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Sex & Christianity, things haven’t been static for 2000 years

Sex & Christianity, things haven’t been static for 2000 years

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.40.07 PMCarol Kuruvilla, the Religion Associate Editor at Huffington Post, has written an article were she claims that the relationship between Christianity and sex has not been the same for the past 2000 years as we are so often told here at the Café by more conservative friends. She offers 6 points to show some of the ways that the relationship of the Church toward sex has changed over 2 millennia.

  1. Jesus had very little to say about sex.
  2. To be a truly devoted Christian during the earliest days of the church, you needed to stop having sex altogether.
  3. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity, many Christians wouldn’t have considered getting married in a church.
  4. For much of the church’s history, sex within a marriage was only tolerated because it produced children.
  5. The Church developed some rules about sex that would seem strange to even the most conservative American Christians today.
  6. Despite these varying standards for sex, love, and marriage, Christians have usually ended up doing their own thing.

It isn’t a university paper, but it is filled with links to interesting support for her claims and which also make interesting reading. Pop over to the article6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Christianity And Sex, where she fleshes out her points that I have shared here.

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Prof. Christopher Seitz

I agree that we cannot know “whether the work of the Holy Spirit or a rhetorical strategy” and that is itself at the heart of the concern of those wanting to keep the character of marriage as set forth in the BCP and not begin a new experiment.

In my view you are correct to state that a change like this *may not have the backing of the Holy Spirit.* Because the Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself in the nature of the case — leaving aside the idea that He has changed His mind over time; that is controversial enough in itself — He must be speaking in the name of the Father and the Son in one place (either as in the BCP 1979 or in the different idea now being voted in) and decidedly not in another.

If the Holy Spirit is backing a new understanding of marriage, the BCP 1979 is/was wrong and those who believe it states the proper understanding are wrong and must be denounced. And if that is so, there should be no provision for temporary withholding of the rite and in the next BCP the former rite must be removed altogether.

I cannot see how the Holy Spirit can be called upon on any other terms.

And the obverse is true as well, logically.

Tobias Haller

Those who see the matter in such stark zero-sum terms will no doubt agree with you. However, there is no need to regard the BCP on marriage as “definitive” (that is, a definition) in an exclusionary sense. Nor do I think that was the intent.

For example, the BCP also says that marriage is “life-long” and faithful. At the same time, the church recognizes that marriages end, and it allows (via the Canons) for the remarriage of persons who have still living former spouses — using those very same liturgies, repeating the same vows with a different party. Some would say (indeed do say) that this is contrary both to Scripture and tradition (as well as the vast bulk of the whole church you cited earlier); and, it can be argued far more clearly so than same-sex marriage.

This seems to me a much more apposite concern if one is to talk of changes that ought to be denounced, given the relative clarity of Scripture, tradition, and reason on the subject; and if one is to accept the standards you approve.

So is this really a matter of standards, or of selected applications? If the church can change (or just ignore) the “definition” in this arguably important respect, why not in the other — especially when that other maintains the morally important aspect (fidelity and permanence) rather than discarding it?

I, for one, do not believe that the Holy Spirit has in fact said (in Scripture) that same-sex marriage is impossible; so no contradiction is posited on my part. Obviously you disagree on that point; but again, as I noted, this is not the place to argue out these differences. As far as I’m concerned, the matter has been settled; though of course it may come up again at the next General Convention, at which I do not expect to be present. Given the massive support at the last, I do not foresee a reversal.

William (Bill) Paul

TEC changed the definition clearly for it is no longer one man and one women. Thus it is now a different kind of thing. I’m not even sure what it means to says “degrees” which is the point I was taking on. My point would stand even if I agreed with the change. You are rehearsing some of your arguments against what you think are counter-arguments. I am simply pointing out a rhetorical strategy. By your logic, of course, polyamarous, polygamist, and other relationships could be included in an expanding circle of marriage, following the “increasing degrees” pattern you use. What would count, in your view, as a change in “kind”?

Tobias Haller

As I say, Mr. Paul, what matters is what you think is central to marriage. If you think the “male and female” is central, then of course you would say this is a change in “kind.” If, as I do, one thinks the important “core” involves mutuality and fidelity, then a change in kind would be polygamy (because reciprocal mutuality is not possible among more than two people — the very fact one says “among” rather than “between” indicates this simple truth). Another example might be a “marriage of convenience” undertaken for some ulterior motive, and dissolved after that goal is achieved. So you have misunderstood my “logic” if you think it supports polygamy or casual relationships.

This isn’t a “rhetorical strategy.” It is about discerning what is right. And it depends on what you think is essential to marriage. If you think the “male and female” is essential, as many do, you are welcome to make a case; though, as I say, this is not the best forum in which to make it.

Scott Fisher

People can of believe what they want of course, but that belief may or may not be true. I’ll refer you back to Dr. Seitz’s original post on March 6 only as a reminder that the church has never blessed homosexual unions and that TEC attempt to do so is clearly at odds with the scriptural witness. This willingness on the part of the homosexual lobby within TEC to continue to throw the church into turmoil promotes schism obviously and will not end well.
I’ve noticed that almost without exception the people who support homosexual marriage have some kind of social justice agenda,are active homosexuals,or usually both and want to use the church to validate their lifestyle and/or agenda. This kind of behavior is certainly duplicitous, but not surprising. For example, for the vast majority of my parish, the question of homosexual marriage is just not something that we care that much about. What we do care about is being faithful and not throwing our beloved church into chaos unnecessarily. However, for the very small homosexual cohort, this issue seems to be their primary focus, interesting dynamic.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this unfortunate situation, the faithful members of TEC who follow the traditional teachings of the church, and the biblical witness, concerning holy matrimony will continue to oppose this false teaching and deception. The faithful will do so despite attempts to demonize and marginalize them.

Jean Lall

Well, so far you have accused me of “running reason into the ground” and now of duplicitousness. You characterize me and others who support same-sex marriage and oppose the demonization of LGBT people of being “part of the homosexual lobby”, willing to “continue to throw the church into turmoil” and promote schism. You allege that people like me “almost without exception . . . have some kind of social justice agenda, are active homosexuals, or usually both and want to use the church to validate their lifestyle and/or agenda.” I shall overlook the sheer nastiness of this assertion and just note that like many, many Episcopalians who advocate for same-sex marriage, I am an old heterosexual married lady (one husband, 48 years and counting) and a grandmother. My lifestyle is one of trying to follow Jesus, who (I am sorry to have to tell you) upset the observant religious people of his own day with his social justice agenda, which according to Gospel accounts he both preached and demonstrated in his actions. He was willing to go out on a limb and point out where the respectable folks and religious authorities of his community were failing to bring justice and mercy to the people who needed it most.

You might want to look in the mirror and consider your own agenda and how you may be trying to use the church to validate it. It is apparent that preserving the taboo against homosexuality and the myth of a pure tradition of heterosexual marriage are more important to you than evidence or reason.

William (Bill) Paul

Hard to give assent to T Haller’s claim that the change made by TEC is an expansion ‘in degree not in kind.’ The “we’re enlarging marriage” slogan seems like a rhetorical strategy to me, esp as same-sex marriage changes, well, the kinds of people marrying, the scope of the kinds of goods, the multiple bases on which the BCP understood marriage to be grounded, and the kind of event Jesus blessed w/ his first miracle.

Tobias Haller

Bill Paul, I can understand your wish to withhold your consent to these propositions, though the House of Bishops and of Deputies has given its assent. The only change is one of degree, enlarging the range of “the kinds of people” who can marry; but my position is that the “heart” of what marriage is remains the same.

Of course, that is where we disagree. What it comes down to is really very simple, and it all depends on what you think is at the “heart” of marriage — is it the necessity of “male and female” or the necessity of moral values of fidelity, self-giving, and mutual love? Of course, some would say, “both,” and so retain the “male and female” as essential. But that is, if you’ll pardon the observation, “begging the question” and assuming something that is not proven. If one could persuasively explain why “male and female” is essential for marriage, that might help. But most of the efforts to do so in the past (recent and ancient) run aground on the shoals of the real practice of the church. (For example, just to take one point, marriage can’t be said to be limited to those capable of procreation because the church allows those who cannot procreate to marry. So “procreation” is not essential.)

Moreover, the Scripture itself, for example in Ephesians, raises the bar considerably in that what the author says is truly important in marriage is its likeness to “Christ and the Church” or “a man to his own body.” So it isn’t, as Galatians also notes, ultimately about “male and female” but about fidelity, mutual self-offering, and reciprocal love.

This is not the place to argue out (again) what was presented to the church at General Convention, which was debated and voted on, and approved. Some will indeed find it hard to agree with those actions; but whether the work of the Holy Spirit or a rhetorical strategy (or both!) these are the actions which were taken.

Jean Lall

I think the significance of Kuruvilla’s essay is that not only HAS Church teaching on sexuality varied over the centuries, but it SHOULD change as the social and cultural context changes.

Religions are not immaculate packages of truth dropped from Heaven and meant to be literally believed and slavishly followed forever after. Each one represents the reception by a particular human community of a powerful and ongoing encounter with the divine. The reality of that encounter is necessarily expressed and preserved in the language and imagery of the cultural environment in which it occurs. The experience of being moved and shaken by the very source of all existence, the glimpse of that truth which lies far beyond our comprehension yet is the ground of our understanding and reasoning, calls us not only to awe and adoration but to immediate and thoroughgoing ethical reflection. The social arrangements which order our lives must be scrutinized and reformed in order to reflect what we have dimly perceived of the divine will for us. This process must be ongoing, as social arrangements are always local, provisional and imperfect. By virtue of their finite nature, they can never reflect or embody divine truth in more than a partial and temporary way. They must be subject to alteration as new circumstances arise, and as human knowledge increases and more refined ethical perspectives emerge. Simply copying the moral rules laid down by ancient tribal peoples or leaning on the ethical reasoning of medieval philosophers (however instructive these may be) is intellectually and ethically lazy.

Laws and customs relating to sexual behavior, gender identity, and marriage are integral to the entire fabric of a society. They reflect its economic and political structure and reinforce its cosmology. Patriarchal social orders emerged as human communities shifted from hunting and gathering modes of subsistence to herding and cultivation. Control of land and property became an overriding concern, leading to the establishment of patriarchal marriage customs and sexual taboos, which emphasized a strong and unambiguous male identity, the safeguarding of women’s chastity and (as has been noted above) their transfer from father to husband, essentially as property, in a business transaction. The Church was invited to bless this way of doing marriage, which it did, in different ways at different times. It also got heavily into the land and property business (and eventually into the acquisition of vast quantities of plundered gold and other precious commodities). There is no reason to think that any of this was specifically ordained of God; it represented an accommodation (a marriage, if you like) between spiritual rulers and the political and economic powers of the times.

During the colonial period Christian missionaries began heavily evangelizing the Americas, Africa and Asia, imposing culturally-bound Western sexual mores and marriage norms on a variety of cultures, presenting them as integral to the Gospel and justifying this by means of a selective reading of Scripture. This now comes back to bite us (see also the March 5 post on the United Methodists’ heartbreaking dilemma, as North Americans are outvoted on same-sex marriage by African and Asian branches of their denomination). And the argument is made (by Professor Seitz and others) that the numbers of Christians worldwide who hold to these norms should be determinative in our own decisions. They, according to this view, are the ones hewing to “tradition,” while those of us advocating for change are just into “permissiveness”; our arguments are seen as self-serving. I suggest rather that missionary Christianity has propagated a wrong understanding of “tradition” and now must repent of that.

Scripture (the surviving account of how our ancient forebears in the faith grappled with the revelation of the ineffable God and the demands it made upon them) and Tradition (the history of our ongoing journey with that God and those demands, aided by the Holy Spirit) have to be viewed in the light of Reason. And reason asks, in our present social and historical context:

(1) Why would God, who created an immensely complex world that includes amazing sexual complexity and fluidity in animals as well as in humans, want to condemn same-sex attraction and behavior? Most moral and ethical commandments seem to be based on preventing harm and encouraging human flourishing and care for the world. How would the existence of homoerotic feeling, the expression of that feeling, and the bonding of two people on the basis of it, constitute an offense against divine order? How would it be harmful to creation? Who would be damaged by it, and how?

(2) To the person who opposes same-sex marriage, who accuses those in favor of it of being self-interested: What do you yourself have at stake here? How would your world be damaged by the extension of blessings to same-sex unions and families?

Scott Fisher

Episcopalians speak often of the importance of the three legged stool of scripture,tradition,and reason. All true, but we’ve latched on to that reason horse and ridden it into the ground. Reason cannot answer question #1 it seems to me. Isaiah 55 reminds us that God’s thoughts and ways are infinitely more complex than ours. There are questions like these that can’t be answered,but we know that God’s word is unambiguously negative on homosexual practice in both the Old and New Testaments.
Well while the ancients were primitive they weren’t stupid. God chose these people to communicate His will to all His people going forward in time which means us!
Question #2 is another matter. God has called us to be faithful to His word and commandments. His word prohibits homosexual practice and calls for marriage to be only between one man and one woman. Faithful Christians who oppose homosexual practice and homosexual marriage are being obedient to God, not disobedient, and rejecting sinful behavior. Fidelity to God is what’s at stake.

Jean Lall

There is not much point in discussing this matter as our premises are incompatible. It’s apparent that you actually do believe that “God’s word” = the Bible, which was apparently dropped immaculately from Heaven with full instructions as to how human beings are to conduct their lives forever afterwards. Where is your evidence for the “one man, one woman” restriction, when the Bible is full of other (sometimes very weird) forms of marriage? You are talking past all the evidence here. But I appreciate your stating what your agenda is: to preserve your particular understanding of religious truth and of obedience to God. Conveniently, this understanding enables you to feel righteous about your view of homosexual relationships.

David Streever

Why do so many linguists disagree with you on this? There is a wealth of linguistic analysis positing that God is surprisingly mum on the type of committed same-sex marriages people are currently having. If it’s possible, if not likely, that those early writings were condemning specific practices that are alien to modern same-sex couples in committed marriages, why take the least possible open interpretation?

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