Marriage, Sex and Covenant
We have seen previously (here, here and here) that the biblical understanding of marriage boils down to two elements: sex and covenant.
The terms of the covenant include a sexual commitment — no one to whom I am not married is allowed the same ‘privileges’, and sexual transgression is taken so seriously. The seventh commandment explicitly forbids adultery, which is a violation of this covenant.
But both elements — sex and covenant — are central to marriage. Without a covenant, we have fornication or prostitution. And without sex it might be said we have ‘just good friends’.
But what do we mean by sex, and why does it matter?
The Nature of Sex
In the context of current debates, when people hear the word ‘sex’ they often think of what human beings get up to ‘between the sheets’. But as any biologist will tell you, sex is something much more basic and much more widespread.
Indeed, sex is found throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Birds do it, bees do it, and not just ‘educated flees’ but trees, grasses, fungi and even some bacteria. What all these organisms have in common, however, (contra Cole Porter’s popular song) is not ‘falling in love’, but the fusion of two gametes to form a zygote.
In organisms which reproduce sexually, the chromosomes — those structures made of DNA which contain the information necessary for cellular life and which also give the organism its individual characteristics — exist in joined pairs.
For sexual reproduction to occur, these chromosome pairs separate and form into cells known as gametes (or gametophytes in plants). These ‘haploid’ cells have a single chromosome where a normal cell has a pair.
A gamete from one ‘parent’ organism then fuses with one from another parent to form a zygote — a cell with the normal chromosome pairs but with a mixture of the two parents.
The result: he’s got his father’s mouth, but his mother’s nose — and so on. Sexual reproduction is thus a brilliant way to shuffle the genetic deck dealt to new organisms, so as to produce constant variation.
The Biblical Beginnings of Sex
This means that when we turn to Scripture the first place sex is actually mentioned is Genesis 1:11:
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. (NIV)
Of course, the writer of Genesis may not have known the details of plant reproduction — but then it may well be that neither did you until now, so it doesn’t really matter too much. It’s a bit like us knowing that the ‘stars’ of Genesis 1:16 include galaxies. The important thing is that ‘the Lord God made them all’.
But in the case of the sea creatures and birds of 1:21-22, their reproductive habits would have been more obvious, even to people who lacked the technology we have today. And the key thing here is God’s word of blessing:
22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”
Incidentally, the Hebrew word ‘be fruitful’ (p’ru) is related to the word ‘fruit’ (p’ri) in v 11. The reproductive life of plants was thus seen as at least comparable to that of animals. How much more than that they understood you’d have to check with an expert in ancient agronomy, which I am not!
The important point is that, just as we know sex to be a shared activity of plants and animals, so the text of Genesis presents their ‘fruitfulness’ as a similarly shared attribute. And it is also an attribute shared by human beings, for in Genesis 1:28, after the creation of the human race is first introduced, we read,
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Notice two things: First, God blessed the human race in exactly the same terms as he had previously blessed the fish and the birds: “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill ...”
Secondly, the blessing given to the human race apparently has to do duty for the livestock as well! Unlike with the fish and birds, the land animals of 1:24-25 do not get their own blessing.
And in both these ways we get a hint that human beings and animals are not that widely separated when it comes to the ‘facts of life’. Cole Porter was onto something after all. What we do is, in this sense, exactly what the birds, bees and educated fleas do.
The Biological Anomaly of Same-Sex ‘Sex’
When we start from biology, however, there is clearly something anomalous about same-sex ‘sex’.
Whilst opposite-sex sexual activity does not always result in successful reproduction, same-sex activity can never result in reproduction. But more than that, it is biologically a contradiction in terms. There is no ‘sexual’ activity where the same sexes are concerned.
Our generation has coined the term ‘sexual orientation’ to address what a previous generation called ‘homosexuality’. But it would be more accurate to talk about sexual disorientation.
Of course, this itself is a ‘natural phenomenon’, insofar as it occurs in nature. But wherever it occurs, it is still a disorientation of the sexual instinct, insofar as it is directed to the wrong object.
The ancient Greeks had a term for this, which occurs in the Bible itself. In Romans 1:26, the Apostle Paul writes,
... their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.
The phrase Paul uses for ‘unnatural’ here is para phusin (cf tēn phusikēn chrēsin,‘natural’ usage or sexual relations).
This para phusin is the opposite of kata phusin. Romans 11:24 refers to “an olive tree that is wild by nature [kata phusin]” and its branches that were, “contrary to nature [para phusin]”, grafted into a cultivated olive tree.
Much earlier, however, around 400 bc, the philosopher Plato used both these terms with a specifically sexual reference:
... one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature [kata phusin], but contrary to nature [para phusin] when male mates with male or female with female ... (Plato, Leg. 636c)
The Apostle therefore seems to be using a common term, para phusin, to refer to same-sex relationships as ‘unnatural’.
