Human Sexuality in the Image of God
If the Church refuses to address the sexual issues of the day, not only does it become irrelevant, it leaves the conversation open to others who feel free to do so.
by George O. Wood
Christian leaders make three mistakes when it comes to human sexuality: We don’t talk about it; we don’t value it; we don’t model it.
By not talking about sexuality, we let the world — rather than God’s Word — set the agenda for how we understand and practice our sexuality. By not valuing it — or, rather, by preaching onlyagainst sex outside of marriage and not for sex within marriage — we let the world caricature us as killjoys and pleasure haters. And by not practicing sexuality as God intends within the lifelong relationship between a husband and a wife, we fail to show the world what a blessing marriage is and how it contributes to human flourishing.
In this article, I outline a biblical theology of human sexuality, focusing on our creation in the image of God. Perhaps you have never thought of sexuality in terms of theology. But our beliefs shape our behaviors, and our deepest beliefs shape them most effectively. If theology is what we believe most deeply about God, then it will determine our attitudes toward human sexuality as well as our practice of it.
The Bible and Human Sexuality
The Bible tells stories about the creation of humanity as male and female, as well as about how men and women have used and abused their sexuality (e.g., Genesis 1:26–28; 2:7,18–25; 3:16–20). It regulates sexual behavior through moral commandments and social laws (e.g., Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:1–30). It utilizes proverbs and poems to celebrate marital sexuality and warn against adultery (e.g., Song of Songs; Proverbs 7:1–27; 31:10–31). And it presents human sexuality as a parable of the relationship between God and humanity (e.g., Hosea 2:2–23; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:6–9).
The Church has taught that lifelong marriage between a man and a woman is morally normative. It is a “one flesh” relationship that “God has joined together” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–6). Therefore, sexual behaviors outside that morally normative relationship are sinful and under God’s judgment (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:9–20).
Today, however, some revisionists argue that many forms of sexual relationship —not just marriage — are morally acceptable. Didn’t Old Testament saints have numerous wives and concubines (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, Solomon), they argue? Doesn’t the Law regulate — and therefore assume the acceptability of — concubinage (Exodus 21:7–11), polygamy (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15–17), levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–10), and divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1–4)? Given this diversity of biblical teaching, revisionists argue that traditionalists are wrong to assert that marriage (i.e., the lifelong union of one man and one woman) is morally normative based on biblical teaching. Further, they argue, given this diversity, there is little reason to deny marriage to same-sex couples, despite clear biblical prohibitions (e.g., Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). They ask, “If today’s church disregards what the Bible says about concubinage, polygamy, and levirate marriage, why should we regard what the Bible says about homosexuality?”
Jesus’ Hermeneutic of Human Sexuality
To refute such revisionist arguments, we must pay close attention to Jesus’ hermeneutic of human sexuality. On one occasion, some Pharisees approached Jesus “to test Him” about the lawfulness of divorce (Matthew 19:1–12; Mark 10:1–12). Unlike many of the Pharisees who permitted divorce for almost any reason, Jesus prohibited divorce “except for marital unfaithfulness” (Matthew 19:9). Jesus’ explanation for this prohibition emerges from His narrative hermeneutic of the Bible, a hermeneutic based on the movements of creation, fall, and redemption.
First, Jesus roots marriage in creation. He argues in response to the Pharisees — whose lax views of divorce disproportionately harmed women: at the beginning “ ‘the Creator “made them male and female” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” ’ ” (Matthew 19:4–6, emphasis added; cf. Genesis 1:27 and 2:24).1
Second, Jesus explained divorce in terms of the Fall. “ ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’” (Matthew 19:8, emphasis added). Far from expressing God’s intention for human sexuality, divorce expresses human sinfulness. The Law may make legal allowances for divorce, but the Law does not consider it morally normative.
Third, redemption makes it possible for people to conform their sexuality to the moral norm God revealed in creation. Jesus’ disciples, reflecting a misogynist view of women, complained about His prohibition of divorce for any reason except marital unfaithfulness: “If this is the case between a husband and a wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given” (verses 10,11). According to Him, the morally acceptable alternative to marriage was celibacy (verses 11,12).
