Christians get sex wrong when we start from the wrong end. We start from human desires, passions, biological drives and “needs.” These are treated as givens, as the base-line natural reality of human sexuality.
Then we come to the Bible and find, to our surprise, that God places all kinds of restrictions on how we can express and channel these needs and desires. The law includes more “do nots” in connection with sex than with any other human activity.
The “do nots” are as various as the expressions of human sexuality – do not commit adultery, do not lie with your father’s wife or your uncle’s wife or your daughter-in-law or your sister, do not lie with a man as with a woman, do not approach an animal to mate with it.
When there aren’t strict do nots, there are drastic consequences for coloring outside the lines: Sleep with a virgin, and you’ll soon find yourself negotiating with her father about a dowry (Exodus 22:16-17).
And then Jesus tops it off: “I say to you, anyone who looks at a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery in his heart.” Sheesh! As Augustine observed, it’s hard enough to control an erection, and now Jesus wants me to control my impulses and thoughts and the direction I cast my eyes.
When all is said and done, the Bible channels this titanic human passion into the narrowest of pathways: Sex is permissible only between a married man and a woman.
Biblical sexual ethics seems to strip us of our bodies, at least of creative uses of our bodies. It’s an ethic for angels.
Christian teaching on this subject hasn’t always been helpful. It has demanded something very close to an angelistic, disembodied sexual conduct. Augustine (rightly) emphasized that way sin disturbs our sexuality – our inability to control sexual organs is a sign of our general lack of self-government.
But this still can get the question wrong-way round, treating our disordered sexuality as the given, and the law as an extrinsic imposition on human freedom. We can saythat the constraints of biblical sexuality are liberating, and that’s true. But try convincing a horny teenager.
For some today, there’s an elegantly simple solution: Get rid of the old Christian hang-ups about sex. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Nothing human is alien to me. If God didn’t want us to experiment with our sexuality, why did He give us penises and vaginas and other erogenous zones?
The key to getting sex right is to recognize that it’s a theological reality from top to bottom. Paul wasn’t imposing Christ-and-church on the natural phenomenon of sexual difference (Ephesians 5). He was expounding the created reality, meaning, and structure of sex. That’s why Paul quotes from Genesis 2. The great mystery is that God created man male and female, as a differentiated unity and a unified differentiation, as a living sign of His covenant bond with His people.
Few theologians have made this point as powerfully, as relentlessly, as Karl Barth, who takes the account of the creation of Eve as fundamentally a revelation of God’s covenant (Church Dogmatics, III.4: The Doctrine of Creation).
“It is not good for man to be alone,” Yahweh says of Adam. Barth writes, “man in his divinely created sexuality is a similitude of the covenant, which rests upon the fact that God Himself does not will to be alone but with man and for him, with and for His people,” though the covenant the relationship is in no way a relationship of equals (149).
“A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife,” Genesis says. Why does the man leave, rather than the woman? Because, Barth says, “God in His election of Israel and covenant with it has bound Himself so recklessly with this people, making Himself one with it unreservedly and with such promise” (143).
“They were naked and not ashamed,” Genesis tells us. And Barth notes that this too is “a similitude of the covenant of grace, in the fulfillment of which God will prove Himself to be the One who is not ashamed to be the Brother of wretched man nor will man need to be ashamed in the presence of the transcendent God, but both will be together, true God and true man” (150).
Barth observes that “everything that God wills and requires of [man] is contained by implication” in the Either-Or of male and female (149). Man as he actually exists isn’t an abstract “human in general,” but precisely “man as male and female.” All of God’s words and actions are addressed to man or woman, man and woman. And so the sexual relation is as comprehensive as the covenant.
Once we reframe the question, the do nots fall into place. God commands us to lives of sexual fidelity because He is a faithful God. All the do nots are rooted in the fundamental “Do”: Be what you are as male and female, the living image of the God of creation and covenant.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.