How sex = marriage

This is the second installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looked at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 considers “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 and part 4 will explore some of the limitations of this starting point, while part 5 will offer an alternative approach. 

Here’s what much of the criticism of the evangelical purity culture comes down to: a growing sense that there has to be a better way.

There has to be a better way to talk with our kids about sex, to help them see both its promise and its pitfalls. To give them a realistic vantage point, not one that’s shaped either by excessive fear or by fairytale expectations of what their wedding night will be like if they wait.

There has to be a better way of doing this than purity balls and pledge cards. We’ve tried them for almost 20 years now, and the jury’s in: they don’t work. And having failed for the most part to prevent extramarital sex, they go on to heap needless shame on those (especially girls) who, for one reason or another, don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins.

There has to be a better way to articulate a sexual ethic that’s authentically Christian AND relevant to the world we live in, not the one we might wish we lived in.

Preston Yancey is trying to do just that. He’s proposed a sexual ethic that doesn’t depend on memory verses quoted out of context or on patriarchal notions of virginity.

Preston unpacks his main argument (worth reading in its entirety) in part two of his series on sexual ethics. He observes that marriage in the Bible was made official not by a ceremony or a legal document but by the act of consummation. Therefore, the reason we should reserve sex for marriage is because sex is marriage. Or, at least, the initiation of it.

Consensual sex, the uniting of male and female, is itself the act of marriage . . . [it] is the action that unites two into one and thereby pronounces them wed. And this understanding of uniting, of sex being true consummation of marriage, was the historic understanding of the Church up until modern times, and remains so in some denominations.

This approach certainly helps make sense of what we find in Genesis 24, the story of Isaac and Rebekah. No sooner had they met than they made their union official by having sex.

(In his dead mother’s tent.)

In other words, it was the act of consummation that made Isaac and Rebekah husband and wife.

Hence the recurring phrase “two shall become one flesh,” found in many wedding liturgies to this day. This may be the closest we’ll ever get to a “biblical” definition of marriage. As Preston points out, this phrase occurs three times in Scripture, which is a pretty good indicator that it’s kind of important.

Yet as Preston also notes, the Bible doesn’t address sexuality in a vacuum. The idea of sex as marriage originated from a particular cultural and historical context. And that context was very different from ours. For example . . .

  • Marriages in the ancient Near East were typically arranged, sometimes between total strangers (n.b. Isaac and Rebekah). 
  • People married younger than we do today. This was especially true for girls, who were considered marriage material basically from the time they hit puberty.
  • Grooms, on the other hand, tended to be a bit older than their brides. One possible reason for this is that marriage was less about love and more about a man asserting himself. There’s some evidence from Assyrian and Babylonian records that men tended to marry after their fathers had died. Marriage, then, was a means by which sons established themselves as the new paterfamilias. 
  • Polygamy was accepted and, in at least one case, implicitly required by the Bible. In all likelihood, polygamy wasn’t that common among ordinary people, given the wealth needed to sustain a large household. But Israel’s most famous patriarchs (Abraham and Jacob) and its most revered kings (David and Solomon) were polygamists. So was Herod the Great in Jesus’ day. Polygamy always and only ran in one direction: a husband with multiple wives, not the other way around. 
  • Women were extremely vulnerable to abuse, and by our standards, some of the remedies were as disturbing as the abuse itself. For example, the penalty for raping an unmarried Israelite virgin was that you had to marry her. Preston addresses this here and follows up in more detail here. There was a reason for this law, which I’ll come back to in another post, because this is where we run into the limitations of “sex as marriage” as the basis for our sexual ethic. 

These are just a few examples of how marriage was viewed much differently then than it is now. (Keep that in mind next time someone tries to tell you marriage has always and only been one thing and that it cannot be “tampered with.”)

In any case, the cultural dynamics which shape the Old Testament’s view of sex should serve as a clue that applying a sexual ethic from the Old Testament may not be as straightforward as we’d like. More on that in the next couple of posts.

4 thoughts on “How sex = marriage

  1. Pingback: How Christian sexual ethics gets tricky « Ben Irwin

  2. Pingback: How we all make exceptions « Ben Irwin

  3. Pingback: How “love your neighbor” is the Bible’s sexual ethic « Ben Irwin

  4. There are claims that the Hebrew of Deut. 22:28-29 (the bit which supposedly makes a rapist have to marry his victim) isn’t explicitly talking about rape, simply “to take hold of” (in the sense of the man to the woman) and then lie with her. It also says “and they are discovered” which does not sound like the girl is here refusing consent.

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