The Bible and Sexuality
The Biblical Basis
Already on the first page of the Bible the sexual difference between man and woman is mentioned. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Here it is said that the origin of the distinction of the sexes goes back to the creative act of God. That is how God wanted it to be: man and woman, in sexual diversity. It is striking that at first the Bible speaks about “man” in the singular. Afterwards the plural form is mentioned. We will always have to see this plural form against the background of the unity. We also read about this unity on the next page.
In Genesis 2:24 we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The unity of man is expressed in the sexual union. One can also say: the difference between the sexes is aimed at the unification of man and woman. By sexuality we mean the given fact of the gender difference between man and woman; and the different experiences of this, starting with coming closer together physically, culminating in the physical unification.
The Sexual Revolution
By way of this introduction we have found the basis for our focus of this chapter: our attention to the Bible and sexuality. This subject has been treated quite differently over the centuries. It is not my task to give an overview of how the topic of the Bible and sexuality has been viewed in the history of Christendom.
There is no denying that there have been periods in which this relationship could hardly be discussed positively. There was more of an attitude of restraint than of an appreciation of sexuality. Anything sexual became directly associated with sin. Augustine has spoken rather negatively about the sexual act within marriage. He has left his trail in the history of the church. We can state however, that his hesitations were not always shared by all writers in the course of the centuries.
After the Second World War, great changes have come about in society. A booklet has been published with a title rather characteristic of what has happened in the people’s thinking and acting: The sexual revolution (Dr. J. Rinzema). It is specifically at this time that it is of great importance to listen to the biblical message about sexuality.
It will be clear that the topic of sexuality in the Bible is not mentioned as a contemplative theme. To talk biblically about sexuality we have to find places where the relationship between man and woman is directed to the physical aspect. Anyone who examines how the Bible speaks about sexuality will discover two lines of thought.
We have already referred to the message about the creation of mankind as man and woman. The sexual distinction is God’s design. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5).
Our manhood or womanhood is not a sin in itself. The desire of woman and man for each other is not a sin! The sexual desire for the other is a creation provision. Anyone who equates sexuality with sin cannot appeal to the Bible for any such consideration. However, it needs to be said that in the Bible the way to sexual union is the way of the marriage covenant, in which man and woman give themselves to each other for life. Sexuality is not available separate from that. It is part of life, of loyalty and dedication to each other. As Karl Barth said, “Coitus without coexistence is demonic.”
This represents the one line of thought in the Bible: the joy of life as a man and a woman. In particular the Song of Songs sings about this marital love. The physical aspects of this are proclaimed without hesitation. The poet of Proverbs also speaks freely about the joy, even the delight of sexual contact. I quote: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Prov. 5:18-19). I will leave it with this one quote. More, even more pronounced, passages could be mentioned. The Bible speaks very positively about sexuality, as it does also about marriage.
Sexuality and Sin
In Proverbs 5, however, we also come across a different line of biblical speaking about sexuality. This chapter deals with the foreign woman who is a temptation. She is the personification of all evil in the sexual field. In her, all sexual sins are concentrated and intensified. In view of her, we read the warning in Proverbs 7:25-27, “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.” In this picture one can recognize the pernicious influence and the deadly effect of sin on sexual matters.
In the New Testament Paul says it in his own way. He writes in 1 Corinthians 6 about the freedom in which a Christian stands. This, however, is completely different from profligacy. Remarkably, Paul clarifies the freedom of a Christian: “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food. The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
One may consider this a strange turn. Is not the body also for the union with the marriage partner? Paul will not disagree with that. The fact that he mentions the Lord as the destination of the body means here that we cannot just do what we want with our body. This text is particularly relevant in connection with the sexual revolution. This assumes that the body is there for our own pleasure, for the enjoyment of our lust and the fulfillment of our physical, sexual desires!
Contrary to this, Paul says: our body is there for the Lord. Our body is not our own. That is why we cannot simply do what we want. Paul’s conclusion is, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Does Paul mean to say that the glorification of God with our body should lead to the unmarried state, or to the withholding of sexual intercourse, to an aversion to our bodies and desires? In the immediately following chapter, Paul writes that the husband must fulfill his marital obligation to his wife, and the same goes for the wife to her husband. That is the opposite of living in abstinence.
Paul does note there is a time for abstention, but “by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (see 1 Cor. 7:3-6).
“Looking at a Woman with Lustful Intent”
Sexuality is a field of temptation. The devil wants to master man by bringing him to a boundless, non-normative sexual behaviour. In the New Testament, the word “fornication” means every sexual relationship outside of marriage. The physical movement with a whore is the most striking example of this. But every free, extramarital sexual relationship falls under this subject of fornication. Our Lord Jesus spoke very sharply about this in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
This is a sharp rebuke that many people find hard to swallow. What does the Lord Jesus mean? Would it not be possible to speak of the beauty of a woman with appreciation? Jesus certainly does not forbid this. We have to read this desirous looking in light of Genesis 3:6. We read of Eve “...that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise”. Eve induced the desire for the forbidden. With that, she violated in her heart the prohibition of God. The desire for the forbidden fruit brought her to the actual sin: “she took of its fruit, and she ate” (Gen. 3:6). To look at a woman with a covetous desire means to have a sinful desire in your heart for the forbidden interaction with someone other than your own wife!
