Well, Joseph didn’t know–at least, not until an angel told him. And his first reaction to the situation tells us something different than what I’ve been hearing from a lot of people using him as an example lately.
Most of what I’ve seen was in response to this hot take on marrying single moms from last week:
I’ve never understood as a man why you would date, or marry a single mother if you’re single with no kids of your own.
Seems to me he doesn’t feel he has options or doesn’t value himself as a man.
I’d feel like I was a backup plan helping raise another man’s kids. ?????
— Aubrey Huff (@aubrey_huff) December 2, 2020
With Christmas just around the corner, I suppose it’s only natural that St. Joseph would come to mind. I just wish people would’ve actually paused for a moment and pondered the facts before using him as an example. It’s a story we all know, but these folks all overlooked one really important detail: Joseph’s initial reaction was to quietly sever his relationship with Mary precisely because he naturally took her pregnancy as proof of her fornication and concluded that this made her unfit to be his bride.
Matthew’s Gospel even notes how righteous Joseph was for taking this course of action. To be sure, that was in large part was because he sought to avoid ending Mary’s life over the matter–whether figuratively or literally. He did not exercise his rights to have her punished, nor did he seek to turn it into a public scandal. Nevertheless, generously sparing Mary some consequences of what he thought were her actions couldn’t have been the whole of the matter for him. After all, he could have accomplished even greater protection by just going ahead and marrying her anyway. But he didn’t–at least not until a literal angel of the Lord came to explain the truth of the matter.
So despite all the attempts to use Joseph as a counter-example, his reaction to marrying a single mom was probably a lot closer to the original tweet than to its critics.
The key reality that the critics don’t want to acknowledge is that Aubrey Huff’s feelings on the matter are perfectly natural for a man to have. We are, after all, far more inclined than women to care about our spouse’s chastity–and those instincts serve us well. Not to mention the fact that marrying a single mom may very well be deliberately coming between another man and his children. Despite the modern prejudice, many absent fathers aren’t absent by choice. Concerns like these are not vanity–just common sense which participants in an age of rampant fornication would like to abolish.
Do these feelings have to be the end of the matter for a man? Not at all. As I’ve written before, some single moms may be a good choice for some men to marry. To be sure, sometimes there are mitigating circumstances (rape, abandonment, etc), even if they’re not as extraordinary as what Joseph discovered. But far more commonly and importantly, there can be repentance and forgiveness. There can be grace and gratitude. But none of these things can be coerced–neither grace nor forgiveness can be owed. Accordingly, we cannot tell men that they have some kind of moral obligation to marry single moms.
And for those blessings to come about naturally in a relationship, there are two prerequisites. First, of course, the woman needs to have repented and built character in the meantime. Men ought to care enough about their future children that they choose a virtuous mother for them.
But more to the point here, the man needs to actually deal with his natural feelings regarding the unchastity. He cannot do so by pretending he never felt them. He cannot do so by means of people condemning him for feeling that way or by condemning himself for it. That’s merely repression of those feelings, and it will do no good for either the man or the woman in the long run. The only healthy way a mature man can deal with feelings like that is to first acknowledge the truth behind them and then find ways to move past it and work around it.
He cannot do that by pretending that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a prospective wife’s unchastity. He cannot do that by pretending she had no agency in the matter. He cannot do that by pretending fornication, divorce, adultery, and so forth are of no concern–for he instinctively knows better.
Neither can he move on by engaging in the big sexual rationalization of our age, which has also come up in the current conversation. We are told that a woman’s sexual history does not matter–only what she does while she’s in a relationship with you. But this is not a meaningful moral distinction rooted in Biblical sexual morality or in natural law. No, this idea is born from the modern custom of serial monogamy.
For the sake of fornication, we in the modern West treated our temporary but “long-term” relationships as though they were mini-marriages. This has proven to be a disastrous point of view. Not only do we demand undue exclusivity & emotional investment from our dates–and even friendships–but we also endure undue heartache at breakups, all so that we can participate in undue physical intimacy.
As a result, serial monogamy has drawn it’s own set of ad hoc sexual ethics into orbit around these dubious relationships. Excuses like “We hadn’t met yet,” “what we did wasn’t technically intercourse,” “we were on a break,” and so forth are supposed to make a person morally upright. But these are all pale imitations of real chastity just as so-called long-term relationships are pale imitations of marriage.
And everyone knows that serial monogamy makes no sense, which is precisely why it’s being rapidly abandoned in favor of hookup culture. That’s not exactly an improvement, but so long as repentance isn’t on the table, it at least makes more sense to people.
But a man considering marriage has to think more deeply than the rationalizations of modern America. He has to think about chastity. Chastity is a virtue. It’s not so arbitrary that it’s somehow reset every time you transfer to a different relationship. Our persons and our character persist through our sordid histories without a statute of limitations. And so, all fornication is unfaithfulness to our spouses–whether or not it falls within the boundaries of some kind of arbitrary dating relationship.
Now, unfaithfulness can certainly be forgiven and relationships restored. But this does not happen when the unfaithful person refuses to repent or the victim pretends there was nothing unfaithful about it. And even in the best of circumstances, there is a measure of graciousness, sacrifice, and risk when marrying a single mom–one that goes beyond the measure of the same required by marrying even a chaste bride.
I’m not saying never marry a single mom. I’m not saying no single mom is worth marrying. I am saying that Christians need to stop virtue-signalling by pretending unchastity makes no difference.
And stop using St. Joseph as a means to such vainglorious ends. Because until God explained the situation, his righteous actions reveal a belief that premarital unfaithfulness is indeed a legitimate reason to politely walk away.