March 7, 2011 / Praxis
When strangers at a party or on an airplane find out you’re in divinity school, …
TOJ: Gary, could you say something about the involvement of the Evangelical church in the world—I know there is sometimes criticism, especially in America, of Evangelicalism being more concerned with saving souls than with working for social justice. As an Evangelical, what would you say about that criticism?
GT: Do you really think so? I just had a group from my church that was down at Katrina. Every group going down—FEMA wasn’t there, the state wasn’t there, New Orleans wasn’t there—it was Evangelical churches that were sending vanloads full, helping people rebuild homes, rebuild churches, rebuild businesses. I think if you look at the percentage of giving—the groups like Samaritan’s Purse, or World Vision, or Compassion Intl.—Evangelicals are driving that [giving]. I mean, it’s a misnomer—I don’t mean to be contentious already—but it’s an outdated myth I’ve heard that Evangelicals aren’t concerned about social justice, that they’re only concerned about evangelism. Twenty five years ago, maybe. But now…it’s different.
TOJ: I guess what I meant was that perhaps there should be a redefinition of what “evangelism” means, and I have been encouraged to see that there is a new shaping of that definition from a sort of abstract focus on saving souls, to an inclusion of soul as being a whole person.
GT: Well, and I think, (since I know Franklin Graham personally), I think it’s prophetic—if I can use that word, I know it’s a strong word but I’ll use it—that he is leading Samaritan’s Purse as their president and now he is taking over as president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). So you have the marriage of this evangelistic association with, I think, one of the most strategic development organizations. You know, Franklin Graham, that’s what he does. He goes out when there’s genocide, when there are hurricanes, typhoons—he goes out. Samaritan’s Purse is the first one there and the last one to leave. And it’s an untold story because, you know, people like to be against things and it’s not popular to say that Christians may finally be getting it right. But I think, with the marriage of those two organizations, they are.
TOJ: Can you tell me a bit about why you chose as your own platform, the Center for Evangelical Spiritualism?
GT: Well, at the time that I did it—things have changed a bit since then—Evangelicalism was known as sort of an “Evangelism club.” People got saved to save others, and when people wanted to go deeper spiritually, they felt like they had to go to the orthodox branch or to Roman Catholicism, and people were making some significant theological compromises because they felt like Evangelicalism was half an inch deep.
And so, what I wanted to do was to believe that, within the Evangelical perspective, we can develop a Christian spirituality that is every bit as dynamic, formative, and transformative as you would see in orthodox or Catholic theology. That’s old hat now. But, my first book, Seeking the Face of God, which quotes from Roman Catholics and eastern orthodox [traditions] and medieval monks and nuns and eighteenth century Anglicans, was actually controversial at the time because Evangelicals weren’t supposed to quote people outside [their tradition]. So they were really happy when J.I. Packer gave his endorsement because they felt like now that allowed Evangelicals to do it. So, since then, reading the classics has become cool and popular. Most people do it. The tagline [for my platform] is “Integrating Scripture, church history and the Christian classics” and that’s what I try to do in my talks, and in my books and in my articles. I’m trying to bring the best of Scripture but also the best of the Christian tradition, the classics and history, and to try to apply those.
And that’s why I think we’re seeing a historical shift. I mean, I’m a big fan of social justice. But I don’t think Christians are getting the credit today for what’s going on, because when I look around the world, in the hot spots, Christians are actually at the forefront of what’s happening. Especially around the world. We’re a little ethnocentric here in the U.S.A. But since I teach at a seminary where a lot of Africans and Asians come in, and I see a lot of what’s happening in Africa and Asia because of Christians, I just don’t think that argument fits anymore, that we’re about Evangelism and not social justice.
TOJ: Well, that’s encouraging.
GT: I think it is.
TOJ: I heard you speak the other day and I have also read one of your articles on the same topic: Soul Mates or Sole Mates? As well as your book Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make us Holy More than to Make us Happy? And I am interested in this question that you continue to bring up about holiness in marriage—this question about whether marriage is designed to make us holy more than to make us happy.
