Relationships “The Right Way”
God willing, we all recognize that the marriage and the development of relationships are incredibly significant. Social creatures that we are, human beings are drawn toward loving and meaningful companionship, and for many, thoughts about love, marriage, and relationships begin to blossom at a very early age. Among the more conservative and liturgically oriented Christian circles I find myself traveling through, the way young people ought to approach marriage and romantic relationships is probably one of the single most commonly debated topics of discussion. Pastors, parents, and young people alike all have clearly defined ideas of how a relationship should look, and these ideas are presented as anything but casual suggestions. I’ve seen people, who otherwise get along very well, jump into rather intense and heated debates over whether or not teens and young adults should date, what kind of physical interaction is appropriate before marriage, and if it is ever OK for two people to be in a relationship if they don’t intend to get married.
These kinds of passionately driven discussions happen, I think, because we recognize the severity of these issues and the importance of living upright and decent lives in a society where ideas of marriage, sex, and relationships are disfigured and distorted in heinous and unrecognizable ways. Loving and well intentioned parents and pastors are determined to guide and protect their children and the young people of their churches because they are fully aware of the ways that the very concept of love itself has been skewed in our modern culture. As I heard at a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod wedding just the other day “[M]arriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Loving companionship isn’t something insignificant or meaningless, and despite what the world around us might argue, there are lasting consequences to entering and leaving romantic and physically intimate relationships. It makes sense, then, that people within the Christian community recognize the importance of this issue and get enthusiastic about ensuring that the people they care about do things “the right way.”
However, the thing that concerns me when I observe the typical approach to pre-marriage relationships within my Christian community is that I see a great deal of unwavering law that extends greatly beyond what is given to us in scripture. It leaves little room for the life circumstances of individuals and acts as though every couple should be essentially the same. Of course law is instrumentally important; when you’re a teenager or young adult running full steam on out of control hormones, there is certainly a use for clear standards as tools for guiding young people toward marriage in an upright and respectable manner. However, the Law without the Gospel is damning, and especially when we are dealing with laws not given to use via the divinely inspired Word of God we should seriously consider whether or not our good intentioned rules are helping or condemning the people around us.
The prevailing opinion about how relationships should be conducted that I hear coming from the more conservative and liturgical group of Christians around me (which is made almost entirely by homeschooling families) is that you should get married young, that you shouldn’t date, that physical intimacy should by and large be avoided until marriage, and that families should play an instrumental part in the development of the relationship. I have heard profound and convincing arguments for all of these points, but what do they mean for the twenty-eight year old who has been actively seeking but has not found a marriageable companion? What comfort or direction is the atheist turned Christian to find in instruction like that when they are faced with the fact that they have already been in and out of several dating and physically intimate relationships? What does the couple attending college across the country from their families do, and what hope is there if you didn’t get this direction or advice until too late?
The laws I see laid down by the actually very wise and caring parents and pastors within my circle are excellent, but they are also idealistic and unforgiving a lot of the time. The idea that there is one, and only one, right way for a relationship to be carried out is harmful to a lot of people left without the means to adhere to the rules and standards ingrained in that “one right way.” On top of that, there is no clear path of forgiveness or reconciliation for those who have erred in the past, and the implied message is that if you don’t follow the rules of the correct way than you are either A) sinning B) guaranteed to enter into a doomed relationship and/or C) walking along a path bound for pain and suffering. Oftentimes this may be the case, and the rules established by the Christian community are often made as a direct response to the evils and errors of the world around us, but the law never comforts or forgives. The law will always condemn; the law without the gospel leads to despair, and despair is just as likely to pull apart a relationship as anything else.
My point is not that we should abandon relationships and pursue love carelessly and without guiding principles and curbs in place, but rather that attempting to establish a one-size-fits-all set of rules that can be applied to everyone is not likely to be entirely beneficial. People meet their spouses at different ages, they live in different circumstances, and their families all have their own unique cultures. The differences and dynamic characteristics of families and individuals are part of what make marriage and loving companionship so incredibly special and remarkable; to ignore or undermine that is to disregard the significance of the fact that two different people from two different worlds can come together and become one.
Considering the fact that I am not married and do not have any children myself, I can hardly claim to be an expert on love or relationships in any way. However, I’ve botched a relationship in my life already by trying to adhere to an unrelenting ideal, and I’ve seen several friends and two different siblings go through the entire process of meeting someone and getting married. God has blessed me with the opportunity to observe others while they made both mistakes and good choices, and I have striven to learn from witnessing my own failures and successes as well those of my friends and family. Based on my observations and personal experiences, I am convinced that the “one right way” to conduct a relationship, or the closest thing to it, is very simple.
What the girl’s head says is the way things should be done, is the way they should be done.
When I say head, I am not referring to the brain on the shoulders of the female in the relationship but rather the authority in her life responsible for her care and safety up until she is able to find a spouse. God willing this will be her dad, but in cases of a deceased, negligent, or absent father it might be her mother, an uncle, an older brother, or even a pastor. In any case, chances are there will be someone in her life that can be called a head and an authority.
Just as Jacob was to concede to Laban’s authority in order to win Rachel’s hand, young men today are to concede to the authority of their sweetheart’s head. As long the girl’s father or other authority is a Godly and upright individual, the rules he puts in place are created with the authority of his station and should be honored and respected. When men recognize that the fathers of the women they wish to marry are not obstacles to overcome or even friends to be won over but authorities ordained by God to provide for and protect their daughters, the question of “How should I approach a relationship with this girl?” should be relatively clear. The answer is: “However her father says I should.”
This philosophy allows the father or other head to take into account the fact that every couple is different. If he is attentive and caring then it is likely that he will know his daughter better than anyone else; so he, God willing, will know what is best for her and what kind of rules will be most likely to result in a healthy and happy relationship/marriage. Parents have been put into the ultimate position to serve as mediators and guides within the relationships of their children because they have not only gone through the whole experience of growing up and getting married themselves, but they have also spent years watching their children grow and develop.
On top of that, when the girl’s head becomes the head of the relationship, neither half of the relationship has to ever rely on their own inexperienced wisdom or some generic presiding set of rules to guide them or show them what is right. There will always be another person, one with many more years of life behind him and an intimate knowledge of who, at least one half of the relationship is, to turn to for advice and instruction.
Perhaps most importantly, if adopted, this is not a law absent of any accompanying gospel. With the father’s law comes his guiding wisdom and grace. By involving the father in the relationship this way, he has the ability to care for, oversee, and nurture the couple not as task master but as someone seeking to care for his child and her future husband. True, fathers are necessarily intimidating and the guy should actually have to work to earn the hand of his bride, but once the couple is married the father will have gained a son in addition to giving away a daughter. He is someone to trust and respect rather than fear.
In the same way that our heavenly Father gives us forgiveness and grace in addition to His Law, by taking the girl’s head on as the head of the entire relationship, the couple should receive his wisdom and care in addition to a set of rules. Because let’s face it, just as all humanity is rotten to the core and dependent on God’s grace and mercy, there are few people as prone to make stupid choices and err in potentially disastrous ways as a couple of young people in love.
Obviously I don’t have everything figured out, and obviously this philosophy still struggles in situations when a girl is removed from her family for one reason or another. However, from what I have observed of life so far, this seems to be the wisest and safest path. Besides, if you think about it, it is a very Christological philosophy. If the heavenly Father is the head of Christ and his bride the Church, it only makes sense that an earthly father should be the head of his children and their life as a couple.