A Christian view of sex
by Samuele Bacchiocchi
Society’s attitude toward sex has swung from one extreme to another. “The Victorian person,” writes Rollo May, “sought to have love without falling into sex; the modern person seeks to have sex without falling into love.”1 From the Puritan view of sex as a necessary evil for procreation, we have come to the popular Playboy view of sex as a necessary thing for recreation.
Both extremes are wrong and fail to fulfill God’s intended function of sex. The negative view makes married people feel guilty about their sexual relations; the permissive view turns people into robots, engaging in sex with little meaning or satisfaction.
How should Christians relate to sex? What does the Bible say about sexuality? As a Bible-believing Christian, I have found the following seven principles helpful in understanding how we ought to relate to sex.
Principle 1: The Bible speaks of human sexuality as good.
Let’s begin with the beginning: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).* After every previous act of creation, God said that “it was good” (Genesis 1:12, 18, 21, 25), but after the creation of humankind as male and female, God said that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). This initial divine appraisal of human sexuality as “very good” shows that Scripture sees the male/female sexual distinction as part of the goodness and perfection of God’s original creation.
Note also that human sexual duality as male and female is related explicitly to having been created in the image of God. Since Scripture distinguishes human beings from other creatures, theologians have usually thought that the image of God in humanity refers to the rational, moral, and spiritual faculties God has given to men and women.
However, there is another way in which we can understand the image of God, implicit in Genesis 1:27: “In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Thus the human maleness and femaleness reflect the image of God in that a man and a woman have the capacity to experience a oneness of fellowship similar to the one existing in the Trinity. The God of biblical revelation is not a solitary single Being who lives in eternal aloofness but is a fellowship of three Beings so intimately and mysteriously united that we worship them as one God. This mysterious oneness-in-relationship of the Trinity is reflected as a divine image in humanity, in the sexual duality of maleness and femaleness, mysteriously united in marriage as “one flesh.”
Principle 2: Human sexuality is a process whereby two become “one flesh.”
The intimate fellowship between a man and a woman is expressed in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The phrase “one flesh” refers to the total union of body, soul, and spirit between marital partners. This total union can be experienced especially through sexual intercourse when the act is the expression of genuine love, respect, and commitment.
The phrase to “become one flesh” expresses God’s estimate of sex within marital relationship. It tells us that God sees sex as a means through which a husband and a wife can achieve a new unity. It is noteworthy that the “one flesh” imagery is never used to describe a child’s relationship to his father and mother. A man must “leave” his father and mother to become “one flesh” with his wife. His relationship to his wife is different from the one to his parents because it consists of a new oneness consummated by the sexual union.
Becoming “one flesh” also implies that the purpose of the sexual act is not only procreational (to produce children) but also psychological (fulfilling the emotional need to consummate a new oneness-relationship). Oneness implies the willingness to reveal one’s most intimate physical, emotional, and intellectual self to the other. As they come to know each other in the most intimate way, the couple experience the meaning of becoming one flesh. Sexual intercourse does not automatically ensure this oneness. Rather, it consummates the intimacy of perfect sharing that has already developed.
Principle 3: Sex is knowing each other at the most intimate level.
Sexual relations within marriage enable a couple to come to know each other in a manner that cannot be experienced in any other way. To participate in sexual intercourse means to uncover not only one’s body but also one’s inner being to another. This is why Scripture often describes sexual intercourse as “knowing” (See Genesis 4:1), the same verb used in Hebrew to refer to knowing God.
Obviously Adam had come to know Eve before their sexual intercourse, but through the latter he came to know her more intimately than ever before. Dwight H. Small aptly remarks: “Self-disclosure through sexual intercourse invites self-disclosure at all levels of personal existence. This is an exclusive revelation unique to the couple. They know each other as they know no other person. This unique knowledge is tantamount to laying claim to another in genuine belonging . . . . The nakedness and physical coupling is symbolic of the fact that nothing is hidden or withheld between them.”2The process that leads to sexual intercourse is one of growing knowledge. From the initial casual acquaintance to dating, courtship, marriage, and sexual intercourse, the couple grows in the knowledge of each other. Sexual intercourse represents the culmination of this growth in reciprocal knowledge and intimacy. As Elizabeth Achtemeier puts it: “We feel as if the most hidden inner depths of our beings are brought to the surface and revealed and offered to each other as the most intimate expression of our love.”3
Principle 4: The Bible condemns sex outside of marriage.
