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, marrige and family life. Article 3 – How we know the will of God.

In the previous article in this series we saw that we should live according to the will of God. This is because God, being God, is perfectly wise and perfectly good and his will is the expression of this fact. What he wills is always perfectly wise and perfectly good and therefore there is no good reason for us not to obey it, and every reason that we should.

In the case of other human beings there are two reasons why we may justifiably refuse to obey what they ask us to do. The first is because what they ask us to do is unwise (like trying to make a really important decision after insufficient sleep) and the second is because what they ask us to do is morally wrong (like stealing the funds of a cancer care charity). However, since God is perfectly wise and good there is never any justifiable reason for not doing what God asks us to do because what he asks will never be unwise and will never be morally wrong.  This remains true even when we cannot see the reason why God is asking us to do (or not do) a particular thing. We need to trust that God knows what he is doing even when it doesn’t make sense to us, on the basis that God is wiser than we are and so has a much better grasp of the reality of the situation than we do.

This still leaves us with the issue of how we determine what God’s will is in any given situation. The answer is that while God can and does communicate with people directly through visions and prophecies this is not the normal means through which he makes his will known to us. 

There are two ways that God normally communicates his will to us.

The first is through the way he has made us and the world as a whole (what is known as ‘natural revelation’). 

The second is through the words of the Bible, which, though written by a series of human authors, express perfectly what God wants to communicate to his human creatures (this is what is meant when it is said that the Bible is ‘inspired’). The words contained in the Bible supplement natural revelation by telling us about how God created us, how he has acted in the history of the Jewish  people, and supremely through Jesus Christ, to rescue us and all creation from the power of sin and death, and how he will act in future so that when our life in this world comes to an end we can share life with him for ever in a new creation in which all that is evil will exist no more.

God’s absolute perfection means that his will never changes. Because it is this unchanging will that is communicated though these two sources, what we learn from them, what is known as the ‘moral law’  applies to all people, at all times, and in all places. Thus, for example, God’s will that people should avoid burning themselves (which we learn from nature) applied in ancient Israel and in medieval Korea, and still applies in twenty first century Los Angeles and the same is true of the command  ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God’ which is taught in the Bible (Micah 6:8).

The same is also true of the moral law as it applies to sexual ethics  The argument that is sometimes put forward that sexual ethics need to change to keep up with changing times is bogus. The will of God, revealed in the ways we have discussed, remains the unchanging standard by which we must continue to judge whether sexual conduct is right or wrong.

In the next article we shall go on to consider why love entails living in accordance with the moral law.

M B Davie  24.2.20

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 2 – Sexual ethics and God.

In the first article in this series we looked at the issue of what we mean when we talk about sexual ethics.

What we learned is that sexual ethics is 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 we should behave as men and women, how we should behave as people capable of engaging in sexual intercourse and other sex acts, and how we should behave in our relationships with other people (parents, siblings, friends, work colleagues etc.).

The possibility that we have to make free and rational decisions about how to behave in these areas then raises the question of how we should make use of this possibility. What should we do and what should we not do? What would constitute right behaviour and what would constitute wrong behaviour? 

In order to begin to answer these questions we have to consider on what basis some forms of behaviour are right and other forms of behaviour are wrong. Why is it right, for instance, to help old ladies to cross the road, but wrong to mug them, or to defraud them of their life savings?

The traditional Christian answer (and the one that has traditionally been accepted by Western civilization as a whole for most of the past two thousand years)  is that what determines what is right and what is wrong is the will of God. According to Christian teaching, God created human beings to live in a certain way. Behaviour that is in accordance with this is right and behaviour that is not in accordance with it is wrong.

At this point some thinkers have raised what is known as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ (so called because it is first formulated in a work called Euthyphro written by the Greek philosopher Plato), This dilemma raise the question whether things are good because God wills them, or whether God wills them because they are good. If we go for the first option, this would mean that ethics is arbitrary because absolutely anything (such as torturing small children for fun) would be good simply because God willed it. If we go for the second option this would mean that God is unnecessary for ethics since what is good is determined not by God, but by some other authority to which even God is subject.

In response, many Christian theologians have pointed out that the dilemma is a false one. As the creator of all things God is the source of wisdom and goodness. It follows that God himself must be perfectly wise and good, and this in turn means both that  his will is not arbitrary and that he does not need any external moral guidance in order to will what is right. Because God is perfectly wise, he knows what the right thing is, and in because he is perfectly good, he always wills it.

In relation to us, God’s perfect wisdom means that he knows perfectly what will best enable us to flourish as the kind of creatures he has made us to be and his perfect goodness means that he wills that we should live in this way. This means there is no good reason why we should not live in accordance with the way God created us to live in every area of lives (sexual ethics included) and every reason why we should.

If we say that what God will for us is how we should live, this raises a further issue which is how we know what God wills. We shall look at this issue in the next  article in this series.