Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Biblical Show Stoppers in the Gender/Authority Debate

There is a civil war raging in the Church, a war that has been going on almost since the beginning of the Church. Ironically, most average Janes and Joes sitting in the pews of any given church are not aware that battles are being fought all around them even though the outcomes affect their daily lives. The reason? Because they have been indoctrinated into whatever doctrinal camp their church supports and so they view that doctrine as “normal”. Moreover, they believe that anyone who believes another doctrine is a “radical” and so they sit contentedly and don’t give it another thought. Yet, the war rages on.

And what is this war? What is being contested? It is the war over which sex (or whether any sex) is “in charge” in the church and in the home. I have been an observer and, at times, a warrior in these fights for a number of years now. What I see in the trenches is a perpetual stalemate between the warring factions. I have concluded that this stalemate is the result of either side’s interpretation of but a few biblical passages and concepts. Once those interpretations are firmly entrenched, there is no moving from a person’s conviction about what all of scripture has to say on the subject. In other words, because I believe “x” about passage or concept “y”, I believe “x” is the “truth” in every biblical passage or concept that even remotely touches on the subject.

The intent of this series of 4 posts (plus this introduction) is to attempt to offer proof instead of premise regarding four critical passages or concepts in scripture that drive the whole debate. I call these “show stoppers” because one’s belief about them basically dictates one’s belief about the subject as a whole. They stop the “show”, i.e. any meaningful discussion, and until the Church can come to consensus about what is meant in these show stoppers, any other discussion of gender and authority is just “spinning one’s wheels”.

So, are these passages and concepts some mystical, unknowable truths that won’t be revealed to us until we are with God in Heaven? Certainly not! I believe each of the four show stoppers contain the necessary evidence to not only prove they belong on one side of the argument, but to also prove conclusively that they don’t belong on the other side. The task is to get those on side B, the unsupported side, to discard the dogma and premises of culture and doctrine and see that the conclusions of side A line up with God’s intent in inspiring the biblical text.

Now, lest anyone think that I am simply just another side A dogmatic, restating for the umpteenth time what I have always heard and presumed to be true, I want the reader to know that I have been, at one time or another, on both sides of the debate over each of these four passages/concepts. I have arrived at my conclusions about the show stoppers not because someone has told me what to conclude and not because I simply presume what is true without proof, but because I have both heard and made the arguments for both sides and through that rhetorical process have determined that the truth is quite evident from an informed interpretation of the text. What has been lacking is the informed part of our interpretation. That is what I hope to provide.

And what are the two sides that I speak of? Their self assigned labels are “complementarians” and “egalitarians”. Whether you know it or not, each and every one of us is falls into one of these two groups. The labels, though, are somewhat difficult to wrap our heads around (at least they are for me). So, let me describe each so the reader knows exactly where their starting point is.

“Complementarianism is a term used to describe a conservative theological view held by many in Christianity and other world religions that men and women have different roles and responsibilities, as manifested in marriage, religious leadership, and elsewhere.”
Wikipedia – “Complementarian”

“Christian Egalitarianism holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ. All have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God. God freely calls believers to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race.”
Wikipedia – “Christian Egalitarianism”

At the center of the debate between these two sides is the allocation of authority. Complementarians believe that in home and church, males have authority over females (to greater or lesser degrees depending on how “hard” or “soft” a complementarian you are). Egalitarians believe that there is no biblical authority granted to one gender over the other, and moreover, that hierarchies of power regardless of how that power is assigned are antithetical to the design of the Church or marriage as presented by Jesus, Paul, and the other biblical writers.

In these posts, I will be focusing on these ideas as applied to marriage. There are three reasons for that. First, marriage is my primary focus in this blog. If one wants to explore these and many other related themes as they apply to leadership and ministry in the church, I recommend you take a couple of months and read everything at Cheryl Schatz’ Women in Ministry blog (or at least browse the topic list for posts directly related to the show stoppers). Second, at least 3 of the 4 show stoppers are either directly or indirectly related to marriage first, and the Church second. Third, the application of doctrine flows in the direction of marriage to church. In other words, you can’t believe a particular viewpoint about church without first believing it about marriage.

Enough prologue! Here are the 4 show stopping passages or concepts that I will be discussing over the next 4 posts.

Genesis 1 and 2 – was their hierarchy or equality in the original marriage design?
Genesis 3 – is “he will rule over you” a description of negative consequences of the fall or a prescriptive remedy for Eve’s sin?
Paul’s head/body texts – Do these metaphors describe “normal” relationships between humans with their hierarchical implications or is Paul using metaphor to explicitly eliminate hierarchy?
1 Timothy 2:11-15 – Is this passage about all women or a particular Ephesian woman?

Stay tuned. Post one – “Show Stoppers – Genesis 1 and 2: Hierarchy or Equality in the Garden?” – will be coming soon. (This post will summarize a prior series of posts on equality in the original marriage design. One may want to read those in preparation for this entry)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is Contraception Sin?

There is a strange alliance out there between patriarchy and the quiverfull movement on one hand, and the Roman Catholic Church on the other. The common ground between these two seemingly incompatible antagonists: contraception. It is the contention of the anti-contraception, or, as they might call themselves, the pro-conception camp that the use of contraception, even natural contraception for the most radical of these groups, is not only "bad" family practice but is outright sin. One would hope that there are biblical arguments to back up these accusations. Alas, as often happens, scriptural support for an anti-contraception stance is virtually non-existent. Still, they make the arguments. My purpose in this post is to rebut the most common of these arguments.

I will be looking at three elements of the anti-contraception position - their three pronged attack if you will. The first section deals with their interpretation and application of the Genesis 1 (and Genesis 9) statement to "be fruitful and multiply". The second section will tackle the infamous "Onan incident". And the third will dig into the topic of sex and marriage and their purposes. Here we go!

"Be Fruitful and multiply"

The first prong of the anti-contraception attack is an interpretation of Genesis 1:28 that makes that blessing a godly command for each and every couple. Conversely, I interpret the command in Genesis 1:28 (if it even is a command which is grammatically debatable) to be directed to the human race in general, and not to each specific marriage. I see several very troubling paradoxes if it indeed applies to the individual marriages and I would be interested in how the other side would solve these.

The "set up to fail" paradox. If "be fruitful and multiply" is a command for every marriage, and if God is the opener and closer of wombs, then God purposely sets up some marriages to fail His command by closing the wombs of the women. Indeed, anyone who is infertile has been set up to sin by God if this command applies to them.

The "not quite good enough" paradox. If we take seriously the "multiply" component in the command, then each set of parents (and that could be 2 or more in ancient marriages) must produce at least one more offspring than the total parents in the family. To fail to produce enough to multiply the race is to fail the command even if there are children in the family. A review of scripture reveals quite an impressive list of families who have "come up short". Just a short list:

Isaac & Rebekah
Joseph & Asenath
Dan & his wife
Moses & Zipporah
Elimelech & Naomi
Boaz & Ruth
Zachariah & Elizabeth

If it is a sin to not increase the population then why is the sin of these families not exposed? Why no condemnation for their failure to "multiply"?

The "called to serve" paradox. Although the marital relationships of Jesus' disciples are not detailed in the bible (except for Peter), it is certain that some, maybe most, possibly all, were married. Many commentators also believe that it is virtually impossible that Paul was not married due to his position in the religious hierarchy. The fact that he speaks of singleness later may be due to the gifts received at his conversion. So, if the purpose of marriage is to procreate, how could Jesus call these men out of their God commanded duty? Did Jesus lead these men into sin by taking them away from their wives?

Dilemmas such as these abound both in scripture and in the here and now if we interpret Genesis 1:28 to be a literal command meant for every set of parents.

It should also be noted that the "contraception contravenes God's command" perspective is quite ungodly. Wade Burleson has pointed out this flaw in a recent blog post as one of his 8 points of rebuttal to the quiverfull theology.

(2). The notion that anyone "prevents" God from naming the number of kids a family has is anti-biblical, anti-logical, and anti-God at its core. Contraception no more "prevents" God from creating a baby who "could have cured AIDS" or "been the President of the United States," etc. than a man shouting at the sun can keep it from shining. God ordains the creation of each human soul, and nobody prevents Him from accomplishing His plans. The sheath of a condom, or the dissolution of a pill, is no more an obstacle to God in the creation of a human being than the lack of matter was an obstacle to God in creating the universe. (Exposing the Biblical Holes in Quiverfull Theology)
The "Onan Incident"

WARNING - Some adult themes and activities are discussed in this and the next section. Please act responsibly. If you are under 15, OR, regardless of age, believe your parents may object to you reading this, please ask them to review the post before reading it yourself.

For those who don't know, the "Onan Incident" is chronicled in Genesis 38:1-10. Onan's sister-in-law had not born any children prior to her husband's (Onan's brother) death. The law stated that Onan should marry his brother's wife and have children (preferably a son) with her to carry on his brother's blood-line. Onan deceitfully refused to fulfill his obligation to get his sister-in-law pregnant. He accomplished this by having sex with her but withdrawing prior to ejaculation and "spill[ing] [his seed] on the ground" (Genesis 38:9). Because of this, God put Onan to death. The question in this debate is "what specifically was Onan's sin?" Anti-contraception advocates argue that the sin was his contraceptive act of coitus interruptus. They extend this interpretation to the point of claiming that any and all contraception at any time is displeasing to God (i.e. sin) and even occasionally go to the point of claiming anyone guilty of the sin of contraception deserves Onan's fate. But is Onan's contraceptive act what he was put to death for?

My conclusion about the Onan incident is that the means he employed to accomplish his sin are irrelevant. The ends don't condemn the means. There are many ways in which he could have accomplished his deceit that in and of themselves are perfectly fine. It is not the action that is sinful but the outcome. Onan was killed for fraud, idolatry, covetousness, lying, and mocking God. How he went about doing that is beside the point. Let's flesh that out.

Consider: if it is only the contraceptive act that is the sin, then all of the other surrounding issues become irrelevant. It is irrelevant that he deceived his father and the community. It is irrelevant that he defrauded his brother. It is irrelevant that he humiliated and defiled his wife. It is irrelevant that he mocked the law and God. All of his treachery is irrelevant if it is simply the contraceptive act that is the sin. In fact, he could have spent a lifetime being fruitful and could have multiplied greatly with Tamar and only done this act once, and according to those opposed to contraception, he would have been guilty of the same sin and deserved and received the same punishment. To disregard all of his wicked intents and manipulations in contemplating what his sin was is quite astonishing.

There is an interesting twist to this little story. The NIV has a very different translation from every other version.

Genesis 38:9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. (NIV)
Is it possible that he perpetuated this ruse repeatedly over a period of time? If so, and it is the act itself that is the sin and deserves death, then why did God not strike him down the first time. Conversely, what does it say about the sin that God let him perpetuate it without correction. Certainly, no one would claim that it only became a sin upon repeated execution and after a certain number of repetitions.

I would suggest that God continued to give Onan a chance to repent and set things right. That had he finally changed and made the attempt to fulfill his duty, God would have left him alone to live out his days. So much for the contraception being the sin. Only after it became clear that Onan was determined to continue the fraud, did God pass final judgment. Again in this case, the actual actions used in the fraudulent exercise are really irrelevant. Onan could have employed multiple means to avoid impregnating Tamar and he would have been as guilty. Why? Because it was the fraud itself that was the sin, not the means by which it was achieved.

(BTW - I don't necessarily endorse the NIV translation, but am only accepting it here to explore all sides of the question.)

The Purpose of Marriage and Sex

The final argument by the anti-contraception movement is that the primary, or even, the sole purpose for marriage and sex is to have children. Let's take each of these in turn.

"The purpose of Marriage is procreation" - This seems silly even at a glance because marriage is not a pre-requisite to procreation. If all God wanted for us was to pop out babies, he would have let us fornicate like bunnies and we could have accomplished the task just fine. So, it seems clear God has something grander, or even completely different, in mind when it comes to marriage.

Genesis 2:18,24 - 18 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." 24 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
At it's core, the reason for marriage is "oneness". Men and women are not complete alone - they need the marriage union and the "one flesh" relationship that results to fully follow and commune with God, to interact and manage the world we live in, and to experience the companionship we so desperately need. Without marriage, the world would be much more of a chaotic place.

