I’ll call this post, “The Bible and Sex.” As you already know, it’s not everything the Bible has to say about sex, even though the Bible has less to say about sex than many people think. Truth be told, this too long post is not even a good start on the Bible and sex. But if the synodical committee report I covered in my previous posts (see https://wp.me/Pdfqqo-23) can claim that it presents “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality,” then I can use this entirely too broad and provocative title, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
This post is the last in short series responding to questions about my earlier posts on how the aforesaid synodical committee uses the scriptures in their report. And not just how they use scripture, but how scripture is used (and abused) in many such official reports. In the previous posts I laid out a few markers for how to read the Bible (https://wp.me/Pdfqqo-I)–do).
This post is in response to those who have said to me, “So, Clay, what would you say?” About human sexuality. About changes in sexual mores that have occurred and are occurring in our culture. About what the Bible has to say about all that. About how to read the Bible in the light of contemporary culture, ours or others, past or future. The post is not as definitive as I and perhaps you would like. Take it as a first sally in a longer discussion.
. . . . . . . .
Step back with me for a moment to the report from the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality (https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf), appointed by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church (2016). What’s most surprising in this long (175 pages) report is not what’s there but what’s not there. What’s not there is an engagement with perhaps the most important contemporary conversation about sexual ethics, the conversation about consent.
The study committee likes to portray our cultural moment as wide open sexually. Here is part of their description of contemporary culture early in the report:
Perhaps nothing in North American culture has changed more rapidly and dramatically than sexual mores. The now common language of “hooking up” and “friends with benefits” testifies to the common occurrence of casual sex between friends or acquaintances. The use of pornography by younger people is assumed, couples who marry without having had sex beforehand are deemed unusual, and most couples live together before marriage, if they marry at all. Gay relationships are accepted, and nearly everyone has friends or family members who are gay. Gay, lesbian, and transgender characters in TV and film are standard. Adults and children identify as transgender. Even the vocabulary describing sexuality and gender has changed from biological sex, to sex and gender, to gender only, with biological sex negotiable. New federal laws permit same-sex marriage (Canada, 2005; United States, 2015) and prohibit discrimination based on gender expression or identity (Canada, 2017). News constantly breaks regarding school policies, local laws, and personal stories from and about transgender children and adults. (Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality, pp. 6-7).
But this is not the whole story. Along with ways in which our culture is more open to a variety of sexual expressions than in the past, there are ways in which our culture has become more restrictive. Many of the restrictions have to do with sex that has been coerced in one way or another. In the past, male bosses hitting on female employees were tolerated with a wink and a nudge; they are no longer in many companies. Powerful people in the past could assume that they could demand sex from those who needed their help; they do so now at their peril, as Harvey Weinstein found out. Sexual indiscretions in the past were often covered up in a conspiracy of silence, even in the church; they are less likely to be today. The question in these and other cases is about consent: when is sex consensual and when is not?
This is an important and difficult discussion. Defining when apparent consent is actual consent is not easy. While there is broad agreement in the culture that children cannot give consent, when are they no longer children? May, for example, undergraduates or, for that matter, graduate students give consent to sex with their professors, or are these relationships inherently exploitative? (On the latest developments in this part of the cultural conversation, see the just published article, “What’s Wrong with Sex between Professors and Students? It’s Not What You Think,” by Amia Srinivasan (The New York Times, September 3, 2021.) What kind of consent is required in a dating relationship? In a marriage? All of these and many other relationships are under negotiation in our culture.
The point is not to debate the finer nuances of consent; the point is that the idea that sex should be consensual fundamentally redefines sexual relationships. In the past people spoke of marital rights. A husband could not rape his wife. He had a legal right to her body. Her consent, such as it was, was given when she said yes to the marriage, and since in many places and cultures even that consent was not required, she had no rights at all over her body. In the US, the first prohibition against marital rape in state law was not passed until 1975 in Nebraska; a couple of states didn’t get around to changing the laws until 1993 (North Carolina and Oklahoma).
Introducing the idea of consent into the law changes marriage in fundamental ways. It’s not my intent here to explore what this means, how the emphasis on consent changes traditional sexual mores. I am, after all, no expert in these matters. I draw your attention to them for two reasons. One is to ask why the study committee did not engage this important cultural conversation in their long report. And, second, to propose that if we want to engage the Bible in matters of sexual ethics, this is a great place to begin.
With that in mind, let me turn to the Bible. I have emphasized, perhaps too much, the conversational nature of the Bible: how one part of the Bible refers to or comments on another. If you are a reader of the Bible, you are already aware of this. In literary studies of the Bible, this is known as “intertexuality.” It’s been heavily studied in recent times. What may be less apparent is that there is a central tension in many of these biblical conversations, a tension between the future and the present or, to use what has become a theological cliché, between the already and the not yet.
Take Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The central question in Galatians comes down to circumcision. Not just circumcision, of course, but all that circumcision represented in the religious world of the ancient churches of Galatia. It went back to Abraham (Genesis 17). It marked a continuity between the old and the new. It symbolized belonging to the people of God for Jewish males. But for Paul, to insist on circumcision is to give up on the dream of a new people that includes Jew and gentile on the same footing. He says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has legal force but faith working itself out in love ‘ (Galatians 5:6, my translation).
