A few weeks ago, TBN released a short clip of an interview with Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke of Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus fame. Jeff and Alyssa have a wildly popular website, filled mostly with content on how to have a happy, successful marriage. Right around the time their marriage will turn five years old, their book, Love That Lasts, will launch. Commentary not necessary.
I would happily give Jefferson’s spoken word skills and charming YouTube channel an A+ for verve, creativity, and savvy marketing. The guy seems genuine and caring, even as a talking head in a rectangle screen with no visible audience. Totally believable. Candid. Relatable. While I find so much of his advice vapid and devoid of basis in actual, Biblical truth, it’s not that he’s unlikable—and that’s part of the problem. With a large audience comes large responsibility.
The clip from TBN is troubling, and not just because it’s a clip from TBN. It’s troubling because when Christian-marriage-advice-giver-Bethke is asked about Christians living together before marriage his answer is that they shouldn’t, because statistics. “Stats are not on your side,” he says emphatically. “If someone told me, ‘Hey, you statistically have a less chance of relational success if you live together than if you don’t, uh, which one would you pick?'” As if this is a no-brainer. Don’t you know, sweet, young, Christian couple, you should always do what is best for you?
The problem, of course, is that this is pragmatism, not Christianity. And most of us, left to our sinful desires, don’t choose what’s best for us. If sex before marriage is as simple as choosing between an apple or a brownie for a snack, most of us are going to prefer the brownie, and those that don’t are lying. That’s the thing about pragmatism. It’s the code of self-preservation, dependent on favorable outcomes, and leaves us to make decisions based on what we think will yield the most self-serving result. A perusal of the comments on YouTube would inform you that so many who chose to live together before marriage (read: have sex before marriage) mentally assent to the idea that it was wrong—but naturally, they’re the exception, not the rule.
It would be unfair to judge Bethke’s approach based on a clip that is a whole one minute and fifteen seconds long, so I searched his page. Turns out, he’s done an almost 8 minute video on the topic, titled Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage? If you’re hoping that at some point he’ll appeal to Scripture or use the S-word (sin, obviously), you will be sorely disappointed. He uses a lot of S-words, like “sensitive” and “social scientists”, but not sin. He never, ever calls premarital sex what it is: sin. He poses a question around Scripture, but never answers that question and moves on to “science.”
“Now there’s a few different ways we can look at things. First, we can look at Scripture. What does Scripture say about our life and how does that bear weight on what we should do to answer this question? But also, there’s empirical evidence and in researching this topic, I want to define that, I want to define what social scientists said, and what people of that nature said, and I found some really crazy and fascinating things.”
He goes on to mention studies older than he (studies from way back in the 80s! Goodness!) that unanimously state that living together before marriage actually leads to more divorce, break-ups, damage to the children, etc. He expounds on this for another six minutes. He says it is so crazy. These statistics you guys! They’re shocking!
Are they, though? Are any Bible-believing Christians surprised by this? You mean that when we go against God’s design for marriage and family, it doesn’t turn out well?! I find the shock and surprise and any treatment of this revelation as ground-breaking to be tiresome. Christians know that sin is harmful, because the Bible tells us so. We don’t need statistics to inform us of this. More than that, marriage advice rooted in Scripture isn’t pragmatic. The message of Scripture isn’t, “Don’t sin! It might make you sad somewhere down the road!” The message of Scripture is, “Don’t sin! It is an offense to a holy God!”
Sin separates us from God, and sin hurts those around us. Sin tarnishes our relationships. Living together with your boyfriend or girlfriend is not loving them, it’s helping them sin. It’s helping them separate from God. It is good and right to point out that it won’t go well for you—but your first love, Jesus, is who you ultimately sin against when you choose to sin with another person. We are commanded in Hebrews 13:4 to honor marriage and abstain from premarital sex. The verse does not end sensitively, it ends with God judging the sexually immoral. This is not a “hey, this might not end well for you” choice. This is a “the judgment of God will come upon you” choice.
Speaking of choices, the Bethkes have two: begin rooting their marriage advice in Scripture, or drop the charade. Being a pragmatist isn’t the same thing as being a Christian. Scripture doesn’t look to social scientists to tell us of the judgment that comes upon unrepentant sin. If your first love is Christ above all else, curbing your sinful desires isn’t going to require peer-reviewed research: it’s going to require a new heart. My prayer and call to the crazy-likable Bethkes is that they would earnestly contend for the faith, not the statistics. The stats won’t save you. The truth of the Gospel will.