GT: Yes, well, I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where happiness is the primary virtue. It’s not that God is anti-happiness, but there are places where it’s clear that God is more concerned with character and getting His work done. We’re in a generation that is infatuated with infatuation. We’re in a generation where we want to have the romantic, ideal relationship with the perfect job and fulfilling vocation, but it’s all about what we want.
Part of it is, you know people like Gary Haugen who is a University of Chicago law graduate who went to Rwanda in the late 90’s with the genocide going on there. His job was to crawl through the graves and determine, in the massacres, who died and how. So he’d lift up a human skull and say man, woman, child, machete, blunt instrument, and what not. He said it was the most filthy, disgusting work imaginable. It’s not happy work, but that’s the place where Christians have to be. To quote Gary, he basically said that God is right there by the child who is working twelve hours a day for thirty-five cents a day to pay off a debt that will take an entire lifetime to pay back. God is right there by the young girls who are being exploited as sexual slaves in Thailand, and God isn’t blind to that. [Haugen] says if we want to know God, we have to go where God is. I agree with that; I think we were sent here with a purpose.
So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, you talk about justice within marriage—I believe that I am married to one of God’s daughters. That changes how I treat her. When I disrespect her, I am not just disrespecting my wife; I am disrespecting one of God’s daughters. As the father now of a thirteen-year-old and a nineteen-year-old, the quickest way to get me upset would be if someone messed with one of my daughters. And I think that divorce for convenience’s sake, becomes unthinkable because it would have to be looking God in the face and saying: “Your daughter is not good enough for me.” I think that the fatherhood of God changes the way we look at social justice, it changes the way we look at marriage, it changes the way we look at parenting.
Second Corinthians 7:1 is a major verse for me, where it says: “Dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” And that doesn’t just mean “don’t get drunk” or “don’t look at pornography.” I’m looking at holiness as Christ-likeness, but the key phrase that the verse ends with is “out of reverence for God.” And as soon as you bring God into the room, the way that I look at a stranger, the way that I look at you, the way that I look at my wife is dramatically transformed.
TOJ: You mentioned the ideas of sacrifice and duty in your definition of what a holy marriage is. Can you talk about what that sacrifice looks like?
GT: I think that marriage calls both the husband and wife to sacrifice, and we’re called to put another person’s needs above our own. That’s what scares me. I mean, the Bible is clear when it comes to equality between men and women. That’s where you have to begin whenever you’re talking about roles between the genders—there’s clear equality, you can’t get around it.
But, as soon as I become a husband—I’m not just a man, I am now also a husband—I have certain roles and responsibilities, and according to Ephesians 5:25-26, that means putting my wife’s needs above my own. If I didn’t marry Lisa, for instance, I wouldn’t have to put her needs above my own. If she gets Alzheimer’s, I can be kind, occasionally take her to the movies or something, but as soon as she becomes my wife, her needs take precedence over my own. If want to move and it’s not best for her, then I don’t move. If she needs something and I can provide it, then it’s my responsibility to provide it—and the same thing is true for wives, by the way.
The Bible is very clear on this; it says that once you become a wife, you become your husband’s helper, you have a responsibility to your husband, your husband has a certain claim on your time as you have a claim on his time, and at that point, it’s going to call you to sacrifice. Because when you marry that man, you don’t know if he’s going to become an addict, or get Alzheimer’s or get MS, or whatever, and that doesn’t release you from the call to be faithful to the commitment that you made.
People go into marriage basically, I think, with fundamentally selfish motivations. Most of us get married because we think “My life is better with this person than without.” It’s natural, it’s human nature. But at root, it’s still selfish. What I’m trying to say is that marriage is the antithesis of selfish. It’s modeling Christ, who said, “I came not to be served but to serve.” It calls us to die to ourselves, to put somebody above ourselves. And that’s where, I think, the gender discussions become fuzzy. Because I don’t just look at it theologically, I look at it in terms of spiritual formation. I think God designed marriage to humble women, and I think God designed marriage to humble men. Any proclamation that is creating arrogance and pride runs up against the verse that is repeated three times in scripture; “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” It’s in Peter, James, and Proverbs. And so I begin by assuming that marriage calls us to sacrifice, calls us to humility, and calls us to put someone [else] above our own desires.
