The centuries-old, universal consensus among Christians, Jews, and Muslims—that God gave sex for marriage between one man and one woman—is being questioned not only by secular society, but within Christianity itself. Individuals, churches, and even whole denominations are shifting in their views and practices. Many contest the long-held belief that porneia—the New Testament Greek term for all sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman—is synonymous with “immorality.” Ours is a different age, the Western (and mostly white and well-educated) “progressive Christian” says. Biblical prohibitions against divorce, unmarried cohabitation, and same-sex relationships, they say, were written for situations unique to the first century but shouldn’t apply to our modern context. Indeed, those who are unpersuaded by the new interpretations are increasingly viewed as unenlightened at best and bigoted at worst.
So what do we make of this new cultural landscape? How do we understand the Scriptures on this matter? And what should we do with that understanding?
Have We Misunderstood Scripture?
Expressions of sexuality that were once seen as taboo have now become mainstream. As friends and family “come out” with news of a pending divorce or a same-sex or cohabiting hetero relationship, Christians—especially when friendships and family ties hang in the balance—feel pressed to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny. To reinforce this instinct, sexual minorities are often compared to victims of slavery. Christians eventually shifted on slavery because they finally saw slavery was biblically wrong, the thinking goes. This is no different. Sexual minorities are the new oppressed minority.
This is a difficult leap, however, since every reference in Scripture to sex outside of heterosexual marriage is negative. The pro-slavery mindset is repudiated by Paul’s letter to Philemon, a slaveowner commanded to stop treating Onesimus like a slave and instead as a brother. No such parallel pushes against the historic Christian view of sexuality.
As Scripture unfolds from Old Testament to New, we see a progressive tone in the way it dignifies and empowers women, ethnic minorities, the enslaved, the infirm, and the oppressed. But when it comes to sex and marriage, we actually see a more conservative tone. Jesus reaffirms the male-female, one-flesh union in marriage. Qualified elders must either be single and chaste like Paul and Jesus or be the “husband of one wife” (that is, one-woman men). Jesus restores dignity to an adulteress and then tells her that if she’s going to identify as his follower she must stop committing adultery. Unlike Philemon and the slave issue, then, there is no hint in Scripture of “emancipation” for sexual relationships—including committed and monogamous ones—outside the male-female marital union.
This teaching is admittedly unpopular in our late modern times. Yet Scripture shows no interest in being popular or relevant—that is, in being adapted, revised, or censored to align with ever-shifting times. We must remain countercultural wherever the culture and the truth are at odds. It is this posture that makes Christians truly relevant in the culture.
Counterculture for the Healing of Culture
What’s the way forward, then, for Christians? I believe the way of grace and truth avoids the polar extremes of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
First, we must resist the inner Pharisee, whose instinct is to scornfully separate from a sexually damaged world. Compelled by the love of Christ, we must extend kindness and friendship to those who don’t embrace a biblical sex ethic, and we must never engage in negative posturing and caricature. This in itself is countercultural, as evidenced by Slate identifying 2014 as “the year of outrage.” Christians, then, have an opportunity to stand out as a gracious, life-giving minority in this regard. This entails staying true to the biblical text and also genuinely loving, listening to, and serving those who don’t share our beliefs. Jesus, who welcomed and ate with sinners, and who never once had a harsh word to say to a sexually damaged image-bearer, beckons us to follow in his footsteps.
But we also need to resist the inner Sadducee, whose instinct is to follow—and even be discipled by—the world. We must honor, champion, and obey the Creator’s design, at all times in a spirit of gentleness and respect, even if we lose friends and influence fewer people. We must be okay with living in light of thoughts and ways higher than our own (Isa. 55:8–9). In the end, capitulation to culture is neither faithful nor fruitful as a missionary method.
Pharisees scorn the world.
Sadducees follow the world.
Jesus, who both affirmed sex and kept it within its protective moral boundaries, was countercultural for the healing of the world.
Affirming Sex (and Chastity)
As a lifelong unmarried celibate man tempted in every way we are, Jesus affirmed sex within the male-female marital union. He created sex. Sex is not a “no-no.” It’s not taboo. It is a gift that welcomes husbands and wives to taste Eden together—naked and unashamed, known and embraced, exposed and not rejected. Proverbs invites a husband to enjoy his wife’s breasts. Song of Solomon pictures a husband and wife admiring and adventurously enjoying one another’s naked bodies. Paul, also unmarried and celibate, says that except for short seasons dedicated to prayer, able-bodied husbands and wives should have sex, and have it often.
Scripture also warns against sex being distorted, abused, turned into a pseudo-savior, or made into an identity. As one church historian has observed, the early Christians were promiscuous with their money (financially generous) but guarded with their bodies (sexually chaste). The surrounding Greco-Roman culture was the reverse.
Why is our Creator’s design so liberating for sex inside the male-female marital union, yet so limiting for every other setting? Tim Keller says it’s because sex is the most delightful—and also the most dangerous—of all human capacities. It is a transcendent, otherworldly experience. Sex works a lot like fire. Though it can warm and purify, if not properly contained and handled with care it can burn, scar, infect, and destroy. I’ve seen this play out in scores of pastoral situations over the years. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” the proverb puts it, “but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12).
You Are the Light of the World
The more I engage with these issues, the more I’m convinced that the church’s best opportunity to encourage a biblical ethic of sex and marriage is by living out a biblical ethic of sex and marriage. As Madeleine L’Engle reminds us, we draw people to Christ by showing them a light so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know its source.
In other words, in the eyes of a watching world, showing the light makes the telling about the light palpable and credible. The Christian witness cannot be in word alone. It must also be in deed.
Rather than condemning “sex and the city,” then, what if we made it our chief task to simply be the “city on a hill” Jesus intended?
To start we must remove the planks in our own eyes, wherever they may exist. We must forsake hard-core and soft-core porn habits, take captive thoughts and fantasies that objectify God’s image, and reduce unbiblical divorces. We must also nurture fidelity and forgiveness, hand-holding and lingering conversation—living face to face (in intimacy) and side by side (on mission) within Christian marriages.
Additionally, becoming L’Engle’s “light so lovely” amid a sexually damaged culture will require a renewed and robust vision for marriage and singleness. What if we reaffirmed that being unmarried and chaste (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble and fruitful calling, not a curse? What if we reaffirmed that the call to singleness is “far better,” since it frees people to devote themselves fully to God’s concerns? What if we embraced a renewed vision for the church as a surrogate family where everyone—single and married and divorced, hetero attracted and same-sex attracted—finds opportunity for spiritual friendships as deep as David and Jonathan, with long-term love and loyalty rivaling that of a man and a woman?
Most significantly, what if we renewed our emphasis on The Marriage of which all others are a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and his bride, the church? No matter your temporary marital status on earth, union with him through faith makes you as married and complete as you’ll ever be. From the moment we believe, Jesus is our bridegroom, and we are his bride.
We are our beloved’s, and our beloved is ours.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Scott Sauls’s new book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides (Tyndale House, 2015).