Whose Morality Have We Been Teaching?

Lately, Dalrock has been getting me thinking about the negative impact of chivalry on Christians’ understanding of sexual morality. One of the key parts of the idea is that the false but ubiquitous belief that sex is legitimated by romance rather than by marriage can be traced back to medieval tales of courtly love and chivalry. And this is just as much an issue among conservatives as it is among liberals because of conservatives’ nostalgia for it despite how twisted a lot of those old stories really are.

I found a good (i.e. terrible) example of this while I was preparing for a class on the virtue of chastity that I’ve just started teaching at my congregation. I was perusing the church’s library, and found a little book that CPH (for my non-Lutheran readers, that’s my denomination’s publishing house) put out in ’67 called Parents Guide to Christian Conversation About Sex (part of the “Concordia Sex Education Series.”) Given how badly we’ve dealt with the topic over the past couple generations, I was understandably curious about what we were teaching in immediate response to the sexual revolution.

Much of the book is in the form of Q & A (i.e. if your kid asks you this, here’s what you should tell them.) Here’s their answer to the question of “What’s wrong with sexual relations before marriage?”

I’m sure you understand that God made intercourse for marriage. It is such an intimate act that it cannot really fulfill its unique function according to God’s plan outside of marriage–certainly not in a parked car! The sex act is supposed to be the climax of a love relationship between two people who have married and live together and share life together. It is an expression of the deep, lasting, personal relationship that exists between husband and wife. It expresses the total unity that they share as husband and wife. Before marriage there is no such unity to express and physical intimacies become merely a satisfaction of physical desires. True love is always more than that. Be sure not to think of love and sex as synonymous.

Admittedly, hindsight is 20/20, but I hardly know where to begin in pointing out all the problems with this. It starts off with a whopper: “I’m sure you understand that God made intercourse for marriage.” I believe the next 50 years adequately demonstrated that this presumption couldn’t possibly be further off-base.

Then there’s the contention that “Sex is supposed to be the climax of a love relationship” which is A) not a Biblical teaching and B) not really even true. Anybody familiar with Scripture & history is going to realize that this is a view that comes from our own culture rather than from the Bible or natural law. If you want a good counter-example, just look at Martin and Katie Luther. I’ve read what Luther wrote at the time about why he got married, and it is about the least romantic thing I’ve even seen. He married her to please his father, to spite the Pope, and to practice what he preached about marriage; he explicitly says that he “appreciated” her more than he loved her. When they got married after only a few weeks of knowing each other, it wasn’t because it was love at first sight, but because they both thought it was a good idea. Then they had sex. And then (as you can also see from Luther’s later writings) genuine love and affection grew out of that original partnership. Broadly speaking across history and cultures, that pattern of marriage->sex->romance is probably more common than our own required sequence of romance->marriage->sex.

Sex may be the climax of the love relationship in popular entertainment–the movie may end when the train goes into the tunnel–but real life is different. Sex is great, but when you consider just how much of marriage occurs after you first have sex, you realize that it isn’t the climax of the relationship–it’s the flowering of it. People generally hope that their marriage is going to last a lot longer than just the wedding night.  Nobody really wants it to be all downhill from there.

But false teachings like these are really only symptomatic of the bigger problem: this entire explanation amounts to a rhapsody about how only married people are emotionally and romantically intimate enough to have sex. A parked car simply will not do!

Given explanations like this, it’s no wonder why young Christians disregarded Biblical teachings about fornication. If sex is legitimated by romance–by having the right kind of feelings–then all that really means to any teenager is that sex is ok if they feel like it. And that is exactly how people were already seeing it when this book was written. “Well, we’re going steady, so we’re definitely united in a deep and lasting love relationship. We just really want to express that unity with each other.”

And if you’re the one teaching them that romance legitimates sex, then who are you to tell them that they’re wrong? Feelings are subjective. You can’t meaningfully tell a person, “you might think that you feel the right feelings, but you don’t really feel the right feelings that you feel like you’re feeling.” You have no business telling a young couple whether their own feelings of emotional intimacy meet your required threshold of sentiment. That’s also why it was so easy to make gay “marriage” acceptable in our society. We have absolutely no business telling two men or two women how they feel about one another either. And if it’s romantic love that legitimates sex and therefore marriage in our eyes, then it just as easily legitimates them both for homosexuals as for fornicating heterosexuals.

When Christians base their case against fornication on it being necessary to have the right kind of feelings, that merely accepts and reinforces the false cultural belief that sex is all about pleasure–after all, romantic intimacy is very pleasurable. And that is what the Spirit of the Age teaches. Virtually every form of media we consume teaches that it’s pleasure (usually in the form of romance) that legitimates sex. Think back over some of the stuff that you’ve watched and consider how often you were cheering on adultery and fornication between the characters simply because it was romantic. It’s shameful how easily we can be satisfied just by creating the appropriate drama.

The Bible’s disagreement with our culture goes far deeper than what we’ve been teaching those entrusted to us. It is marriage–not romance–that legitimizes sex. And that is just as important to remember after exchanging vows as it is before, because we do exactly the same thing within marriage. People everywhere believe that if the feelings have become insufficient, then the marriage can be eliminated at any time.  They likewise believe that the spouses have no real sexual responsibilities toward one-another.

None of this is to say that romance is a bad thing–that’s just a wonderful part of God making his mandate to be fruitful and multiply pleasurable for us. Nevertheless, romance does not provide any kind of moral license for sex. After so many generations of utterly failing to pass on Biblical morality, it’s time for the Church to stop teaching what she’s imbibed from culture, and to start teaching what Jesus actually taught us in the first place.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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7 Responses to Whose Morality Have We Been Teaching?

