Posted by: frroberts | October 6, 2017

Is the Church behind the times?

How many times have we heard that the Church is behind the times, mired in a medieval way of thinking that might have worked well one thousand years ago, but totally irrelevant today?

I remember a conversation that I had as an undergraduate over coffee with a female I was thinking about asking out on a dinner date in which the topic of chastity came up.  I can’t remember how it came up, but I was grateful that it did.  She, while being a Christian, felt like pre-martial chastity was not realistic in today’s world.  Times have changed after all.  How can we except to try to follow the same rules that applied to previous generations that married in their late teens and early twenties?

While I did not disagree with her contention that pre-marital chastity has probably grown more difficult, I could not agree with her that for that reason a Christian was simply free to disregard it as relic of the past.

“Times have changed.”  

“The Church needs to stop trying to turn back the clock and talk about what really matters to people today.”

“The Church is on the wrong side of history.”

Every age, even ours, has its myths.  In our scientific age, at least here in the United States, most of us simply take for granted the entirely unscientific myth of progress.

The universe began with a Big Bang.  From the Big Bang came the formation of galaxies, then planetary systems.  On at least one of these planetary systems, organic life emerged from matter.  From here evolution ensured that life grew progressively more complex until the intelligent life emerged and human beings appeared on the scene.

But the progress did not stop with intelligent life.  The anthropologists pick up where the paleontologists leave off, theorizing that the first human societies were highly authoritarian and rigid.  As cultures have evolved, the individual has gained more and more freedom.  Historians tell us that religious freedom came first, then democracy, then the abolition of slavery, then woman’s suffrage, then the civil rights movement and now we are seeing the progress continue with so-called marriage equality.

According to this myth, progress marches through history generation by generation and all opposes it is simply ground under by the wheel of progress.

I wish I could say that I saw through this myth of progress on my own.  But my insight into the unsoundness of the myth of progress came from the Harvard paleontologist and philosophical agnostic, Stephen J. Gould.

In a course that I took from him as undergraduate on evolutionary theory, I was struck by his observation that, evolutionarily speaking, the most successful species in the Earth’s history has been the cockroach.  It is quite possible, he explained, that intelligent life is simply a blip on the radar screen of evolution that will pass away as quickly as it has appeared.

Professor Gould did not allow his students to use phrases like “higher forms of life” or “the evolutionary tree.”  He taught us that as conditions change the life that survives is the life that adapts best to these changes.  We make a huge mistake when we attach metaphysical meanings to evolution.  Value judgments have no place neither in science nor in history; they are the province of philosophy and theology.

The wedding at Cana presents Our Lord’s first public miracle, the changing of water into wine.  A wedding feast is a particularly fitting place for our Lord to begin his public ministry because wedding celebrations take place in the context of marriage and the family, two foundational elements of the human life.  Everyone comes from a family and most people at least desire to get married at some point in their lives.  Most importantly, we learn about God and what it means to love in our family.

In the Palestine of our Lord’s day, there were many different visions of marriage and the family:

The Greco-roman view of marriage was highly patriarchal.  Men typically married girls about half their age, meaning that a thirty-year old man would marry a fifteen-year old girl.  Divorce was socially acceptable.  Extra-marital relationships before and after marriage with both genders as well as cultic prostitution were likewise tolerated, if not accepted.  Married men who were not slaves enjoined near total power over their households, including their wives.

The non-Jewish population of the Near East held a view very similar to the Greco-Roman vision, with the exception of being more open to polygamy.

First-century Jews had moved away from polygamy and sought to limit intimate relationships to marriage.  The Mosaic law permitted divorce, but there was considerable debate about when it was acceptable and significant preoccupation with the fate of women whose husbands had divorced them.

The preaching of Jewish prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Malachi  helps us understand why the Jews had rejected extramarital intimacy and polygamy and were moving  away from the practice of no-fault divorce.

These prophets spoke of the covenant between the Lord and Israel as an unbreakable spousal bond wherein God is bridegroom and Israel the bride.  Despite the infidelities of Israel the covenant, God did not break His covenant and choose another nation.  The Lord’s faithful love for Jews was the model for the martial covenant.

The fact that John the Baptist was beheaded for challenging Herod’s divorce and remarriage indicates that this process of transformation in Jewish attitudes toward marriage was not complete.

Before we can talk about a specifically Christian contribution to attitudes about marriage, it is important to go back to what I said earlier about progress.  It would be a huge mistake to look at history and conclude that changes through time inevitably bring moral improvement or progress.  For example, the discovery of nuclear energy definitely constituted a change in the human race’s technological abilities.  From this advancement eventually came nuclear weapons.  Few would agree, however, that use of nuclear weapons in war that followed is in principle a good thing.The onrush of history can lead us toward Hell just as easily as it leads us to Heaven.  Our own experience is that deadwood always goes with the stream while only things that are living are capable of swimming upstream.

If we want to speak of progress when it comes to marriage, we need a fixed standard as a reference point.  Otherwise we are just deadwood being carried along with the current.

What is the Christian fixed point when it comes to evaluating historical developments as regards marriage?

[F]rom the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 

Mark 10:6-9

To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband  (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) –and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11

Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and the adulterous.

Hebrews 13:4

It is definitely correct to say that our attitudes surrounding marriage have changed greatly in recent generations.  As Christians, we have a standard against which to measure these changes.  This standard is not based on ancient social codes.  Jesus’ vision of marriage and the family was revolutionary and challenging even for 1st century Jewish circles–just as it is revolutionary and challenging for us Christians today.


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