A Few Thoughts about Jesus, Sexuality & Marriage

Let’s face it, Christians can be jerks.  But so can atheists, plumbers, loggers, gay men, straight women, seniors, tv hosts, and even obstacle race runners.  😉

But why can we play nicely with each other one day and then be jerks the next day?  Without going into an extended theological treatise (whew!), part of it is because we are not just physical creatures, we are emotional and spiritual as well.  And we are also diverse in all kinds of ways (have you noticed that?), including our sexuality.

Even though there seems to be a million (a billion?) tweets, podcasts, articles, postings, interviews, and opinions about gender, sex, and marriage, I thought it might be valuable to offer a few initial thoughts of my own.  Not because I think there are not excellent articles out there (there are), but because every context is different (including mine).  And of course, those of you who read regularly are well aware of both the power of the written word and the limitations of the written word.  Please keep the latter in mind as you read this!

Posture

When it comes to talking about question of spirituality, I have often recommended that we start by looking at our own posture or attitude (see Where do I begin?).  In essence, our attitudes often determine our outcomes.  Briefly, there are three postures:

  1. Attack –  When I attack, I want to immediately disprove (and often discredit) the other person.  I want to speak (sometime yell) rather than listen.  I want there to be a battle, and I want to win.  There is no conversation, there is only confrontation.
  2. Learning –  When I learn, I want to listen first and then engage in the conversation.  I want to make sure I understand (both myself and others), before I say too much.  I hold an opinion, but I do it with humility.
  3. Submission – When I submit, I transfer my beliefs to my actions.  I make a concerted effort to change my behaviour, even when it is difficult.

I’ve found this framework to be immensely helpful in a number of contexts, and I am sure it will be beneficial in this conversation as well.  So … if your posture is attack, um, well … you may as well stop reading.  If your posture is submission, that’s great but that is not really the point of this posting.  However, if your posture is mutual learning, then welcome here – I look forward to our conversation!

Assumptions

I think it would be good to list a few of the assumptions I am working with, since they form the platform that my four Observations are launched from.  You may or may not agree with my assumptions, but at least you’ll know what some of them are:

  1. God is real – I believe that there is a God and that he has been, and continues to be, involved in our lives.  This core belief is one of the foundations for much of what I believe.
  2. Each of us is broken –  You and I don’t have to live for very long until we realize (and experience) that life involves pain, brokenness, loneliness, fractured relationships, and more.  It is inescapable.  Our brokenness is physical, spiritual, and emotional, and it plays out in every area of our lives (which is why we desperately need a Saviour, but that is a topic for another conversation).  Let that sink in.  The world is not as it was designed to be.  You and I are broken and we cannot fix ourselves.  Everyone one of us needs redemption and restoration.
  3. The ancient scriptures contain truth – This could be a longer conversation as well, but for now, I’ll summarize by saying that I believe the Bible originated with God and represents his words, truths, and more (appropriately understood in light of the various contexts, of course).  In other words, the Christian scriptures speak authoritatively into the definitions, design, and desires of our lives.

Similar to my comments about Posture, the extent to which our foundational assumptions are in agreement is directly related to the depth of the conversation that we can have.  If our assumptions (aka worldviews) are significantly different, then the specific beliefs and behaviours that we talked about will most likely also be out of sync.  But … if we share some common assumptions, it is much easier to have a healthy conversation (whether we end up agreeing about beliefs and behaviours or not).

Observations

So far so good.  Here is where it gets interesting, and you’ll likely say one of three things:  “Mark, you’re an idiot”, “Nice try, Mark, but …”, or “Mark, that was awesome!”.  I vote for the last one.

  1. Marriage has a purpose.  My wife and I do pre-marriage counselling for young couples, and we often quickly sense how healthy an upcoming marriage will be, based on what each person thinks about the purpose of their marriage.  If one (or both) of them approaches marriage thinking that it will somehow validate or improve their relationship, they are walking into a world of hurt.  If a relationship is dysfunctional or inappropriate before marriage, it will still be dysfunctional or inappropriate after marriage (and perhaps even more so).  If marriage isn’t about validation or self-improvement, then what is it about?  Let me suggest three ideas.
    1. On a spiritual level, marriage is (ideally) an exemplar of the relationship between God and his people.  Read the Old Testament Prophets and you will come across countless examples and illustrations of God describing his covenant relationship with people through the lens of marriage (this theme is picked up in the New Testament as well through the “bride of Christ” imagery).  When the relationship is healthy, it is described as faithful, loving, forgiving, exclusive, permanent, etc.  When it is unhealthy, it is described as adulterous, distant, unfaithful, promiscuous, etc.
    2. On a physical level, the purpose of marriage is procreation.  In a very basic sense, the continuation of the human species is dependent upon healthy and appropriate marriages, both for the formation of new life (ie, birth) and the growth of functional societies (ie, nurturing and development).
    3. On a relational level, some of the purposes of marriage are companionship, passion, and mission.  Two can travel farther than one.  And have more fun along the way.  🙂
  2. Marriage is not solely a Christian construct.  While Jesus certainly had things to say about marriage, the ideas he worked with were formed long before he walked on the earth.  One example of the primacy of the male-female relationship can be seen Genesis in 2:18-24 (read The Lost World of Adam and Eve for an insightful analysis of the significance of Adam and Eve).  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have accepted the Genesis account as canonical, and Jesus himself referred to it when he was asked to define appropriate marriage behaviour (Matthew 19:4-6).  Jesus was more than comfortable introducing new thoughts (search for “you have heard that it was said, but …”), but when asked about marriage, he chose to use a long-standing definition that was based in the ancient creation account.
  3. Marriage has boundaries.  Actually, every healthy relationship has boundaries.  So does every team, every organization, and every society.  The question isn’t should we have boundaries or not? but rather, what should the boundaries be?  As I scan the pages of the Bible (remember my Assumptions), these are some of the boundaries that I see:
    1. Marriage is intended to be between two people, for life, no exceptions.  Unfortunately, we live in a broken world in which adultery and violent abuse happen, which violate and can therefore cancel the marriage covenant.  Convenience, loss of interest, temptation, stupidity, regret, etc are not valid reasons to break the marriage covenant.
    2. Marriage is between a man and a woman.  Every time that Jesus used the Greek term gameo (translated as marry, marriage, etc), it referred to a male-female relationship (except when the participants were not specifically identified).  The same is true with the writings of the Apostle Paul.  That is significant.
  4. There are sexual relationships that are not “marriage”.  This one is “in process” for me, but let me think out loud for a minute (you can tell me I am crazy at the end).  I remember when wakeboarding started to become a popular sport.  As a waterskier, I watched the new development with suspicion (sorry, friends who wakeboard!).  What wakeboarders did not do, thankfully, was attempt to redefine watersking and make it something that it was not.  Instead, wakeboarding emerged as a different sport.  I think it just might be similar with marriage today.  Relationships other than marriage exist (and not just limited to LGBT), but I wonder if everyone would have been better served if a term other than marriage was used.  I realize this train has already left the station and that this may seem offensive, but it is not intended to be.  I just think that the conversations might have worked out better if the existing (and longstanding) term and concept was not redefined.

So where do I think all of this lands?  The concept of marriage that I work with as I read the ancient scriptures (remember my Assumptions) is that marriage is designed to be between one man and one women, was created to bring (and model) wholeness and redemption to the world, and is intended to be exclusive until the end of life.  There is not a lot of grey there, but what does (and should) that actually look like in real life?  Let me suggest some ideas by speaking to two communities:

A Comment to the Christianity Community

Don’t be jerks.  🙂   Remember the three Postures and don’t attack.  Hold on to your values (humbly, of course), but play nice.  Hold unswervingly to the mission of God to restore all of creation (including you), think through theology and truth carefully, and in the midst of your own brokenness be sure to have courage to be radically different in our incredibly diverse (and swiftly changing) culture.  And just as importantly … live with grace.  If someone believes differently than you, be nice.  Be redemptive.  Be like Jesus.  (A couple of good articles about how Christians can balance mission and love are here and here).

A Comment to the LGBT Community

Don’t be jerks.  🙂  Remember the three Postures and don’t attack.  Yep, it applies to everyone.  Even better, though, let’s go out for coffee.  If you’ve had bad experiences with Christians, churches, etc, you need to know two things:

  1. I’m sorry, and on behalf of whomever hurt you, please accept my apology.  Christians have brought healing and hope to millions, but unfortunately, Christians have also brought pain and hurt to millions.  I am deeply sorry, and there is no justification for the pain that Christians have caused.
  2. I’d love to have coffee with you!  Actually, that’s a lie.  I don’t drink coffee, so I’d love to have a smoothie or iced tea with you.  And I’d love it if you came to church with me.  We can journey through our brokenness together.  While neither you nor I can guarantee what the people around us do or say, I can guarantee that you’ll have at least one person who is by your side … me!

What Next?

Okay … time for a closing comment (finally!).  A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would perform a marriage ceremony for him and his male partner.  I said that didn’t fit with my understanding of the Bible and marriage, so no, I couldn’t do it with integrity, even though we were friends.  He was good with that, and we are friends to this day (although distant friends, since we live in different parts of the country!).  I told him I was writing this posting and asked if he could say one thing to both the Christian community and the gay community (not implying that the two are mutually exclusive), what would it be?  He said, “When is willful cruelty to another human being ever justified?”.  Never, my friend.  Cruelty is never justified.

Our challenge, then, regardless of where we land with marriage and sexuality, is to treat each other well, even when we disagree.  With that in mind, what do you need to do next?

Mark

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