Since sex represents the most intimate of all interpersonal relationships, expressing a “one-flesh” unity of total commitment, such a unity cannot be expressed or experienced in a casual sexual union where the concern is purely recreational or commercial. The only oneness experienced in such unions is that of immorality.
Sexual immorality is serious because it affects the individual more deeply and permanently than any other sin. As Paul states: “Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Some may say that even gluttony and drunkenness affect a person inside the body. Yet they do not have the same permanent effect on the personality as does sexual sin.
Indulgence in eating or drinking can be overcome, stolen goods can be returned, lies can be retracted and replaced by the truth, but the sexual act, once committed with another person, cannot be undone. A radical change has taken place in the interpersonal relationship of the couple involved that can never be undone.
This does not mean that sexual sins are unforgivable. Scripture reassures us by example and precept that if we confess our sins, the Lord is faithful and just to forgive us all our sins and “to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When David repented of his double sin of adultery and murder, God forgave him. (See Psalms 51 and 32).
Principle 5: Sex without commitment reduces a person to a thing.
Sex outside marriage is sex without commitment. Such casual relationships destroy the integrity of the person by reducing him or her to an object to be used for personal gratification. Some who feel hurt and used after sexual encounters may withdraw altogether from sexual activity for fear of being used again or may decide to use their bodies selfishly, without regard to the feelings of others. Either way, one’s sexuality is distorted because he/she has destroyed the possibility of using it to relate genuinely and intimately toward the one he/she loves.
Sex cannot be used as a means for fun with one partner at one time and as a way to express genuine love and commitment with another partner at another time. The biblical perspective of oneness, intimacy, and genuine love cannot be realized in sex outside of marriage or in sex with multiple partners.
Engaged couples will probably say that they are expressing genuine love when they engage in premarital sex. From a Christian perspective, an engaged couple will respect each other and look at engagement as preparation for marriage, and not as marriage. Until the wedding vows are taken, the possibility of breaking up a relationship exists. If a couple has had intercourse together, they have compromised their relationship. Any subsequent break-up will leave permanent emotional scars. It is only when a man and a woman are willing to become one, not only verbally but also legally by assuming responsibility for his/ her partner, that they can seal their relationships through sexual relations.
Nowhere has Christian morality come under greater attack than in the whole area of sex outside marriage. The biblical condemnation of illicit sexual acts is clear, but ignored by the introduction and use of “softer terms.” For example, fornication is referred to as “premarital sex” with the accent on the “pre” rather than on the “marital.” Adultery is defined as “extramarital sex,” not a sin against God’s moral law. Homosexuality is softened from serious perversion through “deviation” to “gay variation.” More and more, Christians are giving in to the specious argument that “love makes it right.” If a man and a woman are deeply and genuinely in love, it is claimed, they have the right to express their love through sexual union without marriage. Some contend that premarital sex releases people from their inhibitions and moral hang-ups, giving them a sense of emotional freedom. The truth of the matter is that premarital sex adds emotional pressure because it reduces sexual love to a purely physical level without the total commitment of two married people.
Principle 6: Sex is both procreational and relational.
Until the beginning of our century, Christians generally believed that the primary function of sex was procreative. Other considerations, such as the unitive, relational, and pleasurable aspects of sex were seen as secondary. In the 20th century the order has been reversed.
From a biblical perspective, sexual activity within marriage is both procreational and relational. As Christians, we need to recover and maintain the biblical balance between these two functions of sex. Sexual intercourse is a pleasurable act of perfect sharing that engenders a sense of oneness while offering the possibility of bringing a new life into this world. We need to recognize that sex is a divine gift that can be legitimately enjoyed within marriage.
Paul urges husbands and wives to fulfill their marital duties together, because their bodies do not belong to themselves alone but to each other. Therefore they should not deprive each other of sex, except by mutual agreement for a time to devote themselves to prayer. Then they should come together again lest Satan tempt them through lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:2-5; see also Hebrews 13:4).
Principle 7: Sex enables men and women to reflect God’s image by sharing in His creative activity.
In the Bible, sex serves not only to engender a mysterious oneness of spirit, but it also offers the possibility of bringing children into this world. “Be fruitful and multiply,” says the Genesis command (Genesis 1:28).
