Why marriage and procreation belong together

In the history of Christian theology it has often proved necessary to hold two apparently contradictory assertions together in order to express the truth about God and the human situation.

Thus we have to hold that:

  • God is one and yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God;
  • Jesus Christ was (and is) both fully divine and yet also fully human;
  • God is completely sovereign and yet human beings have genuine freedom and responsibility:
  • We are saved without works and yet good works will necessarily be performed by all who are saved.

In this post I want to add another item to this list. I shall argue that marriage is good in itself without children and yet the procreation of children is an integral part of the purpose of marriage.

In her paper ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed,’[1] Dr Meg Warner has responded to the argument I put forward in my new book for the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your body. In this book I argue that same-sex relationships cannot be marriages because ‘a relationship between two people of the same sex intrinsically closed to procreation, cannot be a marriage.’[2] Her response to this argument is to say that it is unconvincing from a biblical standpoint because ‘Nowhere does the Bible say that procreation is an integral element of marriage.’[3]

There are two problems with this response.

First of all, throughout the Bible, it is either stated that marriage leads to the procreation of children, or it is assumed that it will. Time without number in the Bible people who are married have children and this is regarded as a normal and expected turn of events, and as the way in which God builds up his people.

We can see this for example, at the end of the Book of Ruth where Boaz states his intention to marry Ruth and the inhabitants of Bethlehem declare their hope that the marriage will result in children:

‘May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Eph′rathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12).

The story then continues by telling us how this hope was fulfilled through the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David, and how this brings blessing to Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi whose own sons have died.

‘So Bo′az took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Na′omi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Na′omi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Na′omi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ (Ruth 4:13-17)

Conversely, when marriages do not lead to the birth of children, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 15:1-5), Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-10), or Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7) this is seen as something problematic for the people concerned and as a potential impediment to the fulfilment of the purposes and promises of God.

Secondly, the Bible traces the expectation that marriage will be procreative right back to the creation of the human race. It says that the reason we should expect marriages to result in children is that the paradigm form of marriage instituted by God is one that leads to the birth of children.

Warner evades what the Bible says on this point by separating Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

On Genesis 1 she comments:

‘Procreation is foregrounded strongly in Genesis 1. In verse 28 God blesses the first humans and says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’. This is God’s first instruction and first blessing. It is tempting to interpret it as a special, central, divine imperative for humans. It is, however, made also to animals and birds (verse 22) and there is no requirement for humans to marry first, any more that there is a requirement for animals or birds to marry.’[4]

On Genesis 2 she states:

‘The ‘not good’ thing in Genesis 2 was that the human being was alone (Gen 2:18). So, after some initial false starts, God made another human being, a woman (ishshah), to be a ‘helper’ with the adam. Note that she was not created primarily to bring the adam (who only now is identified as a male human [ish], signifying the beginnings of gender) companionship or to have his children, but to ‘help’ him in his vocation of serving the earth. (Note, too, that the Hebrew word ezer [‘helper’] doesn’t imply subordination – it is often used to describe God as our helper, eg. Psalms 10:14, 30:10, 54:4.).

Even if Genesis 2 tells us something about marriage, it does not tell us that marriage is for having children. The first responsibility of men and women, says Genesis 2, is to care for God’s creation. We (anthropocentric creatures that we are) think the story is all about us. It is not. It is about the earth first.’[5]

For Warner Genesis 1 is about procreation, but not marriage and Genesis 2 is about marriage, but not about procreation.

The problem with this reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is that it ignores the basic rule of biblical interpretation that you need to read biblical books as whole entities. Genesis 1 and 2 are part of a much bigger continuous narrative that extends all the way to Genesis 50 and so they have to be read together, and read in the light of this bigger narrative.

The major theme of the narrative contained in Genesis 1-50 is descent (which is why Genesis is structured round a series of genealogies[6]). Genesis is about how the people of Israel was formed by the descendants of Abraham in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by God in Genesis 12:1-3, a promise which is turn related to the promise of salvation through the seed of Eve in Genesis 3:15, which is turn related to God’s command to his human creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis 1:28. Genesis 2 has to be read in the light of this overall concern with the issue of descent.

In Genesis 1:28 God tells his male and female human creatures:

‘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.’’

In this verse having children and exercising dominion are not two separate commands, but two aspects of one command. It is by having children that the human race is able to fill the earth and subdue it and thus exercise dominion on behalf of God.

