[Editorial Note: We encourage you to open/read/print the PDF accessible by link just above. While we have also posted this paper below as “in-line text,” formatting between the PDF and HTML required for this internet page does not always carry over consistently. The content remains the same; formatting makes reading a bit easier on the eyes.]
Human Sexuality: Anchor and Boundaries
I have often heard a saying: “There was a church in Corinth, but there was a whole lot of ‘Corinth’ in the church!” Paul had to push back on the Corinthian church in some significant ways and with some pointed words. History tells us there was a large temple dedicated to Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, beauty, passion, reproduction, etc. – at Corinth, and according to Greek philosopher and historian Strabo, it employed 1,000 temple prostitutes. The people of Corinth were accustomed to seeing sexuality run amok in their home context. Sexuality of any stripe was so passé that a guy in the church started living with who we can only now assume was his own stepmom; he took his own dad’s wife as his wife! (1 Cor. 5.1; the Greek literally reads something like “so as wife of one of his father has.”)
We see similar dynamics at play in our contemporary Western culture. We are a sex- and sexuality-soaked society. It has become a topic of increasingly casual conversation. We had a long-running sitcom with “sex” in its title for several years broadcast widely. It is entirely expected and common to see various individuals and companies modify their social media avatars during “pride month” to highlight LGBTIA pride. And that passé attitude societally toward sex has come into our churches. What was utterly unthinkable barely one generation or two ago is now commonplace. Whole denominations as well as independent churches have embraced homosexuality as a non-issue whether in marriage, in qualifications to hold ministerial positions, to volunteer in various capacities in the congregation, etc. Beyond homosexuality, think also of the passé attitude in most churches to heterosexual couples cohabiting outside of marriage, toward divorce and serial marriages, and so on. Sometimes, too much of the world is in our churches.
While churches are comprised of people still yearning for God’s perfection to be realized in their lives, we should also stand apart in some ways. Our direct spiritual ancestors were described in the New Testament as “ekklesia” – the gathering of called-out ones. We have been called by God from the world’s darkness to His wonderful light (1 Pet. 2.9). The character of the relationships among the early Christians were so palpably different that the surrounding culture noticed and viewed them with tremendous goodwill (Acts 2.47). We are all “sinners saved by grace” until we meet our Savior in eternity. And yet, we should also be different; holy, set apart, called-out … “the salt of the earth.”
Core Truth or Peripheral Details?
To begin, let’s consider a contrasting word picture / illustration. Think: anchored versus bounded.
Our family has a dog. As he became a juvenile dog and left behind the “puppy” stage, we discovered he could climb chain-link fences! He’s a big dog, so he could easily get his front paws onto the top rail of the fence; he only needed to “walk” his back feet up the chain links to get onto and over the top rail. While a small puppy, we thought we would manage his behavior by bounding him with a fence. “You can be in this yard and house but not any others.” It did not work. Still, needing to keep him limited to our yard, we had to do something. So we staked him into the middle of the yard on a long (approx. 20-ft), elastic leash. He was still bounded by the fence, but that wasn’t the primary method. Rather, we anchored him in the middle of the yard and the leash’s 40-foot diameter allowed enough movement.
A great many prescriptions and proscriptions in the Christian life follow this principle. There are some boundaries and prohibitions, but instead of focusing on the “shall-nots” – the boundaries – we’re typically encouraged, instead, to focus on the “shalls” – anchors. To illustrate again…
Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were told, encouraged, admonished, exhorted, and ordered to not-worship pagan deities. Those encouragements and prohibitions never “stuck” until after Israel and Judah suffered military conquest and exile. The Israelites really, truly were polytheists until roughly 400BC. It was wrong of them to be polytheist, but functionally, they were. From Abraham’s example through Moses’ Law right up to Jeremiah being kidnapped and carried off to Egypt after Babylon’s siege, the “people of God” were consistently crossing the established boundaries of worship and conduct. Only after the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit came in Acts 1 did it become possible to live a life anchored to the character of God Himself. So, to illustrate with bullet points:
- Worship God (Son/Spirit … Trinity)
- Don’t worship fertility.
o So stay away from Baal
o … and Asherah
o … and Osiris
o … and Amun
o … and Dionysus
o … and Persephone
o … and …
- Don’t worship the sun.
o So avoid Ra.
o … and Apollo
o … and Helios
o … and Athena for good measure
o … and…
- Don’t worship other stuff just because you don’t know what else to do.
o So don’t child-sacrifice to Molech.
o … and stay away from Ashtoreth
o … and …
Regarding a great many principles in Scripture, keeping this complementary contrast in mind can be very helpful, and it is true of God’s expectations regarding human sexuality.
It has been far too common for the Church to fixate, even voyeuristically, on the pettiness of boundaries of sexuality while neglecting to explore and extol the grandeur of the anchor.
The anchor is heterosexual, monogamous, faithful union of one man with one woman. The boundaries are anything, everything, else.
A Terribly Upright Example
“Well, King David did it!”
