Among those who identify as Christian, there is current an ongoing debate—and in some cases deep disagreement, confusion, misunderstanding, and even mischaracterization and slander between tribes around the subject of sex and marriage.
Some adopt a more strident posture that seems (and often is) lacking in pastoral compassion, empathy, and grace. “The Bible says it, that settles it, and you’re on your own to get your life in line with the Bible” is way too pervasive a posture among people who (a) are rightly concerned about maintaining biblical fidelity in every area of life, including sex and marriage, yet who (b) lack biblical fidelity in the way that they treat people unlike themselves. Just as Scripture says we must love God with all that we are, it says likewise that we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Others adopt a more open and “affirming” posture that seems (and often is) lacking in biblical fidelity. “The times are different now than they were back in biblical times, and furthermore, we have read the Bible wrong all these years on sex and marriage, just as Christians once read the Bible wrong about slavery.” Those with this mindset are (a) rightly concerned about caring deeply for those who are attracted, say, to the opposite sex, and yet (b) fail to account for the fact that every time Scripture mentions sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman, it comes with strong warnings…and with zero exceptions.
For others, including me, there is a desire to engage this conversation—and the real people with real lives and stories and struggles who are most impacted by it—in a way that resembles how Jesus engaged a sexually confused culture and sexually damaged persons. I hope that what I share below will help readers on all sides of this discussion find their way, not into a tribe as much as into the wise and perfect ways of Jesus, who alone is Lord and Maker of sex.
The landscape is changing on the subject of sexuality.
The centuries-old, universal consensus among Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well—that God gave sex for marriage between one man and one woman—is being questioned not only by secular society, but within Christianity itself. Fading is the long-held belief that “immorality” and porneia—the New Testament Greek term for all sex that happens outside of marriage between one man and one woman—are the same thing. Ours is a different age, says the Western hemisphere (and mostly white) “progressive” or “ex-” -vangelical. Biblical prohibitions about divorce, unmarried cohabitation and same-sex relationships were written for situations unique to the time and setting, but that do not necessarily apply to our modern context.
Christians who find the new interpretations unpersuasive and biblically unsound are increasingly viewed as unenlightened at best, and bigoted at worst. What are we to make of this new cultural landscape? Moreover, how are we to understand the Scriptures on this matter? And what are we to do with that understanding?
Have We Misinterpreted Scripture?
Most of us Christians are swift to distance ourselves from a damaging, “us-against-them” posture on this issue. A condemning, shaming stance toward LGBTQ and/or unmarried, sexually active hetero men and women has proven only to be damaging and counterproductive. For some, forsaking a holier-than-thou posture has also led to sympathy toward, and in some cases affirmation of, expressions of sexuality that have historically and widely been seen as incongruent with faith (and still are seen as incongruent outside the West).
As once-culturally taboo expressions of sexuality become mainstream, and as colleagues, friends, and even family members “come out” with news of a pending “no fault” divorce or a same-sex or cohabiting hetero relationship, more and more Christians—especially when friendships and family ties hang in the balance—feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny. To reinforce this instinct, LGBTQ folks are compared to oppressed minorities of the past, most notably the victims of slavery. “Christians eventually shifted on slavery because they finally saw that slavery was biblically wrong,” the thinking goes. “This is no different. LGBTQ,” it is said, “is the new oppressed minority.” This is a difficult leap, however, because every reference in the Bible about sexual activity outside the covenant union between one man and one woman is negative. The pro-slavery mindset is repudiated by Paul’s letter to Philemon, a slave-owner who, according to Paul and the Holy Spirit, must cease treating Onesimus like a slave and instead receive him as a brother. No such book or verse exists in the Bible on the subject of sex and marriage. In fact, as Scripture unfolds from Old Testament to New, while it becomes more progressive in the way it dignifies, empowers, and liberates women, ethnic minorities, the enslaved and the oppressed, Scripture takes on a more conservative tone in the way it speaks of sex and marriage. Jesus affirms that in the beginning, “God made them male and female, and the two (male and female) will become one flesh.” Qualified elders must be either single and celibate like the Apostle Paul and Jesus, or one-woman men—the “husband of one wife.” Jesus is kind and restores dignity to a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her that if she is going to identify as one of his followers, she must stop committing adultery. In other words, unlike the liberation of slaves spoken of in Philemon, there is no place in Scripture that pronounces liberation for those wishing to pursue sexual relationships, including committed and monogamous ones, outside of the male-female marital union.
This teaching is admittedly becoming less and less popular in our late modern times. Yet, if the true relevance of Scripture is that Scripture shows no interest in being relevant—that is, it shows no interest in being adapted, revised, or censored in order to be more in tune with the ever-shifting times—then the sex question is one that sincere believers must wrestle with. We must remain committed to being counter-culture where the culture and the truth are at odds with one another. This, and this alone, is what will make Christians truly relevant in the culture.
