Sexuality remains the “elephant in the room” in most of “Christendom.” Whereas many of the flash points in the struggle with culture norms involve sexuality, struggle with sexual sin remains some of the most difficult challenges facing Christianity today: in any congregation of God’s people, there are struggles with fornication, lasciviousness, pornography, adultery, and/or divorce. We might exhort people to holiness, but we do not seem to provide much of a challenge to society’s narrative of what sexuality is and how it should be exercised.
This is a terrible tragedy, since the Bible provides a robust theology of sexuality. By understanding God’s creation of sexuality and why humans are sexual beings, we can begin to critique the distorted view of sexuality peddled by modern society.
A theology of sexuality must begin with the beginning.
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26-27).
And the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.”
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the heavens; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them: and whatsoever the man called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the heavens, and to every beast of the field; but for man there was not found a help meet for him. And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof: and the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
And the man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh (Genesis 2:18-24).
And [Jesus] answered and said, “Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’ So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:4-6).
God made both man and woman in His image, and from the beginning they were made with sexual desire. But proper sexuality can never be divorced from its intended context within the marriage relationship of a man and a woman. Jesus explains how this intention for marriage exists “from the beginning,” when God made them “male and female” and declared that they were to cling to one another and “the two shall become one flesh.”
Man and woman, therefore, were made for each other. They were made with sexual parts and sexual desires. All of these declarations about the man, the woman, and becoming one flesh come before man’s fall into sin, before corruption and sin entered the world. Therefore, human sexuality is part of the creation deemed by God as “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
We have a natural revulsion at any attempt to associate sexuality with God. In many respects, this is good and healthy: God is spirit, and from all that has been revealed, the spirit realm is not to be sexual (Matthew 22:30, John 4:24). There is an unhealthy tendency in some parts of Christianity to understand the believer’s relationship with God in terms of a “Jesus is my boyfriend” style paradigm, and we do well to resist this. There is no need to sexualize every relationship! But does this mean that sexuality has nothing to do with spirituality?
The Scriptures frequently reveal parallels between sexual relationships (both proper and improper) and spiritual relationships. This parallel makes sense: both are intended to reflect intimacy and structured by covenant, or agreement (cf. Exodus 19:1-23, Malachi 2:13-16). When God seeks to communicate to Israel the severity of the transgression of idolatry and the pain which it caused Him, by what means does He frequently do so? Time after time He speaks of idolatry in terms of adultery, graphically embodied through Hosea (Hosea 1:1-3:5) and viscerally described by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:1-63). God “betrothed” Israel to Himself; she “committed adultery” or “played the whore” with other gods.
The parallel is also made in a more positive way in the New Testament.
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.”
This mystery is great: but I speak in regard of Christ and of the church. Nevertheless do ye also severally love each one his own wife even as himself; and let the wife see that she fear her husband (Ephesians 5:31-33).
All of Ephesians 5:23-33 is a “dual-track” image of Christ and the church and the husband and wife, with illustrative parallels for each. And yet, as Paul is concluding this image, he goes back to the beginning and the declaration of God’s intention for the proper sexual relationship and finds spiritual application between Christ and the church.
It is common to wish to speak of “the two shall become one flesh” in more romantic terms, speaking of the coming together of mind, emotions, and body. Yet this is not the case in Scripture; Paul’s use of the idea in a critique of the sexual attitudes of his own day is instructive:
Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of a harlot? God forbid. Or know ye not that he that is joined to a harlot is one body?
for, “The twain,” saith he, “shall become one flesh.”
But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body (1 Corinthians 6:15-20).
There is no “romantic connection” with a whore; “the two shall become one flesh” is a referent to sex (which leaves “cleave to his wife” as the way we see the need for the mental/emotional connection; Genesis 2:24). But, as Paul says, the one who is “joined to the Lord” is “one spirit.”
This brings us back to the power of the metaphor. It is true that a metaphor intends for the target (in our case, spirituality) to be understood in terms of the source (sexuality), and not the source in terms of the target. Nevertheless, for the target to be understood in terms of the source, there must be some reason why the source can do so. We could say that it is a major coincidence, or it “just happened” that sexuality can help us understand some spiritual truths, but do such things really “just happen”? Or is it part of something greater? Perhaps the metaphor works because God so created the world and humanity so that the metaphor could work!
For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse (Romans 1:20).
Paul declares how many aspects of God are evident in the “things that are made”; this is not limited to birds, rocks, trees, and the like. God’s “divinity”– His divine nature– is most clearly exemplified in creation through those who bear the image of God, mankind (Genesis 1:26-27).
We do well to remember how God is spirit (John 4:24); we should not press the parallels too far. Nevertheless, that which makes man distinct from the animals tends to reflect God’s image. Of all the animals, we are conscious; we reason; we are capable of amazing creative projects individually and collaboratively. And sexuality, for humans, is far different than sexuality for animals. For most animals, sexuality is almost purely instinctual: they truly “cannot help themselves.” They engage in sexual behavior for procreative purposes and at no other time. This is not the case with humans: humans can (and do) engage in sexual behavior even when conception is not possible. The pleasurable aspects of human sexuality and the feelings they engender are unique. Human sexual behavior involves the mind as much as the body (if not more so!). Human sexuality is far more than putting body parts together!
As we have said, so we say again: God is not “sexual.” But He made both man and woman in His own image, and He made them with sexual desires. He did not do so in order to punish us or test us; it was part of the creation before the Fall, before things went wrong, while all was “very good.” We must therefore ask: why were humans created with sexual desire? What is the theology behind sexuality?
