Chapter 7: Marriage and the Family
We begin now our study of the problems of what has usually been termed “social ethics,” although for reasons given earlier it is impossible to draw a sharp line between individual and social ethics. What we are about to consider has long been termed in America, particularly under the influence of liberal theology, the “social gospel.” In European thought it has more often gone under the nomenclature of obligation in the “orders of creation.” This term with one made popular through its use in studies under the World Council of Churches, the “responsible society,” is in process of replacing reference to the social gospel. Any of these terms may well enough be used if its meaning is understood. All refer to the application of the principles of Christian ethics within social institutions.
1. The primacy of the family
There are several reasons for beginning our study of the ethics of social institutions at this point. In whichever direction we look for a frame of reference, the family is a “first.”
From the standpoint of the “orders of creation,” both the Bible and anthropology agree in asserting the primacy of the family among all social relations. The Genesis story of creation comes to a great climax in the words: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” (1:27-28.)
In the study of primitive origins, the family is universally found to be the basic unit of society. This is not, to be sure, always a father-mother-and-child, monogamous family in the modern sense, but with varying degrees of blood relationship and with the family varying in size from the small unit to the clan. Yet everywhere the family is that social structure within which economic, political, and cultural patterns have come into being and are perpetuated.
So it is today. Every family in today’s society is, of course, the inheritor of many centuries of social change within which not only morals, manners, and mores have been developed but also a vastly complex set of economic, political, and cultural institutions. Much, therefore, is “given,” to which both the child and his parents must conform. So dominant are these pressures that the status of the individual family, while sustained by them, is at the same time imperiled. Yet it is still true that within the family is a nucleus of growth, action, and character development which determines largely the course each individual will take, and through the aggregate of many individuals the course of society as a whole.
In the Christian view, man is a composite of nature and spirit. Man, like the animals, is a biological creature subject to natural necessity, while unlike the subhuman animals he is a living spirit with freedom to choose his ideals and fashion his life by them. At no point is this more clear than with reference to the family relationship. The sex impulse is a biological impulse, designed for procreation and essential to it. without which neither animal nor human life would be perpetuated. The death of older organisms requires that the young should be born and take their places, and the sex instinct is biologically the instrument of this ongoing life. Yet sex in the human part of God’s creation is much more than an instinct designed for reproduction of the species; it is a high expression of spiritual devotion, fidelity, and love. So likewise is the family more than a temporary expression of the maternal (and possibly paternal) instincts for the feeding and protection of the young; it is also the matrix within which the highest human qualities of love and tenderness are experienced and nourished.
This fact has a direct bearing on the longer period of infancy and of parental care in the case of human offspring more than in any other biological group. To the obvious fact that no individual could be born without parents must be added the fact that without parents, or at least without parent substitutes, no person could grow to maturity or learn to care for himself in the multitude of ways that human life requires. The home is the natural, and by general consensus under normal conditions the best, medium for such maturation and growth. While society must provide substitutes in foster homes and institutions where there is no parental home, this is never more than a palliative and is not, we may believe, either nature’s way or God’s. This fact stands as a constant answer to the various proposals, appearing at intervals from the time of Plato’s writing of The Republic to the present, to place the general care and rearing of children in institutions.
The obverse of this is the fact, unfortunately too evident in the contemporary world, that when a totalitarian system sets out to destroy an existing social structure, it begins by attacking the home. Children are taught to spy upon and report their parents; counter-indoctrination is given to contradict and ridicule the influence of parents; parents are psychologically and sometimes physically separated from their children, and all are forced into abnormal relationships and activities. If this is not to happen in a democracy as it has under Nazi and Communist tyranny, the freedom and sanctity of the home must be safeguarded as a basic foundation.
The primacy of the family finds its chief support, furthermore, in the words and attitudes of Jesus. These over the centuries have been incorporated into Christian thinking and at least partially into the social structure of the Western world. That Jesus exalted family relations has sometimes been challenged, as we shall note presently. Yet it remains true not only that he sanctified the family by drawing from it his primary symbol of the nature of God as Father and of men as God’s sons, but that he had a new and fresh insight into the personalities that constitute a home. As a consequence, wherever Christianity has gone with any vitality, it has lifted the position of women and children and brought about the enhancement of family life as a whole.
