A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 8 – The importance of friendship.

As we saw in the previous article in this series, God calls human beings to be either single or married. What both of these vocations have in common is that they are undergirded by a call to friendship.

The key biblical passage that tells us this is John 15:12-17 where Jesus’ speaks to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.’

These words are addressed, in the first instance, to Jesus’ first disciples. However,  they also apply to everyone he calls to follow him and, thus, potentially, to all human beings. They tell us that Jesus is our friend and that he has shown his friendship by laying down his life for us (v.13) and by teaching us all that he has heard from the Father (i.e., making known to us the saving plan of God and our part in it) (v.15). In turn, we are Jesus’ friends if we do what he commands (v.14), which is to love one another as he has loved us (vv.12 and 17).

What kind of love is this?  It is clearly not sexual love. Jesus’ love for his disciples was clearly not the sexual love between a husband and wife, nor does he expect his disciples to express their love for each other in that way (unless they are in fact husband and wife).

The kind of love in view here is instead friendship. In our society we tend to contrast love and friendship. Thus someone might say, ‘I don’t love him. We’re just good friends.’ In reality, however, friendship is arguably the overarching form of love, of which the love between husband and wife is one subset.

What does it mean to love one another as friends?  If we take God’s love for us as the model three things stand out. 

First, there is openness. Jesus does not hide from his disciples who he is and what he has come to do, but makes it known to them. In a similar way we are called to be open and honest with our friends. We are called to share with them who we truly are and also to allow them the opportunity to share who they are with us.

Secondly, there is constancy. God is not there for us some of the time, but all of the time, and we likewise have to be constantly there for our friends through thick and thin and not just when we feel like it.

Thirdly, there is self-sacrifice.  We need to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our friends. Jesus laid down his life for us and we, in turn, have to be willing to lay down our life for our friends. This does not necessarily mean literally dying for them (although it could), but what it does mean is dying to self by being willing to put the needs of our friends before our own wants and desires.

This kind of serious, committed, friendship is at the heart of Christian marriage. It is the concrete form of the ‘mutual society, help, and comfort’ between husband and wife referred to in the Book of Common Prayer marriage service. However, it is a form of relationship which all Christians need, and to which all Christians are called, whether they are married or not.

What this means is that all Christians have the responsibility to offer this kind of friendship to the other members of the body of Christ. Mere casual acquaintance is not enough. There needs to be the kind of deep friendship that we have just described. That is what it means to obey Jesus’ injunction to ‘love one another as I have loved you.’

Obviously, there is a limit to the number of people any one individual can befriend intimately, but the net of friendship should be cast as wide as possible, even if some friendships are going to be deeper than others.

In summary, there are two vocations to which God calls people, marriage and singleness, and both of these vocations involve a call to the kind of friendship which God gives to us and calls us then to give to others.

In the next article we shall go on to look in more detail about what the Bible teaches us about the particular shape of the relationship of friendship between husband and wife in marriage.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 7 – the two vocations of marriage and singleness.

In this series we have seen that Christian anthropology, based on God’s revelation of his purposes in nature and the teaching of the Bible, holds that God has created human beings as male and female and has designed men to have sexual intercourse with women and vice versa. It is through such sexual intercourse that children are conceived, and the human race continues to exist.[1] We have also seen  that God has instituted marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, and that God’s pattern for human sexual conduct is that sexual intercourse, and hence the begetting of children, should take place within marriage.

What we also noted in the previous article, however, is that sex and marriage as we know them now will not continue to exist in the world that is to come. While those who are men and women in this world will continue to be men and women in the world to come, they will exist in a state of perfect, intimate, communion with God and all God’s people. This state of communion is the ultimate fulfilment of our human need for relational intimacy and as such it is the transcendent reality which sex and marriage in this world foreshadow.

Because all this is so, it follows that sex and marriage are not the ultimate goals of human existence. Those who are not married and do not enjoy sexual intercourse in this life will not lose out because they, just like those who are married, will be able to enjoy the reality of perfect intimacy with God and all God’s people in the world to come.  In this way, they, too, will be able to experience the perfect fulfilment of their creation as male or female human beings.

Since it is  not necessary for human beings to be married and have sex in order to achieve the goal for which they were created, it follows that it is not necessary for people to be married or have sex in this life. We can see this most clearly in the case of Jesus. He lived a perfect human life as a male human being with the capacity for sexual desire and sexual activity, and yet he remained for the whole of his earthly life unmarried and sexually abstinent.

Both Jesus and Paul teach that God also calls other people in addition to Jesus to live as sexually abstinent single people for the whole of their lives  (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:25-35). Those who are called to live in this way are free to give themselves to the service of God in a radically wholehearted way, free of the responsibilities which marriage and family life bring with them. Their singleness  also points forward to the life of the world to come in which, as we have said, no one will be married.

In addition to calling some people to be single for the whole of their lives, God also calls most people to be single for part of their lives. This is true for people before they marry and it is also true for people whose marriage has come to an end and who have not re-married.

What all this means is that from a Christian perspective there are two ways in which God calls people to live for either the whole or part of their lives – marriage and singleness. Because these are both states in which God calls people to live neither of them is  morally superior to the other. Marriage is not better than singleness or singleness than marriage. They are just different.

What is morally important is therefore not whether people are married or single. What matters is, first of all, whether people are living in that state of life to which they believe God has called them. What would be morally wrong, because disobedient, would be for someone who believed God had called them to be single to get married, or for someone who believed that God had called them to marry to refuse to do so.  

What also matters is that people behave in way that is appropriate to the state to which God has called them. This point is made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6-7 where he teaches that marriage should involve sexual intercourse whereas singleness should involve sexual abstinence.  For Paul permanent sexual abstinence within marriage and sexual unions outside marriage are both wrong. Sex is an integral part of marriage and therefore there should be sex within marriage, and because sex is part of marriage it should not take place outside it.

In this article we have looked at marriage and singleness as the two states of life in which God calls people to live in this world. In the next article we will look at why friendship is equally vital for both of them.

[1] Even when conception takes place through artificial insemination it still involves a male sperm and a female egg coming together.  Such insemination can thus best be seen as an artificial form of sexual intercourse.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 6 – Men, women and marriage in the world to come.

When Christians declare their faith using the words of the Apostles Creed they affirm that they believe in God as the ‘maker of heaven and earth.’  As we saw in the previous article in this series, part of what it means to believe in God as the maker of earth (i.e. the world we currently inhabit) is to believe that God has created human beings as male and female, that God has instituted marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, and that God’s pattern for human sexual conduct is that sexual intercourse should take place within marriage.

As the Apostles Creed goes on to declare, Christians not only believe in God as the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ but they also believe in ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.’  What this means is that the Christian faith holds, on the basis of the clear teaching of the Bible ( see John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), that at the end of time those who are rightly related to God through Jesus Christ will be resurrected to enjoy for all eternity an embodied existence with God in a perfect new creation from which sin and death will have been banished for ever.

In the New Testament we learn from Jesus that those who live in this new creation ‘neither marry nor are given in n marriage, but are like angels in heaven’ ( Matthew 22: 30).  This teaching by Jesus does not mean that we shall stop being male and female. As we learn from the example of Jesus, our resurrected bodies will retain the same sex that they have now. This means that if we are male or female now we shall be male or female then.

What this teaching does mean is that in the world to come marriage as we know it, involving sexual intercourse and the procreation of children, will be no more. The number of people God wills to inherit his new creation will have been brought into existence and because there will be no more death their number will not diminish. Hence there will be no need for procreative sex, hence there will be no more need for one flesh unions and hence marriage as it exists now will be no more.

However, this does not mean that marriage as such will cease to be. On the contrary, the New Testament tells us that at the centre of the life of the new creation there will be the ‘marriage of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19:6-9, 21: 2 & 9), the marriage between God and humanity that will endure for eternity.

This eternal marriage is the transcendent reality which marriage in this world foreshadows. In the words of Peter Kreeft; ‘The earthly intimacy with the beloved is a tiny, distant, spark of the bonfire that is the heavenly intimacy with God.’

In this eternal marriage we will simultaneously be in perfect communion with God and with all of God’s people. This means that, while there will be no desire for sex (in the sense of sexual intercourse) in the world to come, there will be sexual desire. Sexual desire is the desire for intimate communion with another human being and ultimately with God and in the world to come that desire will be both eternally felt and eternally satisfied.

Some married people feel uncomfortable about this dimension of the Christian faith because they think it threatens their unique relationship with their spouse. ‘What will become of my special relationship with Janet or John if marriage is no more and we will be in relationship with God and all the rest of God’s people?’ The answer is that our limited time, energy and love in this world means that our relationship with X can be in competition with our relationship with Y, but in the next world we will be freed from the constraints of this world. We will learn to love as God loves, and so will have the capacity to love God and all of his people perfectly without diminishing our capacity to love a particular individual perfectly too. We will not love our spouse less, but God and everyone else (including our spouse) infinitely more.

In the next article we shall go on to consider how the reality of the world to come is testified to in different ways by the two vocations of marriage and singleness to which God calls his people in this world.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 5 – God’s creation of sex and marriage.

