Thinking faithfully about marriage, sex, singleness, and Christian discipleship
By Jeffrey A Schooley
As I begin a new series of columns dedicated to Christian sex ethics, I am faced with what to call it. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the column name game is strong on this One Church, Many Voices blog. Recovering Reverend is a wonderful double entendre. So is Not Quite Right.
I considered “The 800-pound Gorilla” because the topic of right and faithful sexual conduct has become an 800-pound Gorilla in the denomination. But then I realized that this phrase is meant to imply the large beast that no one is talking about. Let’s be honest, Christians can’t shut up about sex.
“Sex Character” had some appeal. In TV and movies, we find characters that basically exist for their sex appeal to such a degree that it would not be unlikely to find listings like “Sexy Guy #1” in the credits. It also worked as a double entendre because one of the goals of this column is to discuss sex ethics not in terms of rights, but in terms of responsibilities; not in terms of “Can I?,” but in terms of character.
Ultimately, though, I’ve settled on “I Do?” I like it because it acknowledges that much of the church’s conversations about sex are more questions than answers. It also keeps the conversation open to marrieds and singles, alike. Finally, I’m hoping it can make a cool hashtag: #IDo?
“I Do?” reminds us that – for all the time and energy we expend on conversations about sex and marriage in the denomination – marriage is neither mandatory nor eternal. And, indeed, of all the potential landmines that exist in these conversations, this ‘neither-mandatory-nor-eternal’ has proven to be one of the most explosive.
As a pastor, I have found that both conservatives and liberals get particularly angsty when I remind them that – in the New Testament – there is no command to be married and no reinforcement of the creational mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Conservatives fear that I’m devaluing marriage and therefore eroding the social fabric. Liberals suspect that I’m trying to downplay an important thing so as to make denying this thing to certain people more palatable. In both cases, I find myself assailed.
Yet the New Testament just does not care about marriage that much. Paul, in I Corinthians 6-7, makes it clear that marriage is for those who burn with lust to such a degree that to not channel their libido into a faithful marriage would risk their very salvation. By the way, you won’t find this truth in any marriage liturgy that I’ve yet found. “Do you [insert name] take [other name] to have and to hold, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer, because y’all just can’t keep in in your pants? If so, say ‘I do.’”
The question, then, is why? Why doesn’t Jesus or Paul or the rest of the New Testament reinforce that procreative mandate of Genesis 1-2? The simple answer is: Jesus.
The command to be fruitful and multiply is a result of God’s covenant with Abram to make him a great nation, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12). And the Good News is that this did, indeed, happen. However, it did not happen because of all the Jewish babies born to Abram and his descendants, but because of one baby born: Jesus of Nazareth. It is through Jesus that the covenant made in Genesis 12 is fulfilled. As such, the covenant – and the ethical requirements to procreate that undergird it – are also fulfilled. Simply put, procreation used to be the means of salvation; now the means are adoption through baptism.
This might also explain why the other landmine in this conversation exists: Marriage is not eternal. As Jesus makes clear in talking with the Sadducees in Luke 20, in heaven we are neither married nor given in marriage. This means that marriage is a temporary institution.
Let me tell you, nothing will cause the elder congregants in a church to reach for your throat quicker than reminding them that their 50-plus year marriage has an expiration date.
Of course, this shouldn’t be thrown around for the sake of harming others, but – rather – as good news to those who are single for whatever reason. It is a reminder that heaven doesn’t look like an idyllic suburban neighborhood. If it did, the church’s singles – especially those who are single by religious devotion and covenant – would be in pretty shoddy shape, forced to abide in some sad singles condos on the outskirts of the heavenly city.
I belabor this particular point because I’ve noticed in all of the church’s throwdowns and debates about sex and marriage, no one ever says, “You know we’re tearing the church apart for something that ends at death – and doesn’t even need to exist before then.”
More tragically still, the Church – as the Body of Christ – does exist eternally. So we have effectively dismembered something eternal for the sake of something temporal. The sinfulness of this is self-evident.
Sex and Christianity is the topic of my PhD dissertation (hey, if I’ve gotta write 300-pages on something, it might as well be a ‘sexy’ topic, amiright?). So I have prayed, thought deeply, and read Biblically and widely on the topic. I have A LOT of material and ideas that I hope to share here. However, I deeply desire to make this as interactive as possible. So send me your questions, your thoughts, your ideas. Let’s make this a place where truth and grace are sought because if we have any hope it is in the marriage of truth and grace.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD candidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.