Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism (Part XI)

This is the eleventh part in this series on the theology of the body. If you want to listen to the messages, they are found by clicking “listen” on the home page of my website.

This particular piece in this blog series seeks to explore whether the mystery of Christ and the Church informs the discussion or debate about egalitarianism and complementarianism. Egalitarianism emphasizes the equality of the genders; the term complementarian emphasizes distinctions between the genders. This has become one of the defining dividing lines between denominations, especially as it relates to marriage, headship, submission, ordination, leadership, and a host of other issues. I have served the church around the world long enough to realize that deeply committed Christians have different understandings of these issues and they are, at least in part, born out by our own experiences of wholeness or brokenness in the manifestation of these principles. But, when seen through the mystery of Christ and the church to which we all are pointing, either as symbolized in marriage, or as we embody it collectively as the church, the bride of Christ, we might be able to view this discussion in a different light.

In an earlier blog post we explored the wonderful truth of man and woman as “subjects.” This is the testimony to egalitarianism. A woman is not related to a man as an object. Rather, they are both full subjects. In marriage, one is not subsumed by the other; rather, the two become one flesh. Submission is not the duty of one, but the call of all. The wife submits to her husband as unto the Lord, and the husband lays down his life for his wife just as Christ laid down his life for the church. Both are called to self-donation as two subjects.

However, just as Christ and the Church is not one thing but two glories brought together in the marriage of the lamb, so each of us brings our own unique glories to the union. These glories cannot be placed into universally defined vocational roles or “appropriate tasks” type boxes. Nevertheless, we each have our glories to share. We each bring distinct perspectives which, in the Christian vision, are not sanded down and domesticated, but received and celebrated. This is the testimony to complementarianism.

This is one of those interesting debates in the church where both sides have been wrong, and both sides have been right. In the cultural context of autonomous solitude the genders are at war with each other, and they struggle for power and dominion over the other. Even scriptures can be used as bludgeons against the other as we struggle to position ourselves into the siren song of autonomy. But, in the greater song of the New Creation, we see that it is only through dying and self-donation that we discover the true meaning of our own identity. This identity can only be fully realized in community as reflected in the family, the church and, ultimately the Triune God—the eternal “sweet society.” Christ as the head, laid down his life for the church and called us joint-heirs. The church, in turn, joyfully submits to Christ and is summoned into glorious union with the Triune God. So, egalitarianism and complementarianism are not two things, but different aspects of the one thing; namely, the mystery of Christ and His church.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Celibacy and Singleness for the Kingdom (Part VIII)

This is part eight in this blog series on the Theology of the Body.

In Matthew 19:3-12 Jesus amazes the disciples by saying that even in the face of human brokenness and sin, God’s original design for marriage remains intact. Indeed, the force of Jesus’ teaching is so great that the disciples say something which is almost modern in its tone, “if this is true, perhaps it is best not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Jesus’ reply places before us the theme for this article; namely, the sacred and high calling of singleness and celibacy.

In reference to singleness and celibacy Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11). This clearly implies that there is a secondary gift which, although few receive it, runs parallel with marriage; namely the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy. Now, the word “singleness” is not the language of the New Testament; that is a modern term. If by single we mean a state of autonomous solitude, then we are not capturing a biblical view of what we call singleness. If, by single, we mean “single minded focus” or “exclusivity of intent” or the “undivided life” then we are moving much closer to the biblical vision. Jesus points to a sacred state which our Lord himself – and the Apostle Paul, among others, were called to. This state is where a man or woman chooses (or is chosen) to not enter into the state of marriage for the sake of the kingdom.

