Church of the Living God

Marriage and Sexuality (Pillars of Faith Series)

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. Together they reflect the image and nature of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman as delineated in Scripture (Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:5-6). It is intended to be a covenant by which they unite themselves for life in a single, exclusive union, ordered toward the well-being of the spouses an designed to be the environment for the procreation and upbringing of children.”

Sex is a topic that more than most others strikes at our emotions, our sense of self-worth, even our sense of identity. I think this kind of tension actually matches the importance of this topic biblically.[1] The Apostle Paul wrote that whatever we do, even if it’s just eating and drinking, we should do it to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That includes sex. And like other natural acts, sometimes we glorify God with what we do, and sometimes we do not.

I’m going to make a case this morning for a biblical view of sex and of marriage. I’m not going to talk about the challenges of being single[2], or whether it’s better to be single or married[3], or about roles in marriage[4], or about overcoming or recovering from sexual sin[5]. Those are important topics, but they are not the focus today. I am going to talk about a biblical view of sex, which will lead us into a biblical view of marriage.

There are at least three common misconceptions about sex found either in church or in our culture.

  • The first misconception is that sex is simply a natural appetite like eating or drinking. The fact that we want to have sex means we ought to have sex; in fact, ignoring or stifling our impulse is unhealthy. If someone is cranky, they just need to have sex. In the 60’s, the way to stop making war was to make love. The idea is that if sexual satisfaction follows sexual desire, all will be well.
  • The second misconception is that sex is embarrassing, maybe even shameful, and our sex drive is something that needs to be squelched. I grew up in a church culture that sent this message. When people got married, they had this nagging thought that they probably shouldn’t be enjoying sex. They had absorbed the notion that sexual desire was dirty and sexually desirable people were somehow bad, and that was not an easy lesson to unlearn.[6]
  • The third misconception is that sex is a critical form of self-expression and personal fulfillment, a way to find yourself and be truly happy. In this view, sex is primarily for individual fulfillment and self-realization. Those who want to put boundaries around sex are actually stifling the personal growth of others. At best, these moral policemen are jealous of the sex lives of others or scared by the power of sexuality. At worst they are bullying or coercing people to accept the bully’s notion of sexuality morality.

A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE ON SEX

The Bible offers a far more complex, compelling and beautiful view.

  • The Bible disagrees that sex is something about which we should be ashamed of or embarrassed. God created sex and sexuality; the Bible celebrates it (Song of Solomon; Proverbs 5;19); the New Testament actually commands it for people who are married (1 Corinthians 7). The Bible is clear that sex is supposed to bring, pleasure, joy, laughter, intimacy, trust, self-giving, mutual care and comfort.
  • The Bible agrees that sex is a powerful drive that God placed in us, but disagrees that ignoring or stifling impulses is necessarily unhealthy. Like our drives for food and drink, the sex drive has been distorted because of sin. Sex needs boundaries not because sex is something to be feared, but because sex is something to be revered. This is done by living within God’s design, and sometimes that means we will go against our desires. The latest World Magazine had an article about a pastor, a married man who struggled with same-sex attraction. At one point he noted, “What I have to tell myself over and over again: To act on my impulses is a denial of my real that that God created. To not act on that is an affirmation of myself.” [7]
  • The Bible agrees that sex can bring individual happiness and fulfillment (read Song of Solomon if you have any questions), but the Bible disagrees that this is the purpose of sex. Throughout the rest of the morning I will be making the case that sex is so much more than this. 

THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT FOR  SEX: COVENANT

I am going to offer a biblical view of sex that may use language that is unfamiliar to you, at least in this context: God intends sex to be an act of covenantal commitment between a man and a woman. Let’s start with what we mean by covenantal commitment.  In biblical times, a covenant was a strong bond, an oath, in which two people would pledge mutual faithfulness and commitment, often at the cost of their life. There would be equal privileges and responsibilities between the parties involved; they would each played a necessary and complementary role in fulfilling this mutual oath. Covenants were complex, serious, and deeply binding.