I would like to suggest that the marriage relationship, and the proper expression of human sexuality inherent in that relationship, is the physical shadow of which communion with God in Christ is the spiritual reality.
This may seem strong, but if we replace “human sexuality” with “intimate relationship,” and again consider Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, Ephesians 5:23-33, and consider John 17:20-24 as well, it is hard to deny the connection. This is why the metaphor of idolatry or other forms of covenant faithlessness as adultery is so effective; the intended covenant between a man and a woman and the intimate union which they are to share is a shadow of the intimate, higher, and spiritual relationship between a man or woman with his/her God.
This theology of sexuality explains the power of sexual desire. Sexual desire, first and foremost, is our confession of our insufficiency in ourselves. Sexual desire demands desire for another. God made man and woman with complementary parts; each man and each woman has a physical reminder of their lack of completeness in and of themselves.
There is a reason why we declare that “no man is an island”; we are intensely social creatures, made for community, and even within that community, we are made for a special, intimate relationship with the other who is also created in the image of God. We can enjoy friendships with many people, but we still seek that one relationship where we can be completely and fully exposed and intimate with another. Sexual desire by itself cannot make a marriage, but sexual desire is the driver that leads people into seeking marriage. In our society, this search for intimacy gets perverted into being only physical, but all the brainwashing of society cannot deny the feeling people have inside of them seeking full intimacy with their partner. We want to be as emotionally and spiritually naked before one special person as physically so. There is a reason why the man is to “cling to his wife” and then “the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24): the physical sexual relationship is intended to cement the emotional and spiritual bond inherent in the covenant of marriage.
To say that we are created in the image of God is to say that we are created in the image of the Three in One: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The unity of God is not based in personhood; it is based in relational unity: unity in substance, essence, purpose, will, and being (John 1:1, 17:20-24, Colossians 2:9, etc.). God is love (1 John 4:8-10): that love is first and foremost manifest within the relationship of the Three.
Therefore, “one in person” is always insufficient. Since God is one in relational unity, that which is in His image is going to seek to be one in relational unity as well; this is that universal impulse to seek after God mentioned by Paul in Acts 17:26-27.
Therefore, it is not surprising that man made in God’s image should be seeking connection with others. He seeks connection with his fellow man who is made in the image of God as friends and associates. But humans also look for a far more intimate relationship with the one who complements them physically. It is evident that man is created for woman and woman for man; each provides for the other what is lacking, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Likewise, spiritually, we are to seek unity with one another as we seek unity with God in Christ (John 17:20-24, 1 John 1:4-7); nevertheless, the connections we develop with fellow Christians will never reach the depth or the intimacy of the spiritual relationship which we all should be seeking and developing with God our Creator.
Furthermore, what is true of healthy relationships is also true of healthy sexuality: showing true love, finding fulfillment in seeking the happiness of and that which is best for the one whom we love as opposed to simply trying to satisfy our own desire, remembering that God is God and not to make an idol of anyone else whom we might love, being patient, kind, and so on and so forth. Healthy sexuality is never an end unto itself; it is part of the recipe of a fulfilling relationship. Sexuality may drive people into relationships, but it cannot bear the burden of making a relationship. A theology of sexuality, therefore, understands the importance of sexuality in its proper relational sphere.
Yet we must always remember that sexuality is the physical shadow of a spiritual reality. As in all such comparisons, the physical shadow is always inferior. We may all have sexual desires during our lives, but as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, one does not have to be married and/or sexually active to live a fulfilled life. One can share in the spiritual reality of deep, intimate communion with God in Christ without a husband or wife or sexuality at all! We have been promised better things than sex: the eternal weight of glory awaiting the believer is far superior to any pleasure that can be enjoyed through sexual behavior (Romans 8:17-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17)! The sexual connection is not the most intimate or greatest connection that man can ever know; it pales in comparison to the true fulfillment, true spiritual ecstasy, and true satisfaction that comes with “face-to-face” communion with God (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12, Revelation 21:1-22:6).
A theology of sexuality, therefore, understands the drive for physical union and intimacy as a physical shadow of the spiritual reality, the quest for spiritual union and intimacy with God our Creator through Jesus Christ in the communion of the saints (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 5:22-33). As God is one in relational unity, love within Himself, seeking relationship with each person made in His image, so we have been created to be one in relational unity with others, the singularly deepest of which involves seeking an emotionally, mentally, and physically intimate relationship with that one special person who is the complement to ourselves (a man for a woman, and a woman for a man, since God made both man and woman in His image). Seen in this light, human sexuality was made as a good thing, a reminder of our individual insufficiency in ourselves and our need to give love and receive love in relationship. Human sexuality might be a powerful driver but has always been insufficient in and of itself when seeking to achieve its end; it demands not just the physical but the mental and emotional aspects of mankind as well. It is truly the giving of oneself–not just the body, but the mind and spirit as well–just as Paul said (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). As the “two becoming one flesh,” sex is a mystical, ecstatic, and intimate union of a man and a woman.
Human sexuality was made to be good, part of the means by which we can make that deep, intimate connection between ourselves and our respective spouses. Sex is special as a shadowy glimpse of the ecstasy that can come from full communion with another, only to be perfectly realized spiritually in our relationship with God in Christ in the day of resurrection. If we maintain a healthy sexuality, we will confess the limitations and proper exercise of sexuality, understanding that any expression of sexuality outside of its proper sphere is not just perversion but really is counterfeit, demeaning what it would theoretically exalts. Let us maintain a robust theology of sexuality so that we may be able to counter the counterfeit forms of sexuality so prevalent in the world around us!
Ethan R. Longhenry