A post from the Jesus Collective Theology Circle

Contributions by Paul Eddy and Shawna Boren (Minnesota, United States)

One of the many evident facts derived from human history is this: Cultures rise, thrive, and eventually fall. It is within seasons of cultural transition – as one culture slowly gives way to another – that the phenomena associated with culture war” are most clearly seen: e.g. cultural fragmentation, political polarization, and demonizing of the other.” This is precisely the situation the Western world finds itself in today, as 17 centuries of Christendom slowly but surely give way to a postmodern paradigm.

In the process of this cultural transition, the Judeo-Christian ethical sensibilities and their legal enforcement, which anchored the church-state alliance under Christendom, are being increasingly challenged and replaced by an alternative set of ethical principles. This shift in cultures and their ethical intuitions is visible in many sectors of Western society – and none more clearly so than in the conflicting visions of human sexuality in our world today.

It is in the midst of this cultural upheaval that the church now finds itself responding to issues involving human sexuality. On one hand, a sizable sector of the church has responded by aligning with one side or another of the culture war. This pattern of response tends to lead to relational casualties and the demonizing of those we disagree with. On the other hand, a growing number of Christ-followers are expressing a desire to avoid the polarizations of the culture war and instead seek to embrace a Jesus-like third way approach to human sexuality. 

But this forces the question: What does a Jesus-centered vision of human sexuality actually look like? Is it just a middle ground in between two extremes? Or does Jesus offer us something more? With the hope of moving toward an answer to these questions, we offer the following reflections.

Sexuality in Jesus’ World 

To begin, it’s important to recognize that Jesus didn’t leave us with a textbook laying out his theology of sexuality. Neither does the New Testament – let alone Jesus’ explicit teachings in the gospels themselves – provide us with a comprehensive casebook of sexual ethics. That being said, this doesn’t mean that Jesus left his church without any guidance as to the nature of human sexuality, its divine significance, and its ethical orientation. So what can we say about Jesus’ vision of human sexuality?

In order to understand and appreciate the distinctive dimensions of Jesus’ vision of sexuality – as expressed (primarily) in the gospels – it will be important to understand the context of that vision. Interestingly, and quite helpfully, it turns out that Jesus himself expressed his vision of sexuality within the socio-historical context of an ancient culture war.

On one hand, Jesus was the inheritor of a long Jewish tradition about sexuality rooted in the Hebrew Bible. Key texts within the Hebrew Bible – i.e. passages found within a variety of biblical genres including the creation texts, various historical narratives, covenantal laws, poetic and wisdom literature (e.g. Song of Solomon, Proverbs), and a number of prophetic texts – served as the foundation to a highly developed Jewish tradition of sexual ethics that were articulated in distinctive ways by the various Judaisms of Jesus’ day (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essences).

On the other hand, Jesus’ first-century world was one in which an alternative culture – the Greco-Roman culture – literally occupied the Jewish homeland by military force. In this context, the Jewish people, whether they resided in Palestine itself or were part of the diaspora that spread out around the wider Mediterranean world, were confronted with a significantly different vision of sexuality. To name but one cultural contrast in Jesus’ day: Whereas the Greco-Roman culture allowed for married men (though not married women) to participate in extra-marital sexual relationships with certain types of people (e.g. slaves, prostitutes, concubines), the first-century Jewish tradition held that marriage was the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy.

Jesus’ Third Way Approach

It was within this first-century clash of cultures that Jesus stepped into human history to teach and model the way of the Kingdom. And what he taught and modeled about human sexuality challenged both his own Jewish tradition and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. It was, in this sense, a third way – a counter-cultural vision of, and approach to, sexuality that contrasted with the two polarized alternatives of his surrounding world. 

In providing a distinct alternative to the approaches to sexuality available in his culture, Jesus continued the pattern of third way thinking that characterized his Kingdom message.

When the surrounding culture presented him with a forced binary of having to choose between two competing options on a divisive ethical issue – whether it be polarizing positions on Roman occupation (Matthew 5:38 – 48), paying taxes (Mark 12:13 – 17), inheritance law (Luke 12:13 – 15), divorce (Mark 10:2 – 12), or capital punishment (John 8:1 – 8) – Jesus tended to refuse the binary and instead reveal a distinctive Kingdom alternative framed by agape-love. 

We see Jesus’ third way approach to sexuality in the juxtaposition of two distinctive strands of gospel tradition. On one hand – and in stark contrast to the Jewish leaders of his day – Jesus welcomed into his life and loving presence those whom his Jewish culture judged and stigmatized as sexually impure and shameful. From a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1 – 8), to a woman with multiple ex-husbands and currently in a non-marital intimate relationship (John 4:1 – 26); to men employed as toll collectors (a profession associated with involvement in immoral banqueting and even brothel management; Mark 2:15 – 16; cf. Matthew 21:31 – 32) – Jesus loved and ministered to them, reclined and dined with them, and welcomed them into his inner circle. From this behavior, one might think that Jesus had abandoned his Jewish religious heritage, exchanging it for the more lax sexual values of the Greco-Roman culture. 

But no. In stark contrast to the Greco-Roman culture, Jesus cast a vision of sexuality that elevated its ethical importance in ways unmatched even by his Jewish contemporaries. For example, Jesus collapsed the sexual double standard of the Greco-Roman world by clearly teaching that husbands can commit adultery against their wives, just as wives can against their husbands (Mark 10:11). Moreover, in alignment with his tendency to relocate purity concerns from merely external behaviors to the internal realm of the heart (Mark 7:14 – 23), Jesus raises the bar of sexual purity within his Kingdom to include the private thought-life of his followers (Matthew 5:27 – 28). And in regard to the cluster of issues involving marriage, sex, divorce, and remarriage, Jesus’ sobering perspective would have been shocking to both his Roman and Jewish audiences (Mark 10:1 – 12; Matthew 19:1 – 12).

