The following is an excerpt of an address given by Dr. Russell Moore at the Vatican Colloquium on Marriage and the Family on November 18, 2014.
The myth of limitless power to reshape what is means to be human
Poet Wendell Berry responded to the technological utopianism of naturalistic scientism with an observation that I believe frames the entire discussion of what it means to affirm the complementarity of man and woman in marriage. His observation was that any civilization must decide whether it will see persons as machines or as persons. If we are creatures, he argued, then we have meaning and purpose and dignity, but with all of that we have limits. If we see ourselves as machines, then we will believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power and our ability to reshape even what it means to be human.
This is, it seems to me, the question at the heart of the controversies every culture faces about the meaning of marriage and of sexuality. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus of Nazareth put it, “male and female” from the beginning, or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, and our generational connectedness represent something of who we are designed to be, and thus place on us both limits on our ability to recreate ourselves and responsibilities for those who will come after us?
Those of us at this gathering have many differences. We come from different countries, sometimes with tensions between those countries. We hold to different religions, sometimes with great divergences on what we believe about God and about the meaning of life.
But all of us in this room share at least one thing in common. We did not spring into existence out of nothing, but each one of us can trace his or her origins back to a man and a woman, a mother and a father. We recognize that marriage and family are matters of public importance, not just of our various theological and distinctive ecclesial communities. Since marriage is embedded in the created order and is the means of human flourishing, it is not just the arena of individual human desires and appetites. We recognize that marriage, and the sexual difference on which it is built, is grounded in a natural order bearing rights and responsibilities that was not crafted by any human state, and cannot thus be redefined by any human state. It is no accident that questions of marriage and family bring such heated debate, since our consciences, and our very being, testify that these matters are of critical importance for how we shall live.
The Purpose of the Cosmos
As an Evangelical Christian, I come to this discussion with concerns about the common good and human flourishing, but beyond these merely natural goods I have an even deeper concern for what I believe to be the purpose of the entire cosmos: the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of us must stand together on conserving the truth of marriage as a complementary union of man and woman. But I would add that, with that, there is a distinctively Christian urgency for why the Christian churches must bear witness to these things.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus that the alpha and omega of the universe is personal, that the pattern and goal of the universe is summed up in what he called “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). One key aspect of this unveiled mystery is that the family structure is not an arbitrary expression of nature or of the will of God. Marriage and family are instead archetypes, icons of God’s purpose for the universe. When the apostle appealed to the Genesis 2 account of the creation order, explaining why a man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, and that they become one flesh (Ephesians 5:31), he wrote of something that every human being can see, even without divine revelation. After all, human cultures have died out for a variety of reasons, but no human culture has died out because the people therein forgot to have sexual intercourse. The drive toward marital unity is powerful, so powerful that it can feel as wild as fire. In Paul’s Christian theology, this universal truth is because the one-flesh union points beyond itself to the union of Christ and his Church.
In our perspective, the mystery of the gospel explains to us why it was “not good” for the man to be alone, and why Adam wasn’t designed to subdivide like an amoeba. He needed someone like him – the beasts of the field were none of them “fit” for him. And yet he needed someone different from him. Fitted together, man and woman form an organic union, as a head with a body. Humanity, then, in the image of God, is created both male and female, with male and female identities that correspond to one another and fulfill one another. We are not created as “spouse A” and “spouse B,” but as man and woman, and in marriage as husband and wife, and in parenting as father and mother. Masculinity and femininity are not aspects of the fallen order to be overcome, but are instead part of what God declared from the beginning to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
A man is created to be other-directed, to pour himself out for his family. Headship in God’s design is not Pharaoh-like tyranny but Christ-like sacrifice. Jesus said of his Church, in its original twelve foundation stones, that he did not call them servants but friends (John 15:15). The relationship between a husband and wife is not that of a business model or a corporate organizational chart but is instead an organic unity. The more a husband and wife are sanctified together in the Word, the more they – like a nervous system and a body – move and operate together smoothly, effortlessly, holistically. They are one flesh, cooperation through complementarity. And in their lives together, as in the life of Christ and his Church, their love is life-giving, including, when God wills, issuing in a new generation.
A Different Patriarchy
The current debates over whether marriage is a good, over whether children need mothers and fathers, over whether sexual expression should be bound by the covenantal reality of the male-female one-flesh union, spring from a very different reading of the universe, one that assumes an entirely different understanding of human ecology. Western culture now celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, family redefinition, and abortion rights as parts of a sexual revolution that tore down old patriarchal systems.
But the Sexual Revolution is not liberation at all, but simply the imposition of a different sort of patriarchy. The Sexual Revolution empowers men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male, rooted in the values of power, prestige, and personal pleasure. Does anyone really believe these things will empower women or children? We see the wreckage of sexuality as self-expression all around us, and we will see more yet. And the stakes are not merely social or cultural but profoundly spiritual.
Every culture has recognized that there is something about sexuality that is more than merely the firing of nerve endings, that there is something mysterious here, the joining of selves. In the Evangelical Christian perspective, this is because there is no such thing as a casual sexual encounter at all, when we are speaking in spiritual terms. The Apostle Paul warned that the sexually immoral person sins not just against another but “against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). He compared the spiritual union formed between Christ and the believer with the union brought about in the sexual act. Even one who is “joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her,” he wrote, citing Genesis.
The sexual act, mysteriously, forms a real and personal union. Immorality is not merely “naughtiness,” but is a sermon, a sermon preaching a different gospel. This is why attempts to “free” sexuality from marriage as the union of a man and a woman do not lead, ultimately, to the sort of liberation they promise. And therein is our challenge, and our opportunity, for the future.
The Sexual Revolution cannot keep its promises. People are looking for a cosmic mystery, for a love that is stronger than death. They cannot articulate it, and perhaps would be horrified to know it, but they are looking for God. The Sexual Revolution leads to the burned-over boredom of sex shorn of mystery, of relationship shorn of covenant. The question for us, as we pass through the Samaria of the Sexual Revolution, is whether we have water for Samaria, or if we only have fire. In the wake of the disappointment sexual libertarianism brings, there must be a new word about more permanent things, such as the joy of marriage as a permanent, conjugal, one-flesh reality between a man and a woman. We must keep lit the way to the old paths.
Common Grace & Gospel Mystery
This means that we must both articulate and embody a vision for marriage. We cannot capitulate on these issues. To dispense with marriage is to dispense with a mystery that points to the gospel itself. But we must also create cultures where manhood is defined, not by cultural stereotypes, but by an other-directed, self-sacrificial leadership on behalf of one’s family and one’s community. We must create cultures where women are valued not for their sexual availability and attractiveness to men but for the sort of fidelity and courage that the Apostle Peter wrote of as that of a “daughter of Sarah” (1 Peter 3:6). We must work for the common good, in contrast to the sexually libertarian carnivals around us, to speak of the meaning of men and women, of mothers and fathers, of sex and life. We must stand against the will-to-power that reduces children to commodities to be manufactured and as nuisances to be destroyed.
And, as we do so, we should speak publically of what’s at stake. Our neighbors of no religion and of different religions do not recognize a call to gospel mystery. Marriage is a common grace, and we should speak, on their own terms, of why jettisoning normative marriage and family is harmful.
This article is an excerpt from an address given by Dr. Russell D. Moore at the Vatican Colloquium on Marriage and the Family on November 18, 2014. The address was first published in the March/April 2015 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Click the following link to read the whole address, Man, Woman & the Mystery of Christ.
Top image credit: photo of bride and groom holding hands, from BigStock.com, © by Akaberka, stock photo ID: 322900393. Used with permission.
Russell Moore is an ordained Baptist minister and Editor in Chief of Christianity Today Magazine. He previously served as a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. He was President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2013 to 2021. Prior to that role, Moore served as provost and dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also taught theology and ethics. He and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons. They live in Nashville, Tennessee, USA where he teaches the Bible regularly at their congregation, Immanuel Church.