Premarital Sex and the Rhetoric of the Church

Now there’s a title to be proud of. It has a moral category in it. It looks like it has a moral claim in it. It doesn’t but it looks like it. For men of my generation, the expression suggests “health lectures” in the school building and practicum sessions in the parking lot in the back seats of cars. It is, as I say, a title to be proud of.

Now I’d like to try to describe what the essay is actually about. In the broadest sense, it is about the efforts of the church in the U. S. to maintain their teaching on premarital sex in a culture where the implications of “sex,” and the meaning of “marriage” have both undergone substantial revision. [1] We have failed. Here I want to look at how and why.

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. Recently, the Presbyterian church went through a spasm of redefinition when the question of ordaining gay clergy was forced on us. A part of that debate involved conservatives feeling around for an issue that could be used against the ordination of gays. They came up with this:

“…all ministers, elders, and deacons [shall] live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order). [2]

It was the first concern I had heard in many years about “chastity in singleness.” In the churches I attended and heard about, there was no discussion of the wrongness of sex before marriage because there was no consensus about it. Now, all of a sudden, chastity becomes a big deal. Why?

Well, it turns out that at the time, gays could not marry so whatever sex they had violated the “chastity in singleness” principle. Gay couples living together for twenty years were still “single”—keep your eye on the shell that has the pea under it—because they were not married. [3] The starting line of this conversation is that we don’t expect heterosexual candidates for the ministry to be “chaste”—ugly word, don’t you know, archaic concept—but we do expect it of homosexual candidates.

This was supposed to embarrass the liberals. In the way that Jesus embarrassed some hecklers by asking them to show him a coin that they absolutely should not have had in their pockets, the conservatives dared the liberals to do away with the notion of “chastity” generally. It was embarrassing. No one wanted to notice the fact that the church had long since gone silent on chastity for heterosexuals.

I tell that story—three paragraphs of your life wasted—just to say that I have been thinking about it as a rhetorical problem confronting the church since then. Now…as everyone knows, organizations simply do not change from NO to YES. It isn’t like throwing the switch and sending the train in another direction. Before you throw any switches, you attack the salience of the issue. The step between NO and YES is “does it really matter?” The current position of the churches I know anything about is that it does not.

premarital sex 8Why would that be? Here are a few things to think about. The invention of “the teenage years” and the postponement of marriage have, together, made a shambles of our earlier sexual norms. Needless to say, it put a dent in the church’s rhetoric as well If you can imagine a Father Knows Best (FNB) sort of family protecting their daughters Betty (left) and Kathy (right) from “boys” until they had graduated from high school, you can see how the system worked. Father actually did know best. “Chasity” was to be protected for a relatively short period of time and ending it required the father’s permission, by way of permission to marry.

All that is gone. You heard it here first.

“Father” know longer knows best. With the invention of “teenagers,” a wholly artificial grouping in cultures with traditional work settings, your peers know best. Especially those who are “doing it.” With the postponement of marriage until the late 20s, FNB chastity, which was always a little like finding out how long you can hold your breath under water, became an endurance event. It’s not from 14 to 16 anymore; it’s 12 to 28. We have never had a norm that would work over that period of time.

Fear of pregnancy worked for a while, then the Pill became widely available. Shaming worked for awhile, but when the numbers of people participating in teen sex and talking about it got too large, shaming didn’t work any more either. You really can’t shame that many people at a time.

Furthermore, marriage was not only postponed, but brought into question as a necessary or even a desirable state. Very thoughtful men would say to women, “I love you and I am committed to a life with you and to raising any children this union might produce, but this “marriage” thing makes no sense to me at all.”

Funny couple in bed looking and peeking over sheets surprised. Young interracial couple, Asian woman, Caucasian man.

Funny couple in bed looking and peeking over sheets surprised. Young interracial couple, Asian woman, Caucasian man.

I could go on with the cascading social changes but I think that’s really enough to set the stage and I have only one more difficulty to point to anyway. This is it. “Marital” is the adjective form of “marriage.” “Premarital sex” only means “sex before marriage.” If marriage goes away—which it appears to be doing—then the prefix pre- makes no sense at all. The church has a whole bunch of sacred scriptures that presuppose marriage. What do they mean if/when “marriage” as a social institution disappears and we still want to be guided by the scriptures? [4]

Well…rhetorically, you start saying that it doesn’t really matter all that much. I called this, above, the reduction of salience. This is what Pope Francis, without question the most media-savvy pope in history, has been doing with homosexuality and the Roman Catholic church. The official position of the church is being assailed by both left and right, so the Pope says, “Aren’t there things we could be talking about that are closer to the core mission of the church?” That’s a reduction in salience.

But if sex before marriage declines in salience, then something must increase to take its place. “Let’s don’t talk about [that old topic]” we say, “Let’s talk about [this new topic] instead.” Not A, but B. So we need a really good Topic B. It needs to be engaging, so people are willing to talk about it and it needs to be appropriate to the question so it can be practiced and refined.

We chose two. The more political norm is “consensual.” The social norm is “caring.” As usual, the real meaning of the political norm is that it rules out something we feel strongly about. It rules out predatory sex of every kind. It rules out rape, it rules out managers who leverage their position with sexually attractive subordinates, teachers with students, etc. The political norm—informed consent—is met when two people both want to have sex and agree, as equals, to do so.

Nothing in the norm of consensus rules out colossal stupidity. It doesn’t rule out most premarital sex 7kinds of abuse. It doesn’t rule out misunderstandings. That’s why we have fallen so in love with the social norm, “caring.” [5] Sex is good in a serious relationship when it is a long enough relationship to consider the welfare of the persons, not just the bodies. It is good if it is one part of a relationship which has other significant parts as well. It is good if it is one way among several in which each partner cares for the welfare of the other, not excluding kinds of caring that might be personally costly.

I think the church could have tuned its rhetoric about “the new sexuality” for a long time and not come up with a better standard than that. It’s hard to say exactly what it means, but it lays down standards that are good enough to activate a partner’s concerns and possibly those of that partner’s friends. It works like the temperature setting on a heating and cooling system. It doesn’t define “an ideal temperature,” but it defines “too hot” (he AC turns on) and “too cold” (the furnace turns on) and those are worth having.

There is nothing in the Bible that imagines sexuality apart from religious faith. I know of one passage offhand that speaks favorably of sexual relations in that context. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that sex—he means between husbands and wives— is the kind of thing that can ruin a perfectly good life of prayer. So you can do without sex for awhile and make more time for prayer that way. But abstinence can make you crazy over the long haul and God doesn’t want you crazy. Everything else I know about that isn’t poetry is property and purity, with a dash of obedience every now and then.

The Bible is not anti-sex. I don’t mean to say that. What I mean to say is that the sexual part of our lives, like every other part, is to be governed by the network of covenantal obligations in the Old Testament and by the fellowship of the church in the New Testament. The Bible is not friendly to is a “reduction of salience.”

premarital sex 5If the Bible is not happy with that solution and the church in our time is forced to it, then what? It isn’t pretty, it seems to me, but it is what we have. I call it, by way of caricature, “God wants you to play nicely with others.”

You can go a little way in that direction by mining the rich resources of “prefer the needs and wants of others to your own.” That serves as a guard against predatory relations, but it doesn’t do anything for stable authentic partnership. In a stable authentic partnership, you need to put your own needs into the mix with your partner’s needs AND, in my view, you need to pay attention to what IT, the relationship, needs above and beyond what the persons in the relationship need.

In the short term—the dating part of sexual selection—you make the best match you can premarital sex 6make. I was in the dating business recently (2004: I will continue to call it recent until the scars go away) and I was horrified to confront, as a Christian adult, the fact that dating is a meat market. Not “meat” in the exaggerated sense shown here, but in the sense that each is looking for valued traits in the other, and, in not finding them, continues shopping.  So I called around to my fairly impressive collection of pastor friends and I said “What do you teach at your church about Christian dating?” They said—I am summarizing many conversations here—“We don’t teach about it because we don’t know what to say.”

The church can fully support the development of strong and stable long-term relationships in which sexual relations are a major part—again, nothing here raises the question of whether a ceremony of any kind has been performed—but the church doesn’t bring anything to that question that the Lion’s Club doesn’t bring. [6] In the Mosaic Code, there were two reference points. The first was transcendent: I am the Lord your God. The second was immanent and social: therefore you shall deal fairly with your neighbor, with the visitor, with the marginal, with the vulnerable. Oh, and pay your taxes.

The stance of the church that I am describing—the one I caricatured as “God wants you to play nicely with others—has only one referent. It has the social referent. The relationships to which we are committed are not entailed in our relationship to God. There are lots of commandments in both the Old and the New Testaments, of course. They may have to do with caring relationships. They do not, by my understanding, require any particular sexual standard that has meaning in the modern—the post-Father Knows Best— era.

It’s an odd position for the church, it seems to me. We know what to do, but we don’t know what to say. For a church that lives by the Book of Order, that’s not a comfortable place to be.

[1] Just a few quick clarifications. I’ve been a Presbyterian most of my life but I was raised in a much more conservative setting. Until I started in grad school, I went to conservative colleges where “public displays of affection” (people actually knew the acronym PDA) were frowned upon. I am now approaching the age of 80 and am happily married to my third wife. Just so you know.
[2] Non-Presbyterians need to know that the Book of Order is the constitution of the premarital sexPresbyterian Church. When we ratify “constitutional amendments,” this is the document that gets changed. During this debate, I learned not only that some people could quote the regulation at G-6.0106b, but that some would “refer to it” as if it were John 3:16, which everyone knows from Tim Tiebow’s eyepatches.
[3] Adultery, by the way, was always a separate topic. Whatever appetite you might have for your neighbor’s ox or his ass or his maidservant, there are certain formal commitments to a marriage that are violated in adultery.
[4] It doesn’t need to disappear in the sense that there aren’t any more marriages. It needs only to disappear as the common presupposition of the language about sexual relations. When you say, about getting married, “some do and some don’t,” you have destroyed the presupposition of marriage and all the norms that belonged to it.
[5] I really don’t think there is a consensus on this word. It’s harder to agree on the goals than to rule out certain kinds of abuses. I just mean by it, taking the long term welfare of the other into account. I would call it “commitment” if that had more emotional richness in it.
[6] Not to play with the ancient antipathy between Christians and Lions, just choosing the Lion’s Club as a modern era, nonreligious organization.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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