Having children relates to marriage in a strange and somewhat contradictory way. Indeed, we do not need children to enjoy the benefits of marriage that are outlined in this verse. But, children are a blessing from the Lord and can enhance the marriage experience. Children also can introduce tension into marriage that tears away at the oneness that marriage was designed to foster. Yet children benefit greatly by having parents in a committed, loving, unified, "one flesh" relationship. So, at best, we can only say that procreation has both positive and negative effects in relation to marriage. Hardly a strong case for children being the "purpose" for marriage.

1 Cor 7:2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
A mere chapter later from the Genesis verse quoted above, humans messed up everything. Immorality entered the world and created yet another purpose for marriage. Together, we are better equipped to fight the immorality around us. Marriage is an often necessary component to living a Godly life. Again, marriage itself isn't the cause of children. Children can be produced by immoral behavior as easily as moral behavior. So the idea that procreation is presumed as part of the marriage admonitions in 1 Cor 7 is ridiculous. It is more accurate to say that children are presumed in life regardless of marital state. But to avoid some of the immoral failings we are all prone toward, it is best if we get married. Let the children fall where they may.

Revelations 19:7 "Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready."
Lest we not forget, marriage is also a picture of Christ and the church. As such, it is a means by which a couple can enhance their communion with God. Through marriage, God is praised and glorified. Children, again, are not part of this formula. Barren couples can join in this worship and communion as well as exceedingly fruitful couples. The number or even presence of children is irrelevant in this very important purpose for marriage.

In conclusion, I find it hard to find any evidence in the scriptures that the purpose for marriage is having children. Quite the contrary, it seems the purpose for marriage has everything to do with the couple, their needs, their impact on the world, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to God. It seems to me that children are not even on the radar when we look at the purposes for marriage.

And what about sex...

"The natural Godly purpose of sex is procreation" - Understand what is being said here. This proposes that the only natural purpose for sex is to have children. Any other purpose for sex is unnatural and ungodly. So, what do the scriptures have to say about that?

The most logical place to start is Song of Solomon. This wonderful erotic love poem in the bible extols sex as a gift from God for the enjoyment, pleasure, bonding, and relationship building of the marriage. There is no sense trying to quote verses because the whole book is the proof. God designed sex for our pleasure and to help us grow in our attraction and love for one another. Now, sex does not equal love, of course. But much love is expressed through sexual relations.

Ezekiel 16:8 - "Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine," declares the Lord GOD.
Another clear purpose of sex in God's eyes is as the covenant sealer in marriage. We did not make up the term "consummate the marriage" out of thin air. It is a biblical concept. Many times in scripture, both in good situations and bad, sex is seen as the "handshake" to formalize the marriage. Now, that doesn't mean that you are married to anyone you have sex with. But the value of sex in making a marriage a Godly marriage is evident. In fact, each time a couple has sex, they are in essence re-covenanting with each other. So this concept of "sealing" the marriage vow through sex is very important in God's overall design for marital relations.

Proverbs 5:18-19 - 18 Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 {As} a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love.
Again we see the sexual relationship has purpose in relationship building. In fact, this passage goes on to tell how a dynamic and consistent sexual relationship is a guard against adultery (much as 1 Cor 7 shows it as a guard against fornication). Sex should be so "exhilarating" and "satisfying" in our relationship that "wild horses couldn't drag us away" from our spouse. Here the purpose for sex is literally to defend the marriage from attack and to create an unbreakable bond with each other. If sex were about the pure mechanics of making babies, it would have no effect in building strong marriages. This scripture indicates that it is for so much more.

1 Cor 7:3-4 - 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Sexual relations are to be equal and reciprocal. God recognizes that men and women both have sexual desires and needs. The patriarchal concepts that sex is a right for men and a duty for women are wholly unbiblical. The most important thing to note here is that women have just as much of a right to sexual access and enjoyment. But there is no need for women to enjoy sex if it is just for making babies. So, why would God build in sexual need and enjoyment for women if His only purpose for sex was procreation? Well, he wouldn't.

God designed sex in a unique way in human beings and that uniqueness is what embodies God's purpose for sex in the human race. Having sex to make babies is what we share with all of creation. Having sex to bond with a spouse, build a relationship, and experience pleasure, are the natural purposes that God bestowed uniquely on the human race. In fact, scripture abounds with sexual references with these purposes in mind. On the contrary, having babies is really an after affect. What scripture really says is - have sex because it's good for you and may you, in return, be blessed with children.