In the previous article in this series we noted that nature and Scripture provide us with the information that we need to make right decisions about how we should behave.  

Applying this principle to the topics of sex and marriage we find, first of all, that a study of human nature shows us that human beings have many things in common. As we have seen previously in this series, all human beings have bodies and souls and human bodies have common features such as heads, feet, hearts, and fingernails. However, alongside the things humans have in common there are also differences which allow us to tell one human being from another.

For example, some people have red hair while others are blonde, some have blue eyes while others have brown eyes, and some people are tall while others are short. Such differences enable us to distinguish Frank, who is blonde, has blue eyes, and is tall, from Bill, who has red hair, has brown eyes and is short. The most significant of these differences between human beings is that they differ in their sex.

There are various physical and psychological differences between men and women which develop from the moment of conception, but all of these differences are characteristics of people who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered  towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. It is because male and female bodies are ordered in this way that the human race continues to exist. Every human being is in existence because one parent had male physical characteristics and the other had female physical characteristics.

Like nature, Scripture teaches us that there are two sexes, male and female. However, in Genesis 1:26-31 and Genesis 2: 18-25 the Bible gives us additional teaching about our existence as men and women.

First, it teaches us that the division of human beings into two sexes is not an evolutionary accident. It is how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has created human beings to be. ‘Male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).

Secondly, it teaches us that, like everything else created by God, the division of humanity into two sexes is something that is good. ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

Thirdly, it teaches us that it is as male and female that human beings are the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 26-27). For human beings to exist as the image and likeness of God means that they have the capacity to know and love God, each other, and creation as a whole and the vocation to rule over creation on God’s behalf. However, they can only rightly exercise this capacity and fulfil this vocation as men and women acting together. That is why God says in Genesis 2:18 ‘it is not good that the man should be alone.’

Fourthly, it teaches us that there is a correspondence between the existence of human beings as male and female and the life of God himself. As the plural verb in Genesis 1:26 (‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’) indicates, God exists as three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who posses both identity and difference. They are identical as God, but different in the way they are God.

As Genesis goes on to say, God has made human beings as persons who are likewise marked by both identity and difference. The identity and difference between men and women (identical in their humanity, differentiated by their sex) is the primary form of this human identity and differentiation from which all other forms of identity and difference then flow.

Fifthly, it teaches us that by creating the first man and woman and then bringing them together in marriage (Genesis 2:22-23) God has established the model for human sexual relationships for all time. As the American Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson notes, the introductory word ‘therefore’ in Genesis 2:24  ‘indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all human sexual relationships.’ 

According to this pattern, the context for sexual intercourse is a permanent marital relationship between one man and one woman that is outside the immediate family circle, is freely chosen, is sexually exclusive and is ordered towards procreation in accordance with God’s command that men and women should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

What all this means for us is that living rightly before God as those made in his image and likeness means living as the man or woman God has created us to be, serving God in company with members of the opposite sex, and having sexual intercourse only in the context of the sort of marriage that Genesis describes.

M B Davie 9.3.2020

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 4 – sexual ethics and love.

There is a widely shared conviction in our society that love and sexual activity should go together.  People may no longer believe that ‘love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, ‘ but they still believe in the unity of love and sex.

Christian sexual ethics agrees with the premise that love and sexual activity should go together. The two great commandments set down for us in Scripture, which Jesus said epitomise the whole of what God requires of us as his human creatures, is that we should ‘love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength’ and love our neighbours as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:29-31).  It follows that sexual activity, like everything else we do, needs to be an expression of love for God and love for other people (‘neighbour’ being any person whom we encounter at a particular moment of time – see Luke 10:25-37).

However, even if there is thus agreement that love and sexual activity should go together, this still leaves open the question of what precisely we mean by the word ‘love’ and here there is a contrast between contemporary thinking and traditional Christian thought.

In much contemporary thinking ‘love’ means an intense feeling of emotional or physical attraction to a particular person. That is what people mean when they say that they ‘love’ someone,  or that they are ‘in love’ with them. It follows that when such a feeling does not exist, or ceases to exist, then love ceases to exist as well. This is what people mean when they say they like someone, but do not love them, or that they have ceased to love their husband or wife and now love someone else instead.

In the Christian tradition however, while love can include feelings of physical and emotional attraction, that is not its primary meaning. As the Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan notes, in the Christian tradition love primarily means  ‘the appropriate pattern of free response to objective reality.’ To love God is to freely respond to the reality of God’s wisdom and goodness by living in the way he summons us to live. Likewise, to love our neighbours is to freely respond to who they are as creatures made by God with particular needs which God calls us to discern and fulfil to the greatest extent that we can.

