Wineskins Archive

February 10, 2014

Sex: Motive and Means to Community (Jan-Feb 2003)

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by Rubel Shelly
January – February, 2003

Human beings are sexual beings. By creative design, we are meant to be so. To deny our sexuality is to deny the obvious. And a failure to develop a theology of human personhood that affirms our sexual nature has been a serious failure in Christian theology. That failure, in turn, has left Christians with the undesirable options of either embracing a worldly point of view or being reactionary in most of our teaching.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen.1:26-28a, NRSV).

The critical thing about this text is not sex but personhood. All human beings are created to bear the image of God. That we are both male and female in our humanity is not an evolutionary accident but a divine choice. It is obvious from this first biblical text about the matter that human sexuality allows God’s image-bearers to participate with him in the act of creation. From texts that follow in Scripture, it is equally plain that sex serves purposes other than the generation of new life. It is a means for drawing humans into community with one another as families, friends, and covenantal partners.

At the beginning of the human experience in Eden, God was concerned to provide Adam a “helper” —not for work but for companionship, not for sexual gratification but for deliverance from social isolation (cf. Deut. 33:7 and Psa. 33:20 where forms of this word refer to divine deliverance). Adam had animals for amusement and work, but he was “alone” in some significant way. “I will make him a helper as his partner,” said the Lord God (Gen. 2:18b). When Eve had been created, she was brought to the man and received by him as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The story ends with these words: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25).

As two embodied persons, Adam and Eve were to become “one flesh.” This language is not to be heard as euphemistic sensitivity but as a remarkable comment on the depth of commitment between two embodied persons. The union of a man and woman in marital sex is so complete that they can be thought of as having not two but only one body. There is certainly nothing negative toward human sexual expression in these opening lines of Scripture. The nakedness (i.e., vulnerability) of the man and woman to each other in their sexual natures was hardly a source of shame. It was joyous and celebratory—as that of the lover and his beloved in Song of Solomon.

Philosopher Alan Goldman has argued for what he calls “plain sex”—sex separated from any goal such as reproduction, interpersonal awareness, or the communication of commitment. In his view, sexual drives are nothing more than “the desire for the pleasure that physical contact brings.” They have “no moral implications whatever.” And people should feel no hesitation about consenting sex that is “essentially self-regarding” (i.e., selfish) in nature.

While many of our contemporaries, such as Goldman, reject the doctrine of divine creation, assert that humans are simply a part of nature, and claim that our sexual urges are merely elements of our animal nature, Christians must affirm the non-animal, non-selfish nature of authentic human sexuality. Sex is not merely a union of physical parts but the most intimate form of human bonding possible for us. Just as God shares his intimate fellowship with his human creatures in covenantal commitment, his human creatures reflect his image in the intimacy of covenantal sexual expression.

While marriage is the fullest and deepest form of human community in the Hebrew Bible, this is not to say that single, divorced, or widowed persons are somehow inferior. It is not to claim that they are “incomplete” as to their personal worth outside marriage. The sexual dimension of every human life points to the need for connectedness with the human race and its Creator. There are ways of receiving others and giving of oneself that—while involving and acknowledging our sexual natures—are not outside the rules against fornication and adultery. Family, friendship, and a sense of belonging within a spiritual community are all important. In the New Testament, the community of the kingdom of God is elevated to a status above even that of marriage and family (cf. Mark 10:29-30).

Stanley Grenz has written:

Our sexually based sense of incompleteness also forms the dynamic lying behind the search for truth, a search which ultimately becomes the search for God. We long to have our incompleteness fulfilled, and this longing gives rise to the religious dimension of life. The message of the Bible, beginning already in the book of Genesis, claims that in the final analysis the source of this incompleteness is found in the community that focuses on fellowship with the Creator. [“The Purpose of Sex: Toward a Theological Understanding of Human Sexuality,” Crux 26, 2 (June 1990): 29-34.]

In such a theological framework, human sexuality is not only acknowledged but affirmed and honored. It is holy. It honors the divine image we bear. And it is seen to be both motive and means to the oneness that is exhibited perfectly only in God’s own being.New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly

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