Some Thoughts on Sex


Among those who identify as Christian, there is an ongoing debate—and in some cases deep disagreement, confusion, misunderstanding, and even mischaracterization and slander between tribes around the subject of sex and marriage.

Some adopt a more strident posture that seems (and often is) lacking in pastoral compassion, empathy, and grace:

“The Bible says it, that settles it, so it’s time for you get your life in line with the Bible,” seems to be the standard posture. This posture is held chiefly by people who (a) are rightly concerned about maintaining biblical fidelity in every area of life, including sex and marriage, yet who (b) lack biblical fidelity in the way that they tend to mischaracterize and judge people unlike themselves.

Others assume a more open and so-called “affirming” posture that seems (and often is) lacking in biblical fidelity:

“The times are different now than they were back in biblical times,” says the affirming view. “Furthermore, we have read the Bible wrong all these years on sex and marriage, just as Christians once read the Bible wrong about slavery.” Those who adopt this mindset are (a) rightly concerned about caring deeply for those who are attracted, say, to the same sex, and yet (b) fail to account for the fact that every time Scripture mentions sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman, it comes with strong warnings…and with zero exceptions.

For others, including me, there is a desire to engage this conversation—and the real people with real lives and stories and struggles who are most impacted by it—in a way that resembles how Jesus engaged a sexually confused culture and sexually damaged persons. I hope that what I share below will help readers on all sides of this discussion find their way, not into a tribe as much as into the wise and perfect ways of Jesus, who alone is Lord and Maker of sex.

A Changing Cultural Landscape

The landscape is changing on the subject of sexuality.

The centuries-old, universal consensus among Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well—that God gave sex for marriage between one man and one woman—is being questioned not only by secular society, but within Christianity itself. Fading is the long-held belief that “immorality” and porneia—the New Testament Greek term for all sex that happens outside of marriage between one man and one woman—are the same thing. Ours is a different age, says the Western hemisphere (and mostly white) “progressive” or “ex-” -vangelical. Biblical prohibitions about divorce, unmarried cohabitation and same-sex relationships were written for situations unique to the time and setting, but that do not necessarily apply to our modern context.

Christians who find the new interpretations unpersuasive and biblically unsound are increasingly viewed as unenlightened at best, and bigoted at worst. What are we to make of this new cultural landscape? Moreover, how are we to understand the Scriptures on this matter? And what are we to do with that understanding?

Have We Misinterpreted Scripture?

Most of us Christians are swift to distance ourselves from a damaging, “us-against-them” posture on this issue. A condemning, shaming stance toward LGBTQ and/or unmarried, sexually active hetero men and women has proven only to be damaging and counterproductive. For some, forsaking a holier-than-thou posture has also led to sympathy toward, and in some cases affirmation of, expressions of sexuality that have historically and widely been seen as incongruent with faith (and still are seen as incongruent outside the West).

As once-culturally taboo expressions of sexuality become mainstream, and as colleagues, friends, and even family members “come out” with news of a pending “no fault” divorce or a same-sex or cohabiting hetero relationship, more and more Christians—especially when friendships and family ties hang in the balance—feel an urgency to sympathize instead of condemn, to support instead of separate, to affirm instead of deny. To reinforce this instinct, LGBTQ folks are compared to oppressed minorities of the past, most notably the victims of slavery. “Christians eventually shifted on slavery because they finally saw that slavery was biblically wrong,” the thinking goes. “This is no different. LGBTQ,” it is said, “is the new oppressed minority.” This is a difficult leap, however, because every reference in the Bible about sexual activity outside the covenant union between one man and one woman is negative. The pro-slavery mindset is repudiated by Paul’s letter to Philemon, a slave-owner who, according to Paul and the Holy Spirit, must cease treating Onesimus like a slave and instead receive him as a brother. No such book or verse exists in the Bible on the subject of sex and marriage. In fact, as Scripture unfolds from Old Testament to New, while it becomes more progressive in the way it dignifies, empowers, and liberates women, ethnic minorities, the enslaved and the oppressed, Scripture takes on a more conservative tone in the way it speaks of sex and marriage. Jesus affirms that in the beginning, “God made them male and female, and the two (male and female) will become one flesh.” Qualified elders must be either single and celibate like the Apostle Paul and Jesus, or one-woman men—the “husband of one wife.” Jesus is kind and restores dignity to a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her that if she is going to identify as one of his followers, she must stop committing adultery. In other words, unlike the liberation of slaves spoken of in Philemon, there is no place in Scripture that pronounces liberation for those wishing to pursue sexual relationships, including committed and monogamous ones, outside of the male-female marital union.