We all know David was “a man after God’s heart” (based on 1 Samuel 13.14). There are a great many practices we could engage, inspired by David’s example, to pursue greater spiritual health. We should also be quick to recognize there are a great many actions and even attitudes that we should avoid which David himself did if we’re trying to live according to God’s revealed will. While David was “a man after God’s heart,” we should also admit there is a lot of truth in the description that one of my college professors liked to share: “Uriah was a ‘better man’ drunk than David was sober.” Uriah showed incredible faithfulness to his king and peers while literally inebriated, though David had kidnapped and assaulted Bathsheba while completely sober.
An acquaintance was describing to me a new dynamic in his office. One of his coworkers had begun to openly extol his newly-found “freedom” in a polyamorous relationship with a neighbor and his long-time wife. My acquaintance was asking about other biblical precedents and examples of marriages gone well and marriages gone bad. The coworker was defending his actions because David, in his mind, was a great example worth following, even in his complicated marriage relationships.
“King David did it.” David had multiple wives. It’s true. There is no denying, straight from the text, that David – a “man after God’s heart” – accumulated women over the course of his life. So if David was “after God’s heart,” then God’s heart must be polyamorous; for that matter, since David and Jonathan were so incredibly close, I mean, come on – they must have been homosexual partners! By such “logic,” we might also say that Tom and Jerry cartoons accurately represent feline-rodent relations.
We will return to David’s example after first considering the anchor and boundaries.
The Anchor: Heterosexual, Monogamous Marriage
We must begin with the words of Jesus Himself. In our wider culture we will often hear the lie that Jesus supposedly didn’t / doesn’t care about our sexual intimacy if it happens to be outside of heterosexual marriage. That simply was not the case. In Matthew 19.1-12, we see an encounter between loophole-seeking Pharisees and Jesus. Asking Him about divorce was thought to be a trap. As Jesus was wont to do, He side-stepped the spoken question and insisted His listeners pursue God’s better way in all of life, not just in so many hair-split details.
“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
Though the immediate context and question of the legalists here regarded divorce, we can and should look to this statement of the Master regarding sexuality on the whole. Throughout the rest of the Bible, God’s expectation of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman – a marriage – is unequivocal. And here, Jesus entirely affirms that standard. Irrespective of the immediate and human context of the question, Jesus’ answer here “pulls the conversation up to 36,000 feet.” That is, rather than debate or argue ad-nauseum about the minutiae of the boundaries, Jesus instead tied His hearers back to the anchor. Not minutiae, but core principle. Not boundary-parsing ad-infinitum, but central truth. Come back to the anchor.
Thus saith the Chosen One: “God already told you what He expects: He made male and female, and a guy will leave his parents and unite with his wife.”
Jesus’ answer here in Matthew 19 quoted early Genesis – statements that are now chapter 5 verse 2 and chapter 2 verse 24. (Genesis 5.2 echoes Genesis 1.27.) Below are just a handful of other references demonstrating that sex belongs in marriage and that marriage is, in God’s eyes, a highly regarded covenant to be greatly respected:
- Genesis 49.4 Jacob chastised Reuben: “…you defiled my marriage couch.”
- Exodus 21.10 Command to care well for a first wife if a second wife is taken
- Hosea Entire book parallels marital faithfulness and worship faithfulness
- Matt. 5.31-32 Jesus’ expectation that we be faithful in marriage.
- Hebrews 13.4 Another New Covenant (but non-Jesus) command to honor marriage
Heterosexual, life-long, monogamous marriage was the only sexual context ever affirmed throughout the biblical story. To be sure, other types of sexual relationships are described or attested, but one man plus one woman was the only “setup” ever overtly affirmed and condoned by God. Nothing else was affirmed.
Presence in the biblical story is most assuredly not God’s endorsement.
The well-worn saying / rhetorical question is entirely appropriate: “what if marriage is to make us holy, not happy?” The end goal of marriage is not sex, and it is not even reproduction – both are ancillary. The real purpose of marriage is as a spiritual formation path. In this way, it perfectly-reflects, as an opposite mirror-image, singleness and celibacy as Paul knew it when he discussed marriage, singleness, and the Kingdom of God in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 7. Despite its reputation for fixating on marriage and sexuality minutiae, at the core of the issue, the Roman Catholic Church did “get it right” to recognize marriage as a sacrament by the time of the middle ages.
Marriage as spiritual formation is evident in at least these two passages:
Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.
Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.”
Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another.
So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows – it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am. But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.
But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord. A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife.
1 Corinthians 7.5-11
To look at the Malachi passage, there are a few things to notice. First, let’s be honest about what it is not. Malachi 2.15 is not a divine order to procreate. It is not a tacit endorsement of bearing a multiplicity of children. Only one phrase out of verse 15 overtly mentions children. The broader passage is about impeded worship. And God directly confronts and corrects the hearer: the worshipper wasn’t accepted because he was unfaithful. This passage is not about procreating frequently. It is a direct confrontation against infidelity. Inference can be made that divorce among the intended hearers – the whole nation of Israel (Malachi 1.1) – was rampant. And God, in utterly clear terms, condemned divorce. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Faithfulness in a marriage relationship directly affects the quality of our worship. Faithfulness requires God’s sanctifying work in us; spiritual formation occurs in us as we work at remaining faithful and as we continue inviting the Spirit to mold us more closely to the image of Jesus. Fidelity to a spouse is just one way that, as the text plainly says, we “guard our heart.” And “guard your heart” was precisely the phrase used by Solomon in Proverbs 4.23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Fidelity in marriage is one path God uses to conform us more closely to His character. He did not demand that we have dozens of kids. There is an adjective we can’t miss: “godly children.” The Father wants our families to be His; our families worship Him. That is the point of the Malachi passage: our physical, earthly families worship the One, Eternal “family” – that is, Trinity. Stay close to the anchor.
