To Change the World: Essay 3, Reflections, Part 4 (Love, Sex & Marriage)

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

Near the end of Essay 2, Hunter writes,

What is wrong with [the neo-Anabaptist’s] critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and use of the time in the final chapters of life — on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.

Now, in light of his “faithful presence” theology, what does this mean?

In the preceding post, we considered retirement. I don’t know whether Hunter agrees with me, but I think we’re likely close. Marriage is a tougher challenge, so I thought I’d turn to a great theologian: Stanley Hauerwas.

Now, Hauerwas is a leading thinker in the neo-Anabaptist movement, and there is much they teach that is exactly right — and they often display the ability to see the world through lenses the rest of us didn’t even know exist.

Unfortunately, one of the worst things that Christians have done is to underwrite romantic presuppositions about marriage. Even Christians now think that we ought to marry people simply because they are “in love.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! What could being in love possibly mean? The romantic view underwrites the presumption that, because people are in love, it is therefore legitimate for them to have sexual intercourse, whether they are married or not. Contrary to this is the church’s view of marriage. To the church, marriage is the public declaration that two people have pledged to live together faithfully for a lifetime.

One of the good things about the church’s understanding of marriage is that it helps us to get a handle on making men take responsibility for their progeny. It is a great challenge for any society to get its men to take up this responsibility. As far as today’s church is concerned, we must start condemning male promiscuity. The church will not have a valid voice on abortion until she attacks male promiscuity with the ferocity it deserves. And we have got to get over being afraid of appearing prudish. Male promiscuity is nothing but the exercise of reckless power. It is injustice. And by God we have to go after it. There is no compromise on this. Men must pay their dues. There is absolutely no backing off from that.

Christians must challenge the romanticization of sex in our society. It ends up with high school kids having sexual intercourse because they think they love one another. Often we must say that that is rape. Let us be clear about it. No fourteen-year-old, unattractive women–who is not part of the social clique of a high school, who is suddenly dated by some male, who falls all over herself with the need for approval, and who ends up in bed with him–can be said to have had anything other than rape happen to her. Let the church speak honestly about these matters and quit pussyfooting around. Until we speak clearly on male promiscuity, we will simply continue to make the problems of teen-age pregnancy and abortion female problems. Males have to be put in their place. There is no way we as a church can have an authentic voice without this clear witness.

Church-ianity, eaten up with secularism, needs to refute some truly wrong and wicked cultural notions —

1. It’s not true that God has chosen a “soul mate” for every person. First of all, whoever you marry will be flawed, broken, and deeply imperfect — and yet may well be a great companion and spouse. But when we have this ridiculous, unrealistic expectation that everyone gets the perfect soul mate, our expectations can ruin our marriages. We can’t help but be disappointed when our spouse isn’t Prince Charming, and if we believe God created just the right person for us, when we find our spouse is not perfect at all, we’ll go looking for the perfect mate that God meant for us to have.

For thousands of years, most marriages were arranged and had nothing to do with romantic love — and most worked. You don’t have to live in a fairytale marriage to be happy and fulfilled.

But you do have to be committed to the marriage — and it really helps if your spouse is equally committed. It’s the lack of commitment that ruins many a marriage — even marriages between soul mates.

2. Being “in love” does not a marriage make. As Hauerwas points out, the Christian view of marriage is a “public declaration that two people have pledged to live together faithfully for a lifetime.” The declaration in only meaningful, of course, if there’s a genuine commitment. And it’s only in the context of this commitment that sex is appropriate and right. Sex is all about commitment.

Now, many a young person thinks “commitment” in marriage only means sexual faithfulness — as they think of male-female relationships in terms of sex, not in terms of an adult relationship. Therefore, they expect to continue to be selfish individuals in the marriages and to have their needs and dreams fulfilled by their soul mate.

Years ago, my wife and I helped teach a newlyweds Bible class, and we were shocked that many of the wives — they all worked — kept a separate bank account for “me.” The husband was expected to pay for the house, the utilities, the furniture, and his own clothes and food while the wife got to keep her money to spend on herself.

The older couples who were leading the class assured them that, unless a spouse is irresponsible, the separate bank accounts have to go. Unity is unity. There were some very shocked and unhappy wives in the class.

Like many churches, we require the couples our preachers will marry to go through pre-marital counseling, and learning to share and to submit is part of it. And we’ve had some engagements broken when our ministers told the couple they weren’t ready to marry. In today’s world, selfishness is an entirely normal, ordinary way to think — even in church.

Christian marriages fail for many reasons, but I think the core is almost always selfishness — the one sin that Christians should most clearly see as sin. But that’s not the current American church culture. After all, we often recruit members by appealing to their selfishness. That’s like recruiting by appealing to their greed (oh … that’s being done, too). Let me try again: That’s like recruiting by appealing to their desire to commit adultery. It really is.

3. We don’t talk much about promiscuity in church — and we certainly never talk in terms of “rape,” that is, of men using power to compel women to submit. Indeed, the power analyses in Hauerwas and in Hunter are foreign to Church of Christ and most evangelical thinking. We are good, free Americans and we don’t abuse power — except, of course, we do.

In the teen programs, sex of often discussed in terms of “how far can we go?” but rarely is it discussed in terms of “to what degree can I use power to take advantage of this person?” or even “When does showing affection to someone I don’t love become a lie?”

One reason we rarely preach on the subject is the fact the preachers often grew up in an age when such things were understood and didn’t need saying. But that age has long ago passed, and we really should have regular preaching — from the pulpit — on male-female relationships.

The other reason is the fear the preacher often has of discussing sex from the pulpit — but that’s very 20th Century thinking. The members are used to talking about sex — and they urgently need to hear what God has to say on the subject.

Faithful presence

Now, to put this in “faithful presence” terms, let’s think of marriage and sex in terms of being Jesus to the other person. As we’ve covered, four important characteristics of Jesus are —

First, his power was derived from his complete intimacy with and submission to his Father. …

[Second is] his rejection of status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them. …

[Third,] he endured [those degradations] willingly because of his love for fallen humanity and for his creation more broadly. ..

[Fourth] the social power exercised by Christ was the noncoercive way in which he dealt with those outside the community of faith.

This means that husbands and wives, who of all people, must be Jesus to each other —

* Must be completely intimate, not just sexually but in every way. They must be honest, open, and willing to share. No secrets. You see, the church’s relationship with Jesus is like Jesus’ relationship with the Father — and the church’s relationship with Jesus is like a marriage. Jesus models the relationship we should have not only with God but with our spouses. It’s all about unity.

* They must surrender their pride. Your spouse isn’t there to build up your ego. You aren’t entitled to be served. Rather, both spouses are called to submission.

* To say that “love is unconditional” is too cliche to carry much punch. The thought is that you love your spouse with full awareness of his or her flaws — and even despite those flaws — and even because of those flaws. You can’t love a person and not love their flaws — even if you know the flaws are bad for that person and need to be worked on. You love them for who they are, not for who they can be turned into. This is how God loves.

That doesn’t mean that spouses never help spouses overcome their flaws. God helps us, and so we help each other. But God’s help isn’t given so he can love us. He loves us; therefore, he helps us grow and change.

* Power is never used coercively in marriage. Therefore, money, sex, and physical strength are never used as reward or punishment. Rather, they are given and shared to build the relationship.

“Faithful presence” means, of course, presence, not only physical presence but emotional presence. When the spouses are together, they are present for each other — even when the kids are around and there are a 1,000 distractions begging for their attention.

“Faithful” means faithful to God, honoring God’s mission in the world to redeem the world. This means the spouses are deeply concerned about their walk together in God’s kingdom — and serve God in ways that don’t damage their marriage. And, of course, they see their children not as pets to entertain themselves or best friends but as gifts from God but to be prepared to one day serve in God’s kingdom in a special, powerful way — a way that God will one day show them.

Finally, faithful presence means that I select my dates and, one day, my spouse in light of my place in God’s kingdom. I look for a woman who will make me a better servant of God. I look for a woman who will be on mission with me — who wants to honor God as much as I do. And my marriage will be a much better, much more lasting marriage if it’s built on a shared commitment to God’s desires, rather than some fairytale notion that this person is going to make my world perfect. That’s not how it works.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to To Change the World: Essay 3, Reflections, Part 4 (Love, Sex & Marriage)

  1. Rich W says:

    Thanks for the great post on my 30th wedding anniversary!

  2. abasnar says:

    Until we speak clearly on male promiscuity, we will simply continue to make the problems of teen-age pregnancy and abortion female problems. Males have to be put in their place.

    Strong and courageuos words. But there is another side to the issue:

    Teach the young women to dress modestly again so they don't (purposefully ?) create sexual lust in those who look at them. Actually, I don't know the Neo-Anabaptist view or practice on it; and I would not recommend the Old-Order dress codes. Bot there must be a way to dress in a Godly, chaste and modest way even today. Women have to be put in their place as well.

    Yet, I have never heard a sermon on this in a regular service that urged the sisters to reconsider the way they dress or even gave examples of what is appropriate and what isn't.

    Alexander

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Abasnar,

    I agree — except we have had such sermons in my church. They aren't very popular with the mothers. I think we'd do better to start with developing a Christian worldview — that is, to understand that we aren't supposed to be like everyone else and that sacrifice and loss of social standing are part of the package. Get hearts right and the sermon on clothing might not even be necessary.

  4. abasnar says:

    They aren’t very popular …

    We had a very "interesting" experience when we taught about the headcovering: What a cold and bitter wind blew into our faces! What an attitude! And we realized, we need to get our hearts right first; because – as I have observed in the last six months since we had this teaching – chapter 11 in 1Cor did not disappear from our Bibles just because we don't like it. So we will have to face this text again sooner or later, and if our attitude towards this text does not change, I fear we might miss something very important … Maybe similar to what you experienced when you spoke about dress.

    So I think: Get the hearts right, but also preach, and the sermons on clothing will be put into practice and become living sermons.

    But in general, I think this book – at least in your reviews – comes close to a sound understanding of the world. I am glad you present it to us. Thank you for all your efforts!

    Alexander

  5. I used the think the separate bank account practice odd. I guess I thought that way as my parents always had one account (and being an old-time preacher, not much money in the account).

    Then I learned that my wife's grandparents had separate accounts. They were married 50+ years until her grandfather died. They both worked in the family-owned business. So maybe it isn't the practice (separate or combined accounts) but the attitude (selfish or united) that matters.

  6. mark says:

    "There were some very shocked and unhappy wives in the class"

    Changing our cultural views is a hard sell. I agree with what's being said as a ideology but as a practice I believe we would have a large revolt.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Mark,

    If we don't teach a better theology of marriage, we'll continue to have the same divorce rate as the world — the messed up children that result from it. And I think people are desperate to hear the truth. It's just that they need to hear it from people who've lived it and who can testify to how well it works.

  8. mark says:

    Jay your right but how much theology do we need change?

    Didn't God say do not have more kids that you could afford?
    Didn't God say living in an apartment all your life is a waste of money?
    Didn't God say go to college?
    Didn't God say marry a church of Christ person?
    Didn't God say white collar is better than blue collar?
    Didn't God say invest?
    Didn't God say food stamps and government subsidies are embarrassing?

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