What is the Christian teaching in a nutshell on marriage and sex? A report from the Bishops of the Church of England well summed up the teaching of the Bible on sexual intercourse as follows:
"there is ... in Scripture an evolving convergence ... Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable."
The Bible therefore teaches that sex is for marriage. Pre-marital sex is therefore wrong, as well as adultery - sex for a married person outside their marriage - and so is all homosexual sex. What, then, is the Christian view of marriage itself? First it is that marriage is not just for Christian people. It is universal. All societies have "marriages". Marriage is a natural human institution. It has to do with the way all human beings are made and their continuation. Secondly, Christians say that because God is responsible for the way we are made (for he is our creator), you need to learn from him about marriage and sex. You need the maker's instructions which you have in the Bible, otherwise you can be heading for disaster. And the Bible's teaching is that marriage and sex are all part of the created order and so very good. They existed before the Fall - before the first man and woman ignored God. But since the Fall while marriage is still the norm, God calls some people to remain single. That, however, is only temporary. For in heaven, the Bible teaches, after the final Resurrection marriage will no longer exist (Mark 12.25). But while this life lasts marriage is to be "honoured by all" (Heb 13.4). The Bible also teaches that those who decry marriage and sex and "forbid people to marry" (1 Tim 4.1ff) are false teachers, as are those who teach "sexual immorality" (Rev 2.20).
Well, that in a nutshell is the Christian teaching on marriage and sex. "So far so good," many are saying. But in a congregation of this size there will be those who find this difficult.
First, there are those who, through no fault of their own, have heard very little of Christian teaching on marriage and sex. Years ago I was talking to a couple about getting married. But they were cohabiting - living together in the house they had just bought; and they were sleeping together before marriage. As tactfully and as politely as I could, I said I didn't think this was a good thing. For a start, cohabiting couples are 50 percent more likely to have divorced after five years of marriage and 60 percent more likely after eight years of marriage than those who have not first cohabited. And I said that sex needed to be special for marriage to function as a special bond. Sex, in that sense, is a bit like a razor blade. You can use a razor blade to sharpen your pencil but then it is little use for shaving. But no-one had ever really taught them about these things or said that what they were doing was wrong. So when I suggested that to make sex special for their marriage, the man should sleep downstairs and they should abstain from sexual relations until their marriage, it seemed to them so reasonable.
Secondly, this teaching is difficult for people who have been subjected to a barrage of foolish and false health and sex education. Much of this is currently on the assumption that everyone is going to have sex as soon as they feel some level of sexual arousal. So the aim of many educators and health professionals is to facilitate young people in having sexual intercourse outside marriage in as safe a way as possible. The reality, of course, is that sex outside marriage is never "safe". It is socially and psychologically unsafe. It destroys a young person's chance of taking their virginity into a marriage. So it weakens the marriage bond. It is physically unsafe as the only really safe sex is sex between two people who reserve sex for marriage alone. This country has an epidemic of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms and the pill are not the answer.
Hard facts are not being faced. For example, users of the condom as a contraceptive have a "typical use" failure rate in preventing contraception of 15% per year. True, the "perfect use" failure rate is 2%; but most users are not "perfect users". So in any given year you must predict that 15% of most women who rely on condoms for contraception will conceive. However, with regard to sexual diseases, women are fertile for only a small proportion of any given month. The failure rate of the condom as a prophylactic against sexual diseases including HIV/AIDS will be considerably higher than 15% for most people (not, of course, for the "perfect users").
In addition there is now Professor David Paton's research. This shows that some health "measures" (like these) lessen some dangers when "perfectly" followed, once there is a decision of a person to engage in sexual activity. But - and this is an important "but" - the measures themselves increase the amount of sexual activity (through making it easier and giving people ideas). The result then is that the overall health outcome is not what was intended, rather the reverse. That is why delaying first intercourse until marriage is a physical necessity. And that is why abstinence health education is so necessary. Nor, even in this sex obsessed culture, are you odd in this country if you are not having sex. This month a survey has revealed that more than a third of men and women aged 16-24 said they had abstained from sex during the past year. So much by way of introduction.
Let's now see what Jesus actually taught about marriage and sex. Will you, therefore, turn to Mark 10.1-12 (our Gospel reading for tonight). And my headings are simple - first, THE CONTEXT of Jesus' teaching;. secondly, THE CONTENT of his teaching.
First, THE CONTEXT. Let me list four things you learn from the context of this passage in Mark's Gospel.
One, you learn that following God's teaching on marriage and sex may well involve conflict. It did in the case of John the Baptist. Marriage, divorce and sexual issues were high on the public agenda during Jesus' ministry. This was especially because of Herod and Herodias. Jesus is now in Herod's territory as we learn from verse 1:
"Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan."
But back in Mark 6.17 you learn that Herod had imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist. This was because, Mark 6 verse 18:
"John had been saying to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife'."
Marrying Herodias was within the forbidden degrees of marriage. So this was an incestuous marriage. That is a form of "sexual immorality" where there must be an undoing of the marriage. Today we would call it not so much a divorce as a nullity - and this is probably what is being referred to in Matthew 19.9 and the exceptive clause in that passage on divorce. So, one, there may, indeed, be conflict.
Two, you learn that following God's teaching on marriage and sex may require significant personal sacrifices. As you turn over the pages of Mark's Gospel you come to chapter 9 verse 43. Jesus there says that compared with this earthly life, eternal life is so important that sacrifices, where necessary, must now be made:
"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell."
Jesus is saying that if what you do, or where you go, or what you see "causes you to sin", be ruthless. Say "No!" in God's strength and don't do, or go, or see. And Jesus applied this directly to sexual matters on one occasion - look later at Matthew 5.28. That means being wise in terms of sexual temptation in today's world - from films to some behaviours to living arrangements to a number of things. So sometimes there is the need for personal sacrifices.
Three, you learn that Christians must not conform to the world where it is wrong - in any area, but of course in respect of marriage and sex. Listen to Jesus in Mark 9.50:
"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."
That is to say, Christians are not to conform to the decadent world and so lose their preserving power in a decaying culture. Salt in those days (before fridges) was used as a preservative.
Four, you learn that marriage break up is due to human "hearts" being "hard" (verse 5 of Mark 10). There was something of a divorce culture in Jesus' day. Since the Fall, men and women have disobeyed God's creative intention for marriage and sex and marriage break-ups occur. But Jesus likens remarriages after divorce to adultery, verses 11-12:
"Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."
Jesus is so concerned about divorce and remarriage. But to roll back a divorce culture in his day again called for great sacrifices. History shows that sacrifices were made and that the divorce culture was rolled back in the church and then in the world. But today such sacrifice often seems so unthinkable. Too many fail to realize that for true health and happiness you need responsibility as well as freedom; the wider society as well as the individual; and the long term as well as the short term. But modern secularists believe that this life is all there is. So individual freedom for short term gratification will always trump responsibility to society at large for long term good. Sacrifice, however, is for long term gain, while as Hebrews 11.25 says, there is "pleasure in sin" but it is only for "a short time". Well that is the context of Jesus teaching. It suggests that biblical marriage and sex ethics will mean conflict, sacrifice, non-conformity and the need for hard hearts to be changed.
Secondly, THE CONTENT of Jesus' direct teaching on marriage and sex. With all the confusion going on in his religious world and the wider culture of his day, Jesus goes back to the creation account in Genesis. So that is where we also ought to go for an understanding of marriage and sex.
And first, Jesus speaks of the creation of sex and the sexes. Look at verse 6:
"at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.'
Jesus is simply underlining Genesis 1.27 and God's original action. Genesis there teaches that humankind is made up of two equal but different sexes - male and female. To be human is, therefore, to share humanity with the opposite sex. Also in Genesis all that goes with sexuality is said to be not just "good" but "very good" - Genesis 1.31. That is important. In this sexually decadent age as in Jesus' day, there is a danger of some Christians denying the value and the goodness of the human body and seeing all sexual desire as sin. But sexual desire is not sinful by itself. It is wrong sexual desire that is sinful. Proverbs positively says that a married man should sexually desire his wife:
"May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer - may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love" (Proverbs 5.18-19).
And Paul encourages regular sexual intercourse on the part of husband and wife in 1 Corinthians 7.3-5. So Christians should not be "prudish" or squeamish about sex. "Puritan" yes, but not "prudish". Being "pure" is doing what God wants, and if he wants Christians to have better sex than their pagan neighbours, being pure is having good sex. And Christians who follow a biblical ethic of reserving sex for marriage, on average have better sex when married than others. That was the finding of the massive "Sex in America survey". And women who have sex only with their husbands are twice as responsive sexually as women with multiple partners. Yes Genesis, which Jesus here endorses, teaches that all that goes with being male and female, in its rightful place, is very good
Secondly, Genesis (that Jesus endorses) teaches the purposes of marriage.