To consider the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul famously gives two points of direction. One is a command from God / not from Paul (verse 10); the other is a concession from Paul / not commanded by God (verse 6). Most English translations express his “concession” as its own sentence, in between coming together again and wishing that all people were single like he. So we ask: is the concession allowed about what’s before it or what’s after? “I concede you should come back together in sexual intimacy” or “I concede that I wish all people were single like me?” The former seems more likely, but either way, sex was not “a given” in Paul’s worldview. Sexual intimacy, even in marriage, per Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.6, is a concession.
This makes sense in light of another famous concession: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it is not what God had originally intended” (Matt. 19.8, paralleled in Mark 10.5). Moses allowed divorce, as a concession, but God’s way – no divorce – is better. Paul allowed sexual intimacy, as a concession, but another way – singleness for God’s Kingdom – is better. (One might protest that sex is not merely an “allowed concession” since God Himself blessed Adam and Eve and told them to multiply. Put a pin in that thought for the moment; we will address it later.) The second piece of this passage, the command from God, agrees perfectly with the rest of the testimony of Scripture: “a wife must not leave her husband … and the husband must not leave his wife.” Don’t divorce. Still recognizing our hard hearts, Scripture acknowledges we might leave anyway; if we do, per Paul here in verse 11, if a spouse does leave, they should remain single / celibate – or be reconciled. Sexual intimacy is a concession to the condition of our hearts, “full stop.”
Abdication is easy; faithfulness is hard. Escapism and fantasy are easy; faithfulness is hard. Indulgence and gratification are easy; faithfulness is hard.
Marriage is hard. And infinitely worth it.
Divorce, affairs, pornography, etc. are all “the easy way out” and readily accessible, but reconciliation with my spouse, patience with my spouse, loving my spouse, dating my spouse, forbearance with my spouse are all much harder. But they are what God expects of me. He expects His people to keep sexual intimacy in just such a committed context.
The biblical center, the anchor, the core truth toward which we must always gravitate sexual intimacy is heterosexual, monogamous, faithful, life-long marriage.
The Boundaries: Anything, Everything, Else
By “any/everything else,” we do, in fact, mean anything sexual besides heterosexual, monogamous marriage:
- Heterosexual sexual intimacy between unmarried individuals
- Group sex
- Fantasy/fantasizing/lust of any kind
- Self-stimulation – masturbating – and fantasy
- Homosexual sexual intimacy
Undoubtedly, there are many proverbial rabbit trails down which we could delve in all of the above bullet points. But again, the point of a Christian sexual ethic is less about what’s off-limits than it is about commitment and becoming more spiritually mature and Jesus-like through the refining influence of our marriage relationship.
There are a few specific Scripture references to address regarding boundaries. But before doing so, we need to first pause a moment and clarify terms. Sexuality has so soaked our culture that nearly any discussion of it breeds conflict. That includes the terms we apply to it. There is vigorous debate – putting it mildly – regarding “homosexual Christians” at present. The following is reductionist almost in the extreme, but for the sake of trying to strike a balance between clarification and brevity: there are two “sides” – literally – in this debate regarding Christian homosexuality. Where and when these terms originated is more or less irrelevant to this paper, but over the past few to several years, definitions have coalesced around “Side A” and “Side B” homosexual Christianity. And to be clear, no, “homosexual Christian” is not an oxymoron (though again, depending on definitions, thus this very brief discussion).
“Side A” Christians are those who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically wrong with homosexual sex. The Metropolitan Community Church, as a denomination, may be one of the most prominent examples. (See the site mccchurch.org generally and mccchurch.org/mcc-statement-of-faith/ specifically for more information.) A number of years ago author Philip Yancey, in a chapter of his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, detailed his long friendship with Mel White. White is a Side A Christian; he was a minister with the Metropolitan Community Church for many years, founded a number of LGBT[etc.] non-profit / advocacy groups and wrote numerous books regarding this general topic. Additionally, Justin Lee founded Gay Christian Network around the turn of the millennium and recently began a new non-profit / advocacy, Nuance Ministries, and is also a Side A Christian who’s written multiple books regarding sexuality, communities of faith, and the broader Christian church’s acceptance, inclusion, or tolerance (or not) of non-heterosexuality. Matthew Vines, additionally, has a very public presence on social media, has published a number of books and other media, etc.