Of course, not all couples are able to have or are justified in having children. Old age, infertility, and genetic diseases are some of the factors that make childbearing impossible or inadvisable. For the vast majority of couples, however, having children is a normal part of marital life. This does not mean that every act of sexual union should result in conception. “We are not meant to separate sex from childbearing” writes David Phypers, “and those who do, totally and finally, purely for personal reasons, are surely falling short of God’s purpose for their lives. They run the risk that their marriage and sexual activity may become self-indulgent. They will only look inward to their own self-satisfaction, rather than outwards to the creative experiences of bringing new life into the world and nurturing it to maturity.”4 Procreation as part of human sexuality raises the important issue of contraception. Does the command to be fruitful and multiply mean that we should leave the issue of family planning to the mercies of God?
No explicit answer can be found in the Bible. We have seen that sex is both relational and procreational. The fact that the function of sex in marriage is not only to produce children but also to express and experience mutual love and commitment, implies the need for certain limitations on the reproductive function of sex. That is to say, the relational function of sex can only remain a viable dynamic experience if its reproductive function is controlled.
This leads us to another question: Do we have the right to interfere with the reproductive cycle established by God? The historic answer of the Roman Catholic Church has been a resounding “NO!” The Catholic position has been tempered by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 29, 1968), which acknowledges the morality of the sexual union between husband and wife, even if not directed to the procreation of children.5 Moreover, the encyclical, while condemning artificial contraceptives, allows for a natural method of birth control known as the “rhythm method.” This method consists of confining intercourse to the infertile periods in the wife’s menstrual cycle.
The attempt of Humanae Vitae to distinguish between “artificial” and “natural” contraceptives, making the former immoral and the latter moral, itself smacks of artificiality. In either case, human intelligence prevents the fertilization of the egg. Moreover, to reject as immoral the use of artificial contraceptives can lead to rejecting as immoral the use of any artificial vaccine, hormone, or medication that is not produced naturally by the human body. “Like most other human inventions,” writes David Phypers, “contraception is morally neutral; it is what we do with it that counts. If we use it to practice sex outside marriage or selfishly within marriage, or if through it we invade the privacy of others’ marriages, we may indeed be guilty of disobeying the will of God and of distorting the marriage relationship. However, if we use it with a proper regard for the health and well-being of our partners and our families, then it can enhance and strengthen our marriages. Through contraception we can protect our marriage from the physical, emotional, economic, and psychological strains they might suffer through further pregnancies, while at the same time we can use the act of marriage, reverently and lovingly, as it was intended, to bind us together in lasting union.”6
Human sexuality is part of God’s beautiful creation. There is nothing sinful about it. However, like all God’s good gifts to human beings, sex has come under Satan’s pervasive plan to lead humanity away from God’s intentions. The function of sex is unitive and procreative, within the relationship of the male and the female coming together to form “one flesh.” When that relationship is breached, when sex occurs outside of marriage, either premaritally or extramaritally, we have the violation of the seventh commandment. And that is sin, a sin against God, against a fellow human, and against one’s own body.
But the Bible does not leave us without hope. It presents us with God’s grace and power to overcome every besetting sin, including the sexual. Even though sexual sins leave a scar on the conscience and causes hurt to another person, true repentance can open the doors of God’s forgiveness. No sin is so great that God’s grace cannot bring about healing and restoration. All we need to do is reach out for that grace, for it is that grace that enables us to realize within us each potential the Creator has placed within us.
And that applies to sex as well. At a time when sexual permissiveness and promiscuity prevails, it is imperative for us as Christians to reaffirm our commitment to the biblical view of sex as a divine gift to be enjoyed only within marriage.
Samuele Bacchiocchi (Ph.D., Pontifical University, The Vatican) teaches theology and church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. This article is an adaptation of chapter 3 of his book, The Marriage Covenant. It may be ordered from Biblical Perspectives, 4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs, MI 49103, U.S.A. U.S.$13 postpaid.
*All Scriptural passages are quoted from the Revised Standard Version.
Notes and references
1. Rollo May, “Reflecting on the New Puritanism,” in Sex Thoughts for Contemporary Christians, ed. Michael J. Taylor, S.J. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 171.
2. Dwight H. Small, Christian: Celebrate Your Sexuality (Old Tappan, N. J.: Revell, 1974), p. 186.
3. Elizabeth Achtemeier, The Committed Marriage (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 162.
4. David Phypers, Christian Marriage in Crisis (Bromley: Marc Europe, 1985), p. 38.
5. Humanae Vitae, paragraph 11.
6. Phypers, p. 44.