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Ephesians 5

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

I mentioned this text briefly in one of my older posts but I think it is interesting to delve into this metaphor that Paul is using with a bit more depth.

So Paul is applying the metaphor of the Church as the Bride/Body of Christ, with the wife as the bride/body of the husband. But what he means by this metaphor is actually quite fascinating. The husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church. The question is then, how is Christ the head of the Church? Christ is the head of the church not because He holds dominion or executive control over it, but because the church is an institution/corporate body that serves Him. Christ is the head of the church because the church exists to further His way and cause. In the same way, at the time of Paul, marriage existed as an institution to serve men. Women were passed from their fathers to their husbands and the legal power resided in the male. What Paul is saying here is that husband is the head, like Christ is the head of his church. And so the husband is to, like Christ, lead by self-sacrifice and love. What Paul is doing is acknowledging (not ordaining) that men are the head of the relationship, but they are to act like the head of the relationship in the same way Christ rules over his church. Not with dominion or executive authority but with love.

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Sexual Purity, Marriage, and the Human Relationship

Earlier on my blog in a post I titled “Re-thinking the Sex Question,” I shared my thoughts on how I think that it is the theological vision and not the sexually-charged world that makes Christian Chastity a nearly untenable goal. I intend to dig deeper into that question in this post as the last in this three part series. The weakness of my old post was my uncertain stance toward the nature of marriage, with the last to posts as a framework I think this question can be answered more thoroughly.

Sexual purity has arisen as one of the greatest hallmarks of Christianity. Christians have been widely known for their sexual restraint, and it is their ethic of sexual purity that has revolutionized human relationships in the Western world. The source of this sexual ethic was Paul. In order to understand this sexual ethic however, we need to understand in what context it arose. In Paul’s time, women were owned by their fathers until they were married off. And while there was an engagement period of sorts in Jewish Culture, the decision to marry did not rest in any way with the woman, and any prior contact with the husband was minimal.

With this in mind let us take Paul under consideration. In Corinthians 6 Paul presents some arguments for why prostitution is sinful.

‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Now in this passage Paul is talking about the Old Testament Law. He starts by saying that all things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. What he means is that he is not bound by the rules of the law, but as he develops more clearly in Galatians, this does not mean he shouldn’t follow it. The confusion in this text might spring from a seemingly strange jump from the law to fornication. But the word there translated ‘fornication’ is actually porneia which means illicit (illegal) sex. He is talking about sex contrary to the Law of Moses; while ‘fornication’ may often be involved with sex contrary to the Law of Moses, the word itself as we know it is not a synonym of porneia and so there is no break in Paul’s thought. What he is saying is that while we as Christians are not bound to the law, he who commits sexual sins (according to the law) sins against the body of Christ. So Paul’s first argument here is that illegal sin (Old Testament Law, not current legal code) is still very much sinful. His second argument against prostitution is an association argument. That is, he who sleeps with a prostitute forms an intimate bond between the body of Christ and a non-believer. This association argument is also reiterated in 2 Cor. 6

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God

What Paul is getting at here is that intimate bonds with non-believers profane our bodies which are part of the body of Christ. While this might seem a stretch of a metaphor, it remains undeniably important that Christians de-lineate themselves from the world and do not create this intimate of a tie with it. The third argument present here is simply that your body is a temple of God. This refers to food, sex, and all other activities, you are not your own and you are bought with a price, thus you have no right to abuse and mistreat your body.

In this one small text Paul makes all the arguments that he uses in different fashions to shape why Christians should abstain from adultery, orgies, prostitution, and the hedonistic culture of his time (which is not very unlike our own). These three arguments are what I am going to call the three pillars of sexual purity.

1)      Maintain Lawful standards of sexuality

2)      Do not create intimate ties with unbelievers

3)      Do not abuse, mistreat, and purposely trash one’s body

Now in Paul’s time, the relationship structure looked like one of these two (A) and (B). The courtship option was for those women fortunate enough to get a choice between suitors. And as you should keep in mind from earlier, marriage is a means of getting to the Gen. 2 purposed relationship which is what God intended, and Paul desires as a check against sexual passion.

Seeing that sexual relations with a virgin (meaning unmarried/still owned by her father) was contrary to Old Testament Law (though for reasons of property damage), having sex with an unmarried woman is contrary to pillar one, casual/party/orgy sex is forbidden by pillar 2 and 3 as is prostitution (but one should note they are not forbidden by rule 1), and homosexuality/bestiality/adultery are forbidden by rule 1. The following rule can be directly and biblically inferred by those three pillars and that is, “sex outside of monogamous wedlock is sinful,” this rule I will call sexual purity1 .  This is the rule that Christianity is known for and that the majority of Christians, at least in speech, hold to. However, as you well know, what was once Christianity’s greatest virtue is now its greatest hypocrisy, as the honest compliance to this rule is extremely marginal. The question at hand is why? What changed between the time of Paul and the present that makes sexual purity1 so hollow?

Interestingly what has happened is a twofold change. The first is that women have gained both the legal power (which in Rome they had) to say no to a man as far as marriage, and the economic power (far more recently) to withhold from getting married (before gaining this power, even with the legal power to say no to a man, a woman still needed the support of a husband to survive). With both powers, they can say no to marriage which is very significant. Since both men and women can do without each other economically and socially, they have to want to get married, or else they will not. And what I want to stress about this is that this equality is the result of the egalitarian relationship pushed for by Christianity. The second part of the change is that today’s view of marriage coincides with the view of the purposed relationship in Genesis 2. Since women and men have to want to get married, they want to only marry a person who can complete them and with whom they can live out their lives. So the difference is that the human relationship has changed to this…

With this view of the relationship we need only to look at how sexual intimacy under sexual purity1 plays out to see why there is such a problem.

Under (A) and (B) sexual intimacy was both a natural and biblical means of achieving the purposed relationship. But under C it is removed. However, in practice we see that it is still there. And the reason for this is obvious; it is because that is why relationships all the way from Genesis were designed to work. What we call marriage is a social construction that is not completely irrelevant to the human relationship but is arbitrary in definition.

Now looking this in the face many Christians have assumed that it is not sexual purity1 that is at fault but actually it is (C) itself which is the problem. So they attempt to limit dating and return to (B). To me this seems like a step backwards and let me explain why. To me, (C) is the most Christian form out of the three. In (C), socio/political marriage is more or less in sync with the relationship God intended for us and the equality between the two members of the relationship is at its highest. I think that (C) represents the most Christian, though not the most biblical, relationship. And what I mean by this distinction is that I believe the abolition of slavery was Christian though not biblical. It represents Christian ideals and virtues even though it lacks straightforward biblicalness. In the same way I think that (A) and (B) are biblical, but just because a state of affairs existed in the Bible does not mean the Bible affirms it, and (C) is actually the most Christian.

So what do we do about sexual purity1 if (C) is Christian, as they seem to be incompatible? The answer is actually quite simple when we break it back down into its pillars and re-apply it. To do so does not actually change its nature or its scriptural basis in any way; it will simply change the basic inference that makes it up. Because the statement “sex outside of monogamous wedlock is sinful” is an inference based on the exclusion of any other options, it is not biblical itself. In fact to say that Paul believed that sex outside of monogamous wedlock was wrong because it was out of wedlock invalidates all his arguments in the first place. He would need only to say that, but he doesn’t. Sexual purity1 is an inference from the state of affairs (A) and (B) and is not a rule unto itself.

So what do the three pillars mean in context (C)? Well we simply begin exclusion again.

Pillar 1 (Lawfulness): excludes adultery/cheating, bestiality, incest, rape, pedophilia

Also going along with property, while we wouldn’t say daughters are strictly speaking property of their parents, they are their responsibility, so it seems to me that sex under the age of 18 should morally require the consent of the sets of parents. While this seems unlikely to occur, it does seem to be right

Pillar 2 (association): excludes non-Christians

Pillar 3 (body is a temple): this one is more vague and somewhat subjective, but any clear dangerous or self-abusive sexual behavior could be: sex with someone you don’t know well (talking the need for at least months here), unprotected, or sex with someone untested, also actually dangerous sexual activities (sadism kind of thing).

After breaking it back into its components, it seems clear that sex outside of monogamous wedlock is acceptable because these conditions can be met within the context of (C). And when applied, we can see that a more natural flow exists again (in early (C) sexual intimacy is dotted because its beginning and terms are dependent on the situation of the people involved)

Now I understand that there are Christians who generally prefer the B model relationship and I have nothing against that except its implausibility in this age as a universal model, and that I think is because of the association of marriage with the purposed relationship. So let me wrap up what I am saying here. What I am suggesting is that the common Christian belief in sexual purityin today’s age is actually counter to the drift of the human relationship designed by God since Genesis. The understanding that marriage is not the reason a man should leave his parents and cling to his wife, allows us to see that marriage is a social construction of which we have change the meaning and importance, but God can use marriage to enable the kind of relationship He designed us for. And that (C) is perfectly compatible with God’s vision because God’s vision uses marriage instrumentally in the same way dating can be used. And also that (C) is compatible with Paul’s vision because Paul is interested in viceful sexual sin of which pre-marital sex is not necessarily so.

The last topic of this little series about marriage God and the human relationship that I want to address is divorce. Now in the first post I talked about how Jesus’ stance against divorce is also partially a stance against the way marriage was being used. What he was calling for was a return to the straight path of diagram (A). What Jesus presupposes in saying this is that people are basically compatible. The wives of the Jews that asked Jesus about divorce must be capable of the Genesis relationship with their husbands else Jesus is making no sense. What this means in context is that we are not to give up on strong relationships (within Pauline parameters), married or not. To give up on these for personal gain or comfort is a sin. This is not to say that there are not circumstances in which relationships are untenable, even Paul concedes this (1 Corinthians 7:15). But breakups or divorces of actual relationships (do distinguish from very short-term datings or many non-adult relationships lengthy as they may be) should never be treated lightly and all that can be done to save them is expected of a Christian.

These three posts make up the sum of my observations about the texts for my pre-marital counseling. It may be that I went a little beyond the intent of the exercise but I find that when you engage the Bible you often find yourself engaging it as a whole even if you are trying to study just one part. Perhaps some of you will disagree with my analysis of the texts here and I encourage you to voice that, and perhaps many of you will find that you agree and affirmation never hurts either.

 

Post Note on “Porneia”

There is much debate on the meaning of the word porneia as used in the New Testament and since I did not wish to detract from the main argument above I will deal with it here. While porneia translates to “illicit or illegal sex,” it held different respective meanings for the Jews and the Greeks. For the Greeks this word referred primarily to prostitution, but it also could be used to cover any sexual activity that was generally frowned upon; thus, it was a rather broad and not very specific term. For the Jews, porneia could simply mean “sexual activity that was counter to the Law of Moses” (as it does in Cor. 7), but it was used more often to designate sexual activities of other cultures. That is, porneia is what the Greeks and Romans did, and the Jews did not. In that sense, it is compatible with meaning “sex contrary to the Law of Moses” but also means “sex contrary to Jewish culture.” While I grant that certain usages of the word in the New Testament are such that it is meant to create a direct contrast with marital sex (Heb.13:4 for example), where everything that is not marital sex is porneia. This does not detract from the argument above as I granted that in the situation of the New Testament authors this was true; however, it does not follow that in situation (C) in which we find ourselves, that these actions are mutually exclusive without any middle ground. The word porneia is really contingent on the culture it references, so drawing a direct comparison by way of precedent for understanding sexual ethics is a dubious proposition at best. In fact, in some cases the New Testament author has likely already brought together sexual purity1, but as an inference, not as a law unto itself. This is especially true of Paul for whom the idea of laws is dropped in favor of vice/virtue comparison.

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Paul, Marriage, and the Human Relationship

I think that to understand marriage biblically, one cannot simply stop with Jesus and Genesis because Paul, author of about half of the New Testament, offers a slightly new angle on the functions and purposes of marriage.

Now if you are familiar with Paul you probably know that Paul is a big fan of being single, in fact, he wishes that all were this way so that they might better serve God. Two things you need to realize about Paul’s views on marriage are that firstly Paul does not believe as it says in Genesis that a man needs a woman to complete him. Paul believes that Christ can complete a person, so this is one of his main differences. The second more crucial thing to know is that Paul is not a big advocate of marriage because he believes that Christ will be returning in his lifetime to do away with this world and usher in the new (1 Cor. 7: 29-31). If you understand these two things than it is much easier to understand what Paul’s understanding of the function of marriage.

1 Corinthians 7

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.

 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

In this passage Paul is addressing the question of whether Christians should abstain wholly from sexual relations. His answer is no, in order to keep sexual passion from leading into sin, one should have a monogamous (and rather egalitarian, a concept on which I will expand shortly) marriage. But then he says that this is a concession, not a command (aka: I am not commanding that you get married but allowing for it), for he wishes that all were as he but each has their own gifts. One might be tempted to say that he is talking about being single, but actually in the true context Paul is still talking about the original question of abstaining from sex. Paul’s particular gift that he wishes all had is actually celibacy, or the ability to abstain from sex. The interesting thing to note here is that Paul is building on the concept of Genesis repeated by Jesus but with a new angle. Paul too is calling for something radical, he says that the husband and wife own each other’s bodies in common, and do not have rights over them. This is likely Paul’s interpretation and explanation of the “two become one flesh”. But suggested by this sharing of authority over each other is the very pre-fall egalitarian relationship God envisioned for men and women.

You might be tempted to ask then, isn’t it Paul that says that wives should be subject to their husbands? And you would be right.

Ephesians 5

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

However, one should note that all Christians are supposed to be subject to one another. So interestingly, in a relationship between two Christians the subjection goes both ways and does not imply a hierarchical authority. What I think Paul is trying to get at by the husband/wife-Christ/Church metaphor is actually a metaphor meant to describe the lover and Saviour status of the husband (which at the time women were completely economically and socially dependent on their husbands) and not a relationship of authority. Paul is calling for a change in the relationship between husband and wives to become more like what is described by Genesis that is a relationship marked by being completions of each other, and what I will now refer to as the “purposed relationship”.

The main difference in Paul’s writings concerning marriage and the human relationship is that Paul believes that now through Christ one can be complete without “the purposed relationship” with a spouse. In fact since Paul (mistakenly) believes Christ’s return to be imminent, he wants to say the purposed relationship is a safeguard for those struggling with sexual passion which could lead them into the Roman/Greek life of prostitution, orgies, partying, adultery and a whole host of vice-ridden activities. While Paul himself does not put much stock in the goals of the purposed relationship his defining of marriage is even more explicit than that of Jesus’ and it is his framework of marriage that would begin to shape the way marriage is seen today.

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God, Marriage, and the Human Relationship

Introduction.

