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.
Thanks for the question, which in my mind goes right to the heart of the issue. Right after simple obedience to the plain commands of Scripture, which is first, your question calls us to understand our obedience. But we are not to study forever in order to talk ourselves into obedience. Rather, obedience is the path to understanding. As George MacDonald once put it, “obedience is the great opener of eyes.”
Your question was this: “What does natural even mean?” I had quoted Paul from Romans 1, and he there assumes a definition of the word, but it is a usage that does generate some reasonable questions. It also generates unreasonable questions, but we can’t tell the difference between the two kinds of questions without knowing what natural means.
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” (Rom. 1:26).
So in this verse Paul describes something called a “natural use,” and he also points to a practice which he says is “against nature.” A man having intercourse with a woman is, in his assumption, a natural use. A man having some kind of sex with another man, or a woman having sex with another woman, is against nature.
But what exactly makes it unnatural? The question cannot be answered without acknowledging the authority of design, and you cannot figure out how the design is supposed to work unless you know the end or purpose of the activity. In other words, there is an entelechy to sexual activity.
Because our culture has gradually come to assume that this purpose is sexual gratification or release, and has also made the obvious discovery that such a release can be obtained in all kinds of sexual configurations, we think the matter is settled. But having made this discovery, we find ourselves up against the plain testimony of Scripture, what nature itself is telling us, and the witness of the faithful remnant of the church. My point here is simply to talk about what nature is telling us.
The biological purpose of the sexual act is the procreation of children. We must never stop asserting this, but we tend to shy away from it. The reason we shy away is that there are some follow-up questions that can be difficult to answer, and because we are not exactly sure of our answers, we are hesitant to “go there.” But this reluctance is unnecessary.
The biological purpose of eating is to provide nutrition to the body that can be used to repair that body, and provide it with energy to do things. That is what eating does. I can affirm this (and do) and not be embarrassed by the fact that competence in a cook can bring a great deal of additional pleasure. Nor am I embarrassed by the fact that a thoughtful hostess can make the entire dinner party a more civilized and pleasant experience by how she decorates the room and sets the table, how she uses cloth napkins, the centerpiece chosen, and so on. We do not take these additional perks as an argument for pushing our food around on the plate. We do not say that since the purpose of eating is to “refuel,” we ought therefore to take all our meals out of the microwave, and eat them over the sink. We could refuel that way also, right?
There is a crucial difference between abandoning nature, revolting against it, and supplementing nature, augmenting it. Augmenting nature is natural to man. Man was created as a tool-making creature, and such artificial tools are natural to him. But in order for his use of tools to remain natural, he must never forget the natural center, the natural anchor point. He uses tools to hunt, kill, dress, butcher, cook, and present the dinner. But at the natural end of the process, the forkful of meat goes in the mouth and not in the ear.
So it is possible to have an uncivilized eating that does the job, but does nothing else. A man pulls a banana off the tree and eats it, in just the same way a chimp does. You can have a civilized eating, where the biological and nutritional purpose of eating remains the central point, but it is adorned with many other good things—laughter, fellowship, aesthetic pleasures, comfort, etc. You can also have a Babylonian food orgy, where ostentatious display and unnatural uses of everything are the order of the day. This third category is not “advanced,” but rather is decadent. It does not surpass the civilized meal, it rather sinks below the savage eating the banana.
Now in this comparison, Scripture teaches that there are all kinds of lawful and encouraged adornments to the sexual experience, whether perfume, poetry, spices, or bed sheets, etc. But that adornment surrounds and enhances the same basic encounter that Adam and Eve experienced the first time, presumably without such adornment. To follow the encouragement of the Song of Songs is not decadence, but is rather civilization. Civilization enhances without destroying. Decadence destroys without replacing.Civilization enhances without destroying. Decadence destroys without replacing.
We can find a striking example of the distinction I am seeking to make in Paul.
“Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering” (1 Cor. 11:14–15).
I would be happy to discuss the larger import of this passage some other time. Right now I just want to get one thing out of it. Nature teaches us that men ought not to have long hair. But in a “state of nature” a man’s hair grows just the same way a woman’s does. Paul is not describing any kind of Rousseau-inspired primitivism. He is not telling men and women (in order to be “natural”) to just let it all hang out. Men are supposed to cut their hair, and so Paul teaches us that for men, to interrupt the course of nature, using an edged tool, is something that nature requires of us. The use of scissors on a man’s hair is obviously a natural act.
And this means that nature does not mean letting “whatever” happen. Nor is it natural to leave a garden untended.
All of this means that nature teaches by means of something more than what we might find on an IQ test. There is a natural understanding within us that reminds us constantly, in our conscience, that the man goes with the woman and the woman goes with the man.
There is something to the IQ test illustrations, but they by themselves are not sufficient. They make one point well, but they do not go far enough. A nut and a bolt are designed to go together. The nut threads onto the bolt, just like the inventor intended. An electrical plug is designed to go into the wall socket, and it goes right in, just like that. When you are hooking up a stereo, you can usually figure out how the male and female couplings (big hint in the names!) go together. Of course it is natural to assemble things according to their design like this, but Paul is addressing something that goes well beyond this. Say someone didn’t know how to thread a nut onto a bolt—that would simply be ignorance or stupidity. But when a man turns away from a woman to embrace a man, he is not just ignoring the obvious design of the parts, he is also suppressing the knowledge of God within him. He is sinning against his own conscience, which leads him to sin against his own body.
I mentioned earlier there are some difficult questions to answer in light of all this. If the teleology of sex is procreation, should an infertile married couple stop having sex? Is it unnatural for sex to occur after menopause? There are a few other issues that accompany such as these, but they can wait for the next letter.