Pastoral Premarriage Counseling and Sex: Incentive to Lie

I’ve been working my way through Real Marriage for my review — the first post of which will be up tomorrow — and, tangentially, I’ve been thinking about pastoral premarriage counseling and the problems it poses. Many evangelical churches, mine included, require that if a couple is going to be married in that church, they undergo premarriage counseling with the pastor who will marry them. And many of these churches, mine included, have a policy that if the couple is already sexually active, they abstain until the wedding; and if they are living together, they do everything possible to make other arrangements and live separately until the wedding.

So. Suppose you’re one half of an engaged couple, and you’re seeing your pastor for premarriage counseling. And you and your fiance have been having sex. And you and your fiance like having sex, and maybe you feel guilty and you’ve tried to stop but it’s too much of a part of your relationship now, and after all, the virginity ship has sailed, and it’s being a virgin on your wedding night that’s the important thing, so you keep having sex with your fiance.

And your wedding invitations have been sent out, and everyone knows you are being married at Church You Grew Up In, by Pastor Who Baptized You When You Were 13, and this is a big deal. And then in your premarriage counseling, your pastor asks, So, are you two, ahem, sexually active?

And you both answer, quickly, No.

Because if you say yes, your pastor will expect you to either stop having sex, or get married somewhere else, by someone else. This is the policy. And you know you’re not going to stop having sex. And you certainly don’t want to have to explain to your parents why the wedding has to be moved to a different venue, and you have to find a different pastor — who will probably require premarriage counseling also, so now you have to explain to your parents why you are being married at the courthouse by a Justice of the Peace.

So you lie. And you move on with your counseling, and you talk about finances and children and communication and all those other things you talk about in premarriage counseling. But you talk about these things with your lie hanging in the air of the pastor’s office, coloring everything you discuss, making it so that you can never quite engage.

And suppose, also, that you have been raised in church, raised to believe sex was the special gift that is only for your future spouse, and that giving that gift away to someone else was a grave sin, a sin that would probably ruin your marriage, because the gift you had for your spouse is gone, and that specialness will always be missing from your marriage. Suppose that all of the shame that you have internalized about sex through those years has shone white-hot every time you and your fiance, then just your boyfriend or girlfriend, has slept together, ever since that first night that making out led past groping and humping and all the way to official, PIV sex.

So the best way to mitigate this guilt that you feel, you both rationalize, is to get married. After all, having sex with your future spouse isn’t nearly as sinful as having sex with someone who isn’t your future spouse; if sex is only for your someday-husband or -wife, then giving it to that person a little early isn’t nearly as bad as giving it to someone else entirely.

So because of the sex, you get engaged. You ignore the warning bells in your brain that say I’m not ready or This relationship isn’t working or I’m too young, and you go ahead with your wedding plans.

What you really need, right now, in this about-to-make-a-huge-mistake moment, is someone objective, someone you can be completely honest with, someone who can help you evaluate whether this relationship is really a good thing for the two of you to commit to. A premarriage counselor.

What you have, instead, is a pastor that you cannot be honest with, because the stakes are too high. A pastor who is not a disinterested, objective third party, because he is both your counselor and your rule-enforcer.

So you go through your premarriage counseling. You get married. Your wedding night, despite all the warnings, turns out not to be any less special just because you’ve seen each other naked before.

But now you’re married. And all the baggage you carried into this relationship doesn’t go away just because you’re no longer having illicit, sinful, unmarried sex. You need help with this relationship, and now the stakes are a million times higher because you’re capital-m Married. And you might have just made a huge, huge mistake.

Maybe we, the church, should stop putting couples into this situation, where the one person they need to be completely honest with to help them evaluate their relationship before they get married is the one person that they have a huge incentive to not be honest with. Maybe we need to rethink how we do premarriage counseling.

 

What do you think? If you married in the church, did you have pastoral counseling before your wedding? How did it go?

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6 thoughts on “Pastoral Premarriage Counseling and Sex: Incentive to Lie

  1. Hey Abi.
    You are a talented young woman. Your writings leave me challenged to think about what I believe and why. I think this is a good thing.

