I thought that this was a rather good piece on marriage by the sociologist Mark Regnerus in Christianity Today. You have to be a subscriber to read it, unfortunately, or you could look out for his forthcoming book, The Future of Christian Marriage.
Briefly, in the article he tries to give a picture of how young Christians today view marriage, based on interviews with nearly 200 people from seven countries (Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, Nigeria, and the United States). His conclusion is that the global picture is not markedly different from attitudes in the West. Marriage is now regarded as “a capstone that marks a successful young adult life, not the foundational hallmark of entry into adulthood,” which explains why so many young people—even Christian young people—are loathe to commit. But the statement that caught my eye is this one:
In an era of new options, more choices, greater temptations, higher expectations, consistent anxiety, and endemic uncertainty, nothing about the process of marrying can be taken for granted. Although I risk sounding alarmist, I can’t stress this point enough: The institution of marriage is under severe strain.
So two thoughts here.
First, this is a further indication that Western civilisation, having some time ago set sail from the shores of the old world, has travelled beyond the point of no return. We can’t turn back. We have to press on, even if we have no idea how long it will take to reach the brave new world of a post-Christian anthropology—or if such a place even exists.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage and the promotion of transgenderism have disrupted the traditional biological binary. The Black Lives Matter movement is a flare up in a long struggle to throw overboard the shipload of racial and colonial baggage that we have brought with us. The coronavirus pandemic has come upon us like a rather vicious squall, but the fear is that it merely presages more deadly storms ahead thanks to unmitigated climate change.
Fearful of being caught as stowaways and made to walk the plank, the church is torn between trying to blend in and hiding in the lifeboats. Some of us are wishing that we’d never left Egypt.
The second thought is that Regnerus’ alarmism sounds a lot like Paul’s teaching about sexuality and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. The church is going through, or is about to go through, a period of intense social turmoil. Paul knows what it means to be persecuted, for the normal patterns of life to be disrupted, and he thinks, frankly, that the saints in Corinth would deal with the stress better if they didn’t have families to worry about.
But he knows that’s unrealistic. Most people have a strong sexual drive, and few have the gift of celibacy; and besides, many are already married and have families to look after. So they will have to manage as best they can. The thing is to stay focused on the eschatological vision, which is the gospel—that Jesus is Lord and will one day be confessed as such by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
That is the context in which Paul here teaches about sexual relations, celibacy, marriage, and indeed slavery. Some scholars argue that the crisis he had in mind was an empire-wide famine—Wright takes this view in his book on coronavirus. This would give us a decent analogue for the pandemic, but I think that a larger narrative of “eschatological” transition is in place.
We normally get what we need from the letter—for our preaching or private devotions—by picking out isolated bits and pieces of teaching about sexuality, or evangelism, or spiritual gifts, or the restricted role of women, or whatever, and we rarely see the wood for the trees—such is our haste to chop the trees down and drag them back into our own world.
So let’s step back, pause, and try to get a clearer view of the eschatological dimensions of the letter. I have paraphrased the texts to a degree in order to highlight what I think is the controlling narrative as concisely as possible.
- The Corinthian believers are among a growing number of people across the empire who “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” in the hope of being saved from the “wrath” that is coming on both Jew and Greek (1 Cor. 1:2). The faith of the Thessalonians was similarly oriented towards a coming day of God’s judgment on their world, from which they would be saved by the Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
- They have received “spiritual gifts” to enable them to fulfil their calling as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–8).
- The word of the cross divides those who are perishing from those who are being saved. The “perishing” (apollumenois) are those whose wisdom and discernment God will “destroy” (apolō) and “thwart” when he brings the present age to an end (1 Cor. 1:18-19).
- The present age of pagan domination and Jewish rebellion, which brought about the death of Jesus, is “doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2:6).
- The churches face a “day of fire” which will severely test the work of the apostles (1 Cor. 3:13). There is nothing weirdly apocalyptic going on here. Paul is being entirely realistic. Only churches built on the foundation of Jesus (churches, that is, which are prepared to emulate the radical faithfulness of Jesus) and constructed from durable practices and values will survive the persecution that they are bound to face in the coming years.
- The unrighteous will not inherit the coming kingdom of God, but the “saints will judge the world” (1 Cor. 6:2, 9-10). What’s at stake is not what happens to these people when they die but their “political” status when the God of Israel establishes his kingdom over the nations.
- Family and social life is being thrown into turmoil because the “present form of this world is passing away,” a new order of things is slowly but inexorably being born (1 Cor. 7:26, 31). Given the emerging eschatological narrative and the connection with the saying about the present form of this world passing away, it seems to me unlikely that “the present distress” refers to a general social crisis such as a famine.
- The apostles run hard in the hope of gaining an imperishable wreath on the day when the Lord Jesus is revealed to the world (1 Cor. 9:24-25). They are not thinking about what will happen when they die. They are thinking about what will happen at some future moment in history, though they are aware that they may not live to see it.
- Those who eat the bread and drink the cup “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”, and are disciplined so that they “may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:26, 32). The churches are participating or having koinōnia in the body and blood of Jesus—in the death of Jesus—in a very real sense.
- The fragile, harassed community of eschatological witness is sustained by love—even more than by the liberally given charismata—until the dimly conceived future that is being prophesied becomes a reality (1 Cor. 13:8-12). Even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus without love is worthless (1 Cor. 13:3). This remarkable passage has nothing to do with marriage.
- The church is a prophetic and visionary community because of the new future that has been guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (1 Cor. 14:1-25). The field of view has widened, but the eschatological orientation is the same as at Pentecost. In this respect, the cessationists have a point.
- Speaking in tongues is a warning to unbelieving Jews that Jerusalem faces catastrophic judgment (1 Cor. 14:21-25; cf. Is. 28:11). Like Jesus’ parables, the phenomenon of glossolalia was a sign that Israel was no longer able to hear the word of the Lord. Again, the cessationists have a point. The charismata are given for an eschatological purpose.
- If Christ has not been raised from the dead, the faith of the Corinthians is worthless, because, on the one hand, there will be no future rule of God through his Son over the nations, and on the other, those who lose their lives for Christ’s sake will not overcome death (1 Cor. 15:12-58).
- Christ will reign at the right hand of God as his anointed king throughout the coming ages as long as there are enemies to threaten the life and integrity of the churches. When the last enemy has been defeated, the Son will hand back the kingdom to the Father and become subordinate again, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
- Paul ends the letter with the simple prayer that the Lord Jesus will “come” soon to establish his rule over the nations and bring this period of eschatological hardship and suffering to an end (1 Cor. 16:22).
Paul’s task as an apostle, therefore, was to make sure, as far as it was in his power, that the church in Corinth would still be standing when the day of Jesus Christ came. Everything he is says on matters of ethics, religious practice, sexuality, community relations, spiritual gifts, gender, and resurrection is subject to that programme.
Our programme is very different. There’s no point in saying the same things today and expecting them to work or be meaningful in the same way. The world has changed too much. Landmarks have been moved. Magnetic north isn’t where it used to be. Christendom is behind us, not ahead of us. We are having to rethink matters of ethics, religious practice, sexuality, community relations, spiritual gifts, gender, and resurrection within the frame of a very different “eschatological” narrative. That is part of my argument in my book on same-sex relationships and the narratives of evangelical mission.
The fact that Regnerus’ analysis of marriage under stress sounds like Paul’s analysis of marriage under stress does not mean that the same diagnosis and remedies apply. But it does encourage us to think and teach in the way that Paul did by taking into account the narrative that frames all that we do. For now we see the future only dimly, uncertainly, as though in an antique mirror, but we see enough to disciple communities with that future in mind.