Russell D. Moore on Christian Courtship & the Awkward Question of Sexual History
Not long ago, a young single woman wrote to me with a question she would have preferred to ask her father, were he still alive. An Evangelical committed to historic, orthodox Christianity, she wants to be a godly wife and mother. She made a commitment at an early age to remain chaste, and in her dating life thus far, she’s kept her commitment. She regrets none of that. But now she worries about how to have “the talk.”
This woman told me she is now dating a young man, also a Christian, who seems commendable in every wayand her family and friends agree. After a month or so of courtship, she is finding in him what she always prayed for in a husbandfaithful discipleship, servant leadership, gospel clarity, and family focus. She’s falling in love with him, and she’s afraid of only one question: his sexual past.
Has he been with other women sexually? If so, how many and in what way? Has he ever had a problem with pornography? With every week, she’s becoming more and more attached to this man, and she’s afraid of discovering something potentially problematic after she’s already lost her affections to him.
It’s not, she assured me, that the information would necessarily kill the relationship, but she wants to know exactly what kind of man she’s giving herself to. Her dilemma is that it sure seems awkward to say, “So, enough about C. S. Lewis; let’s talk about your sexual past.” For one thing, she wonders about seeming so forward with a man not her husband. For another, she wonders if the question itself might force too much emotional intimacy too soon. And she questions whether she really needs to know this at all.
This woman was hardly an isolated example. I find myself counseling young Evangelicals in similar predicaments almost every week. In a time when conservative Christians have pushed back against the sexual chaos of the spirit of the age, and instead placed emphasis on chastity and fidelity, this problem has emerged. What happens when one potential spouse has remained free from fornication and the other hasn’t? How much of a sexual past, if any, would doom a potential marriage?
The impulse behind the conversation is countercultural in the best way. Courtship for the Christian, after all, isn’t a means of entertainment; it’s about discerning whether someone would make a good husband or wife. But the discussion is fraught with peril because it is tied up with deeper conversations about Christianity itself, about the tensions between law and grace, between justice and forgiveness.
The sexual past of a potential future spouse is important to know about because of the nature of marriage as a one-flesh union (Gen. 2:2324; Eph. 5:2833). Biblically speaking, marriage is not a partnership between two individuals who have compartmentalized off parts of their lives. The Apostle Paul dismisses any such notion with his radical statement that a husband’s sexuality does not belong to him but to his wife (1 Cor. 7:4), and vice-versa. In a very real sense, your spouse’s sexual past becomes part of your story, too.
Of course, the act itself, disconnected from the conjugal vow, does not create a marriage; otherwise, there would be no concept of “fornication” in the Scriptures. Even so, in the Christian perspective, there is no such thing as a casual sexual encounter.
Paul argues that the sexually immoral person sins not just against another but “against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). He compares the spiritual union with Christ in regeneration with the union called together in the sexual act. Even one who is “joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her,” he writes, citing Genesis. The sexual act, mysteriously, forms a real and personal union.
Beyond that, one’s sexual pastespecially that formed early in lifeinvariably creates what sociologists call a “sexual script,” and this script typically sets the fabric of one’s sexuality for life. A woman has a right to know, therefore, whether a potential husband’s script has been shaped by pornographic images, and a man has a right to know whether his future wife’s serial encounters have taught her to disconnect emotion from sex. And so on.
Even so, I counseled the young woman who wrote to me against direct questioning. I’ve seen too many budding relationships wrecked by a talk that prematurely formed an inappropriate emotional intimacy. She doesn’t need to know, a month into the relationship, all the details (or lack thereof) of his sexual past. What she does need to know is how he views sexual immorality and how he sees fidelity.
So I advised her to ask him what his convictions are about protecting himself and his future marriage from immorality. She might, I suggested, ask him how he would one day counsel his son to flee from pornography and other pitfalls. And I told her to watch to see what kind of wisdom and gravity (or lack thereof) he displays. A man who glibly dismisses such matters, I warned her, is a threat to her future marriage and children.
A man or woman who brushes off past immorality as “no big deal,” or as something from which he has “moved on,” has a conscience seared. This person is trained and ready to do the same kind of self-justification for future adultery.
What a Christian evaluating a potential spouse should fear most of all is not a repentant fornicator, but a person who will, as is increasingly common, declare himself or herself to be a virgin with some asterisks. One who sees, for instance, oral or anal sex as merely one of the “bases” short of “sex” is a person who has been trained to evade repentance. In the fullness of time, apart from radical conviction of sin, this person will excuse other acts of treachery to the marital vow.
The Peril of “Almost Gospels”
But there’s another danger here, and it’s a peril found in the same biblical tension from which a thousand other heresies have sprung. The gospel tells us how God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). There are “almost gospels” that always seek to circumvent one or the other aspect of this mystery.
On the one hand, there’s the airy antinomianism of those who would seek good news apart from the law and righteousness of God. We find this error in Christians who sin with an easy conscience, assuming they can simply “rededicate” their lives to Jesus at the next altar call (if they’re Evangelical) or the next time they go to confession (if they’re Catholic or Orthodox). But such a “gospel,” severed from the justice of God, is no gospel at all. Indeed, the Pauline epistles repeatedly take on the notion that God’s free mercy means we should “continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). The apostle’s response to this couldn’t be much stronger: “God forbid!”