The story starting in Genesis 2 is about how this dual aspect command begins to be fulfilled in practice even in the face of human rebellion. The man Adam is put in the garden to begin to exercise dominion over God’s creation and verses 18-25 tell ‘the story of God’s creation of Eve as a suitable helper and companion for Adam.’ [7]

In these verses, as Warner suggests, the emphasis is on the companionate aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve. Marriage is depicted as good in itself even though children are not (yet) on the scene.

However, the reader of Genesis who has read Genesis 1:28 is still left asking how the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ aspect of God’s command to his human creatures will be fulfilled, particularly since in Genesis 3:15 the idea that God’s purposes will be fulfilled through the begetting of children is once again emphasized.

Genesis 3:16 then supplies the answer by saying that it will come about through childbearing in the context of a relationship between husband and wife:

To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’[8]

The situation outlined in this verse then comes to pass in Genesis 4:1-2, 25-6, 5:1-3 in which Adam and Eve (with the help of God) beget Cain, Abel and Seth (and then other sons and daughters 5:4) as the fruit of their marital relationship, with the line of Seth (which eventually leads to Abraham and his descendants) being the means by which the promise of redemption in 3:15 begins to come about after the murder of Abel by Cain.

What all this means is that in the bigger narrative concerning Adam and Eve running from Genesis 2:4 to 5-5 the first human couple begin to fulfil through their marriage both aspects of the dual command in Genesis 1:28. even in the conditions prevailing after the Fall. They are God’s image bearers exercising dominion and they are fruitful and multiply thus allowing God’s work to continue and expand even in the face of death.

As Jesus’ response to the question of divorce indicates (Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12), the reason why we are told about Adam and Eve is not just out of antiquarian interest, but because they are the paradigm married couple who indicate how God created marriage to be.[9] It follows that the way in which Adam and Eve fulfil the creation mandate to be fruitful is to be viewed as a paradigm for all subsequent marriages (which is why, as we have said, Scripture views the begetting of children within marriage as the normal state of affairs – this is how God created things to be[10]).

To sum up: we need to read Genesis as whole and when we do we find that Adam and Eve, the paradigm married couple, fulfil Genesis 1:28 through their marital relationship and this establishes a God given pattern for human behaviour which the rest of the Bible (and the subsequent tradition of the Church) simply follows.

This being the case, even though a marital relationship between a husband and wife is a good in itself even without children because of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’[11] it provides, it is nonetheless the case that the procreation of children is an integral part of what marriage is for.

The case that same-sex relationships cannot be regarded as marriages both because they are between two people of the same sex and because they are inherently not procreative therefore still stands.

M B Davie 20.2.19

 

 

 

[1] Meg Warner ‘Elephants, Penguins, Procreation and Japanese Knotweed’ at

Elephants, Penguins, Procreation & Japanese Knotweed

[2] Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2018) p.154.

[3] Warner, art c it, emphasis in the original.

[4] Warner, art cit.

[5] Warner, art cit.

[6] See Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos, 2003), pp. 55-56.

[7] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (London: SPCK, 2006), p.16.

[8] For the interpretation of this verse see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 58-80.

[9] If we ask why Jesus doesn’t say anything about children this is because this was not the issue at hand.

[10] In Genesis and throughout the Bible children are born out of wedlock, but in every case where this happens there are explicit or implicit indications that this is not how things are meant to be. See Davidson for a detailed discussion of therelevant verses.

[11] Book of Common Prayer marriage service.

A response to the letter from the Bishop of Bangor

A new letter from the Bishop of Bangor

In his new episcopal letter to the Diocese of Bangor on 2 February 2019[1] Bishop Andy John does three things.

  • First, he sets out the result of the voting on the issue of same-sex relationships that took place in the Governing Body of the Church in Wales in September 2018 and September 2015.
  • Secondly, he notes the divisions over the issue of same-sex unions within the Anglican Communion and the Christian Church as a whole, the persecution of LGBTI+ people and the way in which for many LGBTI+ people ‘the attitudes and assumptions of the Church today makes a hostile environment in which to survive let alone participate and thrive.’
  • Thirdly, he sets out his own thinking on the issue of same-sex relationships and way forward for the Church in Wales on this matter.

In this response I shall focus on what he say about his own thinking, but I shall also return at the end to the important point about the way in which attitudes and assumptions within the Church create difficulties for people with same-sex attraction.