He expresses the dream in a remarkable paragraph at the end of chapter 3: “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for those who are baptized into Christ wear Christ. No longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are children of Abraham and heirs of the promise to Abraham” (Galatians 3:23-29).
The dream of a new humanity in Christ remains inchoate for Paul as it does for us, waiting the final revelation of the reign of God. For the moment, it requires freedom, the freedom to follow where the Spirit leads. The Apostle makes that point in chapter 5: “Christ set you free to live as free people. . .” (5:1).
It’s this dream and the freedom that accompanies it that is always the first statement in scriptural conversation. The scriptures point beyond themselves, as did Jesus himself in his preaching. Jesus preached the coming kingdom of God. And always, when asked just what the kingdom of God is, he tells stories. Or performs a miracle. There are moments when the dream comes into view, but these are fleeting and afterwards we are unsure of just what we saw. In this sense, the dream eludes us, is beyond us. We must pursue it, lean into it.
Which means that the response to the dream is always enculturated. The story the Bible tells is of the dream but always of the dream as it is worked out in the culture of the day. And so in scripture the conversation is between the not yet of the dream, a not yet which is understand poorly and then only in cultural terms, and the already which is how the dream is worked out in the culture of the moment. Both are important and both must be preserved, the not yet and the already.
In Galatians, Paul works to preserve the dream—the not yet. He can see in his mind’s eye a fellowship in which the set-in-stone distinctions of his own culture—Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female—no longer matter. But this has to be worked out in the here and now, which in his day meant in terms of Jewish religious sensibilities, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. Not an easy task.
One place where this is brilliantly addressed in the New Testament is Ephesians 5 and 6. In this passage the author, Paul by convention if not actually, addresses several of the fraught relationships that imperil the dream of the new fellowship described in Galatians 3: marriage, father and children, slaves and masters. It’s the first of these, marriage, that brings us back to where we started and where we need to go in this essay.
In the section on marriage, Paul comes as close to equality between men and women as one could come within the context of the assumptions and practices of Roman and Jewish marriage. He does so by preserving the language of the culture, “submit” for women; “love” for men, but so defining the terms that they come to the same thing. “Love,” says Paul, is a kind of voluntary submission; submission is way to love (saying it this way runs many dangers I cannot address here). And he prefaces all of it with the programmatic, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).
By now, you may know where all this is headed. How do we exercise the wisdom of Ephesians in the present moment? I began, you will recall, with the contemporary cultural conversation about consent: what in sexual matters constitutes true consent? I noted that this conversation is and will continue to be difficult. Defining the terms of consent is not easy. But even if in our culture we don’t always get the definition of consent right, the idea that consent is crucial seems to me to be a step in the direction of the dream.
Seen in this light, Paul’s discussion about sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 is a conversation about consent. In the first few verses of chapter 7 Paul proposes that married couples may decide for a time not have sex but instead to devote themselves to prayer (7:5). He even uses a word the NIV translates as “mutual consent,” sumphōnos. But he also introduces an idea that is troublesome in the light of our contemporary consideration of the meaning of consent, in verse 4: “A wife doesn’t have authority over her own body but her husband; likewise, a husband doesn’t have authority over his body but his wife.” How does this comport with modern ideas about consent and how not?
It’s precisely in cases like this that the scriptural conversation and the contemporary conversation come together. In addressing scripture, we need to be asking in every case what opens towards the dream and what is an accommodation to the realities of the culture of that time. Translation is required, not just from Hebrew or Greek to English or some other modern language but from the culture of that time to the culture of our own. Translation is always difficult, but we have been promised that in this the Spirit guides us.
By bringing our contemporary conversation about consent into the context of the biblical conversation about sexual matters in ancient Israel and ancient Rome, our conversation is deepened and enriched. Cultures have blind spots, ours included. If the study committee mandated “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” had begun by bringing together the conversation on these matters in the Bible in the light of biblical culture with our own conservations in the light of our own culture, we might be better able to grasp what opens up the dream for the future, that future we see only dimly, and what we must do to live holy lives in the present day. But that is not where the study committee began. The study committee began not with God’s future but with the past. And not the biblical past either, but with our own cultural past from, say, fifty years ago.
It’s the notion that one can present our recent past, nostalgically imagined, as if it were God’s past which is perhaps the most distressing aspect of the study committee report. The study committee seems to assume that one can grasp a biblical truth apart from any culture at all, a truth that can be imposed equally on all cultures. This is not the case, nor has it ever been the case.
With that, I’ll file this now far too long post a little short of declaring my own sentiments on a variety of contemporary issues, which is just as well. I do believe the Bible has much to teach us in these matters. In considering what the Bible has to teach us, my own opinions would, I suspect, serve more to distract than to enlighten.
What’s next for the blog? I have a mind to spend some time a part of scripture that plays an outsized role in the discussion of human sexuality, among other things: Genesis 2-3, the endlessly fascinating, always instructive story of Eden. And east of Eden.
But first, using the principles laid out in this post, I’ll look at a troubling but ultimately instructive biblical text, the “women will be saved through childbearing” text in 1 Timothy 2:11-15—a passage that in my opinion has been and continues to be misread.