Happily Ever After? Sexuality, Marriage, and the Gospel
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.