What Is a Christian Sexual Ethic?

Preston Sprinkle

As you may have gathered from my previous few blogs, I’m combing through various books on sexual ethics and related topics. The list of potential books is endless, and I’ve already read a decent number over the years, but I’m committed to reading through as many significant books on sexuality and gender as I can over the next few years.


In the last couple of months, I’ve read through Jonathan Grant’s Divine Sex, Dale Kuehne’s Sex and the iWorld, and Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics—the one I’ll interact with in this blog. I’m currently reading Christopher West’s Fill These Hearts, Dennis Hollinger’s The Meaning of Sex, and two other forthcoming books that aren’t public yet. There are several others that are waiting on deck including Rogers Brubaker’s Trans, Ryan Anderson’s Truth Overruled, Richard Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh (a 650 page beast!), Gabriele Kuby’s The Global Sexual Revolution, and Cynthia Westfall’s highly acclaimed Paul and Gender. And then I’m going to take a long nap before I fill my bookshelf with another stack of must-reads books on sex, sexuality, and gender. (My kids recently looked at my bookshelf and asked my wife, “Now…what does daddy do again?”)


So let’s look at Stan Grenz’s book Sexual Ethics. Overall, the book was very thorough, well researched, and informative. Translated, this means that it was a bit dry, academic, and filled with untweetably long sentences. Although the book is clear, I kept getting bogged down by redundancies, which were scattered throughout. Even though it was 250 pages, it could have been 190 with no loss in content. And—this isn’t a critique, but—you should know that the book was originally written in 1990 and updated just slightly in 1997. Needless to say, a lot has happened since then.


As far as the content, Grenz’s book is excellent. A must read, I’d say, for anyone wanting a thorough look at what a Christian sexual ethic looks like—or should look like. (Part of the problem might be the striking shortage of scholarly books devoted to sexual ethics.) Grenz looks at things like:

  • The Nature of Human Sexuality

  • Male and Female as Sex Differences

  • The Meaning of Marriage

  • The Meaning of Sex

  • Divorce

  • Contraceptives

  • Technology and Pregnancy Enhancement

  • Singleness

  • Homosexuality

I was also going to say a brief word about his scintillating chapters on singleness, which were excellent. And I actually did say a word, but it turned out to be a 3-page word, which was anything but brief! So I turned it into a separate blog, which I’ll post next.


I want to focus this post on Grenz’s treatment of the meanings of marriage and sex, which he spends a few chapters unpacking (esp. chs. 3-4, with some bits scattered in chs. 1-2, and 11-12).


Most people today view marriage as a contract between two consenting people, who commit to loving each other until they fall out of love with each other, in which case they can break the contract and go about their way. When consent is the only rule, two adults can pretty much use marriage anyway they see fit.


Christianity presents a much more complex and multi-layered view of marriage. Like much of Christianity’s ethic, our view of marriage is countercultural and distinct—at least it should be. For Christianity, marriage is a lifelong covenant between two sexually different but equal persons. There is a subjective reality to their bond: they love each other, find each other attractive (physically, emotionally, spiritually), and agree to pursuing life together. But there’s also an objective reality that marriage represents; the stuff that God has designed marriage to be.


Grenz sums up this objective reality under 4 main purposes for marriage. Technically, Grenz talks about marriage in chapter 3 and sex in chapter 4. But there was so much overlap in these chapters—and a lot of redundancies that ensued—so I’ll combine his points on marriage and sex.


1.     Marriage as the Unitive Context for Sexual Expression


Though not “the only, nor the highest purpose of marriage,” marriage is the one human relationship where two people can have sex. The sex act within marriage is designed to “solidify the unity of male and female in marriage” (p. 84).


We’ll return to this again under point 4, but Grenz argues that the sex difference of male and female is necessary for marriage and sex. “As the unity of husband and wife is formed and expressed—that community of male and female which God intends to serve as a reflection of the divine nature—a picture is presented of the higher unity of the divine life” (p. 84). The “community of male and female is designed by God to be an expression of the divine community of love” (p. 84). Since God exists as a unity of difference, so also the coming together of male and female reflects this community of difference.


