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Essay

While you’re at it…a syllabus of issues to address regarding marriage and sexuality

By June 15, 2015 One Comment
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By Branson Parler

This past semester I was on sabbatical from my teaching duties at Kuyper College. My research interests of late have come to focus on the theology of marriage, family, and sexuality. This direction has been a bit of a surprise to me, because I had not focused on this area throughout my graduate theological education. From another angle, though, it’s not a surprise at all. I’m often drawn to areas that are both controversial and complex.

So I’ve watched with interest the way that both Reformed Church and Christian Reformed General Synods are dealing with the questions surrounding the how our theology and practice address the concerns of LGBT Christians. But I also wonder whether our myopic focus on this particular question distracts us from the complex and multifaceted questions that confront the church today. With respect to many issues of marriage and sexuality, I’m afraid, North American Protestants have largely run on the theological fumes of the past without actually articulating a robust theology of the body, sexuality, marriage, and the family that can be heard and proclaimed as good news.

I get the sense that churches that want to be faithful in the coming decades will be those that can address not just one issue but this entire area of concern in a comprehensive, coherent, and clear way. To that end, here is a brief list of theological and pastoral issues that we need to continue to work on. I don’t have space to expound on these at length, but I would love to hear if there are further angles or issues you would add to this list.

• Contraception and artificial reproductive technologies. Both of these separate sexual union from procreation. In practice, Protestants often treat both of these areas as a-moral or simply say, “It’s complicated,” which we then take as a license to do whatever is right in our own eyes. Our culture has reduced sexual union in two ways: as a purely biological act and as a purely spiritualized, subjective act that has whatever meaning we ascribe to it. If we refuse both forms of reductionism, can we blithely use contraception as though our individual choice is the only factor in this decision? If we refuse biological reductionism, then can we simply unite sperm and eggs from persons who are not spouses to produce a child? How does our hospitality (or lack thereof) toward the ultimate stranger—a potential child—shape us to be hospitable people in other ways?

• A renewed theology and practice of singleness. Protestants often treat single Christians as second-class citizens. It’s unbiblical and it needs to stop. We need to ask themselves: what way of life together is going to produce flourishing for all members, married and single alike? This can’t just mean having a “singles group” in the church, but cultivating a way of life that integrates families and single Christians into a community together. This will probably require families and single Christians alike to restructure our patterns of life.

• Properly distinguishing between the church and world. Our sexual ethics are largely Constantinian. That is, conservative and liberal Christians alike tend to assume that the Christian view and practice should be the norm (or close to it) of the broader culture. That’s not the expectation we find in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is very helpful: we can and should expect to rub shoulders with unbelievers who are sexually immoral, greedy, and idolatrous. It’s not our business to judge those outside the community. Paul adamantly invokes Deuteronomy, however, to emphasize that it is very much our business to judge those who claim to be Christian but who are unrepentant in any sin, including sexual sin. Unfortunately, Christians often switch around Paul’s instructions. We severely judge those in the world while turning a blind eye to the sin in our own community. The specter of legalism scares some from exercising real discipline, while others justify their graceless judgmentalism with appeals to holiness. Grace-filled accountability and discipline/discipleship of one another is difficult but it is the way of true life.

• Our practice of wedding ceremonies. What do our wedding ceremonies say about our theology of marriage? The more I reflect on it, the more I am coming to think that the wedding vows might be most fitting within our Sunday liturgy. If the wedding is not just an exhibition of the couple’s personal tastes and personalities but is a further step of sanctification—a call to come and die to self to a higher degree—then it makes sense to embed the wedding within the liturgy of the gathered body. And by all means, be sure that there is a party to accompany it! Perhaps we even need to consider the way in which the entire church can contribute to that party rather than making it the sole responsibility of the couple and their parents. The communal nature of the entire ceremony and celebration would be a helpful antidote to the wedding-industrial complex.

• Distinguishing state marriage and Christian marriage. One facet of this is our theology and practice of divorce. If Christian marriage is more than a legal contract and includes vows made before God and the church, then getting a divorce decree from the state does not address the question of whether one is divorced in the eyes of God and the church. Both spheres of state and church have a proper interest in marriage, but we Protestants have largely given up our call to accountability in the matter of divorce. The fact that many divorced folks have met with graceless judgmentalism should be a call to repentance that manifests itself in proper, gracious, and loving biblical accountability, not an excuse to cast discernment aside.

The problem with implementing any of these is that they call for real accountability and discipleship. The consumer mindset of many Protestants simply says, “If I don’t like the way my church holds me accountable, I’ll just leave.” I don’t know the solution to that problem, but I suspect that our willingness to set aside our church membership vows is intertwined with the above issues as well.

As I said, this list is just a beginning. Most of these might be obvious, but I think our theology and practice have not been developed very intentionally in these areas. The time for simply going with the flow on all of these things is past. I’d love to hear if you have further reflections on what to add or how to revise this list.

Branson Parler teaches theological studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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