As part of our pre-marital counseling, my fiancé and I were asked to look over some Bible verses about marriage in order to engage and learn from them. It was this engaging of the text that led me to an interesting conclusion and revelation about marriage in the Bible, one which I would like to share. I have broken the discussion into three segments which build on each other. The first is titled “God, Marriage, and the Human Relationship” which addresses Jesus’ position on marriage. The next is titled “Paul, Marriage, and the Human Relationship” which looks at Paul’s expansion and argument concerning the nature of marriage and interpersonal relationships. The third will be called “Sexual Purity, Marriage and the Human Relationship,” which will focus on how the Christian ideas of sexual ethics emerged as the face of Christianity and why this virtue seems to have become a hollow platitude. Tying all three together at the end, I will wrap up by explaining my conclusion of what was always right and where modern Christianity seems to have gone wrong.

If someone asked me where Jesus’ talked about marriage I would find it quite difficult to answer. I recall that Jesus talked about divorce but even that is only a very small section of text. Interestingly it was reading through Genesis that got me to realize that Jesus said a lot about marriage even if it was limited to just a brief few sentences. Let me explain.

Mark 10

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

So we have the Pharisees who were likely aware of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, so they come to try and expose Jesus as denying what the law of Moses had said, with the hope of discrediting Him. So they ask Him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. In response, Jesus asks them ‘what did Moses say?’ And the Pharisees correctly tell Him. The interesting part is what comes next; Jesus says it is because of the ‘hardness of your hearts’ that Moses wrote you this law. Now, one could perceive this as an attack on the law, but that is a discussion for another time, what is more important is that Jesus says

But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Now every other time I have read this I simply took the face value and understood this as, God creates a marital bond and we cannot break it through legal divorce. And because of this supernatural and unbreakable bond, divorce and remarrying is adultery, it is a sin. But if you read from Genesis you may realize that that isn’t quite what Jesus is saying, He is in fact saying quite a bit more.

Genesis 2

 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

What I realized for the first time is that when it says “Therefore (or For this Reason) a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,” it is not talking about marriage. He does not cling to his wife for the reason of marriage. Instead there is an idea that getting married and clinging to one’s wife brings man and woman back to the “one flesh” that they were before (God took woman out of man. Now in some ways that might seem like a dubious and rather silly notion to say that the importance of marriage is that it reconnects what God separated. But we need only back up further to see what the point of creating woman was and that is really the point for the whole text and better explains what “For this reason”refers to.  God says it is not good for man to be alone and so he creates woman as his helper (the word there actually meaning something closer to counterpart) and that it is for that reason that a man leaves his parents. He leaves his parents because he cannot be complete without a woman. From the beginning God created men and women to complete each other, to become “one flesh” (meaning that because they were once one, unlike other animals, they therefore have a deeper potential for connection). And note that they become one flesh after being married, after clinging to one another.

So what does this mean? Jesus is critiquing something more than just divorce. He is critiquing the socio/political state of marriage, of which divorce is a facet. What Jesus says is that the law of divorce exists because your hearts have hardened toward the purpose of marriage. In the beginning you were created to complete each other but instead you have wives as property that you can discard to acquire another one. So Jesus re-asserts the purpose of marriage which is to facilitate this completing of each other and He says that no man has the right to separate that which God has brought together. The reason Jesus says that divorce and re-marriage constitutes adultery is that your spouse is the one with whom you are supposed to work toward a relationship that completes you both and that you cannot simply discard the purposes of God for societal or sexual advancement.

So what Jesus is saying is quite radical. He is calling for a return to an equal partner monogamous relationship for the benefit of both. And He calls out the Jewish legal code for codifying a type of social marriage to which its purpose is contrary toward what God intended. And I say ‘equal partnership’ because male dominance is actual a post-fall phenomenon (Genesis 3:16) and Jesus’ call is for a pre-fall marriage. So it seems to me that Jesus says a lot about marriage in this text. He says that the purpose of marriage is to enable men and women to complete each other. And that we do not have the right to subvert that through perverting marriage into a socio/economic status system or anything else, and divorce each other for our own personal benefit. I stress personal benefit here because Jesus states that a man cannot divorce his wife or his wife the man, and that we should let no one/man (depending on translation) separate what God has brought together. As a side note though, Jesus says nothing about two people mutually deciding to divorce one another. I will get to that subject in a later segment.

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I read an article today about Jennifer Knust who is a biblical scholar who’s latest book “”Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.”  challenges traditional views on premarital sex and homosexuality.

http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-04/scholar-challenges-widely-held-beliefs-about-bible-and-sex

What disturbs me about her thesis however is not that she believes that biblically speaking these issues have been addressed improperly, but that she asserts that “Scripture cannot and should not be a guidebook for sexual morality.” Now I have not read the book so I can only speculate, but I think that this is an unwarranted overreach.

