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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What are some of the religion's teachings in the area of human sexuality?

by Kendra Hotz

Nearly all Christians believe that marriage between one man and one woman provides the only appropriate context for sexual intercourse. (There is some dispute about whether same-sex couples might also participate in marriage, but we shall save exploration of that question for chapter nine.) Marriage is understood as part of the created order; it is a good and natural state for human beings.

Even though there is some evidence of polygamy in the Old Testament, Christians believe that God intends marriage to be between two people, who commit themselves to live in an exclusive covenant for a lifetime. Traditionally Christians have articulated three functions for marriage as an exclusive, lifetime covenant, and have used three Latin words to summarize these functions: fides, proles, and sacramentum.

Fides means faithfulness, and it refers to the role that marital stability plays in contributing to the well being of society at large. Because marriage partners live in covenant faithfulness with one another for a lifetime, marriage provides a stable context within which marriage partners can thrive. It provides a safe, nurturing environment for rearing children and caring for other family members. Sexual fidelity is understood to provide an appropriate context for sexual activity that discourages promiscuity and prostitution.

In this sense, marriage is also understood as a remedy for sin. Because marriage is one of the foundational institutions of civil society, these goods achieved within the marital covenant contribute to the stability and flourishing of the social order. A society in which individuals live in safe, stable, nurturing relationships, avoid prostitution, and are discouraged from abandoning family members who rely on them, in other words, is a better society than one that lacks these goods.

Proles refers to the good of procreation. The union between husband and wife, when it is within the will of God, includes the good of bearing and rearing children. Marriage is a hospitable environment for receiving children and for nurturing them, as one wedding liturgy explains, “in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”1 The family is understood to provide the primary context in which children are cared for and come to know the love of God.

The procreative function of marriage has led to a controversy concerning the morality of contraception. The Roman Catholic Church has articulated the view that since God intends human sexuality for procreation, anyone who uses artificial contraception intentionally separates sexual activity from its procreative end and, therefore, violates the will of God. Every instance of sexual intercourse should therefore be open to the possibility of conception, unless it is prevented by some natural means. Protestant theology has generally been more open to artificial contraception.

Sometimes this openness is rooted in the belief that a marriage must be open to procreation, but not in every instance of sexual activity. At other times Protestant openness to artificial contraception has grown from concerns about population growth, social justice, or a desire to prevent the transmission of genetic diseases to new generations.

Sacramentum refers to the bond of permanent union between husband and wife and to the abiding, sacrificial love that they share. This is the good of marriage that includes the mutual joy and delight that marriage partners take in one another, the deep communion that they share with one another, and the care and affection that they have for one another in both prosperity and adversity. Whereas fides and proles refer to social and familial goods, sacramentum is an interpersonal good.

Christians hold a very high view of marriage as a permanent covenant between two people, but it is not the only sexually faithful mode of life endorsed by the tradition. Christians also believe that some individuals are called to celibacy, an unmarried life free from sexual activity. The freedom from marital and familial obligations often allows celibate individuals to undertake special ministries and to cultivate more intense devotional practices.

In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions individuals who are gifted for a celibate life may take vows and enter a monastic community. These vows are not intended as a repudiation of the goodness of sexuality or of marriage, but are an acknowledgement that human beings can live full, meaningful lives apart from sexual activity, a celebration of God’s call to some individuals to live outside of marriage, and an affirmation of the diversity of ways of living faithfully.

The very high view of marriage held by Christians also leads to controversy regarding the permissibility of divorce and remarriage after divorce. In all cases Christians regard divorce as tragic; it is never good, but is sometimes permissible. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit remarriage after divorce, but does permit a marriage to be annulled. This is essentially a declaration that the marriage never existed, that the relationship in which the two individuals lived—whatever it may have been—was not a Christian marriage.

Protestants have accepted divorce and remarriage to varying degrees, generally acknowledging that in cases of abuse or adultery a marriage covenant can be broken. Increasingly, Protestants have accepted divorce and remarriage for other reasons as well. Eastern Orthodox Christians permit divorce reluctantly for the spiritual welfare of the couple. The church must officially recognize the divorce, and then the divorced person is free to remarry. Wedding services for those remarrying include a rite of penitence and the expression of sorrow over the previous, failed marriage.

1. The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 423.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.

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