The Bible has two lines of thought in connection with sexuality: on the one hand that of the permissive enjoyment, and on the other that of the sinful, unclean desire for a forbidden relationship. The Bible speaks openly about the lawful enjoyment, and does so quite extensively. In picturing the sins, the Bible is clear, yet at the same time it is sober; realistic but also reserved. There is not a spicy or titillating aspect to it. Instead, the facts are simply stated.
Marriage: the Space for the Experience of the Physical
The Bible gives ample room for the experience of the physical. This place is the space of the marriage covenant that connects two people through the promise of loyalty for life. Within the space of love for each other, physical contact can and may be enjoyed. In this space, one is safe with the other. It is where shame is lifted by love that is faithful.
We quote the biblical basis of marriage: the leaving of one’s mother, holding fast to one’s wife and becoming one flesh. Immediately afterwards it follows: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24, 25).
In marriage, which is the covenant of love and faithfulness for life, there is no room for shame toward each other.
About the Shame
This occurs when sin destroys the real union. Then the one is not safe with the other. There, the one becomes an object of lust to the other. Through sin, an alienation between Adam and Eve has come about. Adam treats his wife like a stranger, by speaking about her in the third person, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12).
Shame is the intensive, existential defensive reaction towards the other person, who physically or psychologically comes after us. Sin brings with it that the one violates the other; that the man turns the woman into the object of his lusts. He does not treat the woman with the dignity of a person who deserves respect, also in her own intimacy. He reduces her into an object that he tries to get in his hands and in his power. She is only there to satisfy his passions and cravings.
Shame creates distance. It keeps sin at a distance, because it makes people defend themselves against the other’s desire. Such shame provides protection. In our days shame is mocked. It should not be necessary to conceal the intimacies of the human body from the gaze of the other partner.
What does it actually mean, when one considers shame to be superfluous? Then one denies the factuality of sinful desires. One does not want to admit to himself and others that there is a sinful desire in mankind to make the other person an object of his desire. In fact, one tries to go back to a Paradise situation before the fall into sin. However, this no longer exists. Or — and that is another possibility — people consider it quite common that a person is sexually involved with any other person. This disregards the fact that God has connected sexual union within marriage.
Marriage is the bond between this man and this woman. It is monogamous. No third or fourth party can occupy a place in this. Paul has underscored the exclusive unity by making reference to the relationship between Christ and the church. He writes that “this mystery is profound” (Eph. 5:32). Today’s loose sexual morality lacks the mystery. The shame that protects against the intrusive, eager gaze of another, disappears only within the experience of this mystery.
We also understand from this how degrading pornography is. It delivers the intimacies of a woman or man to the eager gaze of a random fellow man: buyer and viewer. It is the means to stimulate what Jesus calls adultery: looking at a woman to covet her.
Our government refuses to take action against adult pornography. The argument for this is the statement that adults must know for themselves what they want. They should be mature enough to decide for themselves. This is no more than a argument of appearance only. The actual argument seems to me that the government is not prepared to say that pornography is in conflict with the sense of shame that is innate to a person. The government does not want to say that in pornography one person is being delivered to the sinful desire of the other in an inhumane way. It is shameful then to hear that feminist groups dare to condemn such a public exposure. They therefore want to see pornography prohibited. Their argument is based on discrimination. I do not consider it to be a strong argument, because in pornography even men can surrender to the lustful looks of others. Moreover, those who voluntarily sell themselves as a pornographic model can hardly blame themselves for discrimination.
Releasing porn has everything to do with wiping away the sense of shame. It is a denial of what the Bible calls sin in sexual matters.
Whoever experiences this tidal wave should not be surprised to see that the biblical emphasis on sexual sin continues to be heard in preaching and conversations, in the analysis of our present time, in the indication of moral decline.
Struggle as an Expression of Sanctification
We do not identify this as if based on the Bible we can only speak negatively about sexuality. We do so from a biblical sense of reality. For many people sexuality is a gateway for sin. A battle must be fought also in this area. We would be falling short if we, with this subject, did not address forgiveness. Jesus Christ sacrificed his life also for sins in the sexual arena of life. Such forgiveness is only to be obtained in the way of confession of guilt. We then receive the Holy Spirit who equips us for battle. The struggle against that which is prohibited, in glance and desire, in fantasy and physical gestures, is a form of sanctification.
We again point to the words of Paul: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” God’s Word shows us the way to the permissible enjoyment of sexuality. Then there will also be thanksgiving.
Where paths are being travelled that God forbids, de-sanctification takes place. No thanksgiving can take place there. In the forgiveness for Christ’s sake and in the renewal by the Holy Spirit we also find the right attitude toward sexuality. We fear the temptation. We rejoice in the gift. How should a single person deal with his or her sexuality? How should someone who lost his or her life partner deal with desires that he or she has experienced as satisfying?
Those who have to answer these questions will have to affirm that they are ready for a pastoral conversation. Some have a doubly heavy struggle. Others experience that the solution is this, that being human does not depend on the experience of one’s sexuality. The current motto of this world is: “live your life to the full and make sure that your desires are met”.
That cannot be the way of God's commandment! On the contrary, that road is forbidden. However difficult it may be, one can also be human without the sexual experience! Anyone who is called to this abstention is no less human than one who is married. He or she will seek to be of service and to find joy in other areas, where it equally applies: what God has created is not reprehensible, if it can be accepted with thanksgiving. For life — and this includes also the unmarried life — is sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer.