I have changed the title of the class from “A Biblical Theology of Sex” to “The Biblical Theology and Ethics of Sex.” The first title would cover the ground well enough – in its larger sense “theology” includes ethics – but I wanted to emphasize the biblically characteristic relationship between the indicative and the imperative. The theology of sex is, therefore, in this usage the indicative. What God reveals to be the case, the facts about the nature of men and women, the nature and purpose of the sexual relationship as a dimension of human life, and so on. The ethics of sex then concerns the behavior that is consistent with and stems from that created reality. [Sex as a creation ordinance holds within itself a blueprint for a divinely ordered way of life. For example, by the divine intention, sexual intercourse, what is nowadays referred to in studies of this kind as “genital sex,” (to distinguish it from the broader aspects of sexuality, what is sometimes called “social sexuality”) belongs within that union defined in Genesis 2 as a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife. It belongs to the life of marriage and draws its meaning from the nature and the intimacy of that particular and permanent bond between a husband and wife. The Pauline “therefore” concerns sex as well as he makes very clear in a number of places. That is, if we are properly responding to God’s grace lavished on us in Jesus Christ, we will express our sexuality in very definite ways and not in others.]
In this course I intend to deal with “sex” in the sense of sexual desire and sexual intercourse, with its attendant sins, tribulations, satisfactions, and fulfillment, with its own particular theology and ethics, but I begin, where the Bible begins, thinking about sex in the more comprehensive sense: “the sum of structural, functional, and behavioral characteristics” of human beings that distinguish the male from the female and determine vastly important aspects of their lives. This is important in my view because the latter draws its life and its context from the former and because, in our day and time, it is precisely the separation of these dimensions of sexuality that has caused so much confusion, pain, and disorder.
We begin, however, with a justification for the course. Sexuality is so profoundly fundamental to human life, to human experience, to human woe and happiness, to sin and holiness, that, in one sense it needs no justification. The fact that the Bible addresses the issue in so many ways and in so many places is proof enough of its perpetual importance. The fact that the Bible’s greatest illustration of a believer falling into sin concerns what is first a sexual sin (David) and that one of the Bible’s greatest illustrations of the surmounting of temptation concerns the surmounting of a sexual temptation is demonstration enough of the place of sex in the spiritual warfare. The fact that in the introduction to the Proverbs (in Prov. 1-9) the father speaks to his son more often and at greater length about sex than about any other subject is a simple demonstration of how important sexual wisdom is to wisdom as a whole. The fact that Aldous Huxley, one of the apostles of secular modernism, said that “we objected to modernity because it interfered with our sexual freedom” [Ends and Means] or that the celebrated sociologist Margaret Mead should have fabricated her research into the sexual mores of the inhabitants of Samoa precisely to justify an increasingly permissive attitude toward sex in the West [in Sire, Habits of the Mind,93-95] indicates the extent to which sexual desire and the quest for sexual fulfillment drives the thought and belief of human culture. Sex has more to do with philosophy, religion, and culture than we may realize. It always has.
But I’m sure most of you are also well aware of the reasons why Christians should be biblically expert in this dimension of life in our particular historical moment. There are new challenges to be faced, a new severity of problems in the culture, a bolder repudiation of the Bible’s teaching abroad in our society, and a more toxic sexual culture pressing upon Christians and the church as a whole. The fact that it is perfectly obvious that the church herself has wavered in the face of this blast of cold wind reminds us how hard it can be to remain faithful to the teaching, the wisdom of God’s Word when the world is singing its siren song in your ear. And perhaps that is especially true in sexual matters, where desires are so strong to begin with.
Here are just some of the factors creating the sexual culture we as Christians encounter in our world today.
- The trumpeting of sexual diversity that seems to render traditional understandings of sex uncertain or unimportant: bi-, gay-, transgendered people; marital rights for gays; etc. Take, for example, this recent news release. A woman who has served as minister at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore for five years has been re-appointed to the position – as a man, according to church officials. The announcement came at the Baltimore-Washington annual conference of the UMC, where the former Ann Gordon announced the change to Drew Phoenix, and talked of a “spiritual transformation” since the sex change procedure. The move was not without challenge. Some ministers asked for a “ruling of law,” a move which automatically takes the issue to the church organization’s highest court, the Judicial Council, which will be meeting next in October. The church denomination “officially” disapproves of homosexual behavior, but has no explicit policy regarding sexual identity changes or sex change operations, officials said. Gordon/Phoenix’ congregation is among those that support what the members call the “reconciling” movement within the church, and campaigns to reject the church’s traditional biblical teachings on marriage and sexual ethics.
And news of this sort appears regularly in the press. Recently a Los Angeles Times sports columnist announced to his readers that he was going on vacation and would return as a woman. Of course there was no and will be no company disapproval. A generation ago the man would have lost his job for being unnatural and for the distaste of his readership. Today such a criticism would be regarded as the height of intolerance and a throwback to an altogether unenlightened time.
