When it comes to the Christian view of sex, confusion abounds, despite a deepening stack of books on the subject. Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies and ethics at Boyce College and editor of The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is the latest to come forward with a proposal for theological and moral clarity. In What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway), Burk addresses sensitive issues of sexuality—including marriage, gender roles, family planning, and homosexuality—within a framework of biblical ethics. Author and editor Lisa Velthouse spoke with Burk about God's design for sex and the cultural influences that interfere with our seeing and abiding by it.

So. What is the meaning of sex?

The reigning sexual ethic reflects a tongue-in-cheek lyric from Sheryl Crow: "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad." This worldview affirms any and all attempts to get sexual pleasure so long as such attempts do not harm others. If it feels good and you're not hurting anyone, how could it possibly be wrong? Many people see no larger purpose for sex. They have severed their sexuality from the objective order that God has created, and they have lost sight of God's purpose for our sexuality. So when people ask what they should or shouldn't do sexually, they are asking a question about purpose—whether or not they realize it.

When Paul commands us to glorify God with our bodies in 1 Corinthians 6, he may as well have said, "Glorify God with your sex." He clearly has in mind the use of the body for sex, so the ultimate purpose of sex must be the glory of God. To enjoy sex for God's glory is to enjoy it in the way God has determined.

In the book, I distinguish subordinate purposes of sex from ultimate purposes with the example of an automobile. We might say that a car is made for somebody to sit in. Nobody can deny that that's one of its purposes. But the ultimate purpose of a car is to transport people and objects from one place to another. Unless we account for the ultimate purpose of the automobile, we have failed to grasp what it was made for.

The same is true when we talk about sexual morality. I agree with the Christian ethicist Dennis Hollinger that there are four purposes of sex: consummation of marriage, expression of love, procreation, and pleasure. But we must realize that these purposes are subordinate to the ultimate purpose of glorifying God.

Why is marriage central to sex that glorifies God?

When Jesus and Paul talk about marriage and sexuality, they appeal to the Old Testament. But they don't point to the polygamist kings of Israel—not even King David or Solomon—or to polygamist patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, without exception, they look back to the monogamous union, before the Fall, of Adam and Eve. That's what they present as the norm of human sexuality and marriage. Paul writes in Ephesians 5 that Adam and Eve's marriage (and every other marriage after it) is meant by God to be an icon of another marriage: Jesus' marriage to his bride, the church. So marriage is fundamentally about the glory of God, because it's meant to depict the gospel. It tells a bigger story: husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church, and wives relating to their husbands as the church relates to Christ.

Is sexual holiness about our state of mind or what we do with our bodies?

It's both. What we do with our bodies is an overflow of what is inside our hearts. That's why Jesus equated lust and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount. But sexual holiness is not merely a state of mind. God intends the body to be his temple—a place where his glory is on display. A Christian sexual ethic must be concerned with bringing both mind and body under the lordship of Christ.

Sexual morality is not a choose-your-own-adventure story. God has revealed his will for our sexual lives in Scripture and in nature. Nature, for example, reveals a fundamental biological complementarity of male and female, so it's clear that a heterosexual norm is God's design. But nature isn't our sole source for this knowledge; Scripture also reveals it through commands and prohibitions. We can't simply have a private intention to glorify God. No, our intention has to match up with God's intended order.

What about the claim that, as Christians, we're no longer bound by the law?

Christians often misunderstand 1 Corinthians 6:12, which says that everything is permissible although not everything is beneficial. In most modern translations, the first phrase is set in quotation marks. Why? Because Paul is not expressing a principle of Christian freedom; he's actually quoting some Corinthian men who were justifying visiting prostitutes. It was the philandering Corinthians who claimed all things are lawful, using that slogan to justify their immorality.

Many self-professed Christians adopt that kind of approach today. They simply declare that they can do whatever they want to do sexually because they are not under the law. But Paul says that this is a perversion of Christian freedom. The great irony is that we have been set free from sin to be slaves to Jesus. Jesus defines what we can and must do with our bodies sexually.

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What does the purpose of sex have to do with the enjoyment of sex?

The common perception is that Christians are killjoys: cold, puritanical people who don't like sex. If so, then we fall far short of understanding God's purpose for sex and sexuality. Sex is a good gift designed to glorify God by consummating marriage, expressing love, procreating, and bringing pleasure. A Christian sexual ethic seeks to maximize joy and pleasure by enjoying this gift for his sake and according to his design. Our culture has made an idol of sex. But in idolizing a good thing, it becomes perverted, and joy diminishes.

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What Is the Meaning of Sex?
What Is the Meaning of Sex?
272 pp., 22.24
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