Is biblical sexuality outdated and irrelevant?

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Is biblical sexuality outdated and irrelevant?

May 9, 2024 - and

Bride and a groom holding hands during marriage ceremony. By Vlad Negru/Wirestock/Stock.Adobe.com

Bride and a groom holding hands during marriage ceremony. By Vlad Negru/Wirestock/Stock.Adobe.com

Bride and a groom holding hands during marriage ceremony. By Vlad Negru/Wirestock/Stock.Adobe.com

No area of life is more personal than one’s sexuality. Accordingly, those who attempt to proscribe their version of sexual morality on others can seem especially intrusive and intolerant.

If you’re married, would you want someone to regulate your intimacy with your spouse? If you’re not married, would you want someone regulating the kind of people you can marry?

For people who experience same-sex sexual attraction, gender dysphoria, or otherwise identify as LGBTQ, evangelicals who declare and defend biblical sexual morality can seem just this intrusive. And for those who are “straight” but view LGBTQ proclivities and behaviors as protected civil rights, biblical sexual morality can seem equally intolerant and discriminatory.

Public sentiment on this subject has reversed itself completely in recent years. Gallup polling in 1996 found 27 percent support for same-sex marriage in the US; support now exceeds 70 percent. I can think of no other social issue in recent history that has seen such a transformation over so short a period of time.

Our postmodern culture rejects absolute truth claims and insists that tolerance is our highest value (which is an absolute truth claim, by the way). Accordingly and ironically, it is adamantly intolerant of those it considers to be intolerant.

In seeking to reach such a culture, why would Christians continue to insist on declaring and defending biblical sexual morality? Are we truly homophobic and bigoted, as our critics claim? Or is there another reason?

The Bible clearly and consistently makes these assertions:

  • God creates humans as male and female (Genesis 1:27; 2:7, 22–25).
  • He intends sexual intimacy only for marriage (Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4).
  • He intends marriage only as the lifelong covenant of one man and one woman (Ephesians 5:22–33).
  • He warns us to flee all other sexual temptations as dangerous to ourselves and to society (1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5; Ephesians 5:3; Galatians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 7:2).

(For much more here, please see my website article, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?” and related resources on our website.)

However, to secularized, post-Christian people, these biblical principles must seem irrelevant, outdated, and even dangerous to society. For this reason, defending biblical sexual morality requires that we turn to secular arguments and evidence as well.

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Polyamory and biblical marriage

Also known as “consensual non-monogamy,” polyamory (“many loves”) is being promoted and normalized widely in contemporary culture.

The Wall Street Journal reported that “open relationships are having a moment.” According to the article, 22 percent of Americans say they have engaged in “consensual non-monogamy.” This sin is being normalized as we speak:

  • The book More: A Memoir of Open Marriage is generating headlines and reviews across popular culture.
  • Time published an article by the book’s author titled “Why I Love My Open Marriage.”
  • The New York Times published a recent article in which the author claims, “I have no moral objection to infidelity. For me, sex is just sex.”
  • New York magazine published a cover story titled “Polyamory: A practical guide for the curious couple.”
  • The New Yorker published a recent article asking, “How did polyamory become so popular?”

In response, let’s note what is objectively wrong with polyamory, with links to articles by secular counselors and other professionals:

  • Polyamory prevents “the depth of intimacy human beings really want and need,” which can be accomplished only through “deep commitment” to a single individual.
  • It raises enormous issues for children: “If one parental figure were to leave, and there wasn’t the institution of marriage stopping them, it can be extremely devastating for the child.”
  • Some argue that polyamorous families offer more love for the children, but in one counselor’s experience, they actually feel themselves to be less of a priority and learn that “significant people are replaceable.”
  • Many who engage in polyamorous relationships do so to avoid intimacy, hedge against real vulnerability, and sidestep adult responsibility.
  • According to one counselor, polyamory is “simply one more technique of conflict avoidance and problem escapism to the external.” She warns that “polyamory is a detrimental non-solution for marriages, it is relationship suicide and a problem just waiting to negatively impact the emotional welfare of children.”
  • A writer who tried polyamory said it did not work for her because of jealousy issues, power plays within the triad, and a deep sense of loneliness over not being someone’s primary love.

In addition, we should note research clearly showing that sexual monogamy is best for us:

  • The National Survey of Family Growth found that women with ten or more sexual partners before marrying were the most likely to divorce; those with zero to one were the least likely to divorce.
  • In another study, couples who were “sexually inexperienced” prior to marriage and have only had sex with their spouse were the most likely to report a “very satisfied” level of overall marital satisfaction.
  • Research shows that normative monogamy “increases savings, child investment, and economic productivity” and “reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, and homicide.”

