Ever since the Sexual Revolution of the 60’s and the 70’s, western Christians have been tempted to retreat from traditional Biblical sexual ethics. Even if our personal practice has not changed, we have felt some pressure with regard to our teaching, either to raise our voices because of the conflict with our culture, or else to lower our voices because we don’t like the conflict. This pressure comes from our sense that sexual matters are close to the center of the way our culture refuses to accept the public discussion of religiously based moral rules.
However, the Christian should know that God’s law is written into the blueprint of creation and can be ignored only at our peril. It should be no surprise that a lot of modern research shows the wisdom of traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex. It is valuable for us to know and use some of this research. Maybe we can help roll back some of the deadly effects of the Sexual Revolution.
Of the many good resources on the topic, I will use only two that you can easily purchase and read, The Pursuit of Happiness by Hope College professor David G. Myers (New York: Avon Books. 1992), and Marriage Savers by newspaper columnist Michael J. McManus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993). I will simply summarize, apply and reflect on information they have collected without further footnotes. Two themes seem especially important that sexual union should only occur after marriage, and that marriage should be for a lifetime.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
The current marital/sexual situation in most western countries is not encouraging. The numbers Myers and McManus report are mostly from the US. In 1988, 51.5% of females age 15–19 had premarital sex, up from 29% in 1970. In the US during the 90’s we average about 1 million teen pregnancies per year, of which about 40% end in abortion. About 3 million teenagers alone have some type of sexually transmitted disease. About 100,000 women have become infertile each year due to STD’s. 31% of American children have parents who were never married. (That number is shocking!)
Over 50% of couples cohabit (live together) before marriage. 60% of marriages fail, 50% ending in divorce. 10% in separation. Before age 18, 3/5 of children of married parents will see their parents separate or divorce.
Those who have sex before marriage average about a 60% higher divorce rate than those who do not. The more sex partners a person has prior to marriage, the less likely they will have a happy marriage. And cohabiting, contrary to myths about needing a trial-marriage, does not lead to happy marriages. On average, of 100 cohabitations, 40 lead to separation before marriage, 45 lead to separation or divorce after marriage, and only 15 lead to a life-time marriage. This means 75% of marriages preceded by cohabiting, end in divorce. (If my math is correct, this means over 75% of marriages not preceded by cohabiting do not lead to divorce.) Those couples who did not cohabit before marriage report happier marriages. And cohabiting women are 76 times (!) more likely to get beat up by their partner than married women.
The effects of marital/sexual chaos are very wide ranging, disturbing many dimensions of the lives of adults, children and our entire society. Contrary to the modern myth, divorce leaves emotional scars that are readily documented 5 to 10 years later, that are far greater than the scars of losing a spouse to death. Divorced people tend to feel angry, rejected and humiliated.
The medical effects of divorce are almost as serious as those of smoking. Divorced men are twice as likely to die from heart disease, stroke, hypertension or cancer in any given year. They are 4 times as likely to die from auto accidents or suicide, seven times as likely to die of pneumonia or cirrhosis of the liver, 8 times as likely to be murdered, and 10 times as likely to have psychiatric problems. The medical effects of divorce on women seem to be comparable in severity to the effects of men, though they were not reported as extensively in these sources.
Just one example of the similar pattern: divorced women have 2 to 3 times the normal death rate for cancer of the mouth, breasts, lungs and digestive tract.
The economic effects of divorce or having children outside of marriage a is becoming well known. 44% of single parent families live below the official poverty line, while only 6 or 7% of two parent families fall below the poverty line. This makes one think that our marital/sexual chaos is not only the leading, but the predominant cause of poverty.
The emotional scars on children of divorced parents are now known in greater detail than the general loss of structure and of rejection. Girls tend to develop a fear of abandonment by a husband or lover 5 to 15 years after their parents’ divorce. About 1 in 10 will fall into a delinquent pattern that will include things like assault, burglary, arson, drugs, theft and drunk driving. Boys from divorced families, 10 years after the divorce, tend to be lonely, unhappy, and have few lasting relationships with girls. About 1 in 3 falls into a delinquent pattern for a time, All children from single parent homes are twice as likely to have behavior problems, divorced kids tending more toward suicide, illegitimate kids more toward violent crime.
The education a effects will be no surprise. Whereas only 12% of children from 2 parent families repeat a grade in school, 22% of divorced children need to repeat a grade.
The effects of following the ideology of the Sexual Revolution can be seen in emotional, medical, social and education problems. The Sexual Revolution probably ranks close to the Holocaust as a modern, foolish event that is closely tied to a secular ideology.
The Sexual Revolution promised freedom from repression, but modern research shows it really brought destruction. There really are very strong reasons to keep sexual union within marriage and to make marriage a lifetime project. Personally, I find that this strengthens my confidence in the overall Biblical message in the same way the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ and the reliability of the Bible strengthens my confidence. And, of course, this research should promote our gratitude to God for the wisdom that is given to us in the Scriptures.
I also think that in our cultural contest it is quite valuable to know some of this research. There is a time and place to say that living together without marriage is against God’s will. There is also a time and place to say that living together doesn’t work, and to have mention to some research results, especially if the person we are talking with knows we also believe it is a sin.
There is a time to say “God hates divorce”; there is also a time to say that divorce is extremely destructive and has all sorts of lasting consequences for everyone involved.
However, we must not let all the bad news about the results of sin give us a mostly negative message or negative approach to life. In Christ there is both forgiveness and healing for all sorts of sin and foolishness. This good news should always shape all that we say about the bad news.
And in the churches we need to do more to train people for successful marriages, both before and after the wedding. The evidence shows that teaching and training about marriage really bears measurable fruit. And our people would probably like to know that 90% of married couples that pray together and have a good sexual relationship, report they have a happy marriage and strongly tend to be happy with life in general.
In our training, we need to learn to celebrate exciting marital sexual relationships. In I Corinthians 7, Paul seems to describe marital sex as the antidote to extra-marital sex. Secular culture can hardly stop celebrating extra-marital sex. One response should be not only a sober assessment of the consequences, but also a joyful portrayal of how exciting (morally) good sex can be.
We need to remember that God’s law really is the blueprint for creation and life works better when we follow it.
The Rev. Professor Thomas K. Johnson teaches at a Russian University in Minsk, BELARUS. He is affiliated with the International Institute for Christian Studies.