 When Adam and Eve “cleave,” that’s a covenant word (Genesis 2:22-25. Malachi 2:14 and Proverbs 2:17 also use ‘covenant’ to describe marriage). I am going to quote Tim Keller and his wife extensively here (from The Meaning Of Marriage) because they explain this better than I can:

“The covenant brings every aspect of two person’s lives together. They essentially merge into a single legal, social, economic unit… they donate themselves wholly to the other… Sex is understood as both a sign of the personal, legal union and a means to accomplish it. The Bible says don’t unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with the person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally. Don’t become physically naked and vulnerable to the other person without becoming vulnerable in every other way, because you have given up your freedom and bound yourself in marriage. Then, once you have given yourself in marriage, sex is a way of maintaining and deepening that union as the years go by. 

Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less. So, according to the Bible, a covenant is necessary for sex. It creates a place of security for vulnerability and intimacy. But though a marriage covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for the maintenance of the covenant. It is your covenant renewal service.”

 This was entirely at odds with how the rest of the world viewed sex when the Bible was written. Sex was just simply not associated with all these ideas. Broadly speaking, there were those who used others and those who were used. Gender and age were usually of no consequence. Sex was one of the more obvious ways in which the strong used the weak for their purposes. [8]

The idea that the act of sex was meant to initiate the covenant of marriage or that an ongoing, active sex life as a ‘covenant renewal service’ probably sounds as unusual to us as it did to the original audience. Yet we see that from the beginning God was declaring that even the sex lives of His people were to be holy – literally “called out” or separated, set aside for God’s design and purpose.

This idea of starting and renewing a covenant provided a constant reminder between both husband and wife would have entirely changed the dynamic of sex. Instead of using or being used, sex was a way of saying, “I have committed to you, I have pledged to give myself wholly to you. We are bound together in every way and on every level. We have no secrets; we are naked and unashamed; we are a covenanted union of service, sacrifice and love.”

Let me give you just one example of how this shows up in one of the most famous of love poems, the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs). There are two times in Song of Solomon that the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine; he browses among the lilies” (2:16 and 6:3) Have you ever wondered what that means? What does belonging to each other have to do with browsing through a flower garden? In Song of Solomon 4:5, Solomon praises his wife by saying, “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.” When it’s her turn, she says, “I am my beloved’s an he is mine” then borrows his metaphor and makes him the gazelle. Why? The marital covenant is designed to be initiated, sealed and celebrated by sexual love.[9]

Considering the profound nature of a covenant and the role sex plays in creating and affirming it, it shouldn’t surprise us that from the beginning the Bible insists that any sexual activity ought to be limited to the marriage covenant.  When we engage in an act of covenantal promise when it is not a promise, we break God’s design – we sin[10] – and initiate events that have a ripple effect that contributes to the brokenness of the world (the Old Testament is full of examples of this).

We want to have sex just be about bodies and biology when we so choose, and have it be about affection, commitment and love when we so choose. It doesn’t work that way. By design, “Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’” (Keller) Sex was meant to initiate or confirm a lasting, legal, personal, all-encompassing covenant. And when our bodies communicate something different from what we say or believe, there’s a deep tension that arises.

I think we know this even if we don’t consciously think it or say it. Think of the phrases, “This is no strings attached. This is just a hook-up. We are just friends. This won’t change anything between us. Let’s not read too much into this.” But the words we exchange and the desire to ‘not let it get complicated’ won’t change our bodies or God’s design. Sex was made to unite and bind us in an exclusive, permanent covenant, not make us wonder if we performed well enough, or if the other person will be there in the morning, or how we can go about it next time without getting so emotionally involved.

I Corinthians 6:17ff  is often quoted in reference to this binding nature inherent to sex. Paul notes, “Do you not know that a person who is united in intimacy with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’” 

Paul wasn’t just saying, “Do you know if you combine bodies you will combine bodies?” That’s pretty obvious. Paul is simply referring back to Genesis 2:24 (and Jesus’ affirmation of it in Matthew 19) where a husband and wife ‘cleave’ together, reminding his readers that every sex act is an act of covenant whether we want it to be or not. I suspect that’s why Paul says that sexual sins are unique (1 Corinthians 6:18). There is no other act that by its very nature is meant to initiate or affirm a covenant. The context of sex is covenantal marriage. We are not designed to give our bodies in this way to someone with whom we have not made a covenant for life.[i]

Christopher West has written that “all questions of morality, then, are questions about how to align human desire with the divine design so we can reach our heavenly destiny. This is the proper context in which to understand the Christian sexual ethic. It’s not a prudish list of prohibitions designed to keep us from having fun in this life; it’s a call to realign our desires with authentic love so we can be truly happy both here and in the next life.” 

