Paul’s explanation of his understanding of the gospels to Christians in Rome starts by demonstrating (in chapter 1) how Gentiles are captive to sin and, in parallel, how God’s people the Jews are also mired in sin—so that he can conclude that ‘all [i.e. both Jew and Gentile] have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ and are therefore all in need of the offer of grace, forgiveness and redemption that is found in Jesus. In the first half, the critique of Gentile life and culture, he deploys a traditional Jewish argument highlighting Gentile sexual sin: 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.
In the first part of this two-part post, I set out what I perceive as the first four of eight affirmations about sex and sexuality in the broad narrative of the Scriptures. Look at this ‘big picture’ is an essential complement to the discussions about detailed texts, and without it the debate can sometimes get lost in the details.
The first four affirmations were that: sex is a good gift from good; that we are bodily creatures, not merely spirits trapped in bodies or purely material creatures; that our bodies are sex-differentiated into male and female (sex dimorphism); and that God intends us to live lives of integrity, where our outward actions, include our experience of sex, should line up with our life commitments.
The second set of four affirmations offer some essential counterpoints to the first four, and the theology of sex and sexuality we find in scripture lies in the connection and tension between all eight affirmations.
5. Sex is potent
You don’t need to read the Bible to know that sex is a powerful force in the world. In his 1985 book that followed on from Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster address the questions of Money, Sex and Power. He wrote:
No issues touch us more profoundly or universally; no topics cause more controversy. No human realities have greater power to bless or curse. No three things have been more sought after or are more in need of a Christian response.
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.
National destinies are also shaped by issues around sex and childbearing. Historically, we are in a strange place in the West; with our near-universal adoption of contraception, we have become a culture where sexual activity is almost seen as a right, but childbearing is becoming perceived more and more in cultural narratives as problematic, an obstacle to the fulfilment of our desired lifestyle in terms of earning power and career progression. The result of this is epidemic-levels of sexually transmitted diseases alongside a birthrate that has, for some time, been below the ‘replacement level’ necessary to maintain a steady population. (Ironically, in both these regards we are moving closer to the pre-Christian reality of the Roman Empire.) In many Western countries, population growth has only been sustained by immigration (note Angela Merkel’s amnesty for around 1 million immigrants in Germany last year), and the immigrant communities typically have a much higher birth rate than the indigenous population, increasing the ethnic and cultural mix of the population as a whole.
In some contexts, such differential rates of birth have serious political consequences. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) once said that ‘the womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon’; he knew that if the refugee Palestinian population continued to grow, then they would be impossible to ignore in world politics. 750,000 Palestinians left or were expelled from the infant nation of Israel in 1947–8; there are now 1.8 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip alone. In fact, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians are engaged in a demographic war of childbearing.
Scripture recognises the power of sex. The first commandment of God to humanity is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; having families and raising them is depicted as the primary way in which humanity is to exercise the power of God’s delegated dominion over the earth. The narratives of the Old Testament are littered with examples of desire and sexual relations that go wrong, wreaking havoc in the lives of individuals and families. David’s desire for Bathsheba, as he sees her bathing on her roof when he should have been leading his troops in battle, destroyed the life of her husband Uriah and nearly destroyed both David and his kingdom (see 2 Kings 11).
For both Jesus and Paul, sexual immorality, along with other vices like greed and malicious thoughts, has the power to ‘defile’ (Mark 7.21) and prevent our inheritance of the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6.9).
6. Humanity is fallen
A central theme in the Bible’s description of humanity is that we are ‘fallen’ in some sense. God created the world good, but things are now often far from good; we were made to be in intimate relationship with God, and at peace with each other and the world, but all these relationships have become distanced and distorted. 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.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you (Gen 3.16).
The reciprocity 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 often teaches about money and its seductive dangers, and he is often opposed by those whose power and influence he threatens. But, as John Nolland has demonstrated, he teaches about sex and sexual morality at least as often, including reference to sex in all his vice lists. 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.