Over the past weekend, a Christian writer I’ve begun following wrote on her Facebook wall that marriage does not entitle a spouse to a sense of ownership of the other person. She began the discussion with a succinct, assertive statement:
The text of her post reads:
A man does not *own* a woman’s body (and vice versa), even if they are married.
A human owns their own body, soul, & mind.
The first thought that occurred to me was the same thought which occurred to a number of people replying to her post: But doesn’t the Bible actually say the exact opposite? To quote the apostle Paul:
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Now, in context, Paul was talking about husbands and wives not depriving each other of sex. He was appealing to both groups in order to persuade them to stop abstaining from sexual relations with each other because apparently that was becoming a regular thing in Corinth.
Why on earth would this have become enough of a problem that Paul had to deal with it directly? I’ll get to that in a second.
[PDF version of this post available here, and check back later today for an audio version]
Jory replied to these commenters by pointing out that the purpose of Paul’s statement was to encourage partners to have a healthy sex life. While I understand where she is going with that, I don’t think what Paul has in mind is really healthy at all. But I’ll soon address that as well.
(And by the way, if you’d like to read more of Jory’s thoughts, you can follow her blog here)
If God Says It, That Settles It
Others pointed out that it shouldn’t bother us to hear the language of ownership used within marriage because really God owns us all anyway. “You were bought with a price,” Paul says just a few verses down from the original quote (v.23). So Paul is using the language of slavery to describe the human-divine relationship, and everybody is supposed to be okay with this, because of course the invocation of divinity automatically overrides any normal rules of argumentation.
You see, the fact that we are all bought-and-paid-for slaves to God means that we don’t really have any right to push back against the language of ownership within marriage. And besides, we are told, it is mutual ownership at that level anyway, so what do we have to complain about? See how progressive Paul was? He was telling women that they owned their husbands’ bodies just as much as their husbands owned theirs! Isn’t that wonderful?
My FB friend would disagree, and she is doing so with the best of intentions. The problem she keeps running into is that you cannot disagree with the Bible without triggering pushback from Christians who believe the Bible cannot be questioned. What we’re bumping up against here is the fundamentalist mindset, a closed system of perspectives which takes an authoritarian approach to answering the questions of today with answers from two thousand years ago.
At some point, progressive Christians will always have to wrestle with the fact that the source materials for their faith include a set of writings by people who lived a really, really long time ago. At the time they were writing, it was okay to own people as property. No one in the Bible ever seems to have a problem with that—not even Jesus, and no, not even Paul. Both of those founders of the Christian faith (and I will argue in a coming piece that Paul is by far the more central figure of this religion) seem to have accepted slavery as a natural institution, and neither of them ever suggested it should be done away with.
Which incidentally would explain why the deeply religious South could justify holding onto their slaves long after the godless Yankees up north tried to enforce an end to the institution. Over their dead bodies, they said. And so it was.
If you’ll read Paul’s words about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7—and I mean really read them, slowly enough to thoughtfully consider what this passage tells us about how this man saw marriage, sexuality, family life, and self-ownership—you will marvel at how the modern champions of this tradition can claim that theirs is the religion of “family values.” I wonder sometimes if we’re even reading the same book.
No Time for Sex
The first thing that jumps out at me while reading 1 Corinthians 7 is how negative Paul’s view of sexuality must really be. If you come to this text without trying to superimpose a sex positivity that you want to find there, it should strike you as obvious that this guy sees sex as something of a necessary evil, or at least a dangerous distraction from the things of God.
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
One gets the impression that marriage is a thing Paul would prefer his people avoid. But he also knows good and well how powerful hormones can be. So as a concession, he allows that marriage is a thing most people probably need to go ahead and take care of so that they won’t be running around horny all the time. Very distracting!
Paul’s opening statement here indicates that folks in Corinth were starting to think it would be best if men and women just didn’t have sex at all. I wonder where they got this idea from, hmm? Could it be that some of them had picked up on Paul’s aversion to family entanglements and decided to run to the opposite extreme, eschewing all relational complications?
What you have to understand about Paul and his message is that he seriously believed the world was getting ready to end. He made it clear that he thought Jesus would return during his short lifetime:
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. [emphasis mine]
And in case you were thinking it, this wasn’t an innovation of Paul’s. Evidently Jesus maintained the same expectation of apocalyptic imminence. He told his own followers to expect the things he foretold to come to pass in their lifetimes
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other…Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. [emphasis mine]
Since that clearly didn’t happen, modern interpreters tend to reinterpret Jesus’s expectations, assuring us that the walking incarnation of God couldn’t get something like this wrong. We simply must be misinterpreting what he was trying to say. Surely he was being metaphorical, and the things he saw coming to an end must have been spiritual things, like the old covenant reality ending and a new one starting, right? Maybe he was just speaking symbolically about the nation of Israel coming to an end?
Apocalyptic literature allusions aside, it’s not hard to see why many of Jesus’s followers thought that everything really was going to come to an end within their lifetimes. It’s also not hard to see where Paul picked up this expectation as well, nor is it hard to understand why people today still think the world is going to end at any given moment.(Incidentally, soon I hope to write a piece on how that expectation impacts the way people vote, and how they view the roles our public figures play in the world today. But I digress.)
Because Paul thought the world was about to end, family life really seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance. If he had his way, most people in his churches would have remained single, as he said he was. That way, they could get a lot more done for the kingdom of God. He writes:
But if you marry, you have not sinned [note that he actually had to say this];and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none…
…I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.
This is where I usually stop and confess that once I was among those who tried to recast my own faith as a holistic one, a way of living which integrated spirituality and daily life into a seamless fabric. I read Eugene Peterson and Brother Lawrence, and I loved everything they had to say. I abhorred the division between eternal things and temporal ones, thinking that surely they should be one and the same because, frankly, a person cannot live a life so divided between opposite passions without eventually having to choose between the two.
It was only after I left my faith (or rather it left me) that it finally dawned on my how much I was warring against my own religion. And I don’t just mean what people did to it down through the centuries to pervert it from its original pristine perfection. I mean that even the original founders of my faith had this same divided view of life, whereby family obligations were seen as a hindrance to the pursuit of godly things.
It should have been more obvious when I read of Jesus pitting family obligations against following him:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…such a person cannot be my disciple.
I always did what most Christians do when they read statements like that. First you have to neutralize the word “hate” by explaining it was hyperbole. He didn’t really mean “hate,” you see (and nevermind the fact that hyperbole is used to add emphasis, to strengthen the force of your point, not to minimize it). He was just trying to indicate a shift in priorities. Which is to say that you should always put following him above everything else, including your family. Except only theoretically, because in reality God would never ask you to choose between following him and caring for your own family, right?
Well, not so fast. We have multiple examples of people telling Jesus that they must first fulfill their family obligations before they could commit themselves to following him around full-time, and each time he fired back that they should “let the dead bury the dead.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Once he even dissed his own biological family when they were trying to win an audience with him and he replied that his real mother and brothers were the ones who actually listened to what he has to say. Ouch.
I wonder if the Christian church will ever stop and realize that the majority of their thinking about both sex and marriage comes from a couple of single guys?* Come to think of it, that remains true for the next 1500 years (priests and popes can’t marry).
Checking Their Brains at the Door
Okay, so obviously as an atheist I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the relational advice of two people who thought God appointed them as his authoritative messengers. But let me put back on my Christian thinking cap for just a few minutes and make a couple of observations for those who care to unpack what’s going on here.
People today—two thousand years after the original writing of this text—still believe it’s okay to use the language of ownership because people in the Bible were okay with using that kind of language. If that’s the way God saw fit to frame the discussion, then by golly, that’s good enough for them!
But would a God who created you to be intelligent beings really want you to check your brains at the door like that? Doesn’t it stand to reason that he wouldn’t want you to just robotically, mindlessly follow the dictates of a book like that, never questioning or even re-contextualizing what it says for a different time and place?
Didn’t Jesus get onto people for doing that? Wasn’t he constantly berating religious people for taking words from the scriptures of their day and mindlessly regurgitating them, never thinking deeply enough about what they say to realize that you have to keep working to understand what the central idea behind the words really was?
People aren’t property, and they never should have been. The writers of the Bible lived in a time when slavery was still the norm, so they borrowed from the language of their day to express a set of ideas which, if you’re inclined to trust this book, point to something much more translatable into the world we live in today. I’ve got plenty to say in disagreement with those ideas as well, but I can’t even start that discussion as long as so many people are still stuck in a First Century mode of thinking about this stuff. We’re not even in the same millennium.
No one owns anyone else. I agree with Jory. A husband doesn’t own his wife’s body, nor does a wife own her husband’s. They can come to agreements about what each other wants to do with their own bodies, and there is plenty of room for discussion about that between the two of them. But the language of ownership doesn’t belong in this discussion because people are not property. Full stop.
And if you think this point is invalid because you think people have been “bought with a price,” then the next thing we need to discuss is whether or not two-thousand-year-old language about the purpose of the death of Jesus is even the right way to frame that for believers today. But that’s a can of worms I’ll save for another day.
(Check back later today for an audio version of this post as well as a downloadable PDF in a link near the top of the post)
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* Whenever you point out that Paul was single (and proudly so), someone is always quick to suggest that he must have been married at some point because Pharisees usually were married. That’s a circumstantial argument at best, but if so, one wonders what happened to his wife? One commenter on Jory’s wall confidently declared he was a widower. He knows this because…well…because.
Of course, a more plausible explanation would be that Paul seems to have very specific opinions about what one is to do if one’s spouse doesn’t convert along with them. THAT discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 is far more telling to me. If he did ever have a wife, she didn’t follow him into his Christian faith and ministry. Reading Paul’s words about marriage, if he ever knew married life, he doesn’t seem to have missed it.