Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Sex and Ministry

I had a conversation recently with someone who had received advice about sex at a ministry-wives type event several years ago. As her husband was in ministry, she was advised to make it a priority to have sex with him frequently in order to increase the effectiveness of his ministry. This disturbed me.

I think this is ill-advised for three reasons.

First, it cuts against the self-giving we find in 1 Corinthians 7. One gives oneself to one's husband (or oneself to one's wife), for the other person. Not for their ministry or any other reason. Adding a reason, like bolstering one's husband's ministry makes it less a self-giving and more a transaction. The ministry of the husband (or the wife for that matter), will be best built up because of the strength of the marriage relationship. Engaging in sex and thereby releasing happy chemicals, or adding to a person's sense of significance is all well and good, but for some people this will happen more when they undertake intense physical activity or play a super-charged computer game or some such. I am not certain that the people who pedal this advice would be happy to advise people who aren't invigorated by sex to give it up and go do whatever it is that does make their brains work well. If they did, it would be very disturbing indeed and I would not expect that any Christian would advise other Christians against having sex within a marriage relationship under normal circumstances. It simply cuts against Scripture. Sex isn't for ministry. Sex is for marriage. (And that means marriage isn't for ministry either. Should be obvious, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to make sure.)

Second, the passage in 1 Corinthians specifically allows for the prayer to be the one exception which interrupts a married couple's sex life. But I am reasonably certain that the people who give the advice about sex for ministry would not say that a couple's sex life should be interrupted; indeed, what would logically follow from their argument is that if things are getting rocky in ministry, then more sex is in order. But surely, at least from time to time, prayer might be considered to be beneficial to one's ministry. If the argument is to run consistently, then the advice must also include times where prayer supersedes sex in the relationship. Otherwise it is hard to see how this advice has any relationship with Scripture. But that would seem to cut right against the overweighting of sex that is implied in this advice.

Third, it isn't hard to think of individuals who have not had sex either ever in their entire lives or have ceased to have sex, and who have had what would normally be considered successful ministries. Paul the Apostle springs to mind. He doesn't even see fit to include deprivation of this kind in his list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians (though he does include the anxiety he bears for the churches he knew). Indeed, he argues that singleness (an aspect of which is an absence of sex) benefits ministry in 1 Corinthians 7. We can observe that through church history those without opportunity for sex can have successful ministries, under God. So, Calvin's ministry didn't seriously decline after his wife died. The long list of missionaries in the 19th century who never married, yet faithfully proclaimed the gospel, and saw the impact on many lives. And so on. Sex just isn't necessary for a good ministry.

I don't object to sex. I object to advice about sex that sends women whirling away in despair, trying to figure out how to jump through yet another hoop in order to live the godly Christian life they genuinely want to live. And advice that seems to send them away from their husbands in an area such as sex seems even less palatable.

The Reformers blazed loud and angrily against rules about sex within marriage. Their statement that 'nothing is immoral within marriage' was designed to fend off the interference of the priests who, in the Roman Catholic system, had a huge list of rules about what was right and wrong about marital sex. This would come out in the confessional, where the husband or wife would have to answer quite specific questions about when they had engaged in sex, how they had had sex, for what purpose, and what they had been thinking about at the time. Ultimately there was a third person in every marriage, which helped no-one and was, as the Reformers rightly pointed out, contrary to Scripture.

No, this advice is not going that far down this line, but it is precariously close to drawing up prescriptives which determine when and how sex is part of a marriage and that begins to sound as though it is in the same kind of category in which sat the situation to which the Reformers objected. Sex is something for husbands and wives to talk about together. The wife shouldn't have to feel obligated to fill a particular quota imposed upon her by an external source.

Sex within marriage is not for ministry. Sex within marriage is for the husband and wife of that marriage. Just as I do not listen to my husband for the benefit of his ministry but for his benefit, and as I do not teach our child how to pray for the benefit of my husband's ministry but for the child's benefit - though both activities may well benefit my husband's ministry - so I do not have sex for my husband's ministry, but for and with my husband. I expect it will benefit his ministry because it is a good gift from God and if all is well it should help rather than hinder. But that's true of a very, very large number of things.

Marriage is made for men and women, not for ministry. Ministry is what men and women do, and they do it out of the relational capital in their lives, to which their marriage relationships contribute. It is disappointing to find such a theory, which reflects the concerns of our 21st century sex-addicted society rather than the richer, more substantial relationship concerns of Scripture. Thankfully, Scripture does not have such a mercenary, mechanical and withered view of sex and nor for that matter, of women.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Preaching: Why it Rocks

There are a lot of reasons why preaching is good for us. I have been thinking about this a little bit lately, particularly with regard to discipline of listening to a sermon. I know there are heaps of good defences of preaching, but I'm just focusing on two aspects here.

The first is that preaching makes us listen. It is faster and more efficient for some of us to read. Some people actually enjoy the activity of reading. But preaching is all aural, and as any educationalist will tell you: most people are not aural learners. Which begs the question: isn't preaching obsolete now that we've discovered educational theory and realise that the whole enterprise is inefficient?