The case for biblical marriage

In Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox shows that nothing predicts happiness better than a strong marriage between one man and one woman. In his deeply researched and fascinating book, he reports:

  • Those who are married are nearly twice as likely to say they are “very happy” as those who are unmarried.
  • Both men and women who get and stay married accumulate much greater wealth than people who don’t marry or remarry.
  • Married men and women with families report more meaningful lives compared with their single and childless peers.
  • Those in a “very happy” marriage are far more likely to be happy than other factors such as having a college degree, higher income, and being “very satisfied” with work.
  • Those who attend religious services at least two to three times a month and consider themselves to be “conservative” are far more likely to be happily married.
  • Married adults report much lower levels of loneliness than single parents and those who are single and childless.
  • Children from intact families (where their biological mother and father are still married) are far more likely to graduate from college and have far fewer problems at school. They are also far less likely to go to prison and far less likely to be the victims of abuse.
  • Parents are much less lonely and much more likely to say their lives are meaningful and happy than non-parents.
  • Those who believe marriage is for life (as opposed to believing that it is only for as long as you feel fulfilled) are far more likely to be “very happy” in their marriage.
  • Married couples who regularly attend religious services together are more likely to say they are “very happy” with their marriage, “very happy” with their sexual relationship, and “very satisfied” with life than couples who do not.

Wilcox’s research also identifies what he called the “success sequence”: for millennials who earned at least a high-school diploma, worked full-time, and waited until marriage to have children, only 3 percent were in poverty by the time they reached young adulthood.

In addition, Gallup polling clearly shows that those who are married report much higher well-being than those who are divorced, in domestic partnerships, or never married. In addition, there is a direct correlation between cities with high percentages of married households, higher thriving, and lower deaths of despair from suicide and drugs.

In short, the biblical model for sexuality, marriage, and family has merit beyond one’s relationship with God. He did not restrict sexual activity to the context of marriage between one husband and one wife because he wanted to limit us but rather to help us flourish and live in a way that he can bless. Unfortunately, an increasing percentage of the Western world has rejected our creator’s plan for this area of our lives, and the consequences are often tragic.

Sex outside of marriage

While the discussion on the ways in which our society has increasingly abandoned a biblical approach to sex and sexuality often starts with LGBTQ+ issues, the primary crack in that foundation is an issue relevant to a far greater percentage of the population: sex outside of marriage.

Roughly 7.6 percent of American adults identify as something found in the LGBTQ+ acronym. Yet roughly 70 percent of people cohabit before marriage, while almost 90 percent say they have sex before they marry. Interestingly, that same study showed that while nearly 90 percent of women have premarital sex, roughly 40 percent say they would prefer to wait until marriage.

And though those numbers improve for Christians, 68 percent still argue that sex before marriage is permissible in a committed relationship, while 50 percent say that casual sex is alright as well. This despite the fact that Scripture clearly teaches that such a casual approach to sex is wrong, and the statistics demonstrate that it leads to worse outcomes for marriage satisfaction and divorce. For both men and women, the lowest rates of divorce and the highest levels of happiness in a marriage were reserved for those who had never had sex with anyone other than their spouse.

That’s not to say that those with a sexual history that strays from his will are doomed to a life of marital strife, but there are valid, practical reasons why he calls us to preserve sex for marriage.

Unfortunately, many in both our culture and within the church disagree. And the impact is seen across the spectrum of sexual sin.

Same-sex relationships

One of the primary critiques of the Christian condemnation of same-sex relationships is that we care more about this type of sin than we do any other. And, to an extent, that criticism is often valid. It is hypocritical to say same-sex sexual activity is a sin while turning a blind eye to premarital sex between a man and a woman. God’s word describes both as a deviation from his will for our lives, and we cannot condemn one but not the other.

Of course, the answer is not to then abandon the authority of God’s word on this subject but, rather, to apply it to the whole of sexual sin. That approach is important because the ways in which same-sex relationships deviate from the biblical model tend to vary. It is far more practical, effective, and biblical to focus on what the Bible says is right than on trying to correct every way in which people get it wrong.

This truth is seen most clearly when looking at the reasons why the LGBTQ+ movement continues to grow, especially among the younger generations.

When it comes to the same-sex portion of the LGBTQ+ acronym, the lesbian and gay aspects receive the vast majority of public attention. However, the primary source of growth within the movement comes not from those who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgender but rather from those who are bisexual. Nearly 60 percent of LGBTQ+ adults identify as bisexual, and the numbers are even more pronounced in the younger generations, with 73 percent of Gen Z and Millennial LGBTQ+ people claiming that orientation.

In total, only 2.6 percent of the adult population in the US is gay or lesbian. As such, the nature versus nurture debate and many of the other arguments geared around sexual orientation impact a much smaller percentage of the population than is often portrayed in news, media, and common discussion. That doesn’t make them irrelevant, but it’s helpful to remember that the data seems to point toward more people either questioning their sexual orientation or simply giving up on gender playing a defining role in that process rather than genuinely believing that they are wired to be attracted only to members of their same sex.

