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