What Does Jesus Say about Sexual Relations?

What would a modern day Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like? Did Jesus teach a sexual ethic? 

I believe he did, though not explicitly. Biblical fundamentalists who like to claim that the Bible’s teaching is clear about any number of complex issues will find little in the Gospels to support a claim that Jesus is clear on all matters sexual in nature. Though Jesus does indeed have something to say.

What Jesus does say, however, must be viewed within the broader perspective of that which constituted the critical core of all his teaching.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law, he responded,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”(Matt. 22:37-40).

And lest we look for some wiggle room in the way we define “neighbor” Jesus closed that door by teaching that the neighbor even includes the “enemy” who wants to do us harm (Matt. 5:43-48).

The teaching above emphasizes that the love ethic embodied and taught by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that charts the course of God’s will for human beings. Everything Jesus did and said ultimately related to this essential demand: love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. So any Jesus inspired sexual ethic should be filtered through this teaching.

There are two specific passages in the Gospels related to sexual matters where this love ethic applies. One passage is Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12 (par. Mark 10:1-12).

While Jesus argued against divorce, it was certainly not because Jesus considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. On the subject of divorce I am convinced that why Jesus says what he says is much more important than what Jesus actually says. Let me explain.

In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day only men had the legal right to divorce and they could basically divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever. While some Jewish interpreters of Scripture were strict in their application of the law allowing for divorce only on the grounds of unfaithfulness, many others were very loose in the way they applied it. Legally, divorce was permitted on any grounds

Deuteronomy 24:1 (“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house. . .”) was commonly understood by many to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim.  

This was disastrous for women. Divorced women in Jesus’ day were considered damaged goods and had few options. Some without family to take them in were forced into lives of prostitution simply to survive.

When Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, he objected appealing to Genesis 2:24,

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

(Sometimes opponents of same-sex marriage argue that Jesus was here affirming heterosexual marriage. Even if it was Jesus’ primary intent to affirm heterosexual marriage that would not automatically mean that Jesus would be opposed to same-sex marriage, especially if Jesus knew what we know about sexual orientation, which, of course, he didn’t. Jesus’ appeal to the Genesis text was clearly for the purpose of arguing against divorce. The question of same-sex marriage would not even have occurred in that cultural context.) 

The men who favored a less restrictive view of divorce raised an objection:

“Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”

In response Jesus said,

“It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

The Bible, of course, doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for this concession because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation — critical reading that is — of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).

It should be obvious, in light of Jesus’ love ethic, what he was doing. Jesus was interpreting Scripture with a bias toward love — toward the good and well-being of those who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing women who did not have that option some leverage. He was trying to level the playing field.

Divorce was simply tragic for women in that culture, so Jesus applied the love ethic to his argument from Scripture. Why? I believe it was because what Jesus cared most about was trying to make the situation livable for women trapped in a patriarchal system that often treated them as commodities to be disposed of at will by men who considered themselves superior.

Jesus did not argue against divorce because he was inflexibly committed to some divine law or ideal plan that was encapsulated in Genesis 2:24 (as some opponents of same-sex marriage would want us to believe), but rather he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them.

(By the way, isn’t it interesting how opponents of same-sex marriage want to quote Jesus’ appeal to Genesis 2:24 to argue that Jesus only affirmed heterosexual marriage while they completely ignore what Jesus said about divorce? If they exclude same-sex committed persons from their churches on the basis of a handful of biblical passages — which they incorrectly apply literally — one would think they would also take Jesus literally and exclude divorced persons from their churches too. They don’t, of course, which is a prime example of the selective reading and interpreting of biblical texts fundamentalists engage in. They like to say, “The Bible says . . .” but they conveniently ignore all the biblical passages that contradict their dogmatic assumptions and beliefs.)  

The second Gospel passage that has a direct bearing on understanding Jesus’ sexual ethic is Matthew 5:27-28,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

What did Jesus mean by looking at a woman lustfully? Was Jesus condemning sexual desire? Of course not. The Greek text behind the translation suggests that the looking is for the purpose of using the woman sexually. What Jesus was denouncing was sexual desire that objectified a woman as a man’s personal object for sexual gratification. 

Once again, as in the passage on divorce, Jesus spoke directly to men, because it was patriarchal men who sexually exploited women. And once again, Jesus does what he can to safeguard women against sexual oppression and exploitation.

What follows next in the biblical passage is a warning by Jesus to the men who sexually exploited women that is the most vivid, intense, and severe of any warning Jesus ever uttered,

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30).

Jesus, of course, was speaking in hyperbole (it would be absurd to interpret such a text literally), but he fully intended on shocking his hearers. Jesus was willing to utilize whatever nonviolent means available to him to liberate the oppressed. Jesus wanted to derail sexual exploitation at its origin — in the heart.

Jesus made this point in Mark 7 when he traced sexual exploitation along with a host of other harmful and evil attitudes and behaviors to their source,  

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (7:21-23).”

The word above translated “fornication” is a very general term that is often simply translated “sexual immorality.” If we interpret this in light of Jesus’ love ethic, then we can most assuredly say that immoral sex is sex that objectifies and exploits the other, sex that is non-mutual, manipulative, and self-absorbed.

Authentic transformation involves a transformation of the heart. This is why the prophets envisioned the future day of the world’s redemption as a time when the will of God would be written on the minds and hearts of God’s children. When the royal law of love fills hearts and minds, then holiness codes and legal stipulations become obsolete.  

If we applied Jesus’ love ethic to the sexual mores of our culture what would our sexual mores, values, and commitments look like?

Jesus says absolutely nothing about same-sex relations and the only reason he quotes Genesis 2:24 (as we argued above) is in order to draw the conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Also, Jesus says nothing about sexual relations outside of marriage. Can sexual relations outside of marriage be guided by the love ethic Jesus embodied and taught? I think so. It might by surprising for some readers to learn that the Old Testament nowhere prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults.

In fact, it might be surprising for some Christians to realize that the sexual mores condoned by the Hebrew Scriptures were quite diverse, although they almost always favored patriarchal prejudices and preferences. For example, both polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she was not married) were commonly practiced and accepted in the Old Testament Scriptures without a single word of judgment uttered against either practice.

So what would a modern day, Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like? In actual practice it might look like a lot of things, but without question the core elements of the sexual relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) would be characterized by mutuality, equality, commitment, compassion, humility, honesty, and magnanimous love that truly seeks the good and well-being of one’s partner. 


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