Marriage and Family
Synopsis: My encounter with a family of cardinals as I was working in our church landscape reminded me that families come in many different forms in nature. We human have the most complex family structures, which are necessary for the nurture of our children who have a long adolescence. The basic biblical pattern is that of a life-long monogamous union between husband and wife. We affirm that sexual union is for pleasure, and closeness, and procreation. Still, we notice that family patterns kept changing throughout the Bible and that our present model of nuclear families in not found in the Bible. Our families face multiple challenges in our postmodern world. Christian family values that respond to these challenges need to be more than a moralistic parsing of right and wrong. Our focus is on the good, the true, and the beautiful—that which brings life, joy, and flourishing communities and respects the dignity and worth of each person.
I was removing some greenbriar vines growing out of a bush when I noticed a male cardinal squawking and running around on the ground. My first thought was that he might see a blacksnake. Birds don’t like blacksnakes because, for them, baby birds make a nice snack. Then a female cardinal flew out of the bush and started limping around as though she had a broken wing. They do that to divert the attention of a predator.
I then realized that I had alarmed them. I looked into the bush and, sure enough, there was a bird nest. I didn’t disturb it anymore and hopefully the cardinals continued nurturing their family of chicks. I find cardinals fascinating because they’re monogamous, mating with the same partner for life. Together, they build a nest in thick bushes. The female lays 3 or 4 eggs and incubates them; remaining in the nest for almost two weeks. During this period her male partner feeds her. After the eggs hatch, both care for and feed their young. Parent cardinals continue feeding their chicks after they have left the nest until they’re old enough to survive on their own.
Animals have different mating and family patterns. Herbivores are generally polygamous and have many offspring who quickly need to survive on their own; few make it into adulthood. Carnivores, on the other hand, have fewer offspring and much more complex family systems, often including monogamous lifetime sexual bonds. This is related to the fact that their offspring need to be trained to hunt and need family support when they’re young.
We humans have the most complex family and social structures, which are necessary for flourishing human societies and for the care of our children who have a long adolescence. Strong family values are crucial. The basic biblical pattern is unambiguous. As Jesus stated it, God created us male and female and “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19: 5).
It’s a wonderful, lifegiving union that’s celebrated with erotic delight in the Song of Solomon. Their friends encourage the lovestruck couple to consummate their love for each other, “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” (5:1b). Our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective affirms that sexual union is for pleasure, and closeness and for procreation. It’s part of God’s good creation.
Our understanding of human sexuality took a serious wrong turn in the Middle Ages when Augustine insisted that the sex act is impure and could only be allowed for the purpose of procreation. This has done incredible harm. One of its continuing legacies is the Catholic teaching against contraception that keeps poor women from using family planning to space their pregnancies and to not have more children than the family can financially support.
As with all of life, our human sexuality gets complicated and sometimes messy. In the Bible itself, we notice that patterns of marriage and family keep changing. When we say that we hold to biblical family values we generally mean our nuclear family of mother and father and their children living by themselves in their own household. But that’s a modern development.
The household pattern in the Bible is that of an extended family living and working together.
Households of one or two people where unheard of. Biblical extended families had their own challenges but provided a network of intimate relationships that’s missing in our world. A weekly Skype call with kids and grandkids isn’t the same. How can congregations help fill this missing component of caring community in our society that’s plagued by loneliness?
Issues surrounding human sexuality get increasingly compllicated as we push full adulthood later and later into life. Marriage and beginning a family is now often put off until we have completed college, a graduate degree, and have started our careers. An informative book Marriage after Modernity, by British theologian Adrian Thatcher, discusses some of the unique challenges we face.
One is the increased span of time between puberty and marriage. Have you ever considered how old Mary was when she gave birth to Jesus? In the ancient world it was typical for girls to be betrothed in their pre-teen years and then to be married shortly after they began menstruation. Can we imagine Mary as a young teenager giving birth to her first child?
Today the median age of marriage for women is 25 years of age and for men its almost 27—that’s about 4-5 years later than it was for my generation.
The challenge this creates is that we’re asking young adults to remain celibate or to at least avoid pregnancy during a twelve year period when their hormones are most active. Common responses are ignoring the issue, teaching premarital chastity, and the increasing pattern of cohabitation before marriage.
This once came up in a pastoral discussion. One pastor insisted that we should ask couples living together to repent and separate before we agree to marry them. Okay, he had identified a problem but his solution was obtuse to say the least. Wouldn’t it be much better to encourage the couple to affirm and celebrate their love and commitment to each other through marriage without putting additional obstacles in their way?
This wasn’t even an issue when the Bible was written because women were married shortly after reaching the age of puberty. The big concern was divorce and not being faithful to one’s partner. This was common in a patriarchal society where men often divorced their wives or married multiple women because they wanted many children and a male heir. Consider the story of Abraham and Sarah where Abraham takes Hagar as his concubine because he needed an heir. This created lots of conflict in their family.
Jesus’ insistence on preserving the marriage bond between husband and wife was liberating for women in a patriarchal society where a woman could be easily divorced for any cause and then ostracized from her husband’s family. Such women endured great shame and had little recourse other than hopefully being able to return to their family of origin. Many ended up resorting to begging or prostitution to survive.
The teaching against divorce had a very different effect in the church of my youth where it was applied literally without exception to divorced couples who were then forbidden from taking communion or being church members. This came to a head when a married couple with children started attending our church and applied for membership.
In then came out that the woman was divorced and remarried and some church members thought they could therefore not be members. Rather than cause a controversy, the couple left and began attending another church. A stance against divorce that had been liberating in Jesus’ cultural context was now being applied in a way that was very hurtful in our American cultural context. What was the couple supposed to do—break up the family they had?
This doesn’t mean that we now ignore how painful divorce can be—especially for the couple whose marriage broke up. But responding in a way that’s compassionate and healing depends on the situation and our own social environment. The same is true for all aspects of creating strong families and lifegiving human relationships that reflect our Creator’s purposes.
Right now human societies, including churches are struggling with our understanding of human gender and sexuality. This is controversial. At the center of the controversy is same-sex marriage, which has recently been legalized in our country. Christians, along with people of different faith or non-faith backgrounds, are all over the place in our understanding and response.
We’re not able to consider that more extensively today. That’s for another sermon. Now, my purpose is more modest. Exploring how Christians have responded to other matters related to human sexuality, marriage, and family can provide wisdom to guide us in our congregation’s understanding and response.
Last Sunday I said that our sources of authority for discernment are scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Today I’m adding that every response has to consider the situation. Insisting that one size fits all can become so destructive. My next sermon in this series will be on the Bible and homosexuality and then perhaps a final sermon on the church and human sexuality.
I think of that cardinal bird couple that I inadvertently disturbed as they were nurturing their part of creation. They really got in my face when they mistook me for a predator. That cardinal family I talked about at the beginning of this sermon is included in the heart of God’s creation where wisdom is up to her armpits in helping to shape life, frolicking with the inhabited earth and delighting in the human race” (Prov. 8: 30-31). Christian family values are more than a moralistic parsing of right and wrong. Our focus is on the good, the true, and the beautiful—that which brings life, joy, and flourishing communities and respects the dignity and worth of each person.