According to the article, the book highlights the sexuality of the Old Testament and the sexual practices within that are not morally condemned, it takes a look at the Songs of Solomon(Songs) and its praising of sexuality. It turns to the New Testament and argues that Paul and other writers have been taken completely out of context. For instance, Paul’s discussion on sexual morality is concerning itself with greek orgy and prostitution culture, but even Paul makes arguments against sexual practices based on respect for self (body is a temple) and association/unity arguments. And the supposed no sex except within marriage argument is absent. However, I am not concerned with the content of her argument against the traditional view ( I myself have sported a critique of sorts in my post “Re-thinking the Sex Question” https://scottpd.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/re-evaluating-the-sex-question/) but her thesis that the bible cannot be used as a guidebook for sexual morality.

If all she means by this is that it cannot be used as a rulebook in the sense of law like statutes I would agree. But a guidebook is something different all together. Simply because the views of sexuality in the Bible are perhaps conflicting at times and about different cultures than today’s that does not warrant that we abandon it and say that the Bible has nothing to say. In fact I think that her view according to the article is that the Bible has been used as a weapon against women concerning sexuality (I would at least partially agree) and the church’s error in this area cannot be allowed to continue, and therefore we should simply avoid biblical arguments on the subject all together. This to me is unacceptable, the Bible has something to say and we should not avoid it because of its tendency to be misused. All scripture has and will continue to be mis-used. It is our obligation to correct it, to put forward a new (but humble) look on the subject. Our job should not be to obfuscate the topic  and claim that  this area is solely up to our intuitions.

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Re-Evaluating “The Sex Question”

My hope for this blog post is to explore the “sex question” in Christianity, and by this I mean more specifically, pre-marital sex. This post is not meant as a defense of a particular view but rather as an attempt at positing a cogent moral ethic on the subject. You might ask, “Why do we need to explore the question?” “Isn’t there already an answer?” But it is more complicated than that. For one, statistics show that Christians are on the whole both sexually illiterate and sexually active. Some might argue this is a result of our present culture and not the fault of Christianity, but this is exactly why the question needs to be re-evaluated. The relational/sexual culture of today is so drastically different than that of just a few generations ago that we cannot pretend that we can continue to teach and preach sexuality in the same way that we have been and merit much success.

To begin I want to start by examining how exactly this problem should be approached. To ask “What does the Bible say about pre-marital sex” is kind of like asking “What does the U.S. Constitution say about Internet Commerce.” It says nothing specifically about the issue, but it still has something to contribute. That is, you can try to discover the principles behind the rules on commerce which existed and then attempt to best put those principles into practice within the new environment which now exists. The sex question is much the same, the entire relationship/sexual dynamic has changed so drastically that we cannot pretend that the old rules can still operate toward the same goals that they once did. A new environment requires a new approach which should operate under the same principles, at least as much as possible.  Toward this end I will begin with a little background on the environment of the New Testament, then look at some of the actual texts in the Bible to find the principles that the New Testament writers were trying to enact. Next I will propose how to best synthesize these principles in the modern world as it is today. Following the new proposition are considerations on various objections (forming a large part of the essay), and then a reflection/ summary on the issue as a whole.

The Playing Field

When the New Testament was written, the construct of dating did not exist. In fact, pre-marital sex as a phenomenon (aside from prostitution or rape) did not exist. This is because women (of all societies, not just Jews) were to be virgins until they were married; this was not for moral but for social reasons. While some Bibles translate the greek “porneia” as fornication (sex outside of monogamous wedlock,) it literally means illicit or illegal sex (http://www.studylight.org/lex/grk/view.cgi?number =4202). When New Testament writers use this word, they mean sex contrary to the law of Moses, which includes bestiality, incest, homosexuality, and adultery (which are all forms of fornication, the problem is that fornication is actually a broader word than porneia). The only declaration in the law close to addressing pre-marital sex is that if a man lies with an unmarried virgin he owes her father the dowry price. It is important to note that this is not a moral but a civil prohibition. In this scenario, pre-marital sex is considered property damage, not a sexual sin (like an abomination, as homosexuality is labeled). So the New Testament writers were talking about a world in which marriages were arranged, often very quickly, for socio/political reasons, and even between non-consenting persons.

Turning to the Bible

The goal here is to discover the principles behind sexual ethics of the past that need to apply to the present.  An obvious starting place is with one of Paul’s main treatises on sex.

1 Corinthians 7

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 2But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 8To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

What we see here is that for some unknown reason, the Corinthian Church has asked Paul whether it is good to abstain from sexual relations completely, in or out of marriage. Paul does not agree with the Corinthians’ statement that “it is well for a man not to touch a woman,” but instead gives advice on how to deal with sexuality. I want to stress that this is advice only (v.6) and not moral prerogatives. His advice therefore, is that each person should have one spouse to whom he can fully devote himself in order to satisfy sexual desire. In verse seven, Paul says he wishes that all were single but that being single (or celibate since he means being perpetually single, that is without a romantic, or relational interest) is a particular gift from God.  And then His advice to widows and the unmarried is to stay that way, unless they cannot control sexual desire in which case they should get married.

There are two things that strike me as most obvious about this passage. The first and foremost is that Paul’s advice is explicitly aimed at controlling human sexual passion which can lead to sin if left without a partner. Secondly and perhaps more shocking, Paul says that being single (and celibate) is a particular gift from God and is not expected of everyone. For those who cannot control sexual passion he suggests getting married. He is not merely suggesting that if a person struggles with sexual desire that he is best off getting married someday versus attempting to remain forever celibate, but rather that anyone struggling with sexual desires should go get married right away as an active solution. Clearly this advice is no longer valid today since one cannot simply “go get married” (I will return to this idea later). Paul is saying that abstinence is not practical for everyone. An idea he reiterates again later in the passage

36If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well.

In 1 Corinthians 7 the first principle for sexual ethics is found, that is, to restrain sexual passions which can lead to sin (adultery, incest, bestiality etc).

The second principle is found by back-tracking to 1 Corinthians 6

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

What Paul is saying here is that your body is God’s temple. It is His to do His work with. We should glorify God with our bodies and not abuse them. This means that Christians have an obligation to treat their bodies with the highest responsibility and not allow themselves to be dominated by anything. This means addictions and sexual misconducts but also reckless dangerous acts (thrill seeking) and even unhealthy eating should be restrained. Therefore irresponsible sex (which pre-marital sex often is) is wrong; it is a mistreatment of your body.  A third principle which is arguably just an extension of the first two is found in Galatians 5

16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

This precursor passage to the fruits of the Spirit is aimed at pointing out the desires of the flesh and general things that are born of selfishness and the lack of the fruits of the Spirit. What we see here is that selfishness or the desire to please one’s self over others is sinful. 

A New Application

These three principles, self-responsibility, the focusing of sexual passion away from sin and self-destructive behavior, and the avoidance of self-seeking over others orientation form the framework for what I find to be a more fitting Christian sexual ethic. That is, as Christians, we should have the highest obligation to safe sex, monogamy, and constructive relationships which are not self-seeking. Accepting sex within these contexts I think is a far better approach than insisting upon abstinence until marriage for several reasons, both practical and theological. In practical terms the current abstinence until marriage routine ends up something like this: Christian teenagers/post-teenagers are told that sex is a sacred part of marriage and that they have to wait until marriage in order to have sex. Christian teens end up in dating relationships and cannot conform to such a high standard (which I have argued above they should never have been expected to) so they have sex and then feel like they have already ruined the sacredness of marriage and thus continue to have sex (often not very safely since the “abstinence only” mentality means parents aren’t educating their children about sex). What I propose instead is a new paradigm. Instead of telling Christian teenagers they can’t have sex until they are married, we should be telling them something like, until they have a stable relationship over a long period of time, know the person well, and will practice sex safely, they need to abstain. I would even go so far as to say that parents should encourage their kids to discuss with them on the subject of whether they are ready for sex. This proposition makes it so that the standard is now not so unachievable and thus it is far more likely to be followed.  Also, sexual relations that arise will be less damaging and Christians can re-achieve the image of being morally responsible rather than being labeled as hypocrites because so few Christians actually possess the particular gift of controlling sexual passion completely. In regards to the principle that sex should not be self-seeking, Christian relationships should have a very low probability of using sex as a means of gratification but rather will be oriented toward developing the relationship. Sex can be used selfishly and often is, but in long-term relationships the kind of self-pleasing, get the girl in your pants attitude should not be a concern.

Objections

I think it likely that there are a good many objections stirring in your brains right now so I want to address those in cogent manner. These are all the objections that I posed against a new sexual ethic and I hope that I have hit most of them.

Objection 1

Objection 1 is that having sex before marriage creates sexual baggage for when someone does get married and therefore should always be avoided. This argument in any form is not really an argument against pre-marital sex, but rather against dating. In this new paradigm I posed that only in long-term relationships does sex become acceptable. And the mere existence of past long-term relationships brings baggage to any future marital relationship regardless of sex. It is because of this type of argument and also because of abstinence until marriage ideas that there is often a backlash against dating in Christian communities. I think this backlash is misplaced. Dating is a result not of secular culture but of a culmination of Christian values. The New Testament idea of equality of the spouses (1 Corinthians 7:4) led to the slow break down of the social institutions of marriage. This radical idea slowly led to necessary consent, love-based marriage (rather than social status based), and therefore brought the necessitation of dating (originally courtship). Marriage today seems to me to be immensely superior to the marriage of the New Testament. Today it is both consensual and it is developed over time rather than forced or immediate without getting to know one another. To marry someone you barely know is not a superior moral triumph (especially since it led to widespread prostitution, one of the problems Paul is trying to address) but rather in a world where divorce is easy, it is a recipe for disaster. Christians often marry quicker than they ought to and rush into commitments they aren’t prepared for and that in itself seems to me to be irresponsible. In a world where marriage is a process, Paul’s suggestion that if you struggle with sexual passion you should get married is no longer applicable; you cannot simply go get married. That is, in today’s society, one is typically expected to finish his/her education, be financially independent and stable, and actually get to know the person before it is considered responsible to be married. However, I think that it is not a bad trade-off. In exchange for consensual, responsible, committed marriage we must accept that people are often going to have multiple long term relationships that don’t end in marriage (an idea completely foreign to the authors of the Bible). These relationships will have baggage from previous relationships, but on a whole I think that is just as likely to make a marriage strong as inhibit it, and it’s still much better than a marriage to someone you hardly know.

Objection 2

This is the theological argument of the “one flesh” statements coupled with a traditional sacredness of marriage argument. The sacredness of marriage argument is basically the idea that sex is purposed by God for marriage and use of it outside of marriage violates the sanctity of marriage. My first problem with this is distinguishing between “expected of marriage” and “purposed for marriage.” It seems that the function of sexual relations is procreation, pleasure, and intimacy. The procreation function is clearly purposed for marriage but can now be removed from as being a component of sex via contraception. Pleasure is not as some Christians think, inherently a bad thing, and intimacy is not only for marriage. And so it is reasonable to conclude that sex is not an integral component of marriage, that is, sex can be removed from marriage (there are couples that for disability reasons can’t have sex) and it is no less of a marriage, it is however expected within marriages that can provide for it. Marriage is a highly focused form of agape. Giving one hundred percent of yourself to another person includes sexual relations (in those who are capable) but is not required by definition. Also it seems a bit absurd to suggest that one could violate the sanctity of marriage in the first place. Does having pre-marital sex make a marriage less sacred than one in which they were both virgins? What does less sacred even mean? Some may cite,

Hebrews 13:4

Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

but to me reading anything but “stay faithful to your marriage” out of this verse in unfounded.  In practical terms as I have argued above, people assume that once they violate the sanctity of their future marriage they may as well keep having sex, seems to me just to highlight the idea that this concept of sacredness of marriage doesn’t add up. Even if marriage (properly understood, whatever that might be) is sacred, then it follows that you don’t violate the sacredness of marriage but rather you simply never attain this sacrament. Saying that you can violate or “defile” your future marriage through an act simply doesn’t make sense. The second part of this objection is theologically deep and while I am not nearly sure exactly what to make of it. I still don’t think that it can add up the way theologians have often made it to do.

Genesis 2:24-25

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Matthew 5:3-9

3Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

1 Corinthians 6: 16-17

Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

People argue over what these verses mean but I am going to analyze them as best I can. The argument that follows is something like, “if you engage in sexual intimacy with someone that you become one flesh but are not married, then it is a sin.” It seems to me that this argument has some major flaws. First I think it is flawed because it places too much emphasis on sexual intimacy and almost inevitably leads to the belief that sexual intimacy forms a de facto marriage. This I think is unfounded. In Corinthians Paul does not say that if you are sleeping with a prostitute you are now bound to her and she becomes your wife, but rather it seems to me he is simply saying that sexual intimacy creates a close bond with a person that should not be taken lightly and definitely should not be formed between a prostitute and a follower of Christ because that sexual bond itself is disgraceful to Christ. To me both Genesis and Jesus are saying that it is not that sexual intimacy makes you become one flesh, but marriage does. As Paul concludes about the nature of marriage, two become one flesh because the bodies are owned in common. Sexual intimacy is an expression of this “two become one” mentality. Marriage, complete devotion to another person causes the two to become one flesh, Paul only uses the phrase to highlight the severity of careless sex (prostitution). Only 1 Corinthians 6 deals with outside of marriage sex and here he simply is arguing against forming a sexual bond with a prostitute or immoral character, coupled with 2 Corinthians 6:19 you might argue that sex outside of marriage with non-Christians is also bad for the image of Christ since they contain parallel argumentative structures.

Objection 3

The tradition/translation argument: The tradition argument and the translation argument hold that porneia does include pre-marital sex in its meaning and that 2000 years of theology have held this belief so it is unlikely that it is erred. Both of these are theoretically decent arguments except that even if porneia includes pre-marital sex, the pre-marital relationship they are talking about is bad (still categorically social, not moral). That is the social and personal repercussions of such an action especially for females is terrible and really should be discouraged. And I also don’t believe that the Church has erred in its presentation until recently. Back in the arranged marriage structure, Christian advocacy of abstinence outside of marriage is perfectly acceptable at achieving the three principles I laid out above. Pre-marital sex was both unsafe (violating principle of personal responsibility) and with someone you don’t know (irresponsible and likely bad for the image of Christ. In addition, if someone was struggling with sexual sin they could in fact simply go get married and thus did not have any moral excuse to have sex outside of marriage. However, with birth control, STD testing , condoms, etc., sex can be physically safe, (psychologically safe falls into the category of stable responsible sexual relations, though without self-condemnation through church doctrine I believe there would be less psychological trauma anyway) and the new marriage structure means that people cannot simply go get married, therefore a new solution to focusing sexual passion is necessary. But this is only possible because of extremely recent social and technological innovations, so both arguments seem to me to lose the validity.

Objection 4

The abuse objection:  The abuse objection is a practical one rather than moral one. This is the idea that given these new rules to follow people will just assume they are in a stable safe relationship and have sex even though they are not actually in this type of relationship. This is inevitable. Allow a sort of exception clause (not that it is an exception clause but only compared to the old standard would appear to be) and people will think they are the exception. But it still seems far better to me to posit a more possible standard which is still a difficult and morally persevering standard, than to stick with the conventional abstinence till marriage standard which turns sex into a pass/fail course. By avoiding altogether the sanctity of marriage in the conversation the moral responsibility for sexual sin is something that is new every time, it isn’t just once you’ve screwed up the consequence is set and doesn’t get worse if you keep having sex.