Consequently, our most effective witness will often be on emphasizing what the Bible says is right about its approach to sex and sexuality than on attempting to counter arguments to the contrary. The latter are still important, and we must be aware of not only the claims they make but the flaws inherent to those claims. However, starting there will often mean addressing concerns that are not at the root of the issue.

After all, our focus must be on helping people see why God’s plan is best or else we risk sliding down the path of judgment and self-superiority that has made so many deaf to the arguments of Scripture.

Transgenderism and biblical creation

While issues of same-sex attraction have long been the most common ways in which the LGBTQ+ approach to sexuality diverges from the biblical model, in recent years the transgender movement has become, perhaps, the most vocal and divisive. That shift is due, in part, to the way that the culture has generally accepted same-sex attraction as a valid lifestyle. Moreover, LGB concerns rarely impact the general public in the same way as transgenderism. Whether it’s bathroom bills, debates over sports, or a host of other issues, redefining what constitutes a man or woman has tangible and personal implications for everyone involved.

Our ministry has compiled a large resource on transgender issues I invite you to access here. However, as with the other issues discussed in this essay, often the people most in need of hearing and heeding God’s truth on this subject do not see the Bible as an authority to follow. As such, for our purposes in this handbook, we’ll focus on reasons to support the biblical assertion that God created humans “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) that do not rely on Scripture to be understood.

One thing that the LGBTQ+ community gets right, to at least some extent, is that people tend to live out their gender identity on a spectrum rather than in a clearly defined box. Ironically, however, those who support the transgender movement have done more to undermine that approach than support it.

It used to be that our culture understood that there are two genders—male and female—but a host of ways to live out that identity. The metaphorical box built around what it meant to be a man or a woman was large, so you could be a boy who liked art more than sports or a girl who liked to play outside more than with dolls and no one questioned whether those preferences meant you were trapped in the wrong body.

However, now our culture’s approach has started to change. Instead of keeping those boxes big, the trans-activist movement has tried to shrink them. Any ways in which your personality and interests do not fit neatly into the most stereotypical expressions of your biological sex are seen as reasons to question your gender identity.

The result is a system in which confusion abounds and the nonessential elements of what makes you you have taken on a foundational level of importance. And the statistics clearly show that it’s not working, especially among youth.

Some of the countries that at one point led the charge for trans-affirming treatment like puberty blockers or surgery have signaled “the intention to stop transitioning youth as routine medical practice” because the treatments show no significant benefits while carrying enormous risks. Moreover, the largest youth gender clinic in the world, Tavistock, was shut down after a government audit of their practices returned a scathing review (PDF).

And the reason why these treatments are typically ineffective is because they often fail to address the root problems.

Three pathologies—depression, anxiety, and self-harm—are two to three times higher in trans people than in the general population. It’s even higher for young trans people. In addition, autism, dissociative disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders run higher among trans people. At least a quarter of young girls who claim to be trans also have autism.

In addition, the risk factors for suicide, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse are much higher than in the general population.

Ultimately, transgenderism is often the symptom of a deeper problem rather than a natural expression of one’s sexuality that should be affirmed. And even those who legitimately suffer from gender dysphoria—an issue discussed at greater length here—are often harmed by the approach advocated by transgender activists today.

Pornography

Remember, a biblical view of sexuality pertains to more than just the LGBTQ+ movement. And while sex outside of marriage is an aspect of rebellion against God’s will for this area of our lives that pertains to many, pornography is an even more pervasive sin, both inside and outside of the church.

  • Roughly 2.4 million people are on the top three porn sites every minute, and porn sites receive more web traffic than X/Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix, and Zoom combined.
  • Covenant Eyes reports that “64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month.”
  • Fight the New Drug reports: “In a 2020 study, 75% of parents believed their child had never encountered porn. But in reality, 53% of those parents’ children reported that they had seen porn.”
  • Barna reports, “When they talk about porn with friends, 89 percent of teens, and 95 percent of young adults say they do so in a neutral, accepting, or encouraging way.”
  • Moreover, nearly one in five pastors currently wrestles with pornography according to that same study from Barna.

The dangers of pornography are well documented, with clear causal connections to adultery, divorce, physical violence, sex trafficking, addiction, and even brain damage in those who consume it. Yet, it is often seen as a victimless sin when that claim could not be further from the truth.

As Mark Legg writes in Sacred Sexuality, “Pornography turns something relational into something selfish. It turns people into things to wield as tools for one’s sexual desire.” He goes on to discuss how studies have found that people who watch porn have lower satisfaction in their relationships and that pornography is the second strongest predictor of struggling marriages among men who use it. And even among the single, it can corrupt and distort a person’s view of sex in ways that make it difficult to fully experience the affirming and connecting purpose for which God created it.

