What Does Go? A Brief, Positive, Framework of Biblical Sexuality
A little over a year ago I wrote, “Does anything go?” What I want to do this morning is give a slightly longer (though still unjustly brief), positive, outline of the Biblical doctrine of sex. Here is why I think it is important: evangelical Christians tend to be good (at least sometimes) at knowing what can be wrong about sex, or knowing what it isn’t for, but I doubt that very many of us could give a good explanation of what it is for. (And I’ve made this point in other blog posts, here, and here). Why does sex exist? Our lack of a solid response here is a problem, a very big problem. We live in a society steeped in assumptions about human personhood and sexual expression that run totally contrary to what the Scriptures would teach us, and often times we ourselves buy into these same assumptions without realizing it. And when our underlying assumptions meet the commands of Scripture, we run into problems. We want to believe and obey God, but it seems hard. How can I understand why God would be so restrictive in what He allows or permits in this area? How can I explain my views on homosexuality to a coworker without coming off as anything except a complete bigot? These, along with other questions we face today, are difficult in large part because, as I said, we have bought hook-line-and-sinker into many of the world’s presuppositions and then tried to mesh Biblical teaching with them, and it leaves us feeling rather precarious. But God is not silent in this area. He gives us all that we need to be equipped for righteous living, to train ourselves and our children in godliness, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to communicate His truth, as we come to know it, to those around us; friends, coworkers, and family members.
So: what is sex?
We need to lay a groundwork, or perhaps better, build a framework for understanding this issue in light of the Scriptures. The first question we need to ask is, "what is sex?" The first place we look in answer to that question is the opening part of Genesis:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV)
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. 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. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 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.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.(Genesis 2:20-25 ESV)
We see here in Genesis chapters one and two that sex is, at its foundation, two things:
1) first we see that sex is a good creation of God Himself. This fabulous thing called sex is God's idea. Some people, often calling themselves Christians, have tried to paint sex as bad, disgusting, or filthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. God makes man and woman naked, tells them to multiply, and calls it very good. It's His idea, He calls it very good, and who in the world am I to argue with God about that? This plays out even more clearly in other places in Scripture; places that give us a glimpse of what God intends in marriage. In Song of Solomon 4:16, The Lover says,
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its spices flow.
His bride comes back with this reply,
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
If you take the time to read through the Song of Solomon, you will find an unrestrained celebration of married love, including its sexual aspect. In this book, as illustrated in the poetic quotation above, sex is shown to be a pleasurable gift from God.
This is not lost even on more “restrained” parts of Scripture such as the Proverbs. For example, we read in Proverbs 5:15-19,
Drink water from your own cistern,
Flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
Streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
And not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice in the wife of your youth,
A lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
Be intoxicated always in her love.
That’s the sort of thing that we could feel uncomfortable reading, if it weren’t in the Bible! God isn’t bashful in what he wants married couples to pursue in terms of pleasing one another, and being pleased in one another. Of course one thinks of 1 Corinthians 7, which we don’t have time to turn to, but it’s very helpful on this point.
