There’s no question that the traditional view of the institution of marriage is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s America. The days of casual friendship > courtship > engagement > wedding > ooo la la are long past their expiration date in many parts of the country.

Instead, we have variations on the Hollywood rom-com. It’s more like friendship (maybe) > sleep together > hope you don’t break up > move in together > hope you don’t break up…and sometimes that’s the end of it. Years go by and no ring. Why get engaged? You’re already living together. What’s an expensive wedding and a piece of paper worth anyhow?

The typical Christian response to this line of thinking goes something like this: “God only intended true satisfying, lasting sexual intimacy to develop within the context of a sincere marriage between two people committed to each other for life.” Or in other words: “What? Sleeping together and living together without being married? You’re living in sin! Repent of your wicked ways, you depraved sexual deviants!” (Say that out loud in a trembling voice whilst grinding your teeth for maximum effect.)

Here’s why that argument is flat-out not working.

The problem with this approach, from a counseling perspective at least, is it completely fails to understand the true nature of the behavior in question. The way I see it, there are two completely different reasons for people to be having “sex outside of marriage” (and probably more than two) in the mix here, and to conflate the two is to reduce some very complex issues to a black-and-white caricature.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

  • The first main reason for this behavior would be the sex-devoid-of-geninue-relationship lifestyle. Hookup culture in college, playboys, escorts, etc. Either the desire for physical pleasure or for money is the primary cause of the behavior. Now there are plenty of people of all backgrounds and beliefs that aren’t on board with this as being OK. It’s not just Christians who understand the dark side of anything-goes sex.
  • The second reason for this behavior is the hope of finding a long-term, committed relationship of mutual respect, love, and (dare I say) understanding. In this context, having sex is simply a part of building and maintaing this kind of relationship, and living together is nothing more sinister than taking the relationship “to the next level.”

As you can see, condemning a person’s behavior who’s in that second camp based on a line of reasoning that mainly applies to the first camp not only won’t make much sense to anyone who’s not a Bible thumper, but can be outright offensive. To someone in the second camp, they’re trying to do everything right as they see it. That person may see himself or herself as a responsible, caring individual, fully dedicated to the happiness and wellbeing of the other person in the relationship. Living in sin? Where do you get off telling me that? What about all those married couples that fight all the time and can barely stand the sight of each other, only sticking it out “because of the kids” or a misguided sense of religious obligation? Why aren’t they being condemned as living in sin? Christians are hypocrites.

Actually, that little imagined outburst gets to the core of the issue. I believe the main reason we see the move towards sleeping/living together before getting married (if marriage even ever happens at all) in our society is because people are spooked. They’ve seen far too many unhappy marriages, nasty divorces, or people staying married to keep up appearances while dabbling in affairs to meet unmet emotional needs — and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Getting married has become a dirty word. The “institution” of marriage, in many people’s eyes, is dilapidated and outdated, and the only reason to contemplate the whole notion is either for the big party (aka, the wedding) or the civil/legal benefits that stem from marriage. But marriage as something with life-changing emotional and spiritual significance? Forget about it.

If there is sin here, it’s not about being promiscuous. It’s about being afraid.

While I’m a Christian who certainly believes what the Bible says about sex before marriage (i.e., that it’s wrong), I think we need to be very careful how we talk about the issue. If there is sin in the context of people in a committed relationship like described above (reason #2), it is not the sin of sexual promiscuity or other questionable behavior. It is the sin of fear. Let’s be honest. If you’re afraid of marriage, then you’ll simply avoid it at all costs. It’s easier just to stay single, date someone if the opportunity arises, and if you hit it off, just take it to the next level one step at a time.

Many people are living, in practical terms, as a married couple. They share households and activities and hopes and dreams. They may even have children together. So why not get married? Because it’s too scary. They think that getting married is a jinx, that it’ll ruin a good thing they having going. They’ll become like their parents, or another couple they saw fall out of love and get a divorce. They see marriage as an unnecessary burden, an expectation placed upon them by others. It just isn’t important enough to go through with it.

I want to argue, from a counseling perspective as well as a Christian perspective, that fear is a really bad motive for making life decisions. Deciding not to do something mainly because you’re scared to do it underlies problems in your soul that will likely surface in other areas as well. One might need to ask the question “do I really want to spend the rest of my life with a person whose fear of tying the knot is blinding us to the possibilities of a greater state of commitment and faithfulness?” or “am I avoiding marriage based on a real, well-reasoned argument, or are my protestations against marriage simply an excuse to hide my fear?”

The mature person is one who makes it a life-long goal to uncover and eradicate fear in his or her life. A couple’s quest to discover why they are resisting the idea of marriage is a worthwhile pursuit because it will bring so many other issues to the surface. I believe this is the kind of discussion we in the Christian community need to be encouraging when it comes to the issue of sex before marriage. Don’t muddy the waters focusing too heavily on reason #1 above. Help, not hinder, people in sincere relationships.

One final thought

I completely agree it has become increasingly hard to find good examples of lasting marriages. It’s also hard to find good examples of properly-cooked seafood, but that doesn’t mean we should stop cooking seafood. Just because something is difficult, or rare, doesn’t make it less valuable. In fact, quite the opposite.

A good marriage is valuable precisely because it is difficult, precisely because it is rare. Marriage isn’t a piece of paper. It is gold. And just like the quest for treasure, in spite of difficulties and challenges and disappointments and sweat and blood and tears, marriage is worth the pursuit.