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Orthodoxy, Sex Ethics, and the Meaning of Nature

August 9th, 2017 | 13 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

James K.A. Smith’s recent criticism of those who have made a particular sexual ethic a criterion of ‘orthodoxy’ has generated a minor kerfuffle, as these things go. My friends and Mere Fidelity collaborators Derek Rishmawy and Alastair Roberts have both weighed in, Alan Jacobs has offered a characteristically concise yet helpful clarification, and Wesley Hill has offered a sober and elegant reflection on related themes.

I’m not sure how much is left to be said that would be helpful, but before I give the substance of the question a go let me make a few broader observations about the way these discussions transpire.

The Danger of Needlessly Alienating Those Who Agree with Us

First, I think conservatives are perpetually in danger of piling on those who call into question aspects of our approach to this issue, even—and perhaps even especially—when the individuals doing so agree with the broad contours of traditional Christian sexual morality. I argued loudly on behalf on behalf of Julie Rodgers and defend the Spiritual Friendship crew every chance I get.

Even when I disagree with their formulations, conservatives need just the kinds of internal critiques that such individuals and communities provide to not ossify (further) into a doctrinaire assertion of our position, and to help us creatively consider the possibility of newer and more true ways of articulating the beauty and goodness of our position.

How far can ‘orthodoxy’ be extended?

What, though, of the substance of the question: Can ‘orthodoxy’ be extended appropriately to include at least certain (and how many?) aspects of a “traditional” Christian sexual ethic?

I take it that nearly everyone has agreed to this point that such questions appropriately frame the problem. Prof. Smith seems to describe the conservative position as encapsulating “sexual morality and marriage,” and Prof. Jacobs raises questions about a “sexual ethic.” Such a formulation raises significant questions, of course, about what is involved in formulating any ethic, sexual or otherwise, and what the relationship is between the practices in which a community embodies that ethic and the narratives or propositions that compose our public articulation of that ethic.

On one level, this clearly names what is at stake in our churches’ debates over gay marriage. Can two members of the same sex marry, and do so with the blessing and under the authority of God and his church? How shall the Christian community arrange itself, such that these relationships have the intelligibility and support and integrity that different-sex marital relationships are given? What ought, normatively, the churches do with loving, pious gay couples in their midst?

Such normative questions are important. The creeds and the set of doctrines Smith so helpfully throws under the label of ‘orthodoxy’ are also of relatively little use, I think, in answering them.

On Extending ‘Orthodoxy’

We should note, though, that trying to link traditional answers into the creeds in this sense does not narrow them, but rather seriously and significantly expands them. And, as a result, questions about the boundaries proliferate: if a “sexual ethic” is a part of the creed, why not a pacifistic ethic of war? Or an abolitionist ethic of slavery, or an ethic of poverty relief? Or, as Smith points out, baptism?

These are sound reasons to be wary about extending ‘orthodoxy’ to ethical stances, I think. And yet, that distinction itself seems to presuppose that the ‘gay marriage’ debate within our churches is a debate fundamentally about ethics, such that the same descriptions of the doctrines which fall under the umbrella of “orthodoxy” could generate both an “affirming” and a “traditionalist” view of whether gay people can marry.

It’s this move that I think we should call into question, and that helps explain why conservatives (like me) tend to lump affirming positions under the rubric of ‘heresy.’ How one describes “sex” and “marriage” are not secondary implications of a theological anthropology, but rather essential aspects. “The Lord is for the body, and the body for the Lord” is said of the body in its sexual dimension, and expresses something like the totalizing role sexuality plays in our understanding of persons. (Paul differentiates the body in this respect from the stomach, which the Lord “will destroy.”) The sex of our Savior, the gender of his bride, the nature of their union together, the fruitfulness at stake in it: describing the scope, the content, and the means of salvation is impossible without staking out some sort of view on such matters.

But theological anthropology is also—theology. The biblical depictions of sexual complementarity and marriage demarcate humanity’s relationship in the church to God through Christ, and render the name of “Father” intelligible to us. Even in his humanity, the witness of Christ is unintelligible apart from the mother who bore him and the father who adopted him. If this familial architecture is only accidental, or inessential, or on an equal plane theologically to a same-sex familial structure, then the scope and content of what Jesus would mean when he says “Father” (of God) would doubtlessly also be very different than what he in fact discloses to us.

What Same-Sex Marriage Would Mean for the Bride of Christ

To put a sharper point on it, it is because Christ has a bride that we are able to name God as Father in the Lord’s Prayer, and for that name to have the peculiar content that it does. I think Ben Myers is simply too strong to say that the name “Father” and “Son” have no anthropological corollaries that inform our grasp of them. Paul in Ephesians doesn’t think so: It is from the Father that every family on earth is named. While this asymmetrical ordering is ontologically irreversible, epistemically the Fatherhood of God seems inextricable from the sonship which we are brought into through Christ and his—bride. Inasmuch as humanity is known and revealed in the person of Jesus, we are also known and revealed within the complementary relationship that Jesus has with his church.

Is there a valid ‘affirming’ sexual ethic?

Still, such descriptive theological anthropology is not sufficient for the argument against affirming gay marriage. After all, one might accept such a theological anthropology and still argue that it can generate both the “affirming” and “traditional” sexual ethics. I don’t want to speak for them, but from reading them for a while I suspect Jacobs and Smith agree with the broad contours of the theological anthropology I’ve described above and reject the claim that there is a single position that flows from it, namely, the traditional sexual ethic.

Answering this problem is, if I may be honest, the single most challenging and important aspect of the debates over gay marriage—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one which conservatives have devoted the least time to developing properly. There are two pieces of the conservative argument:  a theological anthropology in which sexually-complementary relationships are an essential feature, and negative prohibitions against sexual unions which fail to instantiate them. The question is how the positive vision generates the negative norms, such that affirming and practicing same-sex sexual relationships can be said to undermine and contradict that positive vision, rather than merely supplement or add a new form of life to it.