“Side B” Christians, you might guess, are those who profess faith in Jesus and by all metrics and appearances live in the way of Jesus. They worship Him regularly in a corporate setting, commit their resources and abilities to advancing His Name and fame, and study and depend on His Word. And they see nothing biblically right with homosexual sex. In effect, “I know I’m gay and I know that is just period-complete-end-of-discussion a part of me; I know that acting/expressing my sexuality doesn’t square with God’s Word, so I will live celibate.” The preceding few hundred words of this paper could fairly be characterized as “gross simplifications,” perhaps even “unfair.” That critique is largely valid, but again, for the sake of brevity we here communicate what we can such as it is. There are also numerous well-known Side B Christians. Several years ago, Sam Allberry, an Anglican priest, addressed his Synod with a powerful 3-minute address. Video of it may still be readily found on YouTube and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Allberry speaks popularly and has taught academically in locales internationally and has written numerous articles and books. We record a transcript of his statement below. Dr Wesley Hill teaches Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry (also Anglican tradition) and has, as well, written several books about celibate, gay Christian life. There are myriad other personalities commenting and writing from this perspective and we would encourage our readers to seek out multiple sources of input regarding this perspective. We might simply suggest looking up content of the ReVoice Conference (held in June of both 2018 and 2019). Allberry’s statement to the synod:
Sam Allberry; Oxford; 1-8-3; thank you, Chair; thank you to the bishops for their hard work. I’m sure it was painful for them, but I don’t think you become a bishop for an easy life. [laughter] I am same-sex attracted and have been my entire life. By that I mean that I have sexual, romantic, and deep emotional attractions to people of the same sex. I choose to describe myself this way because sexuality is not a matter of identity for me. And that has become good news. My primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled – and this is liberating. The most fully human and complete person who ever lived was Jesus Christ. He never married. He was never in a romantic relationship, and never had sex. If we say these things are intrinsic to human fulfillment, we are calling our Savior sub-human. I’ve met literally hundreds of Christians in my situation and know of thousands more who are same sex attracted, and who joyfully affirm the traditional understanding of marriage being between a man and a woman, and the only godly context for sex. If you don’t hear from more of us, it is because it is very hard to stand up and describe ourselves in this way. As someone who uses the language of “same-sex attraction,” I have to say that my church has not become a safe place for me. And by “church” I don’t mean my congregation. I mean this Synod – not because of what the report says but because of what has happened since. [Ed: “report” and “since” are not clarified in his remarks] I was bullied at school for being gay. I now feel I am being bullied at Synod for being same sex attracted …[pause]… and faithful to the teaching of Jesus on marriage. I’m grateful the report reaffirms the traditional doctrine of marriage. I’m concerned that we’re already preparing to pastorally undermine it. So my question to the bishops is not “Will you preserve this doctrine?” It’s: “Do you really believe in it? Is it Good News for the world?” Many of us have found it to be life-giving – as the message and teaching of Jesus always is. Thank you.
Besides vigorous and heated debate about the rightness of “Side A” and “Side B,” there is also heated, even vitriolic, argument about terminology. In his statement, Pastor Allberry described himself as “same sex attracted.” Other terms include “gay,” “queer” and more. We can and should hold terms loosely. The simple fact our faith, in the Western world, is wholly dependent upon the art of translation of our Scripture should forcibly remind us to be permissive and gracious in our grasp and use of language. We have all heard sermons extolling the differences among multiple Greek words for ‘love.’ In one context, we embrace and celebrate the nuances, transience, even fungibility of language, yet bristle at exactly these attributes in another. We can’t nod in hearty agreement on Sunday morning during a sermon but snap at a neighbor or colleague on Tuesday. We need to stop our knee-jerk reactionism to certain words; we absolutely must stop our reactionary tendencies to bristle when someone in the church uses a word to describe themselves like “gay,” “queer,” “homosexual,” “same sex attracted,” or others.
Language is always an imperfect tool – yes, always. “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Rom. 8.26 emphasis added). Mr. Allberry has chosen to describe himself as “same sex attracted” and understands that it “is not a matter of identity for me.” Conversely, others are unable or unwilling to make a statement such as Allberry’s. That’s ok. We have heard the protest “no other label ever gets added to ‘Christian;’ we never talk about ‘alcoholic Christians’ etc., and there is no such thing as a ‘homosexual Christian.’” We conclude this portion of our discussion simply with this: we know fellow Christians by the fruit of their life, not by semantic labels. Language is an imperfect tool.
The “side trips” and some cultural context now addressed, we turn to specific Bible passages.
Perhaps one of the most well-known of passages regarding non-heterosexuality is Paul’s condemnation of homosexual sex in Romans 1:
…God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men…
Paul was here echoing the additionally well-known prohibitions of Leviticus 18:
Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.
Some may protest that, strictly-speaking, this translation is unfaithful to the original Hebrew. We would simply, respectfully, disagree. In its most-literal form, the verse might be expressed “And with a male not will you lie as with a woman it is an abomination.” Paul’s comment in Romans echoes Leviticus. “Shameful things,” “abomination,” and “detestable” are certainly within each others’ “orbits.”
But again, is there room here to accommodate a spectrum of meanings or possibilities, or is this analysis too narrow? Following on the heels of his discussion about the dysfunction and sin of legal disputes between Christians, Paul elaborated and continued his line of thinking with this:
Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people – none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God…
1 Corinthians 6.9-10, 11 [partial]
Paul also gives a very famous list in Galatians 5. But just before the famous list of positives, he also cautions us regarding our sinful nature:
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
Paul’s descriptions here are not hard-and-fast checklists. He’s elaborating, illustrating, being descriptive and providing additional context for the topics and discussions at hand.
