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.