What are Christians to think of this? Obviously the technology making sex-change possible is quite new. It is not an ethical question that has been asked and answered in the tradition of the church’s ethical reflection. (Cross-dressing yes; sex-change, no; though, at the last perhaps there is not much difference.) And this is but one aspect of the revolution that has taken place in our society’s thinking about human sexuality. Think of others that spring to mind: the pill (with vast implications for the life of mankind, many of which, quite obviously, are inimical to Christian convictions; the pill has probably had more to do with the nature of our modern world, at least in the West, than has the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, or any other matters historians are more likely to pay attention to); surrogate pregnancy; etc.
- The undermining of the ontological sanctity of sex by evolution [we seek to undermine a wide variety of “natural” states: illness, etc. so why not this one?] If human life as we know it is an accident, what moral weight can sexual differentiation possibly have? Why should a man or woman be hostage to the sexual identity he or she received by the accident of birth? Why should sex be confined to marriage? If technology makes possible sex without pregnancy, why should sex and family any longer be so closely linked? If sexual urges are our natural inheritance, why should they not be acted on so long as no one else is offended or hurt?
- The feminist movement with its profound alteration in the view of a woman’s life and calling and, generally, the collapse of the feminine into the masculine, with its attendant consequences for masculinity have, it would seem permanently altered longstanding and basic convictions about the meaning of male and female. (You have noticed that the intentional differences are toward the masculine – e.g. women dress like men not vice versa, it is thought necessary for a woman to be successful in business to act more like a man, women are playing sports but men are not taking home economics classes, etc. – though there have been many inevitable changes in male life that are toward the feminine, these are less intentional and certainly less programmatic – men are nowadays more concerned to be pretty [jewelry], are now much more likely to talk about and to rest a great deal on their feelings of acceptance, being loved, being at peace, etc., are more “afraid of commitment” [Have you noticed how much this male fear of commitment is the theme of movies and conversation and how the older notions of manly honor, of the expectation of loving and caring for a wife and children are now virtually unheard of in our public conversation; and its assertion can be positively controversial – e.g. the manly virtue of the men on the Titanic, should it be required of men today? If you have to ask, ladies, don’t expect it!], are less assertive, etc. The recent study of seniors at the Univ. of Washington, indicating that most all of them do not want to marry women who would prefer to stay home to raise their children; don’t want the hit to their lifestyle; no “Father Knows Best” here!) But these systemic changes obviously have fabulously significant consequences for sexual life, whether speaking of sex as a social reality or of sex as a genital activity.
- The cultural power and influence of pornography, the rise of promiscuity, the sexualization of life in advertising and pervasively in society (education down to the early grades) has contributed to – it certainly did not create – an idolatry of sex: copulo ergo sum! Hugh Hefner is widely envied as some kind of hero in our culture rather than despised and pitied as a dirty old man. Hardly anything so profoundly illustrates or so bleakly the revolution that is now virtually complete in Western popular and elite culture as Hefner in pajamas at the mansion surrounded by a bevy of young women. But it is a reality that touches our community life everywhere. Third-graders now hear and use language that I did not hear as a high-schooler in my public high school in the middle 1960s. And that revolution has had catastrophic consequences for children and young people. I found some statistics from 1988 indicating that at that time every single day in the United States on average 7,742 children and teens had sex for the first time, or, as it is now put, “became sexually active.” That is almost 3 million a year. Every day then 2,753 children and teens got pregnant; 1,287 children and teens gave birth, 609 develop syphilis or gonorrhea, and so on. My reading suggests that no one believes that comparable statistics would not be more discouraging today than they were 20 years ago. [M. Dawn, Sexual Character, xii] And what of the sexual fear in which so many women now live – as well as so many children – who must make their way in a society that has cast off restraints, that constantly stimulates the libido, and wonders why there is so much harm done to so many by people – mostly men – seeking the sexual stimulation the culture has told them is the be-all and end-all of human life.
- The influence of these cultural mega-shifts in the church: from women ministers to promiscuous Christian young adults. [I want to be careful here. The sort of statistics you get from George Barna (who is always trumpeting the fact that being a Christian seems to make no ethical difference nowadays) tell us very little to nothing. Faithful Christian couples still today hardly ever get divorces; there are a great many Christian men who do not make use of pornography; and there are a large number of Christian single adults who remain faithful to their God and Savior’s summons to live in purity.] Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the sexual mores and practices of our culture have worn away the resistance of many Christians.
- Here me very carefully. I certainly don’t mean to say that sexual confusion or sexual sin is peculiar to our time. The Bible bears its own eloquent witness to the fact that sex has been a temptation throughout the history of human life and has been the occasion of a great deal of harm and woe in every generation of the life of mankind. But, just as surely, no one can doubt the profundity of the changes that have occurred or their vast consequences. In a single generation we have moved from a societal acceptance of the wisdom of preserving the sexual relationship as something peculiar to marriage to a societal suspicion of the same. It is one thing to accept that every generation of every tongue, tribe, and nation in human history has been systemically sinful. It is another thing to deny that situations worsen over time and especially as a result of intellectual and philosophical and religious revolutions.
