I have different views on social issues like abortion or gay marriage.”
I have been a pastor for more than 20 years. And while I can attest that people have always been quick to throw off what they consider outmoded values, the pace of social change has picked up. In recent years, we have seen same-sex marriage legalized, recreational marijuana decriminalized, and physician-assisted suicide largely approved. These are the kinds of issues I have discussed with numerous folks like Barbara Walters and Piers Morgan with the cameras rolling. I have seen what I believe about these issues misrepresented and rejected. And it seems inevitable that even issues like polygamy and other marriage alternatives will be up for consideration in our lifetime.
WHAT SCRIPTURE SAYS ABOUT SEX
Before I became a Christian, I considered myself a moral person who believed in God. But in my public high school, one group of people drove me especially crazy. The Bible-thumpers had the guts to declare something is sin—like sex outside of marriage or getting drunk—but they lacked the know-how to back it up. I fought back with a simple question: “Where does the Bible say that?” They had no idea.
I shut them up. I was not kind. But if Christians claim the Bible says something, they should know where to find it for their own sake and for others.
Everything the Bible teaches about sex traces back to the first two chapters of Genesis, the book that opens with the famous words, “In the beginning…” (Gen. 1:1). Human sexuality begins in the Garden of Eden, where God created all things good. He designed male, female, and sexuality. He defined gender, marriage, and sex as He meant it to be. We see the world as God made it and before sin corrupted it. When God told humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), He established marriage as a covenant to be consummated sexually. Moses recorded this, Jesus repeated it, and the apostle Paul echoed it. Long before human governments existed, God created marriage and established the family unit as the first building block of cultures and nations.
Across the Old Testament there are passages that carry on this positive image of sexual love, as scholar Stanley Grenz describes:
The most explicit affirmations of sexual pleasure are found in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Several of the Proverbs, for example, are devoted to the theme of finding true sexual pleasure. This theme is expressed both through warnings against seeking sexual fulfillment outside of marriage and through assertions concerning the delight that the married person should find in one’s spouse. Above all, however, the Song of Songs is significant in this regard…The book is best seen as an extended description of the celebrative dimension of sexuality. This literature is erotic in the positive sense of the term. It celebrates sexual pleasure and eros, the attractiveness that the lover finds in the beloved.1
The whole of the Bible teaches that God intended the fires of sexual passion to be contained in the hearth of marriage. But almost right from the start the flames broke past those boundaries and began a destructive pattern across the pages of human history.
If Genesis 1–2 presents the world as God meant it to be, Genesis 3 reports the human race’s terrible leap into sin. Tragically, sex and marriage were among the first casualties, as the rest of Genesis reports. We see not only the triumph of love and romantic commitment (Gen. 24:1–67, 29:20) but also the disaster of polygamy (4:18–24, 28:46–49, 29:14–29) and a slew of heartbreaking love triangles (16:1–16, 29:31–30:24). In the days of Noah, many defied God’s ban on marriage between believers and unbelievers (6:1–2). A mismatched marriage causes grief that reached to extended family (26:34–35). There are also sad accounts of a loveless marriage (29:31) and the pain of divorce (21:8–14, 23:1–2, 25:1).2
The Old Testament records endless episodes of sexual sin and its consequences. Examples of broken sexuality include rampant lust in Sodom (Gen. 19), the womanizing of a key spiritual leader (see Samson, Judges 16), the sexual failings of great kings (see David and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11–12; plus Solomon’s many wives, 1 Kings 11:1–6), and incestuous rape (see Amnon’s rape of Tamar, 2 Samuel 13:1–22). The Old Testament specifically denounces the following sexual acts:
- Fornication (Gen. 2:24–25, 38:12–13, 38:24, Lev. 21:9, Num. 25:1, Deut. 22:21).
- Adultery (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18)
- Rape (Gen. 34:1–31; Exod. 22:16–17; Judg. 19:1–30; 2 Sam. 13:11–14)
- Incest (Lev. 18:6–18; Deut. 27).
