A Theology of Sex

Apparently, Michael Ingham (he calls himself a bishop but since when did bishops go around denying the faith? Oh wait…. we’re all Anglicans right?) thinks that we need a better defined theology of sex, that being obsessed with procreation has made us go down the wrong track as regards homosexuality, abortion etc. So, for the benefit of Michael and others who might be interested, let’s do a crash course on the theology of sex. Just for the record, this post is probably a certificate 15 as we might go into a bit of graphic detail to make our point…

Lesson 1 – It’s all about Jesus

Sex is about Jesus. Surprised? Don’t be because EVERYTHING in the world is about Jesus. But specifically, sex has been designed by God to tell us something about what Jesus has done. Look at what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:31-32. Put your cursor over the bible reference to read the Scripture. Then think about this. The model that Paul clearly demonstrates is that husband and wife represent Christ and the Church. Now, I can’t find any other explicit modeling of sexual activity in Scripture (though I’m happy to be corrected by you guys) so I think this is the place to start.

Paul’s argument is very simple – the union of husband and wife is a signifier of Christ and the Church. The way that they connect, that they live in mutual existence, even the dynamics of the relationship speak of what Christ has done for those whom he is saving (the Church). A lot of theologians agree with this, but are hesitant to ascribe the roles of husband and wife explicitly to Christ and the Church (i.e husband only equals Christ, wife only signifies the Church) but when you examine the biology of male/female sex you see that God has designed even that to speak of Jesus’ relationship to the church.

Think about the basic activities of sex (and this is where we get to our certificate 15 section). The partners are aroused, the penis is engorged, it enters the vagina, it ejaculates semen into the vagina and womb and the semen enters into the ovum to produce new life. This simple biology illustrates a number of points of soteriology:

  1. Arousal – Although it is possible for human beings to arouse themselves, in practice it is the presence and attraction to the other that produces a more agreeable experience. Sex with someone else is a totally different experience then sex with one’s self. God has designed sex to be something that is best practiced in union with another.
  2. Ejaculation – Now, I know some of you may find this a bit icky, but when we consider that the husband is meant to signify Christ we see how the male ejaculating represents Christ placing himself into the Church. In sex the semen leaves the male and enters the female. The female is receptive to the male and does not in turn place anything within the male. The soteriology is clear – the work of Christ is his work alone – human beings don’t contribute anything to their salvation in the same way that women don’t produce any of the semen that is present in their bodies at the climax of sex.
  3. New Life – Male/female sex produces new life which signifies how Christ’s entry into the Church brings new life. Once we see that the physical act of sex represents Christ and the Church then it becomes obvious what the result signifies. The coming of the Holy Spirit into believers rebirths them and in the same way the union of semen and ovum produces new life. In the past this understanding has been used to condemn sex that could not procreate, hence the Roman Catholic prohibition on contraception, but the key to understanding this aspect of signification is that it is the possibility of reproduction that is the signifier, not the reproduction itself. In a perfect world everybody would be fertile but in reality our fallen world means that conception is not always possible. Despite this, it is the principle that male/female sex produces new life that is the signifier of Christ and the Church, not the actual presence of new life, for even couples who have children do not conceive at every sexual encounter.
  4. Two become one – How cheesy is the line “Did the earth move for you?” but how true! The sense of unity during sex is a signifier of the union of God and humans through Christ. The feeling of “oneness” that you get in sex isn’t just an aside-thought of God, it’s there to point to the ecstasy of being with God. The same goes for orgasm – other animals don’t enjoy sex half as much as humans do and that isn’t an accident.

Lesson 2 – Sex that isn’t about Jesus is Idolatrous

If husband/wife sex is all about Jesus, then it follows that sex that doesn’t follow this pattern denies certain things about Jesus. That might not make sense at first, but let’s examine how “wrong sex” signifies something else.