There are at least three purposes that Christians have identified down the centuries from Genesis 1 and 2. First, in Genesis 1.28 there is the command given to the first male and female. That is the command to be "fruitful and increase in number". The procreation of children is, therefore, at the heart of marriage. A husband and wife are God's agents to enable the bringing up of children in a stable married family where there is love and discipline. At the moment this commandment in the secular west with abortions, disproportionate contraception, and homosexuality is being ignored with disastrous effects. Currently the fertility rate in the UK is 1.6 the lowest since records began. Replacement fertility is when women produce, on average, 2.1 children during their lifetimes. Such depopulation leads to serious economic and social problems. So the first purpose of marriage is the birth and nurture of children.
The second purpose is seen in Genesis 2.18: "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." The Old Prayer Book marriage service speaks of this as "the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other both in prosperity and adversity." This is living together as friends and companions - that is the second purpose of marriage.
The third purpose of marriage is the unique and exclusive bond, we have been thinking about, that expresses love and affection through sexual union. Genesis 2.24 refers to this as becoming "one flesh" and Jesus quotes that in verse 8: "the two will become one flesh." So the purposes of marriage are children, companionship and sexual fulfilment.
Thirdly, Jesus here in Mark 10 (and Genesis) teach about the nature of marriage. Look at verses 7,8 and 9:
"'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
Jesus is saying that a marriage exists when, a man "leaves" his parents with a view to being "united" with his wife, and then becomes "one flesh" with her. "Leaving" and "uniting" is a definite act that is recognized not just by the respective families but the wider society. And becoming "one flesh" is the physical expression and the sexual consummation of the new relationship and it implies permanence. And that consummation - or "one flesh" should come after not before the "leaving" and the "uniting". So a marriage exists when there is first, not two men or two women but a man and a woman involved - it is heterosexual not homosexual. Secondly, this couple formally and publicly leave their families. Thirdly, they formally unite with each other in a public way. All societies have rituals, however primitive for marking this leaving and uniting. That is why registration and a marriage certificate is important and not just "a bit of paper". Fourthly, there is a sexual consummation. And, fifthly, the union is intended as and is permanent. That is true for anyone and everyone. But the Christian sees what is even more fundamental.
Something else is going on behind the scenes, so to speak. For Jesus says, verse 9: "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." God is making this marriage. From the human side, the man and the woman are covenanting together to establish a marriage. But there is also God's side - the important side. Almighty God, the sovereign Lord of all, the creator of the universe is [at the same time] joining this couple together. And so the Christian sees marriage as a gift from God. From day one, it is there and never to be broken. And from within the marriage and the security of that marriage they work out their relationship. That is so different to the contemporary secular or pagan world where people see marriage as the couple's creation not God's. They do not see marriage as a gift from God and so a secure framework for their relationship. Rather their working out of this relationship is the creating of a marriage. So if after a few years it is not quite as good as they wanted, they say, "Let's try again". There is then usually misery for themselves, for society and, most serious of all, for the children.
I must conclude. I am very conscious that there are three sorts of people here tonight: one, those who have messed up sexually or maritally; two, the unmarried; and three, the married. If you have messed up, always remember that there is forgiveness - as this Holy Communion service reminds you - through the Cross of Christ. Christ died for all sins. Remember the Prodigal son. He had been "squandering his father's property with prostitutes" we are told (Luke 15.30). But the father welcomed him home. And remember that some of the great heroes of faith celebrated in Hebrews 11 had pretty sordid histories. There was Rahab the prostitute, there was Samson and there was King David who was not only an adulterer but a murderer (Heb 11.31-32). God did not condone what they did. But when forgiven, they became great men and women of faith. The point is this: where there is repentance, Christ forgives. So you can be cleansed from the guilt and power of sin. Yes, you may have to live with the social consequences of your sexual sin. But even so God is sovereign and he can reweave your life. He can use even the mess you are in for his glory and your good, if only you trust him and are obedient to him, however hard it may seem.
Then if you are unmarried and you are not called to the single life, at the right time you should seek to be married - but, says the Bible, only to another Christian believer (1 Cor 7.39). Sadly the extremes of women's liberation have affected some Christian men. They fail to realize that in family affairs there is a headship for the male that means the man has to take some initiatives in respect of marriage and getting married.
But if you are married, in this decadent western culture, be faithful in marriage, follow the Bible's wisdom, and pray and work for marriage to be reinstated at the heart of our social life, as being good for the state, good for individuals and especially good for children.