For the Bride: Holy Sexuality

I begin new posts for this occasional series with “Holy Sexuality” because it is a broad topic in our society, and it is a particular topic under consideration at The General Conference of The United Methodist Church that begins today in St. Louis.


The Bible does not use gender to define things, but only to describe them.  The Bible uses covenant to define things because the covenant is the way God chose to operationalize the divine will.  Covenant is the means which makes real our prayer, “thy kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Given that gender is not the defining factor for holiness, it is unfortunate that some Christians use gender to define marriage as a “one man, one woman” relationship.  The Bible does not say that marriage is between one man and one woman; it describes it that way because it was the norm. It still is today, given that 90% or so of humanity is heterosexual.

But there is a difference between what is normative and what is definitive. To say something is normative is to say how something is most of the time, not how it must be all the time.  We have combined normative and definitive in our thinking and theologizing, and created a view of sexuality that is not covenental.

I grew up in west Texas.  Our high school was large enough to play eleven-man football.  But ten miles away the school was small, and had to play six-man football.  On Friday nights, the stadium lights were on in both towns, and both schools played football.  Football was not defined by the number playing, but by overarching rules that applied to any school wanting to field a team.  Eleven-man football was normative in most places (and it still is), but it was not definitive.

In a similar way, holy sexuality is not defined by gender, but by covenant.  And in the covenant, there are four qualities that reflect God’s will for sexuality: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and (with the coming of the New Covenant) monogamy.  These words define holy sexuality, and every biblical passage that affirms godly love incarnates them, and every passage that describes sexual sin violates them.  It is covenant in Scripture, not gender, that defines what holy sexuality is, and is not.

If we recognize where the Bible defines sexuality, we will not define it exclusively through gender or orientation.  We will define it through covenant, using covenant as the one standard for any and all sexuality: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy. [1]

With the covenant definition as our reference point, we find that people of all genders and orientations can establish sexual relations that honor sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.  And with the covenant definition as our reference point, we also find that peoole of all genders and orientations can commit sexual sin. Covenant creates affirmative accountability for all people–which is to say there is one standard for sexuality…holiness, and we are all created so that we can make and keep vows that honor and express holy sexuality.  And… we are all called to do so.

This is precisely why non-heterosexual marriage must be allowed.  There is one covenant standard for sexuality, and there is one covenental means for expressing it for a lifetime: marriage.  If we expect all people to keep the covenant, we must provide all people with the means for doing so. [2]  Covenant expectations without covenant means produces a caricatured holiness, turning a covenant standard into something (from the get-go) that not everyone can keep.

Holy sexuality, like everything else, is not defined by gender, but by covenant.  If we are followers of Christ, our aim is to express our sexuality in ways that honor and keep the covenant, and our ministry is meant to offer that same opportunity to everyone. Affirmative accountability for all. All means all.

[1] I recognize that I am writing mostly about covenant sexuality in the context of marriage, and I am doing so intentionally to make the point that marriage is not gender defined. Sexuality for single people is a topic all its own, but the covenant applies there too.  And in that light, all sexuality (in singleness or marriage) can be summarized in one word:  non-promiscuous. I must leave it to single persons to discern what that means, since I have been married for nearly forty nine years.  But the point for us all is that we define and express our sexuality in relation to covenant.

[2] This is why lifelong celibacy for non-heterosexual persons is wrong.  The Bible nowhere commands LGBTQ+ persons to be celibate for a lifetime.  Sexual celibacy was an artificial necessity imposed by the Church once it denied marriage to non-heterosexual persons.  It was never a biblical requirement–for anyone.  It can be a voluntary choice (Matthew 19:12), but it is not a biblical command.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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