This teaching is admittedly becoming less and less popular in our late modern times. Yet, if the true relevance of Scripture is that Scripture shows no interest in being relevant—that is, it shows no interest in being adapted, revised, or censored in order to be more in tune with the ever-shifting times—then the sex question is one that sincere believers must wrestle with. We must remain committed to being counter-culture where the culture and the truth are at odds with one another. This, and this alone, is what will make Christians truly relevant in the culture.

Compelled by the love of Christ, we will not withhold kindness or friendship from any person or people group, and we will not engage in any sort of “us against them” posturing. This in itself is counter-culture in the modern West, where the norm is to be constantly on the hunt for something to be offended by.

Compelled by the truth of Christ, we will honor and obey the Creator’s design—even when his design is counter-culture and, at times, counter-intuitive to us. His ways and his thoughts are higher than ours on this matter.

Affirming Sex (and Chastity)

Jesus, who was a lifelong, unmarried celibate man tempted in every way just as we are, affirmed sex within the male-female marital union. He invented sex. Sex is not a no-no. It is not taboo. It is a gift that invites husbands and wives to taste Eden together—naked without shame, known and embraced, exposed and not rejected. Proverbs invites a husband to find satisfaction in his wife’s breasts. Song of Solomon pictures a husband and wife admiring, reciting poetry over, and adventurously enjoying one another’s naked bodies. Paul the Apostle, also unmarried and celibate, says that except for short seasons dedicated to prayer, able-bodied married couples should have sex, and have it often. History will culminate in consummation between Jesus and his Bride, the Church…a “profound mystery” that every believer, married and unmarried, can anticipate in the New Heaven and New Earth.

God is also deeply concerned that sex not be distorted, abused, or turned into an idolatrous pseudo-savior. Porneia, the Greek umbrella word for sexual immorality, represents any departure from God’s design of a male-female, two-becoming-one marital union.

Why is the Bible seemingly so liberating about sex inside heterosexual marriage, but so limiting for every other setting? Tim Keller says that God put guardrails around sex because sex is the most delightful, and also the most dangerous, of all human capacities. It is a transcendent, other-worldly experience. Sex works a lot like fire. On one hand, fire can warm and purify. On the other hand, if not contained properly and handled with care, it can burn, leave permanent scars, infect, and destroy. So it is with sex. I have seen this play out in scores of pastoral situations over the years. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” says the sacred Proverb, “but in the end it leads to death.”

A Way Forward–Especially for Christians

So what is the way forward on this issue? I’m going to propose something a little bit out of the box. What if we Christians, especially those of us who still affirm the ancient, traditional Judeo-Christian guardrails for sex as described above, concerned ourselves less with defending biblical marriage “out there” and focused more on nurturing biblical marriage “in here?”

What if we graciously and humbly conceded that the culture war has been lost on this issue, a chief reason being that for a couple of decades, the Christian witness on this issue, in its zeal for truth, mishandled the truth by forgetting about love? What if, in conceding that the culture war has been lost, we rendered unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and accepted our new opportunity to set aside the failed “moral majority” posture and replace it with the more biblical “life-giving minority” posture?

The wise and lovely Madeleine L’Engle is helpful in her reminder that “We draw people to Christ…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

The telling of the light will backfire where there is no showing of the light.

Rather than condemning “sex in the city,” what if we concerned ourselves instead with being the “city on a hill” that Jesus intends for us to be?

What if we affirmed along with the Bible that being unmarried and celibate (like Paul and Jesus) is a noble and fruitful calling? What if we affirmed along with Paul that the calling to singleness, though less common, is still a “far better” calling than marriage because it frees single men and women to devote themselves fully to the Lord’s concerns? Speaking of this, what if we got rid of the term “single” in the church and embraced a renewed biblical vision for the church as a surrogate family where every person, married and divorced and single, hetero attracted and same sex attracted, has access to spiritual friendships as deep as that of David and Jonathan, whose mutual accessibility, transparency, and loyalty rivaled the love between a man and a woman? What if we shifted our emphasis toward THE MARRIAGE to which all other marriages are but a shadow—the mystical union between Jesus and his bride, the Church, which is inclusive of believing husbands and wives, as well as widows and widowers, divorcees, and other unmarried men and women? According to sacred Scripture, no matter what one’s marital status or sexual orientation, the first moment of trust in Jesus makes that person as married and complete as s/he will ever be. From our first moment of faith, Jesus is our Bridegroom and we are his Bride.

We are our Beloved’s, and our Beloved is ours.