As Jesus’ disciples today, we are those to whom He has given “this word.” It behooves us, then, both to interpret human sexuality as Jesus did and to obey His teaching. Jesus rooted His teaching about human sexuality in creation, so let us take a closer look at the Bible’s creation narratives.
The Bible begins with two narratives about the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and its human inhabitants (2:4–25). Each contains an important statement about human sexuality.
Â· “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27).
Â· “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (2:24).
These verses teach that God made humanity in His image. The relational aspect of God’s image sheds light on human sexuality. According to Genesis 1:26,27, and 5:1,2, the image of God is not male in isolation from female, or female in isolation from male, but male and female in relationship with one another. The image of God is “unity-in-difference.” The Bible expresses the unity of God’s image using the Hebrew word adam (“man” or “humanity”), and expresses the difference using the Hebrew words zakar (“male”) and neqevah (“female”). United in their sexual difference, male and female constitute humanity, which God created in His image.
This truth has enormous implications for our theology of human sexuality. First, our sexual differences as male and female are good. At the end of the first creation narrative, God surveys everything He has made and pronounces it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). There is no room for chauvinism or feminism here, as if God holds a bias toward either sex or seeks to eliminate the differences between them. He graciously creates them both. They both result from His choice.
In the second creation narrative, God creates man from “the dust of the ground” and woman from “one of the man’s ribs” (2:7,21,22). In neither instance does God consult with either about the other. He makes them male and female because it pleases Him to do so.
Second, our sexual differences point us toward unity with one another. In the second creation narrative, God creates Adam first but declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (2:18). So God creates a “helper suitable for [Adam]” (2:18,20). The Hebrew phrase is ezer kenigdo. Elsewhere, the word ezer is used to describe God (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 118:6,7; Hebrews 13:6, referring to Psalm 118:6,7). Eve does not count for less than Adam because she is his helper, anymore than God counts for less than us because He is our helper. The word kenigdo indicates complementarity — that is, the difference of equals who need each other. Eve is different from Adam, but not less. The animals, by contrast, are both different from Adam and Eve and less than them.
Anatomically and biologically, male and female complement — are suitable to — one another. Their relationship is generative. God blesses the unity-in-difference of the male and female and commands them, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28). This fact helps explain Paul’s opposition to homosexual unions in Romans 1:26,27. Sin leads both women and men to “exchange” and “abandon” “natural relations for unnatural ones.” Sinful humanity seeks unity without difference. Not surprisingly, the relationship is characterized by futility rather than generativity (Romans 1:21).
Third, our sexual unity-in-difference points us toward God. Scripture presents marriage as a picture of what our relationship with God should be and adultery as a picture of what our relationship with God all too often is (e.g., Hosea 2:2–23). In Ephesians 5:31,32, Paul treats Genesis 2:24 — the two “will become one flesh” — as a “profound mystery” about the relationship of “Christ and the church.”
Our sexual unity-in-difference is a gift that prompts us to return humble praise to the Giver. For those who follow Jesus, there can be no separation of sexuality and spirituality. God designed them to be mutually reinforcing.
Communication, Celebration, Creation
God created humanity in His image. The male-female relationship expresses this image through unity-in-difference. How does our sexuality reflect God’s personality? And how does His personality shape His purposes for our sexuality?
First, God communicates. The first creation account highlights this fact with, “And God said” (Genesis 1:3,6,9,11,14,20,24,26,29). God speaks creation into existence from nothing. Then He speaks directly to His human creatures, using words to bless, command, and give (1:28,29).
Prior to the Fall, God spoke with humanity face to face. Before sin entered the world, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (2:25). After the Fall, however, they hid from God out of fear. “I heard you in the garden,” Adam said, “and I was afraid because I was naked” (3:10).
The Bible tells the story of how God resumes face-to-face communication with us through Jesus Christ. Drawing inspiration from the first creation narrative, Paul writes: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Even that glorious knowledge is partial in this lifetime. Paul writes, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). How tender will this face-to-face knowledge be? According to John, in the New Jerusalem, “[God] will wipe every tear from [believers’] eyes” (Revelation 21:4). Picture a mother comforting her son, and you have a powerful and intimate image of how God will comfort His people when they see Him face to face.
