The Significance of Sex
John Richardson returns to origins and ends
Before we groan, ‘Oh no, not sex again!’, let us remember that each age raises challenges which we cannot decline simply because we are bored with the subject. In the nineteenth century, the Church was confronted by new theories on human origins. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, issues of authority demanded a response. And in our age sex is a dominant issue outside the Church as well as within. Millions are dying globally each year of what is essentially a venereal disease, yet serious suggestions are being aired to lower the ‘age of consent’ to twelve. Equal ‘rights’ are being introduced for cohabiting and same-sex partnerships, without any apparent recognition that the acceptance of polygamy, polyandry or any other ‘lifestyle of choice’ must inevitably follow.
Sex is a key modern issue, and so we must ask what is its significance. Is sex ultimately, as the most libertarian would seem to believe, just a matter of personal preference about various orifices? Or is there something more to it, and if so, what?
In the non-human world, the significance of sex is easily identified, but rests precisely on that aspect which is so often overlooked in deliberations about ourselves, namely procreation. Sex exists to propagate and enhance the various species. By an ingenious and universal cellular process that combines DNA from both parents, sexual reproduction produces a variety not possible through asexual methods. And whether the result is a single offspring or thousands, each species is thereby continued and given a better chance of survival.
All other features of animals or plants related to their sexuality are subordinate to this joint goal of variegation and propagation. The colour of flowers, the tusks of an elephant or the leaping of salmon are all, whilst a delight to us as observers, nevertheless the servants of reproduction rather than expressions of floral taste, elephantine vanity or piscine pride.
There are, however, two reasons why we cannot similarly subsume all aspects of human sexuality under the heading of procreation. The first is observational. We see that human sexuality has a significant component that is not reproductive. Thus in addition to the propagation of the species, human sexuality involves the giving and receiving of pleasure, the expression of love and the creation of union – elements which are clearly absent from many, if not most, expressions of vegetable and animal sexuality.
But there is a second reason why Christians specifically must recognize a complexity to human sexuality, and that is the significance given to human beings in the text of Scripture.
The first creation account in Genesis climaxes with some of the most startling words in the Bible:
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness [...].’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him [...]. (Genesis 1.26a, 27a)
These verses are remarkable for the ‘physicality’ of the language. Thus the word for ‘image’ is used later for idols in Numbers 35.52, and that for ‘likeness’ describes variously a design plan (2 Kings 16.10) or a vision (Daniel 10.16). Attempts to locate the image and likeness of God in some ‘higher faculty’ of humanity are therefore inadequate to the text. In our computer age, it is more helpful to see humankind as a ‘simulation’ of the divine in the medium of this world. If you set out to model God in material form, you get us – as Jesus’ own incarnation requires.
But Genesis provokes our thinking yet further by adding at the end of verse 27, ‘male and female he created them’. Scholars have sometimes suggested this is simply the necessary lead-in to verse 28: ‘And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth ..."’ But the poetic structure of the Hebrew text makes 27c a parallel to 27b:
in-the-image of-God created-he him,
male and-female created-he them.
This parallelism, however, suggests a connection between gender and likeness, between ‘male and female’ and the ‘image of God’. Yet nothing in Genesis 1 itself explicates this any further. Many – perhaps most for want of a better idea – have thus followed Karl Barth’s suggestion that it refers to the ‘social’ aspect of the godhead reflected in human marital relationships.
To go any further, however, we must decide how seriously we regard the inspiration of the biblical text. Do we have in the opening chapters of Genesis several blocks of ‘traditional’ material, stitched together by an unknown ‘redactor’, to be deconstructed by us back into its component parts – unrelated, albeit interesting for their piety? Or do we have the very Word of God in those words which he intended for us? This is an issue which cannot be settled by textual criticism. Rather, as Archbishop Peter Jensen has shown in The Revelation of God, it can only finally be settled by considering how God relates to us.
Let us suppose, therefore, that God relates to us through the text of Scripture as a revealed word acting as a coherent whole and, with that in mind, consider what further light the second chapter of Genesis sheds on human sexuality.
In Genesis 2 we find mankind initially as one individual – a man – a condition, however, on which God pronounces this remarkable verdict: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Genesis 2.18). This is indeed remarkable because seven times in the previous chapter we have been told that what God has made is ‘good’. It is as if God sets himself a problem: how to make a suitable partner for (or literally, ‘a strengthener corresponding to’) a being who is individually his own image (compare Genesis 5.1–2).
