The Bible’s View of the Human Body, 4: Boundaries

Since we have both God’s original design as well as fallenness in our bones, we cannot simply seek to fulfil our bodily appetites whenever we feel an urge.  Owing to “the flesh,” our desires are not always in tune with God’s original good design.  We can see this easily, using the illustration of eating a bag of chips.  When the first chip hits our tongues, its flavor and texture cause a cascade of chemical reactions, resulting in the wonderful experience of taste.  We chew and swallow, then we go for the second chip.  It’s likewise very good, but not quite as mind-blowing as the first.  Then we have a third, a fourth, and so on—until the bag is empty.  Our bodies do not tell us to stop until it’s too late.  We’ve already gone overboard, and we will suffer the consequences.  As we repeat this experience, we will find ourselves battling health problems such as high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and obesity.  This little illustration shows how bodily appetites are not reliable guides for human flourishing.  Of course, we were right to alleviate our hunger pangs by eating, but we cannot allow ourselves to eat anything that tastes good without regard for nutrition or quantity.  Thus, the appetites of our bodies show us only a clouded and partial picture of what is good for us.  Thankfully, God does not leave us without help.  He graciously provides us with boundaries for our bodies, so we can know His design for living within the optimal range of human functioning.  Here are some example boundaries:

Behavior Boundary Sin
drinking alcohol moderation, sobriety drunkenness
eating food moderation, no overeating gluttony
working work hard, but take a day off weekly laziness, over working
having sex heterosexual marriage adultery, prostitution, etc.
sleeping don’t over sleep, get enough sleep laziness, the sluggard
killing[1] war, capital punishment murder
dressing modest clothes of gender promiscuity, crossdressing

Each of these behaviors is something physical we can do with our bodies.  We could add to it many other behaviors like speaking the truth, honoring parents, and providing for children, but I want to remain focused on the deeds of the body.  Naturally, it’s impossible to work through all of these, so I will focus on sex in what follows, because it’s the most addressed in the Bible and it’s the most controversial today.  To begin with, let’s consider the full range of sexual prohibitions in the Bible.

Old Testament Sexual Sins New Testament Sexual Sins
homosexual intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13) homosexual sex (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9)
adultery (Lev 18:20; 20:10; Deut 22:22) adultery (1 Cor 6:9)
premarital sex (Deut 22:13-24) premarital sex (Mat 15:19; 1 Cor 7:1-2, 8-9)
prostitution (Lev 19:29; 21:9; Deut 23:17-18) prostitution (1 Cor 6:15)
incest (Lev 18:6-16; 20:11-12, 17, 19-21; Deut 22:30) incest (1 Cor 5:1)
bestiality (Ex 22:19; Lev 18:23; 20:15-16; Deut 27:21) orgies (Gal 5:21; 1 Pet 4:3)
intercourse during menstruation (Lev 18:19; 20:18) lust (Mat 5:28; 1 Thes 4:5)
polygamy with a wife’s relatives (Lev 18:17-18; 20:14) sexual immorality (Col 3:5)
rape (Deut 22:25-29) impurity (Gal 5:19)
refusing levirate marriage (Gen 38:8-10; Deut 25:5-10) sensuality (Gal 5:20)

Although the sheer variety of sexual misbehaviors may seem overwhelming, the boundary is as simple as it is elegant:

Genesis 2:24   
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

God invented human genitalia and their accompanying sensations.  He did not create these aspects of our bodies to test us or frustrate us.  He designed them as part of His good plan for the human experience within the confines of marriage.  This arrangement is neither arbitrary nor is it stifling.  Rather, the marriage commitment provides a framework for vulnerability and trust, enabling optimal sexual expression.  So long as intercourse occurs within what Tim Keller calls, “a consumer relationship,” the experience degenerates into performance, manipulation, and dehumanization.[2]  However, within the biblical perspective of covenant, coming together is a physical expression of oneness that mirrors the spiritual commitment each spouse has made to the other.  Sadly, space doesn’t allow to explore what the Bible teaches about marriage, but suffice it to say the essence of a Christian marriage is an intensified form of loving one’s neighbor as oneself where the husband represents Christ and the wife, the church.[3]  Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christian marriage automatically cures every sexual problem, but limiting intercourse to a covenant relationship certainly eliminates many significant issues facing us today, including cohabitation, sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, adultery, sexual harassment, and rape.  In what follows, we will consider each of these.

