Category Archives: sexuality
A few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff made big news when he delivered a speech at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in favor of same-sex marriage. The speech has evoked mixed reviews. Those who desire to see the church affirm monogamous same-sex sexual relationships are ecstatic to have a philosopher of Wolterstorff’s stature on their side (however cautiously he may have presented his case), while those committed to the biblical conception of marriage as being between a man and a woman are discouraged and, admittedly, somewhat surprised at how little Wolterstoff engaged scholarly exegesis with respect to the relevant texts, not to mention the broader scriptural context of what the Bible says about homosexuality.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that Nick is a friend and mentor to me. I respect him deeply and have learned a tremendous amount from his work on love and justice. I meet regularly with him for coffee and conversation and I have discussed this presentation with him in a charitable and constructive manner. In that sense I am reluctant to write this piece, but I do so out of a sense of obligation as the professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary, appointed by the Christian Reformed Church to offer some measure of theological leadership on moral matters, and because Nick himself has welcomed just this sort of response to his work. All that said, whatever you do, do not read this as an attack on Nicholas Wolterstoff. Read it as an affectionate, yet deeply concerned, response from one of Nick’s own admiring students. There has been no breach of friendship or respect between us, and if anything, this discussion gives us an opportunity to serve the church through respectful, substantive dialogue.
Let me say first of all that I largely agree with the way Wolterstorff framed the issue. That is to say, I think he raises the right questions. 1) Is homosexual practice really a violation of the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself? If so, how and why? 2) If homosexual practice is not a violation of the love command, do we oppose it simply because scripture opposes it? In other words, is this merely an issue of biblical authority, with no why or wherefore to it other than the arbitrary will of God? 3) If we answer yes to these questions, then shouldn’t we revisit scripture’s teaching on homosexuality, understanding it in its proper context, to see if we have interpreted it properly?
In addition to these questions let me stress that I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s argument that we cannot simply fall into proof-texting on this issue. Those who seek to affirm homosexual relationships do so not because they fail to see where scripture seems to fall on the issue, but because they no longer understand its logic or rationale. And that leads them, like Wolterstorff, to wonder whether there might not be some other way to read the texts in question, one which may give rise to an interpretation different from our initial reading, and one whose logic and rationale makes more sense to us. In short, the question is not, What do the texts say when taken out of context?, but, What do the texts say when understood in light of the broader context of scripture and of the gospel?
So for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with Wolterstorff’s insistence that we respect context. Context. Context. Context.
Hence my disappointment with Wolterstorff’s presentation. He does not, in fact, look at the issue of homosexuality, or scripture’s discussion of it, in its full biblical context. Indeed, Wolterstofff did not even mention foundational scriptural passages on sexuality and marriage such as Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 6, or Ephesians 5. Rather, he focused on the seven texts where scripture explicitly mentions homosexuality. And even there, he does not actually interpret those passages in light of their broader context.
For instance, with respect to the all important passage of Romans 1, Wolterstorff zeroed in narrowly on what Paul says about homosexuality in verses 24-27. He entirely ignored the context of those verses, in verses 18-23. And, as I will argue, that makes all the difference in the world.
Wolterstorff presented Paul’s logic in Romans 1 as if Paul was trying to show how evil people are who experience homosexual passions. He then argued that since we know that not all people who experience these passions are evil, Paul must not have been talking about the sort of people who are committed to monogamous homosexual relationships.
But that is to miss Paul’s point entirely, because it is to take it out of context. In a sense, Wolterstoff is guilty of just the sort of proof-texting against which he warned us at the beginning of his presentation. What Paul is actually doing in Romans 1 is showing us how people suppress the truth of God revealed in creation, exchanging that truth for the lie of idolatry. Hence they worship the creature rather than the creator. They are guilty of turning the order of things on their head, and so living a lie.
The result, Paul argues, is that “God gave them over” to sexual impurity (1:24). “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (1:25). And the shameful sexual passions to which he “gave them over” (1:26) are the “due penalty for their error.” Why are they the “due penalty”? Paul is telling us that there is a logical correspondence between the practice of homosexuality (the practice in which “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another”) and the practice of idolatry. In each case a natural or created good is “exchanged” for something objectively disordered.
The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.
Last night’s presidential debate opened with the Republican candidate for president apologizing for boasting about sexual assault, while in the same breath claiming that it was just words, mere “locker room talk.” “I’m very embarrassed by it,” he admitted, “but it’s locker room talk.”
That’s all. Nothing to worry about. This is just how men talk when they are together having fun. People just say these things.
That’s what Trump would have us believe.