  1. Pingback: The Hi-Jacking of Tucker Carlson’s Concerns: Is There a “Gynocentric” Agenda? | theology like a child

  2. Tom Lemke says:

    I have an excellent illustration of the principle you’re dealing with.

    When the “debt-free virgins” kerfuffle came up this past summer, I spoke about it with an elder in the faith. He expressed shock that the “virginity” aspect was even in play, because (in his words):

    “By the point in a relationship that sexual activity in one person’s past comes up, you’ve both become so fond of each other that it’s not a big deal.”

    Part of this is explained by the fact that he hasn’t been in the dating market for 40+ years, so he missed the more recent iterations of casual sex/hook-up culture and it doesn’t factor in to his evaluation. Fair enough.

    But the other part, and what you get at above, is this idea that marriage (and thus, in a Christian purview, sex) is about “fondness” (romance), pragmatic elements be damned. It did not occur to this elder gentleman that premarital relations (what the current vernacular calls the “carousel”) signal danger in terms of judgement, character, etc. that are of grave pragmatic concern when entering into a lifelong partnership with someone. Particularly in our era where divorce laws make is easy for a loose woman to chew a man up, drain him for sustenance, and spit him out.

    And on that note: what we have today is possibly the greatest generation-gap in the history of the world when it comes to understanding the sexual/marriage market place. Previous generations inflated a huge “women” bubble which, with the advent of MGTOW, is about to pop with deafening force.

    • Matt says:

      I saw quite a few similar reactions to that situation (wrote a blog post about it that gets into some of the theological confusions behinds elements of it): https://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1071)

      And that’s a great point about the generation gap. It is a big problem. The final collapse of dating into hookups really happened very recently and very quickly. I’m approaching middle-aged, and back when I was in college, hooking up was getting popular in some of the subcultures (the Greek system, art/drama departments, etc) but it wasn’t really normal yet. But most of the people I teach at my church are older, and to them it was utterly alien when I did a class on rape/hookup culture.

      The youth are facing some extreme challenges, and there’s not a lot of guidance for them. Liberals don’t see it as much of a problem, and conservatives are often insufficiently creative to do much more than complain.

  3. Tom Lemke says:

    “…the false but ubiquitous belief that sex is legitimated by romance rather than by marriage can be traced back to medieval tales of courtly love and chivalry.”

    Thus, all proponents of sodomy had to do to gain wholesale acceptance in the West was to couch the desire for strange flesh in terms of “romance.” Boom, instant legitimacy.

    So, if the table has been set for 500-900 years, why did it take so long? The West had enough strong Christian traditions that each successive generation was raised with more Christian ethos than chivalric impulse, on balance.

    But in the 20th century, Christian traditions were attacked and dismantled, and instead of being raised with grandpa’s voice reading from the family Bible as our cultural experience, we got Disney. Don’t miss this.

    The first movie I saw in theaters was Aladdin. In the denouement, the Sultan changes the arranged marriage law, saying: “From this day forth, the princess shall marry whomever she deems worthy.”

    In light of this reframing, from Biblical standards to Disney ones (not just present in Aladdin), is it any wonder that so many millennials grew up, deemed same sex partners “worthy,” and sought to cast off laws that forbid their romance?

    What I’m saying is: yes, this stuff can be traced back to chivalry, but Disney commodified it and sold it in bright colors no kid can resist.

    Matthew says, “it’s time for the Church to stop teaching what she’s imbibed from culture, and to start teaching what Jesus actually taught us in the first place.”

    The way to do that is to turn off the TV and have grandpa dust off the family Bible, and read ’til he’s hoarse.

    • Matt says:

      You’re absolutely right that the power of modern media to reshape our perceptions of marriage and turn up the dial on evocative romance is extraordinary. And it is in literally everything.

      The other big precondition for the change was the illusion that we can control fertility via modern contraception. The possibility of having children at any time makes marriage extremely practical. There was already tension between the practical and romantic aspects of marriage by then, but the pill profoundly facilitated the eclipsing of the practical by the romantic. And that line of thought likewise lead straight to acceptance of same sex marriage–point out that they’re utterly sterile, and most people will genuinely have no idea why that has anything to do with the subject.

  4. george hapinopolis says:

    The Dalrock thread was interesting, as also was this article. Someone in the Dalrock thread brought up John 8 the woman cauht in adultery being added and not otriginal and someone disagreed by saying they go with the Byzantine text etc. But for me this is the problem. Until it becomes mainstream not just for translators to relegate this inauthentic feminist passage to the footnotes (they already do) but for preachers to stop resurrecting its fetid corpse from hell; until then, nothing will change. Because the passage is teaching that they stoned the man but then let the woman go, basically, and Jesus says its good.

    • Matthew Etzell says:

      Where, in that passage, does it say the mob stoned the man?

      God’s Law (in Leviticus 20:10) required that both parties to adultery be executed together, yet John 8 makes no mention of the man who committed adultery; therefore, my understanding is that the mob intended to stone the woman without also stoning the man, thereby breaking the Law themselves (and this was not the only way in which the mob was breaking the Law on that occasion). Jesus was calling attention to this fact (that the mob intended to break the Law in the name of upholding it) when He said, “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus was not saying one must be completely sinless to carry out an execution; He was saying one must not carry out an execution in a sinful way. He was not forbidding capital punishment in general; He was only forbidding capital punishment carried out in a manner contrary to the Law.

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