Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ethical Considerations of Marriage and Sexuality


Sexuality is grounded in the very speaking of creation, and is reflective of God’s creative and ‘very good’ work. Ethicist Michael Banner writes, “…knowing humankind as creatures of a good creator, Christian ethics will affirm, as Barth has it, that the ethical question in this sphere is essentially a question of things that are natural and right. With this affirmation sexual ethics is recalled to an important element of its proper task: the discernment and proclamation of what we are as the initial word of God’s command in the realm of sexual ethics.”[1] That human kind is created as man and woman, as embodied creatures, whom are given toward each other in marriage in a spiritual and bodily union is vehemently rejected culturally. A philosophical pro-choice culture in its deep distress and spiritual poverty attempts to imagine that even the duality of male-female is a matter of choice. It is held that sex itself and the very reality of male and female is more socially constructed than “given.” It is commonly accepted that gender and sexuality are not found within the duality of male and female but are negotiable realities, provided one’s personal preferences. Most textbooks in the fields of psychology and sociology locate gender along a “gender continuum,” with one each polar end being heterosexual for both male and female. The extremities are marked by the heterosexual and the ‘middle way’ for those who desire the same sex, or maybe open to both. Impressionable students are encouraged to identity their respective sexual orientation on the ‘gender continuum.’[2]



What is true is that gender is not a preferential matter for the creation of each sex itself is a “divine and good creation that pleases God himself.”[3] There is no say in the matter of being created as male or female. My identity is bound up in the biological reality of which I cannot excuse myself. The ‘way God made me’ is not dictated by personal sexual proclivities or psychological insecurities relating to how I may perceive myself in relation the opposite sex. As a consequence of the fall, every human creature in some way, shape, or form is uncomfortable in their bodies, usually accompanied by less than pure and holy sexual desires. The guiding principles by which we view sexuality and the duality of male and female ought not be found in the dark recesses of the human heart, with its insatiable appetite for lust and sexual conquest. Being created male and female is to be gifted life itself, and to be made co-operative agents in God’s continued creative work. Professor John T. Pless writes, “In this union, man and woman are not interchangeable. The distinctive features of male and female are biological realities with spiritual significance. The distinction that God has made between men and women cannot be dismissed by an appeal to the ideology of equalitarianism. That we are equally children of the one Father, redeemed by His Son, and given access to Him by the Spirit does not erase the creaturely gift and vocation of being man or woman.”[4]



The prevailing understanding of sexuality, as a preferential and consensual recreational act has little social discouragement and much philosophical and religious sanction. The idea which lends itself to this radical revision of the nature of sexuality, like most ethical matters, involves the presuppositions of autonomy and rigid individualism. Lutherans have a firm foundation theologically with the symbolical books and the Scriptural witness to speak a fundamentally different word about these broadly accepted assertions. The estate of marriage and its sexual expression is granted – given by God in the very economy of creation. Oswald Bayer observes, “Only through my parents is life given to me. This sentence sounds trite. But in a time of individualism and of the generational gap, it is hardly that; it is appropriate that one learn anew that the world and our own life, our own life history, do not begin with us ourselves. More properly we ourselves are indebted to a word, to a will, to an affirmation that preceded our life, that anticipated it. Only within this protected and opened space and I also enter into marriage.”[5]



Misunderstanding the giveness of marriage and human sexuality arises out of a fundamentally different conception of creation and mans understanding of himself as he acts within it. The sexual libertine must fool himself in ascribing to his own person autonomy, and some degree of self-creation – essentially what we may call the first sin. His dignity and action must be personally directed and personally achieved. This great delusion involves an incredible amount of inward retreat (incurvatus est) from the world - usually a result of guilt or fear. Marriage however, in fact every human relationship, is relationally defined by an infinite web or economy of God working in man through man. As man encounters the rest of creation and the loveliness of human fellowship and love, his bodily and spiritual worth is not self-defined or created but imparted by another. Oswald Bayer writes, “The dignity of any human being lies in the indissoluble intertwining of element and instituting word. It is attributed to him or her – bestowed, given on loan – by the One who promises and gives himself unconditionally to humankind: namely, God. Thus, my dignity as a human being is attributed to me ‘without any merit or worthiness on my part.’ This dignity is at the same time categorically withheld from me and categorically granted to me; it is given to me totally without merit…This categorical gratuity provides the decisive viewpoint for ethical judgments.”[6]