There are other references to notice regarding the boundaries of sexuality, a great many more than have been referenced so far.
- Deut. 17.17 “The king must not take many wives for himself…”
- Deut. 27 four curses equated with various non-marriage sexual encounters
- Numbers 25.1 “… defiled themselves by having sex with local Moabite women.”
- Matt. 5.27-30 Jesus’ expectations that we refuse to engage in adultery and/or lust.
We don’t think it is arrogant nor far-fetched in any way to claim that the biblical witness demands that heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is the only right, godly, God-affirmed context for sex.
And while it is fully true “all sin is sin,” there is a comment by Paul of which we must take heed.
Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself
1 Corinthians 6.18-19
While only two verses are quoted here, the entire passage of verses 12-20 deals on a broader basis with sexual sin. We simply need to acknowledge the reality that Paul was drawing special attention to sexual sin. Anything practiced outside of heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage is a clear sin before God and, as Paul wrote here, against one’s own body. Though it is wrong and dysfunctional for a congregation’s leadership to obsess over someone’s sexuality while utterly ignoring someone else’s gluttony or divisiveness, it is appropriate for a church, a congregation, a denomination to set narrow boundaries regarding “allowable sexuality” for its leadership because of Paul’s admonition here. All people are welcome to worship Jesus, and all should be welcome to worship in any congregation.
Because those who hold themselves out as teachers in God’s Kingdom are held to higher standards, this aspect of life can and should be part of said standards for church leaders. The only question for a congregation / denomination is, then, at what “level” of leadership/teaching responsibility are all people allowed to participate in building up the Bride? In what ways are all Jesus-followers welcome to serve the Bride?
To be blunt: if a Side A Christian would show up on a given Sunday at “your” congregation (we’re holding terms loosely here!), to what extent would he/she participate with the congregation? If a Side B Christian shows up, would your response be any different? Can neither, either, or both oversee the spiritual health of the church – that is, serve the Body as an elder? Can neither, either, or both preach? Can neither, either, or both teach a class? Can neither, either, or both prepare and/or distribute communion? Can neither, either, or both be a door greeter, a kid’s or nursery volunteer, a youth or high school volunteer? What about mission trip participation or leading a mission trip? Above all: why? Answers to these questions, brother in Jesus, must have a significant ratio of “book-chapter-verse” in the word count. Bring such questions to your next elders’ meeting. Pray over them over a period of days, weeks, months. Ask your preacher to help you and your colleagues brainstorm through them.
All sin separates us from God. But we also cannot gloss-over Paul’s clear statement: “no other sin so clearly affects the body.” This does not equate to “AIDS was God’s punishment.” Just stop it. “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God…” (James 1.17). Disease and death are not “good and perfect.” Disease, death, and decay come from the curse of sin and influence of Satan. (See John 10.10, Genesis 3, the first third of Romans [esp. chapter 5], and more.) For whatever his Holy Spirit-inspired reasons, Paul pointed out that sexual sin is a violation against our own body. We’re voluntarily bringing this violation of God’s design and intention against and into this “Temple of [His] Holy Spirit.” That is a big deal. To be quite candid, we will not try to speculate or describe precisely how in significant detail, but we do know what Paul told us: it “clearly affects” us in ways that all other sins don’t. Here is the only attempt we will make at elucidating Paul’s warning. Not every sexual encounter outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage results in transmission of venereal disease; not every sexual act has an immunological result. But we do know with certainty that every sexually directed mental act (i.e. lust) does have psychological, neurological results. And whether mere fantasy or physical act, sex is always intensely mental, as well as emotional, physical, and spiritual. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists would tell us that “neurons that fire together wire together.” So whenever we fantasize about whom we should not and/or go further and physically engage with whom we should not, “no other sin so clearly affects the [Temple of the Holy Spirit].” We leave ponderings about further affects outside the scope of this paper.
As we strive to lead the people in our care well under the example, and toward the example, of Jesus, we need to be aware of the boundaries. Let’s stay as close as possible to the anchor, but we can and should be aware of the boundaries that have been Providentially placed around us.
With all of this in mind, we can return to the example of David. What do we do with the overtly ungodly examples (in this aspect of life) of otherwise godly men like David, Jacob, Abraham, and others who did not follow God’s standard?
We’re All Concessions
As noted previously, there are at least two prominent biblical figures who discussed matters of sexuality and couched their assertions in terms of “concession:” Jesus Himself, and Paul.
Jesus said divorce was a concession under the Moses Covenant. Paul said intimacy after a period of abstinence for prayer was a concession. In a very real sense, whether discussing homosexuality, unfaithful heterosexuality, or even simple non-ideal heterosexuality, we are all in a state of concession. Even those who live faithfully with one heterosexual spouse “’til death do us part” fail God’s standard in some way in their sexuality. We do not need to speculate here how that may happen. We concluded the anchor section acknowledging heterosexual intimacy is a concession, but we’ll say it again: it is a concession to the sin-soaked, fallen condition of our hearts, irrespective of whether we crave heterosexual intimacy or homosexual intimacy. Though God told all of His Creation on multiple occasions to “be fruitful and multiply,” multiplication – through sex – is not going to be part of the ultimate restoration of all things. Sexual intimacy is a temporary concession. In some ways, it can be God-honoring; it is a mysterious reflection of the relationship and intimacy of God with His people, but the fact remains – it’s a concession.
