More on Marriage
Sexual ethics has been an important part of the Church’s teaching over the past 2,000 years, touching as it does on every individual member of the church. Broadly speaking, the goods of marriage have been understood as the social utility it offers, the Christ-and-church-mirroring relationship it draws the couple into, and the context it provides for the raising of children. Or, as it is expressed in the order of service we use at weddings at my church:
Firstly, that the love of a man and woman for each other should be properly directed in a constructive relationship. This relationship is to be exclusive to them alone and it is to be permanent. Such is the nature of Christ’s relationship with His church and such is the nature of Christian marriage.
Secondly, God who created us knows of our need for a partner. He has given us marriage so that we may have a secure relationship with a lifelong friend, lover and provider. Marriage is the highest expression of friendship. It is the only honourable and moral basis for sexual love and it is the place where material, emotional and spiritual needs are met and provided for one another’s pleasure and comfort.
Thirdly, God has ordained the family unit as the foundation of human society. It is God’s will that children be born into a loving, caring family and are brought up under the example and guidance of parents who love the Lord and constantly express Christ’s love to one another.
The three-part framework I tend to use to explain this (especially when talking to young people) is ‘fruitfulness, faithfulness and sacrifice’. All three elements are essential; all are ‘primary’ but in different times and places there will need to be particular emphasis of one over the others. If I could sit down with Augustine I would want to talk with him about his failure to emphasise the relational aspect of sex. In our day, I think it is the procreative aspect that has to be emphasised, which is why it features as one of the points in my marriage manifesto.
In the church world I inhabit my observation would be that there has been a lot of talk about marriage needing to be faithful and a lot of talk about the sacrificial nature of marriage (if only because of the debate between egalitarians and complementarians) but there has been less focus on procreation. To a degree, this reflects something healthy, with a new honesty over the past couple of decades about the relational value of sex. However, I think it also reflects in degree our cultural sexualisation – the assumption that sex is primarily about physical pleasure and romance.
So, in three further posts, I will look at fruitfulness, faithfulness and sacrifice as they are meant to be worked out in marriage. All three aspects are primary, but procreation comes first!