What do Christians think marriage is really about?

Amid all the controversy over sex and marriage in the modern era, it is easy for conservatives and Christians to imagine that the church has always had it right, that if we could only get to a past era of godliness and morality, following the light of the Christian tradition, or the example of the saints in Scripture, all would be well. Skeptics have no trouble pointing to the flaws in this view. So many of the heroes of Scripture – Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and many more – were polygamists. The Torah seems to have tolerated polygamy in the same way that it tolerated divorce.

And what of the Christian tradition? Consider the views of the greatest early church father Augustine:

Conjugal intercourse for the sake of procreation carries no fault; intercourse for the sake of satisfying lust, provided that it takes place with a spouse, carries a forgivable fault (venialis culpa) because of marital fidelity; but adultery or fornication carries a mortal fault. Therefore, abstention from all intercourse is better even than marital intercourse that takes place for the sake of procreation.

So writes Augustine in his treatise The Good of Marriage, which he wrote around 410. For Augustine there is a hierarchy of virtues and vices when it comes to human sexuality.

  1. Perfect Virtue – celibacy
  2. No Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation
  3. Venial Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire
  4. Mortal Fault – sex outside of marriage

As bizarre as it may seem to most Protestants today, this view of marriage was not out of the ordinary in Augustine’s day, particularly for an intellectual or a philosopher. Sexual desire was viewed by Platonists and Stoics alike as a form of enslavement to the passions of the body, which rational human beings seek to transcend. The early church widely identified the passion of sexual desire with original sin, or concupiscence. Augustine speaks for that tradition when he insists that sex is only fully virtuous when the sexual partners view themselves first and foremost as parents rather than as passionate lovers, sex being a problematic means to a laudable end. Augustine stresses with absolute clarity that sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire is not permitted per se. It is simply forgivable.

In fact, Augustine’s view of sexuality powerfully shaped the medieval church (its influence is still obvious, if diminished, even in John Calvin) and to a significant extent that of the Roman Catholic Church to this day. The path of perfect virtue, for Rome, and the path that all priests must take, is that of celibacy. Married partners who engage in sex without being open to the possibility of procreation fall into sin – hence the ban on artificial birth control.

Augustine’s view of polygamy in the Old Testament makes his understanding of marriage seem all the more bizarre. For while Augustine believed celibacy is the way of perfect godliness after the incarnation of Christ, he insists that in Old Testament times procreation was an obligation of such importance that polygamy itself was legitimate, so long as it was engaged in for the purpose of procreation. Why? Because all of God’s promises of salvation for his people, and of blessing for the human race, were tied up in the propagation of a godly seed.

Among the ancient fathers, of course, it was permissible to take another woman, with the permission of one’s wife, and to produce children that were shared in common, the husband providing the seed and the intercourse, the wife providing the right and authorization. Whether this is also permitted in our own day I would not be so rash as to say. For today there is not the same need of procreation that there was in the past. In those days it was even permissible for husbands who could have children to take other wives in order to produce more numerous progeny, which is something that is certainly not allowed today.

One of the consequences of the church’s classic obsession with procreation as the only perfect justification of sex has been that it didn’t seem difficult at all to demonstrate why homosexuality is sinful. Sexual desire itself was suspect. How much more sexual desire entirely removed from its one legitimate purpose?

Since at least the Victorian era, however, the West has embraced romantic love as the perfect form and expression of sexuality, with procreation falling to the side as a possible – though by no means necessary, and often inconvenient or feared – byproduct. The result, as we all know, is that sexual fulfillment has become its own virtue, more important than marriage (hence adultery, no-fault divorce, fornication, and cohabitation) or potential obligations to the human beings who receive life from it (hence abortion-on-demand).

