Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?

How sex = marriage

Credit: Fotopedia, photo by ♥ China ♥ guccio on Flickr

This is the second installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looked at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 considers “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 and part 4 will explore some of the limitations of this starting point, while part 5 will offer an alternative approach. 

Here’s what much of the criticism of the evangelical purity culture comes down to: a growing sense that there has to be a better way.

There has to be a better way to talk with our kids about sex, to help them see both its promise and its pitfalls. To give them a realistic vantage point, not one that’s shaped either by excessive fear or by fairytale expectations of what their wedding night will be like if they wait.

There has to be a better way of doing this than purity balls and pledge cards. We’ve tried them for almost 20 years now, and the jury’s in: they don’t work. And having failed for the most part to prevent extramarital sex, they go on to heap needless shame on those (especially girls) who, for one reason or another, don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins.

There has to be a better way to articulate a sexual ethic that’s authentically Christian AND relevant to the world we live in, not the one we might wish we lived in.

Preston Yancey is trying to do just that. He’s proposed a sexual ethic that doesn’t depend on memory verses quoted out of context or on patriarchal notions of virginity.

Preston unpacks his main argument (worth reading in its entirety) in part two of his series on sexual ethics. He observes that marriage in the Bible was made official not by a ceremony or a legal document but by the act of consummation. Therefore, the reason we should reserve sex for marriage is because sex is marriage. Or, at least, the initiation of it.

Consensual sex, the uniting of male and female, is itself the act of marriage . . . [it] is the action that unites two into one and thereby pronounces them wed. And this understanding of uniting, of sex being true consummation of marriage, was the historic understanding of the Church up until modern times, and remains so in some denominations.

This approach certainly helps make sense of what we find in Genesis 24, the story of Isaac and Rebekah. No sooner had they met than they made their union official by having sex.

(In his dead mother’s tent.)

In other words, it was the act of consummation that made Isaac and Rebekah husband and wife.

Hence the recurring phrase “two shall become one flesh,” found in many wedding liturgies to this day. This may be the closest we’ll ever get to a “biblical” definition of marriage. As Preston points out, this phrase occurs three times in Scripture, which is a pretty good indicator that it’s kind of important.

Yet as Preston also notes, the Bible doesn’t address sexuality in a vacuum. The idea of sex as marriage originated from a particular cultural and historical context. And that context was very different from ours. For example . . .

  • Marriages in the ancient Near East were typically arranged, sometimes between total strangers (n.b. Isaac and Rebekah). 
  • People married younger than we do today. This was especially true for girls, who were considered marriage material basically from the time they hit puberty.
  • Grooms, on the other hand, tended to be a bit older than their brides. One possible reason for this is that marriage was less about love and more about a man asserting himself. There’s some evidence from Assyrian and Babylonian records that men tended to marry after their fathers had died. Marriage, then, was a means by which sons established themselves as the new paterfamilias. 
  • Polygamy was accepted and, in at least one case, implicitly required by the Bible. In all likelihood, polygamy wasn’t that common among ordinary people, given the wealth needed to sustain a large household. But Israel’s most famous patriarchs (Abraham and Jacob) and its most revered kings (David and Solomon) were polygamists. So was Herod the Great in Jesus’ day. Polygamy always and only ran in one direction: a husband with multiple wives, not the other way around. 
  • Women were extremely vulnerable to abuse, and by our standards, some of the remedies were as disturbing as the abuse itself. For example, the penalty for raping an unmarried Israelite virgin was that you had to marry her. Preston addresses this here and follows up in more detail here. There was a reason for this law, which I’ll come back to in another post, because this is where we run into the limitations of “sex as marriage” as the basis for our sexual ethic. 

These are just a few examples of how marriage was viewed much differently then than it is now. (Keep that in mind next time someone tries to tell you marriage has always and only been one thing and that it cannot be “tampered with.”)

In any case, the cultural dynamics which shape the Old Testament’s view of sex should serve as a clue that applying a sexual ethic from the Old Testament may not be as straightforward as we’d like. More on that in the next couple of posts.

