Friday, August 26, 2011

St Paul, porneia and the bonds of fidelity

I wrote an essay a few months ago about my good friend St Paul and his attitude to premarital sex.

This is an issue that has concerned me for some time, not least because of my own experiences of being at once a Christian, a sexual being, and not married. Now that I am married, surprise surprise, I find that I am far less troubled by the issue. Nonetheless, the subject called ‘Practices and Theologies of Love’ offered an opportunity too good to pass up, so I committed myself to writing the essay and figuring out once and for all what Paul had to say about sex before marriage.

As I flipped through commentaries and lined up my notes into paragraphs, I saw that actually, Paul didn’t have a whole lot to say about premarital sex. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the ‘dating scene’, in which we enter into extended ‘relationships’ with others as a precursor or an alternative to marriage, did not exist in Paul’s day. So to suggest that Paul had something to say about this issue is to imbue his words with a context very different from his own.

What Paul did mention a fair bit, however, was this concept of porneia. Older English versions of the Bible translate this to ‘fornication’, which in English means ‘premarital sex’. Hence the confusion. Nobody knows exactly what Paul meant when he used the word porneia, but here are some likely possibilities:
• sex with a prostitute;
• unlawful sexual conduct described in Leviticus 18, including incest, sex with a menstruating woman, men having sex with men and bestiality;
• the sexual idolatry that permeated the Greco-Roman world, which involved abuse, promiscuity and exploitation.

What I found out was that Paul was less concerned about the impact of porneia on individual morality, than its affect on the wider group. Take the example of the man (part of the church in Corinth) who has sex with his father’s wife, in 1 Corinthians 5. This is termed porneia. Paul’s concern is not for the man, or for the woman or the father for that matter. He demands that the church “hand this man over to Satan”. Paul is worried about the effect it will have on the Christian body: “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”

Paul talks a lot about ‘the body’, which is a metaphor for the group as a whole. The concept comes from a long rhetorical tradition, in which the Greco-Roman polis or city-state was often portrayed as a body. Strife, discord and civil disobedience were seen as diseases in need of eradication. It is this communal ‘body’ that is important to Paul. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” asks Paul (6.19). What doesn’t come across in the English translation is that ‘your’ is plural and ‘body’ is singular – in other words, the Holy Spirit dwells in the communal body. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul blurs the categories of the individual and communal body. It is as if they are one and the same thing. Community members have their own bodies, but are simultaneously part of the ‘body of Christ’.

It is this communal body that porneia so threatens. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” asks Paul in 1 Cor 15b. The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Not only does this compromise the individual, but also the integrity of the group. Porneia stalks on the edges of the group, ready to infiltrate and compromise the integrity of the whole.

I think that porneia is still a threat. I find it helpful to think beyond just individual sexual morality, and the impact that sexual abuse and exploitation – a clear form of porneia – have on the wider community. I was thinking about contemporary issues such as ‘sexting’ and young ADFA cadets filming each other having sex, and the utter devastation this kind of behaviour has on people and relationships. I think this is porneia.

We are a society that believes in consequence-free sex; in sex that is first and foremost fun; sex that is removed from communities and severed from reproduction and children. At the centre of sex lies not the family or even the couple but the individual, and what is paramount is that the sexual needs of the individual are fulfilled. Sex is a pleasure-inducing product, transacted in an economy where the happiness and wellbeing of the individual is the primary currency. If the individual can experience passionate, gasping, orgasmic sex, then this person has achieved a significant degree of success. This is how we define good sex.

This is our modern sexual ethic – and, like any other application of rampant individualism, finds its ultimate destination in abuse and exploitation. Porneia, if you will. The modern sexual ethic, concerned mainly for the pleasure of the individual, does not care much about the other or the others involves. It is ultimately selfish.

And this is the point where I get to marriage. You may find the institution of marriage problematic – not least because it excludes a very important segment of our population (people in same-sex relationships). Marriage, however, has something very good going for it: it has the effect of giving sex a place that is wider and deeper than the individual. Rather than sex itself and the pleasure it affords holding the ultimate value, it the marriage itself that is valued. Sex is simply a part of the marriage. This leaves us outwardly focused: looking face-to-face with our spouse, rather than down at our own genitals.

If ‘marriage’ doesn’t work for you, then let’s think about fidelity. Fidelity is the commitment to lasting connections, as opposed to the pursuit of fleeting individual pleasure. Fidelity goes beyond the couple, extending into ever expanding networks of friendships, families and communities. Self-centred sex destroys bonds, but sex that is built on fidelity strengthens them. In my books, fidelity is the opposite of porneia.

“But since there is so much porneia,” says Paul, “each man should have his own woman, and each woman her own man” (1 Cor 1.2). Paul, in essence, is advocating fidelity. I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women in church leadership: A reply

My friend Tom asked an important question about the role of women in church leadership, here. He says that he's heard a lot of arguments against female 'eldership' in the church, and wants to hear some arguments for. This is my response.

Tom - thanks for your willingness to grapple with this issue with such authenticity and openness. Given I am exploring a path of church ministry and leadership, I think I owe it to myself and my questioner to respond.

The key offending passage is this: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Timothy 2.11-15).

I can see, Tom, why you might find it difficult to biblically justify women in church leadership and, it would seem from the text, in teaching positions (where they teach men). There is nothing ambiguous about 1 Timothy 2.11-15. It’s not my favourite text, or the most quoted text within the modern church, but it is part of our sacred canon, and so must be contended with.

