There’s an ongoing joke among the Evangelical circles I’ve associated with regarding Bible college that says, “Ring by spring or your money back!” Though the ‘money back’ part isn’t exactly true, there an underlying, not-so-subtle expectation among Christian young adults that they might happen to meet their significant other while attending Bible college. The expectations vary among individuals, and it would be disingenuous of me to say that every Christian goes to Bible college specifically to get married. Many Christians attend specifically out of a heartfelt desire to grow closer to God — which is to be encouraged. But it would also be dishonest to say that the albeit flippant, yet frequent promotion of ‘Bridal college‘ does not breed these expectations.
As an alumni of a Bible school discipleship program, I will say there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking time out of your life to study Scripture and partake in ministry in an academic setting. Even though we attended separate institutions, it has been well over a decade since my wife and I both finished our programs — and a lot has happened not only with us and our own relationship, but with our former classmates who have went on to marry their Bible school sweethearts. Many of them ended up in happy and healthy relationships that continue to stand the test of time. Though it pains me to say I’ve been seeing an increasing number of my Christian friends’ relationships end in separation or divorce over the years.
One of the most frequently promoted ideas I’ve noticed among Christians is the emphasis on maintaining purity before marriage. Though this wasn’t the experience my wife and I had, some of my own Evangelical friends had mentioned their premarital counselling consisted largely of being grilled by their pastors and elders about whether they already had sexual intercourse — as though virginity was some kind of prerequisite for being worthy of marriage. Because there is an expectation for Christian couples to suppress their sexual desires until marriage, it isn’t unrealistic to say that many Christians get married just so they can have sex. This is highly problematic, and undermines the very purpose of what the Christian view of marriage and sexuality ought to be.
When safe and open conversations about human sexuality are treated as a taboo subject, any relationship can become a breeding ground for dishonesty due to shame. Even conversations as simple as talking about consent, likes or dislikes are heavily weighed against disappointing your partner at the expense of personal dignity. For what often is a discussion of how women want to feel loved and men want to feel respected, there are times when these desires are weaponized for coercion where there is discomfort or a lack of consent.
For the amount of times I’ve talked with my non-religious friends about the culture of expectations with Christian relationships, many of them often raise an eyebrow. Because their views on sexuality drastically differ from those who are religious, many of them do not have a problem with having casual sex or moving in together before marriage. Though some Christians would call this partaking in sin, I would argue that the success of non-religious relationships has much to do with how honest they’re willing to be with their partners and with their peers. And it pains me to reflect on the fact that living in a culture that shames people for their feelings is a contributor to why many Christian relationships fail.
This is where I’ve come to appreciate the Catholic perspective on sexuality and marriage. Though Church teaching forbids the use of contraception, it has much more to do with celebrating sex as a pleasurable means of promoting and giving life rather than a means of suppressing sexuality. Though I would caution that American Catholic culture has its own unique problems of fundamentalism since there are fringe groups of Catholicism that restrict sexuality to procreation only and go as far as condemning NFP as a form of contraception. This only shows that purity culture isn’t limited to the realm of Evangelical Protestantism.
In the rural Catholic community I grew up in, it was more common to see couples brush off the Church and move in together, since it’s easier to be married through the state than to submit to Church teaching. Whereas in the Evangelical circles I’ve spent time in, relationships that quickly escalate into serious sexual relationships tend to be tightly secretive to avoid scandal — that is, until the secret becomes manifested through visible changes on the woman’s body. Regardless of denomination, people are far more likely to gossip about someone with an unplanned pregnancy than to step up and help. A 2015 survey suggests that 4 out of 10 women who have had an abortion were of religious background, which implies an underlying mistrust among women in their faith communities and an apparent lack of grace among church members.
With this in mind, my heart aches for my Christian friends and peers who have endured the heartache of separation and divorce. I don’t imagine anyone enters marriage with the intention of leaving, but I can only imagine how someone in the middle of a crumbling relationship must feel while thinking, “How did it ever get to this point?” And in addition to the stresses of dealing with a former partner, I imagine the feeling of abandonment one would have when their faith communities look upon them with contemptuous disapproval rather than empathetic support is enough to repel anyone from the Christian faith — possibly forever.
While joking about something as simple as going to ‘Bridal (Bible) college’ seems harmless, the underlying purity culture responsible for this misnomer has created false expectations of relationships and marriage among Christian youth; and the ones who suffer the most from it are those whose lives have ended before they’ve begun.