Marriage, Sex and Salvation – Part II
In the first part of this blog post I explained how the traditional Christian sexual ethic is based on God’s creation of human beings as male and female and on a summons to sexual holiness that flows from this. I further explained that this ethic can be summarised in the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: ‘the Christian rule is ‘either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’’
There are three challenges which are normally made to the Christian sexual ethic as I have described it. These are (a) that love is the most important thing in sexual ethics and that sex does not have to be within marriage in order to be loving, (b) it is unkind to expect anyone to live without sex and (c) that provided sexual activity takes place between consenting adults and does not harm anyone else then it is ethically acceptable.
Beginning with the first objection, the key point is that what love means can only be understood in relation to the created order as God has established it. According to Christian love is about helping the created order to achieve the end intended for it by God. Thus as Oliver O’Donovan writes in his book Resurrection and Moral Order, love:
…attempts to act for any being only on the basis of the appreciation of that being. Thus classical Christian descriptions of love are often found invoking two other terms which expound its sense; the first is ‘wisdom,’ which is the intellectual apprehension of the order of things which discloses how each stands in relation to the other; the second is ‘delight’ which is affective attention to something simply for what it is and the fact that it is.
This may sound terribly abstract, but it is relevant to our concern because it means that in order to love any other human being properly I have to understand and delight in who they are and act accordingly. This means that if I understand that they are not my wife or husband, but are instead my mother, or a friend of the same sex, or someone who is married to someone else, I am called to delight in them as they are and not seek to have sex with them. To have sex with them would be to contravene the will of God by acting against the way that God has made them to be and the way God has made me to be and would therefore not be behaving with love.
Moving on to the second objection, the point that has to be understood is that being unkind to someone means not giving them some legitimate good which it is proper for them to have as human beings. Thus the way that God has made human beings means that it is proper for all humans to have food, water, shelter, education, friendship and so forth, and it would be unkind to deprive anyone of these things.
Marriage (and sex as part of marriage) is likewise a good of which it would be unkind to deprive people. That is why Paul in 1Timothy 4:3 rejects as heretical those who ‘forbid marriage’ and why the Christian Church down the ages has always taken the same position. However, sex outside marriage is not something that is good and therefore it would not be unkind to say that people should not engage in it. It is like the way in which food is good, but gluttony is not and that drink is good but drunkenness is not. It would not be unkind to say that people should not engage in gluttony and drunkenness and similarly it is not unkind to say that people should not engage in extra marital sex.
It should also be noted that, although marriage is a good, it is not a necessary good for every human being in the same way that things like food, drink, shelter and education are. As the example of Jesus, Paul, and millions of others down the centuries have shown, it is possible to live a perfectly happy and fulfilled life without being married. This means that saying that particular people have to be allowed to marry in order to be fulfilled as human beings is simply mistaken. Furthermore, when it is claimed that the traditional Christian position has been that ‘gay people are not allowed to marry’ this is also mistaken. They are just as entitled to marry as anyone else. It is just that they cannot marry someone of the same sex since that is not marriage, in the same way that a triangle is not a square.
Moving on to the third and final objection, what has to be grasped is that all inappropriate forms of sexual activity always harm somebody. Because they are sinful they harm the individuals who engage in them spiritually and potentially eternally. To put it another way, sinful sex (like all other forms of sin) poisons the soul because it involves a rejection of God’s will. That is why Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we have to take drastic action if we are being led into such sin (‘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’).
In addition, sexual sin causes temporal harm both to individuals and to society. First of all, sexual promiscuity damages people’s physical and mental health and even their enjoyment of sex itself. Secondly, faithful and stable marital relationships are the bedrock of society and when they are undermined by a climate of sexual license this damages society as a whole. Thus the American writer Caitlin Flanagan writes concerning the impact on the United States of the sexual revolution that has taken place there since the 1960s:
There is no other single force causing as much human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mother’s financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.
To put it simply, there is a price for free love and it has been paid by single mothers, by children and by the poor. Defending traditional Christian sexual morality is thus a key part of the Christian duty to protect the poor and the vulnerable.
If all this is so, what are the missionary and pastoral issues that we need to think about?
We are called to be counter-cultural.
Jesus called his disciples to be salt and light in a corrupt and dark world (Matthew
5:13-16). In order to carry out this mandate we need to be counter-cultural in both our teaching and our lifestyle. This is as true in the area of marriage and sexuality as in any other area. If we fail to do this we are failing both God and the needy world to which he has sent us.
We need to acknowledge that we are all sinners
As the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) reminds us, we are never in a position to throw stones at other people for their sexual conduct. The starting point for our mission and pastoral care is not that we are righteous and everyone else is not. The starting point is instead that both we and the people to whom God calls us to minister are sinners who stand together in need of God’s mercy and God’s healing and re-creative power.
Sin is like mushrooms
Sexual sin (like every other kind of sin) is like mushrooms. Why? Because it flourishes in the dark. The only way we can deal effectively with our own sin and the sins of others is if we and they acknowledge and are appropriately open about our shortcomings. Obviously confidentiality has to be respected, but unless people are prepared to admit to other members of the Church that they are in difficulty and need God’s help then they will not be able to receive the support, counsel and prayer that they need in order for sin to be defeated.
We need to be welcoming but not affirming.
In her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield writes that the Pastor who led her to Christ ‘stressed that he accepted me as a lesbian, but that he didn’t approve of me as a lesbian.’ This distinction between acceptance and approval is a crucial one. God accepts us as we are, but he does not approve of our sinfulness and calls us to let him heal us of it. We have to have the same attitude. We need to accept people as they are, but be prepared to challenge them and walk with them as they seek to become the people God calls them to be.
We need to be role models
What will give credibility to our teaching about sexual ethics is the credibility of our life styles. Conversely, our own personal failures will discredit our teaching. This means that we need to be as scrupulous as we can be about our own personal conduct, not just for the sake our relationship with God, but also for the sake of the example that we are called to give to those around us.
We need to be patient.
Particularly in the area of sexuality, sin is extremely powerful. This is, firstly, because of all the biological drives which affect human beings the sex drive is the one linked most strongly to pleasure and the impulse to pleasure is extremely powerful and addictive. Sexual addiction works just like other forms of addiction such as addiction to alcohol and drugs, which is why it leads otherwise sensible people to do incredibly stupid things. It is also because sexual activity normally involves relationships with other people and these can be very difficult to walk away from.
This combination of biology and relationships means that changing patterns of sexual behaviour is generally very difficult and can take a long time. This in turn means that if we want to help people to pursue holiness in this area we need to be in it for the long term. There is extremely unlikely to be any quick fix. However, we must never give up because there is literally no limit to what the power of God can do. The God who created the world and who raised Jesus from the dead is even more powerful than sex.