Objection 5

The devaluation of marriage: This argument is that there is no longer any need to get married given the acceptable conditions above. This I think is accurate at least from a certain perspective. To me however, it seems that marriage was never about legal status and never should have been about getting to have sex. While perhaps given what I have described, less people might choose to get married. The appeal to a Christian (which should be the only category of people we are concerning ourselves with) to devote one hundred percent to a person should still be very high. And I think without the sex incentive, marriage becomes even more valuable in that you choose to get married without selfish reasons but it becomes a far more selfless act. Marriage, robbed of its social and sexual benefits becomes something far better, a higher calling to agape and a truly voluntary decision to devote oneself without the trappings of selfish benefits. The more traditional role of marriage will go to the wayside (though it really already has) but be replaced by something more appealing and honestly, more Christian.

Summation

When I first dove into this topic I did so because I felt that something was horribly wrong with the way that Christian teens are raised to think about sex. The abstinence until marriage ethic has failed so drastically (and is only getting worse) and Christian teens have much higher sexual illiteracy than their non-Christian counterparts and engage in highly dangerous and irresponsible sexual action. And instead of offering positive moral encouragement to teens, the church offers psychological oppression in telling them that they are ruining marriage and need to conform to a standard that in today’s culture requires an even rarer “particular gift” from God to overcome, a gift they likely do not have. I dove into this subject knowing that something had to give; we have to have messed up somewhere, but my own conclusion surprised even me. The paradigm shift that I believe needs to be adopted is not something new, but is a call to return to the original idea. Human sexuality is not itself sinful by nature and needs to be focused, not suppressed. Sexual passion is something that needs to be directed into the least damaging but still accessible avenue. There is a tension between both acceptability of sex and suppression of sex in trying to find a place somewhere in between that doesn’t lead to destructive outcomes, and the church teaching has gone so far toward the suppression of sex in the hopes of only allowing for the most positive outcomes that it has altogether lost sight that human sexuality is not something that can be highly suppressed. Paul believed sexuality needed to be focused and not suppressed and I do as well (1 Cor. 6-7) . I believe that I have found principles to balance the tension, though there is of course room for sway. I believe that the church should focus on limiting the destructive outcomes of pre-marital sex while still accepting it. As I have argued above, pre-marital sex is not a death sentence to marriage, and I do not believe pre-marital sex to be sinful in it of itself. Christians need to be at the forefront of promoting responsible, safe, and constructive relationships. They are not holding steady against the evil in the world by promoting abstinence till marriage; they are in fact acting highly irresponsible and persecutory. They are not looking to produce good, they are turning a blind eye.

A Personal Reflection

This post is already absurdly long but I feel that it needs one more thing. That is, I want to say how I feel personally about what I have just presented. When I finished the research and draft for this post I had two major feelings about what I had written. The first was that I believe what I have written to be an honest and objective look at what the Bible says on this issue; the second feeling was a nagging suspicion that what I had written was a concession. To the first thing, I believe that everything written above is intellectually sound and ultimately good for Christianity. I may very well be wrong somewhere, but as I said above, my goal is more to open up the question than to present a fool-proof synopsis for some new orthodoxy. Toward the second feeling I want to say a few things. The first being that at some level I felt like this new direction was a de facto rejection of God’s ability to help people with self-control. I personally have been blessed by God with the particular gift of self-control which I have utilized effectively. However, this put me in an awkward position in that my life is a genuine counter-example to the problem I am addressing. Upon further reflection I have come to the following conclusion. I fully believe that God is capable of helping people overcome any passion or desire or problem that can lead to sin, whether it be drinking, smoking, eating, sex, etc. However, like many of the things I just listed, it is unreasonable for people to abstain from everything that might lead them to sin. Surely I would encourage people to limit themselves from potentially dangerous and sinful situations; if you don’t drink at all in order to avoid any problem with drunkenness then I applaud your conviction, however, that does not mean we should all not drink. If my above ethic were followed is disheartens me a little to know that those who it may have well been in their capacity to abstain till marriage end up in sexual trouble because of this new ethic; however, the help and focus, rather than persecution for those not gifted with sexual self-control is well worth it. To those, including myself, who have demonstrated that they possess the capabilities to abstain I offer the following advice: Though it is not wrong for you to have sex (within the correct context), remember that in the parable of the talents Jesus tells us that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Your relationship with God is not all about whether or not you sin; some things are about what you are willing to offer to Him. Abstinence is something that can be offered as a good example for others, and a sign of faithfulness to the gifts with which you have been entrusted with by God.

I sincerely hope that after reading this you have something to say. As I said before I want to open up this question not bludgeon some new moral creation on you. Whether it be a question, an observation, a critique, or just personal comment it is very welcome.

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