God created the male-female relationship after the model of His own form of communication. That form of communication involves speech, but it goes beyond speech to personal knowledge, which is nonverbal. Genesis 4:1 uses the Hebrew verb yada (“know”) to describe Adam and Eve’s union. The knowing was sexual, which is why the New International Version translates yada in verse 1 as “lay with.” But that sexual union was not merely physical. It was social, spiritual, and emotional as well. It was knowledge of another person at the most intimate level.
The sexual union of a husband and wife is so intimate that the Bible says, “the two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Paul uses this one-flesh intimacy as an illustration of the face-to-face communication God desires with His people. It is a “profound mystery … about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Human sexuality is an analogy of the kind of intimate personal knowledge God desires with His people.
And the relationship God desires with His people shapes the way Christians think about human sexuality. Human sex is a form of communication. It unites husband and wife at the most intimate level. This intimate union is the first purpose of human sexuality.
Second, Godcelebrates. God created pleasure. He receives pleasure: “The Lord takes delight in His people” (Psalm 149:4). And He gives pleasure. Jesus said, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). The Psalmist sang, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).
It is blasphemy to say that Satan created pleasure. The Playboy brand of hedonism is a cheap knockoff and poor substitute for the kind of pleasure God intends His children to experience, not only in relationship with Him, but also in relationship with their spouse.
It is truly Christian to celebrate life and say “Yes!” to it. Paul writes, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). When Christians celebrate God’s gift of salvation, they do so to God’s glory. When they celebrate God’s supply of their needs, they do so for Him. And when Christians celebrate their sexuality, they give thanks to the God who made it.
Writing to Timothy, Paul lists the prohibition of marriage among “things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1–3). By contrast, he argues, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (verses 4,5).
The most immediate benefit of human sexuality is pleasure. God created the marriage relationship for husbands and wives to give and receive pleasure. Nothing is sinful in this giving and receiving. Rather, it is a second purpose of human sexuality.
Third, God creates. He creates the world, blesses it, and then commands its inhabitants to increase, both its animal inhabitants (Genesis 1:22) and its human inhabitants (1:28). God creates procreative creatures.
This is the third purpose for which God created human sexuality. Procreation is an obvious purpose of sexual intercourse. All of us are here because of it. Children will not enter the world without it.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that contraception is a sin.2 Western society sometimes goes to the opposite extreme and views procreation negatively. Powerful voices in the media portray childbearing as financially burdensome, an obstacle to freedom and pleasure, and even environmentally irresponsible.
I believe contraception is a matter of Christian freedom. Each married couple is free to decide whether or not to use it. (That same freedom does not apply to elective abortion, which is a sin.) 3
And yet, I sometimes worry that many married Christians have adopted Western society’s negative view of childbearing. If God blessed human sexuality and commanded men and women, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28), then should not Christians have a bias in favor of procreation instead of a bias for contraception?
The Spirituality of Sexuality
In the previous two sections, I outlined the theological foundations of a Christian understanding of human sexuality. Male and female reflect the image of God through their unity-in-difference. The purposes of their sexual union are intimate communication, celebration of sexual pleasure, and creation of new life. In this section, I offer suggestions about how Christians should daily live out their sexuality. Spirituality is “lived theology,” so this section examines the spirituality of sexuality.
First, we need to cultivate our differences as men and women. God created these differences to foster intimacy, pleasure, and procreation. So, they are good.
Difference does not entail either superiority or subordination. Rather, in marriage, difference entails mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), interdependence (1 Corinthians 11:11,12), and reciprocal rights and responsibilities with regard to sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 7:1–7).
In light of this mutuality, interdependence, and reciprocality, we might say that each spouse is ezer kenigdo to the other.
Second, we need to affirm our sexuality rather than be ashamed of it. Ever since the Fall, shame has characterized human sexuality (compare Genesis 2:25 and 3:10). Shame takes many forms. For many in our culture, shame takes the form of promiscuity and perversity (Philippians 3:19). For others, it takes the form of embarrassment about their bodies. Some Christians experience shame on their wedding nights, even though they are virgins.4
Affirmation — even rejoicing — needs to characterize the Christian experience of sexuality, not shame. In the creation narrative, God covered Adam and Eve’s shame with clothing (Genesis 3:21), a divine provision for privacy when it comes to how we use our bodies. Behind closed doors, however, “the [marriage] bed [is] undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4, KJV). Christian spouses, then, need to cultivate delight and pleasure in one another’s bodies. Paul’s rule for Christian married couples regarding sex is this: “Do not deprive each other” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Third, we need to cultivate the potential for our sexuality. For married couples, that potential includes sexual intimacy and childbearing (Genesis 1:28; 2:24). For singles, it includes serving the Lord as He may lead them.
