Putting Sex Into Context

The New Testament on Sexualityby William Loader

Wm. B. Eerdmans. 575p $65

When investigating the New Testament on sexuality, three important and related questions come to mind. First, what do New Testament texts say about sexuality? Second, what is the meaning of what they say “in the setting of the authors and their hearers”? Third, can the New Testament speak to and enlighten contemporary Christian dialogue about sexuality? Loader’s magisterial The New Testament on Sexuality, the fifth and final volume in his study on sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity, focuses on the first two questions.


Loader begins by stating the parameters and method of his study, which treats his topic “in the broad sense of matters pertaining to sexuality” rather than the narrow sense reflected in discussions of sexual theory and sexual orientation, though he does touch on the narrower sense in the text. He uses the historical-critical method with an emphasis on culture “to hear ancient authors [of the New Testament] in their own setting and on their own terms.” His method is meticulous and the conclusions he reaches are comprehensive, comprehensible and eminently credible.

Loader contextualizes his study historically and culturally, investigating the “broader assumptions” of the New Testament authors in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. In the Jewish world, one broad assumption in both the biblical and extra-biblical literature is that procreation does not function as the dominant motif in either monogymous or polygymous marriage. Rather, the literature emphasizes “the union and the ongoing partnership” in marriage as the dominant motif. In addition, sexual intercourse and pleasure are clearly affirmed as good. On the other hand, women are viewed as the “property of men,” and adultery is condemned because it violates a married man’s property rights.

In the Greco-Roman world, broader assumptions include stances on patriarchy and gender. Maleness emphasizes “being active and controlling”; femaleness emphasizes “being passive and needing to be controlled.” Gender stereotypes inform New Testament writings on issues like same-sex intercourse and marriage. Jewish assumptions “mingle with” Greek and Roman assumptions on issues like the purpose of marriage to create an oikos (household or family), which provides identity, defines “manhood” and adds members to the household and state. Protecting the integrity of the oikos, especially in sexual matters forbidding adultery and preventing illegitimate children, is crucial in such a cultural context. Such “cross-cultural engagement” sets the context for the New Testament authors. One finds continuity and discontinuity with Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures and traditions in writings on sexuality in the Gospel and Pauline traditions and the specific sexual issues they address: divorce, same-sex intercourse, men and women in community and leadership and celibacy.

Continuity in Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures is evident in the Gospels’ condemnation of adultery, which affirms Jewish traditional law that the act of adultery with a married woman violates another man’s property rights (Mt. 5:27). Discontinuity is also evident in the Gospels—for example Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (adultery of the heart, 5:28)—where there is a shift in focus from acts to attitudes that provide “a fuller and deeper understanding” of human relationships that take us “beyond the defensive structures of traditional law.” The underlying principle of loving and respecting the other fulfills the law but also moves us beyond the law. In this sense, the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels provides a more strict interpretation of the law, shifting from a focus on the act to a focus on the heart and mind. Whatever demeans or objectifies the other is “antithetical to God’s will,” whether or not it is expressed in a forbidden (physical) act.

Loader extends his treatment of sexuality in the New Testament beyond sexual acts (or intentions) to consider gender and leadership roles of men and women in the early Christian communities. Paul accepts the “order of creation” as understood in his day, which places women “in subordination to men.” This order notwithstanding, women still exercise roles in leading prayer and prophesying in continuity with Jewish tradition. Discontinuity with the Jewish tradition is that “there is an overriding value which derives from their belonging to Christ.”

Though this overriding value does not call for social or structural change from Paul’s perspective, the Jesus tradition in the Gospels and the challenge of the Kingdom “promoted an alternative social order to come and initiated its beginnings during his ministry.” This alternative social order envisioned new values that were “radically inclusive,” especially of marginalized women (and men), but this should not be read as a move “to bring about structural or social change in women’s status or roles....” This latter statement seems to create a tension with Loader’s earlier statement about “an alternative social order.”

The volume provides an invaluable foundation for addressing the third question, whether or not Scripture can speak to and enlighten contemporary Christian dialogue about sexuality. Loader intends to address this question in a future, “slimmer account,” which will be more accessible to the nonspecialist and will include reflections on the usefulness of the texts when considering sexuality in our own era. The forthcoming book will no doubt include reflections on sexuality that include a “more defined sense” of sexuality, including discussions on sexual orientation and sexual theory. We get a glimpse of this when we consider Loader’s reflections on homosexuality and Scripture and consider them in light of contemporary, often acrimonious, debates between Christians on the issue of same-sex marriage.

As Loader notes when addressing Rom 1:26-27 on same-sex behavior, his hermeneutical perspective is not to use Paul to affirm or deny contemporary perspectives on homosexuality but “to bring to his writing the respect that it warrants as one of the earliest documents of the Christian movement.” Nonetheless, Paul’s “views are to be assessed in the light of all relevant available information,” which may lead us “to reach different conclusions from Paul if the evidence suggests that this is appropriate.” A central principle taken from the New Testament texts on sexuality to guide this reflection is “the goodness and generosity of God whose love reaches out to value and offer relationship to all people.” We look forward with great anticipation to Loader’s forthcoming book.

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