Tag Archives: Sexual Ethics

Sex Before Marriage

The other day I came across an intensely personal and yet ambivalent reflection on the realities of sex before, and in, marriage. Katherine Willis Pershey recalls her own experience in an evangelical subculture, as well as her inability to fulfil its strictures:

Although I once was the proud wearer of a purity ring—a silver band acquired in junior high school that advertised my intention to remain a virgin until my wedding night—at some point along the way, I misplaced the ring and, some years later, the virginity (“Fully Naked, Fully Known” in Christian Century, September 28, 2016, 22-25).

Pershey remains critical of such Christian attempts to control and shame adolescent sexuality, is grateful that couples living together are no longer the objects of abuse and shame as they once were, acknowledges the true beauty of love and commitment that can exist in the lives of many de facto couples, and wonders how she could possibly exhort her own children to abstain when she herself did not.

“And yet,” she says. Despite her misgivings, and almost in spite of herself and her deeply held convictions, Pershey finds herself drawn to accounts of marriage by conservatives such as Timothy Keller. Her experiences seem to have led her to a position she can hardly imagine holding: “I suspect I might actually believe that sex is for married people. … The contrast between unmarried and married sex is significant. The covenant of marriage—the vows to love now and forever—changes everything. It just does.”

Pershey provides some indication of how that might actually happen through the account of her own experiences both before marriage, and as a beloved wife. The final words of her article address the question of how, as a minister and a mother, she could possibly encourage others to consider saving certain intimacies for the wedding night without descending into the destructive shaming that so harmed her own life.

So perhaps I hold up my pain: all that fooling around before marriage ever did was give me a world of hurt. But I can’t hold up my pain without also lifting high my joy: all that fooling around within marriage ever did was give me a world of healing.

*****

This article is available online at Christian Century (pay wall), or here.

ANZATS 2017 – Lynn Cohick

The second international guest at this year’s ANZATS Conference was Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College in Illinois. Like Stephen Barton, Cohick is a New Testament scholar, but who is also very conversant with the life and circumstances of early Christianity in the first centuries of its history.

Cohick’s first lecture was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Marriage in First-Century Families.” Her second lecture addressed “Inheritance and Worthiness: What Children in First Century Families Reveal about the Message of the Gospel.” Both lectures used early Christian and ancient secular sources in addition to the New Testament to provide a vivid account of the life and times of families and children in the world of the New Testament, in both its Jewish and Hellenistic contexts.

Marriage in the first-century Greco-Roman world was highly regulated in terms of social class and custom. Polygamy was forbidden, concubinage allowed, and prostitution and other forms of sexual allowance for men was accepted as normal. Slaves, both male and female, could be used routinely for sex, though only a woman could be a concubine. A concubine had a status somewhere between a wife and a slave. Most marriages were contracted with the hope of love, or at least harmony, and some evidently attained it. But remarriage was common on account of both the death of one’s spouse, or divorce.

The forms of marriage, and power within marriage, were very patriarchal. A good wife was one who maintained a good reputation, bringing honour to the family name, undertook the duties of motherhood, was submissive to her husband’s authority, and modest, chaste and industrious in character. Cohick argues that Paul’s instructions to married couples in the New Testament were audacious and counter-cultural, introducing a strong note of mutuality and equality into the marital relations, challenging the male privilege of the Roman world, including the “natural social right” of the husband to use prostitutes. His vision of love demands self-sacrifice and honour of the other, making demands, especially on the husband.

With respect to children, Cohick acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining and interpreting sound data on the status and life-experiences of children in the ancient world. In fact, the concept of child does not really have an ancient analogue. Childhood was not sentimentalised in the ancient world where child mortality could run as high as 35% in the first year of life, and up to 50% by age ten. Life was harsh and work was rough, existence was brutal, even—especially?—for children.

Perhaps the enduring image Cohick’s lecture left for me was of the instrumentalising of children. Children were for work, for family support and honour, for sex. Children were like unformed clay, and needed education and a strong hand to cause them to grow and mature.  Cohick spent a good deal of time distinguishing between free and slave children, and between Roman and non-Roman children, and how these distinctions played out in society.

The image of children in the New Testament challenges the instrumentalising of children, and the central role of the Roman family in society. They were to be nurtured and educated in the “new family” which was the church, with a primary allegiance not to their earthly paterfamilias, but to God. Cohick used the story of Perpetua and Felicitas to great effect here. So, too, the adults in the church were to serve as surrogate mothers and fathers for all the children in the church, whether slave or free, Roman or otherwise.

Cohick’s lectures provided a “thick” descriptive account of family in the first century world. It was like seeing a full-colour picture after having only seen black-and-white and blurred images previously. It was easy to visualise the impact of the gospel message of hope, in a world of such high mortality. It was challenging to see the commitment the early Christians had to a devotional and moral existence that challenged the life and culture around them in fundamental ways.

ANZATS 2017 – Stephen Barton

This week I have been at the 2017 ANZATS Conference in Adelaide. The theme this year has been “Kinship & Family in Contemporary Australia and New Zealand.” The two international guests have given excellent plenary addresses, and the elective sessions that I have attended have been good. Of course, one of the best things about Conferences is catching up with peers from around the country—and from New Zealand, and meeting new friends.

Stephen Barton from Durham, UK has given two addresses on the topic of marriage, the first providing a biblical perspective and the second, an historical perspective from the Christian tradition. Both accounts were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and portrayed the complexity and plurality of images and approaches in both the Bible and the Christian tradition. Several things stood out to me:

  1. Barton rejects a “sola scriptura” approach to the question of a Christian ethic of marriage and family. Several statements in the lecture make his position clear: “‘The Bible says’ is no way to establish a ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘family.’” He prefers a more “Anglican” approach—Lex orandi, lex credendi (which translates roughly as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing” and means that prayer and worship lead to belief and theology)—“the Bible released from rationalism opens a depth of biblical resources for prayer and moral reflection.” And again, “sola scriptura is too narrow a foundation for a full doctrine or ethic of marriage and family.” Barton views marriage as a complex, many-layered phenomenon with natural, spiritual, legal, social, cultural, and sacramental aspects. He eschews reductionist approaches which would reduce marriage to just one thing. Thus while scripture is an indispensable source for a Christian ethic of marriage and family, other sources of moral reflection must also be consulted, including an understanding of natural law, the history of development of concepts and practices of marriage, cultural forms and traditions, philosophical reflection on the “goods” of marriage, etc.
  2. Barton views marriage primarily through an eschatological lens: a wise reading of Scripture adopts a prophetic-eschatological perspective that disrupts cultural values in the light of the coming kingdom. I found this intriguing, especially since biblically, it appears grounded more in creational frame of reference. Nevertheless, his treatment of the biblical vision was very insightful and challenging.
  3. His recounting of the development of marriage in historical and ecclesial perspective was incredibly interesting and illuminating. The lecture was peppered with such gems as “the [medieval] Roman Catholics understood marriage a natural origin, a legal form, and a spiritual significance.” Or, the Roman Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament was transformed in Protestantism: Luther viewed it as a “social estate,” Calvin in terms of a “covenant,” and Anglicanism as a “little commonwealth.” Barton’s discussion of each of these was rich in detail and insight.

In the end, says Barton, marriage is indeed a complex institution, essential for personal flourishing and familial and societal well-being. He understands it especially in terms of a practise of life-long openness to the other, in a context of deepening hospitality and self-giving.

Meanderings

Hanukkah WindowThis article from the British Guardian argues that it not only okay, but necessary that Christians be allowed to celebrate Christmas without fear of offending anyone: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy.” It further argues that there is a place for Christianity in society, in the manner of virtue formation. I do not agree that Christian virtues ultimately derive from Socrates and Aristotle, although there is no doubt that Christian understanding of the virtues has been greatly influenced by these philosophers over the centuries. What I liked about the article was its insistence that

The central insight is that both individuals and societies, or social groups, develop their values by living them. Moral questions cannot be answered entirely by reasoning: we discover what kind of creatures we are by living; we develop virtues, like vices, by practising them.

A second article, also from The Guardian, is written by an Anglican minister married to a Jewish woman. He notes one way in which Jews and Christians differ: in the relation of their faith to their home life.

My Jewish relatives are all secular Israelis – yet it is they, not I, who have introduced religious liturgies into our house. And I thank them for bringing God home.

Finally, this article, written by woman, considers the seemingly all-pervasive reality of internet pornography, its effects, its widespread use in evangelical Christianity, and what response to it may look like. It is concerning, and a sign of the colonisation of the church by the culture, that many Christians consider “not recycling” a greater sin than use of pornography. Or perhaps it is a shamed conscience.

The commentators and researchers are, in part, right: Porn isn’t just an individual moral problem. It strikes to the heart of what it means to be human. This is why Paul urges believers to “flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). Sexual sin can affect us in profound and devastating ways. Some sins we can fight. Others we must flee—even when temptation is only a Google search away.

Nicholas Wolterstorff & Wesley Hill on Same-Sex Marriage

wolterstorffA few weeks ago Nicholas Wolterstorff, a renowned Christian philosopher, publicly affirmed same-sex marriage in an address delivered at a Christian Reformed Church. According to a report of the lecture, Wolterstorff approached his subject by recounting how his own mind had changed:

Wolterstorff opened by acknowledging that he is not an authority on the matter, and as such, would present a narrative of his own journey to an affirming stance on same-sex marriage in the church.

It was through relatives, students and former students who were gay, as well as people in committed, same-sex relationships, that Wolterstorff was drawn to more closely consider the traditional views he’d grown up believing.

“I’ve listened to these people. To their agony. To their feelings of exclusion and oppression. To their longings. To their expressions of love. To their commitments. To their faith. So listening has changed me.”

Many Christians will resonate with Wolterstorff’s experience: they, too, have known and loved gay people, heard their stories, shared something of their struggles and longings, and hoped for something different. Still, as I read the account of his lecture, I was not convinced that Wolterstorff was dealing faithfully with the biblical texts he was citing—somewhat surprising for a Reformed Christian.

Wesley HillThen tonight, as I was preparing to post a short piece on this lecture, I came across a response to Wolterstorff’s lecture by Wesley Hill—who identifies as Christian, gay and celibate. Hill, author of Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship, accused Wolterstorff of lacking hermeneutical charity, of taking cheap shots, and so of writing a shallow lecture. Hill writes,

Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.

The two papers are worth reading, not simply to engage the topic which occasioned the lecture and its response, but more importantly, to think about what it means to read Scripture and to practise theology.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:4

JamesJames 2:4
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

In this verse, the scenario described by James in verses 2-3 comes to its climax. The way in which James told his little tale implicated his hearers: “Suppose a gold-fingered man wanders into your assembly and you say…” That is, if the congregation shows favouritism and partiality to some guests on the basis of their socio-economic standing, and if on the same basis they withhold it from others; if they then treat the two persons differently, favourably on the one hand and contemptuously on the other, then, says James, they have “made distinctions” among themselves where presumably no such distinctions should exist, and so have become “judges,” indeed have set themselves up as judges, but evil judges with evil thoughts.

The two key terms in this verse form a word-play: diekrithēte (“made distinctions”) and kritai (“judges”). The first term occurs also in 1:6 where it means to doubt, or to waver between different possibilities. Here its meaning is often understood as “to discriminate, to make distinctions,” which fits well with the second part of the verse where James accuses his listeners of becoming judges—those whose principle activity involves the kind of discrimination required to make judgements. Vlachos, however, notes that the verb is in the passive voice, and so suggests that another meaning may be more appropriate, viz. “you have become divided” (71). It is not necessary to choose between these various options: making distinctions on the basis of status and appearance results in division in the assembly. These distinctions—and the resulting division—occur “among yourselves” (en heautois) which suits the whole context better than “within yourself,” and also suggests that the problem is characteristic of the congregation generally, rather than restricted to just a few of the members.

By making these distinctions they “have become judges” (kai egenesthe kritai). James will later insist that God alone is the one law-giver and judge, and so it is wholly inappropriate that some members of the congregation would presume to judge their neighbour (4:12). Not only have they become judges, however, but have become judges “of evil thoughts” or intentions (dialogismōn ponērōn). James will go on in the following verses to show why such intentions and activity are evil, but it is possible already to discern the reason: faith in Jesus is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. “Receiving the face” (prosōpolēmpsiais) of the other in verse one is the equivalent of making distinctions in verse four, and so utterly out of place in the community of God’s people.

One final grammatical point remains to be noted: James’s twofold question in this verse begins with ou (“not”), a particle that functions in rhetorical questions when the person asking the question anticipates a positive answer. The questions, then, are loaded questions expecting the answer, “yes indeed” (see McKnight, 188). That is, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” Yes; yes you have. “Have you not become judges with evil thoughts?” Yes, indeed you have.

We have seen already in 1:10-11 that James is concerned that the messianic congregation transcend the socio-economic distinctions common in the world—in the light of eternity and of the judgement to come. That the congregation continue to make such distinctions indicates that their perspectives are flawed. Their values are still shaped by the priorities of the world. Their faith in Jesus has not yet penetrated their lives sufficiently to reshape their vision and reset their values. Their flawed attitudes issue in actions incongruent with their faith and which then lead to division between rich and poor in the assembly. Because their judgements do not echo God’s judgements about the relative worth of persons, earthly conditions and “deservedness,” they are false and therefore evil judgements.

James has not pulled any punches. Like a professional boxer, he has cornered his opponent and landed every blow. His accusation against his hearers is pointed, specific and decisive. The strength and vigour of James’s assault highlights the utter seriousness with which he regards this matter. He cannot and will not allow his congregation to think that such favouritism is permissible—it is not. It is evil. Such partiality is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ.

The strength and vigour of James’s assault also challenges the church today and in every age. The question of application cannot be side-stepped. To what extent do we allow the vision and values of the surrounding culture to shape our response to the poor around and among us? Are our attitudes and actions congruent or incongruent with our faith in Jesus Christ? Further, might we map other categories onto those used by James? He does not mention “slave” or “free,” but it is very likely he would extend his argument to these persons also. Might the prohibition against making distinctions be extended also to those distinctions between educated and uneducated, old and young, male and female, conservative and progressive, married and single, gay and straight, mentally ill and sound of mind? It is likely, I think, that James would extend the principle to other socio-economic relations, but not to relations he considered immoral or against God’s commandments. Whether he would have extended it to the distinction between male and female may also be questioned, although it is worth noting that he places Rahab alongside Abraham as those justified by their works (2:23-25). That the prostitute and the patriarch are associated so closely suggests that in the community of faith, brothers and sisters, rich and poor, high and low are equally honoured. In any event, we are certainly on safe ground when we stay with what James has actually said, and do not use these kinds of questions to avoid or even forget our call to be the kind of community that welcomes, includes and respects the poor.

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 2)

Faithful (Felker Jones)(Continued from yesterday…)

One of the great strengths of this little book is its insistence on the integrity and goodness of the single life, a theme which comes to the fore in the fifth chapter. The Christian sexual ethic has always proclaimed two ways of bearing radical public witness to the faithfulness of God: celibate singleness, and exclusive, permanent marriage. Both ways, argues Felker Jones, function as a sign of the kingdom, a repudiation of commodified relationships, sexual slavery and selfishness, and cultural mores that enslave and demean.

Early Christianity was bold enough to imagine that all of us have—in Christ—the freedom to bear witness to who God is. The Christian understanding of sex was dramatic in the ways that it ran against Roman sexual morality. Roman women were not free to not marry. Christian women could choose—even insist on—celibacy. For Christians, women aren’t property or baby makers. We’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in our bodies. Including in the ways we choose to have and not have sex. For Christians, men aren’t lust machines or power mongers. They’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in their bodies, including in the ways they choose to have and not have sex. … In Rome, you were either a slave or you were free. In the kingdom of God, we’re all free. As a witness to this, we value singleness and marriage as two routes, two ways of life, in which the Christian may be truly sexual and truly free. (71-72)

Chapter six addresses consent, an issue fraught with difficulty in the present, and almost impossible, especially for the vulnerable, in an unrestrained, anything-goes culture. Yet, if sex is to be freely given and received, consent is essential. Felker Jones suggests that consent is at the heart of a biblical-Christian sexual ethic, and is in fact, one of the most Christian things about the ways in which Christians have—and don’t have—sex (78). True consent must be freely given and mutual, and for Christians this happens in the marriage ceremony in a very public way: “See this man? (or, see this woman?)—I’m having sex with him tonight” (79).

Although deeply committed to values traditional evangelical Christians will affirm, Felker Jones takes aim in her seventh chapter at a prominent movement in recent evangelicalism: the so-called “purity” movement. Since sex belongs in a context of grace and freedom, bodies must never be made commodities, and marriage and sex must never be made a reward for effort; thus “purity” must never be reduced to a pelagian work of self-effort toward holiness. The economy of grace and the market economy are antithetical (91).

If sex is in any way a sign of God’s grace, it can never be commodified. It can never be wrenched out of the framework of free, mutual, consensual relationship and placed on the market floor. If sex is thus free, then sexual holiness cannot—cannot, cannot—mean having a “valuable” kind of body or preserving that “value” against loss of value. But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead, we’ve bought into a mistaken set of ideas about what purity looks like. (83)

The purity paradigm turns physical virginity into a possession. This tendency heightens the sense that purity matters most for females and heightens the unbiblical idea that virginity and purity don’t apply to men. The purity paradigm makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value. It tells the graceless lie that we are more valuable spouses for someone if we have this thing. It tells the demonic lie that our market value is what makes us precious to God. (91)

While she is careful to note that “there is much that is healthy, holy and happy about the situation in which both spouses can come to a marriage without sexual experience” (108), she insists that purity, marriage and singleness are about discipleship in the kingdom of God and never about our value as persons.

