I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
– I Corinthians 7:8-9, KJV
Love may wait to have sex…
…but waiting does not guarantee your marriage will not end in adultery and divorce.
I learned this lesson the hard way in my first marriage. We waited, which is good, yet my marriage still ended in my former spouse’s adultery and abandonment of her vows via divorce. Following evangelical, Christian sexual ethics did not prevent the horrific ending of my first marriage.
Those evangelical, Christian sexual ethics need revision, in my opinion.
Growing up in an evangelical Christian youth group, I was very aware of the prohibition regarding premarital sex. Prior and during my first marriage, I attended plenty of counseling and marriage enrichment sessions where we were taught the principles of Ephesians 5 where the husband is held responsible for leading as Christ and the woman is responsible for submitting to that leadership.
These teachings were not enough.
Plus, I believe they prepared the way for adultery “justification” and the demise of my first marriage.
First, they are rule-based teachings on sexual ethics, not relationship-based. The Bible is clear that the Law kills (see 2 Cor. 3:6). Even good laws–like not having sex before getting married–are still laws. They are external restraints for the heart that may grow to resent the coercive nature of such external rules.
Second, these rules are do little to help a married man or woman deal with sexual temptation outside their marriage. Rules are poor substitutes for character. They may restrain someone from making poor moral decisions. However, they do not necessarily train that same person to use his or her agency wisely as the imposition of the rule denies the person that agency.
A person must discover his or her values. Further, a true Christian works to align his or her values with those taught in Scripture. Devotion to fidelity does not begin in the marriage. It starts with a single person learning that they can never out run violating their own deeply held values. And they need to learn to guard their heart (see Proverbs 4:23).
Third, the sexual ethic taught to evangelical couples out of Ephesians 5 undermines personal responsibility and agency. I am concerned by how teachings on female submission and male marital leadership can easily erode the idea that God holds us responsible for our own sins and not another–even a spouse’s (e.g. Ezekiel 18:20, Mark 7:20-23, and 2 Corinthians 5:10). Personally, I think these teachings have done the greatest damage theologically in convincing Christ’s Bride that “The Shared Responsibility Lie” is true.
This erosion does a disservice to both genders.
It presents ready-made “excuses” for either gender to use in “justifying” infidelity.
For example, an adulteress may say their husband failed to love her and lead her as Christ did the church. That was why she cheated on him. She was just looking for someone to notice her and care for her as was her due.
On the other hand, the adulterer may say that his wife was disrespectful and did not submit to his desires for as much sex as he wanted. That is what “drove” him into the arms of another woman. If only she had initiated more sexual encounters and was more “submissive,” this would have never happened.
The sad things is that Christian leaders buy these excuses in part every single day! I see it as a legacy of poor practical theology–a theology that is not watchful in guarding against the erosion of personal agency and responsibility in marriage.
This poor practical theology is further compounded when pastors prohibit divorce for faithful spouses who have decided they will not abide the violation of their own core personal value–i.e. marital fidelity. It is just another version of legalism imposed from the outside. And it is a further undermining of personal agency and values.
We are called to something higher and better. As followers of Christ, we are called to a living relationship. This is a relationship where our hearts and values align with our Lord and Lover.
One of those values is fidelity in sexuality as defined by God–whether married or not. We work to guard our hearts and support this value not looking to outside circumstance, rules, or people to ensure we are faithful to our Savior and our own shared value.