The argument is sometimes heard today, however, that since homosexuality is the ‘nature’ of the homosexual, same-sex intercourse is therefore ‘natural’. The difficulty is that, by nature, sexuality as such is obviously ‘hetero’ sexual.
Sex and Infertility
But what of infertility? If the ‘nature’ of sex is fundamentally connected to reproduction, aren’t infertile couples disqualified from marriage?
As it happens, infertility appears remarkably often in Scripture, from the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament to that of Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New. God almost specializes in such couples!
But in all these situations, infertility is seen as a challenge, not as an ‘alternative lifestyle’. And when it occurs involuntarily, infertility is almost invariably a negative result of infirmity, illness or ageing — which are theologically effects of the Fall.
At best, the appeal to infertility as a justification for same-sex marriage means acknowledging that same-sex attraction parallels with other instances of dysfunctional sexuality.
Furthermore, even where there is infertility, the sexual drive in heterosexual couples is still rooted in the natural drive to sexual reproduction and the use sexual organs themselves still corresponds to this drive.
In fact the recent legislation to introduce same-sex marriage in England and Wales has been forced to recognize just this fact by omitting definitions of ‘consummation’ and ‘adultery’ for same-sex couples.
And if the law acknowledges that same-sex sexual activity is intrinsically different from heterosexual activity, it is reasonable enough to make the same observation in our discussions elsewhere.
Homosexuality and Morality
It should be recognized that the fundamental point of contention is not whether heterosexuality corresponds to ‘nature’ in a way that homosexuality does not (clearly it does) but whether this matters morally.
In his 1999 book Queens’ Country (London: Abacus), gay author and activist Paul Burston makes a telling, if somewhat scathing, observation:
Marriage has become one of the key debating points for gay rights campaigners in the 1990s. In his virtually unreadable book, Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan claims that opening up the institution of marriage to lesbian and gay couples would strike right to the heart of homophobia. For Sullivan, lesbian and gay marriage is not only a question of legal protection but also a way of sending a message to the world that lesbians and gay men are just the same as everyone else. (152)
In other words, for Sullivan and others gay marriage is fundamentally about the ‘normalization’ of same-sex sexuality — a way of establishing that homosexuality is really no different from heterosexuality. Yet Burston himself argues this is not the case. In response to the suggestion that “lesbians and gay men are just the same as everyone else”, he writes bluntly, “The only problem is, we aren’t.” He comments,
Sullivans’ argument is based on the naïve assimilationist assumption that the only thing distinguishing us from heterosexuals is what we do in bed, and that our sexual orientation has no bearing on how we function as social or political beings. (152)
For Burston, homosexuality is a matter of a total identity different from that of heterosexuality. What this particular exchange reveals, of course, is that even amongst those who have no moral problem with homosexuality, opinion is divided over the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
What all are agreed, however, is that it differs at least regarding sexual behaviour. Opening up the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, therefore, would necessarily entail changing the way we think about marriage, insofar as sex and marriage properly go together.
From an institution bringing together people of the opposite sex, central to which would be procreative sex (though without a guarantee, or therefore a requirement, of success), it will become a relationship in which procreative sex is no longer fundamental and which can be between people of the same sex.
That is a fundamental change, whose effects are bound to be far reaching on our understanding of ourselves as male and female.
The Gender Agenda
Any discussion of male and female-ness, however, soon has to consider the issue of gender, which is much broader than sexuality.
At some stage in our lives, all being well, we develop what are known as secondary sexual characteristics. Men’s voices deepen, they begin to develop bigger muscles and body hair, women grow breasts, start having periods and so on.
But from the very moment of conception (except in the case of certain recognized medical ‘syndromes’) we are either a boy or a girl. From the cradle to the grave, every cell of our body carries the genetic information that makes us male or female (in the case of girls, two X chromosomes, in the case of boys, an X and a Y).
The difference this makes to us as persons, however, is a matter of fierce debate, witness the fact that the discipline of ‘gender studies’ has spawned an entire industry, to say nothing of a multitude of university departments.
Within this debate, perhaps the most fiercely held position is that gender differences are largely down to social conditioning. According to this view, if boys and girls grow up different it is because they are taught to be different.
In essence, so the argument goes, male and female are not just of equal value as persons, they are in all important respects equivalent.
Over against this, we find the kind of thinking behind the popular book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (and its many offshoots). And indeed there is considerable evidence that there are substantial and measurable differences between men and women. Large sample testing seems to show that abilities and preferences do, to some extent, correlate significantly with gender and even with sexual preference.
Yet the relationship between cause and effect continues to be debated. And in any case, was with same-sex attraction, the measurement of a difference does not dictate what we should do about it. On average, men are taller than women, but this does not make them ‘better’, even though most of us look up to tall people.