2. Jesus and the family
We must now look more explicitly at the way in which the Christian outlook upon family life is rooted in the ethics of Jesus. We shall do this by examining both his explicit teachings and the implications to be drawn from his general structure of life and thought.
First, some negative criticisms must be looked at for what they may be worth. It is apparent from the record that Jesus never married. We do not know whether he ever had a love affair or considered marriage. The astonished outburst of his neighbors, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” (Matt. 13:55) would seem to indicate that he was a dutiful son in the Nazareth home until the beginning of his ministry.1 But after that time, there is no evidence that he had much contact with his family. Although it is recorded that from the cross he commended his mother to the care of the beloved disciple (John 19:26-27), it is difficult to escape the feeling that there is harshness not quite “Christian” in his rebuff of his mother and brothers when they came desiring to speak with him (Matt. 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21). In his thought single-minded devotion to the Kingdom took preference over attending one’s father’s funeral (Matt. 8:21-22; Luke 9:59-62); the rigorous cost of discipleship was to hate one’s own father and mother and wife and children (Luke 14:26). Such passages as these have been quoted by Christians to justify an ascetic view of family life, and by those not Christians to disparage the wholesomeness of Jesus’ outlook upon this most intimate of human relationships.
To these negative reactions two observations are in order. The first is that Jesus did not, like Paul, advocate celibacy as a higher state than marriage. In fairness to Paul it should be said that it was probably his eschatological expectation of a speedy end of things, rather than an aversion to women, that made him put a premium on the single state and advocate marriage only as a somewhat grudging concession to sexual desire (I Cor. 7:6-9). Less is recorded from the lips of Jesus than the pen of Paul about sex relations, but it is unlikely that our Lord ever expected celibacy to be exalted as the pattern of life for the “religious,” as is the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. The second observation to be made is that the stringent and costing requirements of the Kingdom do sometimes take precedence over family ties. Jesus was enough of a realist to foresee the temptations that family love presents, the more so because it is a great good that is not the highest good.
For an affirmative estimate of how Jesus regarded the family, it is necessary to see him against the setting of contemporary Jewish life. Family ties were highly regarded, and it is this structure of family loyalty in Judaism that has enabled it to persist through the vicissitudes of twenty homeless centuries. “Honor thy father and thy mother” was embedded not only in the Mosaic law but in Jewish custom. An incidental reference at the end of the story of the child Jesus in the Temple is typical of the times, “And he went down with them [his parents] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). The self-willed disobedience of the modern child would then have received short shrift in a Jewish home!
Yet while women were honored as mothers and sons were desired to carry on the family name,2 as is usual in Oriental societies women were also regarded as the husband’s property, bearing his children and satisfying his sexual needs. It is an interesting juxtaposition that while one of the Ten Commandments enjoins the honoring of parents, another speaks of a neighbor’s wife in comparable terms with his house, slaves, ox, or ass as objects not to be coveted! 3 Divorce was easy, and by giving her a written bill of divorcement a husband on any pretext could send away his wife “if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1) .4 There were doubtless many instances of genuine love between husband and wife, and between parents and children. Love has a way of transcending law and custom. Yet there is no suggestion, either in Old Testament law or in the world to which Jesus came, of a true equality of women and children with the husband and father of the family. The assumptions of the time sanctioned monogamy rather than the polygamy found in much of the earlier Old Testament, but it was a monogamy of the thoroughly paternalistic type. So common was this view that Paul simply echoed it in a new context when he wrote, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. . . . As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.” (Eph. 5:22-24.)
Into this male-centered world Jesus came, and with incomparable insight treated men, women, and children equally as persons. So familiar has this idea of the equality of all persons before God now become that it is difficult to project one’s thought back into a time when it was a new and startling experience to talk seriously with a woman about her soul (John 4:7-27), or to set a child in the midst and say, “To such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). Such comments as “They [his disciples] marveled that he was talking with a woman” and “The disciples rebuked the people” are in the text, but they carry much more weight than we usually discern.
However, Jesus exalted the position of women less by what he said than by the tenor of his life. The record shows no trace of sex discrimination. While considerations of propriety would have made it difficult, then as now, to have had a woman among the Twelve, Jesus had as his close friends Mary and Martha at whose home in Bethany he seems often to have visited. He healed women as freely as men (Matt. 8:14-15; 9:18-25; 15:21-28), and was not afraid to accept Mary Magdalene’s tribute of understanding friendship (Luke 7:36-50). He cut so sharply into the current custom of easy divorce that it is no wonder the disciples were shocked into exclaiming, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 19:3-10). On the other hand, in a passage of doubtful textual authenticity but true to his spirit, he shocked those who were stoning an adulteress with words stinging to them and merciful to her, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. . . . Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:7, 11.)
The primary words of Jesus about the sacredness of marriage and the home are those which link it with the order of creation:
Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one”? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. (Matt. 19:4-6.)
This is the bedrock foundation of Christian marriage, and on it all that is best in Christian family life has been erected.
It is evident from this focal passage, from those cited as to his equal treatment of persons, and from all that was said in Chapter 3 as to the grounding of his ethical insights in a spiritual relationship to God, that Jesus’ attitude toward the family was never one of expediency or mere social conformity, much less of personal indulgence. The family to Jesus was a holy relationship, marriage a holy bond not lightly to be broken. Within it there were obligations and responsibilities as well as joys; all were centered in the creative act of God and the blessing of God upon the union formed under his sight and in his name.
In a day when marriages are too easily and too selfishly entered into and soon severed, this word of Jesus stands as a beacon pointing toward security, goodness, and truth. None may disregard it save at the peril of losing his happiness and his home. We must now see what light it throws on certain vital problems of our time.
3. Is monogamy essential?
At first glance this may seem like a superfluous and altogether academic question. Are not bigamy and polygamy prohibited by law? Is not monogamy the accepted family pattern in every civilized society? One may answer Yes, and still raise the question. For at two very vital points the monogamy which is accepted theoretically and legally is challenged in practice. One is the frequency of extramarital sex intercourse. Though the Kinsey reports are to be taken “with a grain of salt” because of their restricted sampling from those who felt free to report such intimacies, there is no doubt that they reveal a startling breakdown in sexual morality. The second factor, evident to all, is the ease and frequency of divorce with subsequent repeated remarriages. When one marriage in four ends in divorce, and plural husbands or wives are acquired one after another in rapid succession, it can hardly be said that monogamy is our universal practice.
What is monogamy? It may be defined as the marriage and subsequent sexual union of one man and one woman, entered into with the expectancy of permanence and with the assumption of legal and personal responsibilities entailed by this relation. The marriage ceremony, whether civil or religious, is not simply a perfunctory form, but is the announcement to society that this relationship is being assumed. A secret marriage, however undesirable, is still monogamous if there is a legal registry which can later be made public and which forms the basis of the assumption of mutual responsibilities. A “common law” union, still less defensible, assumes in some respects the status of monogamy when the union is permanent and the family that results is faithfully supported. Sexual intercourse outside of marriage, even when love is present, is not monogamy, nor is “trial marriage.” There must be, on the part of the two entering into the marriage relation, an expectation that it will be “till death us do part” or it is not true monogamy.
Monogamy can be viewed, on the one hand, from the standpoint of sociology and psychology. It is an aspect of human culture about which a scientific judgment can be made as to the most advantageous form of domestic relationship. On the other hand, it must be viewed by the Christian in a religious perspective, to discern what is the will of God as that will is revealed by Jesus. From both standpoints, monogamy is the only right form of marital relation.
