Marriage, Sexuality and Salvation: Part I
This week’s blog is the first of a two part exploration of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality and how this relates to the Christian view that our life in this world is a journey towards the world that is to come, a journey that has two possible outcomes.
The recent introduction of same sex ‘marriage’ has made the Christian view of sex and marriage a very controversial topic at the moment and it often comes up in the context of evangelism. One of the excuses that is now often given for refusing to engage with the truth claims made by the Christian faith is that Christians have old fashioned and repressive attitudes towards human sexuality, and particularly towards homosexuality, and therefore whatever else they may have to say is not worthy of further consideration. To put it simply, Christians are homophobic bigots and that is the end of the matter.
Now, what I am not going to give you in this blog is a crushing one line answer to this objection to Christian faith. Even if I was capable of doing so (which I am not), I do not think that this would be very helpful. One line answers, crushing or otherwise, are rarely very useful in evangelism. People are not generally won for Christ through clever intellectual arguments, but by the Holy Spirit working through long term, patient dialogue backed up by the consistent witness of people’s lifestyles.
What I shall do instead is attempt to set out the mainstream Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality which has been held in the Church for the last two thousand years and to explain why, from a Christian standpoint, it makes sense.
The Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality, like the Christian understanding of everything else in life, starts off with the conviction that we have to view this present world as a place that we are passing through on the way to somewhere else. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: ‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrew 13:14). Like the hero of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress we are on a journey towards the celestial city, ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven’ described by St. John in Revelation 21-22, the place where we shall be eternally blessed by sharing life with God for ever.
One of the key points made by Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress is that reaching the celestial city is not inevitable. You have to be a certain type of person living in a certain type of way to get there. In the Bible what it means to be this kind of person is set out for us in Psalm 1.
‘Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.’
What this tells us is that there are two ways to live and that it is only the person whose life is focussed on obedience to God’s law, that is the will of God as this has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture, who is blessed by God and who will be able to endure the final judgement and live with God for ever.
The idea that there will be a final judgement which will lead to some people being excluded for ever from the kingdom of God is something that many people find hard to accept, but it makes sense once you understand that God’s kingdom is, as the Lord’s Prayer says, that place where God’s will is done. The citizens of the kingdom are thus those human beings and angels who are capable of delighting in God and his will. Conversely those human beings and angels who, through their own choices, have made themselves incapable of delighting in God and his will, cannot dwell in that kingdom. They will have excluded themselves from it and God’s judgement will be declaration of that reality. To quote C S Lewis, in the end ‘there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’
What all this means is that this life is a serious business. What we do in this life really matters because it has eternal consequences. What is true of life in general is also true of our conduct in respect of sex. This, too, involves making a choice about whether to go God’s way or not. This is made clear, for example, in the following two passages, one from Jesus himself and one from Paul.
‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’ (Matthew 5:27-30)
‘God’s plan is to make you holy, and that entails first of all a clean cut with sexual immorality. Every one of you should learn to control his body, keeping it pure and treating it with respect, and never regarding it as an instrument for self-gratification, as do pagans with no knowledge of God. You cannot break this rule without in some way cheating your fellow-men. And you must remember that God will punish all who do offend in this matter, and we have warned you how we have seen this work out in our experience of life. The calling of God is not to impurity but to the most thorough purity, and anyone who makes light of the matter is not making light of man’s ruling but of God’s command. It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 – J.B. Philips translation)
Both of these passages make it clear that sexual immorality is completely incompatible with being a follower of Jesus Christ. God will judge not only sexually immoral actions, but even sexually immoral thoughts, and as Christians we need to live in the light of this fact. Sexual holiness is therefore not optional.
If we are to live lives of sexual holiness we need to know what such holiness involves. What is God’s will for human beings in relation to their sexual conduct? In the two passages just quoted we have seen snapshots of what is involved, but what is the big picture they reflect?
To understand this big picture we have to go right back to the beginning, to the accounts of God’s creation of the human race contained in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. The reason these two chapters are crucial is because they lay down God’s intention for human life on this planet, an intention that he has never revoked. Just as Jesus’ resurrection did not mean a rejection of his human nature, but its taking up into a new stage of human existence, so also the new life that God grants us as Christians does not cancel out God’s purpose for us as human beings laid down at creation, but enables us to fulfil it.
