412. sin, sex, and marriage (part 2) — defining marriage

[PREFACE]

According to the title of this series, part two should be about sex, but let’s face it, as a topic, sex is far more interesting than marriage and I didn’t want to go there too quickly. Besides, sex is supposed to come after marriage isn’t it? 😉

[END PREFACE]

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Event

Let me start with a little ditty about Jack and Dianne.1 Maybe Diane caught Jack’s eye or maybe it was the other way around, but someone saw something fetching in the other and they start dating. And things go great — each finds the other attractive, they have fun when they’re together, conversations are engaging, they make each other laugh, and they resolve conflicts well. Before too long, they’re both deeply in love. Some period of time passes and eventually they decide they want to get married. One proposes, the other accepts, and they’re engaged. Their parents have some significant reservations and make them known, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision. Soon enough, they wed in a church in front of friends and family, and live happily ever after.

There are many aspects of this story that are unique to our time and I’ll highlight some of them later. For now, I want to point out that in this scenario, marriage can be understood as an event-based institution. Prior to the event known as their wedding day, Jack and Dianne were single. After the event, they’re married.

In contrast, let’s dial the clock back about three hundred years and revisit Jack and Dianne’s relationship.

Defining Marriage — Marriage as Process

Jack’s father owns a large bit of land. Some of it he uses for farming, but some of it is too hilly and rocky to raise crops so nothing but grass grows there. Diane’s father owns a large herd of goats and while he’s been getting by with letting them graze on public lands, he wants to expand and the only way to do that is to find more grassy acreage.

Jack’s father and Dianne’s father realize that each has something the other needs. They meet and agree that merging their families would be a mutually beneficial arrangement so they decide that Jack and Dianne will wed when they’re old enough (arrangements like this could be made when their kids were as young as six or seven — sometimes even younger). At this point, Jack and Dianne are betrothed. I’ll say more about betrothal later, but for now, the important thing to note is that their betrothal means that they have begun the process of being married.

Throughout their betrothal, Jack and Dianne get to know one another in carefully controlled/monitored settings. Unfortunately, they discover they don’t like each other and can’t ever imagine living with or loving the other. They bring this up to their parents and ask if they can be paired with someone else but to no avail. This is something that will greatly benefit both families and that’s all that really matters.

Years pass and the two reach the age where they can marry. Because Jack and Dianne’s parents aren’t wealthy enough to afford an elaborate communal ceremony to mark the event, Dianne moves into Jack’s family household and that’s that. They’re married and live miserably ever after.

256px-Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait
The Arnolfini Double Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Defining Marriage – Then and Now, an Overview 2

  • Then (mid 19th century and prior)
    • Marriage arranged by parents, children have little to no say in the matter
  • Now (mid 19th century and onward)
    • Partners find one another on their own, parents have little to no say in the matter
  • Then
    • Marriage partners selected on pragmatic factors, usually finance/property related criteria, least of all, love3
  • Now
    • Marriage partners selected on relational factors like compatibility, attraction, ability to communicate and resolve conflicts, and, most of all, love
  • Then
    • Marriage was seen as a process that began at betrothal and culminated when the two were wedded
  • Now
    • Marriages begin at an event – the day of the wedding
  • Then
    • Unless the families were wealthy or of nobility, the finalization of a marriage could be as simple as the wife moving into her husband’s household – no church or ceremony involved
  • Now
    • Many couples choose to declare their marriage through ceremony and celebration

In a way, the only thing more remarkable than the radical changes marriage has gone through is how fast those changes took place – a complete upending of marriage took place in less than two centuries.

However, there is an often overlooked, surprising resonance, between then and now.

Defining Marriage – Betrothal

In his book Marriage After Modernity, Adrian Thatcher makes this observation: “the informal entry into marriage via cohabitation [or a long-term, committed dating partnership]…4 is a partial return to premodern nuptial orthodoxy.”5 And by “premodern nuptial orthodoxy,” Thatcher is referring to betrothal which is

the recognized rite of transition from friends to lovers, conferring on the couple the right to sexual as well as social intimacy. Betrothal ’granted them freedom to explore any personal faults or incompatibilities that had remained hidden during the earlier, more inhibited phases of courtship and could be disastrous if carried into the indissoluble status of marriage.6

MarriageAfterModernityCover
Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times

In other words, there’s a similarity between the lost tradition of betrothal and the modern practice of dating, with this crucial difference: whereas most churches today teach that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them, there was a time when the church allowed betrothed couples to have sex prior to a formal wedding service because a betrothed couple was understood to have begun the marriage process.7

Stated succinctly, Thatcher is saying that allowing couples to engage in sex prior to a formal wedding ceremony is not a new phenomenon – there’s precedent for it in church history/tradition.8

Defining Marriage – Conclusion

Now what does all of that mean for the phrase under consideration in this series — that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?

