I am not a Christian. But by some bizarre twist of fate most of my friends in York are members of the Christian Union, so, for the past year I have been trying to get my head around a belief system which is completely foreign to my way of thinking. We have had countless theological debates. Most of these have ended on the same topics: relationships, sex and marriage. I decided I would do some digging of my own, to see what makes them tick, and why many Christian couples marry at an age that I consider young. I am not alone; the average age of first-time marriage in the UK is 31 for men and 29 for women (Office for National Statistics, 2006). Why then would a Christian couple choose to buck the trend and walk down the aisle up to ten years earlier than most?
John*, 23, is a masters student at York who got married this summer. He explains it in terms of two timelines; that of a non-Christian relationship and of a Christian one. In the former the couple might be in a situation where they got together at university. If it went well they may, once graduated, move to the big city and end up living together. All being well, children and possibly marriage may be on the cards when they hit their late 20s. The parallel scenario of a Christian couple it is quite different. “Most of us believe that you shouldn’t live with someone until you love them enough to commit to living the rest of your life with them. When you reach this stage you get married and then move in together. So because as Christians we have to commit to loving our partner before we can live together we tend to marry earlier.” Of course this is a broad generalisation, but not one to be ignored as it taken extremely seriously by those who subscribe to the word of the Bible.
Despite the desire to cohabit and take the relationship further, I’m still baffled by the ability to make a decision of such significance at this stage in life. As Matt, an active member of the Christian Union, one of the University’s most prominent societies, explains, that may well be to do with my own lack of Christian faith. He tells me: “Christians pray about things because they believe they’re getting guidance from a higher power. If you’ve really prayed about something and you feel at peace with it, it gives you more confidence in your decision than someone who doesn’t pray. This process can help you feel more able to make big choices like that of getting married.” Charles Walters, pastor of Christ the Light church in York, expands on this, citing a lack of finance as a reason that young couples may be put off marriage, but he goes on to say that “if a couple believes and trusts in God they literally trust him to provide the means.”
This is all very well but what about the issue of sex? If you’re anything like myself, you’re of the view that sex is an important and integral part of any good relationship. But this view is not held by everyone, and I don’t just mean middle aged church goers. Take our peers at university. “Subscribing to a belief of abstaining from sex can lead to very short engagements” quips Matt, a third year PPE student and active member of the CU. The Bible says: ‘If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with a passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9). Surely this is license to marry on the grounds of lustfulness? Clearly there is a bigger picture, and when put into context the issue of abstinence goes far deeper.
The Bible also says ‘a man will be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). “The decision to abstain,” says Charles, “is a wonderfully courageous one because more often than not it is people in the minority who make that decision. Sex is a powerful thing and people are curious, but to wait until you’re married is wonderful, exciting, and an adventure that is worth the wait.” Resisting sex before marriage is one of the ideals put forth by the Bible but as Matt tells me, it isn’t one of the ten commandments. “If you choose to wait you put a special value on both yourself and your partner because there is a spiritual element to sex as well as the physical, and this is the basis for thinking that it should only be with one person.”
When I put the idea to Charles, John, and Matt that not all church-going Christians take such a literal reading of the Bible and do engage in sexual activities before marriage, they all said it would be hard to find someone who admits to this stance because in essence it is denying part of their religion. “God has given sexual relations between a man and wife so that they are safe and can enjoy it. I struggle with the idea that someone has given their life to God and still deliberately decides to have sex. I wouldn’t call it a renunciation of God because He will surely tell their conscience that they’re not walking down the good road.”
In fact, it isn’t difficult to find this sort of person at all. Nick Lamb, Vicar of The Holy Trinity in Sussex reassures me that these ideals are quite conservative and are not wholly representative of the wider Christian viewpoint. Reverend Rory Dalgliesh, our University Methodist Chaplain agrees: “I think the Church often makes more of sex than is made of it in the Bible. It is not, in my reading, a primary issue in the teaching of Jesus. But I do believe promiscuity is dangerous,” he goes on, “the proper place for sexual intercourse is within a committed relationship.”
Helen, a third year student at the University of Sheffield and dedicated Christian, doesn’t think that there is only one person out there for each of us, “if this were the case I’d agree that sex should only be between a married couple. I feel bad when I do something that both God and I know is wrong but I don’t feel that this includes sex within a non-marital relationship.” This is the case for a Christian couple Rory describes, who feel that they experience both the presence and the blessing of God in the whole of their relationship, including their sex life.
The discrepancy between these views presents different approaches to understanding the Bible. Helen tells me she thinks the Bible is something that shouldn’t be taken too literally; “I see it as more of a tool. By taking the Bible completely at its word I think people are closing their minds to the here and now.” Charles’ wife Cath takes a very different line: “In the Bible it says you’re for God or you’re against him and you can’t sit on the fence. My view is that it is all or nothing, so I think that it is wishy washy to pick and choose parts of your religion, but people will do this and God will lead them.”
As an outsider looking in I sense that the overriding theme is that if you believe in God then He will love you no matter what. With this is mind it doesn’t matter what stance you take, or whether other Christians approve, as long as your actions don’t hurt anybody. To me the notion that He will forgive your mistakes – and pre-marital sex could be one of these – is ridiculous if you don’t believe you were out of line. What really matters is that you’re in agreement with your partner, which is why many of my Christian friends choose partners from within the CU. Wheras Matt describes it as a dating agency, John tells me that most Christian undergraduates will be at an age when getting to know a prospective partner, they will already be thinking about whether they would like to be with that person long term. This is clearly a contributing factor to early marriage, and the CU provides a safe environment which is “ideal,” Matt says, “for meeting nice girls who hold similar values.” I’m assured that most members of the CU will take the no-sex-before-marriage approach to their religion, so it is unlikely that a conflict of interests will arise when it comes to bed time pre-marriage.
I express my concern to Charles and Cath that living in an environment where sex outside marriage is considered wrong may lead to a lack of information being made accessible to curious teenagers. If an area of life moves from being off-limits to wholly encouraged in one night then a full awareness is necessary and I worry that this is not the case. Charles tells me that every couple he marries will have had several sessions of marriage counselling to address issues on sex, money and family. He describes an image of a box: at the bottom are many switches, at the top is one switch which says ‘on/off’. The top switch represents the man in a sexual relationship, and the lower ones, a woman. He laughs as he says that a shy, newly wed couple must be made aware that a woman has lots of switches that need turning on during sex while a man is wired more simply. Not understing this it can lead a to communication breakdown. However, everyone I speak to talks as openly about sex as my non religious friends. Some describe their personal boundaries within relationships, demonstrating a self discipline that is frankly astounding.
When the moment that this restraint finally dissipates on the night of your wedding there is a huge shift in the relationship, says John. He described his excitement of the changes marriage would bring as a pie chart where sex held the largest portion. In reality he came to realise that consummating his marriage was not divisible into its own section of life. “Sex is tied to everything else, I didn’t expect the joining of having sex, covenant, cuddling, caring, protecting, sharing, and future plans. Each one of these is an expression of the other and each aspect amplifies sex and sex amplifies every aspect.” This is not a view of life that I have heard of outside a Christian context, and it sounds almost too perfect. If it is achievable, then I’m in admiration. Hearing the way John talks about his new wife I begin to understand the huge difference in significance marriage has for a Christian. Many people in our society will already be living with their fiance at the point of marriage so that the ceremony, although wonderful and no less special, just marks their commitment to each other publicly. For more traditional Christians the day means so much more. They take a gift from God and before him give themselves to each other. From that moment they will live together and share everything in their lives. The act of sex as John described it deepens everything in the relationship and creates a sense of one-ness between the couple.
As I grasped the magnitude of the committment that is undertaken by two Christians, often no older than myself I began to wish that I could share in some of the magic without a God. Cath responded to these musings with a surprising conjecture: “I would go so far as to say, if you aren’t a Christian why even consider marriage? More often than not people stand before a vicar because they want a pretty church and lovely photos but I would say, why put on that beautiful dress and go through the motions if you don’t really understand what marriage is about? Marriage is ordained by God and the world has picked it up and sees it as romantic. If you don’t believe in God don’t feel pressured to get married.”
It’s clear then, that I’ve have been delving into the beliefs of a narrow, more evangelical section of the Christian population. Like myself, you may see Cath’s thought as quite extreme and indeed some of what she and Charles had to say shocked my liberal mind. Nevertheless, there was something about their absolute openness and warmth of heart, something I’ve experienced in other very religious people, that drew me to them and I found myself holding great respect for their views despite the cavernous divide between theirs and mine. Having said that, some of the moral issues that have arisen from my research are ones I thoroughly identify with. I have been compelled to stop and question what I want marriage to mean to me when I finally arrive at that point. In the meantime, to those Christians who do marry young, I now understand your reasoning with greater depth. As I see it, the issues leading up to the decision of marriage display a much broader picture of Christianity. Hardly just a licence to have sex.