As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s word. It’s where we learn from God about who God is, what he’s done, how we can enter into a relationship with him, and how he wants us to live once we’ve entered that relationship. Christians believe the Bible can be trusted.
But when it comes to the topic of sex, some Christians wonder whether the Bible can still be trusted. It’s often believed that the Bible’s teaching is outdated, uninformed, and harmful. Is this true? Can Christians today trust what the Bible says on the topic of sex?
Isn’t the Bible’s teaching on sex old-fashioned?
Many people believe that the Bible has an old-fashioned view on sex. It’s believed to be reflective of its time, a time when sex was seen as bad and people were repressed in their sexuality. However, this view misunderstands both the Bible’s teaching and the culture in which it was written.
It misunderstands the Bible’s teaching because the Bible is actually very positive about sex, presenting it as a good gift from God to humanity, and the Bible doesn’t ask us to ignore our sexuality but to steward it rightly in the way that will best help us to flourish. The restrictions that the Bible places on the way we express our sexuality are there, not because God thinks sex is bad or dirty, but because God knows what is best for us.
This objection also misunderstands the culture in which the Bible was written. We often assume that in the time of the Bible sex was seen as a bad thing and that people were told to ignore their sexuality, but the reality could not be more different. Even in its own time, the biblical sexual ethic stood in stark contrast to the world around it.
Many people in the Greco-Roman world, the backdrop for the New Testament, held what would today be considered as very progressive views about sex and relationships, including gay sex. As Preston Sprinkle summarises, ‘I don’t care how promiscuous you think our modern culture is, let me assure you: it is nothing like first-century Rome. What we call pornography, the Romans simply called life. The junk you can find on HBO at 2:00 a.m. was plastered on bathhouse walls and inside homes as decoration’. 1 The Bible’s teaching on sex doesn’t reflect the beliefs of its time. In fact, it often stands in direct contradiction to them.
The Bible’s teaching on sex doesn’t reflect the beliefs of its time. In fact, it often stands in direct contradiction to them.
It is also important that when the Bible talks about sex and relationship it doesn’t appeal to the culture around it; it takes us back to creation. This is what both Jesus (Mark 10:6-9) and Paul (1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31) do. In doing this, the Bible shows us that its teaching is not rooted in or restricted to a certain culture but is designed to be applied by all people in all cultures because we are all living in God’s creation.
Isn’t the Bible’s teaching on sex uninformed?
Some people believe the Bible can’t be trusted on the topic of sex because it was written in a time when we didn’t have a good understanding of sexuality. In particular, it is noted that ancient writers had no concept of sexual orientation and didn’t understand that some people are born gay. Because of this, the Bible’s teaching on sex can’t be trusted.
There are multiple problems here. First, it is not certain that people in the ancient world had no concept of sexual orientation. There is evidence to suggest that the reality of innate sexual desire for people of the same sex was recognised. This wasn’t viewed in the same way as sexual orientation is today – it certainly wasn’t seen as a core part of identity – but it is not necessarily true that the biblical writers had no concept of people experiencing an enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex. 2
Second, even if we were to accept that we now know more about sexual orientation than the biblical writers did, this wouldn’t necessarily render what they say untrustworthy. Within the Christian worldview, we know that not every desire we experience or everything that feels natural to us is actually right. Even those who are not Christians can recognise this fact. We all know that we might experience desires which seem to be innate, but which are not actually good. The issue of how we should respond to same-sex desires is not solved by determining whether they are innate. Therefore, not having a contemporary understanding of sexual orientation isn’t a barrier to being able to give wisdom on the issue of sexual desires.
Isn’t the Bible’s teaching on sex harmful?
Some claim the Bible can’t be trusted because what it says about sex is harmful. This is a common view among both Christians and non-Christians.
Heartbreakingly, it is true that some gay people have been rejected by Christians and have experienced crippling shame because of how they believe God and Christians view their sexuality. However, this is not a result of the Bible’s teaching, but of a misunderstanding and misapplication of the Bible’s teaching. It does not show that the Bible is untrustworthy; it shows that Christians have often not rightly lived out the Bible’s teaching. Many of us who are same-sex attracted have found the Bible’s teaching to be life-giving.
Research suggests that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is not harmful. Mark Yarhouse and Olya Zaporozhets have conducted research into the well-being of a sample of same-sex attracted Christians who adhere to the biblical sexual ethic. Their results show that when compared with the general population these Christians were in the normal range for measures of distress, including depression, anxiety and stress, and that on a measure of overall life satisfaction most scored highly. 3
The high value placed on consent today is one of the good fruits of the biblical ethic that is still firmly rooted in our society.
When we look at the span of history, we can also see that the Bible’s teaching has been life-giving rather than harmful. The dominant ethic in the ancient world was harmful, with many people, especially slaves and children, having little to protect them from the sexual advances of others. It was the biblical sexual ethic that introduced the idea of consent as important in sexual relationships. 4 The high value placed on consent today is one of the good fruits of the biblical ethic that is still firmly rooted in our society.
The example of Jesus
Ultimately, for Christians, the reason we should trust the Bible on sex is that Jesus did. This means that for those who aren’t Christians, the first and most important question to explore is ‘Who is Jesus?’
When asked about marriage and divorce – and, by implication, sex – Jesus takes his hearers back to Scripture, asking ‘Have you not read?’ and then quoting from Genesis 1 and 2 (Matthew 19:4-6). Even though he only had the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) to refer to, Jesus viewed the Bible as trustworthy when it came to the topic of sex. He knew it isn’t outdated, uninformed or harmful. On the contrary, it offers us the most relevant, most informed and most life-giving perspective on sexuality.
- Preston Sprinkle, People to Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015), p.56.
- Preston Sprinkle looks at ancient authors such as Aristotle, Parmenides, Soranus and Maternus, and draws on the work of scholars such as Bernadette Brooten, Amy Richlin and Rabun Taylor, reaching the conclusion: ‘The evidence shows that the notion of inborn, biologically driven, same-sex desires existed in Paul’s day’ (p.61). See Sprinkle, People (Zondervan, 2015), pp.58-61.
- Mark Yarhouse & Olya Zaporozhets, Costly Obedience (Zondervan, 2019), pp.95-104, 218.
- Some have dubbed this the First Sexual Revolution. See Kyle Harper, ‘The First Sexual Revolution: How Christianity Transformed the Ancient World’, First Things.