Cohabitation

Living together before marriage increased from 30% in 1987 to 50% in 1995 to 61% in 2002.[4]  In a world where many grew up in families characterized by parental conflict, cohabitation seems like a good way to work out compatibility before making a mistake.  Living together also saves money, helps couples get out of their parents’ houses, and enables deeper companionship and expressions of love than living apart.  However, it also has major problems. Apart from defying God’s design for marriage (Genesis 2:24), cohabitation actually increases the chances of divorce.[5]  According to the American College of Pediatricians, “Cohabitation before marriage is associated with lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as increased negative communication with couples spending less time together and men spending more time on personal leisure; there is more violence and a higher rate of divorce.”[6]  The report adds that those who live together are more likely to be unfaithful and their children experience increased health risks.  They conclude, “The doctors of the American College of Pediatricians urge their adolescent patients to avoid cohabitation and to recognize the life-long benefits of marriage…Saving the sexual relationship for marriage brings physical, emotional, and mental benefits to a couple.”[7]  Additionally, it’s bad for kids.  As many as 46% of children will experience their mother cohabiting at some time by the age of 16.[8]  After three years, 49% of these couples split up (compared to only 11% of married parents).[9]  This is because a couple living together without any spiritual, legal, or social commitment creates an insecure environment for kids (who flourish better living with both parents in a marriage commitment). 

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In Jacqueline Howard’s 2016 CNN article, “STD rates reach record high in United States,” she reviews the data from the 2015 STD surveillance report of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.  “Overall,” she writes, “young people [15 to 24 years old] and gay and bisexual men face the greatest risk of getting a STD.”[10]  The data from 2016 do not look any better.  In fact, the CDC titled their 2017 press release “STDs at record high, urgent need for prevention.”[11]  Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s STD prevention, sounded the alarm when he said, “STDs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond.”[12]  We aren’t shocked when we see exaggerated speech on social media or news websites, but when the CDC uses words like “epidemic accelerating in multiple populations,” we would do well to take notice.[13]  Our hookup culture—casual sex with no expectation of having a subsequent relationship—stands at the center of this public health crisis.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “between 60 percent and 80 percent of North American college students have had some sort of hook-up experience.”[14]  Another smaller qualitative study of 71 students found that about half of them aren’t even concerned about contracting STDs during a hookup.[15]  Assuming one marries a healthy spouse and both remain faithful, the biblical sexual ethic ably eliminates this entire problem. 

Prostitution

Increasingly today, prostitution is moving off the streets and onto the internet where prostitutes look more like entrepreneurs than victims coerced by men.  For example, a recent article, “Is Prostitution Just Another Job?” challenged the stereotype of prostitutes as victims who work in the sex industry out of necessity.[16]  However, much prostitution remains exploitative, and all prostitutes face significant risks, including the spread of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and violence.  In the U. S., prostitution is one of the most dangerous professions—worse than oil rig workers, loggers, or Alaskan fishermen—with a death rate of 204 out of every 100,000.[17]  Prostitutes in America get physically assaulted about once a month.  Due to the illegal nature of the profession, prostitutes often do not take legal action, since doing so would incriminate themselves.  As many as 80,000 prostitution arrests occur each year, costing taxpayers around $200 million.[18]  Once again, the biblical boundary that limits sex to marriage solves this social problem.