God told His Creation to “be fruitful and multiply” multiple times in Genesis: 1.22, 1.28, 8.17, 9.1 and 9.7. As these references span the sin of Genesis 3, we can say God’s design for sexual intimacy is, somehow, independent of the Fall and therefore part of the extreme goodness He pronounced in Genesis 1.31. (That goodness and God’s prescription to “be fruitful,” it should be pointed out, were given to the only humans who existed at the time – a heterosexual couple.) However, we also know that sexual intimacy is absent from God’s ultimate purpose and design for Creation once we arrive at His “making everything new” (Rev. 21.5, emphasis added) because Jesus Himself told the boundary-obsessed Pharisees that “when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22.30 paralleled in Mark 12.25). Sexual intimacy was possible and encouraged before the Fall, but we don’t know that it happened until Genesis 4.1 – after the Fall. As such, it has become another tension and paradox in our faith over which God pronounced a blessing yet about which Paul, by the inspiration of the Spirit, only offered a concession. God unequivocally shows us the anchor to which we must hold – “male and female He created them” – yet the only context in which we know it has been practiced is the post-Fall, sin-soaked world. Maranatha.
Now let’s pull on some of the threads of David’s story that are less well-known. He was “a man after God’s heart,” as we are so quick to say. He was also, we absolutely must admit, broken, flawed, and according to a verse much, much less-often quoted, he was a lousy parent. This verse does not appear until 1 Kings chapter 1 – David’s old age. We first meet David as a young shepherd all the way back in 1 Samuel 16. More than thirty chapters elapse by the time we arrive in 1 Kings 1 – there is a lot of time covered and this is only offered by the biblical writer near the end of David’s life as side commentary during the brewing of another political crisis. In 1 Kings 1, David’s third-oldest child, Adonijah, was attempting to assume the throne without David’s blessing, and in the middle of the story, the writer, as if closing the book he’s writing, turning aside, and looking straight at us, offers this:
Now his father, King David, had never disciplined him at any time, even by asking, “Why are you doing that?” Adonijah had been born next after Absalom, and he was very handsome.
1 Kings 1.6
King David struggled to lead his family and home well. We can and should rightly take comfort in the fact that one of the primary good examples in all of the Bible – the “man after God’s heart” – struggled deeply as a dad. In this sense, we are in good company.
But this also demonstrates why, at least in part, there was so much dysfunction in David’s family. Years before Adonijah’s attempted usurpation, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had raped his half-sister Tamar. That violence only bred more violence in the family over subsequent years. Amnon assaulted Tamar in 2 Samuel chapter 13. David had assaulted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his own “Navy SEALs,” Uriah, in 2 Samuel chapter 11. David’s own failing as a husband and man, coupled with his failure to lead and parent his children, resulted in drastic, terrible consequences which persisted for generations.
Solomon grew up in a royal household full of intrigue and dysfunction. There is no overt evidence that David had deeper conversation with Solomon as we confidently know he did not engage with Adonijah. This lack of parental guidance and involvement had massive ramifications. The dysfunctions that David exhibited, Solomon repeated – and to greater extents. We make this assertion because, in all of the page space devoted to him, we never read of David writing out a copy God’s Law nor reading from it (as directed in Deuteronomy 17.18). There were numerous directives for the future kings of Israel enumerated in Deuteronomy 17 that David did not, by any evidence in our biblical text today, follow.
The king must not build up a large stable of horses for himself or send his people to Egypt to buy horses, for the Lord has told you, ‘You must never return to Egypt.’ The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself.
When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.
David wasn’t known for having a large cavalry force. But Solomon was. Why didn’t Solomon know about or heed Deuteronomy 17.16? What a perfect life, leadership, and rulership lesson to pass on from king to prince! Perhaps it was not passed along. David had, at the end of his life, eight wives, one special lady friend who’s named (Abishag) but with whom he was not intimate, so it’s recorded, plus an unspecified number of concubines. Why didn’t Solomon heed Deuteronomy 17.17? Did he not know it? Solomon witnessed the destruction of appetites (especially sexual) running unchecked, but it seems David never conversed with nor cautioned him about that trap. David is not known for opulent wealth as we now remember Solomon. But David directed his personal fortune of 112 tons of gold and 262 tons of silver to the Temple’s construction (1 Chron. 29.4). Never once in all the pages given to David and Solomon do we hear from either of them words like “As the Scriptures say …” or “As the Law requires…” as we frequently do with New Testament writers (specifically Paul, Peter, James, and anonymous Hebrews, besides from the mouth of Jesus). To be fair, those words aren’t recorded in the Old Testament by anyone. But we do see drastic action taken by King Josiah (2 Kings chapter 23) and the priest Ezra (Nehemiah chapters 7 and 8) in light of reading “the Law.” We don’t see such moments with David or Solomon; did they not know Deuteronomy 17.18? We can assert confidently that they did not do what it says.
