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Sex and Scripture | A Redemption Plan

Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’

Matthew 9:11–12

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.

1 Corinthians 6:18–20

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:31–32

 

After a term-long focus on how to follow Jesus in our hyper-sexualised age, it seemed right to dive into what Scripture says about what it means to be sexual beings. So we’ve asked Dr Andrew Goddard – an assistant minister, ethics lecturer, researcher, and consultant for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project – to help us do just that. Over these four weeks, he reflects on the living Word and what it looks like to live it out on our frontlines.

 

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom makes demands on every area of our lives. Paul’s charge to the Corinthian church to ‘flee from sexual immorality’ highlights one such demand they particularly needed to hear given some of the problems his letter addresses. Although he opposes placing Gentile Christians under the Law of Moses, Paul nevertheless expected them basically to follow the sexual ethic found in the Jewish Scriptures.

This is unsurprising – nothing in the Gospels suggests Jesus came to offer a revolutionary new sexual ethic. But Paul’s appeal is to Christ and the Spirit, to the past, future, and present work of the triune God. Our bodies have been bought back by Jesus, they will be raised from death, and they are now the temple of God’s Spirit. We need therefore to honour God with them.

How do we do this? Both the New Testament and centuries of Christian tradition commend two forms of life in which we learn to honour God as sexual creatures.

There is marriage between one man and one woman, marked by loving faithfulness expressed in part by lifelong sexual exclusivity. This, again, is based on the Old Testament and God’s purpose in creating us so that we can, in marriage, become ‘one flesh’. Already in the Old Testament this was seen as pointing to the covenantal union between God and Israel. Paul takes this further and refocuses it on Christ – ‘I am talking about Christ and the church’. Marriage is not simply a human invention or social construct. It is a gift of God in creation given to point us to God’s purposes in redemption.

But there is also now another form of life which had little place before Jesus, but he himself lived and commended. God may call us and gift us to ‘live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’. Despite what so much today leads us to believe, having sex or being in a sexual relationship is not required to be fully human. In fact, not only are all those unmarried to be sexually abstinent but some will embrace this pattern of life and commit to follow the celibate life, something Paul also commends in 1 Corinthians 7.

So often today this teaching – particularly about singleness – faces what Ed Shaw has called ‘the plausibility problem’. The challenge we face as Christian communities is making it not just plausible but attractive to honour God by living faithfully in one of these two patterns of life.

 

Dr Andrew Goddard
Andrew is Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico and teaches Christian ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Westminster Theological Centre.

How might your daily actions convey the life-giving nature of these two patterns of life to people on your frontline? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. This is very disappointing. Heterosexual marriage or celibacy with no acknowledgement that some people will find this very difficult is uncaring at best or cruel at worst. Whatever else we can say (and there is much) the concept of sexual orientation as a factor that was not considered by 1st century writers needs addressing. We do not live in the same world but the ethics of love, generosity and inclusion come closer to the heart of the Christian message than boundary enforcing regulations, especially when these are expressed with so little empathy

    By Alan Kerry  -  9 May 2022
  2. In the black and white world described by Andrew Goddard there is no room whatsoever for sexual expression if you’re same sex attracted. And not much room for committed relationships between those who are same sex attracted, even if they were to be celibate. And, perhaps worst of all, no recognition in this article that this might be a problem for those people. Just “you can be fully human without sexual expression”. Well, that’s alright then.

    Is it any wonder that so many people outside the church regard the Christian faith as homophobic?

    By Adrian Beney  -  10 May 2022
  3. Thank you Andrew. Helpfully clear. I think the key is Jesus, if he and the kingdom he proclaims are the ‘pearl of great price’ the man in the parable sold everything he had to obtain then sacrifices made in the area of sexuality are no less worth making than any other sacrifice Jesus calls us to.

    By Elizabeth Bridcut  -  10 May 2022
  4. This is complex stuff and difficult for Andrew Goddard to address much in the way of nuance in a series of short articles.
    As Andrew himself admits, and others have noted, the logical result is pastorally inadequate.
    Worse, this doesn’t even work logically on its own terms. There is no doubt what the Christian position has been for 2000 years, and we should not dismiss that lightly. However, if we retain it by appealing to “the sexual ethic found in the Jewish Scriptures” we must acknowledge that sexual ethic involves levirate marriage, multiple wives, concubines, women as property and much misogyny.

    By Derek McLean  -  13 May 2022
  5. Thanks Alan, Adrian, Elizabeth and Derek for your comments and sorry only just getting round to acknowledging them and making some sort of attempt to reply.
    I’m grateful Derek for you pointing out the limits of having only 400 words on each massive topic in a series which tries primarily to set out a biblical theology of sexuality. Clearly there are all sorts of important and difficult questions we need to wrestle with hermeneutically, theologically, ethically and practically and those cannot even be noted let alone explored given those constraints. I have tried to do some of that in other writings and what follows although it like the article is inadequate (even though it is longer than each article!) seeks to pick up and respond to some of what I think are the key critiques that three of you raise.
    I was clear that my argument was that “both the New Testament and centuries of Christian tradition commend two forms of life in which we learn to honour God as sexual creatures”. I’m not clear whether that claim is being rejected and alternative readings of Scripture and tradition would be proposed or whether the argument is that the NT and the Christian tradition are, in effect, wrong and that we – perhaps because of claimed new knowledge about sexual orientation which you refer to Alan – need to say something different. Robert Song has perhaps offered the most sophisticated but still to my mind unconvincing attempt to develop the tradition while accepting my basic claim.
    I am also not sure Adrian what led you to claim that my view meant there was “not much room for committed relationships between those who are same sex attracted, even if they were to be celibate”. I did not address that and I am in fact very open to exploring how friendship, perhaps forms of publicly celebrated covenantal friendship, can be encouraged and developed as part of rising to the challenge of making it “not just plausible but attractive to honour God by living faithfully in one of these two patterns of life”.
    On the place of the Old Testament which you raise Derek in relation to the logic of the piece, I think it is important that I did not simply appeal to “the sexual ethic found in the Jewish Scriptures”. I noted that the evidence is that Paul expected Gentile Christians “basically to follow” that ethic despite his critique of some appeals to the Law in relation to Christian life. Again I am interested if that claim is thought to be wrong. While all that you say can be found within the Jewish Scriptures I am not as sure they are central to its sexual ethic (Davidson’s work in “Flame of Yahweh” and the work of other OT scholars would question such a claim) and certainly do not see them as part of the New Testament’s sexual ethic.
    Thanks again for reading and responding.

    By Andrew Goddard  -  16 May 2022

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