Grenz’s fullest expression of this unity theme comes on pages 236-237:


Sexual intercourse is intended to convey the union of two persons in their entirety as two sexual beings: the two becoming one. For this meaning to be fully expressed, the physical act itself must be one whereby the dialectic of sameness and difference is taken up into a union…The sex act, then, is more than the experience of sexual “climax.” Climax, therefore, ought not to be equated with the sex act…More crucial than the ability to attain climax, therefor, is the capability of the sex act to symbolize the uniting of supplementary sexual persons into a whole (pp. 236-237).


Just a side note, there were a few times where Grenz seemed to elevate marriage too high, as if to say that married couples are a fuller representation of God (see e.g. 84, 87, 89, 117). But when he got into the topic of singleness, he was quite clear that all humans, though incomplete as individuals, equally reflect God’s image (see p. 181). We are designed to live in community, and marriage is one unique and purposefully way to live in community. But it’s not the only way or even the best way (see my next blog).


By the way, I added the word “unitive” to Grenz’s original subtitle. (The original reads: “Marriage as the Context for Sexual Expression.”) But the stuff he says in that section, and in other sections that refer to it, captures the so-called “unitive meaning” of sex and marriage, which we read about in Catholic dogma (e.g. the 1987 Vatican statement, Donum vitae). Marriage as a context for sexual expression means more than a way to achieve a sanctified orgasm. Christians must ask: what’s the purpose of that? And according to Grenz, the sex act itself seals the “one flesh” unitive bond between sexually different persons.



2.     Marriage as Directed Toward Procreation and Child-Rearing


I’ve been wrestling quite a bit with the relationship between sex and procreation recently. As a low church Protestant, I wonder if we’ve too quickly embraced the very recent (historically speaking) separation of sex and procreation. For much of human history, and virtually all of Christian history, sex was viewed as intrinsically procreative. Not that every sex act results in procreation—most don’t. And not that every sexual relationship will result in procreation—infertility and sex in old age prove otherwise. But this doesn’t change the fact that the sex act as such is a procreative act. Dennis Hollinger says it like this:


Sex by its very nature is procreative in the sense that it leads to progeny…The fact that children are not born from every single act of sex simply means that sex is about more than procreation, but does nothing to nullify its generative dimension (The Meaning of Sex, 104).


Meanwhile, back at the Grenz farm, Christian marriage should always be open to procreation and therefore symbolizes the “expansive love of God, which likewise creates the other as its byproduct” (p. 90). The couple’s openness to new life “function[s] as a sign of the couple’s willingness to open their relationship beyond themselves” and therefore reflect the heart of God (p. 90). Grenz takes a very high view of sex and procreation; he understands sex to be procreative in nature, and therefore every (married) couple who engages in the act should always be open to new life. However, Grenz also argues for family planning and the use of contraceptives within the context of marriage:


Birth control is a valid option for married couples on the basis of the importance of responsible family planning in the midst of the contemporary situation. In a world in which the population is increasing rapidly and the cost of providing for children is escalating, it is not surprising that many couples are deciding to limit the size of their families (p. 153).


I suspect that Grenz was locked up in his ivory tower when he wrote this. I’m not sure how many husbands are throwing on a hood out of fear of over population. Most parents that I know use contraceptives because they don’t want to be inconvenienced by more kids—the sleepless nights, the stress, the responsibility, the roadblocks to success in the marketplace. In any case, I can’t say that Grenz argue his case very well here, especially since he argues quite thoroughly for the inherent procreative nature of sex throughout the rest of the book. But as a Protestant, I sure hope he’s right.



3.     Marriage as the Focus of Companionship


According to love flicks, most non-Christians, and most Christians in America, this is the primary and perhaps sole purpose of marriage. Find Mrs. or Mr. Right, the one you love to be with, and as long as you experience intense emotional feelings (which have recently been) called “falling in love,” then go for it! Grenz doesn’t deny that this is an aspect of marriage. But he does temper it a bit, and rightly so:


The predominance of this understanding of the meaning of marriage is partially due to the influence of nineteenth-century Romanticism. But its roots go deeper, including the Protestantism which has played such an important role in shaping the understanding of the Western world (p. 69).


I tend to agree. Companionship is great. It’s one of the purposes of marriage. But it is a recent phenomenon and we shouldn’t elevate it too highly. A marriage that’s founded on “falling in love” will get shipwrecked when the couple “falls out of love.” And if companionship is the loftiest value—soaring high above commitment, love, and sacrifice—then lack of companionship can just as easily send a marriage crashing into the rocks. There must be higher values that cause a marriage to reflect the divine union it’s designed to. Which brings us to the fourth purpose.