Finally, what if we focused on renewing marriage inside the church first, repenting of hard-core and soft-core pornography habits, taking thoughts and fantasies captive that objectify the image of God, reducing divorces where there are no biblical grounds, and nurturing love, lingering conversation, hand-holding, fidelity, forgiveness, and living face to face (in intimacy) and also side by side (on mission) within marriages? For unless and until we become this kind of counter-cultural community amongst ourselves—showing the light of Christ that is in us as well as telling it—any zeal for biblical marriage and chastity “out there” will fall on deaf ears. And rightly so.


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16 responses to “Some Thoughts on Sex”

  1. […] lest some Christians, for fear of sending mixed messages due to deeply held convictions about the historic Christian sexual ethic, remain silent about the horrible injustice that occurred in Orlando this […]

  2. […] for Qideas called “Can Christians and LGBTQ be Friends?,” a third piece called “Thoughts on Sex,” chapter 8 of Jesus Outside the Lines, and chapter 9 of Befriend. Best of all, you can read […]

  3. Morgan says:

    Leaving culture wars behind is one thing… but that these unbiblical values exist within His church remains an issue we cannot turn from.

  4. Patrick says:

    I believe you are correct with this way forward. It is certainly preached, but I’m not sure how well we follow. It is very difficult for me to judge anyone in the church knowing the sins I carry in my own life. There should be no lack of love or spiritual fellowship for anyone struggling with certain sins in their life, as truth be told, we all struggle. But, I will make one distinction. I may admit I view pornography, I confess, it is sin, I struggle, I confess, and I continue with God’s grace to renew my mind and get better. But, we have some who want the deep spiritual friendship you mention, but say their lifestyle is not sin. And, I am not just talking LGBTQ, there is also heterosexuals having sex who are not married. I believe if we truly love that person we have to be honest and tell them it is sin. Or, are you saying we just do better representing our marriage vows, let them see, not say anything, and trust they will see the sin in their own life?

  5. Stephanie Orsini says:

    This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about for several years. We need to stop trying to shine a light for Christ with angry, condemning arguments. We need, instead, to really live out our love walk by being kind, generous, and secure in our faith in His word.

  6. Nick Van Horn says:

    Hello Pastor Scott,
    I have a question for you. It’s a fairly in-depth question, so brace yourself: I shared your post with a good friend of mine who takes a liberal stance on sexuality. He and I have great conversations and he posed a question to me for which I had some trouble coming up with an answer that was completely satisfying for me, let alone him. He took issue with your statement that “…every reference in the Bible about sexual activity outside the covenant union between one man and one woman is negative.” He felt that it was misleading to other Christians and those investigating Christianity to make such a strong claim when he doesn’t see the whole of Scripture being that clear. Though he believes that sex should be monogamous between two people within the covenant of marriage (though he would say that marriage can be between two men or two women as well as one man and one woman), he said that the concept of polygamy breaks with your “every reference” statement.
    My response to him was that, while not explicitly condemning polygamy, Scripture makes it pretty clear implicitly by describing how much of an utter disaster all the polygamous relationships it describes were (Abraham/Sarah/Hagar, Jacob/Leah/Rachel, David/Bathsheba, and Solomon as examples) and how it clashes with the precedent set in Creation and confirmed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. As to why there isn’t an outright ban on something so harmful, the best I could come up with is how it relates to the levirate laws and that God perhaps allowed polygamy for the sole purpose of protecting vulnerable widows to ensure they were not left destitute (and to be used only in that context) and that, with the advent of the Church, we no longer need the levirate laws. Additionally, Paul only bans it in the NT for elders and deacons because people were likely converting to Christianity who were already in polygamous marriages and to ban the practice for everyone outright would have resulted in divorces and potentially expose the “cast away” women to poverty and destitution.
    His response was two-fold: First that God actually blessed Jacob’s polygamous marriage when he answered Rachel’s cries for children and included those children in what would be the twelve tribes of Israel (I replied that He was not blessing the dual marriage as a good thing in itself, but was, rather, showing mercy to Rachel and honoring His covenant with Abraham). Second, he used the example of the Song of Solomon, claiming that we cannot possibly take anything it says as condoning sexual relations between one man and one woman only, as Solomon was a prolific womanizer.
    How would you go about defending your “every reference” statement in these instances? Additionally, I’m open to book recommendations that might address these issues.
    Thank you!
    Nick Van Horn

    • scottsauls says:

      While I can’t provide an in depth answer to all of these questions, here is some food for thought. First, we must look at moral issues in Scripture in terms of their trajectory. Slavery, for example, is commonplace in the Old Testament but is repudiated in the new. As God’s will is progressively revealed over time, the realization emerges that this long-held institution, the evil of which has been a blind spot to many, emerges with the later books of the Bible. When we look at sexuality — where polygamy was commonplace in the beginning, Scripture’s narrative unfolds in a more conservative direction as it moves through history. Also, most scholars doubt that Solomon wrote Song of Solomon, but that is merely speculation. The point is more the trajectory. The fruit is also a significant factor…every instance of polygamy ends up being an object lesson in disaster. Hope that helps.

