What does the Bible say about sex? Part 1
One question, or group of questions, that I have heard asked a lot recently, concerns what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage. Is the Bibles’ teaching on sex still valid, or is it now outdated? Is the only place for sex within marriage, or should Christians now accept that can a couple can live together in a sexual relationship without marriage? Should sex, and marriage, only be between a man and a woman, or should the church move with the world and accept homosexual and lesbian relationships?
In the last few years the entertainment industry, first in Britain and now in Hollywood, has been rocked by scandal after scandal. These have revealed that our culture has become hopelessly and disastrously confused in its approach to sexuality. The revolution that took place in the 1960s after the invention of the contraceptive pill separated sex from childbearing, and turned it into a recreational activity. But now our sexual lives have become much more complicated. In a recent article in the City Journal, Heather MacDonald points out that in the past, the “default setting” with regard to pre-marital sex for an unmarried woman was “no”. She did not have to justify this or explain it to a male suitor; it could be assumed that this was the case. But now the default setting is “yes”, and a woman has to justify a refusal. MacDonald gives the example of female US college students who had sex with men when they didn’t really want to because it was easier and less awkward than explaining a “no”. This is a highly dangerous situation, where a man may think that the sex is consensual, and a woman may think that she has been raped. If “consent” is the only value that governs sex, then there are almost no limits. So the acceptance of homosexual relationships, (surely one of the most rapid and astonishing cultural revolutions in human history), is now being followed up by media campaigns for the acceptance of polyamory and incest, with TV shows like Game of Thrones providing propaganda. The dream of the 1960s has become a nightmare.
What Christians say to all this? The default setting needs to be returned to “no”. But this cannot be done overnight. Christians must show the world a better and more beautiful way of living than the deep ugliness that lay just underneath the bright but thin surface of the sexual revolution. The questions are deep and difficult, and I am not going to answer them all here. Instead, I am going to give a series of blog posts that each take one or two passages from the Bible, and look at what they say about sex and marriage.
Genesis 2:18-25 (ESV)
19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
This is where it all begins. Jesus quotes this passage in Matthew 19:1-12, after he is asked about divorce. Very importantly, in v5 he quotes the words of the writer of Genesis as the words of God. This shows us that Jesus himself believe that what the Bible said, God said; he affirmed its full authority. Jesus therefore believed that Genesis 2:18-25 was God’s original design for marriage before sin and evil came into the world. In Genesis, the first man is put into the world to care for it and protect it. But he is not a rugged individualist; he needs a helper like him, but not exactly like him, someone who will complement him and complete him. That in itself is an important comment on the purpose of marriage and sexuality: they are not given simply for the mutual fulfilment of man and woman, but so that they may serve God together, in mutual dependence.
In the deeply moving scene that follows, God takes the role of a father arranging a marriage, choosing a bride and presenting him to his son, Adam. Then come the first recorded human words in history, and they are a love poem, a song of delight and wonder at finding some like him and different. The first marriage is of a man and a woman, and it can only be so. A marriage of two men or two women is, in the Bible’s view, not simply wrong, but impossible. A same-sex relationship is naturally barren; only a man and a woman can complement one another and be fruitful, obeying the creator’s command to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Genesis 2:24, the words quoted by Jesus, then makes the general point: this is the beginning of marriage, God’s original, perfect design for his wondrous. It is not a human institution that a government can reinvent at will. It is a gift from God, defined by him. In marriage, husband and wife become “one flesh”. This refers to sex, in which husband and wife become physically one. “One flesh” is more than that; it also refers to the union of husband and wife on all levels, physical, material, emotional, and spiritual, so that they become like one living being. This is why a divorce is so painful, even a so-called “amicable” one; it is like tearing apart a living creature. But while “one flesh” is more than physical, it is not less than physical, and it does refer to sex. This is confirmed by v24, which says that the man and woman were “naked and not ashamed”. The language is modest and restrained, not vulgar or clinical, but I think that it means that Adam and Eve had sex. “Nakedness” here and in Genesis speaks of a relationship of complete trust; they could let down their defences and be completely open and vulnerable with each other. So the first sex took place in the garden of Eden, before sin and evil came into the world, as something good and wonderful, with no shame in it, between two people who trusted each other completely, in a relationship of mutual self-giving.
It was a relationship of trust because it was a relationship between a husband and a wife. This is very clear in Genesis 2:21-25: the whole scene depicts a marriage ceremony. In v24, the one-flesh sexual union only takes place after the man has left his father and mother and been united to his wife; in other words after he has committed himself and bound himself to her in marriage. This begins a theme on which the Bible is completely consistent from beginning to end: the only proper place for sexual intercourse is within a marriage of a man and a woman because this was God’s design from the beginning, and when we defy God’s design, things go terribly wrong. Any sex outside this framework is referred to in the Bible as “fornication” or “sexual immorality”. But the Bible does not see sex itself as dirty or disgusting; as we shall see in future posts, it sees it as something good and beautiful, designed and given by God. But precisely because it is such a good and precious gift, it needs to be cherished and protected within marriage.
Sam Allberry Is God Anti-Gay? And other questions about homosexuality, the Bible, and same-sex attraction (The Good Book Company 2013)
Christopher Ash Married for God. Making your marriage the best it can be (Nottingham: IVP, 2007).
David Cook Question Time, section 3 (Leicester: IVP, 2002).
Tony Payne and Phillip D.Jensen Pure Sex (Sydney: Matthias Media, 1998).
John Piper This Momentary Marriage. A parable of permanence (Nottingham: IVP, 2009).