  1. Promiscuity – Non monogamous sex signifies a denial that Christ’s death is eternally efficacious. A monogamous relationship indicates a lifelong commitment to the other. The union of marriage and sex will not be broken. In contrast, promiscuity indicates that Christ’s union with the church is not permanent, that salvation is not assured.
    This also explains why adultery is such a bad thing – not only does adultery break up families (destroying relationships is not a great way to speak of the Trinity) but it also destroys the chief signifier of Christ and the Church – marriage.
  2. Homosexuality – If husband and wife in their biological distinctiveness signifies Christ and the Church, then the lack of that biological distinctiveness in homosexual sex means that such a relationship cannot represent the saving work of Jesus. Male and male would signify Christ and Christ, the clear interpretation of which is that Christ is not interested in saving the Church. Female and female sex (Church and Church) signifies that humans don’t need Jesus to save them.
    There is however a second dimension to how homosexual union denies the saving work of Jesus. Not only does the physical act of homosexual activity in itself says something wrong about the saving work of Christ, those who enter into a same-sex partnership place themselves in a position where they cannot speak of the saving work of Christ, for they have created a relationship where that isn’t possible and have denied themselves the possibility of a male/female marriage which signifies the union of Christ and his Church.
  3. Abortion – I know some people are not going to like this, but I’ll say it anyway. The evil of abortion is less to do with the destruction of human life and more to do with the destruction of salvation. If the physical activities of sex bring new life, and if that new life signifies the new spiritual birth in Christ, then to abort a child is to destroy salvation. In contrast, the Scriptures teach clearly that salvation is a once and done thing – once Jesus has saved you you cannot become “unsaved”. In contrast, abortion says “Born Again life CAN be destroyed – salvation is NOT assured”.
  4. Non-Married Heterosexual Sex – Once again, I know some people won’t like it ,but let’s say it. If Marriage makes an explicit, public, accountable statement of monogamy then a couple that aren’t married haven’t made that promise and therefore signify that Christ MIGHT just go off and leave the Church. The only argument that I can think that might oppose this is that some non-married unions are monogamous and faithful, but if that is the case about a couple then why don’t they get married?
    Having got this far in the post, I’m sure we all understand the issue of monogamous unions now as signifying Christ and the Church, but how does a public statement of marriage and commitment differ from a non-married couple. Simply put, a relationship that doesn’t make itself publicly accountable denies the full scope of Christ’s atonement for any kind of person who accepts him as saviour. As a man who has gone through a public marriage I know that I am accountable to absolutely everybody in this country for my marriage. I have a bit of paper that says that my wife and myself have created a legal union and that affects every single part of our lives and interactions with people. This signifies the totally public nature of Christ’s offer of salvation – it is available to absolutely every single person, regardless of who they are.
    In contrast, a non-married couple have a private relationship with no societal dimension. Yes, they make speak of being accountable to friends and family, but without the societal component their accountability is highly limited. Marriage creates a public and unequivocal statement of union and fidelity that simply doesn’t exist without it. Sex outside of marriage, even for a couple that has been together for 20 years has no public dimension to it and therefore denies the public and expansive nature of Christ’s salvation


There’s actually much more I could write about. I could wax lyrical about the menstrual cycle and how menstrual “uncleanliness” signifies the wait for Messiah. I could talk more about masturbation and pornography. For now though I’ll leave these few thoughts and look forward to your comments.

11 Comments on “A Theology of Sex

  1. Peter,

    Good analysis. I recall more than 15 years ago, when I was a Youth Leader in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, sharing very similar concepts with another Youth Leader. I mentioned the concept of semen being a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. It almost seemed wrong to say so, but I don’t think we can deny the logic or the power of it.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Yours truly,
    Paul Erlandson

  2. I’m sorry, but am I reading this correctly — sex outside your proscribed categories is unnatural, unChristian, or a combination of both because it, in essence, breaks your metaphor? Take care when going down this road it can leads to all sorts of interesting ideas — could the Apostle Paul, writing to the Church, be considered an interloper mailing mash notes to Someone else’s wife? Would a call to excise unrepentant apostates from the Body be a mandate for Christians to perform surgery on themselves to remove tumors, rather than go to a non-believing surgeon? These are ridiculous assertions, of course, but far from impossible readings within your framework.

    Similarily, arguing from “nature” is fraught with difficulties when “nature” as it so often does, provides counterexamples and exceptions, such as gay sheep (sic) and promiscuity among primates. By which , I mean of course, apes and their kindred, not archbishops.

    • Let me clarify one or two things:

      i) I’m not arguing that some kinds of sex are “unnatural” and neither am I arguing that some things are “natural”. Far from it. I implicitly state (I think) that some ungodly sex is very natural – i.e. promiscuous heterosexual sex. There’s nothing unnatural about that sexual act. Furthermore I am the first to criticise arguments that take the form of “that’s against nature”. We live in a fallen world and to take the fallen world as normative is highly dangerous. Our “natural” models for ethical thinking should be Eden and the New Creation.
      ii) What I am arguing is that some forms of sexual activity are wrong NOT because of a natural argument but rather for a specific theological reason.
      iii) I think your “ridiculous assertions” are just that because they don’t have any basis in the text. Ephesians 5 is very clearly about sexual union and nothing else.

  3. >Ephesians 5 is very clearly about sexual union and nothing else.

