Deeper and more urgent than the fights over “gay marriage”

Discussion among Christians (especially Christians who found their faith on Scripture) of “gay marriage” have been bitter and acrimonious. This issue cuts deep. There are of course for some participants personal reasons why this issue is emotional. Yet it cuts so deep not only for that reason, I think, but also because it reveals a lack of coherent practical theology of marriage and sex. Thus in discussing this issue too often Christians have to fall back on tradition, or traditional understandings of Scripture.

Colleagues to whom over the years I have lamented our lack of such a practical theology of marriage and sex have often responded by denying that there is a lack. They seem to believe that the traditional standards are still being upheld. Yet, the acceptance of no fault divorce, uncertainty about what advice (except avoidance of full intercourse before marriage) to give to young people, the less than clear role of single adults in most churches… are just a few symptoms of the absence of such a theology of sex.

“Traditionally” Christians have held that marriage is a lifelong exclusive faithful sexual relationship between two people whose goal is to procreate and bring up the next generation. Yet little or none of that seems reflected in the ways churches behave today around marriage. Social changes like no fault divorce and contraception have altered our practice hugely, yet they are poorly integrated into our theology. In much of our talk about marriage companionship has replaced talk of procreation and child rearing. We have accepted our society’s definition of humans as sexual beings to such an extent that we have little or no place and certainly no clearly understood roles for single adults in church (except as in New Testament times “widows”).

Although (with the exception of the “wedding at Cana”, which contains no teaching about marriage)  there is little said in the Bible about marriage. Yet we are not left without resources, Genesis 1 and 2 provide two quite different and complementary possible starting places. Yet most conversations start with one or the other, seldom both. The core biblical virtue of faithfulness is clearly important, but how is it to be outworked today? In a traditional view sex outside marriage is wrong because it risked children outside marriage, how does widespread and usually effective contraception affect this? On what basis do we today advocate sexual exclusivity?

I have linked to it before, but Richard Beck’s post “The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election” is a helpful thought starter, providing as he does at least a useful and deeply theological way of framing the questions.

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!

 

Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

Photo by Dennis Bratland

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

Sex as “Sacrament” – Making Babies and Making Love

Hutchens-baby

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

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857

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?

Albert Joseph Moore, The Shunamite relating the Glories of King Solomon to her Maidens, 1894.

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!

NTS_-_BEEF_-_WATUSI

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

Photo by Kjunstorm from Laguna Niguel, CA, US

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!

Mothers’ Day

Capture

Since Mothers’ Day is fast approaching, I’ve been delighted to hear of two pastors who are planning to make sure some of the motherly or other female imagery used in Scripture gets a mention.

Mothers’ day is always a sensitive occasion, so many women are not mothers who wish they were, or are mothers and wish they weren’t, or more often because of circumstances find it very hard and fear they are “not doing a good job”. And yet, we never think twice about using Fatherly language and pictures to talk about God…

All of us had fathers and mothers, our experiences and knowledge of either or both may be good, bad or even non-existent, they remain for almost all of us a deeply emotional part of our experience. Just as, used carefully, father is a powerful way to relate to God, so is mother. The writers of the Bible and the theologians of the church  (at least for nearly 1500 years) used this resource.

If you want some ideas try a guest post (last of a series) I wrote for Thalia a couple of years back or try the screencast version below. If you want a bit more academic grunt see my AJPS articles from Volume 17, Number 2 (August 2014) or here.