“Marriage is a significant allegory, and I’m applying it to Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:32 CEB)
I am kind of an internet meme connoisseur. If you are as well you’ve probably seen this picture a few times now, cast into different memes across the interwebs. So why am I using it here? Well because I want to address something that is getting a lot of play right now both in Christian and secular circles: the standards of sexual behavior between men and women.
Now that being said, that means I have the ability to step on about a million toes here. Some of what I say is going to come across as far too progressive for more conservative readers and far too conservative for the more progressive circles that I often move in. Dan Carlin often says the same thing about his Hardcore History podcasts, but like Dan, I love everybody, and I know there are going to be different opinions about this. So I’m not claiming that I have some great truth revealed to me here, but this is how I see it as revealed through scripture and as best jiving with the life that Christ would have us live. If you disagree, no hard feelings.
Let me get a couple of basic beliefs stated up front. First, I believe that as Christians we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of sexual morality than modern society often advocates. It may sound old and stuffy, but I believe it’s true. I believe that human sexuality is a gift from God that is meant to be expressed within the context of a monogamous marriage relationship. While I do agree that the idea of marriage handed down to us by the New Testament defines the marriage relationship between a man and a woman, I also believe that the same type of love and intimacy can exist in a same sex relationship. Can a loving, committed same sex couple who dedicates their lives to God be as honoring to him as a different gender couple? I like to believe that they can, though admittedly I can’t really support that from scripture. Then again, I can find ample support for polygamous behavior in scripture, so I think the jury is still out there. I’m not going to pretend to know the mind of God on that one. However, while my scope here is about the relations between men and women, I think a lot of it, if not all of it, can be applied to same gender relationships as well.
I also believe, most importantly, that the marriage relationship between man and woman is supposed to mirror the relationship between Christ and the Church. That is the model on which we are to base our intimate relationships, as Paul says in the verse above. Now, before you get the torches and pitchforks out, I’m not advocating the submissive wife to dominant husband thing. I believe Paul was writing in a very patriarchal time, and while Christ is undoubtedly the head of the Church, he is also the perfect Son of God. So fellow men, maybe when you become the perfect Son of God, you can look for others to submit to you but, spoiler alert, that’s not happening.
I believe the relationship between man and woman should mirror the relationship of Christ and church in a couple of important ways. First, there must be a spirit of mutual respect. In a relationship where respect is present, submission will also be present, however in human terms, there will be times when a husband should submit to his wife as well. That’s just healthy from a psychological context. Men, we are not always right just because we have the “plumbing” or the testosterone. I hate to break that to you. In fact thinking like that undermines a respectful relationship and cause all kinds of damage, both within the relationship and outside. Having been through a failed marriage I can definitely tell you that the problem had nothing to do with my wife “submitting” to me or not. In fact if she had, things might have ended up worse. A good relationship is one of give and take, of two people coming together to support and compliment each other.
The second way we should mirror Christ’s love for the church is through self-sacrifice. Who would you willingly give everything, including your life, for? I thought about that a bit, and my list was embarrassingly small. Outside of my family, I could really only think or probably two people. I need to work on that. What about you? I’m sure many of us would say that our spouses, or if we’re not married our significant other, are on that list, but are they really? When you really get down to the brass tacks of it, would you give your life for that person? Because that’s what Jesus did for us.
We are also meant to emulate agape love. For most of us who grow up in a church, this is one of the first times we encounter a word in the English language that can mean different things in New Testament Greek. What is rendered as “love” can often be eros, which is a romantic, passionate love. It’s where we get the term erotic. Eros is not bad, but it is only one facet of love. Philia is kind of a “brotherly love” that exists between friends. In fact, Aristotle translates this as “friendship.” Again, this is an important part of love, but not the whole picture.
Agape is the full portrait. This is the love we have that persists no matter what. It doesn’t go away when the romantic fires fade, and it is stronger than the bonds of brotherly love or friendship. Agape transcends both of those things and is unconditional. It is this kind of love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13. It is unconditional, it never fails. As Pastor Gary at my church is fond of saying, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Do our relationships with others, with our partners, mirror that?
That’s tough. That’s a high standard.
So in light of all of that, let’s take a look at some of what is going on in the world.
Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. He has been accused of sexually harassing and even assaulting various women over the years. I’m not going to go into the accusations here, they would take forever to list. They are deplorable. They are the picture of a man who does not have any respect for women or probably anybody else for that matter. Clearly he believes people should be submissive to him, and clearly he exists in a world devoid of self sacrifice and humility, only seeking to fulfill his pleasures and whims.
Recently Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine passed away. Many of the people that frequent the circles I involve myself with really don’t have an issue with Hef’s magazine or attitude on the surface. After all, he never forced women to take their clothes off and have their picture taken. Many of them were fairly well compensated. To some he is seen as a hero of the women’s lib movement.
