Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard and Amy Marga. Article written by Amy Marga.
The Bible has quite a bit to say about sex. It depicts the benefits of human sexuality as well as its use as a tool of power that protects male honor. However, the only template for human sexuality in the Bible is God’s faithfulness to humanity as God’s covenant partner.
The Hebrew people gave sexual activity a worthy purpose: it was to provide families with children and increase Israel’s population. The author of Genesis pronounces to the first humans: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Because children were the noble goal of sex, it was a good activity. Contained in this view, however, is a highly restrictive assumption that sex must follow the “natural law” of producing children. When sexual activity does not produce children according to this view, it is no longer good.
Because children can only be produced from heterosexual activity, heterosexual, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman became commonly understood to be the biblical norm for human sexuality. And indeed, the Bible does uphold marriage between men and women (Genesis 2:18, 21-24).
But the Bible does not limit the form of marriage to that of one man and one woman. Furthering the patriarchal lines through offspring meant that bearing children was more important than upholding marital monogamy. The case of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar is the most famous illustration of this not-uncommon acceptance of extra-marital sex in the Bible. When Sarah saw that she was not getting pregnant with the offspring that God had promised Abraham, she sent him to have intercourse with her maidservant, Hagar. The two conceived Ishmael (Genesis 16). Extra-marital sex as well as polygamy was common among the patriarchs (see the story of Jacob in Genesis 30).
On the opposite end of the spectrum from this polygamy-friendly culture stand Paul’s words to the Corinthians in the New Testament. It is precisely the abstinence from marriage and sex – celibacy – that is the more noble way for men: “It is good for a man not to marry,” he remarks (1 Corinthians 7).
Since the Bible contains such a range of forms of human sexuality, Christians must rely upon a broader base of moral resources to make godly decisions about sex. An ethic of care, compassion, and empathy must help inform Christian views on sexuality.
The Bible suggests such an ethic of care when it portrays human sexuality as an activity of sensual pleasure and human bonding. The entire book of the Song of Solomon is dedicated to the sensuous, sexual pleasure of the beautiful human body. This book of love poetry begins with: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song 1:2). Eyes are describes as “doves” (Song 4:1), lips are “crimson thread” (Song 4:3). With this language of love and sensuality, the biblical authors celebrate the pleasure and deep human bonding that occur in sexual activity.
The human bonding portrayed in the Bible reflects God’s faithfulness to humanity as a covenant partner. Sexuality is one expression of the bond of love found in the love of God for humanity.
The bond of love between two people which are expressed through sex are so important that it is easy to see why the New Testament prohibits adultery and divorce (Matthew 15:19-20; Matthew 5:27-28; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Mark 10:2-12). The need for human bonding and commitment is also what drives lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and intersexed people to seek out relationships where they can express love through sexuality. Indeed, the Bible contains prohibitions against same-sex activity (See Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26). But the Bible truly has no one single template for human sexuality except as an expression of love, commitment, and human bonding. When seen in this light, same-sex love and commitment is also a witness to God’s divine faithfulness.
Perhaps then, if we were to seek a Biblical ‘norm’ for sexuality, we ought to look to passages on human love and commitment, seen in the words of 1 John 4:11 for example: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The priority of love, honor, and commitment to one’s lover must guide Biblical interpretations of sexuality.
The priority of love also lies behind the Biblical prohibitions against all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual narcissism. Numerous passages speak against prostitution and fornication (see 1 Corinthians 6:13-16; Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 22:25-29; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 1 Kings 14:24). These passages must be read today in light of modern sex-trafficking of young girls and boys as well as pornographic activity that ensnares children in our digital age.
Sexual violence against women for the sake of male honor is another dark underbelly of human sexuality. Daughters and concubines are offered as objects to be sexually violated in order to protect male honor (Judges 19:16-24; Genesis 19:1-11).
The Bible describes many instances of sexual violence against women, but unfortunately it does not speak against it.
One thing is clear, however. The Bible is consistent about God’s faithfulness towards humanity as God’s covenant partner. Human sexual expression can cement and hold people together in a fundamentally gracious way. Underlying Christian judgments about sex should stand the statement that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).
Amy Marga is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minn.