  7. Kevin says:

    You are a strong writer. But as a reader I am left with the impression that you are calling Christians to disengage from openly advocating Biblical principles in secular culture as “the war has already been lost.” Instead, it appears that you are arguing that the only way forward on the issue is to “show Christ” to the culture, but to refrain from speaking truth. It appears you are pushing a binary choice.

    Can we do both?

    Apply your position to the raging abortion debate, or, as a past example, to slavery. Christians were/are at the tip of the spear engaging the culture in open debate on those issues. Slavery was defeated in large part because of fierce Christian opposition. Abortion will eventually be struck primarily because of inspired Christian engagement. Believers opposed abortion from the get go. We lost, at least temporarily. If believers had completely disengaged from the culture war after that setback, as you appear to advocate here, I seriously doubt we would be on the cusp of victory now.

    “Showing Christ” to the culture gives credibility to our argument, but the argument must be presented in the first place.

    Sodomy, like all sin, ruins lives and cultures. While our culture does recognize certain ideas/vices as culturally destructive (e.g., theft, slavery), and is in the process of seeing others as destructive (e.g., abortion), it does not currently recognize that relationships built on sodomy and same sex attraction are ruinous lies from the pit of hell. In fact, the culture is presently promoting them as virtues. It is for that reason we should seek to lock arms and engage the culture in truth and love on this issue. Not disarm and slink off in defeat while showing love.

    Please have patience if I have misunderstood your position. However, I hope you can see that it was not a stretch for me to arrive at my conclusions.

  8. Kevin says:

    It’s pretty clear from this article that you think Christians should disengage from speaking truth to the culture about sexual ethic until we have more perceived credibility/show more love.

    If your position is rather “emphasize love but also speak truth”, then that is not clear. But if that actually is your position, then my response is that it is critical in this cultural moment, where moral ambiguity abounds, that we emphatically defend truth, and do so lovingly.

    This is an ambiguous post. Readers shouldn’t have to interpret your thoughts and intentions, especially on such a consequential topic.

  9. Susan says:

    Good day Pastor Sauls,

    Would you possibly cite instances where sex “outside of marriage results in strong warnings and zero exceptions”? I am currently in this battle and desperately need Biblical basis for this belief other than “I was raised with this belief”.

    Graciously thankful,

    • scottsauls says:

      Hello, Susan, and thank you for your question. The short answer is that the biblical word for “immorality” covers any and all sexual participation outside of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. The Greek word from which we get our translation, “immorality” is the word “porneia.” Hope that helps.

  10. Phyllis Davis-Cottrell says:

    Hello Pastor Sauls. I came across this article in the October 2019 River Region’s Journey at a doctor’s appointment. As I began to read this article, I couldn’t put the Journey down. Why? I was floored with the truth that rung out so resoundingly from every word written on its pages. I had to find this article and post it. For sure The Creator used your stroke of keys for the rise of truth from the inner man. I’m praying for your continuous growth in Him. Blessings

  11. […] in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Senior Pastor of Christ PCA in Nashville, Tenn. This article is used with […]

  12. Laurie says:

    Your post reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians in ch. 5 & 7- He emphasizes that we aren’t to judge those outside the church without the Holy Spirit who practice all types of immorality but be concerned w/ believers. I think this starts w/ our kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews & close friends-those who trust us and know we love them. We have an obligation to speak scriptural truth to them and help them understand God’s loving reasoning for his laws. Ch. 7 develops the importance of sex in a married relationship- husband and wife yielding to each other as needed in marital duty while that is enjoyable, it is also preventative.

  13. Jack Ryder says:

    Agreeing with Kevin
    It’s pretty clear from this article that you think Christians should disengage from speaking truth to the culture about sexual ethic until we have more perceived credibility/show more love.

    If your position is rather “emphasize love but also speak truth”, then that is not clear. But if that actually is your position, then my response is that it is critical in this cultural moment, where moral ambiguity abounds, that we emphatically defend truth, and do so lovingly.

    This is an ambiguous post. Readers shouldn’t have to interpret your thoughts and intentions, especially on such a consequential topic.

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