If there's one thing we evangelicals are good at creating, it's a backlash. When the culture starts going crazy, we react. That's not a bad thing—in fact, resisting and challenging the troubling dimensions of mainstream culture is what we are supposed to do. But sometimes our reactions are so extreme that they become a problem themselves.
I believe we are seeing such a backlash now regarding marriage. As Western society attempts to redefine marriage as whatever anyone wants it to mean, according to the whim of the moment, many Christians are fighting to preserve what we believe is a God-ordained institution, and to promote lasting, healthy traditional marriages. That's exactly as it should be.
The problem arises when we make marriage sound like it is only an institution. Certain influential Christians seem to promote a vision of marriage as a duty—and little else.
In her book Get Married, for example, Candice Watters recalls "… sitting in class learning about all the ways our country was slipping from its constitutional foundations. And in a moment of exasperation, I raised my hand and called out, 'So what's the solution?' … Dr. Hubert Morken didn't disappoint. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and let his grenade fly: 'Get married, make babies, and do government. That's how we win.' "
In other words, lie back and think of America. Just go out and get married. And if you're not in love, get over it and get married anyway.
- Author and psychologist Stephen Simpson, quoted at Crosswalk.com, argues, "Falling in love before you got married or engaged was a twentieth-century concept." Really? Jacob and Rachel lived in the 20th century? Song of Solomon was written in the 20th century? And Romeo and Juliet and Jane Eyre? Simpson is trying to make a point about how much our romantic ideas and practices have changed, but such a sweeping statement only causes confusion instead of clearing it up.
- Blogger "arlemagne1" at the Ruth Institute Blog: "So, what's romantic love? Essentially, it's an addiction. … And like so many drugs of addiction, everybody would be better off attributing much less importance to it."
- In her book The Way of a Man with a Maid, Robin Phillips gives several examples of young Christian adults who were expected to maintain "emotional purity" (i.e., not to fall in love) until they reached the very altar. For instance: "I have a friend named Emily who had always accepted the teaching about emotional purity and believed that to have a crush on a boy amounted to nurturing an idol in her heart. However, when Emily actually found herself being attracted to a young man, she was helpless to know how to handle it. Nor were matters helped when friends began to come up to Emily and say, 'Don't you know that you are committing emotional fornication? You're being promiscuous and I think you should be careful to save yourself totally for your future husband.'"
If I had space, I could share many similar quotes. I could also discuss some of the conversations I've seen on Christian websites, where young women, if they dare express a hope that they might find a man to whom they feel attraction, get smacked down for being starry-eyed and unrealistic.
Of course there's an element of truth here. Backlashes, as indicated earlier, don't come out of thin air. Our culture's emphasis on feelings as a basis for every decision is steadily leading us toward moral and spiritual disaster. Acting on feelings alone, rather than grounding our actions in biblical moral principles, has helped bump the rates of everything from cohabitation to divorce to unwed pregnancy. These Christians recognize that.
And it's not as if we have done away with romantic love altogether. Many Christian books written for young couples planning to get married plainly assume that the couple is crazy about each other. But many singles are left out stranded out in no-man's-land with no idea how to get to the magic point where feelings are suddenly okay.
For unfortunately, too much of this "forget about feelings" attitude ends up making young adults feel bewildered, not knowing what to do with their emotions or what role those emotions should play in their interactions with each other. And sometimes, I believe, it can lead to the dangerous tendency to ignore one's instincts and make decisions for which one isn't prepared.
Beyond that, I don't think it's a very Christian attitude. We worship a God who has filled his Word with expressions of emotion. Why would he want us taking a clinical, duty-first attitude in such an important area as marriage?
In his recent book Feeling like God, Chris Tiegreen explores the roots of some of the Christian suspicion of emotion. He writes, "Plenty of preachers, teachers, and writers have emphasized that love is not a feeling, but that's because they're trying to emphasize (usually in a message about marriage or enemies—or both) that love is constant and unfailing, even on your worst days when you've lost that lovin' feeling. But if you try to talk about love without using any emotional terminology, it sounds very sterile and, to be honest, unloving."
It's important to emphasize the emotions of love, because a lot of Christians have the idea that 'love is an action.' In truth, it's much more than an action. A supervisor, servant, or caretaker can do what's best for someone without having any love whatsoever for that person. … Love involves actions—it has to translate into practical life if it's real—but most genuine forms of love can't be reduced to that. Feelings have to be involved at some level.
By all means, let's remember that marriage needs to be built on a stronger foundation than feelings. But let's not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Marriage should be more than just an emotional relationship—but it shouldn't be less.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Earlier articles on marriage include:
The Good Christian Girl: A Fable | What heeding a decade and a half of dating advice can mean. (Speaking Out, July 19, 2010)
Same Sex, Different Marriage | Many of those who want marriage equality do not want fidelity. (May 5, 2010)
The Case for Early Marriage | Amid our purity pledges and attempts to make chastity hip, we forgot to teach young Christians how to tie the knot. (July 31, 2009)
Lord of the Wedding Dance | What a Christian marriage ceremony is all about. (October 19, 2009)