November 2020 Feature
Protestant churches in Singapore, as a whole, have expressed their firm opposition to sexual relationships and marriage between members of the same sex. I agree wholeheartedly with this position. There are, however, certain aspects of the life and practice of our Protestant churches which compromise our attempts to defend our position and render it persuasive to others. Homophobic attitudes and practices are certainly included, but, as they have already been identified as a problem, I do not intend to address them here. I will focus instead on attitudes and behaviour which have not (to the best of my knowledge) generally been seen as a liability to our witness on the issue of sexuality.
In my limited exposure to seminars and writings on this issue, I see a tendency for us to dig into our positions and spend the bulk of our time and energy attacking the opposing view. While it is proper, even laudable, for us to be firm and confident in our stance (especially when it is, in its turn, receiving constant bombardment), there should also be room for self-examination and critique, where we take a long hard look at ourselves and ask if there are aspects of our life and practice which do not sit well with the message we seek to convey. This essay tries to do its small part in redressing this imbalance.
A Deadly Combination: An Aversion to Celibacy and a (New) Gospel of Self-Fulfilment
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century challenged the medieval view that celibacy is a spiritually higher estate than marriage. It abolished the requirement of celibacy on the part of its clergy, and also disapproved of the notion that there should be groups of celibate men and women (i.e. monks and nuns) devoting themselves to a life of prayer and service. It is noteworthy, however, that a figure like Martin Luther, a key leader of the Reformation, did not deride celibacy as a life calling. He wrote, “I do not wish to disparage virginity, or entice anyone away from virginity into marriage. Let each one act as he is able, and as he feels it has been given him by God” (On the Estate of Marriage, 46).
From my observation, in present-day Singapore, more than five centuries after the Reformation, our attitude as Protestants towards celibacy has swung from grudging acceptance to outright hostility. This can be attributed not only to our Protestant heritage, but also the influence of imported Western ideas and our own Asian cultures.
In the modern Western worldview, someone who has never had sex is often perceived to be frustrated and unfulfilled, and probably in need of psychological help. In many Asian cultures, to be unmarried is seen as a highly undesirable state, akin to being under a curse. The Western worldview and our Asian cultures combine to present the picture of a celibate single as a sad, pitiful and unfulfilled individual; someone less than a complete human being. This is perhaps why there seems to be a constant flow of self-appointed “matchmakers” in our churches. They probably see themselves on a benevolent rescue mission to save singles from a life of utter misery.
Another trend in our Protestant churches today is the preaching of a gospel (or good news), but it is one different from the Christian gospel. It is a message concocted via a toxic mix of contemporary values like individualism, consumerism and modern humanism. But this has not prevented many Christians from happily embracing it, and even proclaiming it as the good news of Christianity.
I am referring to the “gospel” of self-fulfilment. It says to us, “Discover yourself! Fulfil who you were meant to be! Realise the immense potential hidden within you!” This gospel tells us to go where our heart leads, to soar to the heights we were meant to reach and to fulfil our destiny. There are many problems with this gospel of self-fulfilment, but it would suffice to say here that its call is diametrically opposite to that of the true gospel, which is to die to our inherent obsession with ourselves. True Christianity presents a paradox, where we truly fulfil our potential only when we die to the desire to fulfil our potential; where we only find self-fulfilment when we seek to fulfil others.
If we bring together our aversion to celibacy and our gospel of self-fulfilment, we soon discover that our opposition to sexual relations and marriage between persons of the same-sex is severely compromised. If the goal of Christianity is self-fulfilment, and if engaging in sexual relations and being married are indispensable to achieving this goal, how can it be right to deny persons of a homosexual orientation the only way they can find fulfilment, which is sexual relations within same-sex marriage? These people can rightfully retort, “What, you expect me to be a sad, pitiful and unfulfilled celibate, while the rest of you fulfil your destiny through your sexual acts and marriages? What kind of double standards are these? Is the gospel only for some, and not others? Could God really be so unfair?”
Loss of the Sacramentality of Marriage
One other act of the Protestant Reformation was to overhaul the sacramental system of the medieval church. The medieval church had seven sacraments; the Protestant Reformers reduced them to only two: Baptism and Holy Communion. They excluded, amongst others, marriage. This, on its own, need not have a detrimental effect. Marriage does not need to be a sacrament, so long as Protestants maintain its “sacramentality”.