2) the second thing we note from the passages we read in Genesis is that sex is, in fact, a command of God. This does need some qualification, as this command is given to a man and a wife in the context of their marriage. But part of His charge to the human race is to multiply. And being as they didn't have laboratories back in those days, there is only one way that was going to happen. It is important to note that all biblically approved sex occurs within the context of monogamous, heterosexual marriage; and so this command is what we might call a qualified, rather than universal command. The qualification being marriage. But it remains, nonetheless, a command. Why? Well, we have already seen from the writings of Solomon the perspective of mutual pleasure; had we turned to 1 Corinthians 7 we would have seen Paul’s emphasis on the fighting of temptation. Namely, that one of the ways we avoid sexual temptation (and perhaps other sorts of temptation in marriage, such as anger and bitterness) is to enjoy one another in one flesh union. But the command in Genesis specifically relates to the multiplication of the human race, the raising of a godly offspring to rule, reign, and take dominion over all the earth. Let’s turn to Malachi 2:13-16,
And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
God desires godly offspring to come from our unions. That is, sex is not, contra the sexual revolution, mainly a means of happiness, fulfillment, and self-expression. Faithful marriage, including its sexual element, has as part of its meaning the creation and discipling of the next generation. This, of course, does not mean that all sex must have as its goal the having of children. God has allowed many couples to not receive this benefit of marriage, whether they desire it or not. It can be one of the most painful realities couples face. It doesn’t mean older people have to stop enjoying one another once they are past childbearing years. And I don’t think it prohibits, necessarily, all forms or uses of birth control. However, on that last point, Christians need to take a critical look at what the world is selling us. First of all because of the potential abortifacient nature of many types of birth control, but also because of this: if God designed sex in marriage for raising godly offspring, why are we so quick to and to limit the number of offspring we have? I don’t have all the answers on this, and I don’t think the Bible paints in black-and-white principles here. I would advise here that you purchase God, Marriage, & Family by Andreas Kostenberger. The chapter on Birth Control is worth the price of the book. End rabbit trail.
Continuing on, if we turn to the epistle to the Hebrews we read the following,
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4 ESV)
Here we encounter another idea. We’ve already seen that sex is God’s creation, His good and enjoyable creation, and that [within the confines of Biblical marriage], it is indeed a command of God himself, given for the production of godly offspring. Here in Hebrews, we encounter the concept of the sacredness of sex. God has created the marriage bed, and it is to be held in honor among all, undefiled.
In summary, sex is a creation of God, commanded to those whom are married, but not commanded as some form of punishment, Rather, it is a beautiful and pleasurable gift, one that is to be held in high esteem among all. Sex is sacred. Sex is, in a very true sense, holy.
The Holiness of Sex
We saw above in the passage from Hebrews that God will judge the sexually immoral and the adulterous. The assumption behind that is what we saw in Genesis, namely, that God is the creator of our bodies, and the creator of sex. As creator, He has absolute rights and authority over His creation, and thus sets the boundaries of what constitutes good, acceptable, and ethical behavior. Humans, of course, do not like this. Ever since our first father, Adam, took of the fruit and plunged humanity into sin (Romans 5:12-14) we have been rejecting God's authority over our lives. Thus we run headlong into all sorts of sins. Included in this sprinting away from God is a run headlong into sexual transgression. Scripture contains several passages listing different kinds of sexual sins and their consequences (eg, Leviticus 18, Romans 1, Galatians 5).
As I stated above, God created sex to live and flourish inside the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. There is no more unpopular concept than this today. Our flesh hates it, because all of the promises which the world offers for sexual enjoyment, like fresh experiences, quick hookups with hot babes, the perfectly romantic and ruggedly handsome man, passionate lovemaking all the time...these are not the realities of marriage. You marry one person. You spend an incredible amount of time with that one person, mostly outside the bedroom. You make each other mad, irritate one another, and are quite simply: human. And sinfully human, at that. This complicates the matter of sex. Because what Hollywood and pornography have told me was supposed to be a constant rip-each-other's clothes off passion becomes in fact a self-giving, a sacrificing my needs for the needs of another.
Don't read this wrong. Sex, as we’ve already argued from Scripture, is a most wonderful and beautiful gift. The exposure, the intimacy, the one flesh (Genesis 2:24) can be one of the most enjoyable things God gives us on this earth. But the joy, while including the physical pleasure that God intended, goes a whole lot deeper and past that. When God said that the man and woman become one flesh, He wasn't just saying "piece a fits into slot b." The oneness that takes place in marriage, and in the marriage bed, is one of physical, emotional, and spiritual unity. Ephesians 5 would tell us that it pictures an even greater unity, namely of Christ and His church.
When we remove sex from the realm of marriage, we make it a very dangerous thing. All of that exposure, intimacy, and oneness has now been offered to one who has promised me nothing in return. If I open myself up like this to my wife, I can feel safe. She has pledged to walk with me, stay with me, and love me until death parts us. Not so with another. In casting off God's law here, we cast off not a burden, but a safeguard for our soul.
