Westmont Magazine A Return to Eden: Redeeming Sexuality
by Tremper Longman III, Robert Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies.
An edited excerpt from his presentation in the March 9, 2011, chapel service.
Sexuality is a controversial topic; people disagree passionately about it, especially where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate sexual behavior. Speaking as a biblical scholar, I want to address the question, “What does the Bible say about sex?”
First, why do we care what the Bible says about sex? Because we’re Christians, we believe the Bible is the place where God speaks to us most directly to reveal himself and his will for our lives. It’s the standard of faith and practice. God can speak to us in other ways: through reason, experience, the Holy Spirit and nature — but not in contradiction to the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the Bible. If our experience leads us to believe something that differs from the Bible, then it’s not the Holy Spirit speaking but our desires. If someone says the Holy Spirit has told them something that scripture contradicts, I can be sure it’s not the Holy Spirit.
What about the interpretation of Scripture? Is it a private matter? Are there so many possible interpretations that we just choose the one that suits our purposes? While it’s true that parts of the Bible are legitimate areas of debate and uncertainty, there is much that is clear and certain as well. I consider the Bible’s teaching about sexuality clear, especially in reference to homosexuality. The Bible says a lot about sex, and I can’t address it all here — and I refuse to make homosexuality the sole subject of my talk as that gives a wrong impression about the Bible.
Many consider the Bible a killjoy when it comes to sex. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s true that the Bible puts definite restrictions on sexual behavior, but it does so in the context of a celebration of sexuality. God made us sexual beings. He wired us to enjoy the pleasure of physical touch.
The story begins in the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 2:4-25 gives a close-up look at the creation of humanity. Genesis 1-2 tells us that God made everything, including humanity, but doesn’t specify how he did so. Genesis 2 narrates the story of the creation of Adam and Eve to inform us about God, ourselves and our world. The passage focuses on gender relationships and marriage.
At the beginning of Genesis 2, God creates Adam from the dust of the ground and his breath, a metaphorical description that emphasizes our special relationship with God despite the fact that we’re creatures. Adam then lives in Eden in harmony with God.
But God detects a problem: loneliness. For this reason, God creates Eve. The text highlights Eve’s and Adam’s equality before God. Being created from Adam’s side means Eve will be a helper who corresponds to him. The word “helper” doesn’t mean valet, it describes someone who will be his ally and equal.
At the end of Genesis 2, after Adam gives the first hymn of the Bible celebrating the arrival of Eve, he says, “This one is bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman’ because she was taken from ‘man.’” The chapter ends by saying, “This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This passage defines marriage: leaving parents, forming a new primary loyalty, weaving together two lives through common experiences and communication. Being united into one refers to sexual intercourse, which is a sacramental moment. It’s an outward sign of an inward reality.
The chapter ends with Adam and Eve being naked in the garden and feeling no shame. They’re not only physically naked, they’re psychologically, spiritually and emotionally open without shame. They live in a harmonious relationship with God and each other.
But this changes in act two, the account of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Genesis 3 tells us that sin and death aren’t part of created nature but a consequence of human rebellion. In particular, Adam and Eve rebel against God by asserting moral autonomy or independence. They eat the fruit of the tree and know what is good and evil just like God even though they understand what he wants. Their sin is not a lack of clarity concerning God’s command; they challenge and reject it because they think they’re smarter than he is. They — not God — will define what is right and wrong, with horrible consequences for humanity. This approach remains a problem today when we take clear Biblical teaching on sexuality and decide we know better than God does.
The man and the woman suffer consequences for their rebellion. The punishment God directs to the woman affects their relationship in a fundamental way. “Now your desire will be for your husband, but he will come and rule you.” This word “desire” doesn’t mean something romantic; it means the desire to control. It’s the same rare word used in the next chapter for Cain’s desire to dominate. The Biblical text is rooting the problems we have with each other in our sin.
Because of human rebellion and sin, Adam and Eve can no longer stand naked before each other but hide and cover up. Humans were created in a harmonious relationship with God, enjoying an intimacy with each other. But because of our insistence that we, rather than God, define what is right and wrong, we experience doubt, pain and loneliness. Thank God the story doesn’t end here.
The Song of Songs gives us a collection of love poems in which an unnamed man and woman speak to each other rapturously. They often enjoy intimate relationships in a garden, most of the time feeling no shame. The Song of Songs demonstrates that it’s possible to experience sexual pleasure in this life in spite of sin and brokenness. It’s a book about the redemption of sexuality.
The Bible speaks positively about sex. God made us sexual beings and not just for the purpose of having babies. Here’s the controversial point: The Bible clearly states that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage. The seventh commandment says, “You must not commit adultery.”