How “virginity-gate” became the latest manufactured outrage

This is the first installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looks at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 will consider “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 and part 4 will explore some of the limitations of this starting point, while part 5 will offer an alternative approach. 

When I was 16 or thereabouts, I signed a True Love Waits card at my church.

A short time later, when a syndicated columnist poked fun at the nascent abstinence movement, I penned a response for my local newspaper. (It was my first ever published piece of anything.)

Strictly speaking, I kept my pledge. I was a virgin when I married. I’ve only ever had sex with one woman, and make no mistake: I’m very happy about that.

Several weeks ago, Sarah Bessey wrote a brave piece on what it’s like to be one of those labeled “damaged goods” by the evangelical purity culture. Others like her have written similarly brave articles. And predictably, some have reacted with all kinds of manufactured outrage, like this.

Never mind that these brave writers (whose articles, no doubt, were a profoundly liberating read for those with a complicated sexual past — i.e. the VAST MAJORITY of evangelicals) endorsed neither “individualism gone wild” nor “commitment-free” sex, as their critics insinuated.

Never mind that many of these authors embody the very notion of marriage-as-covenant about as well as anyone can.

Ironically, one of the main critics even seemed to accept the basic premise of Sarah’s “Damaged Goods” piece, writing:

Some religious folks resort to a “steaming pile of legalistic shame-mongering.” When a religious community sees the human body along utilitarian lines while sacred texts forbid sexual misconduct, they resort to deontological ethics—unwavering adherence to rules. In certain circles, there is an underlying assumption that God punishes the sin of fornication by ruining the future marriage, when that may not in fact be the case.

The main difference, from what I can tell, between this and what Sarah wrote is that this particular critic likes to use words like “deontological.” (It’s an old trick, appropriating sophisticated philosophical jargon to make your argument sound more impressive than it really is.)

Yet much of the criticism only perpetuates the very problem that prompted Sarah and others to write in the first place: namely, idolizing virginity creates a massive culture of shame, especially for women in the church.

So in response to this culture of shame, let’s do a bit of truth-telling.

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The fact is, most evangelicals don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins. According to one study, some 80% of True Love Waits signees end up breaking their pledge. (And for what it’s worth, those Christians who don’t make it to their wedding night are more likely to have unprotected sex, more likely to get pregnant, and more likely to end up having abortions.)

Whether by design or by accident, emphasizing Abstinence Above All Else creates more problems than it solves. In addition, it sends Christian teenagers a profoundly unbiblical message . . .

Your virginity is the best gift you can give to your future spouse.
(Really? More important than your heart? More important than a lifetime of companionship, fidelity, and solidarity?)

Once you lose your purity, you can never get it back.
(So all that “new creation” talk in the Bible was just wishful thinking?)

Yes, virginity — namely, a woman’s virginity — was a big deal in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. But the reason had little to do with the virtue of chastity or the promise of some fairy-tale wedding night. In the ancient Near East, virginity reinforced a woman’s status as someone else’s property.

A woman’s virginity (and, by extension, her body) belonged to her father until he arranged a suitable marriage for her. Marriage, then, constituted a transfer of ownership: from father to husband. (Ever wonder where the “who gives this woman?” part of the wedding ceremony came from?)

A woman’s virginity was a litmus test by which her husband (and therefore owner) would evaluate his newly acquired possession. According to Deuteronomy, if she was found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, then he had the right to have her stoned to death.

Keep in mind all this might have taken place when a girl was maybe 13 years old.

Not the best starting point for a healthy sexual ethic, is it?

Another common starting point: biblical warnings against “fornication.” But contrary to popular opinion (and one very big assumption behind much of the faux outrage of late), fornication doesn’t mean just any kind of pre- or extramarital sex. Words — and how they’re used — matter. Fornication means something rather more precise. It means sex with a prostitute. In a temple.

Which is really, REALLY important. Because when a Christian teenager who maybe got a little too carried away with her boyfriend one night hears her youth pastor tell all her friends something like, “Do not associate with fornicators” (1 Corinthians 5:9), she thinks it means her. And it doesn’t.