4.     Marriage as a Spiritual Metaphor


Grenz says this is the primary meaning of marriage. (Why’d you list it fourth, Stanley?) The spiritual metaphor is seen in two ways. First, marriage is a picture of the Trinitarian community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).


Just as the Trinity is a community of love, so also the marital relationship is to be characterized by love, thereby revealing the love inherent in God. Marriage accomplishes this in that the bonding that brings man and woman together incorporates a dialectic of sameness and difference not totally dissimilar to the dialectic present in the Trinity (p. 70).


Again, “the divine community is a dialectic between sameness and difference. God is a unity of three persons who share the one divine nature but who are distinct from each other. This aspect of the Trinitarian life of God is reflected in marriage itself” (p. 65). But, for the mathematicians among us: If marriage is between two people, then why does it represent three divine persons? This is where Grenz goes off on a lengthy and compelling argument for polygamy.


Just kidding. Actually, I don’t remember Grenz dealing with the “two representing three” problem. If he did, it obviously wasn’t very memorable. And I don’t think it really matters. The point of the metaphor is to correlate unity among difference. The numerical exactness isn’t vital for the metaphor to work. Plus, in the one place where the Bible most explicitly maps the Trinitarian metaphor onto male and female relations, Paul singles out the Father and the Son (1 Cor 11)—two equally but different divine persons.


Second, marriage isn’t just a picture of the Trinitarian community, but also God’s relationship to humanity. We see this in several OT (Jer 3; Hos 2) and NT (Eph 5) passages. “[M]arriage points to the spiritual bond that God desires to enjoy with humankind, a bond created proleptically by Christ’s bond with the church” (p. 63). This second aspect of the metaphor, of course, lays the foundation for Christianity’s relentless emphases on permanency in marriage. In as much as God’s love (an emotion and action) is directed toward us, so also married partners, a unity of differents, are to love one another as they represent the divine community and express hope and openness to the possibility of new life.




Far from being just an agreement between two consenting people as long as the fire stays lit, the Christian vision of marriage is far more complex and intricate. When a Christian couple gets married, there is much more going on than the subjective wash of emotions and the hope of endless, passionate, sanctified sex. In marriage, heaven and earth are joined at the hip as God’s image bearers make a profoundly theological declaration:


“I do.” 

  • Share this story:


Sexual Self-Knowledge

How We are Formed by Christ in Being Aware of our own Sexual Desires As a professor of theology at...

Read Story
What is “Biblical” Masculinity and Femininity?

What’s a biblical view of manhood and womanhood? Toss out this bomb of a question in your next Bible study,...

Read Story
How Young is Too Young to Start Talking with Young Kids About Sex?

With the rise in access to technology, social media, and sexualized content in media, children are being exposed to sexual...

Read Story
The Cultural Context for the Hair Length/Style vs. Head-coverings Debate in 1 Cor 11: The Meaning of Kephalē part 12

In my previous post, I analyzed the linguistic arguments concerning whether Paul is talking about hair style/length or head-coverings in...

Read Story
Paul’s Language of Hairstyles or Head-coverings in 1 Cor 11: The Meaning of Kephalē Part 11

Introduction  1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is an exegetical minefield. Almost every line is subject to debate. Some even seem downright heretical,...

Read Story
Lucy Peppiatt’s View of 1 Corinthians 11: The Meaning of Kephalē Part 10

I don’t know how many of you read endnotes, but in the last post, I buried a comment in note...

Read Story
A Complementarian Reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: The Meaning of Kephalē part 9

Introduction  This post is part 9 of my ongoing series on the meaning of kephalē (“head”) in Paul’s letters, where I’m trying...

Read Story
Orphan Care Journey: Calling Revisited

By Brandon Stiver. Learn more about Brandon here and get help to transform your orphanage here. This blog post is the last in...

Read Story
Orphan Care Journey: Experience

By Brandon Stiver. Learn more about Brandon here and get help to transform your orphanage here. This blog post is the second in...

Read Story
Orphan Care Journey: Calling

By Brandon Stiver. Learn more about Brandon here and get help to transform your orphanage here. This blog post is the first in...

Read Story