We want to notice details like this in David’s life because even “men after God’s heart” have deep dysfunctions that are too often glossed over or ignored completely. We’re flawed and we miss the mark – including sexually. But that is not the end of the story. Sexuality is a piece of the whole in our lives with and before God. It is not who we are at our core. We are all God’s children, His creations, bearing His image at our deepest. It is a truth spoken by believer and non-believer alike that all of humanity are God’s kids. But there is an important qualifier to that notion; as His kids we are, we must admit, in one of only two possible states: 1) familiar with Him or 2) estranged from Him.
Sex does not define us; it’s merely one expression of intimacy. And God has reserved it for a husband and wife. It is simply one part of our whole self. Its deep appeal doesn’t mean it’s essential, it simply means that it’s deeply appealing. But like anything else in life that we crave, we need to remember Paul’s caution in Philippians 3.
Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.
Philippians 3.17-19 (emphasis added)
When we, at a cultural level, make evolutionary, biological science our god then it is entirely expected and unremarkable that sexual expression becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly intrinsic to who we are because we need to procreate, spread genes, etc. And such an assumption would apply to both naturally reproductive (i.e. heterosexual) sex and/or variant forms of sexuality. But it is not true; sex is not the ultimate purpose or experience for us, it is not intrinsic to humanity.
When we make hedonism and pleasure our god, the intensity of sexual pleasure becomes paramount in our thinking and supposedly inherent to “human flourishing.” But it is not.
It is a good and right pleasure to be experienced – in the context and bounds which our Creator gave it. For those who are not living a Kingdom kind of life (1 Cor. 6.9, Gal. 5.21), “their god is their appetite.” I want God to be my God, not my appetite – despite how badly I fail most days. If my appetite, my cravings, were functionally my god, I, personally, would have already been on diabetic medications for some number of years. If my cravings were god, I likely would have maimed myself long ago in a vehicular mishap due to speeding. My appetites are still too large. And yet, I don’t want an appetite of any kind to be my driving motivation, my god, in any area of life – not gastrointestinal, not adrenal, not sexual, not egomaniacal. “Even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything” (1 Cor. 6.12). Anchor: less appetite. Boundaries: mind the sugar, mind the lead foot, mind sexual temptation, mind pride, mind…
Dallas Willard’s extensive and poignant Divine Conspiracy delves deeply into the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 and while discussing His words about lust and adultery, Willard includes this:
Intimacy is the mutual mingling of souls … Because we are free beings, intimacy cannot be passive or forced. And because we are extremely finite, it must be exclusive.
Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 5 / “The Destructiveness of Fantasized Desire”
In claiming sexual intimacy must be “exclusive,” Willard perfectly echoes Paul’s caution and prohibition in 1 Corinthians 6 about joining oneself to a prostitute (1 Cor. 6.15-17). It can be easy to point a finger at a nameless and faceless them whom we don’t personally know on an individual basis and who we make every effort to avoid: homosexual, transgender, other ethnicity, and so on, but we must acknowledge that not one person has ever “gotten it right” regarding human sexuality save Jesus Himself. We have all missed the mark sexually. Jesus is the only One who has ever lived a perfect life. As we continue practicing daily self-denial and cross-carrying, we will become more like Him, including in our sexuality. We will focus more on our spouse’s needs than our own. We’ll be more concerned with our spouse’s enjoyment and pleasure than our own. We’ll cherish to a greater, deeper extent the beauty of the Image of God in our spouse, not the appeal of mere physical form and a “beauty” that is only skin-deep.
Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
Acknowledge the boundaries – be aware of them – but focus on the anchor.
Chart of various texts displaying what-not-to-do, contrasted with texts admonishing faithfulness
|Adam||Gen 1 – 2||God’s Created Order: one male, one female “Full stop.”|
|Abraham||Gen 12 – 25
|→ Married Sarai early in life; uneventful & no kids
→ Promised kids by God in Gen 12; no kid forthcoming so Sarai/h insisted her servant Hagar become “servant with benefits;” Ishmael was born. Abram 86 years old at Ishmael’s birth. Isaac not born to Sarah until Abraham 100 years old – a 14-year gap.
→ Contempt & mistreatment b/w Hagar & Sarah from moment Hagar was pregnant. Sibling rivalry b/w Ishmael & Isaac. Hagar & Ishmael were banished from household in Gen 21.14; Hagar & Ishmael came to brink of death by dehydration but were Providentially delivered.
|Jacob||Gen 25 – 49
Gen 30.4, 9
|→ Wanted to marry Rachel but was deceived by his uncle under cover of darkness to take Leah instead; Jacob insisted on Rachel & married her as soon as Leah’s honeymoon week was over. Intense rivalry/strife b/w Leah & Rachel continued through their lives.
→ When Leah delivered children but Rachel did not, Rachel mimicked Sarai’s pattern and gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. After Bilhah delivered kids “for Rachel,” Leah did the same (with her servant Zilpah). Jacob ended up with four wives though he’d only asked for one. Jacob passively allowed it to happen.