- Homosexuality (Lev. 18:22, 20:13).
- Bestiality (Exod. 22:19; Lev. 20:15–16; Deut. 27:21)
- Prostitution (Gen. 38:21–22; Lev. 19:29, 21:9; Deut. 23:17; Hos. 4:14; 1 Kings 15:12; 2 Kings 23:7)
Notice that the Bible is restrictive on many kinds of sexual activity, and no one sexual activity is singled out. Far more items concern heterosexual boundaries.
Some Bible critics dismiss Old Testament rules about sexuality because they often appear alongside other laws we are quick to ignore, such as bans on eating pork, cutting hair, or wearing clothes woven from mixed fibers. Indeed, the Bible says, “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4 ESV), but the subject is more complex than that. Jesus fulfilled every law in Scripture by living without sin (Matt. 5:17–18). On the cross He took our place and met the Law’s greatest demand against us: death for sin (Rom. 8:3). Those who believe in Jesus are now free from the Law and ruled by Him (Gal. 3:24–26). And although Jesus has done away with a multitude of the old laws, He specifically chose to carry on many significant moral principles, including 9 of the 10 commandments—all but the Old Testament instruction to keep
the Sabbath. Most important for this debate, Jesus arrives on the scene and upholds Old Testament teaching on sexuality.
SEX AND JESUS
Jesus was a rabbi—a teacher of the Old Testament. In His ancient Jewish context, homosexuality was universally seen as contrary to God’s design. Had Jesus wanted to overturn the obvious Old Testament stance against homosexuality, He would have needed to make a lot of noise. But the New Testament offers ample evidence that His views aligned with the Scriptures He had at hand.
Like other New Testament voices such as Paul, Jesus unabashedly grounded right sexual practice in the created order of Genesis 1–2. Robert Gagnon, who has likely done more scholarly work than anyone on the Bible and homosexuality, summarizes the evidence:
There is little historical doubt about Jesus’ view of homosexual practice. Although focused on the indissolubility of marriage, in Mark 10:5–9 he clearly presupposed that the presence of a “male and female” was an important prerequisite of marriage (Gen. 1:27). Only a “man” and a “woman” are structurally capable of being “joined” through a sexually intimate relationship into a one-flesh union (2:24)…For Jesus, then, the Creator ordained marriage—it was not just a social construct—as a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Both the Scriptures Jesus cited with approval and the audience addressed—indeed, the whole of early Judaism, so far as extant evidence indicates.3
Gagnon draws the conclusion in another article, “Had Jesus wanted his disciples to think otherwise, he would have had to state such a view clearly. As it is, we know of no dissenting opinions on the issue in earliest Christianity.”4
It is clear that Jesus saw the male-female marriage bond of Genesis 1–2 as the prototype for human sexual relationships. Anything outside those boundaries was off limits. Jesus was no coward when it came to speaking up in order to rattle conventional thinking and effect change. If He was silent, it was because He saw no need to challenge the position His listeners already held.
Lastly, sexual sin is not a new issue. Such problems were rife for ancient Israel and its neighboring nations as well as the early church as it spread within the Roman Empire. Polygamy, fornication, adultery, ritual prostitution, homosexuality, and more—they are all in the Bible. Jesus’ own family line reads like a memorial to sexual brokenness, listing Rahab the prostitute, Tamar the rape victim, Bathsheba the adulteress, and David the murderous adulterer (Matt. 1:1–18). Sex in both ancient Greek and Roman cultures was very much like our day and even included what we would basically consider pedophilia. Ours is not the first generation that wants sex however we want it and to want no one to tell us what we can or cannot do with it.
Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 70–71.
For further insight on how sin affects sex in Genesis see O. Palmer Robertson’s, “The Genesis of Sex: Sexual Relationships in the First Book of the Bible” (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002).
Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 159–83.
15. Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Sexuality,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 745.