Contraception and Theology of Marriage

 

I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.

Contraception

At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998

Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?

Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!

I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside.1

Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.

Marriage

Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution)  of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.

However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.

Inconclusion

This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.

The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.

Given the social2 and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.

Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.

Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened)3 find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).

So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!

Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?

  1. In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense! []
  2. E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. []
  3. I plan to write about divorce in another post. []

Videos for children

For those looking for videos for children that offer reasonably balanced and healthy gender modelling, this post “13 Fabulous Kids’ TV Shows that Pass the Maisy Test and Have Other Great Features, Too” looks to be another great resource from Thalia.

The introduction, with its disparaging remarks about Thomas the Tank Engine is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in my lifetime. The first book (in which Thomas did not even appear!) was published on my birthday but three years before I was. Thomas himself is just a couple of years older than I. Back then it was “normal” that women were almost absent from the public space, though the second world war had recently made huge dents in the Kinder, Küche, Kirche ideology so beloved by Adolph Hitler and other male chauvinists across the ages. (Yes, I am looking at you American “Christian Complementarians”.)

That such attitudes still survive (and not only in such classics as Thomas) is a powerful reminder that the battle for gender equality is far from over.

If you are not ideologically-minded and are in a hurry (as many looking for children’s videos are ;) then please skip Thalia’s fine introduction and just point your children to her recommendations – at least you will have done something to stem the waves of male chauvinist indoctrination the US politico-entertainment complex swamps our psyches with each year.

 

Thanks RTE :)

Mrs Noah’s Ark (Women from the Bible #2)

Among the women in Scripture we glide over and miss thinking about, what about poor Mrs Noah? Eve gets discussed ad nauseam often asking whether her share of the blame for the first sin is bigger than her mate’s, Cain’s wife gets asked about all the time… But Mrs Noah, another anonymous woman, only named and known for her relationship to her husband. Not even as mother of her sons, who are regularly named as HIS.

Back in Gen 3, when Eve ate the apple (or whatever the anonymous fruit really was) we quickly get told that Adam is right there beside her (Gen 3:6), but when something good happens, and God warns Noah to build the Ark (Gen 6:8-21) we aren’t told if God included Mrs Noah in the instructions. In fact although her boys are mentioned already in v.10, she herself (who bore them and nourished them) is not mentioned till v.18.

Preachers love to embellish the story of the flood. They often imagine Noah’s heroic, or ironic, conversations with the skeptics as he built an enormous gigantic boat miles and miles inland in a desert where “sea” was a word the neighbours hardly understood. Do they ever imagine the work required, most of it probably done by Mrs Noah, with Mrs Shem, Mrs Ham and Mrs Japhet helping out (and they are as unnamed as their mother-in-law) to collect and preserve food for all those people and animals for the half-year long voyage of the NS1 Ark.

Noah and the boys could never have done it without their “other halfs”, yet these hard-working and courageous women don’t get named, in fact their description “your/their woman/women” is in Hebrew just the same as that of the animals “mates”.2

  1. Noah’s Ship. []
  2. e.g. Gen 7:2 uses the same word as Gen 8:18 []

Good Gossip? (Women from the Bible #1)

On Facebook Robyn Mellar-Smith responding to Lindy Jacomb’s guest post at Sacraparental promised to post about a woman from the Bible every day for a week. I doubt I’ll manage that, we are finishing teaching and beginning traveling…

But one of my favourite unsung heroes from the gospels is Anna, after the two old folk have seen the baby Jesus, their responses could hardly be more different.

Simeon gets all poetic and sings a song about being so happy he could die happy, Anna tells all her friends the good news (Luke 2:22-38)

29 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Luke 2:29-32

While dear Anna simply tells all her friends and family the good news….

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:36-38

There is a sermon here, folks :)

PS: How delicious and ironic (at the same time) I had not read Lindy’s post that started the series when I dashed off the note above (I finish teaching the intensive tomorrow and was preaching in college chapel today…) but when I did I discovered she had chosen my friend Anna to mention in her post!