Jesus Confronts Cultural Sexuality with a Covenantal Vision 

All of this raises the question: What understanding of sexuality did Jesus hold that makes sense out of his counter-cultural approach to it? Although Jesus didn’t leave behind anything like a comprehensive theology of sexuality, we find enough in his teachings to sketch an outline of a vision of sexuality that accounts for the approach Jesus takes to it in the gospels. 

Here, we’ll focus on just one key teaching of Jesus found in Mark 10:1 – 12 and its parallel in Matthew 19:1 – 12. The context is a public event in which a group of Pharisees sought to test” Jesus by drawing him into the current debate of under what conditions it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. This question would have been highly charged in Jesus’ day, not only because the two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, famously disagreed on this issue, but also because John the Baptist’s recent execution was directly tied to the fact he had publicly challenged Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodius – a marriage made possible only because both had divorced their prior spouses.

Those among the wealthy elite, like Herod and Herodius could, at times, marry for romantic affection. But for the vast majority of people in the ancient world – Jewish and Greco-Roman alike – marriage was generally treated as a contractual arrangement in which two people were joined together by their parents for the primary purpose of enriching each family’s socio-economic standing, while ensuring the propagation of the husband’s family-line through the production of legitimate” children. It was into this cultural context that Jesus offered this challenging response to the Pharisees’ agenda-driven question:

What did Moses command you?’ They said, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” 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.’

Several things stand out about this third way response of Jesus. First, Jesus refuses to choose one side in the cultural debate. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the debate itself – namely, that there is a set of conditions that justify a man divorcing his wife. And this, of course, in a culture where nothing could justify a woman divorcing her husband. Jesus points out that the OT divorce law was never anything more than a divine accommodation to human hard-heartedness to begin with.

Second, Jesus turns their attention to God’s original vision for marriage as expressed in the creation texts. But he does so with an unexpected hermeneutical move – one that is unattested in prior Jewish biblical interpretation. Jesus begins by quoting Genesis 1:27: From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.’” But then, instead of finishing the quote by moving on to the procreative purpose clearly stated in the next verse (1:28), Jesus leaps right over it and all the way down to 2:24: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” As many commentators have pointed out, Gen 2:24 culminates a line of thought begun in 2:23, one that, by using several different phrases, emphasizes the kinship-producing reality of the marriage covenant.

And finally, Jesus ends with this commentary: So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” With these final words, Jesus doubles down on the covenantal nature of this relationship. In Jesus’ eyes, marriage is more than merely a contractual arrangement between two people who were joined by their parents. It is a community forming relationship in which the very lives and bodies of two people are fused into one covenantal flesh through a divinely designed and empowered spiritual process.


To summarize: Instead of explicitly placing procreation at the center of his vision of marriage – an unquestioned assumption within Second Temple Judaism, much of Greco-Roman philosophy, and, eventually, even the early church itself – Jesus emphasized the text that highlights the profoundly covenantal nature both of marriage and the sexual union that consummates it. Moreover, Jesus’ approach to sexuality confirms and deepens the scriptural thread that portrays sexual union itself as the covenantal oath-sign that serves to inaugurate – and ongoingly reaffirm – a marriage covenant.

In his excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark, New Testament scholar Joel Marcus reflects upon these words of Jesus in chapter 10, noting the high view of marriage and of the sexual act [they represent], one that ascribes transformative significance to that act and the relation it creates .… And in a culture in which sex is often trivialized and used merely for private gratification or for asserting domination over others, we need to listen attentively to Jesus’ words.”

Marcus’ insights provide a wonderful bridge of application for us. We inhabit a world in which sexuality is commonly seen through the optics of personal gratification, a leisure activity, a marketing tool, or manipulative power.

Into this world, Jesus’ vision of sexuality brings a Kingdom-oriented reframe, one that is refracted through his ever-present lens of other-oriented, self-giving agape-love (Matthew 22:36 – 40).

Seen through Jesus’ lens of agape-love, the deep vulnerability and soul-baring nature of sexual union is designed to take place within the protective relational oasis of a covenantal bond. Here, within the self-giving context of the marriage covenant – where two people are covenantally knit together by God through the double vow of public promise and private consummation – a habitus specifically designed for sexual shalom can be created and sustained. This is the beautiful vision that lies behind the utter seriousness with which Jesus treats human sexuality.

And yet, at the same time, this same Jesus – the Jesus whose arms embraced and dignified those considered sexually shameful in the ancient world – still draws to himself today to the sexually broken. And if we understand Jesus rightly (Matthew 5:27 – 28), we understand that sexual brokenness is an equal-opportunity condition – without exception. This means that within the community of Jesus, there is no place for anyone to look down upon another in sexual self-righteousness. Rather we meet together as siblings at the bottom. And together we gaze upward to take the hand of the One who beckons us, both individually and as a community, to journey with him on the path of sexual redemption.


Joel Marcus, Mark 8 – 16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 713.

The Authors

Paul Shawna Author Photo

Paul Eddy is a Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church and a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul. He’s authored or edited over a dozen books, including the award-winning The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition as well as numerous articles and essays.

Shawna Boren is the Engagement Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. She previously served in various pastoral staff roles for over 20 years in both Texas and Minnesota. Shawna is married to Scott and is mom to Deklan, Gavin, Jensen, and Afton. She loves her role at Woodland and is passionate about helping people find their place of belonging.

The Theology Circle is a group of Jesus Collective leaders joining together to provide theological direction and resources for our network, mentor theological leaders, and provide a peaceful voice for this growing Jesus-centred movement around the world. You can learn more and meet the Circle here.