To begin with psychological and social factors, monogamy appears to be the natural form of family life, in spite of the powerful drive of the sexual impulse. It is generally believed among anthropologists that monogamy, rather than promiscuity, is the characteristic form of domestic relation in primitive societies. Where polygyny and polyandry5 are found, these are extensions of an otherwise monogamous relation through secondary causes, such as the prestige of possessing plural wives or the desire that they bear sons to perpetuate the family name. The biological fact of the numerical equality, or near equality, of the sexes favors the monogamous relation, and precipitates problems of social adjustment regarding the unmated where there is deviation from it. More serious, however, is what happens to family life as a whole on any other than a monogamous basis. Whether the alternative is a houseful of jealous, quarreling wives, or concubinage with the inferior status of all but the first and legal wife, with the procreation in either case of a bevy of children who cannot have adequate parental care, the outcome is bad. Hence as societies advance, polygamy tends to be outgrown.
To translate this into conditions of modern Western society, what happens when a man has to support two families, or when marital unions are lightly formed only to be quickly broken? The resulting insecurity and unhappiness of the adults involved is driving many thousands to psychiatrists and into mental hospitals, while the toll taken upon the children by broken homes is a familiar cause of juvenile delinquency and many other problems of personality disturbance. Quite apart from the Bible, or the Church, or the teachings of Jesus, anything else but monogamy simply does not work!
There is a further psychological factor in the nature of human sexual love. As Emil Brunner puts it:
This does not mean . . . that the polygamous instinct does not exist, nor that it is not particularly strong in the male; but it certainly does mean this: that, quite apart from all ethical obligations, those who love each other do feel the intrusion of a third person to be intolerably disturbing, that a strong and genuine love — still quite apart from any idea of ethical obligation — does want the loved one wholly and solely for itself.6
This fact is, of course, the source of much distress and tension when the “eternal triangle” appears and breeds at times a fierce jealousy which wrecks marriages. Yet, though subject to perversion, this particularity which makes the mate within a love relationship feel that the other must be his, and not another’s, is based on a sound instinct. Within the order of creation it is an essential foundation of monogamous marriage.
But what of the Christian view of marriage? This is clear and unequivocal.
To the Roman Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament. Most Protestant communions do not hold it to be a sacrament in the same sense that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are, yet it is a sacred act. It is rightly spoken of as “holy matrimony,” and as the time-honored ritual for its solemnizing has it, marriage is an honorable estate, instituted of God, and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence in Cana of Galilee. It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God. Into this holy estate these two persons come now to be joined.7 Such marriage must of necessity be monogamous, based on a holy love with vows of mutual fidelity and with the expectancy of permanence. Any other form of union between the sexes is a distortion and perversion of what God has ordained and sanctified.
The fact that marriage is an “honorable estate, instituted of God” is of itself a sufficient answer to the Roman Catholic view that celibacy is a higher state to which priests, monks, and nuns are called. In fairness, however, to this view and to voluntary celibacy among Protestants where this is found, it should be clear that the divine vocation, or calling, is not the same for all persons. It sometimes happens that one’s fullest service to God and his Kingdom may be rendered outside of marriage; where this is the case, celibacy is equally a “holy estate.” Neither marriage nor abstention from marriage is of itself sacred; what sanctifies either situation is God’s blessing upon it and the fullness of Christian devotion within it. Whatever one’s marital status, a rich and useful life of Christian service is the will of God. Whenever one is confronted with a crucial decision at this point, then celibacy equally with marriage is “not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God.”
Nevertheless, for most adults marriage and family life are the normal and right relationship. But to make it “right” in quality and context is not easy when the contracting parties are not angelic beings but simply human beings who are mixtures of good intentions and sin. In no area of existence does the “sin which clings so closely” stick tighter or cause more havoc. What light, therefore, is thrown upon the family by the principles of Christian ethics?
4. Foundations of Christian family life
We must look at the foundations of Christian marriage and family life. Here it is important once more to see the relations between agape, eros, and philia. Agape, we have seen repeatedly, means uncalculating, self-giving love. Eros means the love of what is lovable, or desirable, or for some reason desired by the one who loves. As we have had occasion to use the term in previous discussion, based on its usual Platonic connotation it did not mean the “erotic” in a sexual sense, but any longing for what is prized. Within the relations of the sexes it connotes romantic love with the desire to possess the beloved, and has as an important, though not its sole, ingredient the desire for sexual pleasure. Philia suggests a love based on compatibility and kindred interests, and is more accurately rendered in English by the term “friendship” or “affection.”