The Tri-une God and Motherhood

I have not yet pointed to the series of posts on The Tri-une God and Motherhood by kbonikowsky at The Happy Surprise, I should. They are very good, offering a careful, gentle presentation of the topic. .One of the things I like is that she approaches the theology simply, yet insists on a Trinitarian understanding. So many people thinking about emotive topics, like gender or like God, let alone when we mix echoes of our relationships with parents into the mix, seem swiftly to lose  their sense of proportion and theological “niceities” get thrown to the winds. I saw this years ago when I briefly explored Catholic theologians treatment of Mary when preparing my thesis. Catholic dogma concerning Mary is careful (to a lifelong Protestant it is odd, but it is careful), yet once these otherwise sensible theologians started to write about Mary the mother they seemed to lose all the restrictions their tradition had put in place to ensure that Mary did not seem to enter the Godhead. kbonikowsky avoids such emotion-driven excess in her talk of the Tri-une God and Motherhood, so far it is good stuff!

 

Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love

Paul bases his teaching about sex and marriage on Genesis. As usual, he is in some ways less of a dreamer and more down to earth than Jesus. His argument does that if sex makes two “one flesh”, then sex outside marriage would make you one flesh with the “prostitute” (1 Cor 6:15-20).

This talk of infidelity (un-chesed) is the basis of Paul’s teaching about sex and marriage. Sex unites, making love – makes two into one. Already this idea is foreign to the Western world with its “serial polygamy”1  and frequent divorce. Another of Paul’s conclusions is even less comfortable for modern thought:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does” – a shocking thought (which confirms some people’s bad opinion of Paul?), except that, for Paul, the reciprocal is equally true “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)

You see sex is like a sacrament. One consequence of making love is making babies. With God’s blessing, sex makes a new being, in His image, see Gen 4:1; 5:1-3. But (as many infertile couples know) this is not what makes sex sacramental. Making love cements two beings together in partnership. It both celebrates and produces chesed – a covenant relationship.

While the marriage ceremony marks the beginning of this process – of itself it does not create the partnership. Sex and the ongoing co-operation of daily living are the effective agent that builds union. Rather like the relationship between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism affirms our desire to be covenant partners of Jesus. Communion continually seals this as we drink the “covenant cup” declaring our continued desire to be faithful, as he is.

  1. As my African colleagues used to call the all too common Western experience of marriage plus divorce plus re-marriage. []

Beastly with Two Backs

God created us as sexual beings, and the Bible accepts our sexuality, but sex is not an end in itself. The Bible rejects sex for its own sake – the separation of sexual pleasure-seeking from partnership and marriage. Genesis Two describes the creator’s purpose quite clearly. As partners who complement each other, the two “become one” (Gen 2:24). Both Jesus and Paul base their understanding of sex and marriage on this passage and especially this verse. (Mark 10:2 compare Mt 19:3ff. & 1 Cor 6:16)

Jesus feels so strongly about infidelity that tears apart what God has joined that he calls “just looking”, adultery of the will1 (Matt 5:28). One sin, surely, that few healthy humans escape!

In the story of Ruth, however, the Bible holds up an example of chesed “loving-loyalty” that, though sexy, goes beyond sex. Ruth, the wife of Bethlehem boy, Mahlon, is a foreigner – a gentile. When Mahlon tragically dies, the young widow meets and marries Boaz. The narrator hints at the mutual respect and desire of Ruth and Boaz. Yet even more strongly we see how, in finding love, Ruth displays her faithfulness to the family she had joined when she married Mahlon.

The Bible is also full of stories where sex goes wrong, from the Sodomites seeking to make sex into a symbol of dominance, through unfaithfulness and abuse of power for sexual ends… but this abuse of God’s gift of sexuality is not the whole story, as we are shown another way in Ruth, the Song of Songs, and by implication in the laments and harsh judgements over infidelity.

Ideally (and the Bible is nothing if not real, and so tells of many cases where the ideal is not realised) such partnership “makes love” and produces babies. The possibility of pregnancy is not a sine qua non of good sex in the Bible, but it is a desired and desirable culmination. As the passion and faithfulness of two people is widened to include others.

  1. The “heart” in the Bible is seat of the will not of the emotions – emotions live in the “belly” or “guts” of a person.  []

Is the Bible Anti-sex?