However, the problems with pornography go beyond how it impacts the consumer’s relationships.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation reports that the most popular porn videos are violent. “Of the 50 most common pornographic videos an analysis found that 88% of scenes contained physical violence and 49% contained verbal aggression.” Their report goes on to describe how “a meta-analysis of 22 studies has found that regardless of gender, viewing of pornographic material is linked to increased physical and verbal aggression.”

Moreover, much of that violence is nonconsensual and fed by human trafficking, with pornography the third-most common form of sex trafficking. And many of these victims are minors. In fact, “teen” is the most popular word used to search for pornography titles, and the industry has responded to the demand.

Given the role that pornography plays, especially among youths, in shaping people’s views of what sex should be—53 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls believe it realistically portrays sex—this trend toward the violent and exploitative portends disaster.

While pornography is not mentioned in the Bible since this expression of sin was not an issue in the first century or before it, it clearly deviates from the biblical model of sexual expression being reserved for the relationship between a husband and wife. And the real-world consequences for those who engage with it clearly demonstrate why it is a sin.

How can we respond?

No one struggles with each of the sexual sins discussed in this article. But each of us is likely going to wrestle with the temptation toward at least one of them, if not more. So how should we respond?

Let’s start with five biblical steps we can take today:

  1. Identify sex outside of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman for the sin it is (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
  2. Refuse the prideful temptation to believe it cannot tempt us (James 1:13–15).
  3. Recognize it when it strikes and take it immediately to God, asking him for the strength to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13).
  4. If we fall to temptation, confess our sin immediately to God, claiming his forgiveness and grace (1 John 1:9).
  5. Encourage everyone we influence to take these steps with us (cf. Matthew 5:16).

Each of these steps is important because our culture is not going to embrace a biblical morality unless they see it in us first. Yet, they are also not likely to apply it to their own lives unless we take the step of then telling them it is both necessary and relevant to them as well. And if we truly believe that God’s approach is the best way to live, then we must be willing to risk their rejection of that truth and, potentially, their rejection of us as well in order to share it with them.

Conclusion

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously described pornography by saying, “I know it when I see it.” Recognizing sexual sin of all types becomes just as simple when you understand what the Bible teaches about God’s design for sex. Moreover, recognizing both the practical and biblical reasons why the Lord is right on these issues can go a long way toward helping us do more than just defend our right to be wrong in the culture’s eyes.

As Ryan T. Anderson warns:

Lawyers will have to make specifically legal arguments, rooted in the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the separation of powers or the Administrative Procedure Act, none of which turn on the truth of the belief seeking protection. But the rest of us needn’t speak like lawyers. If we fail to fight back in the court of public opinion against the claim that our beliefs are “bigoted,” we will ultimately lose even in courts of law, where the soundness of our beliefs is supposedly irrelevant. If basic truths of human nature are redefined as religious bigotry, they will be excised from society, in court and out.

When the movement to normalize LGBTQ+ activity first began to gain momentum, the stated goal was tolerance. In the decades since, however, it has largely shifted to acceptance and validation. And understandably so.

After all, very few of us would be all right with just being tolerated. We were created to crave a deeper level of relationship than simple tolerance affords. As such, it was only natural for the goalposts to shift once toleration was achieved. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

The choice set before us is whether we will condemn Scripture or condemn actions that Scripture clearly calls sin. And we need to understand that choice is one each of us will eventually have to make. The only question is how far down the path toward acceptance we’ll go before making it.

I wish that weren’t the case, and as we stand for a biblical view of sexuality, it’s imperative that we do so in a way that honors God and demonstrates his love to those with whom we disagree. But, ultimately, the least loving thing we can do is encourage people to continue living in a way that God can’t bless.

That doesn’t mean we should go looking for a fight or even that we volunteer our beliefs on this subject. People are more than their sexual identity, and our approach to them should reflect that. But if pressed for an answer, God’s word is clear what that answer must be, and we shouldn’t apologize for it or be ashamed by it.

Our goal with this article has been to demonstrate not only what the Bible teaches but to show why those principles are the best way to experience the abundant life that God offers. While people should ultimately be free to make their own choices, we must not shy away from telling them the truth.

British historian Arnold Toynbee researched twenty-one different civilizations before writing his twelve-volume A Study of History. In it, he concluded that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” They suffer a “schism of the soul” when people believe they are no longer bound by the moral law and stop resisting forces that threaten their world.

God has not given us the option to stop resisting, and retreating from the culture while it implodes is in direct violation of Christ’s command to be salt and light to those around us (Matthew 5:13–16).

So as you prayerfully consider the best way to approach issues of sexuality in our culture today, start with Scripture and let that serve as the foundation upon which your views are built. Then stand strong on that truth, knowing that not only is God right, but that his truth remains just as relevant and needed today as it has ever been.

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