It is important in Christian marriage that all three types of love be present, but with agape as the controlling factor. No marriage is likely to be successful without strong ties of romantic love and adequate common interests. The first requires deep emotion, the second rational judgment, as the marriage is contemplated. Yet neither an emotional love based on desire for self-gratification nor a calculated balancing of tastes is sufficient to carry a couple through the stormy days which almost inevitably come. To quote again the marriage ritual, it is “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” that vows of faithfulness are taken. Unless one is seriously able to pledge permanent fidelity in days that are “for worse,” “for poorer,” and “in sickness,” he ought not to marry, and it is only agape love that makes this possible. Otherwise, as Paul Ramsey has suggested in a neat rendering of the meaning of eros, “‘I love you’ may simply mean, in all sorts of subtle ways, ‘I love me, and want you.’” 8
The type of fidelity, therefore, that roots in self-giving, unclaiming love is very vital to Christian marriage. It is the only foundation that will hold a marriage steadfast through a clash of dispositions over matters minor in themselves but cumulative in a multitude of daily flurries and irritations, that will forgive hurts and avoid jealousies, that will outlive fading physical charms, that will undergird “affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient.” The absence of such agape love is the major cause of the appalling percentage of divorce in contemporary marriages, and the root of much unhappiness in legally persisting but. inwardly severed marriage bonds. Much that goes under the name of “mental cruelty” is simply self-centered, erotic love turned back upon itself.
To such agape love, centering not in emotional attraction only but. in a deep and unselfish commitment to the other through every possible situation, must be added two important forms of “respect.” One of these is respect for personality. Though these words do not appear in the New Testament, the idea they connote was basic to the attitudes of Jesus, and is central to the Christian outlook wherever this is spiritually sensitive and discerning. It means within the family a due sense of the importance — and equal importance — of every member of it, father, mother, and children. It does not mean that every member will have the same duties, functions, gifts, or opportunities, for these vary with maturity and circumstances; but it does mean that every member shall have such treatment as will afford to him or her the fullest dignity, the fullest possible opportunity for self-development and creative growth, the fullest happiness the circumstances permit. Put negatively it means that no member of the family shall be exploited by another for his personal enjoyment or treated simply as a means to another’s gain. Put affirmatively it means that every member of the family, infinitely precious to God, shall be so regarded by those most intimately connected by ties of blood and human love. The ramifications of this principle of respect for personality are endless, for they permeate the total structure of family life. Is shall mention only a few, which when neglected are among the more common sources of perversion.
It is fairly well established in our society that due care shall be given to the physical health of each member of the family; it is by no means established that mental health shall be thus safeguarded. Among the most frequent causes of disturbance is continual “nagging” with sharp words and temper tantrums. No family life can be wholesome in such an atmosphere. But this situation may in itself be effect as well as cause, the result of unalleviated strain or the denial of normal freedom or a continually smoldering sense of frustration. Few family situations are ideal or can be made wholly so, but respect for personality in the form of understanding kindness and control of the tongue could go far.
There is the ever-present problem of authority. Whose word is to be “law”? The putting of the question suggests the root of the problem, for Christian ethics cannot be legalistic within the family any more than it can be elsewhere. Yet decisions must be made. They are best made by family counsel and mutual consent. Parental authority must be exercised over the immature, or no child will learn self-discipline, but it ought not to be exercised dictatorially. And as between husband and wife, who is “the boss”? Again the question suggests perversion, for neither can dominate the other when a Christian respect for personality is present. It is no accident that in most marriage services of the present the wife does not promise to “obey,” but there is instead a mutual promise by each to “love . . . comfort . . . honor . . . and keep” the other. Only when this vow is faithfully maintained can a marriage be what it ought to be.
Again, there is a nest of problems with regard to money and work and the related issues of recreation and leisure time. We cannot go into them here except to say that the principle of respect for personality has a bearing on them all. In general, it may be said that every member of the family who is able, children as well as adults, ought to have some money to spend as he or she desires, some responsible work to do with reasonable freedom from interruption, some chance for freely chosen enjoyment. But this is not to sanction the selfish individualism that too often prevails in the modern family. There should be family sharing, family work projects, family fun. Paul said it for the family, as well for every other form of human relationship, when he wrote: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:9-11.)
But we noted two basic forms of “respect” as essential to Christian family life. The second is indeed a form of respect for personality, but it is so central and specific an aspect of it that it must be looked at separately. This is respect for the sexual relation.
It is a mistake to regard sex either as something base and degrading or as something to be indulged in simply for personal pleasure. Beyond the function of the sexual act for procreation, shared with the animal world, lies the fact that on the human level it is a symbol, ordained of God, that the “two shall become one.” James A. Pike has spoken wise words upon this subject which may well be quoted:
Sexual intercourse is meant to be a sacrament. A sacrament, of course, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The inward and spiritual requisite is the total and permanent pooling of hopes and fears, of strengths and weaknesses. The outward and visible sign is, as in other sacraments, both expression of spirit and means of grace.
Sex apart from marriage is wrong, not because sex is bad, but because it is so good. . . . Indulging in relations without the total commitment which marriage represents is to use a good thing in a wrong way, and the gravity of the wrong is in direct proportion to the degree of the goodness of this relationship. Since it is very good its misuse is very bad.9
This has direct bearing on two problems very much in current thinking, the legitimacy of extramarital sex relations and birth control within marriage. A word therefore needs to be said upon each issue.
To the matter of sex intercourse outside of marriage a very positive No must be spoken, not only because it is condemned repeatedly in the Bible and throughout the Christian tradition, but for the reason cited above. The sex relation between a man and a woman was instituted by God for marriage and for marriage only; any other use of it is a sacrilege. But if a couple love each other and plan later to be married, does this not hallow it? It does not, for short of actual marriage there is no pledge of unending fidelity, no assumption of permanent responsibilities, no assurance that the very act thus engaged in may not cheapen the relation between the two and terminate their love. Not fear of consequences, though with the most effective contraceptives there is still ground for apprehension, but the positive spiritual aspects of the sex relation ought to be for any committed Christian an adequate deterrent.
This is not to question the power of the sexual impulse, which presents a temptation for which sympathetic understanding rather than wholesale condemnation on the part of other Christians is in order. It is fortunate that the rigid self-righteousness reflected in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is largely a thing of the past. But this does not mean that extramarital intercourse is to be condoned, either on ethical or on psychological grounds. For a generation under the influence of Freudian psychology and other factors in the prevailing climate of hedonistic individualism, we have been hearing that sexual repression induces neurosis and that the inhibitions of an earlier day should be disregarded. However, within this freedom neurosis has increased rather than abated, and the removal of inhibitions has contributed not only to the disintegration of family life but to the disintegration of personality as well. Psychological opinion appears now to be moving toward a reinforcement of the long-range moral insights of Christianity.
Psychoanalysis recognizes that promiscuous sexual behavior springs from a disturbed personality, though exceptions are made in the case of the exploratory adolescent phase of development, which marks the transition between infantile and mature love. But maturity demands sexual behavior that is motivated by respect for persons, even in psychoanalytic terms, a significant testimony to the purpose of sex as it is rooted in the nature of man, which is in turn grounded in the reality of creation.10
But what of birth control within marriage? The Roman Catholic Church condemns it because it holds that procreation is the only legitimate purpose of sexual intercourse, and continence within marriage the only legitimate mode of family limitation.11 Most Roman Catholics and some Protestants, though probably a decreasing number, hold that family limitation by an artificial means is “against nature,” and hence against the divine will. The birth or nonbirth of a child as the result of sexual intercourse is held to be an act of divine providence, and hence not to be tampered with by any human instrumentality.
However, if the act of sexual union is a sacred bond of spiritual union, it does not exist for procreation only. Though celibacy within marriage is possible, it is doubtful that this contributes often to the fullest ripening of a high devotion. And if intercourse is engaged in, can the outcome be said to be wholly a matter of divine providence? Throughout the rest of human existence, causes bring effects, and this is no exception.
In other matters, such as providing for food, clothing, shelter, health, traffic safety, employment, and the like, it is generally accepted that the will of God requires of us rational and responsible action. One who would leave these matters wholly to chance would not be thought to be accepting providence but acting in a foolish if not foolhardy manner! And if in other things care and planning are required, why not in this most important of human events, the birth of a child? The coming of new life may indeed be regarded as the gift of God, even as is the boon of death when in old age the earthly pilgrimage ends in release from paint but in neither instance is human responsibility abrogated.
If children are as precious to us as they were to Jesus, we shall believe that every child has the right to be wanted and to be born into a home where adequate care is possible. This is not possible where financial resources are too limited, or the mother’s strength depleted from too rapid bearing of children, or for any other reason the well-being of the parents and children requires that there be no more. The principle of agape love for one another, applied within the intimate relations of the home, necessitates what might better be called, instead of birth control, “responsible parenthood.” To exercise such responsible parenthood with regard to the birth as well as the rearing of children is not to thwart the ways of God but to be responsive to them.
It is therefore the judgment of a growing number of Protestant Christians that it is not only the right, but the duty, of parents to take all relevant factors into account, including as a prime factor their service to God and his Kingdom, and plan for their family in the light of the total situation. On this basis the use of contraceptives is no more to be condemned than is any other scientific means for the enhancement of life and the fulfillment of what is believed to be the will of God. However, the matter has another side. It is an ugly fact that sexual passion can be as egocentric and unspiritual within marriage as outside of it. Lust is not limited to those who engage in extramarital relations. To use contraceptives simply as a cover for unrestrained, sensual sex indulgence is no more Christian within than outside the marriage bond.
A final problem must be looked at, and this too is one of much importance on which there is a difference between the Roman Catholic and the usual Protestant view of Christian ethics. Once a marriage has been contracted, is it legitimate ever to dissolve it? An obvious corollary is the question of whether it is ever right for divorced persons to remarry.
The Roman Catholic Church, holding marriage to be a sacrament, regards all divorce as sacrilege and hence as sin. However, with the adaptability which has made this church so often able to deal with practical situations without seeming to contradict a principle, the possibility of annulment is recognized. When a marriage is annulled, it is declared in effect never to have taken place. This to the Protestant mind leaves the dubious alternative of assuming that the couple up to the time their union was declared void were living in sin, and hence falls short of a satisfactory answer to the problem.
Is there any satisfactory answer? The first thing to be said is that divorce when it takes place is always a frustration of the true intent and purpose of marriage. I have stressed that monogamous marriage involves in its very nature the pledge and intention of unending fidelity. Marriage entered into without this intention is not only a travesty of Christian marriage but a violation of the purpose of the legal contract involved.
It is easier to say when divorce is not Christian than when it is. These negatives, if conscientiously observed, would enormously cut down on the present state of easy and frequent divorce which seriously honeycombs our culture and undermines the foundations of the home.
Divorce is unjustifiable when permanence is not intended in the first place. It is not justified when the couple make of their union simply a legalizing of sexual passion or any other form of selfish personal indulgence. It is not justified before and until every effort has been made at reconciliation where there is quarreling or incompatibility. It is not justified when one simply tires of one mate and desires to marry another. It is not justified in selfish disregard of the effect of such a broken home upon the children.
But is divorce ever justified? The words recorded in Matt. 19:8 as spoken by Jesus state that “for your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, though it was not so in the order of creation. Twice in Matthew, Jesus forbids divorce “except for unchastity” (5:32; 19:9); in Mark the word is stated with stark simplicity, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (10:10). It is the opinion of many biblical scholars that the form in Mark is more likely to be what Jesus really said. The question then is whether divorce may ever be justified without disregard of the express command of Jesus.
