Leaving, for the moment, specific issues to one side, what does the big picture of sexuality in the Bible look like?
1. Sex is God-given
The church has often struggled with this, partly because earlier generations have assumed that 1 Cor 7:1 (‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’) represented Paul’s own view (rather than that of his correspondents). But it is clear from 1 Cor 7:4f that, notwithstanding the vocation of singleness and celibacy for some, both husband and wife were to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy. This freedom to enjoy the pleasures of life is in line with the example of Jesus (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34) and, of course, with the teaching of the Song of Songs. After all, men and women were created as sexually compatible, so it can hardly have been surprised when the first couple had sex and the woman conceived (Gen 4:1)!
2. We are bodily creatures
We are not, as Plato taught, good spirits trapped in evil bodies. The material world is not inherently bad. We are psychosomatic unities. Jesus was fully incarnated in his life, and he was raised bodily (Luke 24.30, 39, 43). Our own bodies, accordingly, matter, both in this life and the life to come (1 Cor 6:13-15). This is not negated by Jesus’ statement that in the resurrection we will be ‘like the angels’ (Mt 22:30).
3. We hax sexed bodies
(Note that ‘gender’ to distinguish between male and female dates back only about 50 or 60 years). From Gen 1:27 onwards, Scripture everywhere assumes sex dimorphism: humanity is clearly distinguished into male and female. In Gen 2:5f,
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.
It is clear from Gen 2:24 that ‘this bodily sex differentiation is seen as the foundation of sexual union.’
Other parts of our bodies – our hearts, lungs, ears, eyes, and so on – can fulfil their functions without the help of another. Our genitalia, however, are unique in that cannot fulfil their function without union with a complementary other;
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.
4. God intends us to be integrated
‘God is one’ (Deut 6:4), not only in the sense that he is the only God, but also that he is a unity, that he is perfectly integrated in his character, intentions and actions (James 1:17). As creatures made in God’s image, we must be people of integrity. This is why sexual intimacy belongs in the lifelong and exclusive commitment of marriage. To separate sexual activity from relational commitment is dis-integrating.
Integration of ‘pleasure, affirmation, self-discovery, self-giving, love, reproduction, and social cohesion’ is reflected in the teaching of the Church of England on marriage:
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)
5. Sex is potent
Scripture recognises the power of sex. From the original command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, the raising of families was the primary means by which humanity exercised its delegated authority over the earth. On the other hand, the OT narratives are littered with examples of what happens when sexual relations go wrong (think of David’s adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Kings 11).
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.
Sexual immorality is one of those vices which have the power to ‘defile’ (Mk 7:21) and to bar entrance to the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9).
6. Humanity is fallen
God created the world ‘good’, but many things are now far from good.
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.
In the Genesis account, the first man and woman are disobedient to God’s command, and this has a direct impact on sexual relations and on child-bearing. Gen 3:16 shows that ‘the repricocity 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 talks about sex and sexual morality at least as often as he talks about money. Indeed,
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’s argument in Romans 1-2 is that both Gentiles and Jews are equally mired in sin. Prominent in this discussion is the argument, commonly held by Jews, that ‘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.’ But then, in ch. 2, comes the bombshell: you Jews have no right to sit in judgment over the Gentiles, because you are affected by sin in the same way.
7. Sexual activity is strictly bounded
Like concentrated acid, it can do both great good and great damage. It needs strict boundaries and careful controls. All over the rest of the ancient near east, a libertarian attitude towards sex – including homosexual relations and incest – was prevalent. This stands in stark contrast to Jewish law and attitudes.
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.
Within the broader context of God’s good intentions for men and women, biblical restrictions on sexual expression are not prudish, but wise and good.
8. Sex is good, but not the highest good
Although the Bible teaches that sex is a good gift from God, it is not to be understood as being the ultimate good. After all, both Jesus and Paul were single!
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.
Paul gives some practical reasons for his singleness (1 Cor 7:32-34), and Jesus regards family ties as of second importance to loyalty to himself (Mt 12:48-50).
The ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the first creation is enlarged and enhanced in the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the new creation: i.e. by mission and evangelism.
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.
Sex and sexuality cannot be ultimate when we consider where we are heading: toward the new Jerusalem and perfect and permanent union of Christ, the bridegroom, and his people, the bride (Rev 19:6-9).