Catholics will point out that Protestants themselves have exacerbated these trends through their over-eagerness to distance themselves from classic Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. It is probably more accurate to say that Protestants fell into a form of biblicism that led them to abandon natural law, reason, and careful reflection on why what the Bible says about sex and marriage is true. For liberal Protestants this meant that the collapse of biblical authority opened the floodgates to the modern infatuation with sexual autonomy. For conservative Protestants it has led to a stand for traditional marriage that is more tenacious and rigid than ever before – but all too often lacking in the thoughtfulness and wisdom that would make it persuasive to outsiders. God says marriage is between a man and a woman. We shouldn’t question why. Just obey.

Scripture, of course, offers the sort of reflective guidance that could have spared the early and medieval church from its troubling denigration of sexuality, which owed more to Greek philosophy than to the teachings of Jesus or Paul. It also offers sufficient guidance to spare the modern liberal church from the increasingly accepted alternative – affirmation of whatever sexual relationships seem mutual and loving.

Jesus and Paul both pointed their hearers not to the bare, isolated commands of Scripture, removed from their context (a tactic too often followed by all three groups identified above), but to the norms of creation as revealed in Genesis 1-2. Thus Jesus overturns Deuteronomy’s permissive approach to divorce by declaring that Moses permitted this “because of your hardness of heart,” but “in the beginning it was not so”:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:4-5; Cf. 19:1-12)

Paul likewise characterizes marriage as something more than simply a means for procreation by appealing to the same text in Genesis. Marriage, he says, is a mysterious (sacramental!) representation of the complementary love between Jesus and his church, expressed in the complementarity of the male-female sexual bond.

‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32; Cf. 5:22-33)

What is striking about both of these prominent examples is that they emphasize the unconditional, comprehensive, and complementary nature of marriage without reducing the purpose of that unconditionality, comprehensiveness, or complementarity, to procreation. God made them male and female in the beginning because “it is not good for man to be alone,” and a woman serves as a breathtakingly satisfying partner in part because even as she is so similar (unlike the animals), she is also so happily different! Moderns detect here the misogyny and exploitation of women that has characterized millennia gone by, but the text is clear that the woman was created to be an equal helper (the Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is often used in Scripture to describe God), and that both the desire for domination and coercive rule represent the curse of the fall:

To the woman he said … Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

To be sure, procreation is one of the two important tasks given to human beings, created in the image of God as male and female. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth …” But the other important task, to be equally fulfilled by male and female working together, is to “subdue it [the earth] and have dominion.” (Genesis 1:28) Needless to say, this is not exactly the picture of the late Victorian nuclear family with its separation of spheres, though we do see such a potential separation in the proclamation of the curse due to sin (Genesis 3:16-19).

The point here is not to debate gender roles or the expression they have taken at various points in American history. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that the story of marriage to which both Jesus and Paul point Christians is a story that affirms the comprehensive, unconditional, complementary sexual bond not simply for the purpose of procreation, but for the purposes of solidarity in work and cooperation in life, as well, presumably, as companionship.

What this tells us is not that the non-procreative purposes ought to be used to leverage a view of marriage that abandons its foundation in gender difference. What it tells us, rather, is that gender difference, unconditional love, and comprehensive commitment serve fundamental purposes far beyond simply the biology of procreation. The most lofty of these reasons is that the unique bond of male and female, expressed in sex, life, and work, beautifully portrays the love between God and his people, between Christ and the church. Even more mundane, if less distinctly Christian, is that this bond is central to human flourishing, or to the good life, both of individuals and of society. If marriage is, as Aristotle says, the first human institution, it is because it brings men and women together in wholehearted solidarity and mutual support in all the endeavors and trials of life, bonding them through the mutual satisfaction of sexual desire as well as the procreation and loving nurture of children.

That’s not to say there aren’t other social bonds that can’t be equally deep (i.e., same-gender friendship) or even more important (i.e., the church). It does suggest that marriage is something worth defending.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 11, 2013, in Contraception, Divorce, Homosexuality, Marriage, sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What do Christians think marriage is really about?.

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