The gift of sexuality: A biblical overview

The biblical account of creation and its narrative of marriage and family clearly teach that human sexuality is God’s gift to human beings, and its sanctity is to be fully exercised.

In Eden, God gave wonderful gifts to humanity. Two have survived paradise: the Sabbath and marriage. Humanity is supposed to enjoy and celebrate these gifts. The first one is to recognize God as the Creator of the universe and worship Him as the One who gives us absolute meaning and identity in life. The second one is to appreciate that life is lived in fellowship and friendship with each other — a man and a woman in bonds of love, together a testimony that our God is a God of love and fellowship.

Marriage is about companionship, love, and mutual support. It is also the place to use the gift of sexual intimacy. When we talk about stewardship of our bodies, that includes this very gift. This article provides a brief biblical survey of this second pre-Fall gift of the Creator to His creatures.

Marriage in the Old Testament

The institution and meaning of marriage. Marriage differs from non-marital sexual relations by its public and legal recognition. Instituted by God when He created the first human couple, marriage has its holy grounding and rooting in the divine will and plan for human life. Therefore, we have to go back to the creation account in Genesis when we talk about marriage. Read the following Genesis passages and discover for yourself the biblical approach to the institution and meaning of marriage and sexuality.

Genesis 1:26-27 — Both men and women were created in the image of God, in spite of their sexual differentiation.

Genesis 1:28 — The first divine mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” and exercise stewardship over the creation was addressed in plurality. This means that both Adam and Eve, both man and woman, had equal and special status in all God’s creation — a concept that is unique to the Word of God, not to be found in other ancient Near-Eastern religions.

Genesis 2:18-23 — Man and woman were created for each other. They share a common identity, with the same value and coequality. God took Eve, brought her to Adam (Genesis 2:22), and performed the first wedding.

Genesis 2:24 extrapolates five distinguishing characteristics of marriage as designed by God: (1) It has a clear beginning. The husband leaves his parental family and becomes somewhat independent, ready to enter into an intimate union with his wife;

(2) God’s will is heterosexual monogamy; that is to say, it is between a man and a woman, and it creates a single unity to be lived, loved, and enjoyed by a man and a woman; (3) Marriage is a complete companionship. It is about becoming one in thinking and feeling, in will and action, climaxing in becoming “one flesh:” a unity of love; (4) In its character, marriage is indissoluble. It is a union marked by trust, faithfulness, and enduring love; (5) Marriage is the legitimate place for sexual intimacy. God created marriage. It is not a human invention of sociological or anthropological convenience or convention, but a result of God’s provision to create “one flesh” out of the two.

The wedding. In the Old Testament, a wedding was connected to the following steps:

1) Courtship. Typically, parents selected spouses for their children (Genesis 21:21; 24). However, there were also cases when young people could choose their spouse — or at least were asked (1 Samuel 18:20-21; Genesis 24:57-58).

2) Engagement, marriage contract, and bride price (dowry). The payment of a bridal price may be assumed from several passages, such as Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:16, and 1 Samuel 18:25.

3) Wedding ritual. The wedding consisted of three elements: the wedding procession (Judges 14:11; Psalm 45:14-16), the marriage banquet (Genesis 29:22; Judges 14:12, 17), and the wedding night (Genesis 29:22-23; Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

In the Old Testament, marriage is neither a private matter between a man and a woman nor a form of concubinage, but a public event involving the families and the community. It has legal implications. Sexual intimacy by itself does not constitute a marriage; it is the consummation of marriage after other steps have been taken.

Marriage in the New Testament

With regard to marriage, the New Testament follows the Old Testament and does not develop a new form of marriage. This is not an exception, because other Old Testament teachings and institutions are also presupposed and continued in the New Testament, such as creation, the Decalogue, and the Sabbath. Note the following outline of the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and some important Scriptural passages.

Jesus. At the very outset of His ministry, Jesus participated in a wedding (John 2), thus giving the institution of marriage His approval and blessing. In addition, Jesus referred to marriage in various places — its link to the creation account, parables illustrating diverse aspects of marriage, the seriousness of adultery and divorce, and provisions for remaining single. See Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13; 5:27-32; 19:1-12.

