A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (26) Marriage and submission

This9781783595914 is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN:  I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good.  The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in.  I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness.

In other words Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21.  Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6.  Would you agree?  Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?

PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.

So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.

The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives.

That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated.

Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting.

 

Wives, submit to your husbands (2)

A couple of posts back there was a promise to come back to Ephesians 5:21-33 and look at it from a different interpretative angle – that of Cynthia Long Westfall.

I invite you to read this and compare to the earlier post on John Stott’s interpretation. Which do you find most convincing and why?

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Her book has been out a couple of years. You can listen to an interview with her here at the excellent OnScript website – a sort of biblical research podcast treasure trove.

Her big argument is that Paul is subverting male privilege in home and church. The focus of the text is clearly on husbands. Paul is teaching them what life within God’s economy looks like within a Greco-Roman culture of male patronage, power and superiority.

In the context of Paul’s day, the basic patronage relationship was reflected within the marital relationship. The husband is superior in power, status, honour and value. The wife receives the benefits of his standing and in return offers him respect, chastity, obedience and loyalty.

It is this patronage relationship that is being reimagined (subverted) by Paul in light of Christ. A radically new way of relating between husbands and wives is in view. It, of course, still operates within the given culture of his recipients – Paul famously does not directly confront slavery, nor does he advocate social revolution in terms of marriage.

Interpretations that focus on wives’ submission and the analogy of the husband to Christ (verse 23) without proper regard to the grammar and syntax of Paul’s thought act to distort his message and propagate a false view of (male) authority. (p. 93).

To summarise from various places that Westfall discusses the Ephesians text:

  • The passage as a whole is an example of what it is to be filled with the Spirit (v.18 -23 is one long sentence in Greek). [I would argue that the even bigger context is to ‘walk in love’ (5:2) that frames much of Ephesians as a whole].
  • This is the way of life for all Christians – male or female. Jew or Gentile.
  • ALL believers are to be in mutual submission v. 21
  • This is then applied to the Household Codes and husbands / wives, parents / children and masters / slaves. The radical implication is that in Christ there are new relationships now formed, cutting across existing authority and power structures. Each ‘weaker’ group are now, together with the powerful group, ‘all members of one body’ – the body of Christ (v. 30).
  • Each weaker group are addressed personally, recognising their agency. Normally they would not be addressed at all. Their obligation is primarily to the Lord in how they relate to those in power over them.
  • Paul places particular obligations and restrictions on the groups in power.
  • With husbands, Christ’s treatment of his bride, the Church, informs the husband’s function as head of his wife (p. 93)
  • The remarkable ‘twist’ is how the husband takes the role of Christ’s bride and ‘is therefore charged with treating his wife as he has been treated by his own head.’ (p. 93).
  • As Christ is saviour (23) who gave himself up for her (25, the church), so the husband is instructed to lay down his life for his wife. And love her as Christ loved the church (25)
  • Christ’s love is illustrated by his sanctification of the church (5:26-27)

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

  • These are images of domestic chores performed by women:
    • giving a bath
    • providing clothing
    • doing laundry
  • So the husband is being told to do women’s work in how he cares for his wife. The point is fully with the teaching of Paul elsewhere and, more importantly, of Jesus himself. Those in power are to become humble servants of others

He promotes a model of servanthood and low status, consistent with the humility of Christ’s incarnation, precisely for men, who have power and position in the Greco-Roman social system. (p. 23).

  • There is little new being said to wives – they are to submit as expected within the culture. But this submission is drastically relativised by mutual submission of verse 21. It consists of honouring and respecting her husband.
  • But her identity and status is transformed by the commands given to husbands. Those commands are the core of the text and they are anything but what was expected within the culture – they are revolutionary (p. 102)
  • So Paul is placing new and challenging obligations on those who have power (husbands), NOT to defend their own status and authority, but to give up privilege and status and serve the other in love.

[My comment – This is where interpretations that end up defending male ‘headship = leadership’ and insisting on female submission to that ‘authority’ tragically actually reverse the thrust of Paul’s upside-down kingdom ethic].