    I’m going to go ahead and post this much because I lost my comments yesterday when I tried to sign in. So, more to come if this works!

    Love you,
    Dena

  2. Ok, so that seemed to work so I will continue here.

    I believe that God is a God of choice. He lets us choose many things including whether or not to believe in Him, trust Him, follow and obey Him.

    So, in your scenario with the young couple and premarital counseling, what if they chose to believe they were sinning when participating in premarital sex? What if they chose to believe that God does not reveal to us what is the “greater sin” and that God hates all sin whether it be gossip, murder or premarital sex? What if they chose to view their pastor as someone who cares for them and wants God’s best for them rather than as a rule enforcer?

    They could choose to abstain even though sex is a big part of their relationship. Would it be easy? No. Would it be as fun? No. Would it be possible? Yes. Would it relieve any guilt and shame they may be experiencing as a result of their sin? Yes.

    I believe that people get married for many different reasons. I also believe that very few people, once they decide to marry, will listen to anyone tell them that they are too young, don’t have enough money, should finish college first, or should get rid of their own emotional baggage first before they marry.

    But God is bigger than any of our mistakes. And He can and will make something beautiful out of them when we choose to let Him.

    So, it comes down to a matter of choice. Do we put God first in our lives or ourselves? Personally, my life has been so much better when I get out of His way and when I quit living from a place of fear and self-protection.

    Abi, I love you and I admire you. My prayer for you is God’s best, whatever that may be.

    Dena

  3. Thanks for your comment, Dena. I understand where you’re coming from; and yes, it would certainly be a better decision for couples to both stop living sinfully and to be honest with their pastor. But for churches and pastors to expect that this will be the case, while also setting up a major disincentive for the couple to be honest if they either choose to, or believe they can’t, stop sleeping together, severely limits the effectiveness of premarriage counseling. People don’t always make good decisions, especially in complicated matters like sex. (And something like eighty percent of evangelical Christians have premarital sex; this isn’t a small number of unmarried couples we’re talking about here, but the vast majority of them.) But when the church puts them in a position where they create a major disincentive for couples to be honest in their premarriage counseling, it significantly limits the effectiveness of what can be a very important tool in helping newlyweds start a healthy life together.

    And here’s the thing: churches who lay out this kind of ultimatum — stop having sex, or you can’t get married here — are really telling couples, We value purity and adherence to the Law more than we value helping you to establish a healthy marriage. They are implying that God is more concerned with His children not sinning than with helping them to have maturity and growth. And while those two things are certainly not mutually exclusive, the second is much bigger than the first; and the focus on the first rather than the second is the same focus on legalism over love that Jesus came to undo.

    So, I think that a church that is truly committed to developing and supporting healthy marriages will take rules like stop having sex, or you can’t get married here off the table and cultivate a premarriage counseling program that meets engaged couples where they are and works with them to help them make good decisions; or, if they cannot reconcile that with their commitment to sexual purity, sponsoring sessions for the couple with a trained professional Christian counselor who can work through issues with the couple while also maintaining complete confidentiality. The expectation of confidentiality and the absence of rule-enforcement means that couples will be much more likely to be honest with their counselor, and that the counselor will be much more able to help them put into practice healthy behaviors — including premarital abstinence — to establish a solid foundation for marriage.

    1. I meant to also say – thank you for reading my blog and wanting to engage in a discussion about it, and I love you, too. 🙂

  4. I just found your blog and am very thankful. Your scenario sounds a lot like what I’m going through right now. I fear sitting in an office and facing this dilemma. I agree that sex can cloud decision making in a relationship. I don’t think it necessarily means every relationship that includes premarital sex is doomed to fail or not fully fleshed out. I think more couples would benefit from being able to discuss this huge part of relationships with a pastor instead of hiding. Understanding the need for accountability shouldn’t allow legalism to prevail. If perfection isn’t demanded in every other area of your life prior to marriage, it should follow that grace be given here as well. I appreciated the discussion on this topic! Blessings

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