THE BIBLICAL NATURE OF MARRIAGE

So we’ve talked about a biblical view of sex as well as its covenantal context. Now let’s look at the nature of that marriage covenant. The Bible reveals the theology; God’s creation provides further support for this biblical ideal. Let’s start with what the Bible says about the theology behind the nature of marriage.

1. The Bible Reveals How Marriage Is Meant To Reflect The Nature Of God 

 A. Male and female together display the fullness of God’s image. “Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground. So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27).  

We see right away in Genesis a hint of Trinity – a God who has one essence, but three persons. We also see that in order for humanity to bear that image, just a man or just a woman was not sufficient. Both are needed to full capture the image God has embedded in us. Our creation as male and female is what Christopher West calls a “sacramental reality: a physical sign of something transcendent, spiritual, and even divine.” 

B.  Marriage between a man and a woman represents God’s nature. To quote the Keller’s at length again (and I am blending several paragraphs):

“There is a hint that the relationship between male and female is a reflection of the relationships within the Godhead itself – the Trinity. Although all people, men and women, are bearers of God’s image, resembling him as his children, reflecting his glory, and representing him as stewards over nature, it requires the unique union of male and female within the one flesh of marriage to reflect the relationship of life within the triune God. 

As Genesis says, male and female are “like-opposite” each other – both radically different and yet incomplete without each other. God’s plan for married couples involves two people of different sexes making the commitment and sacrifice that is involved in embracing the Other and performing different roles in the act of creation, which brings about deep unity because of the profound complementarity between the sexes. [This] tells us something of the relationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

 The “two becoming one”[11] is an echo, an earthly representation of the three-in-one nature of the triune God. We see in the Trinity, that the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Holy Spirit, etc, yet all three even as they are different persons – they are the complementarian ‘other’ – the three become one essence. So in marriage, the husband is not the wife – they are the complementarian ‘other’ – and yet they, too, become one.

N.T Wright has noted, “If you believe in what it says in Genesis 1 about God making heaven and earth—and the binaries in Genesis are so important—that heaven and earth, and sea and dry land, and so on and so on, and you end up with male and female. It’s all about God making complementary pairs which are meant to work together. The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.”

This is the theological reason why the Bible never discusses marriage as the union between people of the same sex. Same-sex couples cannot be the “like-opposite” union of “otherness” that represent the triune image of a complementary and life-creating God.[ii] This is why, as a pastor, I cannot perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. It’s not a question of liking or disliking the people involved. It’s about being sure that if I am going to give a pastoral blessing to the marriage of two people, it must be a union that aligns with Scriptural authority.[iii]

2. Human Design Reveals That Marriage Is Uniquely Oriented As An Institution For A Particular Purpose.

Christians have traditionally pointed to some obvious facts about God’s creation to confirm the complementary union of men and women in marriage. The argument goes something like this. 

  • People are inherently incomplete with respect to one key biological function: making babies.
  • Only a man and a woman can form a union that is essentially oriented toward the uniquely complementarian purpose of conceiving children and raising them together.[iv]

And this brings us back to our statement of faith:

“We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. Together they reflect the image and nature of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman as delineated in Scripture (Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:5-6). It is intended to be a covenant by which they unite themselves for life in a single, exclusive union, ordered toward the well-being of the spouses and designed to be the environment for the procreation and upbringing of children.”

[1] RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller

The Mingling of Souls, Matt Chandler

Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, John Piper and Justin Taylor

Real Sex, Lauren Winner

The Thrill of the Chaste, Dawn Eden

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing, Christopher West

[2] “Confessions of a Sex-Starved Single” (todayschristianwoman.com)

   “ Single In Christ And A Sexual Being” (equip.org)

[3]  “The Single Person’s Good Desire for Sex” (desiringgod.org)

[4]  “Made…In Complementary Community” – Part 1  (clgonline.org)

[5]  “Erasing Shame: Finding Forgiveness For Sexual Sin” (boundless.org)

[6] “The general message hanging in the air for a lot of people raised in Christian homes was this: Your desires (especially your sexual desires) are bad, and they will only get you in trouble. So you need to repress, ignore, or otherwise annihilate them. But follow all of these rules and you’ll be a good, upstanding Christian citizen.” – Christpher West, Fill These Hearts

