Category Archives: Divorce

The Christian Idols of Sex, Marriage, and Family

In the sex-saturated culture in which we live, both progressives and traditionalists have come to embrace overly sexualized narratives of sex, marriage, and family. Both tend to idealize sex as a fundamental part of human flourishing, essential to personal wholeness. Progressives emphasize the goods of sex to such an extent that they have largely abandoned the notion that good sex can only take place within a heterosexual, married relationship. The only ethical guidance they seem to be able to provide individuals seeking sexual flourishing is to tell them to respect the consent of others and do what seems right to them. Traditionalists, for their part, idealize the permanent union between a man and a woman and the nuclear family that is supposed to flow from it as if it were the greatest and most wonderful relationship that any person could know in this life.

These narratives have deeply shaped Christians too. Progressives in the church increasingly find themselves questioning classic Christian prohibitions of fornication (i.e., sex before marriage), homosexuality, and divorce, while traditionalists cling all the more tightly to the glories of the married relationship to which everyone is called and for which everyone who is not having sex must necessarily wait. Progressives are abandoning gender as merely a human construct, while conservatives are holding to gender distinctions all the more rigidly as the inviolable decree of creation. Both groups seemingly despise the celibate life, finding it deeply implausible, and both tolerate divorce in virtually every instance in which a couple really wants it.

From the perspective of the gospel, both of these narratives are deeply flawed. True, Jesus clearly affirmed traditional Jewish teaching regarding sexual immorality, and he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is how God declared it to be from creation. Up to that point, at least, the traditionalists are right.

But Jesus said so much more than that – the gospel says so much more than that – and that is getting lost in the debate. If the church hopes to truly exercise a prophetic voice in the midst of a culture whose radical oversexualization produces ever greater numbers of abused, scarred, and disillusioned victims, it needs to recover the good news of Jesus for sex, marriage, and the family.

Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio points out that Jesus consistently challenged his followers not to hold too tightly to marriage and family. Jesus, like his most famous follower, the Apostle Paul, lived a celibate life, and like the Apostle Paul he did not hesitate to characterize the celibate life as one that is especially conducive of devotion to the kingdom of God. He called his disciples to leave their family members for the sake of the kingdom, using language that still shocks us today (if we have ears to hear it):

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

The problem, for Jesus, was not sex. The problem was that marriage, like other familial bonds, places on human beings a host of demands that can easily distract us from the things of God. It calls us to serve one another with absolute fidelity. It tempts us to pursue a life oriented to pleasure, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes us, like the rich young ruler, unlikely to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus once we have considered what the cost of such discipleship might be.

Indeed, when the disciples heard the extent of Jesus’ teaching on marriage their response was not, as it is for so many traditionalist Christians today, to yearn for it all the more deeply (and feel ever more guilty for denying sex to those who are not yet or cannot be married). On the contrary, they exclaimed, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus does not rebuke them for this conclusion. On the contrary, he said,

Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Luke 19:12)

When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on that text? Jesus, like Paul, recognized that there is something better than sex in this life, a calling that far transcends gender roles, and one that is worth pursuing for those willing to receive it. He himself chose that path, rather than the path of marriage.

And yet, his point was not to reject the family. His point, rather, was to get his followers to look beyond their own marriages and families to the much more important family of those who have been reconciled into communion with one another and God. When his own biological family came seeking him, attempting to interrupt his kingdom work, he spoke words that would shock us if we actually took them seriously:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 12:48-50)

Nor was Jesus simply thinking of his own unique messianic situation when he said that. On the contrary, each of the synoptic gospels records Jesus, immediately after his conversation with the rich young ruler, pointing his own followers in the same direction. As Mark’s version puts it,

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:29-31)

To be sure, sex, marriage, and family are good things, gifts from God. But they are not the best thing. And if the words of Jesus or Paul mean anything to us at all, there is something about the celibate life that is, in fact, closer to that best thing. The early church saw that (indeed, they took it much too far), but our culture has blinded us to it.

If the Christian sexual ethic has become less plausible in American churches today, if churches are less and less willing to call their followers to the path of radical discipleship, indeed, if the celibate life of the Christ to whom we are supposed to be conformed has itself become inconceivable to us, then that is a testimony to just how much Christians – progressive and traditionalist alike – have failed to hear the gospel and believe it. Just like our culture, we have idolized sex, marriage, and family. We have confused the American dream with the gospel.

If that is indeed the case, then as Ed Shaw puts it in his must-read, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, the church should give thanks for the phenomena of homosexuality and same-sex marriage because it might just serve as the wake-up call the church needs. In the words of the songwriter Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” If progressives are caving in to the spirit of the times, then traditionalists are too often basking in a hypocritical self-righteousness. Both need to repent and return to the gospel.

If the church wants to speak a prophetic word that is indeed good news for a culture steeped in sexual confusion and scarred by a pandemic of abusive and failing sexual relationships, it must once again hear this word from its lord. Starting with ourselves, we must give up our idols, take up our cross, and follow him.

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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.

Is same-sex marriage distracting conservatives from the greater threat to marriage?

Greg Forster, like fellow First Thoughts bloggers David Mills and R.R. Reno, is skeptical about David Blankenhorn’s call for a new conversation on marriage, a call that seemingly seeks to unite those unwilling to oppose same-sex marriage yet concerned about the catastrophic decline of marriage in American society. Yet Forster wonders whether conservatives are placing too much emphasis on the struggle against gay marriage, and despite his initial skepticism, encourages us to take this development seriously.

In this post I want to ask: is gay marriage really the best place for the marriage movement to be making its big investments? Isn’t that threat avoidance rather than opportunity seeking? ….

The question is, can we do this kind of thing without repudiating our consciences on gay marriage, as Blankenhorn’s manifesto seems to be asking us to do? If not, I see no hope for a humane outcome to the present crisis – one side or the other will have to be crushed. But that kind of thinking is threat avoidance. What we have to do is focus on seeking the opportunity for another kind of outcome….

Rest assured, Blankenhorn’s caucus is where all the cultural power is. Therefore, the terms of the discussion going forward will depend on who engages with them and how. Let’s seize that opportunity. A new movement to destroy casual divorce that brought together supporters and opponents of gay marriage would reframe the marriage debate in America. Such cross-ideological coalitions are actually very common in politics – consider the immigration debate, which pits libertarians and ethnic collectivists on one side against big business and big labor on the other. This is often the way old battle lines get redrawn. The way the lines are drawn now, we are losing badly. Time to get entrepreneurial.

Foster’s argument is consistent with what I’ve argued on this blog. You can read his whole piece here.

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