The animals, who supplement human strength in so many ways, are nevertheless not suitable (Genesis 2.19–20). But there is another solution. God puts the man into an anaesthetic sleep, fashions from his rib (or side) a woman and presents her to the man, who greets her with the cry of recognition in verse 23, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ Adam’s need is thus met, and then verse 24 universalizes this to all comparable relationships: ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’
Human sexual congress is therefore, in one sense, a re-union. And yet although Eve is ‘taken out’ of Adam, he is not thereby divided into two creatures, nor is there any hint of an androgynous original. He is still himself (minus a rib). Equally, she has become herself (considerably more than a rib). And yet the process of her creation means she is both in him and from him (compare Hebrews 7.9–10), rather than being from the dust like the animals or like the man himself.
These observations nevertheless take on their greatest significance in the light of the biblical theme of God as the husband of his people. In particular Ephesians 5.29–32 dramatically links the relationship between Christ and the Church to Genesis 2.24:
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Paul’s ‘body’ language about the Church is, it seems, never far removed from his ‘bridal’ language. But the question confronting us is, again, how seriously we should take this language. Is it merely a pious opinion or is it a revelatory insight with which God would have us engage? Frankly, unless it is the latter it is hard to see why we should give it room in our bibles. But if it is indeed ‘the Word of God in the words he intends’, it opens up a remarkable vista, for the relationship between Christ and the Church is then the archetype of that between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, and thence of all marital unions (as indeed Paul himself seems to argue).
The parallel between the ‘one-flesh’ union of Genesis 2.24 and the union between Christ and the believer is alluded to again by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2, where in verse 17 he writes that, ‘He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ But, as we have seen, the union of Adam and Eve (which is itself an archetype of all subsequent unions) involves an element of re-union, suggesting that the union of Christ and the Church is also in some sense a reunion.
This might seem implausible until we consider that the New Testament itself hints at an eternal aspect to the redemptive process and therefore to the objects of redemption. If we were indeed ‘chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1.4), if the Lamb that was slain was ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1.20), if the names of the redeemed have been written in the book of life ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 17.8), then to conceive as the Church being ‘in Christ’ with regard to his eternal nature is perhaps not so outrageous!
Following the model of Adam and Eve, however, the Church is not an ‘emanation’ of Christ, any more than Eve is an emanation of Adam. Yet the text of Scripture reveals that as Eve is the complement to Adam, so the Church in union with Christ completes his relationship with his own creation:
[God] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1.22–23)
The redemptive plan of God is fulfilled through the ‘one body’ union of Christ and the Church. And thus theosis – the final participation of the believer in the divine nature – is seen to be modelled, indeed, to use the scriptural term, ‘imaged’, in the ‘one flesh’ union between husband and wife which corresponds to the ‘one spirit’ union of Christ and the Church.
This is not, of course, to say that theosis is experienced in sexual intercourse. Indeed, Paul himself observes that not all ‘one flesh’ unions are godly (1 Corinthians 2.16). But it does establish that human sexuality is not merely a matter of ‘animal instinct’ or of a ‘pleasure principle’. Nor is it simply, in and of itself, an instrument of ‘grace’! Rather, as the Prayer Book reminds us, it is the means of expressing the ‘mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’. As such, it therefore belongs properly to a man and a woman – the successors of Adam and Eve – in a covenant relationship modelled on God’s own unwavering commitment to his people.
The significance of sexuality also helps explain the pervasiveness and persistence of its distortion. It is surely noteworthy that the first outcome of the Fall is sexual shame: ‘Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (Gen 3.7). When those made to image God are turned away from him, we should not be surprised that the very thing which images their relationship with him is also twisted. But by the same token, we must resist fiercely any suggestion that we should incorporate such distortions into our theology – whether it be via same-sex acts, extra-marital sex or divorce.
Finally, though, let us remember we are all simul justus et peccator – both ‘saints and sinners’. Until the redemption of our bodies, there is no full redemption of our sexuality. Paul’s ‘such were some of you’ in 1 Corinthians 6.11 is, if his list of sins is sufficiently extended, a ‘such were all of us’. And yet his reassurance is ours as well: ‘But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’
John P Richardson ministers close to Stansted Airport.
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page