Last month Andrew Bunt of Kings Church Hastings and ‘Living out’ was a guest speaker at one of our leader’s evenings. Andrew skilfully and passionately outlined for us a biblical vision of sexuality which contrasted strikingly with what is normal in contemporary British culture. I think what struck me was what how cohesive, clear and biblical his outline was, but that it ‘felt’ so controversial, because of the cultural water we swim in. I think what stood out most was Andrew’s emphasis on a biblical view of marriage, as a union where the Judeo- Christian Biblical procreation mandate is taken seriously. He didn’t claim that it is the priority for all human flourishing, or that it is necessary for marital ‘felt- fulfilment’, but that within the biblical vision of sex and marriage in Genesis 1-3 it is central. Genesis 1:28 begins, famously, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…’. It struck me that if we want to emphasise and affirm Gen 1:27, the ‘image of God’ in humans and the male/female marriage partnership, we also have to affirm the task they’re given. And if we want to base our vision of marriage on this Genesis vision, as Jesus did (e.g. Matthew 19), we have to grapple with all of it even if it is culturally uncomfortable. You may well be feeling uncomfortable now. Please bear with me and keep reading.
As Andrew noted, of course, not all couples are able to have children and this can be very hard (Some may be married later in life, and so it would not be wise or even safe). But, perhaps, it is the biblical designation of marriage for sex and procreation that makes infertility so painful: that it wasn’t designed this way explains why it hurts. And the Bible shows many instances of infertility (often called ‘barrenness’) through the lives of Sarah and Abraham, other biblical ‘patriarchs’ and the prophet Samuel’s mum, for instance. I think that behind these narratives is the story of Genesis 3 where a snake crusher must come to destroy the serpent. In that sense, the reversal of sin, the freedom of humanity from the ‘Serpent Dragon’, was dependent on the promise-fulfilment of the family line. In the story of Israel, therefore, procreation really matters. Satan keeps trying to kill off the children (e.g. Exodus 1 and Matthew 1) but God’s mandate and promise wins. We could say that without the priority of procreation in Israel there would have been no Messiah, no overthrow of the devil, no Jesus, no resurrection, no redemption of the world, no death of death, destruction of sin or, indeed, any hope at all.
Nonetheless, the idea that procreation was intended to be a priority in marriage is not easy to swallow for all of us. Firstly it can hit our idea of individual sovereignty, our freedom of choice. In our culture my person choice is everything. The ‘Disney model’ of individual romantic fulfilment, and the idea that sex itself is some kind of spiritual height that everyone must achieve is also something we’ve all been sold since we were children. In fact, there’s evidence that we live in a culture that often conveys a relative hatred of the body but somehow idolizes the inner ‘self-identity’ that we somehow all have to ‘find’. Understandably it also rubs up against feminist concerns. Eg. ‘are you saying that marriage is all about having children (and therefore that’s the woman’s job)?’ Answer: No, marriage is about several things (most fundamentally it’s about modelling the gospel- God’s reunification with humankind [Eph 5 and Rev 21]) but sex in Genesis is, first, about procreation.’ No matter how far we want to avoid this, sex is the way that humans reproduce and, in a Christian worldview, God designed it. Sex is also often pleasurable, as an act which affirms mutual self giving and commitment. In fact the book Song of Songs seems to really affirm this element too. But the Genesis 1 vision is of humans made in the ‘image of God’ taking the ‘image of God’ (i.e. more little humans) to the ends of the earth. Does that remind of you another important mandate?
In some of his final words on earth, Jesus called all of his disciples to make disciples of all nations. And Jesus, by the way, was single. And so was his most effective apostle, Paul. So God’s vision for humanity is obviously not merely about procreation. But this great commission (Matthew 28:18-20), alongside the ‘cultural mandate’ (Genesis 1:28) calls singles and couples alike to take part in sharing the good news of Jesus and to do it together. We all, if you like, get to make ‘spiritual babies’ together and to be ‘spiritual mums and dads’. And this is not a ‘lesser thing’ than physical children, it’s the central calling Jesus gave to every one of his followers.
By the way, one of my favourite things to see is those moments when the church really functions as a family. At times in Gateway I’ve seen single people supporting parents through developing amazing relationships with their children, families offering their embrace to singles, ‘grandparent’ figures parenting new Christians, single parents with a whole host of support around them and the list goes on. Singles and couples can offer a wonderful complementarity to the body of Christ as we seek to be the community of light we’re called to be. But back to marriage and children….
In Matthew 19 it’s clear that there was a dangerous cultural confusion about marriage and divorce. It seems that men, in particular, found it very ‘convenient’ that they could divorce their wife ‘for any cause’ (19:4). Jesus, however, was having none of it. He understood that, for one, this would leave women in an extremely vulnerable position. So Jesus returns to the Genesis vision of marriage, the ‘one flesheness’ that made separation a very difficult thing. Because this challenged their cultural norms even the disciples were aghast, ‘if this is the case for marriage, maybe it’s better not to marry?.’ For them, the relative commitment and permanency required by Jesus’ theology of marriage was hard to swallow. For us, listening to Andrew’s outline, I bet something similar happened in some of our minds. ‘If you’re saying that all married couples should be open to having children, maybe it’s better not to marry?’ Indeed. Maybe, as Jesus and Paul taught, singleness in the kingdom could be a beautiful and wonderful thing too. I’m certainly looking forward to part two as I’m pretty sure Andrew might mention something about that.