We cannot underestimate the importance of this fundamental theological axiom as relates to sexuality, in fact all ethics. Though maybe more apprehensible and intuitive for multiple generations past, this understanding of one’s ontological makeup is radical in light of today’s philosophic culture which increasingly sees personhood and human dignity as self-determined. That one’s body is formed from the dust and receives the breath of God and interacts with fellow creatures in God’s continued creative work in the universe completely shatters the myth of autonomy. Ethical discussions, as relates to human sexuality, must begin at this starting point – that the human body is a spoken word and not self-created. The simple observation that every human has a belly button is a reminder that one if formed through another by another. The breath of life and the natural world are one and not partitioned off from one another.



God attends to every cry and desire of his creation. As Adam experienced the tinge of human loneliness, God was already as work anticipating and meeting his creature. He saw that it was not good that man was alone and initiated this divine work of human community. Our Lord speaks “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6). Jesus is not referring to long –winded aspects of Mosaic law thus addressing a post-fall world. Rather, Jesus speaks the very words of creation itself. Even in paradise it was not good that man be alone without a helper. As Eve was created so every man in marriage and by faith must declare, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” A wife comes by way of a gift to men, a delightful wonder from God himself, for Adam was sleeping when God formed Eve. Unbeknownst to him a wife was formed from his very body, to be a love and help to him, a joyful companion in the garden. Furthermore, Adam did not choose her but she was graciously brought to him. Likewise, in the ceremony of the church, a wife is brought through the chancel of the church by a father or a family member dear to her. Through the greater corporate life of the church all blessings are announced and brought – not taken.


It is considered that sex is for those who reach a certain "mature" age, to be enjoyed by those who are "responsible," "consenting," and "ready." Yet, sex apart from the marriage bed is only an abortive act, an alien act. It is never responsible or safe apart from a holy union. It is a defilement to the body and spiritually corrosive and degrading. In the abortive act, a baptized and consecrated body is carelessly manipulated apart from the performative statement of God himself that two shall become one and never be cut asunder. Pre-marital sex is adulterous in that one's future spouse is slavishly exploited by another. In the blindness of sin, the human creature rationalizes such activities by an active sort of theological Gnosticism which separates the action of the body from the existence of the soul, as if what is done with the body is inconsequential in matters of the spirit. Living amongst a philosophical culture of neo-Platonism likewise supports such thinking. Yet, Christians do not only look forward to redemption of the soul but also of the body (Rom. 8:23).


There has never been a more confusing time for young people to deal with sex, life issues - birth and death, and marriage. Baby boomer parents and 'generation x' have missed the mark when it comes to defining and articulating a 'theology of the body' - how one ought to regard one's body. For the same generation to legalize abortion en mass has likewise ripped sex out of the marriage bed and placed it as a spectacle in the public sphere - little else that pleasurable colisions of flesh. When the human body is defined as a lump of cells from the womb it would seem that what is done with those cells is essentially of no importance - with no physiological, pychic, or spiritual consequences.Because sex is considered a 'personal matter' few people have the courage to speak to one another honestly in a spirit of truth and love. Yet, marriage, family, sex, and its possible abuses are not at all 'private,' but in a true way 'public' - and corporately directed. The ecclesia witnesses the acts of the congregation. Sex, as a matter of course traditionally has brought forth life when two are brought together. There are visible signs of sex - physical and natural expressions of it. Love and children are heavenly gifts that proceed from that which takes place in marriage. The unmarried sexual encounter is abortive in promise and sacramentum, abortive of family and children, abortive of one's very body. It aborts the traditional order and responsibility to one another. It is not an inconsequential matter that sex and marriage were provided historically prior to the fall into sin. Therefore sex is a loveliest expression of that which is joined together in marriage, in which God himself made all provisions - joining, creating, and sustaining Adam and Eve. Marriage, sex, and family are God's concrete creational acts. They are not self-willed anthropocentric acts. They are God-breathed gifts, not given as thorns and thistles, but life multiplying blessings.Sex, as an abortive, non-married act is not only defiling to those involved but provides a confession which rips God's creation wide. Sex is robbed of its sanctity and divorced from God's creation life-giving order. Gift is torn away from God's creational arrangement and made into a burden and cause of sorrow, heartache, disease. The pre-marital sexual encounter is held to be a mark of self expression and freedom, though it often causes immense suffering and depersonalization. It is commonly understood among most religions and cultures that some intertwining of divinity is involved in the act of sex. Experientially one senses that ‘something greater’ is going on even when the gift of sex is exploited outside of the marital bond. Whether or not one intends it, something is being given, and something received. It is not a mere collision of flesh with bodily pleasure. One is dabbling in the elementary God breathed work of a union of flesh and blood – the work of being fruitful and multiplying” (Gen. 1:28). It is John Kleinig’s pastoral observation that here is a frighteningly close link between personal unbelief and sexual guilt:


