Sexuality, Marriage, Morality And The Bible

By Rev. Dr. Donald K. Johnson
April 28, 1998

I. The following five values are basic for the sexuality of all people in any culture, any context, any age. They are biblical values imbedded in marriage customs. Appropriate moral and marital boundaries will protect and encourage these five values for all people.

  1. God created us sexual beings. Our sexuality draws us to one another and makes us whole. All people need to be whole and complete. At creation Adam is lonely and incomplete until God nurtures his wholeness with a companion so that, "two people become one flesh with each other," (Genesis 2:15-25). While this is a heterosexual text, the truth is the same for homosexual people. God loves all of us equally.
  2. Our sexuality binds us together in stable relationships. Covenantal love is a primary value in the bible (Matt. 22:37). We seek to live out our sexuality in committed and faithful relationships that mirror the commitment and fidelity God has for us. Our covenantal fidelity is expressed through compassion, forgiveness, and mercy in responsible, long-term, loving relationships. Love holds our commitments in place for better or for worse (I Corinthians 13).
  3. Our sexuality is for human delight. The biblical book, "Song of Solomon," says that plainly. All cultures know this is true.
  4. Our sexuality perpetuates human life. "Go and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28). We have done this to a fault so that now it is appropriate to lift up the other four values as equals. Paul emphasizes values for sexuality other than procreation in I Corinthians 7, though his position is colored by his expectation that the end of the world is imminent.
  5. Our sexuality appropriately unfolded, provides for the well-being of a community. Therefore, the community establishes moral rules and boundaries to govern sexual relationships that build up the community.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have many rules for sexual morality appropriate to their specific time and place. Sometimes those rules are not appropriate for a different context. Even Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, revised some biblical rules to make them appropriate to his context. Forming the community as one flesh, in supportive mutual relationships, is basic to Paul's language of being members of the Body of Christ (Romans 12:3-5).

Rules governing sexual conduct may be different for different ages, and different cultural settings, but for each setting, principles for moral sexual relations are designed to enhance the five biblical values described above. Those five values are the foundation for the well-being of any community. They are consistent with the revelation of God that we know in Jesus Christ.

II. The ancient social context determines the moral rules that the bible puts forward to provide assurances that the five basic values will be maintained. What was helpful in ancient times may not be helpful now. In biblical times:

