Guidance systems for love
It is said that we continue to add to our vocabulary as we go through life. I certainly learned at least one new word whilst on holiday this summer. The word was ‘polyamorist’. Is it new to you? During the month of July, I bought a copy of the weekly science magazine ‘New Scientist’. Within was an article entitled ‘Love unlimited: The polyamorists’.
The article was headed ‘Who says monogamy is the only way to go? New Scientist visits a group of people with a very different take on relationships.”
It then continues by describing this situation:
“I was dating Gordon when I met Heather and Jim. Then I started dating Jim too, and Heather started dating Gordon right before he and I broke up, “ says Noemi. Confused? Tonight I’m having dinner with a group whose unusual lifestyle warrants such introductions. They are a ‘polyamorous’ family one whose members are openly committed to several lovers at the same time.
Their household, in a quiet neighbourhood of San Francisco, looks like any other. A little boy in pyjamas answers the door when I knock… His mother Heather, an artist with oval glasses and pink hair, is cooking in the kitchen with her boyfriend Gordon, a computer network engineer with an understated manner. The dining room is pleasant, airy and smells of roasting chicken. Heather’s husband Jim, along with housemates Naomi and Alicia are bustling about the house…
Despite the level of change with regard to the accepted morality of our culture, I imagine that most people would find these arrangements unacceptable. The kind of open sexual relationships being depicted seems very wrong, especially with a small child caught up in the midst. The question arises – why is it wrong? By what moral measuring device do we assess the rights and wrongs of conducting such ‘open’ relationships? How do we construct an ethical guidance system to help us navigate such situations?
The issue comes into sharp focus when we consider the current discussion in the Church of Scotland regarding services of blessing for ‘civil partnerships’. Presbyteries across the land are debating whether or not to allow ministers to have the freedom of conscience, if they wish, to offer such services of blessing. At present, to do so risks being disciplined.
So how do we assess whether certain arrangements are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? In which context is sexual activity appropriate? What governs any Christian understanding of these things? The answer must involve thinking theologically, and that means doing more than looking for a few isolated texts in the Scriptures. Our Guidance System must be constructed biblically.
1) First of all, it is important to note that what we do with our bodies is vitally important. Throughout the Bible, the life lived in the body is affirmed rather than disavowed. After all, human beings were formed with a body (Genesis 2:7) and much of the Old Testament law seems to revolve around how we conduct life in those bodies.
Furthermore, we should not forget that Christ took our humanity to Himself. He shared the life of our earthly body. The very Gospel itself revolves around what happened to Christ’s body – He died, He was buried and He was raised again on the third day. (1 Cor 15:3-4)
So the Gospel is body-centred. By faith we share in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ for our salvation. These are body-centred things. There is no question but that the Christian faith affirms life in a physical body.
Because our bodies are created by God, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and will be redeemed at the Last Day, they have a dignity and a value. What we do with our bodies is supremely important. It is precisely for this reason that, in the passage at the end of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul urges the believers, after warning them against immorality, “Therefore honour God with your body” (1 Cor 6:20)
2) The divine image, in which we are created, is related to both male and female. As divine image-bearers, that gender differentiation of masculinity and femininity reflects realities in God Himself. That is to say, these are not social constructs, subject to changing fashion, but are a part of what it means to be human, reflecting the character of God.
Genesis 1&2 have always been taken by the church to be a biblical mandate for monogamous marriage. Alternative social arrangements such as polygamy, extended family, cohabitation, polyamory (!) may also be evidenced in Scripture but they are reported without being approved. The flow of biblical revelation suggests that the monogamous heterosexual marriage relationship has priority and uniqueness. The body-life to which human beings are called, needs to reflect this if we are to truly honour God in the body.
Throughout the Old testament we find the image of marriage is given special importance. Israel’s breaking of the Covenant is portrayed in the prophets (Ezekiel 28) as a marriage infidelity. So the pattern of marriage is clearly regarded as having some primary, prototypical significance. In the book of Hosea, we have monogamous marriage used very poignantly to explore and expose both physical and spiritual adultery.
However much the basic social unit in old Israel was the extended family with all its complex ties and commitments, a unique union is given overriding significance ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife”. An exclusive and un-sharable relationship is established between man and woman. This is presented in the Bible as a pattern to be affirmed, because it reflects the life of God Himself.
This metaphor is taken up again in Ephesians 5 and is applied to the exclusive commitment of Christ and the Church, which is reflected in human marriage. Paul refers to this as a great mystery. The mystery lies in the fact that the way we are made as male and female, and the relationship of husband and wife to which some are called, are not social constructs, but pertain at a very deep level to the nature of our humanity AND reflect something of the character of God.
For this reason, throughout the Scriptures, there are prohibitions against sexual activity outwith that relationship. So Paul writes in 1 Corinthians.
“Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said ‘The two will become one flesh’
Paul is again alluding to the creation narrative, the two becoming one flesh, as the exclusive domain for what the old book of Common Order refers to as ‘the full expression of physical love’. Other forums of sexual encounter outwith marriage, of which homosexual activity is but one, are excluded. It is against the backdrop of the uniqueness of marriage that all manner of things – bestiality, adultery, fornication, and homosexual practise are outlawed.
I emphasise that the prohibition covers practice and not orientation. It is not what you are, but what you do with what you are. A person’s orientation or preference is not the issue; it is what we do, in the light of our orientation, that is subject to biblical guidance systems. Equally (see the May newsletter), we have a God who forgives when we repent of our mistakes, in this realm as in any other.
There is a fundamental issue at stake here as to whether we truly take the Biblical Revelation as our guide and pattern, with its explanation of marriage as reflecting both our humanity and the character of God. If ministers were free to bless other arrangements then we would, as a Church, be stating that we no longer believe the Biblical picture of our humanity or its revelation of God. After all, if we bless civil partnerships, then why not polyamorous communities?
Can I invite you to continue to remember the conduct of these debates in your prayers?