“…problems of intellectual doubt and personal unbelief God are often closely linked with sexual guilt. The advocates of sexual liberation bear out the truths of this in their own way. They make it quite clear that they don’t just aim to break from bondage to the ‘Jewish-Christian God.’ God is their real enemy. Sexual liberation is thus liberation from the Triune God and guilty conscience before God. Belief in God is for them the main cause of our sexual misery…they are at least aware the God is somehow tied up with their sexuality. They know that such a God does not exist. But such a God does exist.”[7]


It is man’s sinful appetite that always seeks to take God’s good and holy gift and divorce it from His Word and intent – and claim it as his own – that he may name, define it and defile it. The prayerful life of chastity proceeds by faith in the resurrection of the body. Kleinig looks toward this event, “Our bodies will then no longer mask our true selves, as they have since the fall of our parents, for we will have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from disclosing ourselves. We shall be fully at home in our bodies. They will be utterly translucent and able to show us fully as we are. Then at last we shall be truly chaste. We shall be as totally and radiantly chaste before God as Christ would have us be and as he promises to make us. Our Lord will present us to his Father holy and splendid, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”[8]



Marriage therefore is an arena of cross bearing, where God’s creative work of mutual love, children, teaching and faith are brought forth. That marriage as a one flesh union is a ‘station of the cross’ implies that besides the activity of mutual love is also mutual suffering. Man cleaves to his wife as God cleaves to his church on the cross. As man is bound to take care of his own flesh so he must love and honor a wife as he honors his own body. He does so joyfully because creation was not made to operate autonomously but rather dependently upon a greater economy of grace. As a wife is brought to man to become one flesh so a Christian is brought to Christ’s altar to join him. God’s word should guide the Christian ethic of marriage and its implications in matters of sexuality. Paul writes to the Ephesians:Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord that church” (Eph. 5:25-29).That a husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves his church is a mystery without parallel. Culture has us believe that “spouses” are to be chosen – selected for various attributes that we might reap maximum pleasure, minimum pain, for smooth ride into the setting sun with our loved one. Yet God’s holy gift of marriage is wrought with defection because we do not love indiscriminately and selflessly. Sin makes us think of a relationship as 50/50, an equal system of rewards, punishments, with a litany of grievances, and rectifications. Husbands however, are not called into a relationship to calculate that which they might reap but rather give. As Christ came not to be served so does a husband come to serve. And he serves not 50%, expecting a like-return but pours out all, emptying all. Luther writes, “But over and above all these is married love, that is, a bride’s love, which glows like a fire and desires nothing but the husband. She says, ‘It is you I want, not what is yours. I want neither your silver nor your gold; I want neither. I want only you. I want you in your entirety, or not at all.’ All other kinds of love seek something other than the loved one: this kind wants only to have the beloved’s own self completely. If Adam had not fallen, the love of bride and groom would have been the loveliest thing.”[9]



The fall of course has disrupted the marital bond and sin lives on within this estate. Besides the more virtuous elements of marriage such as faithfulness, love, and self-giving there also exists selfishness, self-witholding, and lust, “Behold, I was brought forth in inquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ps. 51:5). Luther in his genesis lectures defines marriage as “the divine and lawful union of male and female in the hope of children, or at least to avoid the cause of fornication and sin, to God’s glory. Its ultimate end is to obey God; to remedy sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children to God’s glory; to live with one’s spouse in the fear of the Lord; and to bear the cross”[10] Therefore, God uses this bond to curb human sinfulness and to include man and woman in his life giving work of procreation.



