“Not everyone can accept this statement [it is better not to marry],” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps. Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Matthew 19:11-12 (NLT)
I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35 (NLT)
“The celibate life is meant to be a compelling vision…an ‘eschatalogically fascinating’ sign to the church and the world.”
Barron, quoted in Tennant, For the Body, 81
Preface: When it comes to the topic of our bodies, sexuality, and life experiences, quite often the loudest voices are those of shame. Shame is not from the Holy Spirit. If we are feeling like we are wrong, that is not God's spirit speaking to you. Shame says "I am wrong", whereas guilt says "I have done wrong"-- and the purpose of God's spirit in our lives is to restore the original image of God in us.
Sunday’s sermon looked at the First Century Christian understanding of sexual expression. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians to answer some of their questions about sex, singleness and marriage (1 Corinthians 7).
We saw that Paul’s approach to the “divided life” (marriage) and the “singular focused life” (singleness) was that his personal opinion was that singleness was better. We noted that the North American church has spent a lot of time promoting Christian marriage and very little on what faithful singleness would look like. Paul’s conception of the church was that each person has a gift from God (to marry or to remain single, 1 Corinthians 7:7), and they should each respect the other’s calling. We ended with personal prayer regarding where we find ourselves (divided or singular focus) and then prayer for one another.
Later in the day we continued “Wrestlin’ with the Word.” Pastor Carl and I have committed to spending time working through the implications of our study on the body and sexuality with whoever wants to join us at 4pm on Sundays. For those who couldn’t make it, see below for the guide we used as well as a point-form synopsis of our discussion. This is one way you can keep up to speed on how we’re processing the questions around these important topics.
Note that next week (Feb 5) we won’t meet in the afternoon as we have our Annual General Meeting.
As always, if you have questions or feedback around these topics and our approach, Pastor Carl and I would love to hear from you.
Wrestlin’ with the Word – Session 3
Prayer for Wisdom and Unity
God, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light on the path of life. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and he lived in a human body like ours and shared this human life. May we, in our desire to be your image-bearers, love others as you have loved us. May your voice be heard in our conversation, and your mind be known in our pondering the mystery of our creation as your icons. Amen.
- North American cultural conceptions of marriage have been both elevated and lowered – it’s either “everything” or “nothing”
- The North American church has, in their attempt to speak to marriage in the culture, made more of marriage than scripture does!
- Jesus suggests celibate singleness is possible with God’s help (he did it himself!) (Matthew 19:11-12)
- Early Christians (especially Paul) saw singleness as at least equal to marriage, if not slightly superior (1 Corinthinas 7)
- Paul’s language: divided life/singular focused life
- Marriage points to Christ’s love for the Church
- Singleness points to the new creation where marriage won’t exist (Mark 12:25)
- Is genital sexual gratification essential to human flourishing? Why or why not?
- Does being single relegate one to 2nd-class status in our churches? Explain.
- How have cultural ideas about marriage influenced our church’s approach to marriage and singleness?
- How might the Church nurture and support both Kingdom callings: the divided life and the singular focus life? Does one need more attention than the other?
- Theologian Marva Dawn suggests our North American culture is experiencing a reduction in “sexual intercourse” in its original sense: men and women interacting in society. She notes that men/women interactions are now largely focused on genital sexuality or its possibility.
- What does this mean for those who are called to a singular focused life?
- How might the Church respond to the lack of “wholesome” (respecting the whole person) sexual (men and women) interaction?
Group Discussion: General Feedback
- When Paul says to marry if you can’t control yourself, is he just moving sexual brokenness into a marriage situation? I.e., if you don’t have self-control before marriage, you won’t magically get it within marriage--> would this lead to marriages with non-consensual sex?
- Two considerations when reading 1 Corinthians 7
- Paul does (quite radically for Roman times) call for mutual sexual gratification in marriage in 7:3-4 – this is not about men moving their sexual privilege from the wider community to the marriage bed (Roman male citizens exercised sexual freedom vs everyone else); see also Ephesians 5 where Paul models the love of husband and wife after the self-sacrificing love of Jesus for the Church (this would preclude any kind of forced, non-consensual relations within marriage)
- The group noted that Paul seems to ground the need for marriage in the curbing of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2), which is not the complete picture of why people marry (true!)
- It’s possible that Paul is thinking specifically about the Corinthian reputation of being a city with a very loose sexual ethic (“corinthianate” is roughly equal to our “what happens in Vegas…”) and therefore he feels that a monogamous Christian marriage would be a much better first step for new Christians in Corinth to avoid the wider sexual milleu than to try to force their way against the temptations present in their city (is this instructive for us today?).
- Is Paul being unfair to the women of his time by advocating for singleness? I.e., he had an education and a trade (tent-maker) so singleness wasn’t a burden for him in the way it might be for single women in the First century
- Very true, but it would seem that the emphasis on “widows and orphans” in the New Testament (James 1:27) is partly to do with supporting (socially and financially) Christian women who chose a singular focus life (after being widowed, and provided they do not have family to care for them – see next point)
- Paul is assuming the church will cover the living costs of women who choose singleness and in turn they will use their time for the ministry of the church (1 Timothy 5:1-16 is an interesting contrast to 1 Corinthians 7; note that here Paul does advise for marriage of younger women, again to avoid sexual immorality!)
- Some of those present had received negative messages about singleness within the church, but others hadn’t; we should be careful not to assume all single experiences in the church have been negative!
- Also note: if the church can’t get its head around singleness, it will never be able to respond effectively to those who identify as LGBTQ+.
Group Discussion: Questions
- Genital sexual expression isn’t essential, but it is a “good”
- God created human beings sexual, therefore it isn’t sinful in and of itself
- However, one can live a full and meaningful life without genital sexual expression (see Jesus!)
- A related question is, if someone desires it, should they be denied it?
Question 2 & 4
- In some cases, there clearly has been a bias toward marriage and against singleness, which does not match up with the New Testament scriptures
- Some of the difficulty is around not choosing the singular focus life, but finding oneself in it and wishing it weren’t so
- Can we as a church become a supporting and nurturing environment for single focus Christians, whether their singleness is a calling or whether it is a season of their life prior to marriage?
- What would that kind of Christian community look like?
Question 5 [Pastor J-M spoke to this briefly]
- If we take Prof. Dawn’s idea seriously, there must be spaces and places in our church life that allow for appropriate “sexual intercourse” (original meaning: men and women interacting)
- When and where can men and women be together as part of church life in healthy and positive ways to confirm our social sexuality and to alleviate some of the isolation that comes with modern conceptions of singleness? (remember men+women together are God’s image)