The situation described in the following letters is entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.
So in my last letter I promised to address the question of fertility and the biological purpose of sexual intercourse. If the telos of intercourse is procreation, then does that limit lawful intercourse to fertile couples who are actively seeking a child? The answer is no, but then the obvious follow-up question is why not? We thought you said the purpose of sexual intercourse was procreation.
The short form of the answer is that the telos of the activity defines what sexual intercourse actually is. But Scripture gives us at least two other purposes of sexual activity, which we will get to in a moment. In the meantime, the whole thing reminds me of the joke where a man goes to the doctor with two green beans up his nostrils, a banana in his right ear, and a carrot in his left ear. The doctor takes one glance at him and says, “Well, I see you’re not eating properly.”
The repair of the body defines for us what eating is, but when you are invited to some wine and cheese deal after you have already had dinner, and you are not hungry at all, it is not unlawful to eat normally — even though your body is plenty repaired already. It would be unlawful, not to mention rude, to start doing creative things with the cheese spread, like smearing it on your forehead. The biological purpose of eating defines what eating is and does, and other purposes of eating (companionship, sacramental, celebratory, etc.) do not function contrary to the telos, but rather reinforce it.
The Prayer Book of the Anglicans has a good summary of the biblical purposes of marriage. I am quoting the 1559 version to make sure to avoid the foolishness that Anglicans have been getting into lately. Pardon the spelling, which is less unnatural than some of the other more recent stuff.
Marriage is to be undertaken “in the feare of God, duely consideryng the causes for the which matrimony was ordeined. One was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurtoure of the Lorde, and praise of God. Secondly, it was ordeined for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, that suche persones as have not the gifte of continencie might mary, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes body. Thirdly, for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye, into the whiche holy state these two persones present, come nowe to be joyned.”
So the three purposes of marriage and sex are these — the begetting and rearing of godly offspring, the prevention os sexual uncleanness, and mutual companionship. Note that it is not just the begetting of offspring, but the rearing of faithful children — which requires fathers who are present and engaged.
The first and third reasons are built into the fabric of creation. They would have been aspects of the sexual union and marriage had Adam never rebelled. The second purpose, the prevention of uncleanness, presupposes a fallen world. It presupposes temptations and sexual invitations from elsewhere.
So then, if a Christian couple are well-instructed, and they know what the point of marriage is, and what the point of sex in marriage is, they can make love as often as they want a child, as often as they need to, and as often as they want to. Lovemaking is defined and bounded by its biological purpose, which means that it should be the kind of act that God could bless with a child if He decided, as the biblical expression goes, to open the womb.
But lovemaking as companionship is part of the creation design. It should never be excluded, particularly as a couple are growing older together. Why would it be? If I get to it in another letter maybe I can share with you how we are indebted to the Puritans for our robust understanding of companionate marriage.
And if a man notices that the women at work are getting way prettier than they ought to be, there is absolutely no problem with him turning to his wife. He ought to turn to her — that’s what faithfulness (in this fallen world) does.
If his wife complains that she is feeling used, there are two ways to take this. In one of them, she has a point, and in the other one she does not. If a man is neglecting his covenanted duties to his wife and family, is refusing to be a protector and provider, is no companion at all, and so forth, but turns to his wife as his sexual outlet, then the feminists would be right in their description of this marriage at least. The wife is a de facto concubine; the arrangement is just glorified prostitution.
But if the husband has accepted the teaching of Scriptur, has assumed the responsibilities of manhood, and has laid his life down for his family, then his wife ought to feel used. She is being useful, and is well used. It would be easy for modern ears to take offense at this, but we should remember that Paul speaks of the natural use of the woman. And turnabout is fair play — he also refers to the natural use of the man.
We are created. We are creatures. We are objects in the world. So the problem is not treating people as objects. Things go off the rails when we treat others as our objects instead of what they are, which is God’s objects. The problem is therefore not “objectifying.” The problem is legislating as though the objects you see were your own personal possession, to be used as you please. No. We are God’s objects, and He is the legislator. As the manufacturer, He is the one who has the right to publish the owner’s manual, which He has done. We call it the Bible.
In the grip of a gauzy sentimental romanticism we have tended to layer the whole thing over with so many misdirecting extras that we sometimes forget how the whole thing ends. A wife might complain that in the throes of passion he seems to forget himself. Well, actually, he is supposed to.
More on Puritan romanticism next time.
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash
A little tweak needed here? “The short form of the answer is that the telos of the actively defines was sexual intercourse actually is.”
Pastor, you’re being used.
Very cute. I appreciate the distinction between used and “used,” between “objectified” and “useful.” A softer way to say that would be, “what is natural to women is to be delighted in.” Sadly feminism is trying to erase that truth, and while that is harmful to men, it is really harmful to women, because our very essence, design, character, what makes us happy, is being delighted in, “delight” manifesting itself in various forms.