Regarding celibacy, Jesus spoke of “others [who] renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12, emphasis added). Paul saw a similar advantage for Christians who chose celibacy: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. … An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:32,34; emphasis added).
Both married and single Christians express their sexuality. For married couples, the expression is explicit. Single Christians, however, sublimate their sexuality to serve the Lord with undivided attention.
Through its ministry of teaching and counseling, the church can help single Christians determine how to develop their potential. The church needs to honor those who choose lifelong celibacy because such celibacy is a spiritual gift both from the Lord and for the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:7). It needs to encourage and support those who find themselves single either against their choice (through being divorced or widowed) or in spite of their desire to marry. The church needs to inform those who desire to marry how to choose a spouse and foster a godly marriage (Ephesians 5:21–33). More than informing such persons, the church needs to provide venues where Christian singles who desire to marry can meet suitable Christian partners. And it needs to encourage married couples to cultivate fidelity and joy in their relationships, as well as helping them rear their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Fourth, we need to observe the limits God places on the expressions of our sexuality rather than transgress them. The biblical norm is the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–6). God did not create fornication, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality, or any other form of sexual expression. He created marriage. When we observe the divinely given boundaries of human sexuality — or any other divinely given boundary on human behavior — we experience God’s blessing. Outside those boundaries, however, we may experience momentary pleasure, but in the long term, we experience God’s judgment. (See Psalm 1:1–6; Matthew 7:24–27; Galatians 5:16–26; and Revelation 21:6–8 for contrasting destinies of those who observe and those who transgress the Lord’s commands.)
Fifth, we need to remember that the relationship of husband and wife is an analogy of the relationship of Christ and the Church. Our sexuality, created in God’s image, always points us back to the Creator. In Ephesians 5:31,32, Paul writes: “ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
How does marriage point us back to our Creator? Notice that the man makes two movements in this passage: away from his father and mother and toward his wife. Both movements find analogy in the work of Christ. Does not our Lord move away from His Father to move toward us, His bride? Through the grace of the Incarnation, Jesus lives, dies, and rises again to unite us to God.
Jesus’ humble service defines how Christian husbands act toward their wives and is the antithesis of male superiority. The Church’s response to Jesus defines how Christian wives should submit themselves toward their husbands, and it is the antithesis of female subordination, because it is a freely chosen response to sacrificial love.
Jesus’ relationship to us defines how we should relate to one another in marriage. Our relationship to our spouses draws a living portrait of what God has done for us in Christ. Our spirituality and our sexuality illuminate and reinforce one another.
God created us in His image. Our human sexuality finds fulfillment through unity-in-difference with our spouse. But it always points beyond ourselves to the character of the God who made us this way. He designed our sexuality for intimate communication, celebration of sexual pleasure, and creation of new life because He is a God who communicates with, celebrates over, and creates (and recreates) us.
Our culture is both sexually immoral and spiritually lost. Its understanding and practice of human sexuality is darkened and reinforced by its spiritual lostness. As we proclaim the gospel, let us invite people into relationship with God through Christ, but let us also teach, value, and model a better way to experience human sexuality.
1. Paul also cited Genesis 2:24 as he developed his theology of sexuality. He used it to explain both how husbands and wives need to love one another (Ephesians 5:22–33) and why they should not engage in sexual immorality or prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:12–20).
2. For the Roman Catholic Church’s view on contraception, see ENCYCLICAL LETTER HUMANAE VITAE OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF PAUL VI
3. For the Assemblies of God’s view on contraception and divorce, see “Sanctity of Human Life: Abortion and Reproductive Issues,” pages 1, 3.
4. See in this issue of Enrichment, “Hooking Up vs. Holding Out: Helping Youth Find a Healthy Sexual Balance.”