A friend recently asked for thoughts on the following article in my fellowship’s facebook group, so I thought I’d share some. Here’s the article for reference:
To start off, I really appreciated the author sharing this perspective, since it comes from a specific background different from my own. It actually took me about an hour of reading around before I understood just where the author was coming from and the environment that influences these views. This also made me realize that the words she uses (courtship, emotional purity, etc) actually don’t mean exactly what we think they mean, because they’re in the context of her background and the website’s target audience (and I’m not part of that target audience).
Do I believe that seeking “emotional purity” and having a “courtship” damages healthy relationships? Honestly, depends. Unfortunately these words, and almost all the ones that label things relating to relationships, are used in subtly different ways to describe things that could be good, or could be terrible. Courtship for some people could mean the specific teaching that “if you follow these specific prescriptions for relationships leading into marriage, you are assured of a happy, Godly marriage”. For other people, it could mean that you have intentionality (not assurance) towards marriage in your “dating”, whatever that means. The former is actually what a lot of the target audience of Recovering Grace were taught or grew up with. The latter is what I generally take the word to mean. I DO believe the former damages healthy relationships. I don’t believe the latter does.
When we even broach the topic of emotional purity and courtship and marriage, what foundation are we standing on when we’re talking about it? Do we idolize it, as we often do in both Western and Eastern cultures? Do we elevate romantic-relationship-related sins over other sins? How many boundaries do set up in our relationships to keep us pure, compared to the amount of boundaries we set up for other areas in our life? How many sermons do we hear on romantic-relationship-related topics compared to inter-gender-platonic-relationship-related topics? I ask these specific questions because I know that in my culture, marriage, family, or even just romantic love is idealized and idolized. Even in the Christian culture that surrounds me, we often focus on the idea of emotional/sexual purity over all other forms of purity, even when that means we end up neglecting those other areas. What we need to keep in mind first and foremost is that we are living solely for and because of Jesus Christ, not our future spouse, and Jesus desires so much more than just our relationships. He calls us to give him all of us. Yes, sexual immorality and relationship-related sin pitfalls are pretty prevalent in our culture, but so is self-indulgence, pride, selfish ambition, and plenty others directly related and unrelated to relationships.
Within that mindset then, I believe it all comes down to love and obedience. There are boundaries that Jesus and the apostles and prophets clearly set: no fornication, no divorce, no hint of sexual immorality, etc. Then there are the other applications of love, like keeping a brother from stumbling, loving sacrificially, seeking to grow a brother’s holiness/love/relationship with Christ, fleeing temptation and sin, etc. Many healthy applications of purity and relationships hopefully all stem from these principles. The question then is whether we do and teach all of these applications out of love and truth and in response to the grace and love we have been shown in Christ, or as formulas that supposedly give us the answers to our problems. I think that if we’re applying these out of love and truth, intentionally and actively abiding in Christ, then generally, we won’t end up unhealthily elevating marriage and the relationships that lead up to it (since it shouldn’t be elevated), we will seek to have ALL of our relationships be God-honoring and God-glorifying (in both holiness and mutual love), and we can feel free to pursue healthy relationships with each other. Hopefully then, we can also, on the flip side, be honest and open and not feel condemned or shamed if we need to flee from a relationship that is potentially causing us to stumble. Clearly we’ll probably not meet that standard completely, but more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today, may we look more and more like Jesus, individually and as a community.
I’ve always personally really valued the relationships I’ve made with my sisters in the body. Reading this article has been interesting because prior to coming to college, I would’ve said that the majority of my close relationships were with sisters and it’s only very recently has that somewhat evened out. In some way, I’ve seen the benefits of having healthy fellowship throughout the body across genders, and it is sad that we can sometimes take boundaries too far. At the same time though, I have also seen that even when intentions are good, things can still get messy, and sometimes we can elevate “fellowship” with the other gender over fellowship with God (sin destroys fellowship). Similarly, too often we can assume things are fine, when we’re actually causing a sister or even ourselves to stumble. In extreme cases we can be unknowingly parasitic, operating under the guise of fellowship and growth when we’re actually causing one of our own to stumble and fall. We can also be careless with our relationships, leaving a wake of broken hearts, including our own, as we seek fulfillment in broken cisterns over and over again. I say these things not to cause fear, but hopefully we realize that both living in fear and seclusion and blindly diving into relationships are unhealthy extremes. That’s where truth and love comes in. Perfect love casts out fear, and in truth, hopefully we are seeking our brother’s and sister’s holiness and relationship with Christ.
I’m not even sure if what I wrote is in any way coherent, but I’ll end my thoughts with another personal anecdote since reading this article reminded me of this story. When Alice and I got together 2 years ago, I didn’t know if we would get married. The progression of my thoughts over that year eventually led me to the idea that “yeah I can see it, but I just don’t know, so let’s take this time and get to know each other”. For me, that was important, because if I couldn’t even see the possibility of it happening, it didn’t make sense for me to enter into a relationship (you could disagree and give other reasons for casual dating, but I’m not convinced that any of the reasons given for Christians to casually ‘date’ can’t be accomplished by simply having intentional fellowship with each other as brothers and sisters). I remember that the biggest thing we tried to emphasize and encourage was communication and honesty, that if we were hurt by the other we would let the other know, and if we realized that this relationship wasn’t going anywhere we also let the other know immediately. Most importantly, I remember that we mutually tried to establish that if we saw that this relationship was greatly detracting from our relationship with Christ, with God, that we would bring it up, and that this relationship was not more important than our relationship with God. Establishing this atmosphere helped us talk honestly with each other about the ways that this relationship was helping us grow or hindering our growth, and we even had a few healthy conversations about breaking up because of the established trust.
I don’t bring this up to elevate my own relationship, and I hope that you forget that this was us and not stoke our pride. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve definitely not been ideal in any way (what does that even mean anyways), we’ve had plenty of conflicts, trials, and stumblings, we’re pretty messed up in our own way, and we’re still growing in our understanding of relationships. I bring these up to illustrate some questions that helped my own understanding of all this stuff, and can hopefully help inform your understanding of this topic. Do we intentionally do things for the mutual edification of the body and of each other? Do we seek the holiness and growth of our brothers and sisters? Are we willing to sacrifice even our own desired relationships if in that particular situation it stands in the way between us and God? Between our brother or sister and God? Are we willing to sacrifice our pride, our masks, and our fortresses of image so that we can serve one another? Do we take care of the trust our brothers and sisters place on us? Do we care for the purity of our brothers and sisters? Do we love in truth?
Do we love Jesus and worship in Spirit and in Truth?