The New Testament on Sex, marriage and intimacy

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

In recent weeks, I’ve been engaging with Josh Butler’s book “Beautiful Union” which seems to try and set out a kind of theology of sex.  I’ve argued that whilst Butler’s aims might be lofty and whilst some of the criticism of him may be unfair, that he ends up falling seriously short and in a potentially harmful way.  One of the reasons why I think he falls short is that he anatomises sex from marriage and that he actually fails to build a Biblical theology of it anyway.

I thought it might be helpful if we are going to be constructive and seek to build something positive, rather than just tear down to see if we could construct a helpful Biblical Theology of marriage and sex.  This is the third part of that attempt.  We first looked at an overview of broad stroke Biblical Theology, discovering what the main themes of the narrative have to say about marriage, then we looked at what the Old Testament has to say about sex and marriage. We now come to the New Testament.

The Gospels

Encounters with Jesus

Jesus’ first “sign miracle” in John’s Gospel takes place at a wedding where Jesus, his family and his disciples are guests.  Jesus turns water into wine, not just providing sufficient drink to quench thirst but good quality wine in abundance, emphasising that this is a time for joyful, extravagant celebration.  This points us away from a merely functional view of sex and marriage and towards the kind of intimate pleasure we see in Song of Songs (John 2).

John also tells us about Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman by a well (John 4). When Jesus asks her for water, she is surprised.  He then offers her living water that will completely quench her thirst and satisfy her desires.  It transpires in the conversation that she has been married five times and is living with someone who is not her husband.  We need to be cautious about speculation now because we do not know the reason as to why she has ended up married five times.  It could be that she is the victim of divorce and re-marriage, passed along the line or that husbands have died and that there have been levirate marriages.  It is fair to say though that marriage and sex have proved in her case to be like water from the well that runs out.  I think it is appropriate then to point to the Gospel and life in the Spirit as offering a better hope and true satisfaction that our human relationships cannot.  We should not go into marriage dependent upon the marriage and on our partner to satisfy. 

It is also crucial too to see that there are reasons culturally and with regards to the Law as to why Jesus might have been expected to engage with her. The very conversation itself is a demonstration of grace and compassion that deals with shame.  Similarly Jesus is ready to face down the judgemental view of others when a woman considered sinful and immoral approaches him, weeps over him and anoints him with oil.

Jesus’ teaching

We might want to highlight some examples of Jesus’ teaching touching on sex, marriage and relationships.  First, when Jesus is asked about divorce, he goes back to creation principles. Marriage is about God joining a husband and wife together and so it is not for men to break that covenant relationship up.  Jesus provides for the exception of where there has been sexual immorality (Matthew 19:1-8). 

Jesus’ teaching is seen by the disciples as setting a high standard, a difficult burden to bear. They suggest it might be better not to marry at all.  It seems that Jesus is setting a tougher standard than the OT Law.  How is he able to do this whilst also offering a lighter burden? The answer here is found in his sermon on the Mount where Jesus also engages with sexual ethics insisting that the one who lusts in their heart has committed adultery. Jesus’ law is more demanding because it expects real heart change not just external observation (Matthew 5:27-30). 

Jesus’ response to the suggestion that it might be better for the disciples not to marry seems to be, with Paul, to recognise that there is a strong argument for not marrying, however, he seems to view this as harder still and therefore not something for everyone.  However, he observes that there are those who are in effect eunuchs, for whom sexual celibacy is the reality and this can be for several reasons including birth/genetics, the impact of what others have done to them and specific calling (Matt 19:11-12). 

This helps us to begin to see something that emerges in the New Testament but is not specifically there in the Old Testament.  There is a place within God’s people for those who are single and celibate.  It is also worth noting that there are different reasons for this that may include Gospel calling but may not. As well as considering the natural character and temperament of people when it comes to relationships and singleness, we also need to treat seriously the impact of abuse.

Finally, when Jesus is asked a trick question relating to Levirate marriage “whose husband will she be?” He insists that marriage is not for life in the New Creation, it is for here and now. Again, this helps us to set marriage and sex in perspective. They are important but they are not everything (Matt 22:23-33). 

Parables and Eschatology

Some of Jesus’ parables focus on wedding feasts, for example there is the story of the foolish, ill prepared bridesmaids.  The theme of Christ’s return and the New Creation being like a wedding picks up on the OT imagery of God and his bride, Israel and intensifies it. Here, again in the Gospels, we see that marriage is intended to reflect and to point towards the Gospel and Christ’s relationship to his church (Matthew 25:1-13).

Spiritual parents

It’s worth highlighting the example of Priscilla and Aquilla in Acts.  If marriage is about parenting and nurturing to fulfil the creation mandate, then here we see how it can also play a role in discipleship and nurturing as part of the Great Commission (Acts 18:18-28).

The Epistles

Paul in Ephesians 5:21-32 teaches about husbands and wives.  This is the primary text for a complementarian view of marriage.  Men and women are to submit to one another in the church.  In marriage this happens as a wife submits to her husband as “the head.”  He is to sacrificially love her, in the same way that Christ loved and gave his life for the church. 

It’s worth noting a couple of things. First, that there is genuine mutuality and equality in marriage as well as distinction. This does not take away from the role of husbands as “head”. The word “head, in the context of Ephesians does suggest authority, though I want to suggest that this is not about gender hierarchy but rather that a husband has the authority to fulfil his responsibilities which are around provision and protection. We might also sum up what it means for wives to submit as “husband love your wife”, “wife, let him.”

Paul says that his teaching on marriage is first and foremost about the mystery of Christ and the Church. Once again we are reminded that marriage is meant to point beyond ourselves and through it we are meant to see something of the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 7 has much to say on marriage, singleness and divorce.  I’ve unpacked its  teaching in a series of articles.  As with Jesus’ teaching, we see that Paul values and honours marriage but protects us from idolising it.  Marriage is important but not absolute. Again, we see how single people have a place and value within God’s kingdom. 

I want to pick up particularly on what Paul says about sex and abstinence. There, he emphasises mutuality and consent. Sex is about our concern for one another and our priority should not be to have our own needs met but to meet the needs and desires of our spouse.  The focus here also reminds us that whilst sex is to do with procreation, it is not just about procreation but also to do with pleasure and intimacy.

As well as being pictured as the bride of Christ, the church is also portrayed as a kind of extended, spiritual household.  Elders then are like fathers and we can also see women taking significant roles so that churches have both fathers and mothers.  For this reason, when determining whether someone is fit for leadership, Paul insists that churches should look at the person’s home life and the state of their marriage. An elder must be faithful, a one-woman-man (1 Timothy 3.

Revelation

Right at the end of the Bible, we see the church portrayed as a woman, as a bride.  The Church as New Jerusalem has a rival in the prostitute Babylon, just as lady wisdom faces off against lady folly.  Christ, the lamb, is the bridegroom and we look forward to a day when everything will be ready for the wedding feast.

Conclusion

The New Testament builds on the Old Testament in painting a picture of marriage that is shaped both by its imaging of God’s relationship to his people and specific commands and instructions.  Marriage is therefore meant to be a place of intimacy, but it also has a place in God’s mission.

Marriage is important but within boundaries.  It is for this life and so we are not to idolise it.  This means that we value single people including widows within the life of the church.  Marriage points us to Christ and the Church and is a reminder of resurrection hope.

%d bloggers like this: