Sexuality & Scripture

The Sex Stories | True Union 1

August 2007:  by the Rev. Tobias Haller BSG |

In the previous post, Pro Creation, I offered evidence from the realms of nature and reason, Scripture, and the church’s tradition, in support of the proposition that procreation is neither essential nor intrinsic to human sexuality or marriage. As is obvious from some of the comments, not all are persuaded by the evidence I have presented; however, I know that some will not be persuaded regardless of how authoritative the evidence may be. One interlocutor believes that a sterile couple are somehow still capable of an “intrinsically procreative act,” even though they are incapable of procreation. Another continues to reassert that the primary purpose of marriage is the production and protection of children, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary. I am perfectly happy to continue discussing these matters, but I feel to some extent we have entered the Monty Python sketch concerned with the distinction between argument and contradiction. Some kind of evidence to the contrary, or specific faults with the evidence thus far produced, would enhance what is otherwise reassertion or contradiction.

On the basis of the evidence I have adduced, therefore, I hold that it is clear that procreation as a “good” is both naturally and intentionally separable from sexual activity and from marriage. Neither church nor state forbid marriage or criminalize sexual congress between a man and a woman even when one or both are intrinsically incapable of procreation. (The lack of capacity to procreate is not always due to a “defect” since human beings “by design” enjoy periods of natural and intrinsic infertility, as well as reaching a time in life when fertility ceases.) So the fundamental and intrinsic inability to achieve procreation cannot be offered as a rationale against same-sexuality or same-sex unions.

And so I turn to a second major “good” or “cause” for marriage: union. I will first examine the nature of union in its broadest sense (as summarized in the exhortation at the beginning of the Episcopal Church’s marriage liturgy), including its moral status; and in succeeding posts examine whether or not this “good” can be achieved by a same-sex couple.

The Locus of Union

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity…

The church gives this “good” of marriage first place in its revised liturgy (which as I note in the previous article is the first American BCP liturgy to mention the “goods” at all). It clarifies that the union is not merely “fleshly” or “bodily” but deeply personal, involving the heart and mind as well as body — it is the union ofpersons, not merely of body parts. Secondly, this unity is ordered primarily to mutual joy (which includes but is not limited to the pleasure of sexual intercourse), and perhaps more importantly to the human values of help and comfort. Thus the good of union broadens out from the merely physical to embrace the emotional, mental, and social aspects of human life.

One Flesh

First, however, it is important to address the significance of the fleshly unity. “One flesh” is a biblical concept, but it occurs only in the context of the second creation account — all other references to this phenomenon are citations of this passage, whether in the Gospels or the Pauline Epistles. These citations will be helpful in unpacking the meaning this phrase should have for us, in that it allows us to look at how others — including our Lord himself — understood it, and how they applied it to various circumstances.

As I noted in the previous chapter, Jesus’ midrash (appearing in Matthew and Mark) omits any reference to procreation: he jumps from the “male and female” of Genesis 1 to the “one flesh” of Genesis 2, and then adds his own conclusion: what God has joined together is not to be divided. This form of midrash is a classic rabbinic technique, finding an answer to a particular dilemma (“Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife?”) by taking two scriptural passages and deriving an original conclusion from them. (This conclusion is all the more striking in that it overturns the plain sense of Mosaic law.) Clearly, then, if one is to draw any conclusion from Jesus’ understanding of “one flesh,” it lies in Jesus’ emphasis on the unity of the couple, quite apart from procreation (or the absence of procreation due to infertility, which as I noted in the previous article was a specific grounds for divorce under rabbinic law). It should be noted as well that Jesus also mentions the change in domicile, which further locates the unity of the couple in a new household, a new social structure. The union is thus not merely physical, but social.

The two Pauline references to this text are a bit more problematical. In these related passages (Eph 5:25-33 and 1 Cor 6:13-18) Paul is caught up in rhetorical flourishes that operate on several levels at once, so it will be helpful to tease apart the various strands in his thinking.

The “Mystery” of Ephesians

The Ephesians reference must be seen in its context as part of the whole epistle, where the primary theme is the “mystery of Christ” which Paul describes as the union “of all things in him.” (1:9-10) He develops this imagery of the union of all things in a succession of images beginning with Christ as head of his “body,” the church (1:22-23). In chapter 2 he describes the way in which divisions based on national or ethnic identity, of culture and clan, are abolished by the flesh and blood of Christ, in a vivid image from the Second Temple — its dividing wall separating Gentile from Jew being removed — and the creation of a single new humanity out of two, in “one body through the cross.” (2:14-16) Perhaps inspired by his own brief reference to the Temple, Paul expands on that image, in which Christ shifts to become the cornerstone of a Temple whose building stones are the members of the church, indwelt by the Spirit (2:20-22).