The first thing someone attempting to explain why a theological anthropology generates only a traditional sexual ethic would have to do is differentiate, somehow, same-sex unions from other permitted forms of non-marital unions. After all, there are other obvious forms of human life and of sexuality which the New Testament positively welcomes—‘sibling’ relationships between the sexes in church, for instance, and celibacy for individuals. On the traditional view, celibacy does not contradict marriage, but rather transposes it, elevates its essence and its life into a new key. Nor do ‘sibling’ relationships contradict marriage, but rather are understood and developed within the church in consort with the practices at the heart of fruitful marital relationships.

Additionally, one would have to argue that certain ‘ideals’ are themselves normative, such that imperfect forms of unions are impermissible. After all, one might argue that same-sex sexual unions are not contradicting traditional marriage so much as imperfectly disclosing them, or supplementing them in some way. Such a case is more difficult to make than it seems—the last time I tried, I spent an entire weekend arguing with a friend who thought non-marital sex was permissible for identical reasons.  

Still, if the advent of Christ has something to do with the impermissibility of sexual unions—then it does so, it seems to me, for reasons informed by the anthropology which is therein disclosed and the bounded set of practices which are authorized by Christ himself to be signs and witnesses of that anthropology and the grace embodied within it.

Why Sexual Ethics Cannot Be Altogether Separated from the Creeds

In that sense, “sexual ethics” both are derived from the creed and its embedded anthropology, and a means of entering into their logic and their structure. To admit two signs of permissible sexual unions—different-sex and same-sex—into a community, and to treat them as equally normative and permissible, equally disclosive of the reality of God’s love to the world, reduces the witness of the church to incoherence. Who is named “Father” in a lesbian union, such that they can equally claim to be a family who have derived their name from God the Father?

It is for this reason, I think, that “sexual ethics” actually function on a different logic than pacifism or other ethical questions. It seems to me that the pacifist and the just warrior agree on the nature of the eschatological peace to which the church is ordered and moving. They disagree about the licit means by which individual Christians might strive to secure the limited and partial peace of our time. To put it differently, they might both agree on the contents of the ethics of reconciliation, but disagree about the timing and means of its worldly implementation.

However, it seems to me that if same-sex unions are a contrary sign to the anthropology disclosed by Christ and his church—which is the only theological grounds on which I think they are impermissible—then the eschatological vision cannot hold them both, at least not unless we adopt the ethical equivalent of twice two being five. The early progressive affirmation of same-sex unions frequently was accompanied by what amounted to a denuded theism, in which every name for God is permissible. While evangelical progressives are aiming for a more respectable form of the argument, which preserves (say) calling God “Father,” the question is whether trying to have both is consistent. After all, what we affirm with our lips is not always determinative of the meaning or significance of our practices. (I don’t say this to be cheeky, but more than anyone else Prof. Smith has himself made that point known among evangelicals. We would do well to heed it.)

It would be reasonable and right to raise questions for me about other aspects of sexual ethics, to see whether I am willing to grant that they also function as signs of contradiction in the way I’ve described same-sex unions. Take, for instance, the use of contraception: does intentionally prohibiting that dimension of one’s sexual life render one’s marriage a contradiction? I am happy to grant that it does, and in a very serious way. But then, this claim is as well attested to in the tradition as the prohibition on same-sex relationships, among both Protestants and Catholics, at least until that fateful and tragic Lambeth conference of 1930.

If my claim that affirming gay marriages renders Christian anthropology and the grammar of the creeds unintelligible is right, then it is almost certainly an unintelligibility that those who affirm gay marriages theologically will fail to recognize. Deviation from traditional sexual ethics renders us incapable of affirming and seeing the truth about sexual ethics. This is true from the couple who divorces without cause to the man addicted to porn. I take it that it is a feature of heresies that they present themselves as the truth, and a feature of heretics that they avow and insist upon their own orthodoxy.

Such a problem of self-deception is not limited to progressives, not by any means. But it exists nonetheless, and means that how ‘orthodox’ and ‘heresy’ are used should vary according to whether one is speaking of an ecclesiastical context, an individual, or a leader of the church. One might adopt, tacitly, a position that is in fact heretical without realizing it; one might even consciously affirm that position, without being a ‘heretic’ in the sense that one should be excommunicated from the church. But a deliberative body like the church that affirms and approves of these things—well, that’s a different ball of wax. It seems eminently unreasonable to excommunicate individuals on grounds that they affirm gay marriage; it seems eminently reasonable to leave or separate from churches that affirm gay marriage.

Allow me to conclude with this: the practices through which the church orders sexuality, marriage, and celibacy are a “sexual ethic.” But they are an ethic that, when embodied, reveals and bears witnesses to the truths of God’s boundless and generative love for the world, of his blessing upon creation through his grace, the blessing which in marital unions takes the form of children and within the church takes the form of converts. Such an ethic cannot be “derived” from the propositional content of the creeds; it is the life which enables the creeds to be prayed gladly and fervently, and without the haze of confusion or inconsistency. Such an ethic is not a “first order” or “second order” issue; it is the presupposition upon which the church names and calls its children through baptism. It is a set of practices that, when undertaken by individual couples under the blessing and authority of the church, will come to an end; the form of this world is indeed passing away. But our marriages come to an end only as the marriage into which we are all finally united with Christ begins, and we join our groom at the wedding supper of the Lamb. The practice of procreative sexuality ends with the eschaton; the grammar of sexual complementarity which stands beneath it and informs it endures forever.

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