TOJ: I think one of the feminist critiques of the idea of sacrifice and submission is that, historically, it has been used to perpetuate a sort of violence toward and oppression of women. What would you say to prevent this type of misunderstanding when speaking of sacrifice in marriage?
GT: Yeah, you know, it doesn’t honor women to pretend that pride isn’t the biggest sin in their life. Pride is the biggest sin for any man, any woman, and any child, historically and scripturally. You know we get focused on sexual issues in this day and age, but if you look at the history of Christian spirituality, pride is the biggest thing. I read it in the works of old dead people. That’s what I’m most wary of. And so, I think it’s healthy to have our pride tweaked.
The problem is, when you’re talking about submission within marriage that perpetuates oppression, is this: to cooperate with tyranny is to cooperate with the sin of tyranny. No woman should submit to tyranny. That’s submitting to sin. Within marriage, I think there’s submission on the parts of both, but not tyranny.
TOJ: It’s interesting that the divorce rates in America are almost the same for Christians as for non-Christians. What does it mean to you to be married as a Christian and what are Christian couples not doing or doing wrong so that our marriage rates are failing at the same rate as the rest of our culture?
GT: Let me challenge those statistics a little bit.
TOJ: Go for it.
GT: Let me first say, that Christians are failing in this regard, so I’m not excusing Christians. But two things skew those statistics. The first thing is this: non-Christians tend to cohabit at a much higher rate than Christians do. So you could have people who have lived with four or five people but have never been married, and if they’re asked on a questionnaire “Are you divorced,” they will say no. Essentially, from a biblical perspective, they’ve been through three or four divorces, but not in a legal, cultural sense. Christians are more likely to get married, so if the relationship doesn’t work out, are more likely to get a divorce.
Secondly, a lot of people, when they start to have marital problems, go into the church as a last stab, hoping that it can be resolved [within a church setting]. Unfortunately, too many counseling situations in the church try to deal with the “how-to” approach instead of the “heart-to.” They don’t talk about the motivations to staying married, they talk about how to improve communication or how to resolve this issue about who wants sex more and all that stuff, and so the marriage isn’t fixed and they get a divorce. And so when they’re asked on a questionnaire “Are you a Christian,” they say that they’ve been involved in a church so, yes they’re Christians.
The reason I say all of this is because, when I’m in healthy, Evangelical churches, the percentage of people who are divorced is dramatically less than my neighborhood, for instance.
So, what it means to me is, first of all what I said before about being married to God’s daughter. How could I say to God that his daughter is not good enough for me? I believe that I will actually see God face to face, and if I believe that, I don’t want to say, “Sorry God, but your daughter just didn’t make me happy.”
TOJ: Is there any circumstance under which you think divorce is permissible or even good?
GT: Well, Jesus gives two cases where it’s permissible. You know, I think that in the case of adultery or if you’re married to an unbeliever who wants to leave, in both those cases, Paul and Jesus say you’re free. Although I still think, I’m also a father and not just a husband, so out of respect for my kids, I would hope that I would try for reconciliation because I’ve seen how devastating divorce is for children, and I just don’t want my kids to have to go through that.
The other thing that makes a difference as a Christian in marriage for me, is that I don’t stay married primarily because I think I’ll be happier if I do, although I think that’s true. I don’t stay married because I can’t bear the thought of hurting this woman that I’ve been with for twenty-two years, although that’s true. Primarily, I stay married because it’s my Christian duty, and I talk about that in my book Sacred Marriage.