  • The wonderful irony of this passage is how men are being told to act like women – in terms of ‘low status’ service of the weaker other.
  • This is a profoundly ‘Christian’ calling.
  • She is now honoured just as if she were his body – he is to treat her exactly as if she were a man (his body) – in terms of honouring her, loving her and serving her.

So what of ‘headship’?  Does the Genesis account that Paul references, somehow root female submission in a creation ordinance (as John Stott says and complementarians in general claim)?

  • Genesis 2:18-22 is the basis for the instructions to wives – the woman is created from the man. She receives life from him
  • The instructions to men are based on Genesis 2:23-25 – where the husband and wife are declared to be ‘one flesh’
  • Both ‘head’ and ‘body’ are metaphors [to press ‘head’ to mean ‘leadership’ is unwarranted and distorts Paul’s argument]
  • ‘Head’ – the wife receives life from her head. The metaphor works perfectly. The woman in Ephesians draws her life from man, and the Church draws its life from Christ. This is not an image of authority but of life.  ‘She reciprocates in gratitude and honour expressed in submission.’ (p. 102)

The primary focus in the Ephesian household code is on the husband’s role. The language both reflects the model of Jesus’s servanthood and exploits the metaphor of ‘head’ to create a similar effect as in the episode where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. (p. 165)

And this to finish.

In effect, Paul flips the patron metaphor of being the wife’s head (protector and source of life) … He has given an explicit application of Jesus’s summary of the law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12 NRSV). Paul applies Jesus’s teaching literally to the men: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28 NRSV). Paul’s caveat is that she is his body. The intertextuality between Ephesians 5:28 and the Jesus tradition is transparent. (p. 166).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Wives, submit to your husbands (1)

A couple of rules of engagement with views different to yours are:

  1. Be fair. Represent the other accurately
  2. Engage with the best example of the other point of view, not a caricature or extremist position
  3. Look under the surface to their motive – what is their concern underlying their position? Assume the best of the other as much as you can.

It is easier to write this than to do of course. Don’t know about you but I fail regularly. But, the world, and the church, would be a much more civil place if we did.

This is a continuation of posts on Ephesians 5, this time specifically on wives and husbands and verse 23 in particular.

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

9780851109633_1Over the last few weeks I’ve read a wide range of interpretations of this verse and wider passage (21-33). Probably one of the best articulations of a ‘traditional’ view of male ‘headship = leadership’ and female submission in marriage is John Stott in The Message of Ephesians which was originally written in 1977 as God’s New Society. So it dates back a long way. There have been forests of books since on this topic, but Stott is such a good writer and exegete that it remains, I think, hard to beat.

Like many others I grew up as a Christian reading Stott. He is a huge influence and I’ve nothing but admiration for him. He is one of the great figures of the 20th century church.

In this post, I’ll try simply to summarise his interpretation of the text and then add some questions and comments. And then in the next post I’ll put it in dialogue with a recent and widely praised book articulating a very different interpretation of the text – that of Cynthia Long Westfall (2016) Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.9780801097942

If you have read this far, you may be groaning, ‘texts like these have been gone over 100s of times!’

True, but I suspect that for many, on whatever side of the debates, practice is largely inherited and assumed. The issues need aired for each generation. And it is an interesting angle on biblical interpretation to compare and contrast two views separated by about 40 years and a lot of published words.

A bullet point summary of Stott:

