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Is marriage a remedy against sin?
The other day I tweeted this:
“Marriage was ordained as a remedy against sin”.
I’m a good little (ordained) Anglican. But this line from Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer makes me wince.“
Rightly dissatisfied with this briefly provocative and provocatively brief tweet, my super smart twitter friend, Matthew Mason, asked some insightful and helpfully framed follow up questions.
Genuine qs: Why? What do you think Cranmer meant? How do you think that might relate (in his understanding and yours!) to 1 Cor 7:9, which is presumably in the frame here? Do you have probs w what he (might have) meant, or w how it might be appropriated? What wd you rather say? I'm asking not as a series of gotchas, nor bc I think I have answers, but really to stimulate though and expand my own understanding
Because I resent being forced to abbreviate important discussions into the kind of bite sized chunks that twitter deems acceptable, I’ve decided to reply to Matthew’s great questions here. Ha! No character limits! Take that Twitter!
But before I do, let me put that short quote from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in broader context (while also encouraging you to go and read even this larger extract in its full context—that being the preface to the solemnization of marriage in the Anglican BCP)
[T]he causes for which Matrimony was ordained [are]:
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.
So back to Matthew’s questions- starting with the first. Why? By which I understand him to helpfully be asking “Why do you wince?”
Well, the chief reason I wince is because the assertion that marriage was ordained as a remedy for sin seems chronologically and theologically out of order to me. The word ordained means to be established for, ordered towards, destined to be. It inherently involves a sense of predetermined purpose. That is, the intentional reason X exists as it does is because of Y. And so, I can’t help but wince at the suggestion that marriage was ordained as a remedy against sin… because marriage and its purposes were ordained before sin entered the world.
Interestingly, Thomas Cranmer (the dude who wrote the BCP), acknowledged precisely that only a few sentences earlier in the preface.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency
Clearly Cranmer knows and believes that marriage came before sin. So in what sense does he see marriage as a “remedy” for something that didn’t even exist at the time it was instituted and its purposes ordained?
Well, we might suggest that an all-knowing God is not bound by chronological order and so could rightly ordain certain purposes in light of a future reality. That is, God knew that sin would enter the world and he knew that sex would be a particularly potent field of human sinfulness. And so, in his foreknowledge and kindness, God ordained marriage to be a remedy against (sexual) sin. That would make sense, right?
Well, yes. Except that we only know sexual godliness and sin because of marriage.
That is, sexual immorality is biblically defined as any form of sexual activity/intimacy undertaken outside the context for which it was originally purposed—life-long, life-giving and life-serving marriage between one man and one woman. Because sexual righteousness has been wholly constructed in relationship to marriage, it is marriage which gives sexual sin its very definition. And so:
How can X be a necessary remedy for Y, when Y only exists because X existed first?
Suggesting that marriage is a remedy for (sexual) sin seems to get things around the wrong way because:
It suggests it possible to separate God’s creation of human beings with the (good) desire and capacity to have sex, from the (good) desire and capacity to marry another person, into standalone and potentially unrelated realities. I don’t think Scripture permits us to think this way.
In so doing, it bestows on sex an inappropriate ontological primacy over marriage, such that marriage becomes a solution for sex “gone wrong”, rather than that which allows us to be see our accountability and complicity in making sex “go wrong”.
I guess it’s a little like the Old Testament law. The law wasn’t the remedy for human sinfulness. Rather it demonstrates the tragic extent of our sinfulness, and also revealed our sin as deserving of God’s judgment. The only real remedy for human sinfulness is the grace of God. And the only treatment for it as an ongoing reality in our lives this side of eternity is the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
Marriage isn’t the remedy for human sexual sinfulness. Rather it demonstrates the tragic extent of our sexual sinfulness and also reveals our sexual sin as deserving of God’s judgement. The only real remedy for human sexual sinfulness is the grace of God. And the only treatment for it as an ongoing reality in our lives this side of eternity is the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
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Which brings us nicely to another of Matthew’s questions. What is the connection here between Cranmer’s words and 1 Cor 7:9?
BCP: Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
1 Cor 7:7-9: Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
This is an important part of Scripture. Not just for the sake of our present conversation, but for our theological and ethical approach to Christian singleness, sin, self-control and sanctification more generally. I’m going to bravely resist the temptation to climb onto my “gift of singleness” hobby-horse (I’ve already taken it for a long ride here, here and here), and will instead focus in particularly on v.9.
How do we evangelicals tend to interpret and apply that verse today? Well the first thing we typically do is equate “burn with passion” with “experience sexual temptation”. That is, we say “If you have a strong libido, if you find yourself struggling to resist sexual sin, if you have a healthy sex drive then beware! You’re burning with passion and it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually give in”.
Notice that Cranmer says pretty much the same thing? If you don’t have the gift of continency (i.e., you don’t have a special empowerment to stop you from falling into sexual immorality as an unmarried person) then marriage is the way for you to keep yourself as an “undefiled member of Christ’s body”. Cranmer is not out on a limb by himself here. This is the standard Reformation approach to singleness, sex and sin. (Check out this post for more on that).
