I Don’t Believe in “Waiting Till Marriage”: A Brief Reflection on Sexuality and Spirituality

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Words matter. Sometimes in our attempts to address one concern we end up communicating the wrong message. So what does “wait till marriage” mean? The intention is noble: sexual intercourse has its proper place in marriage and should be reserved for this relationship. And yet the message has unintended consequence. Among other things, it communicates that in marriage sexual intercourse is an entitlement.

I started to reflect on this again as I was reading Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Christine a. Colon & Bonnie E. Field). The message “wait till marriage” makes marriage the day when all will be well and good. It makes marriage the goal to strive for. Not getting married or not having children makes a person a failure. The unintended message is not about sex but the role of marriage in our evangelical community. The unmarried are not honoured. They are a problem to be solved with marriage. It got me thinking.

As I think back on my life and reflect on the stories of many others, learning to live a mature sexual life had some of its greatest challenges in marriage, not before marriage. The very fact that in marriage that there are two people with differing desires at any moment, that circumstances are not always conducive to sexual activity, that excitement of sexual activity wears off with time, and that married sex does not have the same biology of risk challenges the sex within marriage. There is a reason why pornography is so prevalent and the language of the “seven year itch” or “mid-life crisis” is part of the story of our culture. Married sex is a problem too.

The language “to wait until marriage” addresses none of it. Healthy sexuality (not sex) starts before marriage and exists outside of marriage. I believe we need to address at these following concerns:

1. Biology: risk and its related excitement have a biology that rewards. This is not limited to sex, but to numerous activities. The biology that rewards easily leads to addiction. When related to sexual activity, it also diminishes our ability to form deep and lasting bonds. See Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children (Joe S. McIlhaney, jr)

2. Healthy relationships insist on good boundaries. It is not just the yes that is important but the no. Dealing with no is an essential part of a healthy sexuality and a mature spirituality.

3. Healthy spirituality and relationships require that we “have the attitude of Christ.” (Phil 2) This is a way of being with others and honouring others. This is required for mature relationships – in marriage, in friendships and in community.

4. Our mission is not to satisfy our desires but to serve Christ. As William B. Irvine (On Desire) would say the worst way to find happiness is to satisfy every desire of our heart. The best way is to want what we already have. Putting our desires in their proper place is part of spiritual maturity.

What we communicate by simply saying “wait to marriage” for sexual intercourse fails to develop the understanding of sexual maturity required and the spiritual maturity for which we hope – married or single. Do not commit adultery simply tells us there is a limit. We simply say "There is good and there is sin". That is the just beginning point.

On our spiritual journey, we do soul work. In our sexuality there are dynamics worth exploring. Our sexuality allows us to explore our spirituality. Our spirituality gives us resources to put our sexuality in the proper place. Desire, having the attitude of Christ, boundaries, and biology are all deeply connected to our spirituality. This is what we need to speak about with our members. Saying “Waiting for Marriage” simply does not give the spiritual foundational for a mature Christian life in dealing with our sexuality.

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Excellent article, Neil. All too often, we've avoided the deep difficulties involved with this topic with simple fixes (silver rings, silence, etc.). As with most things, it is the hard way, not the easy one that leads us closer to the path of Christ. I loved the line "our mission is not to satisfy our desires but to serve Christ." Its sad how rarely we bring that concept to the forefront and let it pose the tough questions to ourselves.

Exactly right, Mark. Simple fixes just are not available for sanctification.

As elders, pastors, teachers, and other leaders in the church we have to resist the temptation to offer therapeutic easy solutions to the temptations of sexuality -- whether rings or marriage or whatever. These don't solve the struggle with sin. And encouraging people to put their trust in them as agents of sanctification is a mistake.

"Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in him."

I have become more and more convinced that one of the biggest causes of the increasing sexual sin within the church is our own failure to teach a proper, scripturally based sexuality. When I counsel couples before marriage, I always ask them what they have learned about sex -- and almost all of them say that their parents handed them a book, and that the church simply told them, "No."

Sex is a radical way that God has designed for us to experience the joy of Eden, even in a post-fall world (coming together to be "naked, and unashamed"); it's a way of enjoying the closeness of a covenental relationship. Most people today, in my expereince (due, no doubt to the pervasive message of culture) understand sex purely in terms of pleasure.

I've started preaching sermons on sex -- and not just on morality/ethics -- but on what it actually "is." Of course, one of the first times I did this, my mother happened to be in town for a visit; God's sense of humor?!

I have recently started to teach a class on sexuality to 7th grade girls at our church; I started with the material from Faith Alive, called sexuality;

I am looking for other available resources.
When i asked my girls "do you know what God says about sex?" they said no, and were very interested in the answer.
Rob, did your sermons discuss that question?

Contributor

Thanks for participating in the conversation.
I tend to make a few points when I teach about sexuality:
1. There is a distinction between sex and sexuality. The bible says little about sex. It is not a how to manual. I think the assumption of Scripture is that the biology of sex is either well known to the hearers or taught culturally in one way or another. Sexuality involves more than biology of sex, it is about how we relate as males and females.
2. The bible does give us some clear instructions as to what is forbidden. That is, it establishes some boundaries, for instance, no adultery and no incest. These are helpful in defining when we cross a boundary. The boundary is helpful in two ways.
a. Boundaries define us as persons. By saying NO to a sexual activity, we define ourselves in terms of our values and in terms of our personhood. For young girls this is particularly important. They are not extensions of / or objects of male sexuality. They are individuals who need to be valued for who they are, what they value and how they feel. This requires the ability to say NO.
b. Boundaries tell us when we are straying from a good path. There is a good path. There is a path of destruction. Our feelings and our present desires are not the way to judge right and wrong. The No of God ought to lead us in discerning the better path.
3. Much of what the bible teaches that helps us as sexual beings is about relationships. Relationships are central to our experience as sexual beings. Here are a few important biblical statements that help us:
a. The fruit of the spirit is … faithful. Faithfulness is a quality of the spiritual life. Now apply this to sexuality and sexual relationships. (consider proverbs on love and faithfulness)
b. “think not only of your own interests but the interests of others” (phil 2): so how does “thinking about another’s interests help in our sexual experience in marriage?
c. Forgive as you have been forgiven. This is about confession and forgiveness. This is about humility. This is about living in the deep recognition that what we receive is always a gift. For a husband and wife this means that each needs to see the other as gift.
4. These conversations mean that our spiritual lives have much to say about our relationships and the goodness of our sexual lives as male and female. Our vision of what is good and our walk with God ought to shape our sexuality. Our call is to be “like Christ” (point three) which means are eyes for Christ are central to our relationships as sexual beings.
5. Part of the whole story means dealing with desire. In our grade 7-12 teaching session, I used the book Hooked mentioned in the article because it gives us a good understanding of how sexual desire works biologically and how fulfilled that desire can lead us astray from real happiness in our love relationships. Much of Scripture deals invites us to shape our desires(to form them and to discipline them) by the Word of God. Proverbs repeatedly calls people to not follow their immediate desires because they are not the way of wisdom. There are fools and there are the wise. Romans 8 speaks of not following the desires of the flesh but to desire the desires of the Spirit.
6. To support a godly way in our sexual experience requires a supportive community. Because our sexuality is relational, the fact is that we live it in community. The social rules of the community play a huge part in how we live our sexuality. Boundaries are hard to maintain if no one else supports them. So being in a supportive community (hopefully the church is one, but is not always so) is vital to walking together in Christ as sexual beings.
Finally, I don’t know of material that covers all that. Maybe someone ought to write some material. Meantime, read and share. It all helps. And remember when it comes from you – as teacher, mentor and fellow sexual being- the youth listen with respect.

Yes, but not yet to the degree that I would like. In other words, in my sermons, I haven't yet articulated the whole "big picture" theology of sex, the way that I want to. Sometimes, I find that the thigns I want to say are handed out a little bit at a time, in sermons.

However, I do quite a bit of this conversation in Pre-marital counseling; I spend some time with the couple talking about what their backgroudn is, what they've learned about sex, and other things, depending on the couple/situation. Then, I do some time that is more didactic, and instructive -- a teaching session if you will.

What kinds of discussions have you had with 7th graders? I'm curious to know what they know/think on the subject.

Great thoughts and biblical reference, I might add that we should also  adress the sexual issues in the older population also. I know through my ms the wide variety of issues arise amoung mature relationships. Biblical guidence on these subgects is difficult and as laymen, we need you guys to flush these issues from a Biblical perspetive. Song of Solmon describes a lot about a healthy seuallity while in love ordained relationship. Also God is love which should encourage people to Biblicly understand that sexual expression is the end but one of many forms expressing our love esch other.

I thought that i would through out some  idea's not ideals. Would be interested if others would comment if there is validity in these idea's. Or am I lost in space again. Thanks Brothers

Very thoughtful article and comments. I honestly wish I would have been taught much more about sex before I got married (I'm still sort of a newly-wed at five years of marriage). As a man I had a million misconceptions about what sex is and isn't. The little knowledge I had came from friends at school and the Internet (obviously not the best places to gather information on the subject). My parents never really talked much about it, even though my mom is a nurse. At church, all I ever heard were comments like, "Wait until your married." or "It's something special that you will get to enjoy after you are married."

Don't get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for the boundaires set in the bible. I honestly don't think you could get even half of the full joy that comes from sex if this sacred act is performed outside of marriage. Anyways, I would have loved to have had a class or two taught about the subject so I didn't have so many misconcpetions. I'm still getting over some of them. I'm reading a book on the subject that I think is very helpful (at least for those who are married--it seems like it would be applicable for those who are getting ready to be married as well). The book is called Sexual Intimacy in Marriage by William Cutrir. He is an Ob-gyn and he is a man of faith. He uses both medical information and scriptures to talk about the subject. I'm only about 100 pages in, but so far it has been very helpful for my wife and I.

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