  • Paul is exhorting wives to submit to authority (and children and slaves to obey) within the familiar structure of the Household Codes of the ancient world.
  • Christians ought to acknowledge how the church has often upheld a status quo of injustice rather than liberation from all forms of exploitation or oppression.
  • We cannot interpret Paul here as advocating some form of authoritative relationships that either go against what he teaches in the rest of Ephesians and his letters, or that goes against the teaching and example of Jesus.
  • Dignity and equality of all before God is a beginning point. Submission does not equal inferiority.
  • Husbands have a certain God-given role, wives another, within God’s ordering of society.
  • Authority is God-given. Since husbands have delegated authority, wives are to submit to it. Such submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society.
  • Much care is needed not to overstate this teaching on authority. It is not unlimited, it does not mean unconditional obedience, submission to God comes first, it must never be used selfishly. Not once does Paul use the normal word for authority (exousia): “When Paul is describing the duties of husbands, parents and masters, in no case is it authority he tells them to exercise.” 219.  (PM: this is somewhat confusing – in the next sentence Stott affirms authority is in view, namely improper authority that should not be used)
  • The husband is to use his role for the good of his wife – to love and care for her.
  • Those with authority are responsible to God and to those under their care.
  • The husband being ‘head’ of the wife – his ‘headship’ – is defined in regard to 1 Cor 11:3-12 and 1 Tim. 2:11-13.
  • There, the refs to Genesis 2 and ‘headship’ is based on “his emphasis is on the order, mode and purpose of the creation of Eve”. Thus ‘headship’ is not culturally contextual, but based in creation. p. 221.
  • The sexes are distinct and complement one another: man has ‘a certain headship’ [PM: what does this mean?] and wives in ‘voluntary and joyful submission.’ p.222.
  • Stott roots this in psychology and physiology [a lot of the psychology sounds dated now]
  • The word ‘submission’ is loaded and needs to be ‘disinfected’ from associations of subjugation and subordination and subjection. How it is used in Eph 5 is how it should be understood
  • The characteristic of male headship is Christ’s example – defined as saviour. ‘the characteristic of this headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.’ p. 225.
  • Just as the church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband’s care. This will enrich her womanhood. p. 226.
  • The husband’s primary responsibility is to love his wife. Two analogies are given.
    • ‘As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. As Jesus perfects his bride, the church, so the husband ‘will give himself for her, in order that she may develop her full potential under God’. p.229
    • ‘Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies’. Stott sees an anti-climax from the heights of love just described, as a more ‘mundane’ command. Linked to the ‘golden rule’ of treating others like we would like to be treated.
  • ‘one flesh’ is an image of union. All believers are members of his body (v.30). ‘Thus he sees the marriage relationship as a beautiful model of the church’s union in and with Christ.’ p.231.
  • So the husband leads and loves, she submits and respects in ‘response to his love and her desire that he too will become what God intends him to be in his “leadership”.’ [PM note how leadership is in quote marks] p. 231.

Stott then applies this passage with 5 reasons for wives to understand the nature of biblical submission. He confesses that

‘it surprises me how unpopular this passage is among many women.’ p. 232.

The five reasons are:

  1. Submission is for all. Verse 21 makes clear that if it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband, ‘it is also the husband’s duty, as a member of God’s new society, to submit to his wife.’ ‘Submissiveness is to be mutual.’ p. 233
  2. The wife’s submission is to be given to a lover, not an ogre. Her submission functions in the context of his self-giving love.
  3. The husband is to love like Christ.
  4. A husband’s love, like Christ, sacrifices in order to serve.
  5. The wife’s submission is but another aspect of love.

On the last point, Stott comments that when you try to define ‘submission’ and ‘love’ you end up finding it very difficult to distinguish them. To submit is to give yourself up to someone. To love is to give yourself up for someone.

‘Thus “submission” and “love” are two aspects of the very same thing, namely that selfless self-giving which is the foundation of an enduring and growing marriage.’ p. 235

Comments

This remains one of the best examples of a traditional male ‘headship – leader’ interpretation because Stott is too good an exegete not to give a full-orbed analysis of the text.

Looking under the surface, his motive is to be obedient to what the Bible teaches. He goes to great lengths to clarify and modify any potential abuse of this text to control women.

But in doing so, and particularly in his five reasons to women to submit, some problems become apparent:

The notion of husband as leader is read into the text rather than out of it. Stott several times writes ‘leader’ and talks about ‘a certain headship’ indicating his awareness of how this is, at best, an implication which depends on a particular interpretation. A huge amount is built on an argument from silence – that the reference to the creation account somehow implies that Adam being created first leads to ‘headship’.

However irenic and well-articulated the final five reasons for wives to submit to husbands are, it is ironic that Stott’s main application is aimed at women.

The whole tenor of the passage is addressed to husbands – to help them reimagine what it is to be a Christian husband in a Greco-Roman world. Wives are pretty well assumed to do what wives do in that culture – if radically modified by the fact of mutual submission in verse 21. Yet so much interpretation of this text ends up being about wifely submission and defending the husband’s ‘authority’. There is something very askew in this ordering of application.