Well the fact that there was a time when the church allowed betrothed (pre-married) couples to have sex should open up new avenues of conversation in the church. In particular, the parallels between betrothal then and long-term, committed dating partnerships today is striking and the question, “if betrothal and dating are so alike, why did the church allow sex in one context but not in the other?” On top of that, maybe a return to the understanding of marriage as process, rather than event, could be a new way to think and talk about dating, sex, and relationships.

As with the previous post, my hope is that the (re)introduction of the lost tradition of betrothal can prompt curiosity, spark dialogue, and propose some new ways to talk about what it is that God desires for us as sexual beings.

[POSTSCRIPT]

As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.

You can also email me at churchandsex@gmail.com (no really, that’s an email address I own and use. Thank you, Google!)

[END POSTSCRIPT]

[Bibliography]
For those interested in the history of marriage, I recommend the following books:
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz.
A History Of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom.
A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition by Elizabeth Abbott.
Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel


  1. Please forgive the heteronormative nature of this introduction. If there was a popular genderqueer song that got the same idea across, I would have used it.  
  2. The story of Jack and Dianne and the differences listed between marriage then and now are based on research drawn from a number of books. I’ll include a bibliography of sources below.  
  3. Stephanie Coontz writes, “Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.” Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 6.  
  4. His book looks specifically at the issue of Christians living together prior to marriage, but I see no reason why his work can’t also be applied to dating couples who happen to live separately.  
  5. John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 47, quoted in Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 29.  
  6. Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 112.  
  7. Thatcher notes that “about half of all brides in Britain and North America were pregnant at their weddings in the eighteenth century.” Ibid., 112.  
  8. Thatcher’s ideas are thoroughly researched and clearly reasoned and deserve far more attention than I’ve been able to give them here. And lest one think his project is one where he is seeking to simply justify sex prior to marriage, his book is riddled with cautions and caveats that show this simply isn’t the case. As for why the church abandoned betrothal, that is better addressed in another Thatcher book: Living Together and Christian Ethics.  
  9. On a loosely related note, in this post, I made the argument that despite what some in the conservative Christian may claim, it’s not LGBTQ folks who have redefined marriage. The modern redefinition of marriage was the work of heterosexuals.  
  10. Sexual incompatibility is not a deal breaker for all couples, but for some, it can be a deciding factor.  
Advertisements

403. an open, honest admission (part 3): sex and scripture

[PREFACE]

Sigh. You know, I really did intend to wrap this series with this post, but here’s the thing about my writing process. I may have a clear idea in my own head about what I want to say, but when it comes to putting what’s in my brain into words, sometimes it takes far more words than I thought it would. All that to say, it may take a few more posts to fully lay out my ideas regarding how the church talks about sex outside of marriage.

And yeah, I’m altering the name of the series. Explanation in the postscript.

[END PREFACE]

Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer

So here it is, my explanation as to why, as a Christian who goes to church regularly, takes the Bible seriously,1 and does his best to live a live pleasing to God,2 I don’t have a problem with having sex with someone outside of marriage (henceforth referred to as being a “sex-positive” Christian).

In my previous post, I made the point that the church has never clearly defined what they’re referring to when they talk about “sex.” So let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with engaging in the full range of sexual intimacy that I and another person consensually agree to, up to and including penis in vagina intercourse.3 At the same time, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about who I have sex with and when in the course of a relationship that takes place — it certainly does and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

As for how I justify this stance, let’s start by looking at scripture. The passage that comes closest to specifically prohibiting sex outside of marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-7:2. This bit begins with Paul talking about why it’s not cool for Christians to be having sex with prostitutes

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (NRSV)

Notice that word “fornication?”4 That’s a translation of the Greek word pornea,5 and fornication is typically understood to mean sex with someone you’re not married to.

[SIDEBAR]

Fornication — sex with someone you’re not married to — is generally thought to be distinct from adultery (moicheuo) — sex with someone else’s spouse.6 The Bible talks a lot about adultery, but next to nothing about fornication, and there’s a good reason for this. In the time of the Bible (and for most of history, really) women typically got married in their early teens (and the men whom they were married to7 might be similar in age or up to a decade older). And marriage was the cultural norm of the biblical world — everyone was expected to get/be married. In other words, there really weren’t very many unmarried people around who would have been able to have sex before they were married. Thus the ubiquity of adultery (rather than fornication) language in the Bible.8

[END SIDEBAR]

Photo by: Johan Karlborg
Photo by: Johan Karlborg
So from 6:13b-20, it’s clear that Paul is referring to having sex with a prostitute when he uses the word that gets translated “fornicate.” But when Christian pastors/teachers talk about sex before marriage, they usually look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (NRSV)

See that word pair, “sexual immorality?” In the Greek, it’s the exact same word that got translated as “fornication” at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 (pornea). So it’s possible that Paul is still referring to sex with prostitutes in 7:2, and not sex before marriage. However, things aren’t that clear cut. Paul begins chapter 7 with the phrase, “Now considering the matters about which you wrote…” suggesting that Paul is making a break from his previous train of thought and is now talking about something new. So it might be the case that Paul is indeed talking about prohibiting sex before (or outside of) marriage.

But.

But we can’t be sure. And even if someone can make a strong case for the idea that Paul is no longer talking about sex with prostitutes here, it’s not at all clear what specifically Paul is referring to. Paul is obviously addressing something the church in Corinth wrote him about in a previous letter regarding sex, but we don’t know what that letter said — what specific question Paul was answering. That bit of information is lost to history so (barring the miraculous discovery of that lost letter) we can never know for sure.

One of the core principles regarding Christian teaching is the idea that you don’t base Christian doctrine on ambiguous scriptural passages. And I think it’s evident that this passage in 1 Corinthians is clearly ambiguous. There very well may have been a bunch of people in the Corinthian church having sex before marriage, and that might be what Paul was addressing here, but the inescapable reality is that we don’t/can’t know for sure. And if that’s the case, then the church shouldn’t be preaching the no sex before/outside marriage as definitively as it does. Rather, they should be honest about and and acknowledge this ambiguity.9

Photo by: Heather Kaiser
Photo by: Mike Bitzenhofer
The bottom line is, the Bible has nothing specific or definitive to say about sex before marriage, at least not as we think of it today (and this bit of nuance desperately needs to be unpacked, but that will have to wait for the next post). The Bible does specifically prohibit sex with prostitutes and sex with someone else’s wife/husband, but has nothing specific to say about sex outside of marriage as it’s practiced today.

[POSTSCRIPT]

In this post, I talked about scriptural translation/interpretation. In my next post, I’ll talk about the radical (understatement) cultural/historical shifts that have taken place in the past two or three centuries regarding how we think about relationships and marriage today compared to just about any other time in recorded (Western) history.

As for why I’m changing the name of the series from “a qualified coming out” to “an open, honest admission,” it’s because equating my disclosure as a sex-positive Christian to that of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer is frankly offensive. So I’m not going to do it and I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my irresponsible co-opting of the phrase.

[FOOTNOTES]

  1. MDiv from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. ↩︎
  2. Instead of listing all of these qualifiers, I wish I could simply refer to myself as a Christian, but I’ve had (more than) enough interaction with people who disagree with stances I take to know the first thing they go after is how seriously I take my faith. ↩︎
  3. As a cis-gender, heterosexual male. ↩︎
  4. Also translated “sexual immorality” (NIV and others). ↩︎
  5. And it’s not at all clear that the most accurate translation of the word pornea is fornication. See Malina, Bruce J. “Does porneia mean fornication.” Novum Testamentum 14, no. 1 (January 1972): 10-17. ↩︎
  6. Well, to be more accurate, biblical adultery is commonly understood as sex with someone who’s not you’re wife. Let’s not forget that the cultural context of the Bible is unwaveringly patriarchal — wives were more property than autonomous person. ↩︎
  7. And the phrasing here is very intentional. Marriage was something that was done to women, far more so than something that they entered into by choice. And let’s not forget that for most of history, marriages were arranged by parents or the community, not by the persons getting married. ↩︎
  8. Of course there are other reasons — patriarchy and the importance of paternity — but there’s not enough room to lay all of that out in the scope of this post. ↩︎
  9. As a preview, my proposal is that instead of teaching dogma, the church should be equipping people to discern what God is saying to them through scripture. More on this in a future post. ↩︎