Christianity (as an “organised religion”) has often been against sex. Celibacy has been seen (following especially some hints in Paul’s letters) as better than marriage, which has been seen as a way to make sex all right because, and insofar as, it is aimed at producing children. Does this devaluing of sex reflect the full witness of Scripture, or is it yet another issue where by overstressing a few (often difficult to understand, or at best complex) passages the Bible is misrepresented?

Is the Bible as a whole anti-sex? Hardly. One whole book is full of erotic love poems. The Song of Songs may well represent – though only by analogy – the loving relationship of the soul and God, or Christ and the Church. Generations of celibate priests and religious were not wrong to read it this way, but this analogy is built on the frankly expressed love and desire of king and Shulammite.

To illustrate this it is worth quoting a short portion, 5:2-5, from the KJV:

I sleep, but my heart waketh: 
  the voice of my beloved that knocketh, 
Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: 
  for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.
I have put off my coat; 
  how shall I put it on? 
I have washed my feet; 
  how shall I defile them? 
My beloved put in his hand by the hole, 
  and my bowels were moved for him. 
I rose up to open to my beloved; 
  and my hands dropped myrrh, 
  and my fingers sweet smelling myrrh, 
    upon the handles of the lock.

A library containing such a book hardly rejects the creator’s design of humans as sexual creatures.

Sex is dynamite!

I hope (yesterday) we established that God likes sex. Now we need to also recognise that sex is dynamite, and marriage is an unstable cocktail of explosive emotions. Yet God designed sex to be fun and to be fulfilling. God designed it to be making love too. That means that as a couple who are united in a faithful marriage relationship relate sexually (as well as in every other way) they “make love”. Love grows in a good marriage. The two become one, and depend on one another more and more.

Sex is dynamite, and – just like dynamite – when it’s misused, the results are a horrible disaster. But when it’s used right it’s powerful stuff.

The trouble is, we’ve got so hung up on warning people not to light the fuse at the wrong time or in the wrong place, that we’ve forgotten to explain how to do it right.

People need to hear of the delight of being able to depend on someone else. In this dog-eat-dog world, we need to say to them there’s immense strength to be drawn from the power of two. That someone who knows me (often better than I know myself) is looking over my shoulder, even putting my interests before her own – just like God! – is a source of immense strength.

People change. Because old friends change at a distance from us, often those friendships weaken. Husbands and wives change too, but if all goes well the answer to the Beatles question: “When I grow older… will you still need me?” is “More than ever. To know you is to love you!

Now of course, you can’t escape the statistics, marriage is on the rocks. Marriages are breaking all the time. Many people are better off out of relationships that – far from mirroring those in the Godhead – become pure hell. Of course we should be putting more work into helping people in this pressure cooker world. Yes it’s great that youngsters are not rushing into marriage, but thinking twice. But it is still true that there are few things better in this world than a good marriage. And it’s time we said so.

For too long we’ve kept quiet about the joys and delights of a faithful relationship that depends utterly and trusts completely. It’s time to speak. To join the godhead and declare “it’s good, it’s very good!

God and the Joys of Sex

A conversation on Facebook recently reminded me of my concern that Christians are not speaking enough about the joys of sex and marriage. We get caught so often, warning people about the dangers, that we get painted into the corner that makes people – even our own children – believe that God is anti-sex. So over the next few days I am going to recycle material I wrote a few years back for the NZBaptist. Let’s start thinking about sex at the very beginning.

God likes sex

That notion (that God is anti-sex) couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and marriage was God’s good idea. It was one of God’s first good ideas, right at the very beginning…

Since I am love,” God said, “I want creatures who can love me.”
We want creatures who can love each other, just like we do.” Said each of the Trinity to each other, “and love us the same way too.” They added.

That was how sex and marriage got built into creation from the start: difference and reproduction and love. Sex is modeled on the godhead (Gen 1:27):

So God created humans in his own image,
in the image of God created he him;
male and female created he them.

It’s quite clear the very “image of God” is in our being as male and female.

Or as the Bible’s second chapter puts it: God said, “It’s no good for humans to be alone” (Gen 2:18). And, when God had made woman, the Bible concludes: “that’s why a man leaves his father and his mother, and clings to his wife: and they become one flesh.

So whatever else we say, we should start right at the beginning: Sex is God’s good idea!