I’m not an expert on logical fallacies, but the general form of the logical error you’re describing is that if a thing has a purpose, then it cannot have any other purpose. If sex is for procreation, then it can’t have any other purpose. If A is true, then without knowing anything about B, the conclusion is that B must be false. I see this error cropping up in lots of theological discussions where people argue from the premise that God had a certain purpose in something. What usually goes along with that is the assumption that there cannot have… Read more »
Live from sunny Los Angeles, happy Indigenous People’s Day, everybody!
(I thought my informants were teasing me, but no. The LA City Council voted earlier this year to change the name, and this is what they came up with.
I celebrated Indigenous People’s Day exactly the same way I’ve ever celebrated Columbus Day. Happy day off from work.
This is very good. However, the understanding that marital sex serves purposes other than procreation made me curious about Reformed views on artificial birth control. Because oral contraceptives and IUDs are thought by many to have abortifacient properties (I don’t have enough information to know whether that is true), I am mentioning only the barrier methods. If a couple is young and fertile, is it legitimate, in the Reformed view, to use the barrier methods to frustrate procreation in order to space their children, or to stop having children after they have as many as they think they can handle?… Read more »
Any prognosis on the snowflake? ‘Hope everything is good.
thanks, adadO. She doesn’t have the surgery until the end of the month. In the meantime, I had my own scare when the dentist thought he saw a tumor in my mouth. But the oral surgeon says it is okay!! It is always something, isn’t it?
But this made me laugh. I told my sister that I visit this board, and that I protect my daughter’s privacy by calling her Snowflake. My sister laughed, and said that our own dear mother calls me Creampuff behind my back!
???? well Jilly, there are worse things to be than sweet and light!????
As far as I understand, Catholic teaching is still to be open to life in marriage, and Protestant teaching is muddled on the same. Protestants, namely Anglicans in America in the 1930’s, were the first to allow contraception in marriage, and it was the persistent efforts of a devotee of Margaret Sanger who influenced the Bishops to vote in this way to begin with. When this happened, it of course opened the door for such things as women’s ordination and homosexuality, pornography and other aberrations, as divorcing sexuality from the fruitfulness of married life causes the others to follow. As… Read more »
You write that allowing contraception led to a host of other evils, but I would suggest that the real root issue was that the church leaders had a commitment to worldliness that trumped their commitment to Christ.
As with many things, there is not uniform agreement within the Reformed world about non-abortifacient birth control. My personal understanding, and one that I’ve heard from multiple sources, is that it’s an issue which depends on both the purpose for which the couple are using it, and the attitude which they are approaching it with. This ranges from the blatantly illegitimate, such as a pair of newlyweds deciding to remain functionally barren for no reason other than that they believe children would be a nuisance, to the nigh-unquestionably legitimate, such as the parents of seven children who have been told… Read more »
Define a “nuisance” for newlyweds. What’s wrong about not wanting to get pregnant on the honeymoon? Or to delay marriage if the couple married before they completed their education and expect to start a family within the next three or four years? That’s a huge difference than saying we’ll wait for 10 years or so and then see if we’re ready.
What I had in mind with “deciding to remain functionally barren” was not a delay, but rather a decision to not have children at all, ever. I was intentionally selecting an extreme position as my example of “blatantly illegitimate.”
Rarely ambiguous, Pastor Wilson is precise in carefully jarring ways, which reveals the teaching. Wonderful, incisive reflections on Biblical marriage and a couple of fraught words, like “use” and “object.”
In a world of timid mush, euphemistic virtue signaling, and Pastoral Bafflegab-Blogs, this barking dog (with visible incisors?) is refreshing. More pastors should take heart, take ownership, and write what they mean.
I suppose my question would be who quantifies a husband who is “is no companion at all” vs one who “has laid his life down for his family”. The husband? The wife? Someone outside the relationship who can be counted on for an objective opinion? These also sound like the extreme ends of the spectrum – a husband who is an occasional companion is not the same thing as one who lays down his life for his family, but he may perceive himself to be because you can’t honestly say he is no companion at all. Should his wife feel… Read more »
Maybe because you were using sex as a weapon- you still controlled it
if modern women put their silly little complains about men to women even 150 years ago those women would laugh at them….
I just came back to this yesterday and saw your reply. Even though it is a nasty, presumptuous comment, I would like to thank you for it. Well, my husband would, anyway. Your comment bothered me, so I went to him and asked him if I had used sex as a weapon in our marriage. He told me no and asked my why I wanted to know. I told him about my question and your comment. This led to a heartfelt conversation that ended with us both feeling understood and cared for. If you had been kind, or given me… Read more »
“Lovemaking is defined and bounded by its biological purpose, which means that it should be the kind of act that God could bless with a child if He decided, as the biblical expression goes, to open the womb.”
Sounds to me like you’re saying no artificial birth control including condoms, spermicide, nothing but natural family planning. Am I understanding you correctly?
I’m guessing no, because those non-abortifacient methods still fail when God “opens the womb.” My reading, incorporating Wilson’s other teachings, is that he is excluding abortifacient methods and sex that does not involve the womb.