Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reframing the Church's Conversations About Marriage

My cousin, Jackie, shared this article on Facebook.  The author writes about how she internalized her congregation's message about virginity.  The congregation taught her that sex was reserved for marriage; extra-marital sex would lead to Hell.  Although she remained a virgin until she was married, she was afraid that she might "cross the line" and punch her ticket to Hell.  After the wedding, she still feared sex, which restricted her relationship with her husband.  In time, her internal pressures were too much to contain and she confessed her struggles to her husband, who suggested therapy.

What was the end result of this process?  The author states:
"I don't go to church anymore, nor am I religious. As I started to heal, I realized that I couldn't figure out how to be both religious and sexual at the same time. I chose sex... 
"I'm now thoroughly convinced that the entire concept of virginity is used to control female sexuality. If I could go back, I would not wait. I would have sex with my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I wouldn't go to hell for it. We would have gotten married at a more appropriate age and I would have kept my sexuality to myself."
These words should bother most people who believe that sex should be reserved for marriage.  Does this woman represent the majority of what our children and grandchildren hear and experience when we talk about purity and virginity?  Is this why many young adults remain away from the church: they do not believe that they can be both religious and sexual?  How can we talk about sex as part of God's good creation while also upholding the value of reserving sex for marriage?

During my time in seminary, I learned about the Church's traditional teachings concerning the three ends (or purposes) of marriage.  These three ends are:

  1. Unitive: the relationship between a husband and a wife is a living testimony to the relationship between the Lord and the Church.  The Lord is always faithful to the Lord's people, and the Church is always faithful to the Lord.  A couple that remains faithful to each other testifies to the relationship between the Lord and the Church.  On the other hand, a couple that does not remain faithful undercuts their testimony to the Lord and the Church.
  2. Procreative: the married couple raises children for the Lord and the Church.  Note that this purpose of marriage speaks to raising children, not creating children through sexual intercourse.  Because this purpose speaks to raising children, couples which are infertile, choose to adopt children, or remain childless can also fulfill this purpose by either adopting children or acting as adult mentors for other children in the congregation.
  3. Sacramental: the husband and wife jointly participate in worshipping the Lord and obeying the Lord's calling.  By doing so, the couple grows together in holiness.

I did not hear most of this as I was growing up.  I heard the message of "Don't have sex before marriage."  Obviously, I did not have the same experiences as the woman who wrote the article in question.  However, I can see how limiting our message to a command to refrain from sex with the threat of Hell as punishment can lead to poor relationships, poor understandings of sex within God's good order within marriage, and, in some, burnout, depression, and withdrawal from the Church.

I can also see how teaching these three ends of marriage is extremely counter-cultural.  Turn on your television or pop in a movie, and you will likely see something that proclaims that sex is a good thing, so we should have sex on a regular basis as long as we find someone else who will agree to have sex with us.  Today, in our culture, sex is not an activity by which married couples build their relationship; sex is an activity through which individuals obtain pleasure whether or not the individuals are in a relationship with one another.  Because our culture upholds pleasure as its own value, our culture dangles sex in front of us to catch our attention, to make us desire sex, and to train us to do certain "approved" things so that we can obtain sex.  Proclaiming that sex is much more than a vehicle for pleasure will put the Church at odds with our culture, which is where the Church is supposed to be in the first place.  Refraining from sex shows that we are not like the rest of our culture and that there are other options than the pursuit of pleasure through sex.

So, instead of simply telling our children, "Don't have sex until you are married," let's tell our children about what a marriage relationship truly is.  A proper marriage relationship will testify to the relationship between the Lord and the Church, raise children for the Church, and help the married couple grow in holiness.  Sex within such a relationship can fulfill these ends of marriage.  Refraining from sex when one in not a part of a marriage relationship also fulfills these ends of marriage.  After all, it would be a powerful message if the teens and young adults of the Church can turn to our culture and say, "We have found something more interesting than the pursuit of sex.  We are dedicated to our calling from the Lord and will testify to the Lord with our whole lives.  When we have sex, it will be within our faithful marriage relationships because the Lord has been faithful to us and to the Church."  Perhaps this is a more healthy message than the "Don't have sex before marriage or you will go to Hell" proclamation that many have heard in recent years.


  1. Curtis, way to start with the biggie. You hit the nail on the head talking about the three functions of sex in the context of marriage is counter-cultural. Precisely because it puts sex in its proper place, as a gift from God with a very specific purpose. Not as the idol it has become in our pleasure driven culture. That is why when I do pre-marital work with co-habitating couples (which is most of the people I marry) I challenge them to abstain until thier wedding night. I tell them to spend the time looking for new ways to create intimacy. I am amazed how well this exercise has been received.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. I've heard of pastors challenging co-habitating couples to abstain until the wedding night. However, your idea of adding the suggestion of finding new ways to create intimacy is a new (to me) part of the idea. I like it.