No. I don't think so.

The very fact of its inefficiency makes preaching worthwhile. You have to work at listening to a sermon. There are very few preachers who are easy to listen to and accessible, and interesting all at once. Of course, some are. But the chances of only ever hearing sermons from such individuals is fairly low. And then of course, what works for you doesn't work for me. A preacher can only really grab a certain number of people in his congregation: the rest have to work a bit.

That said, I'm not a fan of boring sermons. I hate sermons that use the text flippantly, sentimentally or just badly. I cannot stand long sermons with eternal anecdotes and so many pointless illustrations that one begins to like the idea of stained glass windows because at least they are self contained. If you preach, you should I believe put the time and energy into being faithful and interesting, using words aurally (not writing but speaking language), and put some energy into finding words that work for people who need pictures. (Words like 'fingerprints', 'sauntering', and so forth usually conjure up pictures and make it easier for people to listen). It's hard work, but anything that helps people listen is worth the investment. Because we need to listen to sermons.

We need to listen because the sermon is God's word to us, and we need to consciously stand under it. It's really easy to become a sermon critiquer if you hear heaps of sermons, but that is to miss the point of the entire exercise. If we find ourselves in the presence of a sermon, our job is to listen to that sermon. Not, as I often find myself doing, rewriting the sermon in my head, working out what my main point would be. Or working out the six reasons why that illustration the preacher used just didn't work.

Sometimes I find listening to a sermon tough going. The preacher is having a bad day, doesn't project well, is just too smarmy, hasn't done the work on the text, is very young and angry, hasn't thought through the implications of the application... any number of issues. It is useful, I think to realise that whenever we hear a sermon, we'll always find any number of good reasons not to listen. So, that means we need to make a conscious effort to listen and overcome the temptation to stand above the sermon and effectively to have a hard heart towards God's word.

This is good for us. It makes us stop. It makes us humble. It makes us care about God's word. It makes us remember that we need to know more of God, and more about God, and that he can speak through the worst of preachers. It makes us hear things we might not choose to hear, and ask ourselves questions we might not choose to ask ourselves. It is something outside of us coming to us, and however weak it may seem, through God's grace it does us good. God feeds us through his word.

Our mighty God takes the often feeble work of a preacher with his Word and infuses it with his Spirit and feeds his church. Grace at work.

The second reason is a little odd. We need to learn how to live and how to die and so we need sermons.

Sermons are educational: we learn things about God, his Word and his salvation and work in our lives through sermons. And we need this: we need to know things about God as part of knowing God. But sermons are also occasions of remembering. We hear things we already knew and knew well and we consciously remember them.

Some of these are things we need to hear to live. The fruit of the Spirit, for example, is a set of virtues that many of us may have learned before we were ten years old. But they apply to us differently today compared with when we were 10, or 20 or whatever age. We constantly need to go back to Scripture and think about how it applies to us. Listening to sermons is one of the ways we do this and it is particularly useful because we tend to think we know something and don't need to revisit it only to find that we actually do. Even if the preacher doesn't apply the passage well or properly, we've still had to think about this thing we thought we knew and may quickly pass over if we were reading.

But sometimes we hear things in sermons which will help us die. The Puritans would always say that we need to learn to die, because it is hard, hard work. And I think they were onto something. When we have 15 minutes left to live, the devil working overtime to get his last temptations in and pain and fear jockeying for our attention: what will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?

And this is a category which catches up the hard times of life into itself. The gloom cast by the valley of the shadow of death resembles that cast by most suffering, and threatens to steal our joy and our souls. Whatever the suffering, whether it is visible or not, what will we do then? What will we think? What will we believe? What will we pray?

It is often too late to figure it out then. There may be time to do the thinking, but grief and sorrow addle the brain and warp our ability to think clearly. We have to work hard at this before the bell tolls for us, so that we aren't having to think things through from scratch, and therefore, often improperly.

Listening to good sermons helps us keep our faith strong. Sermons which remind us that we have a God who is completely trustworthy, for example, build up our confidence in him. Sermons on the death and resurrection of the Christ Jesus for us call us to remember and take strength and joy from knowing our sins are forgiven. And so on. We might walk away wondering why we needed to hear that, because we already knew it, but it builds us up and strengthens our faith.

We don't know how we will die, but we know that it is rarely easy. Listening to good sermons is one way to prepare for that day.

I've said 'good' sermons. I don't mean fancy. I mean sermons that are based off the Bible. I mean sermons that teach us to read the Bible for ourselves and keep leading us back to its truths. Other talks are fine as far as they go. But we need biblical preaching though if we are going to have this feeding that God does for us, and if we are going to have something substantial enough to fall back on the day we die.

So, bring on preaching.

The interesting, the ipoded, the feeble, the really boring, the scintillating, the over illustrated: it comes in many guises. Bible-based teaching calls for our attention, asking us to stop and listen. And when we do we get stronger and by the grace of God grow to be more like our Saviour.