But is that in fact what Paul is saying? A key thing to pay attention to is the phrase translated “if they cannot exercise self-control”.
I’m sorry to go all, “But, if we look at the original Greek” on you here, but this is quite important. The verb Paul uses, which we read translated as “exercise self-control” means to restrain one-self, to have mastery over one’s desire’s and action. But interestingly, it is a verb written in the present (not the future) tense. Now, the present tense can certainly have an ongoing or progressive significance (i.e., it is not necessarily limited to what is happening in just this specific moment). Nevertheless, Paul doesn’t seem to be asking them to subjectively predict if they think they’re cut out to be able to hold onto self-control indefinitely. Instead, what Paul is technically saying here is: “If the unmarried and the widows are not exercising self-control, they should marry”.
So, let me make a couple of further comments on that:
The only way any of us can confidently know that we cannot exercise self-control in any area of our lives if is we’ve already proven that we can’t. Sure, I could say “I think it’s going to be really tough for me to be self-controlled indefinitely” or “I’m not feeling optimistic about my ability to always be self-controlled in this area”. But we only know we can’t if we already haven’t or currently aren’t.
I think this helps us to better understand Paul’s comment. That is, I (amongst others) think Paul is likely saying “If those who are unmarried and widows aren’t exercising self-control (ie. if they are having sex—most likely with a person they are betrothed too or could be betrothed too, see below), then it isn’t good for them to remain single. They’re committing sexual immorality and so they ought to marry (that person) rather than remaining single and continuing to commit sexual sin”.
On that note, keep in mind the people Paul is addressing here. Unmarried Christians in 1st Century Corinth were in a different position to most unmarried Christians in the 21st C west today. The vast majority of them would almost certainly be in some sort of betrothed arrangement (organised by their families). In other words, they had a potential marriage partner right on tap. And even the widows he was addressing were likely to be quite young and have clear marital possibilities. He was addressing people who, by and large, could pretty much snap their fingers and be married tomorrow (at least in theory!).
Understanding that puts a bit of a different spin on his imperative for those who are not (currently) exercising self-control to go ahead and marry. It also requires us to think carefully and responsibly about how we apply this verse to unmarried Christians today… and especially those who struggle with sexual temptation but for whom marriage remains frustratingly out of reach.
Self-control (of any sort) is not something that some Christians are lucky to have, while others aren’t. Rather, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit which God calls us all to cultivate, expects us all to cultivate and holds us all accountable to cultivate. Furthermore, he has empowered us all to cultivate it by giving us all his indwelling Spirit. And so why do we readily expect and urge single Christians to be able to cultivate peace, patience, kindness and so on, but not (sexual) self-control? Why is that a different bushel of spiritual fruit altogether?
Furthermore, why do we tend to think about sexual self-control as a “one-strike and you’re out” deal? If we occasionally (and regrettably) give into anger, we don’t tend to see ourselves as being destined to never be able to exercise self-control over our anger henceforth. But for some reason, giving into sexual temptation on one (or multiple) occasions is imagined as being like opening the floodgates. There can be no going back. (In saying that, I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of sin. Whether it be on one occasion or many, our sin is always abhorrent to God and always forgiven in Christ. I’m just seeking to make a point about the different way we tend to think about sexual sin in comparison to other besetting sins)
I could say more—especially about why we imagine that getting to have sex with one person in marriage is going to be the magic silver bullet that allows us to exercise indefinite sexual self-control— but I’ve gone on long enough already. (I will say that this document, written by a bishop and former Archbishop in my own Anglican diocese, discusses another important theological and pastoral implication on this matter. Start at the final paragraph on page one and read through to halfway down page two)
So, let me finish by turning to Matthew’s final question. If the assertion that marriage was ordained as a remedy against sin makes me wince, what would I rather the BCP say instead?
I think I’d rather it say marriage was ordained as the context in which one man and one woman might love, serve, give to and enjoy one another through the extraordinary one-flesh sexual relationship they exclusively share. I’d rather it say that marriage is ordained to help us understand and practice God’s good purposes for sex in this creation, while also foreshadowing something important about the one yet to come.
The real remedy
So… should singles who struggle with sexual temptation or who have a strong libido seek marriage? Sure, I think that is a good thing for them to do. But not as a remedy for their sexual temptation. Not as the cure for their sexual sin. Rather they should seek it because marriage is a good thing, and sex in marriage is a good thing.
More importantly, however, I think they… I think we… we should seek to cultivate the spiritual fruit of self-control. After all, it’s not God who depicts single Christians as walking around like ticking bombs of pent-up lust. No. That’s the world around us. And also John Macarthur.
But God, well God says, “These people are the children I have chosen, redeemed and am sanctifying. Through my divine power I’ve granted to them all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). The remedy for their sin is my Son”.
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