The answer is to be found in the total spirit of Jesus rather than a legalistic interpretation of his words. What Jesus is apparently here doing is setting forth the requirements of pure, unclaiming, faithful love as the basis of marriage. Such love and consequent fidelity are, as we have seen, fundamental to Christian marriage. But is it never the will of God that a marriage be terminated? To say so would be to doom some persons not only to a lifetime of unhappiness but to a frustration of the “abundant life” that Jesus said he came to bring.
As for the exception “except for unchastity,” it is true that adultery breaks the marriage bond at its foundations. However, it can hardly be said that this in every situation justifies divorce, or that nothing else ever does. The message of Hosea in restoring his erring wife, Gomer, to his home is a symbol of the forgiving love of God, which ought to be practiced in the human relation before there is any easy recourse to divorce. But human sinfulness and stubborn wills being what they are, there is no guarantee that the broken marriage bond can be reknit. And when, even without direct infraction of the sexual code, life becomes so intolerable that the marriage in spirit is shattered, there may be no proper alternative but to dissolve it in form.
All that has earlier been said about the legitimacy and necessity of compromise is applicable here. Divorce is always a compromise with the highest ideal of family life. It is unequivocally wrong to compromise prematurely, or for selfish, petty, and individualistic reasons. Marriage is not a game to be played or terminated at will; it is a sacred and holy relationship. Only when it is clear that its sacredness has been irrevocably shattered should divorce be contemplated.
In those circumstances where divorce is right, so is the remarriage of the “innocent” party, if such innocence can be determined. Divorce simply for the sake of remarriage to some other mate is not to be condoned, for longing for another too easily encourages infidelity. Though love cannot be commanded, it can be restrained, and the marriage vow ought decisively to narrow the circle of erotic love. Yet when the marriage has been broken in spite of one’s best efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation, the victim of this situation ought not to be forbidden ever to begin again. To condemn such a second marriage as adultery is to contravene the spirit of Jesus and make of his words a legalism that is incompatible with his total message.
Little has been said in this chapter about the foundations of Christian family life in the form of faithfulness to the Church, family worship, grace at meals, the practice of individual prayer, the atmosphere of Christian devotion that pervades the home. This is not because they are unimportant, for they are all-important. It is in the home that Christian experience is most surely nourished and made vital, and where this is lacking, there is great loss.
However, all this is another story. It belongs in a discussion of the devotional life and the methodology of Christian nurture. At this point we must rest our examination of Christian ethics in marriage and family life. As the total moral outlook of Jesus centered in his relation to God, so must everything that has been said in this chapter find its foundation in the relation of the family and its members to the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” On no other foundation can Christian marriage achieve true fulfillment; on this foundation in spite of much human shortcoming the grace of God can find a way.
1. Cf. also Luke 2:51; Mark 6:2-3.
2. Cf. the provision in the Deuteronomic law for levirate marriage for this purpose
3. Cf. Fosdick, op cit., p. 103.
4. Ibid., pp. 106, 126.
5. Polyandry, which is the practice of having more than one husband at the same time, much less frequent than polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife at a time, but is found in a matriarchal stage of development among some tribes.
6. From The Divine Imperative by Emil Brunner, Copyright, 1947, by W. L. Jenkins. The Westminster Press. Used by permission.
7. The form quoted is from the Methodist Discipline, 1956, ¶1917. This is an abbreviated form of the ritual in the English Book of Common Prayer.
8. Op. cit., p. 330.
9. From: Doing the Truth by James A. Pike. Copyright © 1955 by James A. Pike, reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.
10. William Graham Cole, Sex in Christianity and Psychoanalysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 297.
11. However, the Roman Catholic Church is not wholly consistent at this point, for the papal Encyclica casti connubi gives approval to family limitation not only by abstinence when both parties consent but by intercourse at those periods when conception is least likely to take place. However “safe” or unsafe the latter procedure, it obviously vitiates the logic of the Roman Catholic position. Cf. Brunner, op. cit., pp. 370, 654.