Saturday, 30 May 2009

The God sex guide

What is the Christian understanding of human sexuality, and how does this affect the ‘debate’ over same-sex relationships? I offer the following as a brief summary of what I think the Bible shows us. This was meant especially for Sunniva, but others may find it of benefit.
Early in the Bible we read that God made man “in his image”. Ancient Near Eastern culture would have understood this instantly to mean that man is the earthly representation of God and the physical ‘embodiment’ of his presence. The same passage, however, adds that man (adam) is “male and female”, but it doesn’t explain how this works.
Genesis 2 then describes in detail the interrelationship between the first ‘male and female’ culminating in two observations —first, that this is a pattern for all such relationships (“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, etc”, 2:24), and secondly, that this is an ‘unspoilt’ relationship (“The man and his wife were both naked, etc”, 2:25).
The events of Genesis 3 (the Fall) strike at the heart of this inter-human relationship (esp 3:16b), as well as at the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship with the rest of creation.
From here on, things go down hill, so that by Genesis 4 we have polygamy, tinged with violence, bullying and aggression. By the end of Genesis, we can add to that incest with one’s own children (Lot’s family), social rape (Sodom and Gomorrah) and prostitution. By Exodus and the giving of the Law we can add to the list of observable behaviours bestiality, homosexuality, the sexualization of worship and so on. Polygamy and concubinage are commonplace.
In short, human behaviour has moved from an original ‘binary’ model (male and female, made for each other), connected with the image of God, to a ‘polysexual’ pattern of diversity. We might diagram this as follows:
Image (male and female) < diversity and perversity
The Law provides some prohibitions and some accommodations. Thus various forms of sexual activity are prohibited and worship is never sexualized, but divorce is only slightly moderated and polygamy is still tolerated. In simple (simplistic?) terms:
The Law ≠ all perversity outside the Genesis paradigm
The Law = some diversity outside the Genesis paradigm
The impact of this, however, is a biblical trajectory which returns towards the original model. It is not absolute, nor is it complete, but it is there. During the Old Testament era, we also have a developing theme of God as the Bridegroom of Israel (Hosea, bits of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), whereas unfaithfulness to God is pictured as ‘whoredom’.
By the time we reach the New Testament era, Jewish society is monogamous, with some debate about the grounds on which divorce can take place. Moreover, it is separated from the surrounding Gentile world by its strict standards of sexual morality generally. The ‘accommodation’ of the Law, however, is still very real.
The arrival of Jesus brings the trajectory to its culmination and yet also challenges the framework of the Law. Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom, and the same description of him is used by John the Baptist, thus placing himself in the same relationship with Israel as was God. At the same time, though, he confronts head-on the limited scope of the Law, insisting that Genesis 1-2 provides the model for understanding sexuality. Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, the Law is presented as being limited to human capacity: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard, but it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8).
The culmination of this is a new understanding of Christ in relation to the people of God, based in the Genesis account, which sets human sexuality back within this framework.
In Ephesians we see the theological implications spelled out for us. Specifically, Genesis 2:24 is applied to Christ and the Church, hence “husband is to wife” as “Jesus is to Church”. Thus we also understand Genesis 1:27 to mean that the male-female relationship of husband and wife ‘images’ the ‘Creator-Creation’ relationship of God to his redeemed people. This may be presented in diagramatic form thus:
Law-based accommodation gives way to Gospel standard >Christ and the Church = God’s ‘image’ in human sexuality
Putting the whole thing together, then, the biblical picture is thus:
Human Sexuality
OT Image (m/f) { divergence - Law - convergence } NT Image (Xt/Church)
This has profound significance for our understanding of salvation, as the ‘union’ of marriage represents the union of Christ with the believer, through which what is his becomes ours - “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with” (Rom 6:5-6, see also 7:4, 1 Cor 6:16-17). But it also has implications for our present understanding and practice of human sexuality.
John P Richardson
30 May 2009
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I’m not clear how seeing Christ as the bridegroom means that we must symbolically reflect this Christ/Church relationship by monogamous heterosexual relationships. Are the single damned? I read Matthew 19:8 as Jesus objecting to male abuse of power over women. By extension all human relationships should be bound by justice and respect. This would include gays.

    The Biblical trajectory of Judeo-Christian attitudes to human sexuality, and the emergence within Judaism of stricter sexual codes by the time of Christ, is however fascinating. It reveals awareness that sex is a selfish, destructive force if unrestrained - precisely what the modern world denies.

    I have known several pious gay people who would agree with this – who therefore choose celibacy. I have known pious heterosexuals come to the same conclusion.

    I have often been struck by Jesus' anger and sharp exchange with the Pharisee in Matthew 19:8 and his endorsement of 'the Genesis 1-2 standard'. It always strikes me as a powerfully 'feminist' statement, attacking the putting away of women merely on male whim, with devastating consequences for women. Men aren't to play God with women or write the marital rules to suit themselves. This is to de-sacralise and 'commodify' another human being – the antithesis of the Christian message. And I think that’s Jesus’ message – no human being should de-sacralise and commodify another.

    When St Columba began his mission he reported the chaos and social evil pagan 'polysexual patterns' created: polygamy, concubinage (of various shades) slavery, loose sexual morality in general. The result was permanent internecine strife, dissipation of resources, competition, ferocity, lack of compassion, as each person fought every other for their share of entitlement. Half-brother fought half-brother; women were chattels, with little worth above the sexual, viewing every other woman as a love rival, unable to focus on God, or reflect on what the end to this damnable battle of lusts was. Children were raised in insecurity, their development stunted, jealous of their 'entitlement' but unable to establish it. Society sank to the lowest common denominator; the economy was stagnant, dissipated amongst so many competing claims.

    Like Britain today! The main source of child poverty is relationship break-up - only we're not allowed to say so!

    Christian Europe - with its emphasis on marriage as a sacrament - advanced economically once resources ceased to be dissipated in such a profligate way. Material good comes from moral good.

    Where does this leave gender orientation? To say 'male and female created He both' is not to preclude male-male and female-female committed relationships; only that male is not to be preferred to female, for both are found in God.

    Elaine Pagels (Gnostic Gospels) writes of the early Church when ideas now considered 'eastern' were evident in 'western' discourse. Amongst these was the creator as a male force and creation as a female force. I do not know if this paradigm is also part of Hebrew scholarship (as you suggest) - but it is Indo-European and evident in Greek. Hinduism sees the 'intellectual principle' of a deity as 'male'; whilst the energy or force (shakti) by which the principle is manifest is regarded as 'female'. Judeo-Christianity establishes the ‘intellectual principle’ of deity as a God of Righteousness. No other religious system came up with that idea.

    Runciman records that in the early Church the Holy Spirit was regarded as 'female'. The word derives from the feminine Greek continuous present tense of the word 'to be'. The Holy Spirit is thus the (feminine) continuous 'being' of God. This suggests the early Church held a subtler notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than just meaning ‘men’ and ‘women’.

    From your account I understand that in the Judeo-Christian view, the ‘sin’ of sex is its tendency towards selfishness and destructiveness. Further examination of human sexuality surely has to begin with that ‘first principle’?