In my day at Parkway High School (graduated 1968, exactly one generation ago!): TV, teacher, and parents formed together a solid wall of opposition to promiscuity. Today pregnant high school girls are commonly found in a high school student’s class, sexual harassment is a new concern frequently spoken of, indeed, it may be regarded, together with drug use, as the new “smoking in the John,” the rebellious behavior commonly found among high school boys in particular. In our day sexual “activity,” what is rightly still called promiscuity, is the assumption. Indeed, it is now widely regarded as a positive danger to young people to assume anything else than that they are having sex!
The Bible addresses all of these contemporary realities with wonderful candor and comprehensiveness. And it is to the Bible we turn.
The story of sex and the story of human life begin together in Gen. 1:27:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
In this single statement such profound reality is introduced and so much of human life as we know it is explained.
- We have first the creation of man – male and female – in the image of God. Verse 27 harks back to the original statement in verse 26: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness… “Image” and “likeness” are virtually equivalent in meaning. In Gen. 1:27 and 9:6 we have only “image” and in 5:1 we have only “likeness.” But in 1:26 and 5:3 we have both. In the New Testament we have man in God’s “image” in Col. 3:10 and man in God’s “likeness” in James 3:9. Men and women are, in some profound respects, like God. God made them like himself. “Likeness” is not simply a synonym of “image.” It also makes a negative point against the Shirley MacLaines and other new-agers and neo-pagans of the world. We are not God. We are like him in some respects.
It is the imago Dei that distinguishes man, not the nephesh, the breath of life. It is the ability to have commerce with heaven. Without this image, and so without the capacity of relationship with God, man becomes simply nephesh, a living being like the animals. “Image” in the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis is “a faithful, adequate representation of the Deity but not a facsimile.” [Waltke] What is interesting is that the fact that man is made in God’s image is mentioned first, in verse 26, in connection with man’s vice-regency, his rule over the earth. The “image” of a god in the ANE represented his presence, power, and authority. It involves kingship. In the ANE only the king, who represented god, was in the image of god. The free man was in the shadow of the king and the slave the shadow of the free man. But in Genesis 1 every human being – male and female alike – are made in God’s image and exercise authority over the world, ruling as God’s representative. This is the particular them of Psalm 8 and its reflection on the majesty of man. [Formal and material aspects of image?]
- The second assertion in this foundational text is that man exists in differentiation. We will explore this in greater detail when we get to Genesis 2, but already here that point is made. Male and female. As we will discover, of course, that too reflects the nature of God and so may be part of the image of God. God exists in both unity and distinction and now so does the creature made in his image. Both are human beings, but not the same. Differentiation and unity together; sameness and distinction. We take this for granted but, of course, there is nothing ordinary or commonplace about it at all. Men and women are both human beings, made in the likeness of God, but they are also very different from one another. And in that unity and in that distinction hangs the tale of human life.
- The third assertion is that the two distinct forms of human beings live in an ordered relationship. Again, there is more of that to come, but already we find it here. The technical, God-given name of the human being is man [adam], the same name used for the male human being (who, we soon learn, was the first to be created). He created him male and female. The generic masculine, found everywhere in the Bible and almost everywhere in human history, finds its origin here.
That generic masculine has been attacked by the feminist revolutionaries as subversive of a woman’s true humanity, certainly her freedom, but as an artifact of creation, no matter how hard academics may work to eradicate it from written English in our day, it asserts itself nevertheless. Revolutionaries often change the language because of its power to shape perception (“citizen” in the French Revolution, “comrade” in Russia). Academics will use tortuous pleonasms [i.e. the use of more words than necessary to convey sense] – such as he and she and him and her], or replace a singular with a plural [him with they], or, if they are really committed to political correctness, may substitute the generic feminine for the generic masculine. But it is all for naught. The generic masculine not only lives on in a great deal of oral and written communication by intelligent people, especially those shaped by the elegance of our English tongue, but as well in the most ordinary speech of the least sophisticated. Florence and I are always being addressed as “you guys” by sales clerks and students and even, alas, by our own children! It is not “you girls” or “you gals” but invariably “you guys.” It is a witness, however unintentionally, borne to the nature of mankind as created by God.
Nevertheless, take the point: God’s highest creation came in a double form: both male and female. The following verses in Genesis 1 emphasize man’s responsibility to reproduce and, obviously, any reader of Genesis 1 understands that the difference between male and female makes that reproduction possible. But in the elaboration of the creation of man given in Genesis 2 [a panel] we are given more perspective on this differentiation. There is much more to it than simply the necessity of procreation. In fact, in Genesis 2:18-24 there is no mention of children or of man’s responsibility to reproduce.