Adultery

According to social scientist Catherine Hakim, “Sex is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal.”[19]  She envisions open marriages wherein spouses pursue multiple affairs all the while retaining their original husbands or wives.  Although our culture is not quite ready to get on board with Hakim’s new rules, in 2015 the Ashley Madison data breach made public a seedy underground of millions of members who have bought into the slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair.”  Statistics are difficult to find, but one estimate is that between 30% and 60% of all married people will commit adultery at some time in their marriage.[20]  Another, more conservative guess, puts the number at 22% for men and 14% for women.[21]  Data is difficult to ascertain because adultery remains taboo for many in our culture and adulterers typically don’t want their unsuspecting spouses alerted to their misbehavior.  Surprisingly, adultery is still a crime (as of 2017) in 21 states with several classifying it as a felony.  Penalties range from a $10 fine in Maryland to up to a year in prison in South Carolina.  Even so, prosecutions are rare.  But, regardless of any legal consequences, adultery is a relational bomb that shreds a marriage to pieces, obliterating trust.  In some cases, adultery leads to murder, as the victim seeks revenge on the unfaithful spouse and/or the other adulterer.  Beyond the emotional cost to the innocent spouse and the financial cost of divorce, the cost to the children is simply incalculable.  Once again, the biblical teaching on fidelity in marriage excludes this behavior.

Sexual Harassment

In October of 2017, the #MeToo movement spread virally on social media to create awareness for sexual harassment and assault.  The hashtag went viral on Twitter as individuals shared their own experiences, including celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, and Uma Thurman.  From higher ranking employees engaging in quid pro quo (voluntary or involuntary) to those fishing for hookups at the water cooler to untargeted crass remarks at work to catcalling on street corners, sexual harassment is a major problem in our world today.  This behavior makes people uncomfortable, and it causes financial losses due to productivity lapses, sick leave, turnover, law suits, and public relations costs.  Nonetheless, sexual harassment is extremely prevalent in many workplaces.  Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports for 2010 to 2017 indicate that victims have filed little more than 12,000 claims each year,[22] other more informal surveys find that one in three young women (ages 18 to 34) has suffered sexual harassment at work.[23]  Much of this behavior results from single men seeking relations with others they do not intend to marry.  The biblical ordering that puts marriage before sex, effectively rules out this strategy.  Furthermore, the biblical teaching on human origins establishes a firm foundation for respecting women as men’s equal counterparts excludes the dehumanization inherent in sexual harassment.

Rape

From the conflict in Kashmir to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the incredible abuses during World War II by the Soviets, Nazis, and Japanese, rape has been a mainstay in wartime.  However, sexual assault doesn’t disappear in times of peace.  One study, drawing on 150,000 students at 27 colleges and universities found that 23% of female college seniors had endured unwanted sexual contact with 11% experiencing penetration.[24]  That’s nearly one in every four women on campus!  Additionally, in 2015 incarcerated men faced sexual assault at the alarming rate of 4% for prisons and 3.2% for jails.[25]  Considering that the United States had 1,942,500 male federal and state prisoners that year, 77,700 men suffered assault (not including those in jails).[26]  Still, the problem is even bigger.  Once we add in 63,000 children and 18,900 soldiers, not to mention rapes that occur in the general public, we come to the staggering statistic that more than 300,000 people are victims of sexual violence each year in America.[27]  That works out to a sexual assault every 98 seconds!  As with the other sexual ills our society faces, embracing a biblical somatology results in respecting and valuing the other person, which in turn precludes sexual assault.

Although we haven’t examined every sexual issue facing our society, this brief survey shows just how robust the biblical boundary of sex-within-marriage is.  Far from stifling and repressing sexual expression, God’s marriage limitation actually unleashes the best for us.  For the sake of analogy, let’s consider a wild tomato plant.  As its fruit grows, the branches become heavier, and eventually the plant tips over.  Many of the tomatoes will rest on the ground, inviting pests and rot to spoil the fruit.  However, when a wise gardener attaches the plant to a stake, she at once limits the direction the plant can grow while enabling it to become much taller, with the end result that it produces more delicious tomatoes.  This is like the boundaries God placed on His people.  It is true that they curb freedom, but not to hold us back from reaching our potential; rather, His boundaries enable us to maximize the good in our lives.  Now that we’ve seen how the Bible’s sexual ethic exemplifies how a biblical view of the body works, we will turn our attention next time to critique one of our culture’s dominant ways of thinking about people—personhood theory.