I titled this section the Holiness of Sex, and you may be wondering why I am saying so little about that. The word Holy carries the idea of being set apart, and this is exactly what I'm attempting to communicate here. That God has set sex apart, in the bond of marriage, for the safety, well being, and lasting pleasure of His creatures.
So: what does go?
So now we come to the question we set out to answer: what does go?We see from Scripture that there is much freedom within marriage (see again the Song of Solomon). But if we are to embrace the biblical model of marriage there are very clear principles as play.
- God created marriage to be between one man, and one woman, for life.
- God created sexual union to live exclusively within this union of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
- God created sex for this relationship with a number of goals in mind, including the pleasure of the married couple, increased intimacy, protection from sin, the raising of godly offspring, and ultimately (perplexingly, perhaps?), the display of His love for His bride.
- This truth rules out all other forms of sexual expression. Not because God is a restrictive killjoy, but because all other forms of sex lie about what sex actually is. A few examples follow.
- Premarital sex lies about the nature of Christ’s love for His people. It promises pleasure without commitment, exposure without security, sweet fruit without hard labor. It denies reality, and leaves brokenness and destruction in its wake.
- Adultery lies about the nature of Christ’s covenant keeping love with His people. Those whom the Father has given Him He will by no means cast out, nor will they be lost from His hand. He loves with a never stopping, never giving up, unfailing, always and forever love, as those of you with the Jesus Storybook Bible (or the prophet Hosea) will know.
- Pornography lies in much the same way premarital sex does in that it promises gain without risk, then leaves destruction behind. It further lies about the meaning of sex, because of course there may be immediate physical pleasure involved, but there is no self-giving, no oneness of body, spirit, soul. It is an utterly selfish act, without giving to another, and of course, no opportunity for procreation. Practically speaking, it also carries the danger of being easily kept under the radar in our lives, killing us slowly from the inside out. It creates desires and promises results which it cannot ever satisfy.
- Homosexuality of course flies directly against God’s creative order of man and woman, ordered toward the having and raising of children. It is important to note here, that homosexual advocates have a very legitimate point when say that Evangelicals have been soft on all kinds of sexual sins from porn, to divorce, to seeing sex as a mere object for personal gratification with no orientation towards children and family, and that to pick on homosexuals the way we do is inconsistent, hypocritical, and unfair. I frankly think that point is spot on, and it has caused me to reflect, why have we reacted this way? And I think it is because this is the first aspect of the sexual revolution which has triggered, if I may be frank, our gag reflex. The other sins were more familiar and comfortable to us, so we can let them slide, sweep them under the rug, or deal with them, but lightly so. However two guys getting married freaks us out. And this is why I think we desperately need to build a more constructive picture of what sex is biblically, to help us, our children, and our church continue into the future. Because the reality is, the gag reflex will not keep us on the straight and narrow of Biblical sexuality. It may deter us from particular sins at particular times, but it will not lead us to true, robust, holiness. And it won’t even guard against this particular area of homosexual sin much longer, because people my age and younger have all come of age in an era when same-sex relationships, and now marriage are simply considered “normal”. We desperately need to see what the Biblical norm is, and it is going to make us all uncomfortable, in different ways. We all have really messed up ideas in the realm of sex, and in all of life.
So what do we do? A few quick thoughts in closing.
- We must gather weekly with God’s people to hear His word preached, read, sung, prayed, and taught. We must encourage one another, we submit to the teaching of the Book, through the men God has placed over us; including in matters so personal as marriage and sex when they arise.
- We ought to scour the Scriptures daily, to take the book and eat, as it were. God speaks to us through this book. He leads us in the way we should go. Study biblical passages like Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 7, Song of Solomon, Proverbs 5-7, Genesis 2, Ephesians 5, etc. Work, over time, to become so Bible soaked that you will be like a tree planted by streams of water, which bears its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither.
- Educate yourself with topical helps on what the Bible says about this. I cannot recommend highly enough Kostenberger’s book. You may find it a dry read, but it is rich. If you are a married couple, work through it together.