Compelled by the love of Christ, we will not withhold kindness or friendship from any person or people group, and we will not engage in any sort of “us against them” posturing. This in itself is counter-culture in the modern West, where the norm is to be constantly on the hunt for something to be offended by.
Compelled by the truth of Christ, we will honor and obey the Creator’s design—even when his design is counter-culture and, at times, counter-intuitive to us. His ways and his thoughts are higher than ours on this matter.
Affirming Sex (and Chastity)
Jesus, who was a lifelong, unmarried celibate man tempted in every way just as we are, affirmed sex within the male-female marital union. He invented sex. Sex is not a no-no. It is not taboo. It is a gift that invites husbands and wives to taste Eden together—naked without shame, known and embraced, exposed and not rejected. Proverbs invites a husband to find satisfaction in his wife’s breasts. Song of Solomon pictures a husband and wife admiring, reciting poetry over, and adventurously enjoying one another’s naked bodies. Paul the Apostle, also unmarried and celibate, says that except for short seasons dedicated to prayer, able-bodied married couples should have sex, and have it often. History will culminate in consummation between Jesus and his Bride, the Church…a “profound mystery” that every believer, married and unmarried, can anticipate in the New Heaven and New Earth.
God is also deeply concerned that sex not be distorted, abused, or turned into an idolatrous pseudo-savior. Porneia, the Greek umbrella word for sexual immorality, represents any departure from God’s design of a male-female, two-becoming-one marital union.
Why is the Bible seemingly so liberating about sex inside heterosexual marriage, but so limiting for every other setting? Tim Keller says that God put guardrails around sex because sex is the most delightful, and also the most dangerous, of all human capacities. It is a transcendent, other-worldly experience. Sex works a lot like fire. On one hand, fire can warm and purify. On the other hand, if not contained properly and handled with care, it can burn, leave permanent scars, infect, and destroy. So it is with sex. I have seen this play out in scores of pastoral situations over the years. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” says the sacred Proverb, “but in the end it leads to death.”
A Way Forward—Especially for Christians
So what is the way forward on this issue? I’m going to propose something a little bit out of the box. What if we Christians, especially those of us who still affirm the ancient, traditional Judeo-Christian guardrails for sex as described above, concerned ourselves less with defending biblical marriage “out there” and focused more on nurturing biblical marriage “in here?”
What if we graciously and humbly conceded that the culture war has been lost on this issue, a chief reason being that for a couple of decades, the Christian witness on this issue, in its zeal for truth, mishandled the truth by forgetting about love? What if, in conceding that the culture war has been lost, we rendered unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and accepted our new opportunity to set aside the failed “moral majority” posture and replace it with the more biblical “life-giving minority” posture?
The wise and lovely Madeleine L’Engle is helpful in her reminder that “We draw people to Christ…by showingthem a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
The telling of the light will backfire where there is no showing of the light.
Rather than condemning “sex in the city,” what if we concerned ourselves instead with being the “city on a hill” that Jesus intends for us to be?
What if we affirmed along with the Bible that being unmarried and celibate (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble and fruitful calling? What if we affirmed along with Paul that the calling to singleness, though less common, is still a “far better” calling than marriage because it frees single men and women to devote themselves fully to the Lord’s concerns? Speaking of this, what if we got rid of the term “single” in the church and embraced a renewed biblical vision for the church as a surrogate family where every person, married and divorced and single, hetero attracted and same sex attracted, has access to spiritual friendships as deep as that of David and Jonathan, whose mutual accessibility, transparency, and loyalty rivaled the love between a man and a woman? What if we shifted our emphasis toward THE MARRIAGE to which all other marriages are but a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and his bride, the Church, which is inclusive of believing husbands and wives, as well as widows and widowers, divorcees, and other unmarried men and women? According to sacred Scripture, no matter what one’s marital status or sexual orientation, the first moment of trust in Jesus makes that person as married and complete as s/he will ever be. From our first moment of faith, Jesus is our Bridegroom and we are his Bride.
We are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours.
Finally, what if we focused on renewing marriage inside the church first, repenting of hard-core and soft-core pornography habits, taking thoughts and fantasies captive that objectify the image of God, reducing divorces where there are no biblical grounds, and nurturing love, lingering conversation, hand-holding, fidelity, forgiveness, and living face to face (in intimacy) and also side by side (on mission) within marriages? For unless and until we become this kind of counter-cultural community amongst ourselves—showing the light of Christ that is in us as well as telling it—any zeal for biblical marriage and chastity “out there” will fall on deaf ears. And rightly so.
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