"We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,
we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (1943-1945)

Our Bodies Proclaim the Gospel: Day 2

Posted by Andrew Symes on 19th January 2016

Christopher West continued his exposition of biblical theology, tracing the teaching of Scripture about God, humanity, salvation and the church, using the theme of humanity created in the image of God, male and female. As before this was interspersed with contemporary-style worship, and time for conversation and fellowship.

While West very definitely does shine a light on the false teachings of the culture regarding sexuality, to help us understand the roots of our present crisis, he stresses again and again that this is a spiritual battle not primarily a political one; that Christ came to show mercy to sinners not condemnation, and most challenging of all, that often those who have a correct doctrine are desperately in need of repentance and healing regarding their (our) own disordered sexuality.

So this is an important reminder to those who continue to hold to an orthodox theology. We have been hearing how at the Primates’ meeting in Canterbury, some Archbishops from the global South were unaware of the seriousness of the heresy that has gripped some parts of the Western church and has led the Episcopal Church to redefine marriage. Many Christians in this country also apparently have their heads in the sand and have not joined the dots to see the creeping enforcement by media and government of a new worldview, celebrating the perversion of God’s original gifts to humanity. There is a responsibility for some to expose and explain this, to call on the church to “wake up and strengthen what remains”, and certainly to stand by those who are facing the force of the law for simply doing what is right as Christians. But the answer to the crisis is ultimately the message that God loves humanity and is carrying out a plan for total intimate union with his redeemed bride – ie the Gospel of Christ. And those who carry this message need to do so with humility, relying on grace and committed to prayer.

The teaching on Day 2 focused more deeply on marriage as a picture of human-divine love. Again we were reminded of the importance of our physical bodies. Christ’s healing power on earth resided in his body as he came into physical contact with people; his crucifixion was physical. Today we are still influenced by Plato’s idea that the body is a prison for the soul which is released on death; we often do not like our bodies (shame), and we suffer ailments. But just as in our fertility we are co-creators with God, so in our suffering, according to Paul, in union with Christ we somehow share in his suffering and hence in his work of redemption.

According to West, “sex is the number one idol today because it is the number one icon”. Sex within marriage is the most powerful sign of the union of Christ and the church at the marriage feast of heaven. The strongest yearning of the human heart is to be there, so it’s not surprising that the evil one devotes so much energy to perverting and redirecting the sign so we don’t aim for the right target. This relates to the idea of sin being an attitude that “misses the mark” rather than simply an action that breaks a rule.

West reminds us that to repress “eros” – the desire to love and be loved – has the same effect as to love selfishly and confine love to earthly things – both result in missing heaven. “What will heaven be like? In one sense we cannot tell, but maybe the shape of the ache tells us something”, says West. “A child’s hunger for mother’s milk, and the mother’s natural response, is a theology lesson”.

We then moved into the more challenging territory of classic Catholic teaching going back to Augustine, the early church fathers and the Scriptures. Sexuality is about being a man or a woman. Full stop. “There is no such thing as ‘homosexual’” (West). My body makes it clear which of the two genders I am. The male and female bodies are created with different purposes, symbolizing the roles of Christ and the church that are explained not just in Ephesians 5 but also in typographic form in the Gospel accounts, where Jesus relates to a receptive female figure. “Christ could not have come as a female” insists West.

While the normal calling for man and women is marriage, some are called to singleness – celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Single Christians live out visibly on earth the purpose for which we are created in heaven – worship of God, and giving and receiving of love in community in a non-sexual way. But for this to happen, West says, single people need to be “on fire” like the wise virgins. If single people simply repress or hide their ‘eros’ it is turned inward – witness the crisis of Catholic paedophile scandals.

What would normally be called a ‘very conservative’ interpretation of “wives submit to your husbands” in Ephesians 5 followed. Male domination of women is from original sin, but mutual self giving under the headship of the man is from creation. West shared movingly of how he thought he had understood this, only for his wife to show him how he was inadvertently dominating her and not showing her true respect. There was surprise and amusement as the audience learned how a Catholic Pope had written so frankly about how this mutual self-giving and concern for the other should manifest itself in the marriage bed!

All of this built up to potentially the most controversial aspect of the Theology of the Body – an insistence, consistent with the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church, that the root of the current sexual confusion goes back to the general acceptance of contraception by Christian churches in the early 1930’s. This has not only encouraged extra-marital sex but even within marriage it has encouraged the view that the miraculous God-given gift of female fertility can be stopped at will whenever we feel it is inconvenient. There is a connection in the view of the teachers of the Theology of the Body that this casual stopping up of procreative potential between man and woman is inextricably linked with the hardening of the barrier between God and humanity that we are witnessing in the contemporary secular world, and in the church’s attempts at mission. This thinking is clearly a huge challenge to Protestant evangelicals but it needs to be taken seriously as something to think through by all faithful Christians as we work out how to witness to the Gospel of Christ in a way that’s relevant to our current context.