I have heard much “locker room talk” over the years and I have never, ever, heard someone even come close to bragging about sexual assault without being called out on it by any man with any self-respect whatsoever.
I am well aware that many men say these sorts of things. Many men commit sexual assault too. Indeed, one out of every five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and half – half – of women have experienced sexual assault.
And I wonder if you can find anyone who knows anything at all about Donald Trump who actually believes his claim that he has never sexually assaulted a woman. These are not random comments from a distant past.
Hillary Clinton put it quite well in last night’s debate:
Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.
But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.
So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.
So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.
I get it. Politics is complicated. There are many people who loath just about everything about Donald Trump – who feel sick to their stomach by the sorts of things he has said and done – who will nevertheless vote for him because they fear Hillary Clinton even more. I suspect more Americans than not will hold their noses when they enter the voting booth this November. And many will vote for a third candidate, or not vote at all.
I am not a political scientist or a political activist. I am a moral theologian. And so I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I will say this. Trump’s record of speech and action with respect to women is no sideshow to who he really is and who he will really be as the president of the United States. His track record is one of consistent misogyny. Voting for Trump is supporting a man who has publicly objectified women while boasting that he has long been able to assault them sexually – forcing himself on them, groping their genitals, and manipulating them for sex – with impunity.
Where does women’s dignity as human beings made in the image of God rank on your hierarchy of moral and political concerns? What about sexual assault?
Many of Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Christians should support him in order to protect religious liberty. But it was Hillary Clinton who was defending religious liberty in last night’s debate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how associating the cause of religious liberty with the darkness that is Donald Trump will do anything but damage the cause.
The same could be said for the pro-life movement. Perhaps Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said it best:
The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.
And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.
Abortion is a horrific, deeply rooted moral problem. Terrorism and violence seem to claim more lives every day. But every two minutes in this country another woman – or a child – is sexually assaulted. These are our wives. These are our children. These are our neighbors. What else do we have to say? Who else are we going to throw under the bus while claiming that all of this somehow helps us save the lives of the unborn? And can we really say with a straight face that hitching our wagon to Donald Trump is good for the cause and credibility of religious liberty?
Even aside from the principle of it, common sense itself dictates this conclusion: If evangelicals publicly support Donald Trump, the chief result will not be the advance of the sanctity of life or of religious liberty, let alone of family values. The result will be the collapse of any evangelical credibility on moral issues whatsoever.
When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.
The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.
This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.
For far too long in this country it has seemed possible to enjoy both the Christian life and the American dream. Christians have conflated the way of Christ and the pursuit of happiness. It has never worked as well as it was supposed to, but the inconsistencies and contradictions have always seemed relatively minor. Now that has all changed, and in this excellent little book Ed Shaw, pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England, is calling the church to wake up.
Christians, including young evangelicals, are increasingly being persuaded that it is unreasonable, or, as Shaw puts it, implausible, to ask those who experience exclusively same-sex attraction to live celibate lives. Sexuality is considered to be central to human identity, and sexual experience is thought to be an essential part of any decent life. To expect a person to be celibate – for his or her entire life – is to ask that person to deny his or her very own self. It is to reject any and all possibility of happiness. And for many Christians this is simply too difficult to stomach. God wants us to be happy, doesn’t he?
Shaw captures the humanity and emotion of the argument for same-sex relationships in his opening story about a young man named Peter. Peter is an enthusiastic member of his evangelical church. Like other teenagers, he has experienced the excitement, the challenges, and the temptations of puberty, struggling to manage the fascinating new phenomena of sexual attraction in Christlike ways. But unlike all of his friends, Peter knows that he doesn’t merely have to wait, to practice abstinence until he finds the right woman. Peter is exclusively attracted to men and hasn’t been able to change that, and he knows that according to Christian teaching, that means he may never have sex.
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.
In one of his famous dialogues with the Pharisees Jesus skillfully appealed to creation norms to trump the part of the Mosaic Code that permitted men to divorce their wives for frivolous reasons.
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 mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate. . . . Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:4-6, 8-9)
Here Jesus intertwined the teachings of Genesis 1 and 2 to tie marriage indelibly to the ordering of human beings as male and female, an ordering that was itself indelibly tied to God’s purposes for sexuality and procreation. By linking the sexual relationship between male and female introduced in Genesis 1 to the one flesh union introduced in Genesis 2, Jesus pronounced judgment on all legal engineering that would reduce marriage to something else (in the case of Matthew 19, an opportunity for men to treat women like slaves).
Read the rest of this article at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
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.
- Perfect Virtue – celibacy
- No Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation
- Venial Fault – sex within marriage for the purpose of satisfying sexual desire
- 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.