A critical analysis of his argument

The bishop begins his account of his own thinking by noting what is said in the Old and New Testaments about marriage being between a man and a woman and about the prohibition of same sex sexual activity as a consequence of this. He comments:

‘Those Christians who urge the Church to adhere to traditional teaching believe that these texts, taken together, provide a broad and comprehensive prohibition. They rightly point out that whenever the Bible deals with this matter [i.e. same-sex sexual activity] it is always in negative terms and is properly summed up in the oft-repeated phrase: ‘The Church cannot bless what God does not.’'[

What the Bishop does not then do is explain how the biblical texts to which he has just referred can be understood if his preferred approach of supporting same-sex unions is adopted. He notes that these texts exist, but subsequently ignores them. This is highly problematic because if, as the Church has always held, these texts are part of God’s revelation of his will to the human race, then the bishop needs to offer some account of what they mean for us today. How are we to understand and apply the biblical rejection of all forms of sexual relationship outside marriage (same-sex relationships included)? The Bishop simply does not say.

What he does instead is move on to a number of other biblical texts which other Christians see as supportive of same-sex relationships.

The first text he appeals to is Galatians 5:22-23. He explains that those who are same-sex attracted experience in their relationship with their partner of the same sex ‘the very fruit of the Spirit identified by St Paul as a mark of God’s presence and blessing.’ What he fails to acknowledge however, is that Galatians 5:16-24 needs to be read as a literary unit in which St. Paul contrasts walking by the Spirit to living by the ‘flesh’ (by which he means the desires of fallen human nature.

In Galatians 5:18 Paul specifies that among the works of the flesh are ‘fornication, impurity and licentiousness.’ These are all general terms for sexual immorality, which in the New Testament context means all sexual activity outside marriage. Those who engage in such immorality, he says, ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21).

By contrast, one of the fruits of the Spirit specified in Galatians 5:23 is egkrateia which means self-control (including sexual self-control) and which in context means avoiding the kind of immoral behaviour previously specified including sexually immoral behaviour. Furthermore, Galatians 5:24 declares ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ and in context living this out must mean avoiding sexual immorality since this has been specified as a work of the flesh.

What all this means is that however much those with same-sex attraction may feel they experience the other fruits of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:16-24 as a whole they are not living according to the Spirit but according to the flesh if they engage in same-sex sexual activity and if they do so they risk exclusion from God’s eternal kingdom.

The second text he appeals to is Matthew 5:16-17 which, he says, declares ‘fruitfulness’ to be the litmus test ‘which reveals the authenticity (or not) of any claim to communion with God and grace.’ In his view this means that we have to ask ‘If the fruit of a relationship is growth in godly character, in what sense can such a relationship could be considered ‘against the will of God’?

The first problem with what the bishop says here is that Matthew 5:16-17 does not say anything about fruitfulness. The text he is actually referring to is Matthew 7:16-17. The second problem is that Matthew 7:16-17 forms part of the Sermon on the Mount and the opening part of this sermon makes it clear that the ‘good fruit’ referred to in Matthew 7:17-18 is a life which fulfils the ‘law and the prophets’ (Matthew 5:17), by which is meant the teaching of what we called the Old Testament, and that Jesus interpreted the teaching about sexual ethics contained in the Old Testament more rather than less strictly than his Jewish contemporaries (Matthew 5:27-32).

Given the Old Testament’s rejection of same-sex sexual activity it is therefore impossible to envisage that the good fruit in Matthew 7:17-18 includes a relationship involving such activity.

The bishop then goes on to line up three texts, Acts 10, Acts 15:20-21 and Colossians 2:20-21. His argument is that in Colossians 2:20-21 St. Paul argues on the basis of the gospel that Christians are now free to ignore the teaching of Acts 15:20-21 that Gentiles admitted into the Church on the basis of God’s revelation to St. Peter in Acts 10 should abstain from eating blood and the meat of animals sacrificed to idols. Given this precedent, asks the bishop, is ‘it inappropriate for the church to ask whether the boundaries and limits of this new freedom have been properly explored and understood?’ In other words, can we not claim a freedom from restriction on sexual relationships just as St. Paul claimed a freedom from restriction on eating certain kinds of food?

The problem with this argument is that once again the bishop has ignored the context of the verses to which he refers. As David Gooding explains in his commentary on Acts,[2] what the restriction in Acts 15 is about is Gentiles respecting the consciences of Jewish believers for the sake of the unity of the Church. St. Paul too underlines the importance this principle of respecting the consciences of others regarding food (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10). However, in Colossians 2 the issue is different. Here St. Paul is facing teaching which says that it is necessary for Christians to observe the Jewish law in its fullness in order to be saved. He rejects this for the same reason he rejects similar teaching in Galatians, namely that salvation comes through dying and rising with Christ and not through legal observance.