What actually in practice is being argued for? Where Stott has integrity is how he recognises that the text itself drastically qualifies normal notions of ‘leader’ and ‘authority’. As he says, submission and love become synonymous. Husband and wife submit to each other [this is strongly resisted by some later harder-line complementarians]. If this is the case, the whole idea of ‘leader’ and ‘headship’ becomes virtually meaningless in practice. It seems to me that this is why modern complementarian practice is reduced to arcane theoretical discussions of ‘who makes the final decision’ when husband and wife disagree. Really – is that what Paul has in mind?

Rather, might this not all point to the problem being one of insisting on a faulty notion of ‘headship’ that is just not there in the text? Despite Stott’s assertion (and it is an assertion) that ‘headship’ is rooted in creation and therefore transcends all cultures, it remains a conceptual leap that is highly debatable. Great caution should be exercised in building edifices on shaky foundations, especially when those edifices (in my humble opinion) have tended to disempower women.

The irony is that the thrust of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is going a different direction.

 

Putting the Golden Rule into Practice: Musings on Luke 6 and Queer Theology

Ok this post may stray into warmish waters but it is a sincere attempt to get at the cutting edge of what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. If there isn’t an edge to application from that radical Sermon then we’ve quite simply missed its core.

These are questions coming out of two areas of reading and teaching I am doing at the moment

  1. Love in Luke 6
  2. Queer Theology

This post has three parts.

  1. What is the core principle within the Golden Rule?
  2. What or who is a contemporary example of the ‘Other’?
  3. What does it mean to apply the Golden Rule in regard to Queer Theology?
  1. What is the Core Principle within the Golden Rule?

Luke 6 contains what has become known as the ‘Golden Rule’ –

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

In the verses that follow, Jesus repeats the phrase ‘what credit is that to you?’ three times. His point in each case revolves around the identity of those ‘Others’. The whole point is that ‘they’ are NOT like ‘us’.

There is no ‘credit’ in safe and easy love of those ‘like us’ – the people we feel comfortable around and like to hang out with.  You know, people who share our values, faith, sense of humour, probably of similar socio-economic background, education, likely skin colour, maybe age – and mostly likely heterosexuality.

Such ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ love costs us little. ‘Love for those that love us’ is just typical human behaviour; it is fairly unremarkable. This is Jesus’ point about ‘even sinners do that’. In other words, those outside the kingdom of God love like this, so there is nothing particularly credit worthy and exceptional if disciples love each other in this way. It is to be expected.

However, there is, it is implied, ‘credit’ in loving people NOT like us. That is distinctive and rare because it does not make ‘natural’ sense. This sort of love is not to be expected.

Given the context of the sermon, the ‘Other’ is not just different to ‘us’, but is opposed to us in some way (enemy love begins and closes the main part of the Sermon vv 27-36)

That opposition is not necessarily personal, but holds opposing beliefs and values that perhaps stand in sharp conflict with some of our own deepest commitments.

So – who is NOT like you? And is opposed to you in some way?

  1. Queer Theology as a contemporary example of the ‘Other’

The opposing ‘Other’ could take many forms. Bitter divisions of course exist around areas of political, racial and religious commitments and identities. But the area I’m focusing on in this post is sexual identity.

What does it mean to ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ where the ‘Other’ is articulating a theology of sex and identity that is deeply at odds with orthodox Christian teaching?

To be more specific – what does it mean for evangelical Christians (since this is the community to which I belong) to love the ‘Other’ where the ‘Other’ is committed to Queer Theology?  (I am deliberately focusing on a theology rather than a person. These are musings on general principles on how Jesus’ teaching applies in a contemporary situation. I don’t want to make it personal).

So a definition is needed at this point. What is Queer Theology?

Cheng Radical LoveAn entry route is Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: an introduction to Queer Theology. In it Cheng claims that

“Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it . . . challenges and deconstructs—through radical love—all kinds of binary categories that on the surface seem fixed and unchangeable . . . but that ultimately are fluid and malleable.” (10)

This quote captures the essence of Queer Theology’s agenda. It is to shake up or ‘queer’ accepted ‘norms’, particularly around gender and sexuality. All sexual identities are constructed, nothing is fixed or ‘normal’. Whatever sexual identity someone has (and it can be fluid and changing) it is a ‘gift’ – to be welcomed, expressed and affirmed. ‘Radical Love’ is to accept this dissolving of boundaries.

