406. who redefined marriage? (hint: heterosexuals) – a heterosexual response to The Nashville Statement

[PREFACE]

Perhaps you’ve seen the news about The Nashville Statement — released by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood whose mission is “to set forth the teachings of the Bible about the complementary differences between men and women”

There’s been a ton of response to the statement, both supporting and rejecting it, so I’m late to the game, but I still want to share my thoughts, but I want to do so in a specific sort of way. I want to respond to The Statement as a heterosexual1 Christian speaking primarily to the heterosexual church.

Note: I’ve intentionally avoided appeals to scripture because that’s the approach that The Nashville Statement took.

[END PREFACE]

A Heterosexual Response to The Nashville Statement

NashvilleNope

One of my main points in a talk I gave last year at The Seattle School, was that the LGBTQ community isn’t trying to redefine marriage because redefining marriage is something the heterosexual church did decades ago. It would take too long to go into all the details,2 but basically, for almost all of Jewish and Christian history, marriages were arranged by parents on the basis of pragmatic concerns like property rights, financial ties, or power/peace.3 But starting around the 1800s, things started to shift. People started to find their own marriage partners through a process we now call dating. And they based their partnership choices on things like attraction, compatibility, and love.4

And the church accepted the shift, with nary a comment or protest.

Today, it’s difficult to grasp how radical of a shift this was, but think of it this way: imagine the outcry, today, if two families tried to force their son and daughter to wed against their wills because the families saw the wedding as a way of sealing a mutually beneficial business arrangement. No church would stand for that, and yet, that was the traditional form of marriage for almost all of the church’s history.

Now what does all of this have to do with The Nashville Statement?

My point is that heterosexuals are the ones who affirmed the move away from an arranged-marriage model to a compatibility-based, dating-to-marriage model. And once that move has been made, the onus is on the heterosexual church to explain both how they justify this shift in marriage models and, given the emphasis on compatibility, why two people of the same gender who are more compatible with one another than with someone of the opposite gender are the exception to this change.

I’ll have more to say about this at the end of this post, but for now, I want to address two of the articles from The Statement from/to a heterosexual perspective.

Article One

WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

The word I want to focus on in this article is “procreative.”

I’ve done a lot of writing about how I grew up around really conservative Christian teachings around sex, and while they talked a lot about sex, masturbation, dating, and desire (always in negative terms), I never heard them talk about married sex as inherently procreative. Come to think of it, in all 30+ years of my time in various churches, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything critical about the use of contraception in the context of a married relationship.

Similar to the shift from an arranged to a compatibility-based marriage model, the protestant wing of the church has tacitly accepted the use of contraception as a means of preventing pregnancy. So it’s surprising to see the CBMW state that procreation is a part of God’s design for marriage. But it makes sense because The Statement is trying to base their denial of same-sex marriages on the fact that such partnerships lack the procreative component.

The problem is, no protestant church that I’ve ever encountered applies this standard to heterosexual marriages. In other words, the Nashville staters are not applying their theological principle consistently. If procreation is an inherent part of God’s design for marriage, then the use of contraception should be out of bounds in heterosexual contexts because it counters the procreative aspect of God’s design.

And yet for all practical intents and purposes, the heterosexual church has affirmed the use of contraception, thus radically changing the nature and purpose of sex itself.5 The implications of this change are made clear in an examination of Article Two.

Article Two

WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

For this article, the phrase I want to focus on is “sexual intercourse before or outside marriage”.

The Nashville staters are saying that it’s God’s will for people to not have sex before/outside of marriage, and that seems to be clear and consistent with church teaching and tradition, but in the compatibility-based marriage, post-contraception world we live in today, this phrase is far too vague to be of any practical use.

In the dating process, some level of physical intimacy is almost always involved. Given that, if they’re going to say, “don’t have sex before/outside of marriage,” they need to be very clear about what they mean by the word “sex” so couples can actually know what they’re not supposed to be doing before/outside of marriage.

Of course the assumption is that sex equals penis-in-vagina intercourse, but there’s a big problem with defining sex that way because when that assumption is read back into the prohibition, you wind up with “don’t have penis-in-vagina sex before/outside of marriage.” And that implies that as long as the penis stays outside the vagina, everything else is fair game.

In other words, all of the following are not sex and thus, permitted:6

So unless the heterosexual church is willing to say that things like oral and anal sex are not violating God’s design for non-married relationships, they had better come up with a better definition of what exactly is prohibited before/outside of marriage.

In Summary

The Nashville Statement begins with this line: “Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition.” But the writers of The Statement either ignore or are unaware of the role that the heterosexual church played in laying the groundwork for the transitions they are now critiquing. Said another way, by affirming the radical transition to a compatibility-based, dating-to-marriage model, the onus should be on the heterosexual church to explain why same-sex compatibility is out of bounds.

But after looking at articles one and two through a heterosexual lens,9 it seems clear that the scope of their Statement is conveniently narrow. They address concerns that relate to LGBTQ persons while failing to highlight or speak to the way their articles pertain to heterosexuals.

And that does harm to both LGBTQ and cisgendered heterosexual persons.

  1. …specifically a cisgendered, Asian, male, demisexual. ↩︎
  2. Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz is a great resource if you want to know more. ↩︎
  3. The best example in the Bible is the story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24. ↩︎
  4. In contrast, one of the primary social arguments for arranged marriages was the idea that marriage was far too important a decision to be left to the whims of an emotion as unpredictable and irrational as love. ↩︎
  5. As with marriage, there isn’t enough space here to walk through this change. Theologian Christine Gudorf’s book, Body, Sex, and Pleasure, covers this topic brilliantly. ↩︎
  6. …with enthusiastic consent, of course. ↩︎
  7. The vagina is actually located within the inner and outer labia so rubbing the head or shaft of the penis across the lips of the vulva and even pressing a bit beyond would be fair game. ↩︎
  8. pegging, sounding, teabagging, rimming… I could go on and on. ↩︎
  9. …looking at how the articles related to heterosexual Christians/relationships. ↩︎
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