  1. Women were the property of men. They belonged either to their father, to a husband, to an elder son, or they were slaves. Widows without children were vulnerable and without security. Women had few rights, they were simply objects. A double standard of morality does not fit our contemporary context.
  2. Laws concerning sexuality were designed to give the community as many children as possible. Levirate marriage is an example (Tamar in Genesis 38:29ff, Ruth 4, Mark 12:18ff.) Levirate morality does not fit our contemporary context. A household with many workers was healthy. Mortality rates were high. Each woman was to bear 5, 10, or 15 children and was shamed if she did not. Concubines and maids often produced children for the head of the household (Genesis 16 and 30). That morality does not fit our contemporary context.
  3. Biblical people did not accurately understand reproduction. Women were understood to be fields in which men planted seeds. "Come and plant your seed in my garden" is the invitation from the Song of Solomon. A woman who could not produce children was often divorced and given back to her father, or abandoned as a "bad field." Barreness was the probable underlying flaw in the woman who spoke with Jesus at Jacob's well (John 4). That morality does not fit our contemporary context.
  4. Marriage laws protected the property rights of men and were designed to produce as many children as possible. Even though New Testament communities with their eschatological expectations, and monogamous marriages are not so focused upon producing many children, women continued to be the property of men. A double standard of morality does not fit our contemporary context.
  5. Violence against women was sometimes acceptable. Although women were sometimes well protected in the biblical stories, still Abraham loaned his wife to Egyptians (Genesis 12:15), and Lot offered his daughters for rape (Genesis 19:8). That morality does not fit our contemporary context.
  6. A man spilling his seed on the ground (Genesis 38:9; Leviticus 15), or withdrawing or preventing pregnancy with a contraceptive (now a Roman Catholic doctrine), or wasting seed on another man was violating the moral goals of the Hebrew community to produce as many children as possible. Contemporary understanding around this issue is changing.
  7. Pederasty was morally acceptable in the Greek and Roman society. Only a few Roman philosophers find pederasty abusive. Men were more valued than children or women. The practice was morally evil to the Hebrew culture whose sex rules focused on producing many children. In the Christian culture that followed, Christians accepted the need to produce children. They also began valuing children and women more highly and resisted violence against them. Therefore, pederasty is named as a sin in I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10. This continues to be a moral boundary needed in our society.
III. The present day context is radically different from the biblical context, so to achieve the basic five biblical values for human sexuality we need to make different moral rules to govern our sexual relations. Some differences are:
  1. Women and children are never the property of men. Our US laws state this clearly. Women are slowly approaching equality with men in education, leadership and economic value. Many of the biblical marriage laws are not appropriate, for in our day they are morally wrong. Stoning women for adultery is not allowed (Deuteronomy 22:22, John 8:5). Adulterous men may not be stoned to death for violating the property rights of another man. Slavery is outlawed and children are protected from misuse by their parents.
  2. Contraceptives have given women the power to control the number of their pregnancies and have freed them from economic dependence on men. Hence, patriarchal dominance is being altered by gender free democracy. "Consenting co-equal adults" is a recent concept. Today women are co-equals in making marriage choices.
  3. Producing too many children is an economic problem for a couple, difficult for the community, and harmful to the environment. Children are costly, and each child needs to be valued and educated with sophistication for healthy life in our complex society. Economically successful societies average about 1.5 children per couple. Limiting the number of children also blesses the environment and the community; therefore, developing moral guidelines that limit the number of children we produce is a blessing for the community. Same gender marriage affirms this societal need.
  4. More and more scientific evidence is accumulating showing that sexual orientation is a genetic propensity rather than a simple conscious choice. It is a phenomenon that occurs in all cultures over the span of historic time. Because homosexuality is a minority phenomenon it can be [viewed as] a threat to the majority in some cultures. Yet because homosexuality has some biological motivators, it is foolish to ask this minority group in our culture to deny their sexuality as it is to make blue eyes morally wrong. All humans need to enjoy and live out their sexuality within appropriate boundaries, so that their sexuality contributes a blessing to the community.
  5. Sexually transmitted diseases are best controlled with stable long-term relationships in marriages held together by convenantal love. The community is blessed when it provides moral rules that nurture long-term sexual relationships.
  1. It is important to take moral truth from the scriptures carefully. The Sodom and Gomorrah story (Genesis 18:16-19:38) deals with sexual violence both in the rape of men and the rape of women. Both are morally wrong. When Ezekiel and Jesus discussed the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah, they made no mention of a "sexual problem," but spoke specifically about the evil of withholding proper hospitality to strangers (Ezekiel 16:49-50, Matthew 10:5-15). Social violence is the evil.
  2. In Paul's letter to the Romans (1:18-32), he is often quoted as speaking against mutually agreed upon same sex relations. The Greek word translated there does not refer to loving intimacy between equals, but refers to pederasty practiced in the Roman gymnasium and undisciplined sexual passions where one party in the relationship takes advantage of another. Sexual violence is the evil. That reference is a part of Paul's argument in the first three chapters of Romans to show that all humans, including the reader, are sinful in some form or another. It matters little whether your sin is pederasty or greed, we all need God's forgiveness (Romans 3:21).
  3. The passages from Leviticus 18:22 and Deuteronomy 23:18 condemn homosexual behavior in fertility cult worship, because their worship around temple prostitution is blasphemy against the biblical God. They condemn sexual promiscuity that divides a community and does not produce children for maintaining the work force. We honor God in our sexuality by living out of the five basic values named in this paper.
  4. We create tremendous moral problems if we do not carefully pick and choose sexual rules from among those contained in the Old and New Testaments. Our social context is drastically different from biblical times. The basic five scriptural values can guide our marital convenants of fidelity upon which we ask God's blessing and help us determine meaningful legislation for civil marriage law.
  5. Christian marriage is a convenant of fidelity under God that, in its unconditional relationship of trust, provides for creative joy and fellowship, for the nurture of children, for mutual support in times of trial, and for service to other people and the larger community.
  6. God's blessing can be asked upon a marriage when the couple have a committed and faithful relationship to each other, to God and to the wider community. As twenty-first century Lutheran Christians we might say: We should so fear and love God that our attitude toward God is clearly reflected in our relationships with our partner and the community in which our shared lives unfold.
  7. Therefore, long-term heterosexual relationships in marriages and same gender relationships in marriages between consenting adults with appropriate boundaries are acceptable. Both can provide a moral context for living out the five biblical values for our sexuality.
  8. Rather than exclude gay and lesbian people from the privileges of law we need to offer them acceptance and support. The Reconciled in Christ program helps a congregation welcome gay and lesbian persons to full participation and membership in a congregation. The Lutheran Churches of the Netherlands and Denmark already provide for same sex marriages as do their civil governments [note from Tom Ramsey: the civil governments provide a status that is almost equal to marriage]. Let us seek a sexual morality that is based on God's love and affirmation of all people.
  9. Our state and federal governments need to create laws that contribute to the stability of our communities. Throughout the world, marriage laws and customs take a variety of forms, but always these laws and customs are designed to create a stable community that is productive, life-giving and sustainable. Sexually transmitted diseases are a terrible cost to society and are best controlled with stable long term sexual relationships in marriages, both homosexual and heterosexual, that are nurtured by convenantal love.
  10. There is an erosion of family structures in our present culture. Because we are a diverse people, we need to affirm a diversity of family structures that reflect God's acceptance and love that we know in Jesus Christ. Nuclear families, extended families, same sex families as represented in monastic communities, and gay and lesbian families can all be good. When all the wonderfully different forms of families are encouraged with creative boundaries and non-violent expectations, they will give life and righteousness to our land and help all people have the five biblical values for their sexuality in a moral way.

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