WARNING: This article contains a few frank references to a man's
semen, sexual intercourse, birth control and there are even one
or two passing references to masturbation. If you find such
things sexually unsettling or are easily offended, perhaps this
article is just not for you, but please allow me to assure you that many Christians do indeed have questions in this area, and these questions are not normally addressed by local ministers.
I was recently asked a very long and detailed
question on marriage. My questioner proposed three main points
which he backed up with numerous scriptural quotations. These
were his points:
1 Scripturally, it seems that God considers the first person we ever experience sexual intercourse with, as our lifelong spouse.
2. Biblically, there is no evidence of a 'marriage ceremony.'
3. Therefore Christian congregations should not judge, but rather, welcome all couples who live together without having gone through any formal marriage ceremony.
What follows is my (rather long, I'm afraid) answer to my questioner's points.
In this response, I find it necessary to discuss sex, a man's semen and birth control too. I have tried to deal with the issues with all tact, propriety and decency but some of my comments could still prove a little strong for some. I hope that you are not offended.
I just read your article on marriage and I must compliment you for the work which you put into that. I think that you make a very strong case indeed for saying that, in God's eyes, we are 'married' to the first person we have sexual relations with.
The second point you make is that no "marriage ceremony" - as such - is ever instituted in the Bible, which seems to be correct, therefore couples who have lived together for some while are 'married' in any case, so why should Christians discriminate against them?
For my part, I am prepared to accept that if a couple have lived together for 20 years without being formally "married," they may be no less "married" in God's sight than some who have been through a ceremony but are not living together harmoniously.
But to say that 'you make a very strong case' is not the same thing as saying that you have proven your point because, frankly, I don't think that you have. There are problems with your view:
1. How does one know that a couple who live together did not experience several sexual acts with other people before they came together?? If so, then even if they have lived together for 20 years, they are not (according to the view which you desire to uphold), truly married!!
2. To be frank, in our age, couples who live together who have never felt the need to formalise a marriage union before others, often seem to place a low commitment on their union.
Yes, I know you will find exceptions to this and you may also say that many married couples show a low commitment to their union. But the desire to make a public commitment before others in a formal 'act of marriage' seems important for most people, whether it is done in a place of worship or somewhere else. I agree that no "marriage ceremony" (as such) appears in the Bible, but I do believe that for a couple to make a public commitment before others is important. Is this not the same principle which we find in baptism? We know that we are not saved by the act of being baptized, but surely God has given us the ceremony of baptism before others as a witness that we have dedicated and commited the rest of our earthly existence to God!! So there seems no reason why we cannot make a public marriage confession in the same manner; an outward sign of the motive of our inner heart to share the rest of our lives with this very special person.
3. Christians should never bring reproach or condemnation on the message of the gospel by the things which they practise. The biblical example is to obey the laws of man except where they obviously conflict with the laws of God, and then we must not obey them!
This point alone would mean that for most of the church age we should support the principle of a 'Christian marriage ceremony.'
Did you know that a number of people become Christians every year after marrying in a place of worship? They had fallen out of the practise or perhaps had never seen the need of acknowledging God, but something in the marriage ceremony in which Scripture was quoted spoke to them!
If - from tomorrow - all denominations said: 'From now on, we are going to scrap the Christian marriage ceremony, since - if you live together and are having regular sex - you are already "married,"' I'm afraid that this would tend to buy into this society's casual, no-commitment attitude towards sex. There is just something in the act of seeking to formalise ones union before others which speaks of the importance which we should place upon it!
4. If we say that God 'only accepts' the first person we ever experience sexual intercourse with, as our lifelong husband/wife, are we not painting a rather naive and simplistic view of the God who rules the universe??
Can we actually believe, for example, that a God of love looks down on a couple who are devout Christians and who are raising children in the great truths of the Gospel yet rejects them both -with their marriage and children - because of indiscretions which one or both of them were responsible for in their younger years?? I don't think we can support the concept that a God of love and forgiveness would reject such a couple!
I find a certain naivety in that view of God.
This seems to be very close to the Roman Catholic teaching against birth control. Catholics were traditionally taught that a man's seed (semen) can only be produced for procreation. They believed that all semen is life, and it must never be wasted; therefore withdrawal as a means of birth control (the man withdraws from his wife at the point of climax before his sperm spills into her womb) and other methods of birth control (as well as masturbation), are inherently wrong and sinful since the man is purposely 'spilling,' or, 'wasting' life. But the Roman Catholic argument is seriously flawed because no life commences until a man's seed fertilizes his woman. Life begins inside a woman's body - it takes two!! Semen only has the potentiality for life - it is not 'life' in itself. In fact, a woman's own monthly cycle washes away unfertilized eggs. So God has allowed even nature to show us that there is nothing inherently sacred about the sexual components which men and women produce with the possibility of producing new life.
But when these two things successfully come together and a man successfully impregnates his woman, then, and then alone, new life starts!
Catholics use the example of Onan in Genesis 38 to demonstrate that birth control is sin because God struck Onan dead after he spilled his 'seed' on the ground.
Funnily enough, Protestants have often used the very same Scripture to show how sinful masturbation is. But the act which is recorded has nothing to do with masturbation, although it is a description of birth control by the method of withdrawal - but why did God take Onan's life? Lets read the account:
6.Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
7.But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so ther Lord put him to death.
8.Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother."
9.But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother.
10.What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so He put him to death also.
(Genesis 38:6-10, NIV throughout)
First of all, why was Onan told to commence
sexual relations with his brother's widow?
The Geneva Study Bible says of this practise:
This order was for the preservation of the stock, since the child begotten by the second brother would have the name and inheritance of the first: a practice which is abolished in the New Testament.
In fact, this was the first recorded instance of
a custom, later incorporated into the laws of Moses, that when a
husband died leaving a widow, his brother next of age was to
marry her, and the issue, if any, was to be served heir to the
deceased. The practise served both as a loving memorial but also
to provide for the widow.
But Onan had other plans! In the ancient world children were one's means to wealth! He did not want any children which he produced to be his late brother's heirs so he selfishly witheld his semen from his brother's widow. We don't entirely know why - perhaps there had been friction or rivalry between Onan and Er. Therefore he adopted withdrawal as a form of birth control in order to prevent the widow from becoming pregnant by him. The text seems to make it clear that he was extremely careful to continue this practise over some period of time, since it says, 'whenever he lay...' This undoubtedly became cruel for the widow (one would have thought that it would also have been highly frustrating for Onan himself since it is extremely hard - and against all nature - for a man to withdraw from his woman at the point of climax!!) But Onan's selfishness was apparently so great that he was assiduous to maintain this practise - THIS is why God took his life!! Nothing to do with the act of withdrawal itself, but because of his dedicated selfishness.
It is not inherently wrong to practise withdrawal, though it must surely be highly risky as a form of birth control; neither is birth control, in principle, wrong or sinful.
Just think: if the traditional Catholic teaching that all spillage of semen is spillage of life and is therefore great sin, is correct, then that would even make nocturnal emissions a great sin. Nocturnal emissions are occasionally experienced by many (though not all) younger men; basically, a little semen is lost during the night. The man naturally produces and spills a little semen - he did not choose to do so, he was asleep! Presumably strict Roman Catholics would even consider this sinful.
And yet whenever a man lovingly takes his woman in his arms and lovingly caresses her he is already starting to produce a little semen, even if these caresses never end in full intercourse. Very often such occasions will lead to the man needing to visit the bathroom for a thorough wash - this is normal. All we men know about and understand this. So semen is produced by our love for our wives. Would any seriously suggest that God got 'caught out' by this - that He did not know that this would happen?? That God is sitting in heaven thinking,
"Oops!! There goes another sin to put on the list!! Bill just produced semen even though they are not planning any more children!!"
Preposterous! Do we think that God does not fully understand the children He Himself designed and created?
The first reference to marriage and sexual union occurs in Genesis 2:24:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh
Some say that a principle of monogamy is
established here, but I think they are technically wrong. This
simply refers to the marital union; it does not even discuss the
possibility that a man could be joined to more than one woman;
this Scripture - of itself - does not say that people like
Abraham and Moses sinned by having more than one wife; it just
refers to the act of marital union - please don't
misunderstand, I am not saying that polygamy is fine, I am
talking about a technicality here!
As my correspondent may have pointed out, there is no marriage ceremony here, yet there is certainly a sense of momentous change as a man's sexual union with his wife commences, and his earlier life within his parent's house comes to an end. But there is no comment here on producing children.
