Monday, June 20, 2005

My Take on Chapter 6: A Piper Book Review (part 3)

Mark Dever, Michael Lawrence, Matt Schmucker, and Scott Croft, all of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, tag-team for the chapter on "Sex and the Single Man." They are addressing two problems: 1) The trend of more and more men delaying marriage longer and longer, and 2) The trend of more and more professing Christian men engaging in greater levels of physical intimacy prior to marriage. It's impossible to disagree that these trends are problems in evangelical culture.

The problem of delayed marriage seems underestimated by the 21st century church. Al Mohler was the first person I heard to attack this problem, but Dever et al (no pun intended) do a better job of avoiding the inflammatory broad-brushing that Mohler engaged in. Dever touches only briefly on this problem in this article, but in other places he has expressed substantial concerns with the extension of adolescent "boy culture" into the 20s and 30s and the "professionalism culture" that indefinitely sets aside family life in favor of career. More on this to come in a pending discussion of Mohler's comments that preceded the conference from which this book springs.

The larger portion of this chapter is developed by Lawrence, Schmucker, and Croft, and their primary objective is to exposit a theology of sex and an appropriate application of that theology to single men. Lawrence addresses the theological issues, and the essence of his argument is that marriage is a covenant, and sex is the sign of this covenant. This assessment of marriage seems plausible, and I am inclined to agree with him, but his exegetical argument for these conclusions is rather thin. Because I know Lawrence to be a competent theologian, I presume that he is quite capable of formulating this exegetical argument, and that time (conference) and space (book) limitations precluded fuller development.

[6/21 a.m. Edit: I've been warned that right about here my argument gets a bit difficult to follow. Maybe it's the complexity of the issues; maybe it's that married people don't feel strongly about this issue; maybe I've just poorly stated my thoughts. Probably the latter, but I don't know how to make it simpler without diluting my argument. So I offer my deepest apologies for my deficiencies, and I'll offer any clarifications that I can.]

In any case, he transitions to the application of his conclusions by contrasting the "typical progression" of physical intimacy in relationships with the "biblical progression" of physical intimacy. Whereas in the typical progression, physical intimacy is a sliding scale that gradually increases as commitment to the relationship increases, he contends that the biblical progression remains at zero intimacy from "no commitment" through engagement up until marriage, at which time intimacy increases, well, substantially (as I conclude from the arrow on Figure 6.2 that points off the page). In other words, there is a level of physical intimacy that is appropriate with a mother or sister, and there is a level that is appropriate for a wife. "Biblically speaking, there is no in-between area here, where a woman is sort-of-a-sister, or sort-of-a-wife."

Schmucker continues from Lawrence's foundation to flesh out how this theology ought to be lived out in the life of a single man. He begins by asking three questions about the appropriateness of varying levels of intimacy between a married man and a woman who is not his wife. All three are no-brainer "No's," with the third question being undoubtedly the lowest level of intimacy:
Do you think it would be acceptable or unacceptable for me to have a meal with a woman not my wife and engage in extended conversation about each other's lives (likes/dislikes/struggles/pasts)?
It is at this point that Schmucker's arguments depart from Lawrence's mother/sister ethic and morph into an ethic based on what is appropriate conduct for a married man with a woman not his wife or a man with a woman who is another man's wife. The subtle difference creates a persuasive argument, but it also introduces some flaws. His argument seems to presuppose that any intimacy—physical or emotional—that is inappropriate between a man and woman who are married to other people is also inappropriate for single people (who might ultimately become the spouses of other parties).

Yet one might just as well take Schmucker's third question and end the sentence a bit sooner: "Do you think it would be acceptable or unacceptable for me to have a meal with a woman not my wife?" Call me old-fashioned, but should I be married at some point in the future, I'm not going to be real crazy about my wife having a meal with some other guy. I think it's unacceptable. But if Schmucker's broader argument is valid, it is just as inappropriate for me as a single man to go out to eat with another single woman as it would be for a married man to have dinner with another man's wife. Now, this presupposition that any extra-marital physical or emotional intimacy is inappropriate may be true, but if it is true, it will lead us to some more radical conclusions that Schmucker displays no interest in espousing. But we'll need to come back to that.

