You haven’t kissed her yet?”
A classmate furrows his brow, as if trying to understand some antiquarian cultural rite.
“And you’ve been dating how long?”
As a conservative Christian within a libertine college environment, I have heard variations of this same conversation played out numerous times; a liberal student invariably playing equal parts inquisitor and anthropologist, examining the quaint romantic practices of some conservative student.
It’s common to see two students making out in the lobby, or for a couple’s drunken argument to disturb the sleep of an entire floor. But the couple who are often seen together, but never in a compromising situation; who might be spotted walking hand-in-hand, but never sneaking into the others’ room after hours—now that is a mystery worth investigating. Its divergence from the norm invites scrutiny and examination. Notably, these questions—and the resultant conversations about Biblical sexuality—most often come from students who would never sit through a lecture on traditional marriage.
In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, these conversations will become doubly important. On a theological level, last week’s decision changes nothing: as many commentators have observed, the Supreme Court did not create marriage, and it is incapable of changing it. Culturally, however, the decision has lasting implications. The battle between good and evil will be won and lost not in the Supreme Court, but in human hearts.
Peter J. Leithart, in First Things’s recent symposium on Obergefell, wrote “The best argument for traditional marriage is a thriving traditional marriage.” All three major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) have historically understood sex as a gift that is only to be exercised within the boundaries of a covenantal marriage relationship: a permanent, exclusive, comprehensive union between believing, sexually complementary spouses, ordered towards charity and procreation. Any individual who is not part of a covenantal marriage is called to chastity. A Christian understanding of sexuality must not just stand against gay marriage, but also no-fault divorce, adultery, fornication, pornography, lust, a contraceptive mentality, and even the failure to love one’s spouse. If we are to reclaim the definition of marriage, we must reaffirm the entirety of God’s intent for sexuality.
Leithart’s exhortation can be broadened: The best argument for Christian sexual ethics is Christians of all situations and persuasions joyfully submitting their sexuality to the kingship of Christ. For married couples, this means showing honor and charity, ordering their lives towards God and each other so as to represent Christ’s love for the Church. For Christians who are not married, this means joyfully practicing chastity and charity in our relationships with one another.
Where does this leave the young couple from above? Perhaps their calling might be best understood as “missionary dating”—not dating an unbeliever with the hopes of enticing them to salvation—but dating with the understanding that their relationship can bear witness to the truth. Christians who adhere to a high standard of purity, even in a relationship that is aimed at marriage, have the opportunity to tell a potent truth about forgoing immediate gratification for the sake of a greater truth and future reward. Even within the evolution of a dating relationship, Christians have the opportunity to reflect truths about God’s design for sexuality. In the words of 1 Peter 2:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Obergefell v. Hodges is symptomatic of a much deeper cultural misunderstanding of marriage and sexuality. The best way church members can champion Christian sexual ethics is through modeling them and graciously answering the questions that will inevitably come our way—through missionary dating, marriage, and singleness.
Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. His writing has been published in Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.