If we take the Song of Solomon, this book was written to celebrate sexual love between a man and his woman and, of course, we know that some of the verses look forward to the love between Christ and His Church. From this book alone we know that sexual intercourse between a man and his woman should be utterly joyful! We should not be ashamed nor embarrassed in seeking the fullest joy during loving heterosexual intercourse! Yet how different this is to traditional Catholic teaching!
Song of Solomon has - effectively - been banned from many a Sunday School and Home Discussion Group and I don't need to quote from it here but it contains many references to sexual love - some subtle, some far from subtle! Yet it never talks about producing children! So this most 'sexy' of biblical books (if you will pardon me saying that), which clearly celebrates sexual love contains not a single word of warning that men should only produce 'seed' for the purpose of procreation!! And yet, as I have shown, men start producing semen even in the act of holding, squeezing and caressing their wives!
Yet, even in Proverbs, we have an encouragement to fully enjoy sexual love:
A loving doe, a graceful deer - may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love
Paul clearly discusses the sex act and the
responsibility of husbands and wives in 1 Corinthians 7:3-6 -
this is plainly talking about marital sex, but again, not a
single word of warning from Paul that a man's semen is only for
the purpose of procreation.
So in all the biblical references to sexual activity we never find a warning that the sole purpose of such sexual activity is for the procreation of children! Rather, as husbands and wives joyfully submit to each other in love, God occasionally grants the great blessing of new life!
But regarding any 'spilled' semen, I dislike being indelicate but, to be perfectly frank, almost all men beyond the age of puberty and of average to strong sex drive will occasionally spill a little 'seed'. I have no intention of elaborating.
I cannot conceive of a God who keeps a record or who has put angels in charge of keeping such records. I cannot conceive of a huge heavenly 'scoreboard' which shows that Bill Smith's 'spilled semen score' stands at ten thousand so he will have ten thousand sins to answer for since the semen should only have been produced in order to procreate!!
So I find the point clearly established that the Roman Catholic teaching on birth control is completely erroneous and wholly without biblical support!
But we certainly have to thank Catholic writers for their great support of family values and their opposition to abortion. Moreover many years ago my wife and I came to the conclusion that the 'rhythm method' which the Catholic Church upholds is by far the best form of contraception! The 'rhythm method' is a simple recognition of the stages of a woman's monthly cycle; during much of this cycle, a woman cannot become pregnant.
Now I have digressed a very long way......
But the point I am making here is that the Catholic understanding of why birth control is sinful is somewhat similar to my friend's concept that God refuses to consider that anybody beyond one's first sexual partner can ever be one's legal husband or wife under divine law!
If one looks at the lives of the patriarchs of the Old Testament, several clearly had more than one sexual partner (wives and concubines), but I cannot find a single word in my Bible where the Lord reveals to them that ONLY THE FIRST OF THESE WHICH THEY EVER TOOK were their bone-fide wives!! Can you find such a text?? If so, please tell me where it is!! (By the way, please don't misunderstand I am not upholding polygamy!) Neither can I find a single text where the Lord rejects these people from his presence because they had failed to understand that only their first sexual partner were legally wives under divine law.
So both the view that a man's semen is 'life' and God keeps a record of all 'spilled semen' which is sacred, and the view that God only considers that one's first sexual partner is ones lifelong spouse seem to present a very naive view of God. Indeed, it is a picture of a God who somehow got it wrong when designing us and was surprised by the potency of sexual love!! Without question, these concepts are also highly legalistic.
Just in case anything here is misunderstood, let me make it plain that Christians are bound to uphold the principle that sexual relations should only occur within marriage. Yet we must not be naive about changes in modern western society which means that probably the overwhelming majority would not necessarily agree with this. Yet when such people come to the Faith we must point out to them the biblical standards of modesty, loyalty and marital faithfulness.
So I welcome my e mailer's comments on marriage and sex but don't find his points fully substantiated, except that I am prepared to agree that a couple who have lived together completely faithfully for many years are undoubtedly 'married' in God's sight. But if they become Christians a wise pastor would still advise they they enter into formal marriage since the ceremony of marriage remains a fine and inspiring Christian tradition, and the couple would then surely wish not to bring any reproach or disrepute upon their congregation.