Paul returns to revealing “the mystery” in chapter 3, when he again defines it as the Gentiles becoming “fellow heirs, members of the same body… through the Gospel.” (3:6) Chapter 4 turns to the natural consequences of being “one body” — and urges the members of that body to live in peace and harmony in various ways, making use of the variety of spiritual gifts with which the body is provided to build up that very body, towards the goal of more perfect unity in Christ. (4:11-16) He contrasts this unity with the futile conflicts of the Gentiles, and offers counsel for a harmonious life. (4:17-5:20)

As part of this counsel, reflecting on the orderly hierarchies of human society, he brings up three areas of human relationship: marital (5:21-33), familial (6:1-4) and social (i.e., slavery, 6:5-9). It is in the first of these three parallel human situations that Paul introduces the language of Genesis 2. He does so by analogizing his “mystery” (human unity in and with Christ) with the union of a man and a woman in marriage. The analogy is, as it seems Paul recognizes, not quite parallel — which may explain his eventual explanation, “But I speak of Christ and of the church” — that is, he returns to his main theme of the “mystery” of union in Christ, though he continues to advise that men and women should be mutually loving. (5:32-33) This passage is notoriously badly translated in the RSV/NRSV tradition. Clearly Paul intends to correct any misapprehension that hisreference to the “great mystery” (which he has expounded a number of times earlier in the letter as referring to ecclesiastical unity under the headship of Christ) might be misunderstood as a reference to marriage. Indeed, many have so misunderstood Paul’s intent, in spite of his effort to clarify, and the context of the epistle as a whole.

In any case, the main thing we can carry away from this passage for our present purpose is that Paul uses the language of “one flesh” primarily to describe union, a union as close as that between a man and his own body: “He who loves his wife loves himself.” (5:28) He applies this personal union to the ecclesiastical unity of the people of God in Christ.

The ambivalent nature of “one flesh”

When we turn to Paul’s other reference to this text we are on similar ground, at least as far as his concern with unity in the church as the body of Christ. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul does not see “one flesh” as an ideal, but as something to be avoided, at least when expanded in a certain direction: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’” (6:16) His concern is with “fornication” (porneia) — which whatever the alleged breadth of meaning elsewhere, here clearly refers to prostitution. (The range of meaning alleged for porneia will be a topic for another time.)

In any case, it is clear from this passage that Paul understands “one flesh” to be a result of sexual congress, not of marriage. It is in this case precisely “fleshly” (a relationship with a prostitute lacking all that true human union should entail, precisely because it is transactional rather than relational) and in this context has no place in the spiritual life of the church. (Here Paul is consistent with his usual use of “flesh” in a negative sense, as opposed to the Spirit.) It is also remotely possible that Paul is alluding to another common meaning for porneia — as a metaphor for idolatry; however, it appears the primary concern here is with actual, not metaphorical, harlotry.

The lesson we can take from this is that union of flesh is, from this Pauline perspective, morally neutral. It is good between a married couple, but not between a prostitute and her client. It is, thus, the context of the relationship(the fullness of unity of body, mind and heart in mutual joy and companionship) that determines the moral status of the act which engenders the “one flesh,” not the merely physical act itself.

The Nature of Union

As we have seen, the fleshly union was understood to be connected with sexual congress. But as we have also seen, there is much more to it if this union is to be seen as a moral good: which is precisely where the other aspects of heart and mind enter in. The whole person — or rather, two whole persons — are united in a variety of ways.

When we turn to the text in its original setting, we see that these other elements are present. As noted in the previous article, the creation account in Genesis 1 references procreation; the account in Genesis 2 makes no mention of it until after the fall. Rather, the emphasis there is upon the union of the man and the woman prior to their having intercourse, though that is clearly meant to be an eventual part of the exercise. This union finds its beginning in the flesh and bones themselves (though it doesn’t end there).

This bodily reality is significant: the fact that the woman is not made from the “same” substance as the man (that is, from the same soil, as were the animals whom the man rejected as unsuitable). Rather the woman is made from the man’s own substance; she is one “like himself.” (Tobit 8:6) This imagery was picked up bythePatristic church in coming to an understanding of the Incarnation, seen as a reversal of this Edenic derivation of woman: just as woman was taken from man, Christ (the new Adam) was taken from the substance of the Virgin Mary. (Definition of Chalcedon; there is a hint of this thinking in 1 Cor 11:12, later expanded upon by the early church.) We will return to these themes in a later section.

The shift of focus away from merely bodily union towards the other aspects is evident in the Genesis passage itself. There is a reference to leaving the paternal home to be bound to the spouse, which in itself points beyond the merely fleshly to the social context. There are also, in Adam’s effusive welcome, testimony to the emotional joy to be found in his having finally found one like himself with whom to join. This likeness — which appears to be a primary emphasis of the passage — is significant in addressing one of the arguments often raised against the recognition of same-sex unions, which I will take up in a succeeding post.