Part of grappling with biblical texts involves putting them alongside other passages. For a fuller picture of the role of women in the early church, we should look to the book of Acts and to the greetings in a number of Paul’s letters, which describe and list a number of women. Not least of these is Priscilla who, along with her husband Aquila, runs a home church. The very early church was based in people’s homes, which, being the locale of family, was the domain of women. The early churches were fairly egalitarian in structure – modeling themselves on a flat-structured family, as opposed to the vertical-structured and male-dominated temple or synagogue. The inclusive and egalitarian nature of the church is expressed nicely in Galations 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

But then, we hit 1 Timothy, which is very clear about the place of women. I actually think that what we have here is two different strands of thought. Galatians is from the more egalitarian early church. 1 Timothy, though attributed to Paul, is probably from the early second century. The language used is quite different, and indicates a later period. It was apparently quite common for followers of important people in the ancient world to write new texts and attribute them to their hero, which appears to be the case for 1 Timothy. Hence it was included in the canon, because Pauline origin was one basis of canonic inclusion. But that is not to dismiss 1 Timothy – though it may not be Paul’s, it was still canonized, and as Christians we are therefore obliged to read it and take it seriously.

Unfortunately, the natural progression of things tends to be away from egalitarian origins, towards concentration of power amongst the powerful. What we see, between the time of Galatians and the time of 1 Timothy, is a movement towards patriarchy.

As such, I cannot read 1 Timothy 2.11-15 as divine revelation. Rather, I read it as divine WARNING – of what happens to radical equality in the midst of power and male dominance.

I have picked. I have chosen. I have decided which tradition I prefer. I do this on the basis of my life experience: of the women leaders who I have seen enrich the church (and what a waste had they been silent!), of the amazing nun who teaches my Gospel of John class (which has men in it), and my church history lecturer who also happens to be the first ordained woman in the Baptist church in Australia (go Marita!).

But I think that is what we are all forced to do. Others privilege 1 Timothy, and they do so on the basis of their life experience, also. For some, silencing women is more appealing than radical equality.

I actually think that it’s amazing that we have hints of a tradition that values female equality in the church within our canon. After all it was the church – the church controlled mainly by men – who chose which texts should become scripture and which should not. But all we have is hints, while the texts that purport to silence women are enshrined loud and clear.

So that’s my two cents, or maybe a dollar. It’s time for dinner, as my fingers are tired from typing this thing twice (the whole thing got deleted before when I tried to squeeze it into Tom's reply box)! Thanks for the question Tom, and may God be with you as you grapple with it further.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When community breaks through

Yesterday I spent the day hanging out with Malcolm*. Actually it’s part of my job: I am now a fully-fledged disability support worker. Malcolm is a sweet-talking, cheeky-grinned 54-year-old who spends most of his time in an electric wheelchair. He has a mouth like a trooper when he’s pissed off, and likes to race his wheelchair in fifth gear along the open road.

It was my job to accompany him around his community for the day. I was struck by the way Malcolm impacted the people in his local community. Everywhere we went, tired, busy, overworked workers stopped everything as soon as Malcolm walked through the door.

The entire teenaged workforce at McDonalds came out to greet Malcolm, standing around chatting and joking while he lodged a complaint (with a glint in his eye) about some poor kid handling the deep fryer. A girl with bleached blond hair and a ring in her bottom lip shoved a yellow and red striped straw into the plastic lid on his coffee cup. I held his coffee while he sucked deeply on the straw, using my other hand to sip the tea he had bought me. Afterwards a man held the door open for Malcolm as he wheeled out, leaving a string of goodbyes and profanities in his wake.

At the bank, Malcolm shouted to the tellers to bring him Amy, his favourite one. She came around to stand by his chair, while he asked questions that she had already answered numerous times before. She didn’t seem to mind – in fact she seemed to rather enjoy it. Her middle-aged manager grumbled a little but I could tell she was hiding a smile. She jostled back and forth with Malcolm as he made unreasonable demands, while customers looked on smiling.

Then we went to the TAC to place some bets: first on some horses, then on some dogs. Malcolm talked with the man behind the counter in some male dialect that I had never heard before, and he swore when he lost his $15 bet. The man behind the counter told Malcolm he was a “real gentleman”, but he was smiling the whole time. I could tell that he really liked Malcolm.

The only place where people didn’t know Malcolm’s name and where nobody talked to anybody was at the local gaming joint, where I assisted Malcolm to feed $50 notes into one of those money-sucking slots. I was just as mesmerized as anyone else by the flashing lights, electronic jingles and clatter of gold coins. People only looked at their screens, or their pots of money, or their frothy cups of complimentary coffee. Nobody looked at anybody else. When I talked to a person, it was more like talking to a machine.

I was thinking that even though Malcolm has a ‘disability’, he also has an incredible ‘ability’. He has a capacity to reach in and bring to the surface that which is so very human in all of us. For many of us, community interactions are little more than faceless transactions. But when Malcolm is around, the bankers, TAC employees and shiny-skinned Maccas workers suddenly become people, who smile, joke, grumble and ultimately care. The great surprise is that it is obnoxious, wheelchair-bound Malcolm who causes the breakthrough of authentic community. Maybe the presence of a ‘disability’ makes us all realise we need each other?

At the gaming venue, Malcolm was blank-faced, somewhere else. Everybody seemed stuck in their own sad world of boredom and addiction. I don’t think it is possible for anything like community to break through in a pokies joint.

* not real name