→ VICIOUS sibling rivalry among children of various wives that literally ended in a murder plot. Joseph was favored by Jacob because he was son of the only wife Jacob ever loved/wanted – Rachel. So the brothers tried to kill Joseph.
|→ Simeon either had an affair or an unnamed Canaanite wife or concubine, because his last-mentioned son (chronologically youngest or not we don’t know), Shaul, was the son of “a Canaanite woman.” Shaul may have been mentioned last simply because he was born by a woman who was not Simeon’s wife.
→ Though we don’t see any specific drama from or around Shaul in the rest of the biblical text, we do see something interesting in Jacob’s final words. In Gen 49.5-7, Jacob distanced himself from the conduct and attitude of Simeon (and Levi); Simeon had a child with another woman, and he was vengeful and vindictive enough to warrant Jacob’s chastisement at the end of the patriarch’s life. When someone comes to the end of life, we hope to hear farewells and encouragement, not “May I never join in their meetings [or] be party to their plans.” Both aspects in Simeon’s life evidence brokenness of character.
|Joseph||Gen 30 – 50||→ Only ever had one wife – the Egyptian Asenath – and became an archetype of the future Chosen One. Joseph saved his family from death (starvation), restored health to the relationships with his brothers, proactively cared for the welfare of his extended family, and preserved the livelihoods of *all* of Egypt and Canaan through severe famine. Joseph was a good example all-around, including through his faithful and monogamous marriage.|
|Moses||Ex 2 – Deut 34||→ Only one wife – Zipporah; greatest prophet Hebrew people ever had and an example worth following.|
|Gideon||Judges 6 – 9
|→ Rescued Hebrew people from Midian’s oppression, but most assuredly did not finish well. After military victory, he slowly slid into idol-worship and many other Hebrews followed his example.
→ Had seventy-one sons and many wives; one son born to a woman not his wife. That son, Abimelech, murdered sixty-nine out of seventy of his half-brothers following Gideon’s death.
|Samson||Judges 13 – 15
|→ Abandoned his wife before honeymoon had concluded; his impulsiveness affected many thousands of people terribly, not just himself. Though he didn’t apparently marry again, he was sexual with whomever “caught his eye.” This unnamed wife was his first sexual partner, a prostitute was second, and Delilah was third.
→ Sexual appetite put him literally in Delilah’s lap, which resulted in his eyes being gouged out.
|Elkanah||1 Samuel 1||→ Had two wives. Though he worshipped God, intense rivalry festered between his wives. The one wife who had children constantly poked fun of the wife who did not have children. Hannah (the childless wife) wept over the bullying.
→ Though Elkanah tried to comfort Hannah, she was inconsolable.
|Saul||1 Sam 9 – 25
1 Sam 14.50
2 Sam 3.7
2 Sam 21.8-11
|→ Had one wife, Ahinoam, but many years after his death his concubine, Rizpah, was mentioned; they were evidently part of his household simultaneously but Rizpah, for whatever reason, was never mentioned in the contemporary telling of Saul’s story; she only appeared in the narrative years after Saul’s death.
→ Saul was a terrible leader/ruler/king who had an ok start but an oppressive, rage-filled end. He was selected as the Hebrews’ first king for his outward physical prowess, but his rotten heart showed itself quickly and for many years.
|David||1Sam 16 thru 1 King 2
|→ Married Michal (Saul’s daughter) first, but David’s poor relationship/leadership w/ her caused alienation between them.
→ His wives were eventually: Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba, plus concubines.
→ After Bathsheba stolen from Uriah by David, deep dysfunction festered. The oldest son raped one of his half-sisters. Then the sister’s full brother plotted for years to murder the rapist (Absalom murdered Amnon). Murderer then rebelled against David directly (Absalom). Another son tried to take throne in David’s old age (Adonijah) despite declaration Solomon should be king. Solomon spared Adonijah for a short time but ended up executing/assassinating him anyway.
|Solomon||1Kg 1 – 11
|→ Grew up in the intrigue of the soap opera described above.
→ Eventually married 700 wives plus gathered 300 concubines. He openly worshipped idols because of their influence.
→ Wrote: “Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.” So he was either deeply hypocritical or deeply regretful and aware of how far astray he’d gone.
→ Celebrated for being “wise,” yet wrote the Bible’s 1 and only hopeless, nihilist book: Ecclesiastes.
|Hosea||Full book||→ Simply review the book and see how deeply God values His relationship with His wayward people and “overlay” that onto your own marriage relationship. Do we hold our covenantal relationship with our spouse in such reverence?|
|Malachi||Malachi 2.16||→ “I hate divorce!” says the God-Who-Is, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the God of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart – do not be unfaithful to your wife.”
Value your marriage. Deeply. Full stop.
|→ When challenged about Moses allowing divorce, Jesus replied: “Moses only allowed divorce as a concession to your hard hearts, but it is NOT what God intended.” Anything outside of the original example, model, design, and Creation order of one man plus one woman can be understood as “hard-heartedness.”|
|Paul||1 Cor 6.16||→ “… don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to [another], he becomes one body with her? For Scripture says, ‘The two are united into one.’”|
|[a writer]||Heb 13.4||→ “Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery.”|