“Our Bodies Proclaim the Gospel” – Christopher West’s insightful biblical theology of sex and marriage.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
On Thursday 14th January most of the focus has been on what was going on in Canterbury but there were two other significant meetings in England happening at the same time.
The Church of England Evangelical Council’s annual gathering at High Leigh showed a degree of unity not seen for many years among the representatives of the normally fractious evangelical tribes. Leaders from across the spectrum differ in degrees of ultimate loyalty to the institution of the C of E, but all were united in wanting to stand firm for biblical orthodoxy in the face of creeping revisionism in the church, backed up by the rapidly changing philosophies and practices of the culture especially in the area of sexual morality.
At the same time an interdenominational group met for the first part of a three day conference entitled “Our Bodies Proclaim the Gospel”, featuring the teaching of Christopher West. During his presentation, West shared his background story with us. Brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic family in the U.S., he rebelled against the traditional morality of the church in his teens, but at the age of 20 reached a crisis. The life of pleasure was bringing misery, but what was he to do with the raging desires in his heart? Knowing instinctively that they were in some way created by God, so to repress them would somehow deny part of his humanity, he began to seek answers.
He was discipled and brought to saving faith by evangelicals on campus, but (to the consternation of some!) began an independent exploration of the Bible on the topic of desire and sex, marriage and humanity. Three years later he met a Catholic theologian who introduced him to the teaching of Pope John Paul 2 on the same subject; a series of talks published in the early 1980’s and known as the “Theology of the Body”. West in his energetic engaging style explains how this “blew his mind” and confirmed all that he had been seeing for himself in God’s word.
West has remained a Roman Catholic but in becoming the leading expositor and populariser of this strand of biblical teaching, has found receptive audiences among evangelicals as well as Catholics in North America and across the world. The title of his presentations in London this week gives a clue – he is wanting to proclaim the Gospel using the physical human person as the best visual aid. Our desires, he tells us, are created by God to propel us upward towards ultimate union with Christ, of which the pleasurable, creative union of covenant faithful heterosexual marriage is the physical picture.
The problem is, as our sexuality has been corrupted by the fall, the “rocket launchers” (West’s phrase) of desire are turned inwards. Our desires then instead of propelling us to marry and have children, do good in community, and worship God in Spirit and truth, are used in idolatrous worship, lust after the human form (instead of honour for the whole person), and selfish pursuit of pleasure. In a memorable phrase, West said our bodies are created to be theographic, not pornographic.
The Gospel, then, is not that Christ came to affirm us in our wrong orientation of desire, but nor is it to give us rules about sexual sin and provide a ‘free pass’ of forgiveness until we can be free in heaven. The Gospel is that Christ enters in to our humanity, especially the messy hidden parts, and re-orients our desire so we can be fully human on earth as in heaven. Legalism (in the church) is trying to enforce the ethics of God’s law without changing the ethos of the human heart. Other forms of ‘false teaching’ attempt to re-write the ethics of God’s law so they align with the ethos of our unregenerate hearts.
West is particularly scathing of modern versions of Manicheism which sees our true self as residing in our mind or soul, and does not see the body as important. The Hebrew vision of humanity was a body-soul unity; the Theology of the Body speaks of the “spousal meaning of the body”; the image of God includes male and female in physical union and in community producing new life under God (Genesis 1:27) – it is not just our individual mind or soul. We have got used to seeing a human form as divorced from the full person which has led to many of the implications in our culture of the sexual revolution in the culture (objectifying the body for sexual pleasure, breaking the link between physical binary gender difference and procreation, rejecting the body’s gender in favour of a new one self-created by the mind, low self esteem and mutilation of the body), as well as some evangelical “spiritualizing” of the Gospel.
Our task as the church is to teach and live out Christian morality, which is, in its fullest sense, “hearing God’s love song , and learning to dance in step” (West). This must involve a robust affirming of our physical sexual nature, and its purpose as originally created. The fallenness of this nature has implications in the culture but also, as West stressed, in everyone including the lives of those who follow Christ and who want to be counter-cultural. As the church carries out the witness to salvation it will be hated and despised – the Body will suffer. But also a church made up of men and women who have recognized and handed over their own disordered desires and misunderstandings of their body for redemption by Christ, will be able to offer his mercy rather than condemnation to those seeking to find meaning in their bodies and their desires.