What follows from this is that love is not primarily about obeying our feelings. While our feelings should be involved, our actions should be led not by our feelings, but by our reason. It is our God given reason, attentive to the reality that God has called into being, which shows us what it means to love rightly in any given situation.

Take the example of parenting a child. To love God means loving our children and loving our children involves using our reason to discover their needs and the best way to meet them. This means that the decisions we make regarding them will need to be shaped by what our reason tells us is best for their welfare and happiness. Often  this may involve saying ‘no’ to what they want to do (even if this makes us feel horrible), not because we are being mean or cruel, but because our reason, working on the basis of who they are, shows us that what they want will not ultimately be good for them. .

The call to love God and neighbour also applies in the case of sexual relationships. This means that we primarily have to ask not how we feel, but rather about what form(s) of activity our reason shows us would be in obedience to God and would promote the well being of our neighbour as the particular person God has created them to be and in the particular situation in which God has placed them.

As we noted in the previous article, it is nature and Scripture that give us the information that our reason needs to make this kind of decision and in subsequent articles we shall look at how together they provide us with a framework for thinking rightly about sexual ethics. We shall begin in the next article by looking at God’s creation of sex and marriage.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life.

Talking to members of many different churches over the years it has become clear that there is a widespread concern that a lot of ordinary Christians (and even a large number of the clergy) do not really understand the orthodox Christian view of sex, marriage and family life. In the lead up to the publication of Living in Love and Faith later this year, it seems  to me to be important that there should be a resource that would give a really basic introduction to the orthodox Christian understanding of these matters so as to provide anyone who wants it with a benchmark against which to measure what is said in LLF.

For this reason, I shall be posting a series of short articles in which I shall outline the orthodox Christian viewpoint as simply as I can in order to provide this kind of basic introduction.

Article 1 – What do we mean by sex and sexual ethics?

The term sex has three meanings.

First, it refers to the biological distinction between men and women. With the exception of the tiny number of people who have a genuinely mixed biology almost all human beings (some 99.98%) have bodies which are oriented to playing either the male or female role in sexual reproduction and as result are either male or female.

Secondly, it refers to sexual intercourse. By this we mean most basically the penetration of the female vagina by the male penis and, by extension, acts intended to lead up to this and also acts (‘sex acts’) intended to reproduce the physical pleasure caused by penetration through some other means.

Thirdly, it can refer to the innately relational nature of human beings. What has been called ‘social’ or ‘affective sexuality’ refers to the need that all human beings have to be in a range of deep and diverse relationships with other people (the vast majority of which will not be sexual in the sense of involving sexual intercourse).

When we talk about sexual ethics what we are talking about is how human beings should behave in relation to these three forms of human sexuality. Sexual ethics is about how we should behave as men and women, how we should behave as people capable of engaging in sexual intercourse and other sex acts and about how we should behave in our relationships with other people (parents, siblings, friends, work colleagues etc.).

Probing further, we can say that sexual ethics is only possible because human beings possess both bodies and souls.

 It is as creatures with bodies that we have the different forms of biology that make us men or women. It is as creatures with bodies that we can engage in sexual intercourse and other sex acts and it is through our bodies that we are able to enter into relationships with other people.

However, we are not only creatures with bodies, but also creatures with souls. This means that we have a non-material part of our being that enables us to understand the world around us on the basis of the information we receive through our bodies and to then make free and rational decisions about how we should act through our bodies.

Without our bodies we would not be able to act at all and without our souls we would not be free to decide how to act.

Sexual ethics is thus concerned with how we should make use of the possibility that we have as creatures with bodies and souls to make free and rational decisions about how to act through our bodies in the three areas we have noted.

In the next article I shall go on to look at the relationship between sexual ethics and God.

M B Davie 10.2.20

Why we should seek peace through victory

During the First World War there were a series of peace initiatives from 1914 onwards. These all aimed to bring the fighting to an end, but they were all unsuccessful until economic and political collapse, and military defeat, forced Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria-Hungary and finally Germany to accept the reality that they had lost and needed to accept whatever terms their opponents were willing to grant.

The problem that prevented the various peace initiatives from getting anywhere was not that the countries involved did not want peace. They did. The problem was that the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) saw a peace settlement in terms of their being allowed to keep at least some of the territory they had conquered and a political settlement that would make them dominant in Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile the Allied Powers (France, Russia (until 1917), Britain and its Empire, Belgium, Italy, The United States (from 1917) and other countries allied with them) saw peace in terms of the Central Powers giving up their conquests, making reparation for the death and destruction they had caused, and having their power and influence in Europe and the Middle East permanently curtailed.[1] 

I was reminded of this aspect of the history of World War I when I read an article on the news website Christian Today concerning the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion which was held this week.