To capture Jesus’ point we must recall what Jesus said in Mark 12:25. There, in the context of a dispute with the Sadducees (who denied the bodily resurrection) Jesus teaches that in the resurrection “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” This is an eschatological statement with enormous ramifications. It demonstrates that marriage, as important as it is, is not an end in itself. Marriage, is, after all, an image, a type, a pointer. It is an image, as we have said, of the Trinity, an image of self-donation, an image of covenant faithfulness or hesed; an outward image of a deeper spiritual truth. This means that marriage points to something beyond itself. St. Paul himself confirms this in Ephesians 5. He explores this world of self-donation in marriage; the wife submitting as an act of self-donation beautifully mirrored by the husband’s act of self-donation in laying down his life for his wife resulting in the two subjects becoming “one flesh” recalling the language of Genesis, “the two shall become one flesh.”

But, at the apex of that passage, right after the reference to one flesh, Paul says something interesting which reflects the Mark 12:25 passage. He says, “this mystery is profound, but I am referring to … ,” and you except him to say the mystery of marriage or something like that. Instead, he says, this mystery is profound, but “I am speaking of Christ and the church.” All of these texts indicate that marriage is not an end in itself, but a pointer to and, indeed, an imaging of—a reflection of—Christ and the church. That is the eschatological reality to which we are all moving; namely Christ and His church, the eternal state of our being brought into full fellowship and communion with the Triune God. In the eschaton there will be no marriage, because there will be no need for a pointer, we will all be engulfed into the very presence of the Triune God. There is no need for an earthly mirror when we stand before Him in His heavenly glory.

We live in the “already-not yet” tension of the kingdom. That means that the rule and reign of God is already breaking in, but it has not yet been fully realized. So we live in this tension between the present age and the age to come. Now, some people have a particular sensitivity to the eschatological reality regarding marriage, i.e. some have the gift in this age of that which will be shared by all of us in the age to come; namely, the fleshly typology of marriage is lost in the fuller reality of the Bride of Christ married to Christ Himself, namely, the church. In that case, a call to singleness and celibacy is a temporal anticipation of the future resurrected life. This is the “gift” to which Jesus refers to in our text. If you have the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy, then you have been called to live in the present age in such a way that you are already embodying the eschatological reality of the marriage supper of the lamb which fully and joyfully unites Christ and his church. In the eschatological sense we are all in our own way mirroring that future marriage. Most of us are called to mirror it through the sacrament of marriage. Others have the higher calling of mirroring it in the present as they are already, as it were, married to Christ through their devotion to the church of Jesus Christ. If you are called to singleness, it is not because you are in the state of solitude, but because you have already discovered that even deeper communion to which even marriage only points to as a shadow of that which is to come. This is why Paul goes so far as to say that the person who chooses marriage does well, but the one with the gift of celibacy and singleness does better in the sense that he or she actually embodies an even fuller realization of the in-breaking kingdom.

Clearly, this is a divine gift and it is never meant to put singleness at war with marriage. This is not a zero sum game where the only way we can honor marriage is to denigrate singleness, or by honoring the celibate life we somehow disparage marriage. Indeed, John Paul II says that “the renunciation of the married state by those called to singleness is actually heightened when we are aware of not only what we are choosing, but what we are renouncing.” The church has struggled with this partly because of some of the writings of Augustine and the challenge of Manicheanism. But, these negative attitudes towards marriage were rooted in falsely equating sexual activity with the sin nature or a non-Christian view of the body—both Gnostic tendencies. However, these views actually cloud the earthly witness which both marriage and celibacy are meant to mirror, namely, the marriage of Christ and His Church.

We should also acknowledge that the choice is not merely between marriage and a life calling to celibacy and singleness or, if you prefer “the single focused life.” There is the temporary state of celibacy which everyone experiences. Many of you, perhaps, do not feel called whatsoever to the celibate life, but, you are not yet in the married state. This is the state of temporary celibacy. It is also found even within marriage, where St. Paul says in I Cor. 7:5 that a husband and a wife by mutual agreement may enter into a period whereby they refrain from all sexual activity in order to focus on prayer and fasting. So, we see that though the calling of lifetime celibacy is an extraordinary and high calling for a special group; the experience of singleness and celibacy is universal. So, for example, you may not particularly sense that you are called to live out the eschatological realities of being married only to Christ in this life, but yet you find yourself temporarily in the single state. This is a special window of time when we can at least capture a tiny glimpse of the eschatological life by focusing single mindedly on the kingdom in the present, even as we put our own future into God’s hands. Even within marriage, as noted, we may enter into periods of temporary celibacy.

So, we see that marriage and celibacy are not two separate things but one thing. Both mirror and anticipate the same reality. Both states are deeply intertwined with the other. In the Christian vision, all those called to singleness can only come into the world through marriage and the single and celibate state prefigures the time when we will all be engulfed in the real marriage; namely, the mystery of Christ and His Church. Those called to marriage all experience a temporary state of singleness and celibacy both before and, at times, during marriage, and we are all moving inexorably to that day when there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. So marriage and celibacy are deep mysteries which are deeply entwined. I hope you are beginning to see how deeply the contemporary church has been co-opted by the culture’s war between singles and married, the war of the genders, and the quick sand of autonomous solitude. Because all relationships have become sexualized, deep and beautiful same sex friendships have become eroded. There is so much that we must recover in our day.

If I might draw from Homer and the wisdom of Greek mythology in reference to the Straits of Messina and the rocky shoal of Scylla and the six headed monster of Charybdis: It is this mysterious anticipation of future realities which keeps both states (marriage and celibacy) from being destroyed by the Scylla of solitude and the Charybdis of autonomy.

Perhaps, drawing again from Homer’s Odyssey, you may recall that Odysseus and Jason planned a strategy to resist the effects of the deadly allure of the Sirens. It involved strapping Odysseus to the mast of his ship and plugging his ears with wax. But the sound of the Sirens was too great and it penetrated the wax and only through great agony did Odysseus pass the strait. Jason, on the hand, heeded the advice of Princes Medea, who suggested that Orpheus, the Greek God of Music might counter the song of the Sirens with an even more compelling song, the music of heaven.

This is our task today. We must not be captivated by the song of this age which only knows the inward gaze, the war of the genders, the zero sum game between marriage and singleness, the autonomous self, and thinking that Christians are only against things. We must tell a bigger story, we must cast a larger narrative; we must sing a better song. We live in a highly sexualized culture and I can think of fewer gifts to this world than those specially called men and women who have the gift of celibacy. I actually rejoice in the birth in recent years of the Protestant monasteries: Taize in France, Jesus Abbey in S. Korea, St. Bridget of Kildare, the first Methodist monastery, etc. There are now over 100 Protestant monastic groups which have arisen as a part of the neo-monastic movement. So, let us honor those called to the celibate life. Let us also honor those who build beautiful Christian marriages, for both states image that one great marriage to which we are all moving: Christ and His Church. For in your authentically Christian lives—both celibate and married—we hear an even more compelling song, the song of the eschaton; the song of the transitory nature of this life; the song of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb; the song of the future bodily resurrection; the song of the New Creation which is being joyfully embodied in anticipation of the future reality and promise of our eternal communion with the Triune God.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Spousal Meaning of the Body (Part V)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here. Read Part IV here. Read Part VI here.

Within marriage, we discover what John Paul calls the “spousal meaning of the body.”  We are created for marriage.  To even say that today sounds controversial, because we have been so versed by our culture to the strains of solitude.  But Jesus repeats this in Matthew 19 “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  There are, of course, those who are called to celibacy and marry the church.  There is a profound dignity in singleness which we will explore later on in these homilies.  But, the basic design is marriage.  Our modern discomfort with this is perhaps illustrated by the recent trend in the elimination of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in the church.  This has been driven mostly because of concerns that those who are single or childless might feel excluded.  But, this is a sign of the inward gaze which is the anti-sacrament of autonomous solitude.  Surely, the more profound insight is that our very presence in the world, or in this room, is a testimony that we have or had a father and a mother.  And we stand even in our singleness and honor our father and our mother, which is the first commandment with a promise.

The contemporary world has set the genders at war with one another in endless cruel and destructive ways.  Remember, the trajectory of the fall is always pushing towards autonomous solitude; the trajectory of redemption is always summoning us to communion with the Triune God.  The world lives under the gravity of sin and self-orientation; we live under the gravity of holy-love.  This is the heart of what John Paul meant by the “spousal meaning of the body.”

It is in Genesis 4:1 that, even in a post fallen world, the mirror of the Trinity is not fully broken in us.  Adam lay with his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.  Eve says, “with the help of the LORD – Yahweh – I have brought forth a man.”  It is marriage between a man and a woman in the mysterious communion of sexual union which unites us as “one flesh” and, in the gift of God allows us to join him as little co-creators with God.  A new little life proceeds from that sacred union, which further dispels our solitude and further deepens our self-donation.  Eve came out of Adam, and a new little Adam comes forth from Eve.  A child comes forth, and we now have a Trinity; an intimate unity of father, mother and child whereby we discover the mysterious spousal meaning of our bodies in all its masculinity and femininity, each given to the other, and both given to the child as a reciprocal gift of self-donation.   The world we inhabit, which only knows autonomous solitude, actually scorns the reproducibility of the body. That rejection is actually, at its root, a rejection of the Trinity.  Reproducibility is impossible in same sex arrangements, but through the lens of autonomous solitude, the inherent problem is not recognized.  I realize that, for quite a few of you, when you think on your  family you may be saying, “Wait, my family was not a picture of the Trinity, it was more of a picture from hell.”  Certainly, the cultural landscape is littered with painful brokenness.  But, this is another reason why your generation must “go back to the beginning” and do a reboot on the whole system.  You have inherited my own generation’s chaos whereby marriage was actually used to promote autonomy and eschewed any notion of reciprocal self-donation.

However, the Triune God keeps the constant sign before us because, even today, there are signs of hope.  I have seen many, many students over the years who have stood up in the midst of unspeakable wreckage and re-captured God’s design, because God’s design remains intact.   Even in painful situations, the echo of the Trinity is there in the bearing of children.  And in that family – the little Trinity – God, once again, assigns to the body the signs of love and faithfulness and conjugal loyalty.   Just as we saw last week how all the means of grace find their expression in the body – you baptize a body, you take Eucharist into your body, etc.  So, we find the communion of the Trinity not merely in a place of worship like this, but in the daily life of the couple.  Each day acts become tasks, and these tasks becomes acts, all deeply spiritual and so liturgical in its daily-ness that we can miss the glorious mystery of the whole thing.  Because, it is in our daily lives that we find a thousand fresh ways to say to our spouse, “this is my body, given for you,” and it is that phrase which, of course, becomes the central declaration of the Eucharistic mystery where Jesus says, “this is my body, given for you.”  However, this declaration is not only about Jesus giving his life for us, but is the fundamental truth of God’s whole relationship with us as His creation.  He has given himself to us – completely – God’s self-donation of Himself. We, in turn, are called to give ourselves to one another because that is the very mystery of divine communion found only in the Triune God.

Read Part VI here.

Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: The Meaning of our Original Nakedness (Part IV)

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here. Read Part V here.

I am using as the basis for these homilies the wonderful theological work done by the late Pope, John Paul II which he delivered in his weekly homilies between 1979-1984 which remains, in my estimation, one of the most comprehensive theological explorations of a theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality I have read.  The purpose of this blog series is to underscore how utterly inadequate it is for us to be merely against something like homosexual behavior without being able to articulate what we are joyfully for.  I am concerned mainly about our own conversation in the church, because we have to recover that before we have anything to say to the wider culture.  In my view, we have at least 20 years of homework to do before we can regain any form of public witness on these issues.  It is far too tiny of a strategy to try to come up with 5 clever objections to this or that practice, without recognizing the deeper void of theological work which addresses the very foundation which will enable us to speak to the whole spectrum of brokenness in our society ranging from divorce to digital pornography to homosexual practice to adultery to fornication to gender reassignment, and so forth.  It is your generation which must regain your theological composure.  To put it bluntly, we cannot twitter our way out of this!

During the last three blog entries, we have seen how our creation as “male” and “female” are not solely biological, functional categories, but steeped in deep mysteries and theological realities which reflect God’s own nature and His original design for His creation.  Even in a post-Fallen world, we saw how in Matthew 19, Jesus reminds his questioners that despite the rise of human sin and brokenness, despite our hardness of heart and the cultural fog we are in, the original design remains joyfully intact.  The phrase which Jesus uses twice in that text should be our reminder today:  “From the beginning it was not so.”   We began to realize that we actually lost the struggle decades ago when we accepted the world’s definition of marriage as a shifting cultural arrangement designed to deliver happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  In contrast, the Scriptures summon us to remember how families are intended to reflect the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, what it means to be image bearers in our very physicality, the power of self-donation, and the mystery of actually becoming co-creators with God in the reproducibility of children, not to mention how our very bodies prepare the world to receive the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There is a mighty chasm between these two visions and we had better recapture the original vision and design.  The former is a utilitarian vision which sees marriage as a commodity; the latter is a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant.

The utilitarian vision sees the body of a  man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car. Is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not?  Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color or not; are your teeth shiny and straight or not?  In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies, and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

In Genesis 2, we have the joyous creation of “male” and “female” which culminates in their awakening and the remarkable passage in Genesis 2:25 which says, “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”

First, John Paul asks us to consider the meaning of our original nakedness.  Remember, last week we had to go back (as Jesus did in Matthew 19) and look at the pre-Fallen Adam.  Our theologies have focused primarily on fallen Adam and Christ as the second Adam (as in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45), but we needed to remember the pre-fallen Adam and the original design. In the same way, we must also go back to the pre-fall Adam and Eve and remember our original nakedness.  We know nakedness today only through the lens of the Fall.  Therefore, nakedness for us is a sign of our shame.  In the Western theological traditions, we have mostly viewed the Fall as the portal through which we have been cast into guilt as transgressors of God’s law.  That testimony is true.  But, the actual account in Genesis names two other, perhaps even deeper, realities of the Fall; namely fear and shame.  It is fear, shame and guilt which has destroyed the original communion of persons in the primordial design, whether between man and woman, or between ourselves and the communion of the Triune God.  In a post-fig leaf world which clothes our shame, it is difficult for us to even conceptualize what it means to stand naked without shame.  But it is here that we discover the true nature of our original design.  The reason the man felt no shame before Eve, and Eve before Adam is because they were one flesh.  They were in the state of original unity.  And that was the design: “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  Sin pushes us back into our autonomous solitude, destroys the communion of persons, and heaps shame upon ourselves and our bodies.  It is sin which brings this new self-consciousness, or shall I say, self-orientation.  Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and felt shame and fear.  All of this is revealed through two questions God himself asks us after the Fall.  The first question is  “Where are you?” (loss of communion).  Adam answers that he and Eve had hidden themselves because  “I was afraid (fear) and I was naked (self-consciousness).

The second question is, “Who told you that you were naked?”  Adam’s response reveals a profound loss of communion and the newly emerging self-orientation.  Eve, who was before the Fall one flesh with Adam, now becomes an object – an object upon which Adam heaps blame and guilt.  “The woman you gave me…”  You see, shame robs us of the self-donation which is integral to God’s own nature where we fully give ourselves to the other such that we are one flesh.   All the ways we shame the body of another and heap shame upon our own body is because of the loss of original nakedness.  We, of course, joyfully recapture a glimmer of the original design through the covenant of marriage when a man and woman can stand before one another naked and without shame, and say, “this is my body, given for you.”  Remember those words in Ephesians 5:28, “husbands have a duty to love their wives as their own bodies.”  To shame your wife’s body is to shame yourself, and to shame the Triune God from whom all bodies come as gifts.  Outside of covenant, we can only know shame.    Inside the covenant, we have the summons to be free from all shame and enter into joyful communion with the Triune God.