The Bible and Sexuality

The Scots Confession of 1560 affirmed the following rule concerning the Bible: "We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love." In considering a Christian position on sexuality, it may be helpful to keep these principles in mind.


The principles of Reformed Christian faith are expressed in confessions, but none of these explicitly address the issue of human sexuality. Chapter 29 of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, which is entitled "Of Celibacy, Marriage and the Management of Domestic Affairs," refers to the "gift of celibacy" for single people and cites 1 Corinthians 7:7ff for authority. In this passage from Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth the apostle to the Gentiles says, "it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (1 Cor. 9) Paul expresses a clear preference for celibacy, because a single person is free to serve the church without any concern for family responsibilities.


In support of marriage the Second Helvetic Confession cites Matthew 19:4ff, which contains a report of Jesus' response to a question from Pharisees about the legitimacy of divorce. Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27 that God made human beings "male and female," and from Genesis 2:24 that for this reason "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." Then the gospel of Matthew records that Jesus adds his own teaching: "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mt. 19:6) When the Pharisees reply that the law of Moses (Dt. 24:1-4) permits a man to divorce his wife, Jesus answers: "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery." (Mt. 19:8-9) Verse 9 also appears in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus adds, "whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Mt. 5:32)


The plain meaning of these passages in the gospel of Matthew is that marriage is God's intention and that divorce is only permitted when a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. The Second Helvetic Confession does not attempt to reconcile this teaching with the passage in Mark 10:2-12, where the gospel of Mark reports a similar conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees but quotes Jesus as prohibiting divorce absolutely without any exceptions. As the author of the gospel of Matthew is most likely using the gospel of Mark to write his own narrative, it appears that he has added an exception to Jesus' prohibition of divorce in the gospel of Mark. 


A literal reading of these two gospel texts does not resolve the difference between them, and it is difficult to see how Christians who claim the Bible is the literal or inerrant word of God can decide whether the statement by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (Mt. 5:32 and also Mt. 19:8-9) is God's word or whether the statement in the gospel of Mark by Jesus (Mk. 10:2-12) is God's word. 


However, if the gospels are understood as compositions by Christian leaders for their particular churches, then the differences between the gospels of Mathew and Mark may be readily explained. 


The author of the gospel of Mark is writing primarily for Gentile Christians, who do not recognize the authority of the law of Moses in the Hebrew scriptures. In this gospel account Jesus differs with the Pharisees, who argue that the law of Moses permits divorce, and then gives his own ruling based on the intention of God as expressed in Genesis (which precedes the law of Moses). The author of the gospel of Matthew is writing primarily for Jewish Christians, who continue to observe at least the moral tenets of the law of Moses. This Jewish Christian community probably interprets Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to permit a man to divorce his wife, if she is unchaste, and so the author of the gospel of Matthew adds this exception to Jesus' teaching on divorce in the gospel of Mark.


The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 also refers to Hebrews 13:4 and 1 Corinthians 7:28 in affirming support for Christian marriage. The passage from Hebrews says: "Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers." Fornication is the English word used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words in the Old and New Testaments respectively for illicit sexual activity. Fornication thus includes adultery but usually refers to acts of prostitution (harlotry), bestiality, incest, or rape. For instance, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says: "Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." In this statement fornicators covers illicit sexual activity not covered by the words adulterers, male prostitutes, and sodomites. 


The Second Helvetic Confession prohibits incest as well as polygamy in marriage, and it urges "the utmost faithfulness, piety, love and purity of those joined together." The Confession also instructs married couples to "guard against quarrels, dissensions, lust and adultery." Finally, it recommends the teachings in the letters of Titus and Timothy concerning family life. In his letter to Titus, Paul advises that older women should "teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the world of God may not be discredited." (Titus 2:3-5) Paul also tells Titus to "urge the younger men to be self-controlled" and encourages Titus to set a good example for them. (Titus 2:6-8)


In his letters to Timothy, Paul says that bishops and deacons in the church are to be married only once (1 Tim. 3:2,12), and he teaches that those who do not provide for relatives have denied their faith in Christ. (1 Tim. 5:8) More generally, Paul warns that the last days will be marked by distress. "For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power." (2 Tim. 3:2-5)


In sum, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 follows Paul in showing great respect for celibacy, but presents marriage in a more favorable light than Paul does. The Confession holds that marriage is the God-given context for sexual relations between a man and a woman, and it encourages married couples to guard against lust and to love each other and the children they bear and raise. The Second Helvetic Confession condemns polygamy, incest and adultery, and permits divorce when a marriage is defiled by adultery.  


The Westminster Confession of 1646 does not refer explicitly to any passages from the Bible in formulating guidelines for Christian marriage. It prohibits incest and specifies that marriage is between one man and one woman. It explains that marriage "was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness." The Westminster Confession says it is "the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord," and it holds that those who "profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters."


The Westminster Confession specifies that: "adultery or fornication, committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead." Only adultery, however, or "willful desertion" is grounds for divorce by a Christian, and the breaking of a marriage must not be left to "the wills and discretion" of the couple but must be adjudicated by a magistrate or a church official.