Traditional religion, with its commitment to the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality is exclusionary and coercive and oppressive. Queer Theology is therefore a type of liberation theology, ‘on the side’ of the marginalised LGBT+ communities.

In his book, Cheng proposes a Queer Theology around systematic categories of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also talks of a queer reading of Scripture.

The results are very radical indeed:

  • The Bible is reinterpreted. For example, sin in Sodom and Gomorrah is ultimately about inhospitality to strangers
  • God the Father is understood as “coming out” in radical love that dissolves boundaries. Boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relationships; between marriage and queer sex.
  • Jesus is the ‘boundary-crosser extraordinaire’. Cheng even sees Jesus as physically male and genetically female as a result of the virgin birth.
  • The Spirit is the work of God in breaking down boundaries and effecting radical love. All sexual, erotic, and other boundaries that separate are overcome by his ministry of radical love.
  • Sin is redefined as human rejection of God’s radical love; of human rejection of God dissolving boundaries and divisions. Sin is holding on to divisive and judgemental ideas around heteronormativity.
  • The sacraments are reinterpreted as ‘coming out’ for LGBT people. This is expressed in baptism which signals a leaving behind of the old life in the closet and embracing a new life out in the open.

There is much more but this gives a flavour. For most Christians, Queer Theology’s novel and radical nature makes it an example of the ‘Other’. This is a theology that is ‘not like us’ and the people espousing it are most definitely opposed to traditional orthodox Christian teaching on sex and holiness (Obviously this is a broad statement, but there is a clear identifiable core agreed body of Christian teaching on sex, singleness and marriage).

So, in terms of theological response, here is an initial assessment of Queer Theology claims.

I’d argue that this sort of theology is not recognizably Christian in any meaningful sense. It is not even clear to me why Cheng and other Queer Theologians focus on the Bible and Christian faith at all. If there are no boundaries, why tie things to systematic Christian theological categories? Why not ‘queer’ things even more consistently and take any source you like? Why not just use the vast array of LGBT+ stories, poems and art as the source to support the boundary breaking vision of ‘radical love’?

It is also pretty clear to me that Queer Theology is profoundly unorthodox. It lies outside any recognisable Christian tradition. Indeed, it is effectively heretical in its doctrine of God, sin and salvation. It radically relativises the Bible and interprets it through the lens of sexual identity politics.

So that is a very negative response. Some might say such a reaction is judgemental and unloving. I’d say not necessarily. It is an assessment of specific theological ideas. Disagreeing in itself is not unloving. Whether it becomes unloving or not depends on how the next question is answered.

  1. What does it mean to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ in regard to Queer Theology?

Going by the Golden Rule, the question to ask next (and often isn’t) is How would I like to be treated by people who disagree profoundly with what I believe?’ ‘How, therefore, should I act toward those espousing Queer Theology?

Here are seven thoughts in response:

1. I would not want people to dismiss what I believe out of hand as so obviously wrong that it is not worth taking seriously. So I should not do the same to Queer Theologians.

2. I would not want people to misrepresent or caricature what I write or say in order to win an argument. So I should take time to understand and fairly state what Queer Theology is.

3. I would not want people to attack my character for daring to be different from them. So I should not do the same to people self-identifying as Queer.

4. I would not want people to assume that because I disagree with Queer Theology, that I am a homophobic bigot. I should therefore not assume that others’ motives are malign.

5. I would not want people to not bother to try to understand why I believe what I believe because they disagree with me – and see me as a sinner. So I should seek to understand and listen to why people hold to Queer Theology.

6. I would not want people to try to silence me by threats or coercion of any kind. Or refuse to talk to me because I am morally obnoxious in their eyes. So I should not do likewise.

7. I would not want people to pretend to be who they are not, or to ‘spin’ their real beliefs, in order to try to build an unreal sense of unity. So I should speak honestly about what I believe, but with grace and respect.

Comments, as ever, welcome (I think).

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (3): celibacy better than sex?

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !

The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).