Why would God want to restrict the pleasures of sexual intimacy to marriage? Sex involves more than physical pleasure. It binds two people together, body and soul. To have sex with someone is to become completely vulnerable to them. Such relationships need to be protected by legal commitments as the Bible indicates by calling marriage a covenantal commitment. Sex and marriage are not just personal; they’re not just a private matter. They involve other people, most pointedly your partner, but also your friends, family and society at large.
The biblical law specifically prohibits certain types of sexual relationships. The Ten Commandments give general ethical principles, and the case law that follows applies them to specific situations. What does adultery mean? The case law says there should be no sex outside of marriage. If a man has sex with a married woman, he and she, if she consents, will be seriously punished. If a man has sex with an unmarried woman, he has to marry her. Some laws also prohibit certain kinds of marriage.
Leviticus 18 and 20 list prohibited sexual relationships; most involve incest, but homosexuality is included. Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” Leviticus 20:19 repeats, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act.” The passages are clear. But modern readers and even some ministers and biblical interpreters have tried to obscure their meaning. I can’t address all their arguments here.
One objection to this prohibition points to Old Testament laws that are no longer relevant. We don’t offer sacrifices anymore or observe dietary restrictions or purity laws. We’re not concerned with the Levitical prohibition of clothing made from more than one kind of material or sowing a field with two different types of seeds. Why should we care about the Old Testament law concerning homosexuality?
Jesus never disowned Old Testament law; he affirmed it vigorously, including the sexual laws, when he stated in Matthew 5:17-19, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until it’s accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
The New Testament makes it clear that the coming of Christ fulfilled certain laws that will no longer be observed. The sacrifices are shadows of the reality of Christ’s sacrifice. The laws concerning food and mixtures were relevant when God’s people, the Israelites, were supposed to stay separate from the Gentiles. These laws are no longer kept in the New Testament.
But the moral law of the Old Testament continues to apply. The New Testament explicitly joins voice with the Old Testament in prohibiting homosexual relationships, making it clear that the laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still valid. Paul wrote in Romans 1:24-27, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who’s blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchange natural intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also, the men giving up natural intercourse with women were consumed with passion for one another.”
There are modern attempts to blunt the clear teaching of this passage as well. One of the most common argues that Paul isn’t speaking of committed homosexual relationships but of pederasty, which was a common practice in the Greco-Roman world. But there is a perfectly good Greek word for pederasty, and Paul would have used it if he meant it.
Some wrongly suggest that people in the first century didn’t know about homosexual orientation or committed homosexual relationships; indeed they did. Jesus never addressed homosexuality, so he must not be concerned about it. But Jesus affirmed all the law and typically only spoke about things that were disputed in his culture; homosexuality wasn’t. We can’t pit Paul against Jesus. Paul’s words are scripture just as much as Jesus’ words.
I could say more, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression that homosexual behavior is some kind of mega-sin in a different category from other sins. I’m addressing it because it’s being discussed in the Christian community and there’s confusion about what the Bible says. My sympathies go out to people who experience fear, loneliness and doubt as they think about their sexual orientation. We must consider how to support them in their struggles. But that shouldn’t lead us to obscure the Bible’s clear teaching on sexuality.
Let me be clear. Having homosexual desires isn’t condemned in the Bible; acting on them is. Having heterosexual desires toward a woman you’re not married to isn’t condemned; acting on them is. We need to be a community of people who support each other. I would love to see Westmont — and even more the church — be places where we can share our sexual struggles and brokenness whether homosexual or heterosexual and support each other as we seek to live a life pleasing to God. We’re all broken. We’re all sinners. But we shouldn’t give ourselves a pass or ignore sin, we should challenge ourselves and each other in love to be obedient. Our sin and brokenness should drive us to Christ who suffered for us and understands our heart.
Genesis 2 teaches that we were created in a harmonious relationship with God and each other. Genesis 3 explains that human rebellion has shattered this harmony and intimacy. The Song of Songs speaks about the possibility of redeeming sexuality. But this side of heaven, it will never be perfect. Everyone, gay and straight, will experience pain and brokenness in their sexuality. Paul holds up being single as the ideal for everyone between the first and second coming of Christ, because unattached people can focus on God and on ministry. There’s nothing wrong — and much right — about heterosexual or homosexual Christians choosing to remain single and celibate.
Everyone, whether single or married, has much to look forward to: a return to Eden and the vibrant, harmonious, intimate relationships experienced in the garden, described in Revelation 19:8 as a great marriage supper. “For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. To her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”