[7] “Loving Your Neighbor And Your Gender,” November 14, 2015

[8] SEX IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST

Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at Brown University, has written that the ancients were no more concerned with people’s gender preference than people today are with others’ eating preferences: “Ancient categories of sexual experience differed considerably from our own… The central distinction in sexual morality was the distinction between active and passive roles. The gender of the object… is not in itself morally problematic. Boys and women are very often treated interchangeably as objects of [male] desire. What is socially important is to penetrate rather than to be penetrated. Sex is understood fundamentally not as interaction, but as a doing of some thing to someone…”

[9] For more on the imagery in Song of Solomon, “The Hunt” is a decent introduction to the language of Song of Solomon (http://www.christdeaf.org/bible/TheHunt.html.)  See also, “What’s The Difference Between Erotica And The Song Of Solomon?” (thegospelcoaltion.org)

[10] See the sermon in this pillars series on “Sin and Salvation” on our website. 

[11] “As Stan Grenz points out in his book Sexual Ethics, singles can also mirror Christ’s love. In marriage, we’re to be committed to only one person—;it’s exclusive. But there’s also an ever-expanding sense of God’s love where he keeps reaching out, establishing relationships with more and more people. Singles can demonstrate expanding love by having nonexclusive relationships. In not having a covenant relationship with a spouse, they can have more relationships, which demonstrates a different aspect of the character of God.” – “Sex and The Single Christian,” Steve Tracy (christianitytoday.com)

[i] One does not need the Bible to see that waiting to have sex until marriage and limiting one’s sex life to that partner clearly provides a healthier sex life for both individuals and their family. For some introductory information, the following may be helpful:

  • The Health Benefits of Marriage,” Focus on the Family.
  • What Are The Advantages of Monogamy?” Tough Questions Answered
  • “A monogamous sexual partnership in formal marriage evidently produces the greatest satisfaction and pleasure.” (Social Organization of Sexuality)
  • A US News and World Report story from State Universtiy of New York and the University of Chicago noted that of all sexually active people, “….the people who reported being most physically pleased and emotionally satisfied were married couples... Physical and emotional satisfaction started to decline when people had more than one sexual partner.”

In addition, pornography – which not only fails to form covenants but celebrates sex devoid of anything remotely related to covenant – clearly undermines individuals and the community. For some introductory information, the following articles from Salvo Magazine (salvomag.com) may be helpful:

  • “Slave Master How Pornography Drugs & Changes Your Brain”
  • “Porn Is Not Free”
  • “Porn In The USA”
  • “The Porn Factor” “The Science of Pornography”             

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[ii] Two things are biblically clear by the end of the New Testament era: 1) marriage is intended to be a permanent, faithful, sacrificially loving covenant between a husband and wife, and 2) the only proper context for sex is within the confines of that kind of marriage. Pornography, heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, and a homosexual lifestyle all take place outside of God’s design for sex. Homosexuality is a culturally hot topic right now, so I will respond to that one in particular.

We must remember that we are all sinner who are  recipients of God’s forgiveness and grace. If God forgives, heals and restores me and places me in church community, who am I to refuse to pass that on to others? Unfortunately, the church often drops the ball here. The church should be a place of refuge, hope, and godly formation for the disenfranchised, oppressed, wounded, and sinful.The goal for all Christians is to show love and compassion paired with a call to repentance and transformation into a new and better way of life (“I’m glad God saved and delivered me from my sins. He can do the same for you. Let’s walk through this together.”)  Repentance requires a commitment to be a different kind of person – not a perfect one, but one committed to ongoing, deeper discipleship in which all areas of life are surrendered at the foot of the cross – and that includes our sexual identity and practice. I recommend the following resources: 

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[iii] Obviously, the state has the power to do otherwise. I think we will probably see an increasing trend in churches to separate civil ceremonies from church ceremonies, with the state sanctioning legal rights and the church celebrating biblical covenant. See “The Marriage Pledge” for more info. 

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[iv] KIDS AND PARENTS

One does not need a Bible to note that a stable, low conflict, faithful marriage between the biological mother and father provides children with the statistically healthiest home. This clearly does not claim that other situations (such as adoption or single-parent homes) result in unhealthy kids, are necessarily unstable or are full of conflict. It merely claims there is a generally predictable situation which is optimal for children, and as such it ought to be uniquely acknowledged and promoted.

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