THE SACREDNESS OF SEX
by Bob Wheeler
In Ephesians 5:3 the apostle Paul addresses what is perhaps the most controversial issue facing the Christian church today: sex. The United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutional right of same sex couples to marry each other (it is hard to imagine that the framers of the Constitution could have ever have conceived of such a thing); and now anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is accused of being a hate-monger.
What are Christians supposed to make of all of this? What Paul tells us is this: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints . . .” (Eph. 5:3; NKJV). Here Paul is using the words “fornication” (porneia) and “uncleanness” very broadly to cover a whole range of illicit sexual activity. In the Old Testament the Canaanites were condemned for a variety of sexual sins including incest, homosexuality and bestiality (Lev. 18:6-23). The sins are called “abominations” (Lev. 18:23,27,29,30), the Canaanites were “defiled” because of them (v. 24), and therefore the land “vomited” them out (vv. 25,28).
But are not conservative Christians clinging to an outdated morality? What is so wrong about having sex outside of marriage? Or being homosexual? None other than Jesus himself explained the rationale behind sex and marriage.
According to Matthew 19:3 ff Jesus was approached by some rabbis who asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” The question was a controversial one. It involved a perplexing phrase in the only passage in the Torah dealing with the subject of divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There it states that “when a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .” (v. 1). The question that agitated the rabbis of Jesus’ day was, what was meant by the phrase “some uncleanness”? One school of thought put the emphasis on the word “uncleanness,” and argued that a man may divorce his wife only because of unchastity. Another school of thought put the emphasis on the word “some” and argued that a man could divorce his wife for practically any reason – “even if she spoiled a dish for him” (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10). And so the rabbis asked Jesus to weigh in on the question.
Jesus answered by going back to the account of creation in the Book of Genesis. “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ . . .” (Matt. 19:4, quoting Gen. 1:27; 5:2). Here two key points are made. First of all, were “made” or “created” by God. We did not come into existence by accident or through some blind, impersonal natural process, as atheists would have us to believe. We were created by an intelligent Supreme Being for a specific reason and purpose. His creative will defines our existence, and because of that life has meaning and purpose. It also means that there are behavioral norms to which we must conform.
Secondly, gender differences are a part of the created order. God “made them male and female.” Granted, sometimes societies have engaged in needless stereotyping. Women can be very strong, intelligent and capable. But physical and psychological differences remain, and it is futile to ignore them.
But Jesus goes on and quotes another passage from Genesis. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5, quoting Gen. 2:24). What is clearly in view here is a heterosexual marriage.
Jesus then goes on to draw His conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Marriage was meant to be a permanent, binding commitment between a man and a woman. Divorce, save for the cause of sexual misconduct, is out of the question. Jesus, in effect, sided with the stricter school of interpretation.
If that, then, is what God intended for marriage to work, if follows that any kind of sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage defeats the whole purpose of marriage itself. We are complex physical and emotional creatures. Sex is more than just the physical act of copulation; it is an intimate relationship between two human beings. Our emotions follow our hormones. If we have sex without being married, we are having an intimate relationship without having made a commitment. It is basically sex without love. We are simply using that other person for our own selfish pleasure.
And if we are married and have a sexual relationship with someone who is not our spouse, we have violated a commitment that we have already made. The spouse has been betrayed and the marriage undermined as a result. And the end result of all this sexual license is social chaos – children growing up in unstable, dysfunctional families.
When sins like these become commonplace and accepted in society, it is easy not to take them seriously. But Paul warns of the dire consequences of such behavior. “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:5-7). Society may change its standards, but God does not change His. “We ought to obey God rather than me” (Acts 5:29).
What God intended in marriage is love and affection in a committed relationship, not casual or commercial sex, not self-gratification masquerading as “love.” Ironically the modern “anything goes” approach to sex only serves to cheapen and degrade it. Christians do not think that sex is somehow “dirty.” Far from it; it is precisely because sex is sacred that it must be protected from anything that cheapens, trivializes, or demeans it. “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).