Genesis and Gender
For Christians, any such discussion comes back to theology. Once again, we turn back to the first pages of the Bible, though even here we find the data and the conclusions drawn from it, hotly contested.
Some fervently want to argue that ‘male dominance’ is the outcome of the Fall and that prior to this there was complete ‘egalitarianism’ verging on equivalency.
Others, as has Jerome Gellman of the Ben Gurion University in a deliberately provocative article, argue that no such equality is to be found anywhere in the text:
... the attempt to read Genesis 2-3 as woman friendly, and to neutralize the theme of male sexual domination, does not and cannot succeed. We are doomed to understand this story as androcentric in nature. (‘Gender and Sexuality in the Garden of Eden’, Theology and Sexuality 12, no.3  335)
It is possible, however, to adopt a position which has features of both equality and difference — one which might be described as non-reversible asymmetry. Identical twins would be both symmetrical and reversible. You could swap one for the other and it would make no difference. Adam and Eve, however, are ‘asymmetrical’ insofar as he is a man and she is a woman, and their relationship one to the other is not ‘reversible’.
Thus, for example, Adam is older than Eve and has experienced things she has not. Presumably, therefore, he would have shown her round the Garden, rather than the reverse, and he would also have informed her of God’s mandate and command.
Similarly, Adam named the animals on his own authority, whereas Eve would have used the names he had given. More fundamentally, he is the source of her life, not the other way round, as the Apostle Paul recognizes when he writes that in the beginning,
8 ... man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Cor 11:8-9, NIV)
Eve is made as Adam’s helper (Gen 2:18). Yet even this does not tell us a great deal about ‘gender roles’. Indeed, the word for helper (ezer) is elsewhere principally used of an ally in times of war or of God himself (“My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth”, Psa 121:2.)
Like Euodia and Syntyche with the Apostle Paul (Phil 4:2), it seems that Eve was to be a fellow-worker with Adam rather than his servant. Indeed, there is remarkably little evidence in the Bible for what might be called ‘gender stereotypes’. The girl of the Song of Songs, however, is no shrinking violet and the wife of Proverbs 31 is no stay-at-home ‘little woman’.
Gender and Society
Where gender difference matters in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament, is not so much in determining social roles but in the relationship between the sexes. And here, the controlling principles outside the context of marriage are modesty and respect.
The governing pattern for relationships between the sexes is the family. Thus Timothy is instructed:
1 Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity. (1 Tim 5:1-2)
Timothy is to respect gender differences, but not to be constrained by them: “Treat older men like your dad, older women like your mum and the rest like your brothers and sisters,” is the essence of Paul’s advice.
Compare that with the strict segregation found in other religious communities and we understand better the liberty and liberation brought by the gospel.
Gender and Marriage
The other place where gender matters is within marriage, and here is also the only place where sex matters as a determinant of roles, because it is the only place where sex should take place.
In marriage, the governing model is that of Christ and the church, as put forward in Ephesians 5:
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... (Eph 5:21-25)
Notice, although the Greek text of 5:22 does not contain the word ‘submit’, the NIV text is right, in common with other English versions, to infer the verb from v 21.
Secondly, although the Greek of v 22 does contain the phrase ‘your own’, there is no need to translate it (“submit to your own husbands”). In Greek (as in Hebrew) there is no specialist word for ‘husband’ as distinct from ‘man’. Thus the phrase tois idiois andrasin means not “your own (as distinct from other people’s) husbands” but “your husbands” as distinct from “men generally”.
Following from this, however, we need to be careful to distinguish where Paul is clearly talk about male-female differences and where his focus may be, more specifically, on husband-wife relationships.
Arguably, for example, 1 Timothy 2:12 has as its reference point wives and husbands, particularly in the light of Paul’s argument from Genesis (vv 13-14) and his reference to childbearing (v 15).
Furthermore, contrary to what is often assumed, Paul does not say in Ephesians 5 that the husband is the ‘head of the household’. His ‘headship’ applies to his wife, and she, correspondingly, is his body.
When it comes to the household, however, the husband and wife are ‘joint rulers’. Thus in 1 Timothy 3 (following close on his comments about the role of women), Paul writes that an overseer (‘bishop’),
4 ... must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
But then a little later on he encourages younger widows (who might otherwise have been looking to depend on the congregation for support),
14 So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes ... (1 Tim 5:14)
The last phrase here is oikodespotein — which we might over-literally translate as ‘to be the house despot’.
Again, when Paul is addressing children, he stays within the biblical tradition of instructing them to respect both parents (Eph 6:1-3, cf Prov 1:8).
When it comes to gender roles in the household, therefore, we are once again at liberty to choose who does what. The one proviso is that, on the basis of the fact that marriage is a reflection and model of the Christ-Church relationship, the husband is the head of his wife, and she, as his ‘body’, respects and submits to his ‘headship’.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: