So you want to start a revolution. What Do You Want the New Standard for the Church to Be Regarding Sex and Marriage?

Call for the Church to Change

My blog is filled with links passionate calls for the church (or rather conservative churches) to change their formal and informal positions on sexuality. The most recent, earnest effort is for churches to practice “inclusion” of the LGBTQ community and/or affirm the moral equivalence of same sex marriages to heterosexual marriages.

While there is a lot of passion and energy pushing the message that “the church should change” there is actually very little specificity about exactly how the church should change especially given the broad range and practice of regulating sexuality that churches face regularly. While all of the attention is on sexual minorities most of the sex the church confronts is heterosexual sex, a form of sex that even after the widespread availability of birth control continues to be extremely consequential for the life of the church and its members. It is naive to imagine that all of the attention given to concerns about LGBTQ persons won’t impact the churches traditions regarding regulating heterosexual sex.

My challenge to those who are clamoring for change along the very narrow front of LGBTQ concern I’d like to hear what they propose for changes to how the church regulates sex in general?

Church Mirrors State

In case you haven’t noticed churches, especially Protestant ones, tend to over the long run mirror the institutional practices and assumptions of the broader society and the state in particular in terms of governance. Protestant churches like the CRCNA tend to have rather democratic traditions of church governance. Things change in the church because people’s minds change in the church and in time those changes filter into the norms and standards of the church. This of course is a source of hope for some and despair for others.

On this subject it is important to note that over the last 100 years government has been increasingly trying to get out of the business of regulating sex. You might be surprised how recently sodomy laws where universal in the United States. The range of legal restrictions on sex has narrowed considerably.

  • Age of Consent
  • Rape (non-consensual sex)
  • Sexual harassment (consent and power)
  • Sex and Commerce: prostitution, decency laws, obscenity, etc.
  • Child support: if you are responsible for bringing a child into the world you should be responsible in supporting and raising that child.

The message is clear. The government wants to stay out of what consenting adults decide to do with their bodies. It also has an interest in protecting children.

While people continue to have moral feelings about sexuality the assumption that moral feelings are private and shouldn’t be imposed on others is also the standard of the day. This assumption increasingly pervades the public’s opinions about how the church should regulate sex.

The relationship between sex and marriage is also important here. The government’s retreat in regulating sex has meant that the government’s interest in regulating marriage is limited to property rights, parental rights and spousal benefits. The government wants to retreat from the question of “who can marry” along the lines of retreat from regulating sex. Marriage is for consenting adults.

In terms of the state’s interest, the relationship between sex and marriage is increasingly thin. Marital rape laws further separate the assumed relationship between sex and marriage. Adultery laws like sodomy laws were once nearly universal but are now a thing of the past.

The Church, Sex and Marriage

The church, unlike the state, regulates sex with marriage. The traditional standard of “mere Christianity” was pretty much universal. The only morally permissible sex is between hetersexual married persons. All other sex between persons was forbidden and a violation of God’s will for human sexuality. There were always some gray areas, masturbation, polygamy, the sex lives of Old Testament persons, but for the post part this was the rule and its embrace was surprisingly universal given how many other things orthodox and heterodox churches couldn’t agree upon.

While the standard remained remarkably stable how the church regulated sex and marriage could vary by context and culture. Premarital sex, extra-marial sex, concubinage, common law marriage, divorce, annulment and many other practices and traditions saw differing responses in different places. Regulation tended to come in different forms and practice:

  • Celebration: the church participates in solemnizing and celebrating marriage explicitly and sexuality implicitly
  • Affirmation: the church recognizes and affirms marriages explicitly and sexuality implicitly
  • Toleration: the church tolerates certain practices usually informally often through a lot of “don’t ask, don’t tell” behaviors. People may be doing things the church doesn’t sanction but for whatever reasons the church tolerates the situation or behavior.
  • Censure: the church condemns a practice verbally and will admonish members and non-members verbally but the church doesn’t necessarily act by excommunicating someone, barring them from office, etc.
  • Formal Discipline: the church acts to exclude someone from membership, communion, employment or office based on marital behavior or sexual behavior.

Same Sex Marriage

The same sex marriage debate has obviously forced change upon the church.

  • Powerful voices and forces are asking and increasingly demanding the church to change its position on gay and lesbian couples
  • Mostly mainline churches have switched from toleration to affirmation and celebration of same sex couples. These churches are also looking to affirm and include transgender bisexual and gender queer individuals and couples and their sexuality. Questions are still outstanding in terms of what if any limits will be found or whether the mainline will simply adopt the government’s posture towards sexuality.
  • Christian institutions that have reflected the church’s traditional standards for sex and marriage are under increasing pressure to reflect the government’s standards for employment and benefits.
  • While the church may have traditionally been commonly viewed by the broader culture as prudish and sometimes unreasonable in terms of sexuality it was assumed to align with common moral assumptions regarding sex and marriage. Increasingly conservative churches are seen as being immoral by holding and/or regulating a traditional Christian standard for sex and marriage. Churches have gone from being prudes to bigots.

Changes in Heterosexual Practice

While the LGBTQ concerns are getting all of the attention what is really rocking the church are the more quiet changes in heterosexual marital and sexual standards.

Premarital Sex: While everyone knew the church’s traditional standard with respect to sex and marriage premarital sex was of course not uncommon in the Christian community. Regulations varied from “tolerance” in a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to censure or even formal discipline in cases where people “got caught”. There might be some for discipline but in many cases the assumption was the couple would get married, or the child be put up for adoption, and in things would regularize in time. What was important in the long term was that the standard was upheld as being the best practice and sinners who stumbled could become saints in time and with support.

This has quietly migrated in the culture to the point where the church’s standard is now questioned as not only “unreasonable” or “impractical” but even “unhealthy”. It is increasingly assumed that sexual experimentation and enjoyment is a normal healthy part of adolescence and young adulthood and that the church should wake up and smell the coffee. Whereas in the past it was assumed Christian parents would enforce separate sleeping arrangement for unmarried adult and adolescent children and censure trips and outings where propriety could be in some ways assured such practices are increasingly culturally censured as regressive and unreasonable.

Cohabitation: If it is assumed that sex is a normal, healthy practice in dating it is also widely assumed that living together is a healthy and normal stage in a couple’s relational evolution. Cohabitation, like legal same sex marriage has eliminated church toleration options like “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

While in the previous era couples in time would affirm the traditional standard co-habitation challenges it. In the previous era a couple could affirm the standard and the church recognize that they’ve failed the standard cohabitation challenges the standard and forces the church to either defend the standard through censure or discipline or practice toleration on a more public level. In other words the church would have to formally tolerate rather than implicitly, on a case by case basis tolerate cohabitation.

It would also then have to figure out new standards for cohabitation and determine if the church should develop new standards by considering these relationships to be “common law” marriages and approaching them accordingly or something else. This forces the church to move from a simple, public, well-known standard to adopt more ad hoc, experimental standards and situational standards.

  • “We’ll tolerate X and Y’s undocumented marriage and try to move them towards documented marriage
  • but censure A for cheating on B in their undocumented marriage
  • while trying to get K and R to stop living together because it is clearly an unhealthy relationship.
  • All the while Q has been in three living situations in the last 6 years and while we don’t want to say anything its caused trouble in two other families in the church.

I assume if the church affirms same sex couples then it will have all of these issues to deal with with gays and lesbians and even more complex ones with bisexuals, transgenders, queers and all the young people today who are constructing their own sexualities on the fly.

Senior Concubinage: Increasingly the church is having to engage the question of “church only marriages” later in life. Seniors who are often widowed would like to remarry for the sake of sex and companionship but do not wish to encumber their financial arrangements. They ask the church leadership to officiate at a church wedding but not sign a legal marriage license so that their marriage is “off the books” as far as the government goes. Pastors who would find such an arrangement morally problematic if a poor couple were attempting to avoid a reduction in welfare benefits find themselves under pressure to accept this from regular tithers and former office bearers asking for this “reasonable accommodation”. These arrangements look increasingly hypocritical given all of the other questions on the table.

Need-based Sexual Behavior: As sex is increasingly assumed to be a basic bodily function and urge and as traditional limitations on these urges are increasingly assumed to be unreasonable and impractical the church’s traditional stands against pornography, prostitution and other “lewd” behaviors will find pressure to recede. Why should the “privacy” argument not continue to expand if sexuality like other needs can be met by technological and market based solutions? We can easily assume that technology and the market will continue to help those who for whatever reason are not able to find satiation of their sexual needs within a relationship with another human partner. Why should the church say anything about people meeting their needs especially when various reasons (age, healthy, social skills, wealth, appearance, etc.) keep them from being able to have a “legitimate” outlet for their needs? Pornography, virtual reality, robotics, surrogacy, sex trade are all available and as long as all are consenting adults why should the church complain?

The Cultural Trajectory

Trajectory arguments are favorites for the church affirming or celebrating same sex marriage in the church today. The cultural trajectory with respect to the church regulating sex and marriage seems increasingly clear. The message is that we want the church to continue to mirror the standards of the government. The church should let the individual construct their own standards for sexual authenticity and flourishing and be available to affirm or celebrate when called upon. Sexual relationships are fundamentally libertarian and contractual between consenting adults. The church should not impinge on an individual’s choice of partner nor relationship.

The church actually gets very conflicting signals along these line because when contractual violations have occurred, formal or informal, community or church members who feel themselves wronged also wish the church to in some ways adjudicate the transgression and denounce the violator.

Where Is the New Line? 

It seems to me that there are a number of requests/demands facing the church today.

  • that the church should no longer consider the gender of persons in a relationship as part of the standard for marriage?
  • that the church should stay out of the sexual lives of members?
  • that the church should stay out of the sexual lives of leaders?
  • that the church should mirror the standards of the broader society as seen in government?

This conversation is enlightening between a “third-way” pastor and one advocating inclusion of the polyamorous.

J: Would you bring all three parents or four parents up during a baby dedication or any other special church service?

D: I have no desire to police the relationships of our people.

Pastor “D” pretty much expresses where society is at.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in CRC, Culture commentary, Institutional Church and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to So you want to start a revolution. What Do You Want the New Standard for the Church to Be Regarding Sex and Marriage?

  1. Harris says:

    I would think that behind this is the question of embodiment, and with it, of theologically shaped (and limited) lives. In many ways this digital/libertarian age (yes, looking at you, Silicon Valley) has been one of disembodiment, the notion that our social lives can be broken down into individual choices, that concrete and physical goods can be mediated abstractly by phosphors, like now, as I write. What does it mean to live with bodies, our own and those of others? What limitations do we assume? What obligations do we pick up? Does the body have an imperative or precedent as to how I live?

    To dive deeper, the question is one of kenosis, of emptying; sex bumps us up into the question of Incarnation.

    And to be clear: embodiment does not mean the casual, “oh creation good, sex good.” Embodiment has the questions of age, decay, time all tucked into it. Moreover, embodiment also has a sort of telos — we are embodied for some purpose. Sex does not exist for itself, but for the Kingdom: how do we live this physical life in a way that demonstrates and proclaims the kerygma?

    Lots more thoughts, but these will do.

    Ok, one political thought: sex/marriage always has a social dimension. The household is the the state in miniature, if you will. Yet also, the regulation of sex is a form of social expression and power as well (we still do this, not with sodomy laws, but by the telling the story of absentee fathers and welfare babies – the racial dimension lies barely beneath the surface). How we construct our sexuality reflects how we construct our social relations: it’s not only about fucking, but who’s getting fucked. (And with this, there’s another entire essay about how this intersects with a warming world, and what sort of society and social relations will allow people to survive — I rather think that this pushes toward a more “traditional” viewpoint. But this is something for another day).

  2. Dan Flikweert says:

    Why not have the line right where the Bible prescribes?

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