The Dangers of Christian “Marriage Worship”

The Dangers of Christian “Marriage Worship” May 22, 2013

I’ve written before about the seemingly contrasting messages we offer to young people in church about sex and sexuality:

Sex is dirty; save it for someone you marry someday.

Umm, what? Granted, we walk a narrow rhetorical tightrope when discussing sex with our kids. If we tell them it’s actually pretty awesome, and then tell them they can’t do it, that’s a setup for failure. On the other hand, if we focus on the negatives, we risk scarring and shaming them into a life of emotional conflict and struggle when it comes to sexual intimacy.

What we end up with, often times, is a vacuous silence when it comes to the real, difficult issues of sexual identity, impulse and expression. Add to that the Christian emphasis on marriage, and the result in many cases is scads of unhealthy, sexually awkward young people, married far too early with no idea why.

I was interviewed recently by Chelsea Batten for an article on virginity in Converge Magazine (yes, they wanted my opinion on virginity, what of it?), and she asked me about my take on the Church’s approach to the matter. This, excerpted from her full article, linked above:

“I think we sometimes conflate institutional systems and structures, and covenant with God, to the point that we believe that signing a marriage license is God’s intention.” This from Christian Piatt, an author and blogger with Patheos andThe Good Man Project.

“You can be married and use someone,” he points out. “You can devalue and denigrate someone without ever touching them. You can abuse someone sexually without ever having sex with them.”

He reviles the setting of arbitrary sexual boundaries as a means of emotional and spiritual protection in sexual relationships. “Hand jobs okay, intercourse not” is, he says, a Pharisaical reduction of the law to its letter. It preserves personal gratification, rather than reverence for the other person and their body, as the goal of a sexual relationship.

Marriage, says Mr. Piatt, is no magic pill for a righteous sexual relationship. The end of the matter, he says, is being able to say to your partner “‘I’m doing this out of love and respect and reverence for you.’”

Before going any further, let’s take a step back, say, a couple of millennia. The issue of sex before marriage simply wasn’t as big of a deal, namely because young people were married off soon after they were able to make babies. There was little time wasted in active sexual maturity out of wedlock, primarily because there were babies to make” LOTS of them. Many of the newborns would not be carried to full term, others would die at birth, and lots more would die in their first year or two of life. Plus, an agrarian culture such as this depended on family to maintain one’s land and to create a sustainable food source for the whole clan. So children were a kind of capital investment, as it were.

This isn’t to say that the notion of romantic love – and as sex being used to express such love – was nonexistent. One doesn’t have to look any further than Song of Solomon in scripture for evidence of so much. But whereas sex in today’s western culture has taken on so very much with regard to power, identity, personal worth and more, it was mostly about baby-making back in the good old days.

Now, the average age for marriage (compared with twelve to fourteen back in the day) has stretched into the mid- to late-twenties, with many waiting until their thirties to tie the knot. And though it’s tantamount to heresy to say so, we Christians are stuck in large part in the ancient understanding of what it means to be married. Keep in mind, however, that back in those times, it was also thought that the mane held the entire human embryo in his semen, and that women merely carried the seed planted in them (patriarchy alert!), and that a man was bound to marry his sister-in law if his brother died. There were even rules about sex with slaves, so let’s not go too deeply with our infatuation with “Biblical marriage,” shall we?

All of this is a rather roundabout way to suggest that our inability to engage a real, contemporary discussion about sex, sexuality and marriage reduces the terribly complex landscape of human intimacy to the same old silver-bullet panacea that marriage fixes everything. Wait until you’re married, and then you’ll magically know how to treat someone’s body with love and respect, and how to express yourself in a way that honors the covenant binding two people together (in theory) for the rest of their lives.

And where, pray tell, does this flash of knowledge come from? God? If so, why is the divorce rate 42% among Christians? And what about this statement from the head of one of the leading religious research bodies in the world today:

“While it may be alarming to discover that born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time,” said George Barna, president of Barna Research Group.

It’s not that I’m against marriage. I’ve been married for nearly thirteen years now. But I’m also a child of divorce (with one Christian parent), as is Amy (with a minister as a father). Further, our haste to pressure young people into marriage without endowing them with the necessary tools to understand their own bodies and implications of sexual intimacy creates fertile soil for misappropriation of sex under the supposed cloak of a religiously-blessed marriage.

We preach that marriage fixes everything, from sexual infidelity to general moral decline in our culture. But it hasn’t, and the way we teach about it, it won’t. And it’s not marriage’s fault. I think it has more to do with what we understand marriage to be than anything else.

When we talk about being a Christian as principally being about the moment at which you accept Jesus as your savior (if you believe that is necessary), we do a disservice to every day that follows, in which the path toward Christ gets nothing but harder. Likewise, when we focus our attention about marriage on the act of getting married, as if some magical mojo rained down from the sky to help us honor that covenant forever after, we’re being just as naive an foolish. We’re setting up our young people for failure, primarily because focusing on getting them married (so we don’t have to talk about sex) is a hell of a lot easier than helping them stay that way.

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  • friendly reader

    All I’d correct here is the 12-14 bit. Yes, people that young were
    “married,” but those marriages were more frequently unconsummated
    contracts, since young people didn’t hit puberty until they were in their late teens (17 used to be the average age of menarche versus 12 now). By the late Middle Ages, where we have good records in Europe, the vast majority (I’m talking more than 90%) of marriages had couples over 19. Yes, we’re marrying later than we did in the past, but it’s not as extreme as that.

    The interesting difference to me is that, biologically, we’re hitting puberty much, much earlier while at the same time socially we’re putting marriage off later. That’s a longer period for young people to be interested in sex.

    • friendly reader

      (Forgive me if you were already aware of all of this. >_<)

      • julia brown

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    • Christian Piatt

      A fair contextualization. I think of Mar,y Mother of Jesus, and the estimations of her age being around thirteen. So I’m assuming she was menstruating by then. But then again, with God all things are possible 🙂

  • Veronica

    This is interesting Christian, and makes me think and wonder how to deal with SEX conversations as my oldest grows into puberty in the next few years…. I would love to read more of your thoughts on the practical way to deal with this, if one exists!!

  • RJAxtell

    When the Biblical marriage laws were written, women were property. Prohibitions against pre-marital sex were extensions of the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” Prior to marriage, girls and young women belonged to their fathers. Marriage transactions were negotiated by the men, and the bride became the property of her husband. Any man who had sex with a woman he had not paid for was stealing. In that context, it makes sense that pre-marital sex would be forbidden.

    Now that our understanding of womanhood has changed and we are free moral agents, able to choose whom we date and marry, the Biblical laws no longer apply. We are in a completely different situation now. Just as we no longer accept slavery as morally acceptable (even though it is Biblical), we must also change our views about marriage and sex.

    • Quid

      Would you say the sixth commandment no longer applies either? What about Jesus’ teachings on divorce? You need to distinguish between universal laws and particular laws in the Bible. Some laws in the Bible, like the regulations for cleanliness in Leviticus are not universal–they can be changed, because they are not fundamental, moral laws written into creation. The ten commandments, on the other hand, and all of Jesus’ teachings, are universal laws which cannot be changed regardless of circumstance or culture. It is equally immoral to kill an innocent person today, as it was for the ancient Israelites when God gave Moses that commandment.

      To say that all Biblical laws do not apply in the modern world, or that all are subject to change in another culture is moral relativism and directly contradicts Jesus’ teachings.

      • RJAxtell

        So how do you decide which laws are universal and which ones aren’t? There is subjectivity involved in all Biblical interpretation. Even your example of the immorality of killing innocent people doesn’t hold up, as the Israelites killed plenty of innocent people as they conquered the Promised Land.

        It is time for all Christians to accept that our understanding of Scripture changes as we learn more about science, psychology, and human rights. We did it for slavery, we can do it for sexual morality, too.

        • Hanan

          >It is time for all Christians to accept that our understanding of Scripture changes as we learn more about science, psychology, and human rights. We did it for slavery, we can do it for sexual morality, too.

          But this is has nothing to do with science, psychology or human rights. I’m not denying anyone of their human rights in teaching my children to wait till marriage for sex. In the end it is a values question. It isn’t going to be something you can measure in a laboratory.

  • Quid

    This reminds me of what Eric Fromm said in the art of loving. There’s an implication in our culture that romantic love is passive, that “falling in love” is something that happens to you, and doesn’t require any choice to love in return. Fromm says that since true love is self-giving, two lovers must actively love each other and not just assume their love will grow and develop without any effort from them. Perhaps this is why divorce rates are so high, or at least one of the reasons. Married couples who no longer feel as passionate as they did when they fell in love believe they cannot be together without ever making an effort to actively love one another.

  • Joseph Arechavala

    120 or so years ago, people used to marry by 13 or 14, have a bunch of children and hope a few made it to adulthood, and die by their 40s. THAT’S the problem. Because our society’s changed so much but biology hasn’t. Neither has Christianity.

  • Marco Funk

    “our haste to pressure young people into marriage without endowing them
    with the necessary tools to understand their own bodies and implications
    of sexual intimacy creates fertile soil for misappropriation of sex
    under the supposed cloak of a religiously-blessed marriage”

    it’s our stupid culture, in my opinion, that keeps our youth in a perpetual state of adolescence. If a person’s body is telling them that they’re on the way to adulthood when their in their early teens, why do we keep treating them like children until they’re in their twenties? Problem isn’t that Christians are getting married too young; the problem is that we’ve told our children that it’s crucial to become middle-class consumers (with the education and material wealth to sustain that life) before they engage Christianly in their gendered-sexual identity.

    • Because mental and physical maturity develop at different times. Being able to have sex isn’t the same as being ready for it.

  • qwerty

    I wondered what you meant by this sentence: When we talk about being a Christian as principally being about the moment at which you accept Jesus as your savior (if you believe that is necessary).

    Just how broad is your definition of Christianity if Jesus as your savior is not the defining tenet, and that leads to the next question, can that be considered Christianity at all?

    Also in your 42% Christian divorce rate, a footnote may be useful that the rate of weekly church attendees is much lower.

    There is a recent trend to “modernize” Christianity and use the sensationalist aspect of this as a launchpad to attract attention in the secular realm. Unfortunately, that approach often characterizes the Bible as a historic relic of little relevancy today. Christianity without the Bible is not Christianity at all. I see your post as espousing something akin to this; I suppose you are merely living up to your name, “Holy Heretic.”

  • Lilly

    I think one of the problems is that, whether intentionally or unintentionally Christians seem to have made marriage all about the sex, and so of course horny teenagers are going to want to get married as soon as possible. This is a recipe for disaster.

    Christians obsession with virginity is harmful to young women who are taught at a young age that their entire self worth is connected to what’s between their legs, and not in their hearts or minds

    female sexuality is much more complicated than male sexuality. Most young women don’t even know what a clitoris is, and they also think that bleeding after their first time is normal.

    Christianity’s view of sexuality is archaic and really fucked up.