Now, I'm very sympathetic with Schmucker's conclusion that single men ought "not to have any physical intimacy with any woman" to whom they are not married. He offers four excellent reasons for this conclusion. Croft concurs in his section and forays further into the defrauding tendencies of emotional intimacy. He argues, "The topics, manner, and frequency of conversation should be characterized by the desire to become acquainted with each other more deeply, but not in a way that defrauds each other." I can't disagree with this in the slightest. Croft is dead right to say that "the motive for dating or courting is marriage," but courting couples need to guard against defrauding one another emotionally during this period when marriage is uncertain. But what should a relationship that might be on the pathway to marriage look like? "Of course he must get to know his courting partner well enough to make a decision on marriage," he concedes. "However, prior to the decision to marry, he should always engage with her emotionally in a way he would be happy for other men to engage with her."

In other words, prior to engagement, there ought to be no emotional intimacy as well as physical intimacy. A man ought not interact with a woman he is courting differently in a qualitative way from any other guy this woman has contact with. Ok, fine. I guess I've never observed a relationship approaching engagement with zero emotional intimacy, but for sake of the argument, I will assume that it is theoretically possible. I do wish that Croft and Schmucker could have found a way to offer some practical meat to hang on these theoretical bones. What is it that this man is trying to find out about the potential wife that is "enough to make a decision on marriage"? This approach makes courtship sound like a clinical job interview.

Now, maybe that is the ideal we singles ought all to be striving for. Look for a godly person who possesses strong character and scrap the "chemistry" stuff. But then I'm not at all sure why Croft's argument implicitly allows for some level of emotional intimacy after "the decision to marry," when Schmucker and Croft himself specifically oppose any allowance for any level of physical intimacy. How is emotional intimacy at some (undefined) level safe and acceptable if all physical intimacy is inappropriate. My argument is not that some physical intimacy ought to be permitted, but that Schmucker and Croft do not offer any rationale for permitting some emotional intimacy but no physical intimacy.

I've spilt a great deal of bandwidth trying to make a very technical criticism of a chapter that is, on the whole, quite helpful. For instance, Croft offers a tremendous challenge to young men as he distinguishes between modern dating and biblical courtship. He says, "Modern dating asks, 'How can I find the one for me?' while biblical courtship asks, 'How can I be the one for her?' " Schmucker also makes a great case for pre-marital purity when he advises men to make good deposits in the "Marriage Bank." He says, "Treat all women in a way that ensures, when doubt arises, that the one woman you do marry will be able to draw confidence and faith from the pre-marriage deposits you made through prayerfulness and holy living."

My simple point is that there are good arguments for right conclusions and "less good" arguments for right conclusions. Both are present in Schmucker and Croft's case for abstinence from physical intimacy prior to marriage.

My slightly-less-simple point is that if we take Schmucker and Croft's arguments against physical intimacy to what I believe are their rightful ends—abstinence from emotional intimacy prior to marriage, as well—we land on a pretty small plot of land. I think that the only reasonable positions left are that we ought to engage in arranged marriage or perhaps follow a model of courtship that is quite clinical—even antiseptic. Certainly not very romantic.

Of course, I suspect that some elements of such an approach might be rather attractive to me and some of my single guy friends. But I speak as one who has never seen Anne of Green Gables. (I prefer the idealistic pessimism of Casablanca.)

On the other hand, the fact that these conclusions may seem undesirable and outmoded does not make them wrong. Also, I should say that there is no direct indication that any of Dever, Lawrence, Schmucker, or Croft are arguing for these approaches. I have simply been unable to this point to imagine what more moderate ground is preferable or theoretically possible. I have tremendous respect for each of them, having observed them in action at a CHBC elders meeting during a IX Marks weekender. I suspect that they are able to more fully develop their views with wisdom and biblical support.

Once again, I find that is has taken me far more space (and time) to address far fewer issues than I had hoped. Part 4 should be brief.

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