by Gord Penner
Historically we have often struggled to respond to the changing culture around us and fled rather than engaging it with biblical principles. I believe our world is currently suffering from two pandemics: COVID-19 and polarization.
Rather than add to the latter, we need to find ways to heed the great commands: Love God and love neighbour.
My home church, Ridgewood, has become a messy and beautiful church over the past couple years. Having two members working for YFC, we have had nearly 200 unchurched youth enter our doors.
It’s been beautiful to see our church come alive as we’ve welcomed them. They sit in the back and are a bit noisy, but it’s a good noise. They’re looking for Jesus and they feel welcome in Ridgewood! And they are welcome!
Our church has come alive! We’re bumping into the kind of people Jesus bumped into when he was ministering, each one bearing the image of God.
As we seek to understand a biblical theology of sexuality, we start in Genesis to discover God’s original design.
The Creation Account
In the creation account (Genesis 1 and 2), God makes the heavens and the earth, including the beautiful garden of Eden. As God launches into his final creative act, he says, “‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’” (v. 26). “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (v. 27).
God creates people as male and female—both and together they “bear the essence of God, reflect his attributes, and act on his behalf” (John H. Walton, Genesis: NIV Application Commentary, p. 131).
That every person is made in God’s image places a value on humans that is above the rest of creation—every human has the stamp of God on them regardless of age, sex, orientation, ability, colour, or height.
In Genesis 2, God provides a partner for Adam—a woman, Eve. “The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” (isshah) for she was taken out of man (ish).’” Two became “one flesh” (v. 24).
Creation Marred by Sin
When God placed the first couple in the garden, “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground…In the middle of the garden stood the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). Then God said to man (2:16–17), “‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”
The serpent’s tactic was to plant a seed of doubt regarding God’s command. He introduces the temptation with “did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1), preparing the couple for his lie: “‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it…you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (v. 4). And they ate.
What God really said is that they were free to eat from the fruit of the tree of life. Yet rather than choosing life, Adam and Eve’s eyes were distracted by the forbidden fruit.
In Rachel Gilson’s March 2, 2020, Christianity Today article “My Same-Sex Attraction Has an Answer,” she states: “Obedience was never meant as a bargaining chip to force God into blessing us—it was always meant to be the bountiful and delicious fruit of a life in relationship with our Creator and Savior. He has joy in store for us, which we can only fully find when we pursue the obedience of faith with transparency, honesty, and hope. No matter our temptations, no matter our patterns of desire, we press on to make this joy our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own.”
The serpent’s question “did God really say?” can shift our focus away from who God has made us to be (our identity) and what he has called us to do (his mission). It can lead us to re-read biblical texts to make them say what we want them to say.
Moral Slide After the Fall
Adam and Eve’s initial sin affected their marriage and resulted in competition and domination. Subsequent Old Testament stories describe further deviations from God’s initial assessment that his created world was “very good.”
Abraham and Sarah/Hagar teaches about lacking faith to provide a child and describe the resulting animosity between the descendants of the two women.
In Genesis 19, two angels appear as men in Sodom and Lot offers them sleeping accommodations. The men of the city demanded that Lot bring out his guests so “we can have sex with them” (v. 5). Some scholars interpret the wrong done by the Sodomites as that of inhospitality. Yet Jude 7 concludes “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”
Deuteronomy outlines the conditions for divorce as a legal separation between a husband and a wife who he finds “displeasing” (24:1). Jesus later explains the reason for the Old Testament divorce laws in Mark 10:5: “‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied.” He then explains God’s design is for lasting marriage between a man and a woman.
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was called to be a holy nation—set apart and distinct from the sinful culture and countries that surrounded them. Yet, in spite of God’s commands to the contrary (Exodus 20:3, 14, 17), idolatry and sexual license are recurring themes of Israel’s history.
Paul and the Sanctity of Marriage
In Acts, as the early church grew and included more Gentile congregations, the Jerusalem church met to discuss what should be required for new believers in these churches. The church settled on four basics: “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality (porneia), from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:20; also 15:28–29 and 21:25).
The Corinthian church was planted in “Sin City,” full of sexual license, with prostitution rampant and linked to their worship of gods. Paul writes letters to teach the church how to live differently in a pagan and corrupt environment. He points out that believers don’t own their bodies. They have been bought with a price and should no longer look like their previous selves nor like their neighbours around them (1 Corinthians 6:9–11, 18–20).
1 Timothy 1:8-11 includes “immoral men” and “homosexuals” when describing behavior that is “contrary to sound teaching.”
Jesus Gets the Last Word!
When Jesus bumps up against sin, he seeks to redeem it while marrying grace and truth in his approach. We’ll begin with some of his teaching, and then move to his response to individuals.
Marriage, Divorce, and Adultery
Jesus begins by addressing the seed that gives birth to adultery—lust (Matthew 5:27–28). Attraction is normal, but we are expected to be in control of it. Dean Sherman, in his book Relationships (p. 56), describes lust as “attraction plus the desire for selfish gratification at the expense of another human being.”
Jesus speaks against divorce in Matthew 5:31–32: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Repeatedly, Jesus refers back to God’s design at creation, and calls his followers to use that as their template for what marriage should look like today.
Jesus Interacted With Many Who Didn’t Fit the Template
To those who thought their righteousness came from obeying the law, Jesus offers harsh words of rebuke. But to those who were living in sin, yet willing to listen and learn, Jesus offers a gracious response. Let’s learn from Jesus’ interactions with three individuals:
Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus points out her previous five marriages and the man she was currently living with. Not lost on the reader is the fact that a Samaritan woman with five previous husbands is the first person Jesus chooses to announces that he is the Messiah. She becomes the first missionary in the book of John, running back to invite the people of her village to meet this Messiah!
Jesus extends grace to the woman found in adultery (John 8). She has been caught in adultery (where was the man?!?) and brought to the temple courts. The story concludes with Jesus asking, “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (vv. 10–11).
Our last example comes from Jesus’ relations with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). Jesus does not condone his behaviour, but associates with him.
Sadly, many people view Christians and the church as more inclined to judge rather than redeem those who have different struggles than we do. Let’s choose to respond in ways that invite others to accuse us of looking like Jesus, welcoming and loving those he came to save and not sending them away. Let us continue to find new ways in which God wants to use his church today as a place of restoration and healing.
Gord Penner is a lay minister in Ridgewood EMC Church. He is a professor at Steinbach Bible College and loves motivating college students and church groups to dig deeper into the Word. In his 30-plus years of teaching he has enjoyed many opportunities to teach in churches throughout North America. Gord and his wife Laura have four married children.