Husbands provide safety, security, comfort, and love without end – as does our Lord. In times of great trouble and distress husbands and fathers ought know that Christ went to a cross, to death for his bride. Likewise, the faithful husband finds that he also at times is stripped, sore-vexed, and twisted about in his own calling. More than once he will be tempted to doubt and despair, feeling himself forsaken. And in this careless flight he will be enticed to cast off his cross and the holy suffering in which God has so graciously wrapped him. The faithful husband nurtured in the true faith finds in his wife a temple in which to bring his sacrifices of toil and thanksgiving. He sees a place of worship in which faith finds its expression and a certain home until the final resting place in Christ. Sexuality is given and expressed in marriage as a good gift to be enjoyed within the sphere of the one flesh union. The great trouble with an articulation of a sexual ethic in our times is that it has been uprooted and snatched from the sacraments in which God creates and gives marriage. God gave himself sacramentally with Adam and Eve through pleasing food, the tree of life, and living waters from the very beginning. Today, God daily and richly provides married Christians through his holy sacraments – that of baptism, the pleasing food of his eternal supper, and the Words in which he speaks. To define and explain marriage apart from whence it finds its very life is an impossible task. Though God intended marriage from the beginning we ought not assign to it the status of sacrament, based upon the Roman misinterpretation of Ephesians 5:32. God has desired and willed marriage from the beginning but does not make it into a means of grace – that one may find redemption in and through it by means of clerical oversight or ecclesiastical courts.



The mysterious center of the married life is that it revolves around an unceasing font of forgiveness and is truly a holy order. Married couples encounter one another in such a way that exposes secrets, sins, personal failures, and all the missed marks that are more easily concealed from the rest of the world. In the blessed union of marriage God puts himself into the one flesh of man and wife seeking that each ask “dearest love do you forgive me.” The answer is always the same and each never tires of hearing it and receiving it. Forgiveness is freely given and usually wholly undeserved. A Christian ethic of marriage which seeks to be “practical,” seeks to set forth a philosophy on marriage which breaks it down into an economically compromising, graceless, give and take sort of movement in the union. In light of what Christ reveals about marriage in both a pre-sin and post-sin world, it is made clear that there is little about the union that can be interpreted with mere human or practical wisdom – for it is a mysterious gift. The church can be the only interpretive mechanism in which to deal with marriage – for it is birthed, consecrated, sustained, and prayed for in the church. That men and women are naturally attracted to one another and wish to serve each other is itself a testament to God’s creation and unceasing love. In marriage, there is a wealth of treasure regarding God’s word which provides an inexhaustible study and meditation which reveals much about God’s economy of grace and Christ’s work.


(Painting at top by Lucas Cranach the elder, "The Paradise" 1530.
[1] Banner, Michael C. Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 270.
[2] This was the experience of this writer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
[3] LW 45, 18.
[4] Pless, John T. A Small Catechism on Human Life. St. Louis, Mo: LCMS Life Ministries, 2006, 24.
[5] Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008, 142-143.
[6] Oswald Bayer, lecture given at Humboldt-University, Berlin on 29 November, 2000 during the ninth Werner-Reihlen-Lecture, “Die biologische Machbarkeit des Menschen” (The Biological ‘Makeability’ of Human Being). The main text of this essay was translated in English by Martin Abraham and Tim Beech, and the notes by Jeff Cayzer.
[7] Pless, John T. A Reader in Pastoral Theology: Articles from LOGIA a Journal of Lutheran Theology. Fort Wayne, Ind: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2002, p. 139.
[8] Ibid., 140.
[9] LC part I, paragraph 207, p. 414.
[10] Peters, 257.

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