Paul. The apostle dealt with marriage and related aspects in various places. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of responsibilities within the marriage bond, faithfulness to marriage vows, marriage and faith confession, a life of chastity, church discipline and immorality, etc.

(1 Corinthians 7 and 5). The apostle also takes the high road to emphasize the sanctity of marriage by comparing the relationship of a man and a woman in marriage to the relationship between Jesus and His church (Ephesians 5:22-23). This figurative counsel of Paul has deeply influenced the appreciation of marriage in Christian history.

Matthew 1:18-20. Mary and Joseph were engaged, but not yet involved in sexual intimacy, thus giving to posterity an important Christian principle of marriage: no sex before marriage.

Matthew 19:4, 5. Jesus refers back to Genesis 2:24 and stresses the permanence of marriage. Christians, therefore, ought to commit themselves to their spouses publicly, exclusively, and permanently, seeking God’s blessing in the community of believers.

Sexuality gone wrong

The biblical account of creation and its narrative of marriage and family clearly teach that human sexuality is God’s gift to human beings, and its sanctity is to be fully exercised, preserved, and defined within the parameters of marriage. The inspired Word, including the Decalogue, clearly teaches that the divine pattern for human sexuality is within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman, and that marriage is holy and monogamous, governed by deep love and care. Yet the picture of marriage we see in the history of the human race is far from the biblical ideal. What went wrong? Like all ideals set forth by the Creator for the human race, the ideal of marriage also became tainted by sin. Some of these marks can be viewed in the following questions, raised in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and also elsewhere in Scripture.

What are some of the sexual sins the Bible prohibits?

Fornication. Fornication is a broad concept in Scripture, and typically includes all sins of a sexual nature, such as premarital sex, adultery, incest, homosexuality, sodomy, and others. However, if the term is listed with other terms that refer to sexual sins, it may describe premarital sexual intimacy (see Hebrews 13:4).

Adultery. Adultery describes a sexual affair with a person other than one’s spouse (John 8:3-11; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20).

Homosexuality. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, the effeminate seems to play the female in a homoerotic relationship, while the second Greek term, asernokoits (the male who lies with a male), obviously describes the one playing the male in such a relationship. See also Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27.

Incest. Incest describes a sexual relationship with a close relative. Scripture clearly forbids it (1 Corinthians 5:1-2 and Leviticus 18:6-18).

Divorce. Divorce as a separation of marriage, except for reason of adultery, is unscriptural. See Matthew 19:1-10; Mark 10:1-10; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16.

Intentionally marrying unbelievers. Marriage, as intended in the Scripture, should be “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39) that is, within the bounds of the faith that sustains the spiritual lives of the community of faith. The warnings in 1 Corinthians 5-7 pertaining to marriage are seen as a warning against marriage with an unbeliever. “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3, NKJV) is the prophet’s enduring counsel that certainly applies to marriage too. See also Deuteronomy 7:3 and Nehemiah 13:23-25.

Why should Christians avoid sexual sins?

Because there is a kingdom to gain. A misuse of the gift of sexuality does not square with God’s rule and His kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Immorality is damaging. It harms or destroys relationships with spouses, family, friends, and neighbors (1 Corinthians 7:10-14). It harms our relationship with God (1 Corinthians 6:15; 7:35). It harms ourselves — emotionally, psychologically, and physically (1 Corinthians 6:18).

God wants us to live fulfilled lives (John 10:10).

Hope for the sinner

If I have committed any sexual sin, is there still hope for me? Yes, that hope is the primary focus of the gospel. There is no sin that God cannot and does not forgive. 1 Corinthians 6:11 provides the framework of that hope: “Such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11, NKJV). If we have failed and sinned, forgiveness and a new beginning are possible through God’s grace. Yes, Jesus challenges us also: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NKJV).

God has given humanity the gift of marriage, including sexual intimacy. This gift of true love needs to be treasured, kept pure, and protected against abuse. It is a symbol of our relationship with the Lord.

Ekkehardt Müller (Th.D., D.Min., Andrews University) is the deputy director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. E-mail: