Saturday, June 20, 2015

A First Attempt at a Christian Understanding of Marriage and Sexuality

1. We will attempt to understand any biblical passage in its biblical context. In Leviticus 18, we may read this prohibition: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (v. 22, New Revised Standard Version, here and following).

Let’s put that verse into its biblical context. Leviticus 18 is largely about the prohibition of certain sexual acts. In it Yahweh forbids sexual intercourse between close relatives (vs. 6-18, 20), with one’s wife while she is menstruating (v. 19), between two men (v. 22), and with any animal (v. 23). In this passage Yahweh also forbids the sacrifice of children to Molech (Jupiter).

Yahweh prefaced those prohibitions with these words: I am [Yahweh] your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My…statutes you shall keep, following them: I am [Yahweh] your God (vs. 2b-4).

Egyptians and Canaanites alike worship the six conventional yet false gods of Olympianity (though using different names for them). The whole purpose of Yahweh’s people is to live as faithful witnesses to him as the one true god. They can’t do that if they devote themselves to the Olympian gods by acting in the same devoted ways as their Olympian neighbors. So Yahweh prohibits sexual acts that witness to those false gods rather than to him. For Yahweh, it’s the spiritual issue of identity rather than a moral issue of ignorance, weakness, or malice.

2. We will attempt to understand any biblical passage in its theological context. When we read the Bible, we find several passages in it, like Leviticus 18:22, specifically about homosexuality. To rightly understand these, however, we need to relate them to many more passages about sexuality in general.

The earliest biblical passage about sexual intercourse also remains one of the most important. And the rib that [Yahweh] 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” (Genesis 2:22-24).

From this passage we learn that sexual intercourse is meant to be the celebration of a joyful intimacy and intense unity.

To rightly understand biblical passages about homosexuality, we need to relate them not only to many more passages about sexuality in general. We also need to relate them to the even broader subject of the relationships between men and woman as well as the relationships between human beings and Yahweh.

Again we find that the earliest passage mentioning these relationships remains one of the most important. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

From all eternity, God the Father freely loved God the Son in the unity of God the Spirit. As an expression of that love, God the Father freely created human beings through God the Son by the power of God the Spirit. Even more, God created them in his image: creatures capable of freely loving him, one another, and the rest of God’s good creation.

3. We understand Jesus Christ himself to be the final context of all biblical passages. In his Letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul makes an important connection between marriage and Jesus Christ. He makes that connection at the conclusion of a passage about the right relationships between husbands and wives. He tells husbands: 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 (Ephesians 5:29-32).

4. Tying it all together. I will now attempt to explain how sexual intercourse and marriage might witness to Jesus Christ and the church. I will try to do so in a way that is biblically consistent, theologically coherent, and Christ-centered.

Jesus Christ freely loves his church in a way that is full, exclusive, and forever.

The relationship of husband to wife, and of wife to husband, may likewise witness to Jesus if each spouse freely loves the other in a way that is full, exclusive, and forever.

Sexual intercourse witnesses to Jesus if it is the celebration of the joyful intimacy and intense unity shared by a husband and wife. In fact, in this way, husbands and wives may bear the clearest possible witness to the relationship between Jesus and his church.

In detail, we bear faithful witness to Jesus when we love our spouse fully; that is, physically, emotionally, intellectually, volitionally, and spiritually. Olympians love their spouses conditionally: in one of these ways or another and to one degree or another in each way. That is why the Bible speaks against pre-marital sex or fornication; that is, sexual intercourse that is not celebrating a free commitment to love fully.

We witness to Jesus when we love our spouse exclusively. That’s why the Old Testament speaks against adultery and the New Testament speaks in favor of monogamy.

We witness to Jesus when we love our spouse permanently. That’s why the Bible speaks against divorce.

Finally, we witness to Jesus in a relationship which is a differentiated unity. A differentiated unity is a whole composed of different parts. Christ and his church enjoy a real unity in the love each freely has for the other. At the same time, this is a unity despite real differences: Jesus is wholly divine as well as wholly human whereas we as church and Christians are not divine at all and never will be.

We were created in the image of God. That’s why the Bible speaks against sexual intercourse between human beings and animals or even between people devoted to Yahweh and people devoted to the Olympian gods. There’s not enough similarity.

But we are not identical in nature to Jesus. That’s why the Bible speaks against sexual intercourse between subjects too similar in nature. While that includes people of the same sex, it also includes intercourse between men and women who are close relatives. There’s not enough difference.

5. Two important implications for the Church. As faithful witnesses to Jesus, we want to live in ways that point to him rather than to Venus  (goddess of sex) and the other Olympian gods. We do this when we have sexual intercourse only with our spouse whom we freely love in a way that is full, exclusive, and permanent.

There are ways of living which demonstrate devotion to Venus and her gang. Sexual intercourse outside of marriage does this because it lacks the fullness, or unconditionality, of love as understood by Jesus. Adultery and polygamy do this because they lack love’s exclusivity. Sexual intercourse with animals or even Olympians does this because there’s too much difference. Sexual intercourse between close relatives does this because there’s not enough difference. All of these variations demonstrate our devotion to Venus and her gang because in each of them we have a choice and choose to love her more than Jesus.

That’s what distinguishes those variations from some divorces. The permanent relationship of love freely given between husband and wife remains our normative witness to Jesus. Most divorces between Christians may be made for sadly Olympian reasons. But sometimes a relationship between a husband and a wife may deteriorate to the point that divorce may be the most loving alternative. Both Jesus and Paul allow for this.

The element of choice is also what distinguishes those various devotions to Venus from some relationships between homosexuals. A relationship of love freely given between a man and a woman remains the differentiated unity that bears clearest witness to Jesus. But sometimes a relationship of love freely given between two homosexuals may have the fullness, exclusivity, and permanence that witness to Christ’s blessing of it as well.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.