The message of a Christian is reconciliation, which really fits with social justice, right? The sin of racism, the sin of gender discrimination, etc. If my message is reconciliation, how do I preach that message if I can’t hold a relationship together when God let me choose who I would start this relationship with? What I’m saying when I do that is, the gospel is a good idea, but it has no power. And that’s what a Christian [like that] is saying when they get married. You know: “Jesus gives us some good ideas, but there’s no power in it—there’s no transformation of our relationships.” That’s a weak gospel.
TOJ: In your writing, you talk about the call to be single and the call to be married, according to Paul. You mentioned that the call to be married is almost more difficult to be holy in a relationship than to be single.
GT: Yes, I think it is. When you’re single, you’re not getting along with somebody. You say, “You know what? Next month, I’m finding a new apartment.” There’s no Christian duty that you have to stay there. In a marriage, you have to learn to forgive, and sometimes, what’s even harder, to ask for forgiveness. You have to learn to realize, “I’m acting selfishly. I need to stop acting selfishly.” Whereas, if you’re single, it’s just like, “This person is bugging me and I just want my own space, so I’m going to get my own apartment.” Well, you don’t get your own space in a marriage, and if you have kids, you don’t get any space. And so, I think it’s an enforced relationship twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t run from yourself, you can’t run from this person. And it’s a relationship that calls you to an astonishing vulnerability.
The day I married my wife, I didn’t know if she was going to get sick, I didn’t know if she was going to wig out on me, I didn’t know if she was going to have a nervous breakdown—none of that is guaranteed. But I’m saying: “From this day forward, everything I have is yours without qualification, and I’ll put your needs above my own.” I didn’t say that at twenty-two, I wasn’t that mature, but that’s what Christianity would call me to.
TOJ: And that’s what it’s come to mean to you now?
GT: Yes, definitely.
TOJ: Now, from that passage where Paul talks about marriage and singleness, and about sexual purity, could you give me your thoughts on what it means to be called to singleness and yet still to be a sexual being in our culture, which often focuses on sexuality? Even if you are single and not in an intimate relationship, we still have sexuality.
GT: Right, absolutely. I think there’s a very significant message. The first thing I’m going to say is that God created us to be sexual. Undeniably, the way that He designed our bodies is that we were created for sexual pleasure. And I think what that means is that Christians have a responsibility to get married probably much sooner than they do. Because the Bible is very clear that sexuality outside of marriage is forbidden. That we’re not to wrong one another [sexually].
In first Thessalonians 4:3-6—I mean you talk about justice—this is exactly the language that God uses, that you should avoid sexual immorality, that in this matter, no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or a sister. That’s the sexual ethic of a Christian, which means that if someone is struggling with a natural, healthy, sexual desire, the Bible says “get married.” The Bible doesn’t say, “If the culture says you shouldn’t get married until you’re twenty-six or twenty-seven or until you have your job figured out, then that’s alright.” That’s the culture, that’s not the Bible talking. And I think Christians today—the church today—needs to come to grips with the fact that it’s probably not healthy for a lot of twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight year old men and women to not be married. Because sexually, it’s frustrating. I’m just being honest. I got married a lot younger. You know, waiting that long would be denying a part of who God made me to be.
TOJ: Do you think that we can only be sexual beings in the context of a marriage?
GT: As far as being sexually intimate with another person, yes.
TOJ: So for those who are called to singleness, do you think that this means that they need to deny a part of themselves or that they aren’t as sexual as others?
GT: Well, look. Gender goes far beyond having an orgasm. So when you say ‘denying a part of yourself,’ you don’t deny maleness or femaleness. But there is a call to abstain with sexually intimate activities with another person. Paul says I’m not to wrong somebody. And so the question: if one has to deny that? Well, that’s fair. Put it this way: if my wife gets MS and got to a point where she couldn’t perform sexually, could I then bring a mistress home or could I just go out and visit somebody? I don’t see anything in scripture that says that’s okay. I do a lot of traveling. I’m on the road one hundred days a year. Could I say, my wife is three thousand miles away and God gave me sexual desire so it’s okay to hook up with someone in the airport lounge? No. The Bible would say that I’m wronging her, I’m wronging my wife.