An earthly thing possesses “sacramentality” when it serves as a window to heavenly and spiritual realities. The Bible clearly teaches the sacramentality of marriage, as it views this institution as a symbol of the relationship between God and Israel (in the Old Testament) and Christ and the church (in the New). The coming together of a man and a woman in matrimony is depicted as a window for us to peek into a deeper reality: How Christ relates to his church, and how his church responds to him. When a Christian couple enters into matrimony, they (more than anything else) assume the sacred responsibility of proclaiming the gospel (Christ’s relationship with his church) with their lives, in all circumstances (“for better or for worse”).
Traditionally, the notion that marriage is sacramental has served as an important bulwark against same-sex marriage. For example, marriage between a man and a woman has the elements of both sameness and difference. The man and woman are of the same species (humanity), but can also be differentiated (e.g. by their body structures and sexual organs). Such marriage thus serves as an appropriate symbol of the relationship between Christ and his church, which also has the elements of sameness and difference, arising from Christ’s two natures—human and divine. Conversely, same-sex marriage is unable to perform this sacramental role, due to the lack of differentiation in such a relationship.
Arguments such as these have, however, largely lost their efficacy, because, by and large, we Protestants have neglected the notion that marriage (though not a sacrament) is fundamentally sacramental in nature. Once this happens, marriage degenerates into a mere contractual relationship—one which comes into existence solely because of the consent of two persons, and also dissolvable if such consent is revoked at a later stage. Once we view marriage mainly as a contract, we lose our basis for opposing same-sex marriage: Why should such marriage not be legitimate, if the two parties involved validly gave their consent? What difference does it make if both these parties happen to be of the same sex?
De-emphasis on Procreation in Marriage and Ignorance of Sexual Ethics
In addition to the loss of sacramentality, there is also a discernible lack of emphasis on the role of procreation in marriage. When one reads the writings of Christian theologians from an earlier period, one is struck by how they placed procreation as the chief of the purposes of marriage. While it is open to us to argue that they might have put too little weight on the other purposes (e.g. sexual pleasure and companionship), it is somewhat jarring that what was seen as the key reason for marriage in the past is now viewed as a peripheral aspect.
Singapore, as is well-known, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. It is one of our entrenched cultural traits for married couples to put off having children for the sake of their careers or other pursuits. Raising a child is also viewed as an inordinately heavy burden, which couples should ponder long and hard over before assuming. These do not seem to be issues which our Protestant churches are actively addressing. Indeed, those who do not know the history of Christian thought may even question whether Christianity has anything to say on this subject at all—is this not solely a matter for the couple to decide? (None of what is said here applies, of course, to couples who wish to conceive but are unable to do so.)
One outcome of our reticence to emphasise procreation in marriage is that we lose yet another basis for contesting the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. If procreation is a merely incidental part of matrimony, why do we discriminate against persons of the same sex getting married, since their inherent inability to procreate does not violate any of the key purposes of the institution?
Finally, there is the question of the types of sexual acts permissible for Christians within marriage. My observation is that Protestant Christians receive very little guidance in this area. There are numerous other possible types of sexual acts besides vaginal coitus (something which many are well aware in our age of readily available pornography). What is the Christian perspective on these acts? Are these permissible between a married couple?
The lack of clear teaching in this area is again unfortunate, because there exists a rich body of writings by Christian theologians which we can tap on. What usually happens in our churches is that teaching on sex (if it takes place at all) is delegated from the pastors to medical doctors and psychologists. While these professionals are definitely able to give sound and helpful guidance, what is often missing is the perspective from Christian ethics.
This ignorance of sexual ethics once again hampers our ability to oppose sexual relations between members of the same-sex. If the correct position is “anything goes” (so long as both parties consent), and vaginal coitus is only one of the many legitimate acts of sexual penetration between married couples, the uniqueness of heterosexual sex is compromised. So what if same-sex relationships are unable to perform vaginal coitus? Does it matter because they have all these other legitimate sexual acts to choose from?
Given today’s climate, the battle against the legitimisation of sexual relationships and marriage between members of the same sex is an extremely tough one. We have, unfortunately, made it even tougher for ourselves with certain of our perspectives, attitudes and practices. These arise because we have lost the anchor of our rich Christian heritage, and embraced too readily our cultures and their perspectives. Unless we search out the treasures of the past, and root ourselves more firmly in the Christian way of seeing things, we will be fighting this battle with one hand tied behind our backs.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.