When I was in the Marine Corps, I remember once hanging out with some other officers during the day as we escaped the heat. We were all telling funny stories about that day and taking a few minutes to cool off in the air conditioning. Then one of them tossed a Playboy magazine to me and told me to check out a certain girl. I refused to look. When they all asked why I wouldn’t look, I quoted Job 31:1: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin.” One of them, quick-witted, replied, “I don’t think she’s a virgin.” I couldn’t help but chuckle at his joke. “But all the same,” I said, “I will not look at any woman’s body besides my wife’s.” They all nodded in an understanding way, but in the moment that followed, we all realized something: we did not share the same standard of morality. Awkward silence followed.
I think many Christians have similar experiences as they strive to live out the ethics of the kingdom of Christ in today’s culture, especially in regards to sexual purity and gender roles. They run head on into opposition to the gospel and to Scripture from people they love and care about. In reality, things have not changed all that much over the centuries. In the Graeco-Roman world, when the New Testament was written, the ethics of Christ’s kingdom regarding sexuality and gender were also seen as counter-cultural. That’s what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 regarding purity:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.
Peter goes on to say that Christian women are co-heirs with their husbands in Christ in 1 Peter 3:7, a thought that would have been seen as revolutionary in that culture:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
So I am not surprised when people who do not know Christ do not conform their lives to God’s standard for gender and sexuality. And in some sense, it is easy to understand how even young believers or confused believers, living in a sensual culture, can fail to understand God’s standards for purity, gender, and marriage. It’s a process for all of us as we are conformed into the image of Christ.
Here are a few things I learned in my journey to understanding what it means to live out the ethics of Christ regarding sexuality and gender, a view that I have come to know as complementarianism.
1. Christ was worth my singleness.
Christian singleness can be difficult. I say Christian singleness, because our culture champions singleness as a time of sexual freedom and experiential adventure. But the Christian single is called to sexual purity and to not cohabit with someone other than his spouse. In my early 20s I remember facing the reality that I probably would not get married for a long time. I was 24 years old in 2008, and I was staring a two-year tour of duty in Japan in the face. That worried me—until one night in April. I was traveling for a buddy’s wedding. I had recently bought Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and decided to bring it along on the plane. While on the flight, I read the first chapter by John Piper on singleness. I was cut to the core by Piper’s exhortation to maximize singleness. I was moved by the accounts of singleness by people who necessarily didn’t feel “called” to be single. As I watched the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico outside my window, a new thought dawned: I must leverage my singleness for the glory of Christ.
That’s exactly the type of life Jesus is getting at in the parables in Matthew 13. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a treasure that a man finds hidden in a field. The man sells everything he had to buy the field and possess the treasure. Jesus’ point is that he and thus his kingdom are worth our all, everything we have to give, including our singleness.
2. When you do it God’s way, marriage becomes a lot easier.
When I got married, many people told me that marriage would be a lot harder than I expected. Some told me that the first two years especially would be tough as my wife and I got used to living with each other. In one sense those warnings were true. It is difficult to always strive to serve someone more than yourself. But at the same time, we have found that striving to serve God and each other in our God-designed roles in marriage has made our marriage relationship much better.
What does that look like? We agree that it is my job to:
- love and serve her as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25-28);
- joyfully provide for her and our children (Gen. 2:15; 1 Tim. 5:8);
- be the self-sacrificial leader of our family (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Tim. 3:4).
We also agree that her role in our marriage is to:
- primarily be my helper in everything that God has called me to do (Gen. 2:20);
- be the primary caretaker of our young children (1 Tim. 2:15; Tit. 2:5);
- follow my leadership as long as my leadership conforms to God’s will (Eph. 5:22-23).
We do not fulfill our roles perfectly; we need the gospel daily. But we have found that as we strive to serve each other in our respective roles, our relationship grows stronger. In other words, when you do things God’s way, you open up the door for God’s blessing.
3. Someone must be held accountable.
I learned early on first as a yell leader at Texas A&M, and then as an officer in the Marine Corps, that a leader is always accountable. When I was a series commander at Parris Island, one of my drill instructors fell asleep while driving early in the morning, crashed his car into a telephone pole, and sustained severe injuries (he has since fully recovered). The entire company had been working on little sleep for days. This accident could have happened to any of us.
But I’ll never forget the conversation with my battalion commander the next time I saw him. In a helpful way, he reminded me that I was accountable for this Marine’s accident because he was in my command. He pointed out how I had not ensured that he was properly rested and how I had kept the drill instructors on the base late the night before for a meeting. He concluded the conversation by saying, “Lieutenant Castleberry, you are accountable for everything that happens in this series, whether you know about it or not.” I wasn’t offended. I knew then what it meant to be a leader.
It is the same way in marriage. God holds men accountable for what happens in their marriages, whether they want to be held accountable or not, because it is clear that God expects men to be the leaders of their households (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Tim. 3:4). That’s why when Adam and Eve sinned, God addressed Adam, even though they were both standing before him (Gen 3:9).
4. Our differences should be celebrated as we pursue Christ together.
Men and women are different, but we both bear the image of God (Gen. 1:27). We represent God’s rule on this earth in our differences. And in the new heavens and new earth we will finally break through the trappings of sin to experience creation as God intended.
It is also encouraging to realize that in one sense, the kingdom is already here (Luke 10:9; 17:21). It has already broken through into our present reality, even though it is not finally consummated. Together, men and women, we have been redeemed by a God who is transforming us into the image of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Therefore let us press into what God has made us to be.