And so we return to the central point: married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. Our bodies bear witness, our flesh is for mission, for witness, for giving glory to God. Both faithful marriage and celibate singleness may be ways in which we harness all of our life and pour that life out for God (69). “The sexual orthodoxy of our fallen world wants to create a body that is something to be consumed. Christian sexuality recognizes that the body is meant to be a witness. Sex is a witness to what God does in our lives, a witness to the God who is faithful and keeps promises” (104). The faithful body tells a story of God’s faithfulness. It witnesses to the goodness of embodied life as created by God. It does kingdom work in relationship and service to others. It testifies to the longing and consummation of God’s eschatological future. It witnesses to the fact that we already are “bought with a price.” In Christ we have been made free to be truly and fully human, and so truly and fully sexual—in the ways we do—and don’t—have sex (97).

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 1)

Felker Jones, Beth, Faithful: A Theology of Sex 
(Ordinary Theology Series; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 108pp. 
ISBN 9780310518273

Felker-Jones, BethIn her new little book on sex, Beth Felker Jones, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, Illinois, and author of The Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection and Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, takes as her primary datum St. Paul’s declaration, “The body is for the Lord” (1 Corinthians 6:13):

Married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. … My hope is that we might move to a theology of the beautiful body, a theology of the sexual body, in which the body becomes—not an idol—but something like an icon. … Might the process of faithfully living in the body, including sexual discipline, be understood as something like the writing of an icon? (100-101)

In a litany of memorable one-liners scattered throughout the text, Jones declares that sex is (always) real, sex is good—though sex can also be bad, because sex has gone wrong; therefore sex must be freely given and freely received, because ultimately, for the Christian, at least, sex is kingdom work. Although part of Zondervan’s new Ordinary Theology series, this is anything but “ordinary theology.” Rather, it is a radical and often profound theology wonderfully packaged for the everyday reader and addressing an ordinary aspect of everyday reality. Actually, it is counter-cultural theology, robust and biblical, sensitive to the mystery of the wonder and brokenness that comprises human sexuality, deeply aware of the cultural and power dynamics that shape western culture, and attuned to the relational and personal dynamics which so deeply inform our sexuality and sexual practice.

In the first of her eight short chapters Felker Jones introduces her topic by arguing that to be human is to be embodied, and that what we do as embodied creatures, matters. Our existence in a larger reality means we are accountable within that larger reality for how we relate to others and use our bodies. “Sex matters because embodiment goes to the very heart of what it means to be human” (17). Thus, and radically in our cultural age, sex is about God, about who God is and how God relates to his creation. Sex is also about us and what it means to be truly human. Sex, then, is a witness to the faithfulness of God, and sexual ethics remain an essential aspect of Christian life.

Not only is (all) sex “real,” for Felker Jones, sex is also good. “The Christian faith is profoundly for the body and for the joys of the bodily life” (22). Therefore she rejects all forms of dualism and insists that God’s good creation intends our embodiedness and embodied relations, sexual differentiation, and marriage. “The one-flesh union of Eden—marked by commitment and mutuality and partnership and delight—is God’s good, creative, intention for sex” (38).

This created goodness has, however, been drastically impacted by the reality of human sinfulness. Sex has “gone wrong,” having been distorted in life under the conditions of sin. Despite the cultural difficulty of speaking about any kind of sex as “bad sex,” Felker Jones insists that,

We need the tools to discern when sex tells the truth about God and supports human flourishing and when sex denies the reality of God and is harmful to human beings. We must have a way to diagnose the situation we’re in, to know when we’re not embodying the truth of the God who is faithful. We need to be able to recognize when we’re embodying, instead, brokenness and idolatry and sin. (41)

Thus, “good sex” enables, creates, testifies to or delights in the three “goods” of sex: fidelity, fruitfulness, and the relationship of the husband and wife to God, whereas “fallen sex” is selfish, sex contrary to God’s good intentions, sex that exploits or denigrates, that is bought and sold, that preys on the nakedness of others, that is predatory, irresponsible, commodified or abusive (42-50). This is porneia, and the body is not for porneia but for the Lord.

In her fourth chapter Felker Jones applies the logic of death and resurrection to sex such that “pornication” is killed, and desire is reconstituted in ways that are equal, mutual, faithful and covenantal. Although sexual sin is pervasive and intensive it is not the end of the story. Redeemed sex has no place for commodification or exploitation of the other, but flourishes in a covenantal context of friendship and mutuality.

(Continued tomorrow…)