TOJ: Wouldn’t that also be wronging you as well?
GT: Yes, but first and foremost, I’m dishonoring God. So, I would say that the Bible is very clear that marriage is God’s solution for people who are finding sexual temptation too great to overcome.
TOJ: I guess my concern in agreeing with that would be that having sex would then seem like the major motivation for getting married.
GT: I think the Bible presents it that way. I mean, you heard me. Is it a more noble motivation to get married because I have a lot of feelings toward somebody? I don’t think it is, because if you look at the February 2006 issue of National Geographic, you see that the pheromones that lead to infatuation can’t last longer than eighteen to thirty-six months. At that point in a long term relationship, infatuated feelings become occasional visitors. They’re never permanent residents. Sexual drive is still there in your sixties and seventies. It’s a lifelong thing. It seems to me more noble to get married so that I can honor a drive that I’m going to have consistently throughout my life—at least that I have had for the last twenty years—more than an emotional response that will come and go and sometimes I don’t know why. But why is an emotional response nobler? More high-minded than a basic sexual need? In fact, the sexual need is far more permanent and far stronger.
TOJ: You know, the church that I grew up in didn’t talk—at least to the youth—about sexuality as being a good thing. Sexuality seemed to always be something to be curbed or repressed, especially in women. You know, women were the a-sexual vessels to be filled, who were supposed to take care not to tempt men. What do you think the church needs to be doing to create a better image of sexuality?
GT: It’s heresy that the church is more known for our prohibitions than for our celebration of what God made. You look at a woman’s body, and see that the clitoris has one function and that is sexual pleasure. The male sexual organ has a couple of different functions. The female sexual organ—that’s it. I believe God created the body. I believe that God created the woman for sexual pleasure. The church has to get over their reluctance to that.
If you look at Proverbs 5:18-19, it says to husbands, “May you rejoice in a wife of your youth, a loving doe, a graceful deer, may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.” Breasts aren’t essential to conceive a child. It’s a prayer: “may you ever be captivated,” and in the Hebrew, that’s like a morally permissible love ecstasy. It’s saying may you ever rejoice in the beauty of your wife’s naked body. That’s literally what that passage is saying.
There’s only one whole book in the bible that gets one subject devoted to it, and that’s sexuality within marriage in the Song of Songs. There’s no book devoted exclusively to prayer or philanthropy or to social justice, but there is a book that’s devoted exclusively to the erotic love between a man and a woman.
TOJ: Why do you think that the church is reluctant to talk about the celebration of sexuality?
GT: I don’t know. I’m trying to change it. I can’t justify it. I think it’s absurd the way that they try to interpret the Song of Songs allegorically—it’s almost comical. The prohibitions that the medieval church put on even married sexuality—you know, not on Mondays or Wednesdays or whatever…! I think the best antidote against unholy sexuality is to celebrate holy sexuality.
TOJ: Which is what?
GT: Within a marriage.
TOJ: Even within the context of a marriage, couldn’t there be unholy sexuality?
GT: Oh, absolutely. The Bible doesn’t have very many prohibitions as far as what you can do physically, but I think the Christian virtues of selflessness, generosity, kindness, do direct the attitudes that we look at sexuality with—if sex becomes demeaning, if it becomes hurtful, if it’s an act that would put my wife’s body at risk of injury or infection or feels demeaning to her, any number of verses would say ‘that’s not how you love your wife the way that Christ loved the church.’
TOJ: And vice versa.
GT: Oh, absolutely.
TOJ: Well, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.
GT: You’re welcome.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.
Gary Thomas is a writer, speaker, and adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary. His focus is on spiritual formation—specifically, how we can integrate Scripture, church history and the wisdom of the Christian classics into modern experience. Gary has written over 100 published articles; his many books have been translated into eleven languages and include the Gold Medallion Award winning Authentic Faith, Sacred Parenting, Sacred Marriage, and Sacred Pathways, among others. He has appeared on numerous national radio and television programs, including Focus on the Family and Family Life Today.