How might we talk about sex?  – A Biblical Theology of Marriage and Relationships

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In recent posts, I talked about where evangelicals have gone wrong in attempting to talk about sex, particularly in attempts to create a theology of sex. My argument was that talking pastorally about sex and relationships requires a Biblical Theology not of sexual intercourse itself, anatomised from its proper context but of marriage.  In this post I want try and model how we might do that.

We start with a general Biblical Theology and this should really be a refresher for anyone who reads Faithroots regularly.  Biblical Theology is about seeing how the unfolding narrative of Scripture enables us to answer the questions “Who is God?” “Where did we come from?” “What does it mean to be human?” and “where are we going?” In other words, Biblical Theology relates closely to Systematic Theology as we consider the Doctrines of God, Creation and Fall, Humanity, Atonement, Eschatology etc.

We tend to track three themes when looking at the Biblical Narrative, God, Land, Place.  The Bible story is all about God’s people in God’s place under God’s blessing and rule.  It starts with the good, sovereign creator, who makes the world out of nothing, orders it and calls it good.  God makes humans, man and woman equally in his image and then mandates them to fill and subdue the earth. Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent and sin, this subjects them to death and creation to decay. Suffering and struggle are introduced.  God promises salvation and deliverance for his people and defeat and judgement for the serpent and those who ally with him.

God then begins to call a people for himself and makes covenants with them.  There are foretastes of what redemption will look like but also the people experience specific judgement or discipline. He gives them their own land to fill and subdue but when they are unfaithful to him, this leads to a death like exile.  God promises through prophets that judgement and exile will be followed by forgiveness and return. This happens but it is clear that the prophets are pointing further forward to a new Adam, a new Israel, an heir of David who will bring salvation.  This promised one is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus’ death on the Cross pays the penalty for our sin and defeats the serpent.  Jesus rises from the dead, returns to heaven and sends his Holy Spirt.  This means that God is present with his people in whichever places they find themselves.

However, Christ has also promised that he will return and will gather his people together in a new creation where he will reign and so we will be God’s people, in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.  Strikingly, the imagery of that promise portrays Jesus as bridegroom and the church as his bride as the wedding feast begins.

That big, broad-brush picture already highlights a few things that will be helpful and inform pastoral conversations about relationships. First, it points us to who God is. The Triune God is good, he is love, he is sovereign and just.  He does not create out of need, but out of overflowing love.  Secondly, it reminds us that this world was made good but is subject to the Fall. Third it reminds us that humans were also created good, have a role and purpose in creation, are finite, have sinned and fallen but in Christ know forgiveness, redemption and restoration. Fourth, it promises us eternal life, the future restoration of all creation and eternity with God free from suffering with evil banished.

Both the broad brush Biblical and Systematic Theologies help us to start thinking about relationships, marriage and sex.  First of all, we can see marriage as a good gift from a good and loving God.  Because God is good and great, not only is sex a good gift but it also means that because God did not create out of need but out of overflowing love and grace that we do not need to see sexual intercourse as a means to win and earn God/the god’s favour. This rules out ritualistic views of sex seen within some religious cultures. 

Secondly, marriage and sex have purpose and meaning.  There are three aspects to this.  First, if God gave man and woman a mandate together, if God said it was not good for Adam  to be alone and made Eve as “helper”, then this means that marriage, including sex is to do with the creation mandate of filling and subduing creation. Secondly -and this is the point in Ephesians 5:21-32, if eschatologically, we are to think of Christ and church as bridegroom and bride then marriage does serve a purpose in pointing us towards the Gospel and our eternal hope.  Thirdly, if we are made in God’s image and if marriage and so sex, point us towards how Christ relates to his church then we expect them to reflect something of God’s nature.  We expect there to be self-giving love in marriage. We expect there to be deep and lasting intimacy.

Thirdly, sin and the fall helps us to recognise that there will be strife and struggle.  This is why sex and marriage cannot be looked to as saviour or satisfier.  There are things that point to this even in Genesis 3 but we also see further evidence throughout Scripture whether in the accounts of barrenness or in examples of distorted, corrupted and abusive relationships which are also censured under God’s Law. 

Fourthly, the perspective of eternity reminds us that marriage and sex are finite and limited.  They are for this life now.  Jesus said that we would not be married in heaven but be like the angels.  This should prevent us from idolising relationships now but help us to appreciate them as a gift for now. It should also help us to have a healthy attitude towards singleness and to widowhood too.  

We’ve painted in broad brush strokes in this article to help set the framework and provide the tools for thinking and talking about sex and marriage in a way that is Biblical, pastoral and healthy. To deepen and flesh out the conversation, we would want to go into more detail looking at specific Biblical teaching.  However, that would make for a much longer article.  I hope that this offers a helpful starting point.

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