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?