On closer inspection, therefore, the supposed development from Acts 15 to Colossians 2 collapses and therefore so too does this part of the bishop’s argument.

The bishop’s next move is to argue that we have now moved beyond biblical teaching with regard to slavery, the position of women, divorce, usury and the belief that heaven is above and hell below us. The problem with this line of argument is that for the argument to be convincing the bishop would have to establish, rather than simply assert, that the Bible gives teaching in these areas which we are right to reject and that the principles that would lead us to reject it should also lead us to accept same-sex relationships. The bishop, however, fails to do this.

What he does instead is appeal to the idea that discerning the will of God includes ‘includes reading the Scriptures as well as other sources of authority such as reason, scientific evidence and in serious dialogue with other disciplines.’

There is no problem with the idea of making use of reason and scientific evidence and theology engaging in dialogue with other intellectual disciplines. Christians have been doing this since the Patristic era. However, because Scripture is directly inspired by God in the way that other human thinking is not, we have to avoid seeking to correct Scriptural teaching on the basis of human ideas. It is important to allow reason and science to challenge and refine the way we read the Scriptures, but in the end we have to accept that the Scriptures themselves are supremely authoritative as our basis for understanding God and what it means to live rightly before him (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In addition the bishop fails to give any explanation of why reason, science and dialogue with other disciplines should re-shape the way we read Scripture on the issue of sexuality.

The bishop goes on to declare that having ministered alongside those in same-sex relationships:

‘I have come to believe that the Church should now fully include without distinction those who commit to permanent loving unions with a person of the same sex. I further believe that the best way to do this is for the Church to marry these people as we do with men and women.’

What this declaration does not tell us is the reasons why he has come to believe this. The fact that he has come to believe this does not mean that anyone else should unless he can show cogent reasons, in line with Scripture, why it would be right for them to do so.

As the Bishop sees it, allowing people of the same sex to marry in Church:

‘…will strengthen our witness to a world which longs to see justice and fairness for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and cannot understand how the Church is still wrestling with an issue that most people have accepted long ago.’

What he is basically saying here is that the Church should conform to the world. The world has a particular understanding of what justice and fairness involves and we need to conform to it. The problem here is that this appeal to the principles of justice and fairness backfires.

What is normally meant by justice and fairness is giving people what is their due and treating equal cases equally. Contemporary society thinks this involves accepting same sex relationships and being willing to call them marriages. Anything else is seen as unjust and unfair.

However, if God has in fact created a world in which men and women are designed to engage in sexual relationships only with members of the opposite sex and has instituted marriage as a relationship between two people of the opposite sex then we do not owe it to people to say that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable and the principle of treating equal cases equally does not entail calling a relationship between two men or two men a marriage.

We cannot get away from the basic issue of what kind of a world has God made, and to know that we need to not only look at the evidence of biology which indicates that human bodies are designed for heterosexual sex (which is the point being made by St. Paul in Romans 1:26-27), but supremely the testimony of Scripture which teaches us that our bodies are designed this way by God and that it is God who created marriage as the proper context for heterosexual sex to take place.

Although he personally supports same-sex marriage the bishop also suggests that:

‘… there are good arguments for developing the Church’s teaching in other ways, for example by introducing a service of life vows or revisiting the question of blessing same sex unions.’

However, yet again he does not say what these arguments are or explain how such vows or blessings would be compatible with Scripture if they involved giving official church recognition to same-sex relationships.

Conclusion

For the reasons given above the argument presented by the Bishop of Bangor in his letter is not convincing. He simply does not make out a convincing case for changing the Church’s teaching and practice.

Where he is right, however, is in saying that many people with same-sex attraction experience the Church as a hostile place. However, the proper way to address this is not to change the Church’s teaching.

As the Ed Shaw, himself same-sex attracted, argues in his important book The Plausibility Problem,[3] the problem lies not with the Church holding that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage, but with the way in which people within the Church collude with the culture in suggesting that you can’t be happy without sex, value marriage and family life above singleness, and wrongly identify godliness with heterosexuality.

What the Church needs to do, he argues, is recapture the importance of celibacy and singleness and provide a place where everyone is valued, loved and supported regardless of their sexual attraction. That is what is needed, not same-sex marriage.

[1] https://bangor.eglwysyngnghymru.org.uk/newyddion/2019/02/03/llythyr-esgobol-newydd-esgob-andy/

[2] David Gooding, True to the Faith, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, pp.237-238.

[3] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem, Nottingham: IVP. 2015.