    Certainly. But implicit in your argument is that the passage actually has a lot to say about the Church (and semen in its sanctuary, so to speak) and that same-sex genital acts repudiate the salvific work of Christ (rather than being, as I would read it. a stumbling block to holiness on the order of the rest of the sins listed in that passage’s catalog) and, in and of themselves, cut one off from that work of redemption.

    • I think what I’m trying to do in my extrapolation from Eph 5 above is to get to the core of WHY same-sex activity is sinful instead of just saying “don’t do that because God says ‘no'” (though of course that’s a good enough reason).

  4. I have a lot of sympathy for these ideas Peter.

    I do have one or two questions though. For instance, the fact that some people do not evidence Christ's love for the Church and the Church's dependence on him, does not negate the ability of marriage generally to witness to this.

    We would have to say that all human sexuality is created to do this (witness to Christ and the Church), and this seems something different than saying that marriage can do this.

    If we said this, what then about celibacy? If all human sexuality is for marriage, is abstinence a denial of human potentiality to refer to the divine, and why is this different to a homosexual act? Presumably we don't want to say that celibacy is such a denial.

    Returning to marriage, plenty of marriages don't witness well to Christ and the Church. They're bitter places, without the submission and self-sacrifice that Paul talks about. Are these on the same level – in terms of their holiness – with committed same-sex relationships?

    I'm not saying there aren't arguments to fill this out, I'm just chasing down all the possible dead-ends to check if there's a way out.

    Another point I think worth considering is that Paul uses the analogy between Christ and the Church and marriage in Ephesians to argue for particular attitudes within marriage, submission and self-sacrifice. One *could* argue that these qualities could be evidenced by permanent same-sex relationships.

    If we say that the issue for Paul is related to the physical and genital, one could complain that you're making more of the essential physical differences than Paul does. Can this be justified more fully from Scripture? I suppose v. 31 has to be taken as prescriptive rather than just descriptive.

    One more in-line foot-note. Does this argument lead to a form of natural theology – deducing the nature of God from the creation? It might be worth interacting with Barth's discussion of the Vestigia Trinitatis in Dogmatics 1:1, or at least asking whether it's wise to go beyond what Scripture actually says on this matter to drawing conclusions from the natural world. Just be careful, is all I'm saying. If you open the door, more may rush out than you were anticipating.

    And, by the way, I whole-heartedly agree that the search for the 'why' about the sinfulness of same-sex activity is very important. It's part of the reason why is the Church is so divided. Evangelicals (and others) will follow the plain sense of Scripture. Those without evangelical commitments, which are often imbibed in childhood, simply find the appeal to Scripture's use of 'implausible' ideas just that, implausible. People need to be helped to see how Scripture is authoritative on this topic in a much fuller sense. If the wider argument in the Church is to be won, this needs to happen. So, keep up the good work.

  5. In case anyone is still reading, a positive (though possibly speculative) case can be made that male-female relationships similar to marital bonds can continue between the redeemed into the next life. This may then also imply a romantic, physical or even sexual aspect in such a relationship.

    Below are some websites that make this positive case (across Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant strands of Christianity). Each website does deal with the marriage pericope of Mt 22 to a lesser or greater degree –
    1. http://rezfamilies.googlepages.com
    2. http://www.ewtn.org/library/Marriage/zmarrheavn.h
    3. http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&id=YSS

    Whether you find these arguments convincing is ultimately up to you.

    PS. please note according to historic Christian doctrine, the next life involves the resurrection, which is physical in nature, and is not to be identified with "heaven" (where the redeemed go after death to await future physical resurrection of their bodies) – please see this link for more explanation – http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,171

  6. Who made you the appointed guardian of public sexual morality? The stuff about ejaculation is crude in the extreme. Apart from the Ephesians quote, from the sexophobic Paul, your rant contains no other reference to scripture – so for example, wen you expostulate on 'sexual heterodoxy', that is, same sex love, you just might consider not only the story of the Centurion's Servant – Luke 7.1-10, and its Matthean parallel – but what concerned theologians have been saying about it since the 70's. The classic 'mythologos' of the theology of sex is the story in John 2.1-11.

    Good luck, you are going to need it.

    • Thank you for that comment John and the calm and unaggressive manner in which you wrote.

      We've already covered the pais of Luke 7 here. As for whether Paul was sexophobic, I suspect he was somekindsofsex-ophobic but I don't see that as a problem, because from reading Scripture it appears that God is somekindsofsex-ophobic and must of us here wouldn't have any problem with agreeing with God. Disagreeing with him is, after all, a highly dangerous thing with long term implications.

      And as for who made me the appointed guardian of etc etc, well I think that might actually have been you.

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