The headline for the article was ‘Archbishop seeks an end to longstanding divisions over human sexuality ahead of Lambeth Conference.’ It went on to say that: 

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has said he hopes that the forthcoming Lambeth Conference will ‘draw a line under some of the inward-looking approaches of the past’ so that the Anglican Communion can move on from a crippling dispute over human sexuality.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a three-day Primates’ meeting in Jordan, the Most Rev Justin Welby said he wanted to see the Anglican Communion begin to focus instead ‘on those things that affect the world, be that climate change, conflict, the need for the Church to be confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying it out into the world … [and] safeguarding.’[2]

It is always possible that the Archbishop has been misrepresented, but if the article is accurate then the position taken by the Archbishop is like those who engaged in peace initiatives during World War I. He wants both sides to agree to some new way forward that will bring the conflict to an end. However, the similarity between the current situation in the Anglican Communion and the situation that frustrated peace initiatives during Word War I means that his hopes for peace are likely to be disappointed, just as President Woodrow Wilson was disappointed in his hopes that he could broker peace during World War I. 

As in World War I, both sides in the disputes over sexuality in the Anglican Communion want peace to be restored. The problem is that, as in World War I, both sides have very different views of what peace should look like.

Those on the liberal side in the Communion have made significant gains since the Lambeth Conference in 1998 in terms of the acceptance by Anglican churches of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages. Their vision of peace is being able to hang on to these gains as a springboard for further gains in future, both in the area of same-sex relationships and in the new area of gender transition. Just as the Central Powers wanted to ensure their future political dominance in Europe and the Middle East so also the liberal side in the Anglican Communion wants to ensure that their ‘progressive’ agenda with regard to human sexual behaviour and identity becomes dominant across the Communion as it has become dominant in many other parts of Western Society.

Those on the conservative side, however, have a very different vision of what peace within the Anglican Communion should look like. Just as the Allied Powers held that the conquests of Germany and her allies had to be halted and reversed, so also the conservatives in the Communion hold that the gains made by the liberals since 1998 need to be halted and eventually reversed and that steps need to be taken to ensure that a liberal view of sex and sexual identity is permanently ruled out as un-Anglican, in the same way that the Second Council of Constantinople in 381 ruled out all forms of Arianism and Semi-Arianism as contrary to the faith of the Catholic Church.

The reason they take this view is precisely because, like Archbishop Justin, ‘they believe in the need for the Church to be confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying it out into the world.’  However, unlike the Archbishop, they understand that at the heart of the Gospel is the good news that God became Man in Jesus Christ to restore the ability of his human creatures to live as the people he created them to be. Central to this calling is (a) accepting the male or female sexual identity God has given us (as determined by our the sex of our bodies) and (b) accepting the boundaries that God has laid down for human sexual activity (sexual faithfulness within life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, or sexual abstinence).

As I noted at the beginning of this paper, peace came in the end in in 1918 because one side won and the other side lost. In the same way peace will eventually be restored to the Anglican Communion because either the liberals, or the conservatives, will have been victorious and the other side will have conceded defeat.

Because, as I explained above, the traditional Christian view of sexual identity and sexual ethics is an integral part of  what the good news of Jesus Christ involves, those of us who seek to be faithful to this  good news have to hope that the conservative side in the Communion will be victorious and pray and work ensure that this happens. 

It is often suggested today that in World War I the Allied Powers should have been prepared to accept peace terms rather than fight on to achieve victory. However, what we know of the sort of peace terms Germany and the other Central Powers would have been willing to accept means that what would have resulted would, in the words of Nigel Biggar, been ‘neither a just peace nor a stable one.’[3]  This being the case. the Allied Powers were right to fight on to avoid this outcome.

In the same way the conservative side in the Anglican Communion needs to settle in for the long haul and refuse to accept as their long-term goal anything less than victory on the terms I have outlined above. A commitment to the Gospel demands nothing less.

[1] For details  see ‘Peace Initiatives,’  International Encyclopedia of the First World War, at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/peace_initiatives

[2] Christian Today, ‘Archbishop seeks an end to longstanding divisions over human sexuality ahead of Lambeth Conference,’  15 January 2020 at https://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop-seeks-an-end-to- longstanding-divisions-over-human-sexuality-ahead-of-lambeth-conference/134028.htm

[3] Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: OUP, 2013) , p.139.