[1] Jesus challenged his followers to love their enemies (Mt 5:5, 9, 38-48; cf. 1 Thes 5:15; Rom 12:14, 17-21; 1 Pet 3:8-11). 

[2] For an excellent treatment of the Christian view of marriage see Tim & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (NY: Penguin, 2011).

[3] For biblical teaching on marriage see Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7.

[4] Mindy Scott, Erin Schelar, Jennifer Manlove, Carol Cui, “Young Adult Attitudes About Relationships and Marriage: Times May Have Changed, But Expectations Remain High,” Child Trends Research Brief, Publication #2009-30 (Washington DC: ChildTrends.org, 2009), p. 3, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Child_Trends-2009_07_08_RB_YoungAdultAttitudes.pdf.

[5] One source reports divorce increases by 46%: “Cohabitation,” ForYourMarriage.org, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/cohabitation/.

[6] Patricia Lee June, “Cohabitation: Effects of Cohabitation on the Men and Women Involved—Part 1 of 2,” American College of Pediatricians, March 2015, accessed January 24, 2017, https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/societal-issues/cohabitation-part-1-of-2.

[7] ibid.

[8] “The American Family Today,” Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, December 17, 2015, accessed on January 24, 2017, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/1-the-american-family-today/.

[9] Patricia Lee June, “Cohabitation: Effects of Cohabitation on the Men and Women Involved—Part 2 of 2,” American College of Pediatricians, March 2015, accessed January 24, 2017, https://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/societal-issues/cohabitation-part-2-of-2.

[10] Howard, Jacqueline, “STD Rates Reach Record High in United State,” CNN, October 20, 2016, accessed on April 6, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/20/health/std-statistics-record-high/index.html.

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2017/2016-STD-Surveillance-Report.html

[12] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “STDs at Record High, Indicating Urgent Need for Prevention,” press release of the 2016 STD Surveillance Report, September 26, 2017, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2017/std-surveillance-report-2016-press-release.html

[13] ibid.

[14] Justin R. Garcia, “Sexual Hook-Up Culture,” February 2013, vol. 44, no. 22, accessed on April 16, 2018, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/02/ce-corner.aspx

[15] ibid.

[16] “Is Prostitution Just Another Job?” Mac McClelland, New York Magazine: The Cut, March 21, 2016, http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/03/sex-workers-legalization-c-v-r.html, accessed February 28, 2017.

[17] “Prostitution in the United States,” HG.org, accessed April 8, 2018, https://www.hg.org/article.asp?id=30997

[18] ibid.

[19] Catherine Hakim, The New Rules, (London: Gibson Square Books, 2010).

[20] “Facts and Statistics about Infidelity,” Truth about Deception, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.truthaboutdeception.com/cheating-and-infidelity/stats-about-infidelity.html

[21] “Infidelity Statistics,” Statistic Brain, accessed on April 6, 2018, https://www.statisticbrain.com/infidelity-statistics/

[22] “Charges Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (Charges filed with EEOC FY 2010 – FY 2017), U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_new.cfm.

[23] Based on a Cosmopolitan survey of 2,235 employees.  Accessed on April 6, 2018, https://www.cosmopolitan.com/career/news/a36453/cosmopolitan-sexual-harassment-survey/.

[24] AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, Association of American Universities, September 3, 2015, accessed April 6, 2018, https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/aau-climate-survey-sexual-assault-and-sexual-misconduct-2015.

[25] Allen J. Beck, “Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Data Collection Activities, 2015,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 25, 2015, NCJ 248824, accessed April 16, 2018, https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5320.

[26] For population statistics in prison for 2015, see appendix table 3 in “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2016, NCJ 250374, accessed April 16, 2018, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus15.pdf.

[27] “Scope of the Problem: Statistics,” Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, accessed April 16, 2018, https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem.

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