To me, he’s not much more than a pornographer. Look, it’s not for me to say somebody should or shouldn’t participate in that kind of a photo shoot or whatever. I don’t like it, but it’s not illegal. We are told that we all have a right to our own body and should be able to do with it what we please. That is the modern societal standard. However as I mentioned at the outset, I believe that we as Christians are called to live to a higher standard. Also scripture tells us that our bodies are not our own to do with as we please. Paul is quite clear about this in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, again from the CEB:
Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves? You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body.
The price paid for us by Christ was heavy indeed, and I don’t believe that pornography is honoring to him, no matter how liberated it may make you feel. Besides I have a background in counseling psychology and I have seen first hand the destructive influence pornography can have. No matter what, your spouse doesn’t ever quite match up to the air brushed photos, and I’m not sure you’d want your spouse to be much like someone found in a lot of the videos.
But let’s not just leave men on the hook here. While pornography is more visual to men and seen as a largely male problem, there are a significant number of women who consume it as well. We’re not talking about just photos and videos, but the “billionaire’s lover” paperbacks that sell at the grocery store have the same effect. Look, I’ve heard plenty of pop psychologists say that “a fantasy can’t hurt you,” but way too many times I’ve seen the opposite turn out to be true. Definitely these kind of things don’t harm EVERYONE that consumes them, but they do harm many, many people.
So now that I’ve angered my liberal friends, let me put my conservative friends out too. With all of this talk about Weinstein and Hefner, Vice President Pence has been held up by conservative Christians as the model for our relationships between man and woman. Why is this? Because he follows the “Billy Graham” rule and never meets with a woman other than his wife without someone else being present. On the surface that sounds pretty neat, right? He respects his wife so much that he doesn’t want to give off the appearance of impropriety with another woman. It even sounds downright self-sacrificial. He respects the women he’s meeting with by not putting them in a position where they can be caught up in compromising behaviors. Everybody wins, right?
I don’t question that the Vice President loves his wife. I don’t question the fact that he thinks what he’s doing and espousing is holding himself to a higher standard. I’m sure both of those things are true. But…
Is there not enough trust between him and his wife to make this “rule” unnecessary? I don’t know. That’s not for me to judge.
Is it really respectful to a woman he might have to meet with to imply that if someone else isn’t with them he might have his hands all over her, or worse, she might have her hands all over him? I say that because so often when sexual impropriety happens powerful men tend to cast women as the instigators and hoist the responsibility onto them.
In Galatians Paul says that self control is part of the fruit of the spirit. Does the Vice President imagine that he doesn’t have that kind of control?
Now, I don’t for one instant view the Vice President as some kind of womanizer. I highly doubt that he would really act inappropriately toward someone. I’ll take his word on that (though maybe I’m naive). That being said, I don’t think the “Billy Graham rule” is about protecting women, his wife, or his marriage. I believe that it is solely in place to protect his reputation, to keep up appearances. Is that really the most important thing here? Is that really what we should be worried about? Is that spirit of mistrust really about respect?
I would also add that if you’re a man who can’t trust yourself to keep your hands to yourself with a woman unless somebody is watching, you not only probably shouldn’t be vice president, but you should probably be in custody.
Also, I would think much more highly of the Vice President if he disassociated himself from the current President. You see, over the last couple of weeks while many conservative Christians have held up Pence as a model of virtue, criticism of President Trump is non existent.
The President who has admittedly committed adultery (pretty sure that’s in the Ten Commandments somewhere) several times and shows zero repentance or remorse. The president who has appeared in pornographic videos. The President who proudly graced the cover of the much maligned Hefner’s magazine.
The President who routinely appeared on Howard Stern. The President who has been accused of the same kinds of things that Weinstein is accused of by several women. The President who “moved on a married woman like a b*tch,” and likes to “grab ’em by the p*ssy.”
I’m sorry conservative friends, you have no standing on this issue as long as President Trump continues to be the evangelical darling, and I refuse to think much of the Vice President’s high morals until he disavows him.
So where does that leave us? None of us are perfect, and it’s hard for any of us, myself included, to practice what we preach. I don’t know that being overly judgmental is the answer to any of this. There are things we can learn from the behavior about each of the men mentioned above about how NOT to do things.
Ultimately we are only in control of ourselves, but as Christians, again we are called to a higher standard, one that we will admittedly not always be able to keep. But I think it would really be awesome if Christians led the way on sexual ethics, and not it the way of demeaning women as inferior. Paul may have talked like that at times, but it pays to remember that the first people the resurrected Christ appeared to were women. He certainly didn’t seem to entertain that notion.
However, if we could lead the way in mutual respect, self sacrifice, and agape love just maybe the Church could once again regain it’s moral clarity and be an example of Christ in the world.