Is the Bible Confused About Sex?

Posted: March 10, 2011 in bible, marriage

Terri Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, recently interviewed Pastor Jennifer Wright Knust about her new book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.  Obviously the title does not bode well for a person who believes that the Bible is the very Word of God (like me), and upon seeing Bart Ehrman’s recommendation on the cover, my worst fears were all but confirmed (see my review of Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted, here).

As you can probably guess from the title, Knust’s main thesis is that the Bible is full of contradictions and inconsistencies when it comes to the issue of sex.  And because of this, she concludes that “the Bible shouldn’t be used as a guidebook for marriage or sexuality.”  In her own words:

The Bible offers no viable solution to our marriage dilemmas [referring to the issue of homosexual marriage]… There is no such thing as a single, biblically based view of legitimate marriage.

In support of this monumental (and ridiculous) claim, Knust cites the “obvious contradiction” between the Old Testament’s allowance of polygamy (which she equates with the Bible teaching/supporting polygamy) and the New Testament’s supposed insistence on celibacy as the ideal for God’s people.  In regard to the latter, Knust mentions Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, but offers no specific references.  Most likely, she is referring to Matthew 19, where Jesus talks about marriage, divorce, and celibacy.  Specifically, in 19:10-12, Jesus talks about eunuchs.

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

However, Knust ignores 19:4-9 where Jesus clearly extolls the goodness of marriage, grounding it in the creation account of Genesis.

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Jesus’ comments on celibacy are in response to the disciples’ marveling at his teaching regarding the unbreakable nature of the marriage covenant, a teaching which led them to question whether or not it was “worth it” to get married.  The reason the disciples figure that “it is better not to marry” (v. 10) is precisely because of the sacred – almost indissoluble (look it up) – nature of the marriage covenant!  In his commentary on Matthew, R.T. France writes,

Celibacy was most unusual in Jewish society, and it is not unlikely that Jesus himself was abused as a eunuch (always a term of disparagement, if not of abuse) because he was not married; this verse may then reflect an element of apologia for his own condition, as he points out that physical incapacity (whether natural or man-inflicted) is not the only legitimate reason for celibacy, but that some may be called to voluntary celibacy (made themselves eunuchs, not literally of course) because of the special demands of their role in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus himself was one such.  But these verses emphasize that whether one is married or not is not a matter of ‘better’ and ‘worse’, but of God’s gift, which is not the same for all disciples. (283)

Knust also mentions the Apostle Paul as a supporter of celibacy.  Amazingly, when one reads Paul’s letters, he seems to say essentially the same thing that Jesus said (imagine that)!  In verse 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul mentions something his readers had written to him in a different letter.  While not categorically rejecting the possibility that it may be good to abstain from sex (and, by implication, marriage), Paul points out that there are good reasons a person should get married.  Specifically, if a person is struggling with sexual temptation, he should get married so that he has a proper outlet for that sexual desire.  And Paul makes it clear that sex is good and necessary for married couples – it’s a non-negotiable!  It should only be limited for short periods of time for the sake of prayer.

Now, that’s not to say that Paul does not see value in not getting married and remaining celibate (7:6-7).  Any married person will tell you that marriage entails a lot of responsibility and time.  At times it is very stressful and distracting.  Therefore, an unmarried Christian is wise to consider whether or not it would be best for he or she to get married in regard to their impact for Christ.  An unmarried person can do things that a married person cannot.  However, Paul makes it very clear that celibacy and marriage are both gifts from God, distributed by Him, at His own discretion.

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. … Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. … But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (7:7, 17, 28)

Clearly, for both Jesus and Paul, Christians who decide to marry are totally within God’s will and are not in sin.  They are not “lesser” Christians.  Rather, they have just not been “gifted” (or “called”) to a life of celibacy.  Thus, the teaching of the New Testament is in no way at odds with the Old Testament insistence that marriage (and sex) is a good gift from God (although, I would allow that the New Testament presents a more developed and/or slightly different teaching, though not one that is contradictory).

Now, of course, you’re not going to get this nuance from a someone like Pastor Jennifer Wright Knust.  It’s all contradiction and inconsistencies to her (which makes sense if she’s being influenced by a guy like Ehrman).

I knew the interview was getting pretty ridiculous when Knust paints David and Jonathan’s relationship as homosexual in nature (even going so far as to say that the biblical text presents Jonathan as David’s “wife”).  Give me a break.

Frustrating as a book like this is, I hope that Christians do not see or hear material like this and feel that their confidence in the Bible has been shaken.  Over and over again, I have found that supposed “inconsistencies” and “contradictions” are nothing more than misunderstanding, misrepresentations, or non-sequitors.  Again, I would point you to my review of Ehrman’s book, which is full of concocted contradictions and imaginary inconsistencies!

The Bible is God’s Word and it is consistent.  Books like Unprotected Texts do not need to shake our faith.  Rather, we should return to diligent study of the “sacred writings, which are able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” (2 Timothy 3:15).

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