EDITOR’S NOTE: Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies and ethics at Boyce College, and associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., discusses his new book, What Is the Meaning of Sex?, with Towers book review editor, Matt Damico. A brief review of the book appears at the Southern Blog: here.
MD: Why is your book necessary?
DB: I think there used to be a consensus in the western world, certainly in Christendom, about what the meaning of sex is and what the ultimate purpose of our sexuality is. I think, in many ways, that kind of shared cultural understanding has been lost. And, for years now, our culture has been imbibing deeply in the spirit of the sexual revolution. Unfortunately, that spirit has crept into our churches as well. Even now, the church’s witness has become increasingly unclear on these issues. So, my goal with this book is to help communicate to people what the Bible says about the gift of sexuality, why God created it and what we’re supposed to do with it. That’s what this book is all about.
MD: What’s your book saying that’s unique compared to other books on the topic?
DB: I think the most important thing that I’m saying in this book that maybe is not stated as well elsewhere is that sex exists for the glory of God. Other books talk about penultimate purposes for the gift of sexuality — procreation, expressions of love, pleasure, consummation of marriage — all those things are true, but they’re penultimate purposes. The ultimate purpose of sex as God has given it is his glory. So, in the book I’m trying to show, from the Bible, how it is that we glorify God with our sexuality.
If you relate all of your life to the glory of God, that presents you with a certain ethical framework that sometimes other frameworks don’t allow. In some frameworks, the question is “What is allowed?” And people begin to mine the Scriptures for laws or rules concerning sexuality. Now, everything the Bible says in terms of laws or rules is important, but that’s not the ultimate question we have to ask. The ultimate question we’re asking is “What glorifies God?” Not what is lawful alone, but what glorifies God. So, that to me is a bottom line value we have in pursuing ethics this way.
MD: What role should natural law play in a Christian’s arguments when discussing sexual ethics issues?
DB: I think natural law is very important, because God has created everything with a purpose. If you believe that, that means God’s fingerprints are all over creation so that even looking at male and female bodies is revealing of God’s intention for sexuality. There is much that we can view in nature that informs us as to what God’s purposes are. I think there’s a basic heterosexual complementarity revealed in the biology of men and women. That is reflective of God’s intentions.
Now, natural law is good, but it’s not good all alone, you need divine revelation because sometimes our appropriation of natural law, our understanding of the way God reveals himself in nature, is imperfect. Scripture is a norm that brings us in and corrects us and helps us toward the deepest meaning of sexuality. So, even with as much as you can see about what God has revealed about himself in nature, the deepest meaning of our sexuality is revealed in Scripture. The Bible teaches that the deepest meaning of marriage, and indeed of the gift of sexuality, is to indicate Christ’s love for his church, the way Christ relates to his people. If you’ve missed that, then you’ve really missed the ultimate meaning of sex and you’ve missed what God’s purposes are for you in Christ. So you need both. Natural law is good as far as it goes, but you need Scriptural revelation as well.
MD: What role does hermeneutics play in sexual ethics?
DB: Well, it’s everything. Because, at the end of the day, Scripture is the norm that is not normed by any other norm. What Scripture says and what it means is the bottom line in terms of determining what we think about sexuality. The problem is that there are some approaches to reading the Scripture that are less than helpful. And one of the things you encounter when you read about sexual ethics is that people will often place a kind of disjunction between the apostle Paul and Jesus. They’ll say, “Well, Jesus is saying one thing, and Paul is saying another thing that doesn’t agree with Jesus. Jesus is the peace-loving, non-sexually repressed Messiah of the New Testament. And Paul is the sexually repressive, misogynist kind of guy.” So they put Jesus and Paul into this kind of hermeneutical cage match. And, of course, when you do that, Jesus always wins.
Well, what happens when you do that is that you lose so much of what the rest of the New Testament says about the purposes of our sexuality. So, really, if Jesus and Paul were standing here with us right now, they would not accept this contest because Jesus and Paul stand shoulder-to-shoulder on these things, they complement each other, they don’t contradict each other. So your hermeneutic has to take equally seriously the red letters of Scripture and the black letters, and unless you’re doing that your hermeneutic has fallen short.
MD: What challenges do the new sexual norms present for Christians and for the church?
DB: Christians are going to have to get used to the fact that our views on sexuality are becoming a minority view. And that’s not something that’s happened in the last two years, or five years or even 10 years. This has been a long time coming. We are living in a culture that does not agree with what the purposes of the gift of sex are or what the definition of marriage is. In my book, I argue that the only valid expression of our sexuality is that which is shared within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman. Everything outside of that is considered unlawful and sinful. Well, our culture just doesn’t hold to that anymore. And it’s not just a question of what you think about gay marriage or some of the hot-button issues, this is something that goes even further back than that.
With the onset of the divorce culture, with the ubiquity of immorality and premarital sex, people have, for a long time, left this idea in our culture that sex is a good gift from God to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage. What that means for Christians is that it presents a challenge for us because now, if we’re faithful to Jesus, we’re going to be more conspicuously different than everyone else. And it means that there’s going to be sometimes a cost for us to pay to be faithful to Jesus in the culture that we live in. And that’s okay, and that’s not surprising to us; Jesus said to us that it would be this way. But it is a change for us and it’s something that Christians are going to have to learn to face with courage and conviction.
MD: Why should a pastor care about
DB: Any pastor who’s being faithful to the Bible knows that his people are struggling. And he knows that his people are living in a culture that is pressing on them to do something different than what the Bible says. And you don’t have to look very far to see within our churches that people have been shaped by the spirit of the age. Divorce is rampant among those who call themselves Christians. Immorality, premarital sex, adultery, all these things exist among those who name themselves as Christians.
So our churches, and pastors in particular, have a responsibility to preach the Bible to people, to preach in such a way that people would be sanctified and formed into the image of Christ. And one of the lies of current culture is that you can have your own religious life and have your personal piety with your sexual life cut off from what you owe to Jesus or what belongs to Jesus. The Bible doesn’t speak that way. The Bible says that all of life is to be brought under the lordship of Christ. In fact, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 when it comes to the gift of sexuality, “Glorify God with your bodies,” and, “do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” So, all of our lives are to be brought into subjection to the Word of God. Pastors have a real responsibility to preach in such a way that people understand what the Bible says and so they can
live and obey.
MD: What is the meaning of sex?
DB: When you ask, “What is the meaning of sex?” you’re asking, “What is the purpose of sex?” What I’m arguing in my book is that you haven’t understood the gift of sexuality unless you’ve understood the creator’s purpose for it. The ultimate purpose is the glory of God. Everything we do in our lives falls under that larger purpose, and that includes the gift of sexuality. And if you haven’t comprehended that, you haven’t comprehended the reason for which God made you.
MD: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
DB: I hope readers take away a number of things. One thing I want readers to understand is that you may come to a book like this and look at all the holy demands of God, and you’ll see how impossible they seem, and maybe how much you’ve fallen short. I think it’s easy for readers to be convicted by that and maybe feel condemned by that, and one thing I want readers to understand is that, look, nobody’s perfect, including the person who wrote this book. We are all broken sinners and, if anything comes from this book, you need to see your need for Jesus. We’re not going to be saved because of our sexual holiness. Jesus saves us. His death and resurrection is the basis for our confidence and our hope and he has done everything that we’ve failed at; he’s done it right. So I want readers to have an abiding hope in Jesus Christ for salvation from sin, but I also want them to see that the same Jesus who saved us is the one who sanctifies us, and he intends for all of our lives to be brought under his sovereign control, and that includes our sexual lives, and he wants our lives ordered for and toward the glory of God.