The condemnation of marriage to a Catholic in the Westminster Confession of 1646 is clearly not scriptural, as it reflects arguments between Protestants and Catholics rather than the teachings of the first century church. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul counsels a Christian who is married to an unbelieving spouse not to divorce, unless the unbelieving spouse "separates." Obviously, in Corinth a husband or a wife has been converted, but the spouse has remained a pagan. Paul does not consider the issue of Christians wanting to marry non-Christians, and he could not have anticipated the problem of a Protestant wanting to marry a Roman Catholic. 


Paul's concerns in the middle of the first century, when contrasted with statements about marriage in the Westminster Confession of 1646, reveal that writing about God's will is shaped not only by scripture but by social, cultural and historical circumstances.  Paul addresses an issue concerning Christian-pagan marriage that is not dealt with in his "scripture," the Septuagint, and that is also not addressed later in the gospels written to present the teachings of Jesus. And the Westminster Confession reveals its bias against Catholic faith in its prohibition of Protestant-Catholic marriage. Today we are able to distinguish both of these historical statements concerning Christian ethics from the word of God.


More than three centuries after the Westminster Confession was written in Europe, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States approved the Confession of 1967. This contemporary restatement of Reformed faith includes the following paragraph on marriage:


"The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God's ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man's alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself. Man's perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation. The church, as the household of God, is called to lead men out of this alienation into the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ. Reconciled to God, each person has joy in and respect for his own humanity and that of other persons; a man and woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; parents receive the grace to care for children in love and to nurture their individuality. The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.”


The use of "man" and "mankind" to refer to men and women and to humanity dates this statement, but the substance of the paragraph nonetheless speaks to current concerns. The Confession of 1967 places issues concerning sexuality within the framework of the church's commitment to "the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ." It notes the confusion of the 1960s due to changes in social, political and economic circumstances, but the Confession of 1967 also acknowledges that sex has always been a source of alienation from God. Moreover, it affirms the role of the church in helping men and women find "the full meaning of life together" in love, sex, marriage and family.


In this context we need to recall the affirmation in the Scots Confession that warns against any interpretation of scripture that is contrary to the principles of Christian faith, the plain sense of the Christian Bible, and the rule of love. The Confession of 1967 is implicitly critical of the condemnation of Protestant-Catholic marriage in the Westminster Confession of 1646, because the 20th century confession leaves open the possibility that such a marriage may be grounded in Christian faith and love.


Similarly, the Confession of 1967 does not reiterate the teaching of the church concerning divorce, which begins in the first century and is reaffirmed by the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. The 20th century Confession reads scripture as affirming the equality of men and women, and rejects the idea that women are the property of their fathers before marriage and their husbands after marriage. In addition, the Confession of 1967 does not proscribe divorce but instead counsels fidelity, forgiveness and respect for those who choose to divorce.


Unlike the Westminster Confession of 1646, which specifies the contractual right of a partner if there is adultery, the focus of the statement on marriage in the Confession of 1967 is with the church's responsibility to assist men and women in overcoming the alienation from God and others that is prevalent in contemporary culture. As Jesus confronted the legalistic questioning of the Pharisees by urging them to consider that God created human beings male and female, so that they might join together as one flesh (Mt. 19:5), the Confession of 1967 does not lay down rules for judging sexual conduct but directs the church to help its members make decisions about sex and marriage that will unfold for them "the full meaning of life together."


Within this biblical and confessional framework how might Christians in the Reformed tradition make decisions about sex outside of marriage? 


Clearly, the Christian Bible and the Reformed tradition assert that sex outside of marriage is contrary to the will of God and undermines the witness of the church. Yet, the authors of scripture and the historic confessions did not contemplate several circumstances of modern living that have affected views about sexuality. These include: the availability of safe and effective means of preventing pregnancy, the number of young adults who are not economically in a position to marry until their mid twenties or later, the assertion of women's rights, the widely held view that sexuality is a natural form of human expression and enjoyment, and tax disadvantages for single or widowed senior citizens who marry. 


The Christian gospel is not a new set of laws, but a call to faithful living. The New Testament emphasizes the freedom of Christians rather than the laws of God. Christian scripture and the teachings of the Reformed churches support the choices of celibacy and marriage in the church, as ways of serving God. Adultery and sexual promiscuity are clearly rejected both by Christian scripture and the teaching of the church, as a misuse of human passion that separates men and women from God and from one another.


These affirmations and proscriptions are required by the plain sense of the Bible, the principal points of Christian faith, and the rule of love. However, other issues concerning sexuality are best left to individual Christians to decide, as a matter of conscience.


Clearly, the church should encourage its members to marry, should counsel those who choose to do so, and should consecrate marriage vows as an affirmation of Christian faith. But the church is not called to condemn those who engage in premarital sex, or those who live in a committed relationship without marrying, or those who marry without intending to have children, or those who use birth control in order to enjoy sexual intercourse without conceiving a child. Christians may advise against all of these choices or some of them. However, the church is not called to condemn sexual conduct that it believes will alienate men and women from God and each other. Instead, through its faith and ministry, the church is called to guide Christians in making decisions about sexuality that will help them realize "the full meaning of life together."

 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016