For the purposes of understanding what sexual holiness involves there are two key passages from Genesis that we need to consider. The first is Genesis 1:26-28:
‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” ‘
The second is Genesis 2:18-24:
‘Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’
The first passage tell us that God made human beings in two sexes, both of whom were equally created in God’s image and likeness, and that men and women together are blessed by God and are called to be fruitful and multiply and to exercise stewardship over the created order on God’s behalf.
The second tells us that marriage is the social form that gives primary expression to the divinely created relationship of interdependence between men and women. The man is incomplete on his own and cannot fulfil the vocation that God has given him and so God creates the woman to be his perfect companion and therefore in marriage ‘a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ Each marriage, that is to say, is a fresh expression and re-affirmation of God’s original creation of men and women to serve him together in the world. In addition, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:21-32, it is also intended to be an image of the relationships between Christ and his Church, in the same way that in the Old Testament marriage was an image of the relationship between God and Israel.
It is within this marital relationship that sex has its proper place. Within marriage, sex has three equally important functions. First, it consummates the union between a man and a woman. It is the physical means through which the two become ‘one flesh.’ Secondly, it is a means through which, by the giving and receiving of physical pleasure the love between a married couple is expressed and deepened (for a biblical account of this see the Song of Songs throughout). Thirdly, it is the normal and natural means by which a married couple can fulfil the God given mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’
Just as the God given purpose of food is to satisfy our hunger and the purpose of drink is to satisfy our thirst, so the God given purpose of sex is to fulfil these three ends within marriage.
The Christian sexual ethic is based on this fact in a number of ways.
First of all it holds that sex is a good within marriage and that, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, a married couple should therefore not refuse sexual relations with each other except for a specific purpose and for a specific period of time.
Secondly, it holds that although not every act of sexual intercourse should be expected or intended to lead to the procreation of children, nevertheless sexual relations should be open to fulfilment through the gift of children. For this reason a sexual relationship within marriage that was intentionally closed to having any children would be morally wrong. This is, incidentally, something on which Anglicans and Roman Catholics have traditionally agreed. The difference between the two traditions has been that since the 1930s Anglicans have felt it right to use artificial contraception to limit fertility whereas Roman Catholics have argued for the use of natural family planning instead.
Thirdly, it holds that because God wills that sex should find its proper place within marriage, sex outside the marital context is sinful. Once again the analogy with food and drink is illuminating.
Food has a good and pleasurable place in human existence when it used to satisfy hunger. However, when desire for the consumption of food becomes an end in itself and becomes excessive this is the sin of gluttony. Likewise, the consumption of alcoholic drink if one is thirsty is a perfectly good thing to do, but the immoderate consumption of alcohol purely for the sake of intoxication becomes the sin of drunkenness.
In a similar way sex has a proper place in human existence within marriage for the purposes outlined above. However, forms of sexual activity that fall outside of this context constitute the sin which the New Testament refers to by the blanket term ‘porneia’ which is translated into English as ‘sexual uncleanness’ or ‘sexual immorality.’
These forms of sexual activity can be broken down into a number of categories. There are unacceptable forms of sex within marriage such as marital rape and sadomasochism (popularised today in Fifty Shades of Grey and its numerous imitators). There is sex before marriage. There is sex outside marriage in the form of adultery. Finally, there are forms of sexual activity that fall outside the parameters laid down for marriage, including necrophilia, bestiality, paedophilia, incest, and, controversially today, homosexuality. Some of these forms of sexual activity are specifically condemned in Scripture (see for example the list of sexual offences in Leviticus 18:1-23) and others, such as sadomasochism within marriage, have to be rejected because they go against what Scripture teaches about the dignity of the human person.
The reason that homosexuality is on the list is that it falls outside the parameters of marriage for two reasons: firstly, because it is a relationship between two men or two women rather than a man and a woman and secondly because it is intrinsically closed to the procreation of children. A relationship that is between two people of the same sex and that can never be procreative is simply not marriage. Therefore homosexual sex can never be marital sex and as such it must always be sinful.
In summary, we can thus say with C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity that ‘the Christian rule is ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’’ We can also see that this rule makes perfect sense once you understand sex within its proper God given context of marriage.
However, as we know, not everyone is happy with the traditional Christian approach, so in next week’s blog I shall begin by looking at a series of objections to the traditional Christian position and explaining why I think they are mistaken.