A Logic Lesson
To define a word, clarify a concept, or articulate a moral principle we must grasp both what it is and what it isn’t, what it includes and what it excludes. Stating what something isn’t without saying what it is gives us no precise idea of what we are talking about. If I tell you, “It’s not a mouse! It’s not a chair! It’s not a star or a glove or a tree” etc., I have not helped you at all to know what it is. However if I tell you what something is, I’ve implicitly let you know what it is not. If I let you know that I am thinking of a coffee cup, you also know that I am not thinking of a horse, a blade of grass, or my best friend in grade school. I don’t have to list all the things of which I am not thinking. You would never dream of complaining that because I did not list my laptop among the things about which I am not thinking, that I left you in the dark on that issue!
Now let’s apply this logic to the question of the biblical understanding of the place and limits on sexual activity. If your approach to this question consists only of discovering and listing every type of sexual activity forbidden in the Bible, you will never get a clear understanding of sexual morality in the Bible. It’s unreasonable to assume that all excluded behaviors must be named—and perhaps described and differentiated—any more than you should expect that I name everything that is not a coffee cup for you to get a clear idea of what I am thinking! It is unreasonable to argue that because a particular sexual behavior or relationship is not listed in a list of forbidden things, that it is therefore permitted.
The Purpose, Place, and Function of Sex
What, then, according the Bible is the purpose of sex? What is its proper place and function? If we get a clear idea of right use of sex, we won’t have to deliberate over an extensive and ever-growing list of misuses of sex. Let me remind you that this question will make no sense to those outside my target audience, those I described earlier in series as thinking about their identities in psychologized, sexualized, and politicized categories. Those who fit this description acknowledge no overarching moral order to which they should conform. So, for them sex has no objective purpose or place or proper function. Purpose, identity, and meaning derive from the inner self and vary from individual to individual.
But for confessing Christians, who take the Bible seriously, the question of the proper place and function and true purpose of sex makes perfect sense. For God is the creator, sustainer, providential guide, and savior of the human person, body and soul. Our true identity is found in Christ. We know there is a meaningful moral order to which we are obligated to submit. What, then, is the proper place and function and true purpose of sex?
In the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament authors,* the proper place and function and true purpose of sex is realized only within life-long, loving marriage, between one man and one woman. All sexual liaisons outside marriage are by definition are forbidden. You don’t have to list these non-conforming sexual acts or agonize in efforts to prove them wrong or justify them as permitted. I will address these futile efforts in upcoming essays. Now I want to remind you of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teaching on marriage.
Jesus deals with marriage on a few occasions. I will quote from his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-9:
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The subject here is divorce. And Jesus makes it clear that divorce is an evil, an evil that Moses tolerated but that he does not. No no-fault divorce here! Hard hearts, unloving and stubborn, are not allowed. In Jesus’s teaching divorce comes under the same condemnation as adultery. Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, rooting marriage in the creative purpose of God. But Jesus adds an assertion and a command not found in Genesis: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:6; also in Mark 10:9). Marriage is not merely a human agreement made for human purposes. The involvement of God makes it part of a sacred order, and no one has the right to dissolve it.
Paul also deals with marriage in several places, but I will limit myself to Ephesians 5:28-33:
28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
In this passage Paul also quotes Genesis 2:24. And he also sees marriage as integrated into the sacred order. He calls it a “profound mystery.” The union between husband and wife spoken of in Genesis images the spiritual union between the risen Christ and his people, who are his body. And for those in Christ, it also participates in that mystery. For this reason the union between husband and wife should be a union of self-sacrificial love.
In Hebrews 13:4, we find a short but clear affirmation that marriage is the proper place for sexual intimacy and a severe condemnation of its violation:
4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Knowing the clear biblical teaching that life-long, loving marriage between one man and one woman is the proper place for sexual intimacy to achieve its created and redemptive purpose answers a thousand questions about what is forbidden without agonizing, cynical, or sophistical debates.
*Note: We are speaking in these essays of “Christian” sexual ethics, and Christian sexual ethics cannot be derived from Old Testament texts unless they are filtered through the teaching of Jesus and those whom he taught. This is very clear in the text in Matthew 19, which I quoted above. Jesus abrogates Moses’ teaching on divorce and reasserts the creation ideal.