OURSELVES, OUR SOULS AND BODIES:
A PASTORAL TEACHING ON
SEXUALITY AND MARRIAGE
by The Eleventh Bishop of Springfield
A pdf of this text can be found here: Ourselves Our Souls and Bodies
Sexuality and sexual behavior are among the cultural “hot topics” of our time. Marriage has become political dynamite. Both subjects are factors in elections and court decisions at all levels. The Christian community is by no means immune to the cultural and civil ferment. Virtually all ecclesial traditions have suffered in some way from conflicting understandings of sexuality and marriage. Some have incurred schism and other grievous harm from the conflict, including—and perhaps especially—the Episcopal Church. As a result, we are wounded, dispirited, and disempowered. Our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world is severely compromised, and this is no good thing.
As a bishop of the Catholic Church, and Ordinary of a diocese that is part of the Episcopal Church, part of my job description is to serve as chief teacher in the diocese. Most of the time this is done rather informally, through short articles and blog posts, sometimes in a Lenten weeknight occasion in a parish, and indirectly in sermons during parish visitations and diocesan occasions. From time to time, however, a subject touches on issues that are at the same time of fundamental importance and fraught with confusion and controversy, thus calling for a focused and extensive teaching effort. The present moment in the ecclesial and civil conversation around sexuality and marriage is one of those times, and this document is an attempt to respond appropriately.
What I offer here is a pastoral teaching. Its intended readership, those for whom and to whom it is written, are the baptized faithful—along with their immediate pastors and teachers, the clergy—of the Diocese of Springfield. These are those who were committed to my pastoral charge, those to whom I owe the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27 ESV). Others, of course, will, as it were, eavesdrop, and that is entirely meet and right. But this effort should not be construed as an apologia directed toward other parts of the wider church. Nor should it be judged by the rigorous standards of academia, even as I hope it may not run too far afoul of such critical standards.
I am acutely aware that, even within the diocesan family, there will be a diversity of responses to this teaching. Many will be grateful that it confirms what they already hold and believe. Even so, I hope that such persons will engage what I have written and re-examine why they believe and hold what they do. Others will be relieved to find a plausible basis for believing what they already suspected was true, but were not sure why. Some will read what I have written and find it deeply troubling. A few will mentally acknowledge that this document exists, but, having already formed an opinion of its author, be of a mind to not even read it, or simply skim it. To those in these final two categories, all I can do is beg an open mind and a charitable disposition. I bear no malice toward those who come to different conclusions than those to which I have been led. To all, I say, please pray for me, a sinner, and your unworthy servant.
St Michael & All Angels, 2019
Christianity is a revealed religion. It rests on the notion that, while human beings are capable of intuiting some very general knowledge about God and God’s ways, for anything usefully specific, we depend on God to disclose to us what we need to know. In the absence of such revelation, the best we can do is speculate and guess.
Around 4,000 years ago, we see a nation emerging from the mists of pre-history, the people of Israel. They understand themselves to be the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to have a special connection to the God who called and guided those ancestors. In their collective memory, they carry an understanding of who God is, and a set of narratives about what it means to be a human being in this world. The collection of documents that Christians know as the Old Testament is the written record of Israel’s memory as a people specially chosen by God to carry out his purposes.
As Christians, we understand ourselves to be heirs of Israel’s story. Their story is also ours. Jesus, the one whom we follow and serve, was himself born into the community of Israel, and is, in his person, the ultimate revelation of God. He is emmanuel—literally, “with us, God.” Jesus does not disclose everything there is conceivably to know about God, but everything we can know of God, and need to know of God, we see in Jesus.
The collection of documents that we know as the New Testament is the record of Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, the initial spread of the gospel (“good news”) into the lands of the Roman Empire, and a good bit of interpretive teaching by the earliest Christian leaders about what it all means.
The Old and New Testaments, taken together, constitute the sacred texts of Christianity. In the Episcopal Church, whenever a new deacon, priest, or bishop is ordained, the candidate must profess belief that “the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation.” To be sure, the Bible is abused if it is thought to be a string of “verses” that each have an equal and independent authority in isolation from the rest. The Bible is not a handbook or a “life coach.” It should not be placed in opposition to the work of biologists, astronomers, physicists, or physicians. But, as concerns anything about God or how God relates to us, the way we ought to behave, the meaning of human life, or questions around any life or world beyond this present one, the Bible is the authoritative record of what God has revealed. It is true that the Bible is only properly understood and interpreted from within the community of the Church, as an insider. But the Church does not in any way sit in judgment above scripture; rather, she sits at the feet of scripture, being judged by it.
So, as we consider the subjects of sex, sexual behavior, and marriage as Christians, we appropriately do so actively and intentionally in the light of revelation—what God has disclosed of his own mind and will on these subjects. We sit under the authority of scripture in these areas of our lives, and we sit as well under the shadow of two thousand years of Christian experience and teaching, which also happens under the authority of scripture. It is entirely fitting that we bring contemporary experience, scientific knowledge, and common sense into the conversation. Revelation is not some sort of oracle that issues Supreme Court-like judgments on questions that we might present. But we are not at liberty to simply allow contemporary social opinions and trends to eclipse the vehicles of God’s revelation. We are bound by the vows of our own baptism to surrender our own sovereignty to God’s.
Before we can consider sex, sexuality, and marriage in specific detail, it is helpful first to think a bit about Christian anthropology. The social science of anthropology, of course, is the study of human beings and human cultures, but that is not quite what we are talking about here. Rather, Christian anthropology is a theological interpretation of what a human person is. Marriage is a human social institution (I will contend later that it is not just that, but it is at least that). Sexual behavior is something that happens between human persons. The Christian revelation speaks in quite particular ways to the meaning of human personhood and human behavior.
Body and Soul
There is a social media meme that has circulated misattributing a quote to a popular Christian author: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” At first, this may sound appealingly self-evident. But it is at best sub-Christian, and potentially dangerously false. A human person is a dynamic coming together of the material (body) and immaterial (soul, or spirit). As we age, or we decline physically due to illness or accident, it is tempting to think of our bodies as a sort of prison, something that holds us back from being who we really are. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we long to “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
But, even while there is a definite strand in the Christian tradition to the effect that the human soul is immortal, that it will survive the death of the body (whether by its inherent nature, or by a special intervention of God’s grace; theologians have long debated this), the fundamental Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul but, rather, the resurrection of the body—note the conclusions of both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. While there may be some mode of human existence between the death of the body and the resurrection of the body that is purely spiritual, it is a provisional state, something less than truly and fully human. The author of Job writes movingly, “And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:26) And St Paul lays it out plainly to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised [i.e. bodily], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:14) Bodies, and what we do with them, are significant. They do not mean everything, but they do not mean nothing, either.
Image of God
Of course, it is equally false to think of the human person as consisting only of a body, only that which is material, subject to the discovery processes of scientific research. Human beings may be biologically related to other animal creatures, but we are also utterly distinct from them in that we are bearers of the image of God.
The very first chapters of the Bible use the phrase multiple times:
And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; …’ And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female created He them. (Gen 1:26–27)
This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made He him. Male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. (Gen 5:1–3)
One who spills the blood of man, by man his blood will be spilled, for in God’s image He made man. (Gen 9:6)
Other Old Testament (deuterocanonical) texts also carry the theme:
For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23)
But people, who have been formed by your hands and are called your own image because they are made like you, and for whose sake you have formed all things–have you also made them like the farmer’s seed? (2 Esdras 8:44)
God, of course, is pure spirit, so it is not any sort of physical resemblance. Rather, you and I “look like” God spiritually. One may well ask, then, what is it about human nature that points to the presence of the image of God? This is a big question, about which several whole volumes have been written, so please do not assume that what I am mentioning here is the full or last word on the subject. That said, there are certain characteristics that show up repeatedly in the Christian tradition of belief and teaching:
• Consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to contemplate one’s condition, to have an “interior” life.
• Rationality, the ability to think logically and objectively, to detach from our immediate reactions and impulses for the sake of discovering truth.
• Free will, the ability to consider options and make choices.
• A capacity to form and sustain relationships with other people that are complex, deep, and rich; to extend oneself for the sake of another, to be unselfish, to love.
Certainly, one important takeaway from our belief that human nature is created in the image of God is that the image of God should be respected and honored in every human being. Even those who behave badly, even those who participate in gross evil, are not deprived of God’s image. All persons, whoever they are and whatever they have done, deserve to be treated with dignity. This does not mean we excuse or overlook bad behavior, or decline to mete out justice in appropriate ways, but that, even in holding wrongdoers accountable, we treat them with basic dignity and civility—especially, perhaps, when they have themselves failed to do so with others.
“Male and Female”
Another significant aspect of Christian anthropology is sexual polarity—the fact that we are created male and female. This polarity is so basic and so essential that it is repeated several times in the first chapters of Genesis. Indeed, it is mentioned directly in connection with the image of God—humankind, together, as male and female, exhibit the divine image; both sexes are essential, in mutual complementarity.
This is what the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States (ARCUSA) wrote in an agreed statement on the subject in 1983:
The division of humankind into two sexes creates a framework for interrelationships that image self-giving in God. As embodied persons we exist either as women or men. Sexuality is a given, irreducible mode of being in the world. Our bodies are not merely the somatic envelopes of our spirits, nor are they purely instrumental. Rather, we exist as a substantial unity of body and spirit. And we are saved in our bodied existence.
Of course, sex and gender are fraught subjects, highly controversial today in western society. In recent years, the public conversation has explored various sorts of distinctions between the two, rather than automatically linking
maleness with masculinity and femaleness with femininity. Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience can and do disagree about what sex and gender mean. But what we cannot plausibly say, if we hold a Christian commitment, is that they are meaningless. And many in contemporary western society want to say exactly that, that maleness and femaleness involve merely superficial differences in biological plumbing, and should not be thought to mean anything beyond that. The Christian revelation says otherwise, that sexual polarity is of the order of creation—not an accident of evolution, but part of God’s intent. The reality that human beings are objectively sexed creatures cannot be ignored or denied. It is part of our fundamental embodiedness. We can discuss what that means, but we must begin with the acknowledgment that it indeed does mean something.
(Some will no doubt wish to counter with the question, “What about those who are biological outliers, who are born neither clearly male nor clearly female? And what about those whose subjective perception of their gender does not correspond with their biological sex?” These are not trivial questions, because there clearly are individuals in such categories. We need to affirm two things: First, those who are exceptions to the norm in these areas deserve every bit of the basic human dignity I mentioned earlier. They bear the image of God, and that image in them must be honored. They also merit compassion, though always of a respectful sort, and never patronizing, belittling, or condescending. Second, exceptions to the norm do not mean there is no norm. It is misguided compassion that leads us to redefine the categories of sex and gender in ways that cannot be reconciled with what God has revealed. Rather, we are called to accept the structure of creation that we learn in scripture, and then work on caring justly for those whose experience lies outside those boundaries.)
The Fallenness of Human Nature
We are all familiar with the narrative in Genesis about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, how they were permitted by God to eat from any tree in the garden except for one particular tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and how a serpent (presumed in tradition to be Satan, the personification of Evil) tempted Eve and persuaded her to eat from the forbidden fruit, and Eve prevailed upon Adam to do the same. As a result, God banished Adam and Eve from their earthly paradise, and their progeny—all of us—still suffer the effects of that banishment.
It is not necessary to read the Genesis account as literal history in order to see that, as a theological narrative, it lays down a monumentally important marker as we consider Christian anthropology: We are sinners. As St Paul writes to the Romans, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) When we celebrate the Eucharist using Eucharistic Prayer A, we pray, “Holy and gracious Father, in your infinite love you made us for yourself, and when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death …” “Fallen” is the key theological word in that sentence. Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden is known as “the Fall,” and is a metaphor for the condition of the entire human race. Think of it as a congenital disease: Before a child is even capable of making a conscious choice to behave in a way that could be described as “sinful,” that child is predisposed to enthrone his or her ego and immediate self-interest. Ask the parent of any two-year old! We are born with an inclination to put ourselves, our own perceived desires, where only God should be: in the driver’s seat of our lives and of our sphere of influence. The classic poem Invictus expresses (without the poet’s intention, most likely!) our fallen human nature in its final lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” In a more popular vein, Frank Sinatra’s My Way makes the same point. The sinful human heart has no room for God, and every human heart is sinful.
One of the major implications of the doctrine of the Fall is that we cannot blindly trust our own instincts, our own feelings, even our own mental processes. They are all infected by sin. Think of it as a sophisticated and thoroughly embedded computer virus. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) When we consider any of our desires, including our sexual desires, we do well to bear in mind our fallen nature. We are all born into the realm of sin and death. Even while, by God’s grace, the baptized faithful are in the midst of being rescued and redeemed from it, until we are in our resurrected bodies, able to look God in the eye without turning to dust, we are not entirely free from its tentacles. Our only recourse is to lay ourselves before God’s revelation in humble gratitude.
Jesus the Exemplar of Full Humanity
One of the foundational elements of God’s revelation is the doctrine of the incarnation: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (II Corinthians
5:19) From the moment of his conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus has been both fully divine and fully human. He is at the same time the Eternal Word of the Father, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God; begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” and completely human in every way, save for his immunity from the Fall; Jesus has no inclination to sin, to separate himself from God.
Since sin is an aberration from God’s plan for creation, we can say that Jesus, who is without sin, is the only person to have ever lived a fully human life. As such, Jesus is both prototype—demonstrating what all who, by faith, are “in Christ” are destined to become—and example—a model for how we ought to conduct ourselves. In his words and in his deeds, he shows us the sort of self-denying love that we are called to emulate so far as we receive the grace to do so. The vocation of every human being is to imitate Jesus, to become ever more like Jesus. The call of every Christian is to “walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2)
Redemption and Recreation
Jesus is not only an example for us to emulate, he is a savior and redeemer. His ministry of teaching and healing is a vitally important piece of our total understanding of him, but the ultimate purpose of his life was for him to lay it down. We cannot know Jesus apart from the cross. It is through his death and resurrection that those who come to him in faith receive a new lease on line—indeed, a new life, a redeemed life.
The “work of Christ” is to redeem and restore human nature (which bears the image of God), to repair the distortion and damage caused by the Fall. This is the mystery of salvation, the heart of the “good news of God in Christ” that we promise to proclaim when we are baptized or confirmed. We participate in this mystery through baptism and faithful discipleship, which includes participation, as appropriate, in the sacraments of the Church, particularly the Eucharist. In faith, we give ourselves over, bit by bit, to the healing touch of Jesus. The goal of the process—which we call sanctification (literally, “making holy”)—is that we be conformed to Jesus in every way, that we exhibit the virtues that make us “look like” Jesus. (For most of us, the process of sanctification takes an entire lifetime, and then some.) The destiny of redeemed humankind is not mere goodness, but sainthood.
The context of Christian anthropology can perhaps be summed up nowhere better than in Eucharistic Prayer A in the (1979) Book of Common Prayer, from which I have already quoted:
Holy and gracious Father, in your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and became subject to evil and death, you, your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.
The Configuration of Sexuality
That fact that human persons are sexed creatures—observably so at birth and via analysis of chromosomes (with acknowledgment that there are statistical outliers where sex at birth may not be clearly discernible)—lies at the root of what we are considering here. But it is more complicated than that, as we know, because what we are—male or female—raises the question of how what we are makes us feel, what desires it encourages, how it impels us to act in the world. This is the larger context of what we mean by sexuality.
At its most primitive level, sexuality is a biological urge, an animal instinct. Along with every other species of life, human beings are driven to reproduce, and, among most species, sexuality is the biological mechanism for reproduction. Even when we engage in sexual acts that, for any of a number of reasons, cannot possibly lead to procreation, it is the instinct to reproduce that is the driving force behind those acts. We are almost infinitely creative in diverting and deflecting our sexual energy and behavior away from the result of conception, but it is nonetheless the drive to procreate that makes sexual activity, of whatever variety, even possible, even when that is the furthest thing from our desire in the moment.
But, as we saw when we examined Christian anthropology, human beings, while biologically part of the animal kingdom, are not mere animals. There is a qualitative distinction between us and the pets that enrich our homes and the domestic livestock that sustains our lives and the wild creatures with which we share this planet. We bear the image of God. We have souls. The details of our lives do not simply exist in their own right; they are signs. They point to deeper, transcendent layers of meaning (hence the term, significant).
Moreover, as creatures made in the image of God, we have free will. We have the ability to think, to observe and reflect on our own behavior, to make rational moral choices. Our animal instincts, including our sex drive, are powerful, compelling, arguably irresistible. But we are not automatically prisoners of these instincts. We are free moral agents. We have the innate capacity to overrule them. In any given instance, you or I may not feel like we have the resolve or the strength to summon that capacity, but it is there.
But why would we want to? If this is the way God has made us, and our sex drive is part of our created nature, why would we want to do anything to counter it? There are, I would suggest, two reasons why we would want to do so.
The first is that, because we bear the image of God, sexuality, for human beings, signifies something that it does not mean for the dogs in the streets and the horses in the field, to say nothing of the birds and the bees. Sexuality is a conduit, one conduit among many, for the expression of love—not merely the eros of sexual desire and attraction, but the agapē of which the love of God for us is the ultimate source and model. Sexual relations have the capacity to be a sacramental sign of such love, and therefore a means of participation of the realm of grace, sharing in God’s project of redeeming the world from sin and death. The fact that we are called to point our sexual desire and sexual behavior toward such a lofty end is reason enough to not simply give it free rein.
The second compelling reason we might want to discipline and contain our sexual behavior is because we are subject to sin and death; we are fallen. We know this from scripture and from just paying attention; it is pretty obvious. We cannot trust our feelings—our instincts and urges—not to lead us into territory where we are going to get hurt, or hurt someone else. Boundaries and norms that are not of our own making, but, rather, gifts from God, assist us is living in the most human way possible, more human than we could possibly do otherwise.
Again, ARCUSA weighs in on this:
The creation account in Genesis shows that the embodiment of human persons as male or female is part of God’s design. Though the human person shares the condition of sexuality with most other material life-forms, human sexuality is of a different order. The creating and nurturing activity of the living God can be reflected and symbolized by sexuality in any part of the created order. Human sexuality, however, whether male or female, is that of a free and responsible creature capable of self-possession and deliberate self-donation in love. The fact of human sexuality, therefore, opens human beings to the possibility of entering into loving communal relationships which reflect the communion of divine self-giving love in God.
Yet the Genesis account vividly tells us of the entrance of sin into human life and the consequent distortion of the image of God in the human person. We find, as a result of sin, that persons, instead of being open to the other in self-donating love, become self-centered, self-seeking and self-absorbed. They become incapable of either giving or receiving the very love they were created to image. Instead, they experience sexual disorder, a drive either to dominate others or to be subservient to others. Coercive power tends to replace love as the strongest cohesive force in human community.
Human sexuality, then, is configured to the larger end of reconciliation, of redemption. This involves the creation and nurture of human community at every level, beginning with the nuclear family: a mother, a father, and the child who is the product of their sexual union. There is an element of raw biological urge to human sexuality (which it would be wrong to say is intrinsically evil; it is neither good nor evil, it just is). This biological element, driven by the instinct to procreate, cannot be carved off and isolated from our understanding of sexuality. Our sexuality is never intrinsically other than biological. But it is not only biological. It has a transcendent significance. The redemptive love of God has conscripted it into the service of a higher end. That end is revealed most clearly in marriage.
In the midst of all this, we do well to remember that, even though most of us experience our sexuality at a very visceral, primal level, the particular character of our sexuality does not define us. It is a descriptor, one characteristic about us. It is not who we are. It is part of the package, clearly an important part of the package, but not the most important part of the package. It is sometimes tempting, and quite easy, for us to think and act as though it is, but it is not. There is no human being alive for whom it has never been a struggle to channel sexual energy and behavior in the right way. For a Christian disciple, it is profoundly related to prayer, growth in grace, the development of the fruits of the Spirit, and the cultivation of holiness. It is, according to human experience, remarkably easy to sin sexually. But the Christian tradition does not put sexual sin in a special category, somehow worse than other sorts of sin, somehow “nastier” or less forgivable. It is not. In fact, a compelling argument can be made that greed, anger, gossip, undisciplined competitiveness, grasping for power, and pride are much more harmful to human flourishing, and to the soul of the sinner, than misdirected sexual behavior.
It is also quite impossible, it seems important to say, for any of us to completely understand how we are put together sexually. It’s particularly important that we do not make a false logical leap from “I notice this about myself” to “this is the way God made me.” Remember, we are fallen. The power of sin clouds our perception, particularly about the deepest parts of ourselves. For each one of us, without exception, there are aspects of our sexual makeup that are quite dark. This darkness represents a mixture of our basic animal sex drive, which is morally neutral, and the corruption of sin, which is morally wicked and spiritually dangerous.
We do best, then, to keep before our attention the truth that, in God’s creative design, the underlying end of sexuality is “the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” (BCP, p. 423) Married couples are appropriately open to this gift. This is not to say that every individual sexual act must be accompanied by a conscious intent to conceive. But, in expanding the range of our contemplation of non-procreative sexual behavior, the boundaries of such expansion are appropriately governed by the essential procreative character of the human sex drive. Our imagination about sexual behavior in specific is formed by our knowledge of the character of sexual behavior in general. The safest, most God-honoring, context for sexual union that does not fall short of God’s creative intent, but participates mystically in God’s redemptive love, is between a husband and wife in marriage.
Marriage as Protection
What can we say, then, about sexuality and marriage? At a biological, animal, level, sexuality is configured to procreation, the making of more human beings. This is true even when it is the furthest thing from the minds of those engaged in a sexual act. At a human level, the operative reality is that we are fallen creatures who, nonetheless, bear the image of God. At the level of transcendent significance, ultimate meaning, sexuality is configured to God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption (and we affirm this consciously within the context of its biological, animal character). Marriage, then, is a gift from a generous God to provide a protective environment for sexual expression.
One might well ask, Why does sexual expression need to be protected? The answer is simple: Because it is dangerous! The expression “safe sex” has been used in connection with contraception and disease prevention, but it is a deception. Any sexual encounter is inherently risky. Quite apart from the prospect of pregnancy or disease, sexual intimacy is an occasion of self-disclosure. The act requires a degree, at least, of nakedness, the revelation of the most intimate parts of our bodies—“I’ll show you mine and you show me yours.” But physical nakedness is only a sign of a much deeper sort of vulnerability. When we literally show ourselves to another in a sexual exchange, we are making ourselves available to that other to hurt us—physically, to be sure, but, more likely, emotionally, psychically—if he or she so chooses. We are saying, in effect, “Here I am, naked before you. This is all of me; I am holding nothing back. I’m trusting you to not hurt me, but if you choose to, here I am.” How is that in any way safe? This is why sexual expression needs the protective context of marriage.
Every edition of the Book of Common Prayer, including the Episcopal Church’s 1979 version, includes a preface to the marriage liturgy that refers to marriage as instituted by God in creation. A sociological historian can certainly account for marriage as a human institution. It has had many different shapes and colors over the centuries. For a Christian, though, it is a matter of revelation. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes this clear:
But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. (Mark 10:6-8)
Marriage is a human institution, but it is not merely a human institution. It is part of the order of creation; it transcends human history. It is God’s invention, not ours.
The passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes in Mark 10 makes mention of a husband and wife becoming “one flesh” in marriage, and we can understand that to mean, specifically, in sexual intercourse. Sexual relations are a sign to the couple of their deep bond, their profound intimacy with one another. The wife and husband, in that act, say to one another, in effect, “I reveal myself to you. I show you who I really am, and I trust you not to abuse that knowledge.” (Of course, sinful beings that we are, such trust sometimes is abused, but that is another topic.)
Marriage as Love
Most of us instinctively associate “marriage” and “love.” This is as it should be, but, sadly, the English language is impoverished in speaking of love, because that single word translates at least four distinct words in ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament. C.S. Lewis expertly breaks this open in his acclaimed volume The Four Loves, but I will attempt to summarize here:
Eros (from which we get the English word “erotic”) denotes sexual attraction. When we use the expression “in love,” it is probably eros that we are talking about. Indeed, eros is a normative element in the relationship between two persons who are married to one another—in their younger and middle years, at any rate. Eros is an instinctual, animal, elemental urge that the overwhelming majority of human beings (a few testify to being truly asexual) are born with. It impels us to connect with others sexually, which, of course, serves the biological end of procreation, the continuation of the human species. Eros is, on its own terms, amoral. It is neither right nor wrong; it does not concern itself with such things as right and wrong. It is, quite literally, a “force of nature.”
Storgē denotes the sort of affectionate love that one feels instinctively toward a child or a parent or another family member—or even toward a beloved pet. It is what allows a parent, especially a mother, to profoundly love a child, even before the child is born. Within a marriage, of course, a mother and father will probably feel storgē toward their children (if they do not, it will probably be viewed as a diagnosable psychopathology). But even in a childless marriage, after enough time, a husband and wife will begin to feel storgē toward one another—the feeling of family, of kinship. As time goes by in a marriage, that which causes the couple to say they are “in love” with one another often gradually morphs away from eros and toward storgē. This development can actually be something quite sweet and satisfying.
Philia denotes the sort of affection that characterizes friendship. If, as Lewis suggests, we can imagine eros as two persons facing one another, fascinated and consumed by one another, we can imagine philia as two persons standing side by side, facing a third person or object by which they are both fascinated. This is the basis of friendship. Their affection for one another derives from their mutual attraction toward someone or something else. A marriage based entirely on eros, without an element of philia, is skating on thin ice. Some mutual interest, some basis for friendship (other than the storgē engendered by having children together), is a necessary part of a healthy marriage.
Agapē is the “more excellent way” St Paul writes about in I Corinthians 13. It gets Latinized as caritas, and so shows up in English as “charity” (most notably in the King James Version translation of I Corinthians 13), but “charity” is misleading now because it has it has become widely associated with mere financial or material benevolence (as in “charitable giving”). Agapē has a much more robust meaning. It is the purest form of love, transcendent love, self-offering sacrificial love. Agapē cares not at all for itself, but solely for the well-being of the beloved. (The old country song, “Please release me, let me go” is, strangely, perhaps, asking for agapē, though the ensuing line, “I don’t love you anymore” speaks of unfiltered eros, or, at least, a failure of philia or storgē.) Agapē, then, is the love with which God loves us, the love that drove Jesus to embrace the cross, and suffer there for the sake a world he loved.
So, while we do well to associate love with marriage, we do even better to be mindful about the multiple facets of love. A healthy marriage includes all four elements, in different proportions at different times. This is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, as members of contemporary society in the developed world. We are accustomed to seeing love and marriage through the lens of romance. We understand romantic love as something almost passive, something into which people “fall.” We imagine that the ideal marriage begins with eros, along with, perhaps, some philia, and evolves over time into storgē, and then if all goes well, into agapē. This has not always been the case, and, indeed, continues to not be the case in some societies, which practice arranged marriage. Certainly, not every arranged marriage results in bliss for the couple. Yet, the percentage of arranged marriages that end in divorce seems to be no higher than among voluntary marriages. When you marry someone with whom you have not had the opportunity to develop a “romantic” relationship, you pretty much have to start with agapē, because that is the only form of love that is purely volitional, a decision, not based on feelings. In that context, eros and the other expressions of love have room to sprout and grow. Now, I am not advocating for arranged marriage here—it is not inherently unChristian, but neither is it particularly Christian; Christianity is neutral on the practice. My point, though, is that we do well to unlink our thoughts around love and marriage from our cultural notions of romance and “falling in love.” They are not necessarily harmful concepts, but they have the capacity to distract us from the most important elements of marriage.
Marriage as Story
The theme of marriage runs like a golden thread throughout the narrative of sacred scripture. It is introduced in the first chapters of Genesis in the relationship between Adam and Eve. It is never far from view as God’s redemptive plan is
revealed. It is Noah’s family—husband, wife, sons, and daughters-in-law—who are saved from the waters of the flood. The marital relationship between Abraham and Sarah figures prominently in the drama surrounding the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation. Several of the Old Testament prophets speak of the relationship between the LORD and Israel as a marriage; indeed, the terms of the Sinai covenant under Moses can plausibly be understood as marriage vows. As we have seen, Jesus, in Mark 10, hearkens back to the Genesis story. St Paul, writing to the Ephesians (see “Marriage as a Sacrament”) makes an analogy between the relationship of a husband to his wife and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Finally, at the very end of the book of Revelation, we read of “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (of which the Eucharist is a foretaste), when Christ enters the heavenly Jerusalem as a bridegroom and finds his bride, the Church, adorned and waiting for him.
If we give a bit of rein to our poetic imaginations, we can see the entirety of the Bible as a sort of romantic comedy on a grand scale: Boy loves Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy pursues Girl, Boy gets Girl. (I am not unaware that to speak of God as “Boy” and humankind as “Girl” can raise hackles in today’s social context. So, to be clear, I am not saying that God is a male being, nor am I condoning unwanted sexual pursuit of any sort. I am simply observing that the contours of this story, the story that underlies God’s establishment of marriage, are deeply embedded in the human psyche, and manifest themselves in art, literature, and social mores, across cultures and across time.)
Marriage as Vocation
When a couple get married, those invited to attend the ceremony are often referred to as “guests.” The implicit assumption in such language is that a wedding is an essentially private event, to which selected family member and friends are invited to witness as spectators. Everyone assumes that X and Y have “fallen in love” and “decided” to get married, and the purpose of the occasion is for X and Y to formalize their commitment and then enjoy a nice party. There is a great deal of cultural momentum behind these notions.
In contrast, the Christian moral and sacramental vision is much richer, much more expansive. For a Christian disciple, marriage is not merely a decision made freely and independently by a man and a woman. It is a response to a vocation. It is a holy calling. In our ordinary conversation, we normally tend to reserve such language for someone who is on a path toward ordination, or to vowed membership in a religious community. Marriage is a calling just as sacred as any other vocation that we normally think of as “churchy,” if not more so.
The wedding of two Christians is not a private event which certain “guests” are
invited to observe. It is a celebration of the entire Christian community and appropriately takes place in the context of a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. God has called two people into a special relationship, a relationship that is integral to their obedience in discipleship. This relationship deserves to be celebrated, because it is being put at God’s disposal as one more tool for the working out of his redemptive purposes. It is woven into the fabric of salvation by which God makes all things new. It is, indeed, a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Marriage as a Sacrament
Some Christian traditions speak unequivocally (Roman Catholicism) about marriage as a sacrament. Others are quite overt in their denial (Lutherans and most mainstream Protestants and free-church evangelicals) that it is not a sacrament (or that there is no such thing as a sacrament). Others (Eastern Orthodoxy, most Anglican provinces) are more nuanced, and recognize the marriage at least has a sacramental character. It is an entity that is outwardly observable, but is also a sign, pointing to a spiritual reality.
This is very tricky territory. When most people who have any inkling of what a sacrament is imagine a generic sacrament, they will tend to conjure an image of a religious authority figure performing some ritual or ceremonial act with, toward, or on behalf of one or more other people, who may or may not be gathered in the same place. In the typical baptism of our imaginations, a priest or pastor applies water to the forehead of a baby, accompanied by certain words and ceremonial actions. When we see a pastor or priest applying oil to, and laying hands on, the head of a hospital patient, we immediately recognize the sacrament of unction, the sacrament of healing. In each of these cases (and the same would apply to the Eucharist, ordination, and reconciliation), we see the ordained member of the clergy as the minister of the sacrament and one or more others (those who are sick or penitent, those being baptized or ordained, those who receive Holy Communion) as the recipients of the sacrament, and various physical objects or actions (water, bread, wine, oil, touch) as the matter of the sacrament.
In marriage, however, this pattern breaks down. In fact, the “sacrament” does not even particularly “happen” at the wedding. While it is normative for member of the clergy to preside at wedding, the cleric is not the minister of the sacrament, and no ceremonial act (blessings and giving of rings, tying hands with a stole, “pronouncing” the couple husband and wife) is the matter of the sacrament of marriage. And the couple are not recipients of the sacrament. Rather, the couple are the ministers of the sacrament. Their relationship—something quite visible, and now publicly celebrated—is the “matter” of the sacrament (the outward and visible sign), and the congregation, representing the rest of the church and, indeed, the rest of the world, are the true recipients of the sacrament.
Using the language of one of the prayers in the marriage rite of the 1979 Prayer
Book, a Christian married couple constitute an outward and visible “sign of Christ’s love to this broken and sinful world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” The sacramental vocation of a married couple is to be available to collectively say, in their life together, that estrangement does not have the last word, that God has the last word, and that word is reconciliation; that guilt does not have the last word, but God has the last word, and that word is forgiveness; that despair does not have the last word, but God has the last word, and that word is joy.
In his letter to the Christian community in Ephesus (Chapter 5), St Paul offers a finely wrought and deeply poetic analogy between the relationship of Christ to the Church and a husband to his wife. In recent decades, some have found it troubling because it has been misinterpreted by some as a license for husbands to dominate, even abuse, their wives. (To come to such a conclusion is, as I have said, an egregious misinterpretation.) In the end, though, Paul seems to just throw up his hands at the inadequacy of his explanations: “This is a great mystery …” (5:32). That word for “mystery,” in the original Greek, is mysterion, but when it finds its way into St Jerome’s Latin translation, it comes out as sacramentum, or, in English, sacrament. Indeed, marriage is both a great mystery and a great sacrament.
I have attempted in this bit of pastoral teaching to lay out the biblical and theological foundation for Christian discernment around sexuality and marriage. I hope I have done so both faithfully and charitably.
The context for such discernment is certainly vastly different than it has been in the relatively recent past (which I might describe as early adulthood from my perspective of someone who is in early old age). A contemporary Christian disciple can no longer bravely embrace the fullness of traditional Christian teaching in these areas and expect society at large to provide any sort of support structure. To agree that sexual intimacy is appropriately expressed only within the protective context of marriage between one man and one woman is to invite derision at the very least, and quite possibly active hostility, not simply from the fringes of the surrounding culture, but from its mainstream. The Christian position is an oddity, an outlier, and object of scorn.
At the same time, Christians who hold the classical teaching are often their own worst enemies. In some circles, there has been an inordinate obsession with sexual “purity” that seems unfairly aimed at young women. It is true that virginity can be a lovely gift that a wife and husband mutually give one another as they enter married life. There was a time when society helped make that possible. We no longer live in that time, and we do our young people a favor if we relax about that just a bit. As I have said, sexual sin is not in some special category that makes it more heinous than other sins, such as greed, envy, racial animus, exploitation, bullying, and gossip. We need to find a course between abetting sexual intercourse before marriage and singularly shaming it.
Although a careful reader has, I hope, been able to infer that I have indeed already addressed the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, I would be remiss if I did not also do so more directly. It is fraught territory, however, because the pitch of rhetoric around the subject, both in the church and in society, reflects the political character of our age—that is, extreme polarization. There is, so far as I can tell, little or no tolerance for nuance, or for fine distinctions. But I find it impossible to think or talk about the relevant questions with anything but nuance and fine distinctions. So I do not expect anyone to be particularly happy with what I say here!
The undeniable reality is that a pretty steady percentage of human beings—as far as I can tell, around 2%—experience generic sexual attraction toward people who are not of the opposite sex. A few others report that they are capable of experiencing sexual attraction toward either the opposite sex or the same sex. (Speaking of nuance and fine distinction, I am aware that theorists of various sorts have articulated many more speciations beyond just heterosexual and homosexual, but I have neither the expertise nor the bandwidth to explore that territory here. Nor am I going to get into the issues of gender identity, with or without dysphoria, even as I acknowledge that the matter deserves to be gotten into.) Popular discourse has accepted as a given that there is such a thing as “sexual orientation,” though I suspect that the jury may still actually be out on that question. I am not going to pretend to be a psychologist, but even psychologists do not agree on things such as the origin or cause of same-sex attraction, and the theoretical ground seems always to be shifting. But this I can and will say: To have a desire for sexual intimacy with any particular category of human beings is not a sin. It may be the indicator of a sinful impulse (as, most would agree, for example, is the desire is for sexual intimacy with children), but the desire itself is not a sin. So, to say simply, “Homosexuality is a sin” is not helpful. It is what we do with our desires that has the capacity to be sinful, not the desires themselves. There is nothing Christian about antipathy or even hatred toward an entire class of human beings. People are not defined by their sexuality, and all are bearers of the image of God. (Contemporary social discourse at the time I am writing this compels me to add that neither are people defined by race, ethnicity, or immigration status.) Those whose sexual “wiring” conforms to the pattern ordained in creation cannot begin to comprehend the experience of those for whom that is not the case, and should therefore exercise respectful compassion without presuming to pass judgment on the moral character of others.
At the same time, it is an unfounded logical leap to propose that, since some people are homosexual or bisexual or polyamorous in their perceived orientation, that this is the way God made them. There are all sorts of human conditions that we would never attribute to God’s intention or will. We live in a fallen world, among sinful fallen human creatures. Every person among us has a dark side to their sexual makeup. We are all, in some way, sexually broken.
If one begins with an acknowledgement of the foundational authority of holy scripture, with due deference to the weight of two millennia of Christian teaching, one cannot conclude other than that the only context for sexual intimacy that does not fall short of God’s desire, design, and intention for us is marriage, intended to be lifelong, between one man and one woman. To say this, I understand, causes pain in those whose experience of sexual desire does not conform to such an ideal, and causing anyone pain brings me no joy. It is swimming against the nearly overpowering cultural stream for me to say this—not only in the case of those who are lesbian or gay, but to the majority of adults who see nothing wrong or unusual about consensual intercourse between partners who are not married to one another, whether in or out of a committed relationship. The word that the Church speaks to contemporary western society on sex and marriage is surely received as a “hard saying.”
Nor am I ignorant of the fact that there are a great many unmarried couples, whether of the opposite or the same sex, whose behavior in their relationships—relationships that include, or have included, sexual intimacy—expresses the same virtues and ideals—indeed, the agapē—that one looks for in marriage. As such, they can be said to have a share in the redemptive energy that is an intrinsic element in marriage. A great many other Christians who are generically attracted to others of the same sex make a costly decision to live chastely, without sexual intimacy, as a sign of a particular shape of the general vocation all Christians have of offering their bodies as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).
In any case, despite the actions of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, no part of the Church, or even the whole Church, has the authority to expand the definition of sacramental marriage to include same-sex couples. It is not a question of “ought-ness” or canonical authority. It is simply impossible to do so, no matter what canonical changes are passed or liturgical forms authorized.
Some may take issue with the received teaching on marriage because they perceive that it appears to conflict with the parts of the Prayer Book (1979) baptismal liturgy that call us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” If one starts with the assumption that someone who experiences same-sex attraction is defined by that attraction, that it is part of their core identity because God intentionally made them that way, this is a reasonable inference. Or, if one defines “respect” as agreeing with and supporting another person’s every expressed inclination, without bringing any manner of objective discernment to bear, it is likewise a plausible conclusion. But, as I have contended, it does not necessarily follow that our sexual predilections are custom-installed by God, nor is it at all impossible to stoutly disagree with someone while maintaining an attitude of profound respect and (unpatronizing) love toward them. These can be difficult realities for members of our politically polarized society to accept.
Some have argued that it is a sort of strategic suicide for the Church to press its historic sexual ethic in the face of such massive societal opposition. Are we not foolishly alienating gays and lesbians, along with their friends and allies, to say nothing of entire generations (GenX, Millennials, others), in our adherence to norms that are both outmoded and positively hurtful? From a purely practical perspective, of course, this is doubtlessly the case. I cannot deny that it is sorely tempting to simply “cave” under the pressure for the sake of just being heard rather than reactively hated, taken seriously rather than immediately ridiculed. Evangelization, however, is not a popularity contest. Truth is not determined by majority vote. The gospel is nearly always proclaimed under adverse conditions. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism for their belief that the Eucharistic elements indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. Their refusal to indulge in violence cost tens of thousands of them their lives in arenas across the Roman Empire. A rather hollow gesture of civic loyalty—a pinch of incense on some hot coals—would have saved thousands more. We ought not to needlessly court martyrdom, but laboring under adversity is the calling of a disciple. The One who rewards such labor, the Author of the good news we are endeavoring to share, is surely not blind to it.
One of the spiritual mysteries that has been impressed deeply upon me during the course of my life is the ubiquity of God’s grace. God’s grace, his favorable disposition towards us, is everywhere. It is assuredly present in the channels covenanted by God himself—the reading and proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments—but it is in innumerable other places as well. It is present in places where it might not surprise us: in the beauty of nature, in works of art, in the love of human relationships. It is also present in places where we might least expect to find it—in the pain of sickness, disability, and death; in rejection, betrayal, and scorn; even, I would be bold enough to suggest, in our own sin. God is not above exploiting any tool at his disposal for the accomplishment of his redemptive purposes, even those occasions when, in our words and actions, we seem to reject him. God wants us to put our whole selves—all that we are and all that we have—at his disposal. This includes our sexuality. It’s an imposing challenge. God’s ubiquitous grace is more imposing still.