Today, I begin a series of posts on developing a consistent sexual ethic. Though today this post is appearing on a Sunday, expect these posts to usually run on Mondays. It is my belief that the problem with the way we discuss purity and the reason to wait for marriage is that we take verses that mention sex and then proof-text them to fit our argument.
Here, I attempt to articulate my position and my understanding of sexual ethics.
I do not present this with authority or with presumption, but as explanation of my reasoning concerning sexual ethics.
It is important to note, too that as long as this post is, it does not address everything and subsequent posts will likely not be as adequate in that regard either. The hope is to have a good conversation about these things and to start those conversations well.
The key passages that undergird my understanding of sexual ethics are the two shall become one passages.
The phrasing occurs three times in the Scripture.
First, in Genesis: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Then, in the Gospel of St. Mark, spoken by Jesus: '... and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.
And, finally, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, written by St. Paul: Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”
If we agree that these uses have contexts that are important, but that there are still generalised principles we can gather from them based on their position within the whole of Scripture, I think we can arrive at some significant conclusions about the way God views sex and its relation to marriage.
Consensual sex, the uniting of male and female, is itself the act of marriage.*
Historically, marriage as we encounter it early in the Scripture presents us with problems if we are trying to use our current understanding of the act as our guide.
Consider Genesis 24, in which the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is consistent with the customs of the time: Rebekah is sent for, accepts the proposal, and is brought to Isaac, then she took her veil and covered herself. ... Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. (v. 65, 67 NRSV)
The ceremonial action, the covering of Rebekah with her veil, signifies her physical virginity. But notice that the narrative leaves out any clues as to more elaborate rituals of uniting. Rather, the narrative briskly brings together Isaac taking Rebekah into the tent---which has a sexual implication---with making Rebekah his wife.
There is nothing illicit or immoral in this, but I want to stress that what has happened, in the most reductive sense, is that the marriage was made known in the action of consensual sexual uniting.
What does Jesus say?
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus quotes the passage of two becoming one as a rebuke to the Pharisees who try to trap Him in an argument about divorce. They note that Moses allowed for divorce, couching it in specifically patriarchal terms, stating that a man could choose to send his wife away.
Jesus overturns the argument, however, by rejecting it outright, stating that this part of the Law of Moses was given because of the hardness of the people's hearts, that rather God has brought two to become one and that this is the fundamental law that was intended from the beginning.
What I glean from this is twofold: one, that Jesus takes seriously the precedent of marriage described in Genesis and, two, that this seriousness helps us contend with some of the more difficult concepts in the Old Testament.
Jesus here is arguing against a practice by which a man could send his wife away and cause her to be financially destitute and the options for a divorced woman were severely limited, prostitution a likely outcome of being without financial support.
Jesus thereby gives a narrative key by which to understand upsetting claims in the Old Testament, like Deuteronomy 22, which says in some cases a man who has raped a virgin shall marry her and is never allowed to divorce her. (More on this next Monday.)
While I do not wish to dismiss the problems that this passage creates, I point out it is consistent with a concept of marriage that is rooted in sexual act, joining, and marriage as responsibility to the other.
A woman who was raped in Israel, her physical virginity stolen, would not likely wed and therefore would not be able to be financially cared for. (c.f. Amnon and Tamar.)
Though it is horrific that she would be wed to her rapist, it holds consistent with the responsibility he now has to financially provide for her and ensure she does not fall into further disgrace. (It's worth noting, too, that in the community life of Israel, knowledge that a man took a woman by force was not treated lightly. It would change the way he was perceived and respected permanently.)
So marriage is not just sex, but marriage is pronounced in sexual uniting.
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul analyses sexual immorality through the lens of our bodies being the dwelling places of the Holy Ghost. His exclamation that to unite the body we have to the body of a prostitute is to defile ourselves by joining Christ to the same.
Paul is reiterating here the thematic arc that Genesis first introduces and Jesus confirms, that the act of consensual sexual uniting has a dramatic impact.
There is a mystical power in it: we have become the dwelling place of God, if we unite that temple to a foreign body and become one with the foreign body, we defile that temple.
In a legal sense, you have not become married to the prostitute, but in the sacramental sense, you have.
And the problem of prostitution, the problem of illicit sex in general, is that it consummates by way of the marriage act but does not carry with it marriage responsibility.
A mutual exchange of pleasure or an exchange of goods or monies for sex does not carry with it the ultimate responsibility that the Scripture seems to say sexual exchange requires: the two being responsible exclusively to each other, even when the other is sinful. That is financially, emotionally, physically, completely.
And the Scripture attest to sexual uniting requiring consistent responsibility: Judah and Tamar.David and Bathsheba. (Though I note this as an instance of power rape, to be discussed next Monday.) Amnon and Tamar. (Again, rape, but the gravity of the sin is furthered by Amnon's refusal to make restitution to Tamar.) Hosea and Gomer. And many others.
Perhaps, then, the argument for why we should "save ourselves for marriage" is because the very sexual act should be reserved for the pronouncement of marriage.
Not because God will love us less.
Not because it makes us damaged goods.
Not because we're going to have horrible sex the rest of our lives.
But because sex itself is a marriage act, is an action that unites two into one and thereby pronounces them wed.
And this understanding of uniting, of sex being true consummation of marriage, was the historic understanding of the Church up until modern times, and remains so in some denominations.
However, we must also take care in what these passages do not address and do not condone. The passages are inspired, but they also are responding to a historical culture.
Since we now live in a world where a woman is not dependent on a man for income, maintaing an argument that she should stay wed to a man who is abusive is ridiculous.
Since we live in a world where the Church has been charged to care for the oppressed, if a woman needs to flee an abusive marriage, the Church has a responsibility to care for her financially until she is able to make an income of her own.
Since we live in a world where spouses may be unrepentant, may choose to perpetuate a life of adultery, a spouse has every right to a divorce, for one of them has defiled the marriage bed and therefore defiled the unique conjoining of the two to one.
These examples are the natural questions that come from a working sexual ethic. By considering the whole of the Scripture in our conversation about sex, we have a better sense of our reasoning and how we arrive at our conclusions.
Why do we wait?
We wait because God takes sex seriously and God views sex as the sacramental uniting of two to one, bringing with it a singular consequence: the complete giving of oneself to another, permanently, completely.
What about you? What passages of Scripture have shaped your basic sexual ethics?
I want to add a clarification, too, that this is a post in a series of posts. I'm not trying to make everyone's story "fit" perfectly or to provide a tidy response. I am trying to get us to think Christianly and to think in a framework by which we can then answer questions well. This is not the final word, this is not the tidy model, but a paradigm by which we can openly engage and dialogue.
*I have not hidden in the past that I am very conservative on certain issues, among them homosexuality, but I am also very liberal in my politics. I believe that the term marriage is the property of the Church and that gay marriage is sinful. But, I too believe firmly in the equality of all persons within a State and support without reservation the right for same-sex unions, with full spousal benefits and the recognition that any other heterosexual couple has in the eyes of the State.
(Image source: Pinterest.)