On the other hand, though, there is the equally perilous temptation to emphasize the righteousness of God’s holy law without the mercy of the Cross. Such an error evidences not only a low view of the gospel but also a low view of the law.
James points out that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10), since sin isn’t against a law but against the Lawgiver. Since, James argues, a transgressor is a transgressor, “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:1213).
Doubts & Difficulties
Often “the talk” about one’s sexual past leads to a break-up. Sometimes that’s necessary, particularly if the conversation reveals a pattern of concealed sin or an ongoing slavery to the works of the flesh. But sometimes the conversation reveals a deep sorrow and a repentant spirit for the immorality of the past. In this case, it shows forth precisely what the gospel is about: the sinner sees his or her past as hell-deserving but crucified with Christ. Yet sometimes, even so, the “pure” one will walk away.
Even in the worst of such situations, there’s a good impulse behind all of this. No matter how accustomed we’ve grown to the libidinal anarchy of our times, fornication isn’t natural. Image-bearing human beings were designed to give themselves completely, each to one mate. This is, as Jesus says, how it was “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8).
Thus, the jealousy one feels at the thought of his spouse being with another person is right in the most primal sense. It reflects the righteous jealousy God expresses when he speaks of his covenant people as fornicators, as adulteresses who have “played the harlot” with suitors uncountable (e.g., Ezek. 16).
Yet I’m surprised at the number of Christians, particularly men, who are unwilling to move forward after hearing a repentant confession of past sexual sin. This is all the more puzzling when the one who “can’t get over” the sexual past of a future mate is also guilty of fornication.
In addition, there are the Christians who insist that their fidelity to sexual morality entitles them to a spouse who is likewise pure. This was brought home to me when I posted my response to the anonymous, inquiring young woman. When I said on my website, as I have here, that past immorality wouldn’t necessarily disqualify the man she was dating from becoming her husband (the way, for instance, he would be disqualified if he were not a Christian), I was amazed by the immediate fury of the virgins.
Some of them insisted I was horribly wrong, that they would never marry such a person. After all, some of them wrote, they had carefully kept themselves from the pleasures of premarital sex. What would be the point if they then married someone who had more experience than they? How could they go forward, always wondering whether their spouse was comparing them to some remembered tryst of long ago?
The Gospel’s Answer
Again, the answer is the gospel itself. If there were “pure” people and “impure” people, then I suppose we could divide the world up into the two groups and marry accordingly. But purity is relative when judged against the tribunal of God’s righteousness. The Christian is, first of all, one who recognizes that he stands by mercy, a mercy in which justice is found only in the sinless purity of Jesus. Since this is so, the gospel tells us, we are to receive others as we have been received.
It is good and necessary for us to teach our children sexual fidelity, the goodness and joy of chastity until marriage. But we must do so in a way that molds the next generation into the image of Christ, not into the image of the merciless Pharisees whom he opposed. Hearing our children pray, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like that fornicator over there,” is not success. One can go to hell with virginity intact.
Thus, you are not “owed” a virgin because you are one. Your sexual purity wasn’t part of a quid pro quo in which God guaranteed you a sexually unbroken mate. Sexual fidelity isn’t some heroic measure at all; it is our obligation as creatures of God.
The chaste Christian is blessed indeed, especially in these pathetic times, but he or she has rebelled at other points and been forgiven. That truth cannot help but fuel the mercy of one who has been forgiven much. After all, those who have been forgiven must know that we stand in grace not because our sins are not there, but because Christ has made propitiation for them on the Cross. And not for our sins only, “but for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The Bridegroom’s Love
In today’s culture, in which a person’s life is often seen to consist in the abundance of his orgasms, “the talk” about one’s sexual past is sadly necessary. If it brings to light a lack of repentance or an ongoing pattern of sexual sin on the part of a prospective spouse, a Christian should flee the trouble to come.
But if it reveals a prospective spouse who is repentant and forgiven, and the other potential mate is still “tortured” by the thought of it all, it could be that the root issue isn’t about sex at all. The real question could be one of personal pride and a refusal to see oneself as a gospel-forgiven sinner.
The issue isn’t whether fornication is damnable; it is. The issue is whether damnation can be turned back, by Golgotha Hill Blood and Garden Tomb Life.
Perhaps right now, as I write this in a coffee shop in Louisville, there’s a couple just out of earshot beginning this awkward, painful conversation. If so, I pray they’ll see beyond their potential marriage, and beyond marriage in general, to the mystery behind it all, a mystery that throbs with the gospel.
The first marriage was between two virgins; that is true. But the primeval one-flesh union reflected something else, something unveiled only ages later in the preaching of Christ. The cleaving of this husband to this wife pictured then, and does now, the icon of the Messiah and his assembly, of a Head with his Body. Jesus was a virgin. His Bride wasn’t. He loved us anyway. •
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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