Those who fail the expectations of the evangelical purity culture do indeed get labeled “damaged goods.” Just ask Sarah. Just ask the 80% of evangelicals who don’t make it to their wedding night as virgins.

We use these labels as a modern-day scarlet letter, shaming those who don’t clear the very high bar of chastity imposed on them during the most hormonally intense period of their lives. Virginity becomes the standard by which we separate the upright from the outcast.

Which is kind of ironic, because it means we’ve fallen into the same trap as the overly permissive, over-sexualized culture we’re so rightly concerned about.

It’s probably beyond dispute that teenagers face enormous pressure to become sexually active before they ought to. As a result, many who choose abstinence end up being ostracized by their more promiscuous friends. At the risk of oversimplification, young people get divided into two camps: the sexually active (who are therefore socially acceptable), and the sexually abstinent (who are therefore social pariahs). At least that’s how it felt sometimes when I was growing up.

But an all-or-nothing emphasis on abstinence has the same effect in reverse, separating youth into equally damaging categories: the good Christian kids who hang onto their virginity (though many do by the thinnest of margins), and the “damaged goods” whom God might reluctantly forgive but who are nonetheless screwed (no pun intended) because they’ve forever stolen something from their future spouses and most likely squandered whatever shot they had at a healthy marriage.

This message is toxic. And it has no place in a biblical picture of redemption.

Until we stop putting virginity on a pedestal and teaching our sons and daughters to bow down to it, we will continue to get this wrong. Disastrously wrong.

None of this is to say we should toss chastity out the window. It can have tremendous value as a spiritual discipline. Just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

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Over on his blog, Preston Yancey is making the case for a more holistic ethic that still reserves sex for marriage — not based on a single proof text or on patriarchal notions of virginity, but based on the idea that “consensual sex… is itself the act of marriage.”

Preston’s approach isn’t perfect (not that he claims it is). In the next few posts, I’ll challenge some aspects of it. But I think Preston offers a way better starting point for a meaningful, life-giving sexual ethic… one that both honors the Bible and leaves room for grace. Give it a read.

Mutuality in the real world

Mutuality 2012 is done and dusted, but here’s hoping it’s only the start of a renewed conversation about equality in the church.

Mutuality. It’s what’s for dinner.

Hence this post: How does mutuality work in the real world?

More specifically, how does it work in a real marriage? (Note: not to be confused with Mark Driscoll’s notion of a Real Marriage.)

Is mutuality even practical?

Complementarians say no. Even if mutuality works well enough most of the time, they argue, every marriage comes to a stalemate at some point.

So what do you do then?

This was the question put to Amanda and me by our former pastor during one of our premarital counseling sessions. He asked what I’d do if I was offered a job in another state, but my wife didn’t want to move. (The irony will become apparent shortly.)

According to complementarian theology, somebody has to make the final call. Giving the wife an equal say is fine when you can come to agreement without too much bother. But whenever you reach an impasse, the husband becomes the decider-in-chief.

Male headship, then, is to marriage what the vice president is to the U.S. Senate: a tie-breaker. So argues Tim Keller:

Headship sometimes involves tie-breaking authority. In a marriage, you only have two votes; so the occasions do arise when there’s an impasse. How do you break the stalemate? It can only be broken if one party has the authority to overrule.

I agree with Keller that most relationships need a tie-breaker at some point. I just don’t see why it should fall to the man to break every stalemate.

However you interpret the apostle Paul’s statement that the “husband is the head of the wife,” neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer ever said it’s the husband’s job to be the final decision-maker. That’s an assumption which complementarians read into the text, not something the text actually says.

Returning to the question of how this all works in real life…

I remember a time when Amanda and I were faced with a major decision. We were contemplating an overseas move (ah, the irony), and we just couldn’t agree. Amanda wanted to go for it — and I did too, at first. But then I started having second thoughts. Major second thoughts.

Honestly, it was one of the most difficult points in our marriage. No matter how many times we hashed it out, we just couldn’t get on the same page.

Eventually, I conceded. I deferred to my wife’s judgment. I’d like to tell you this was some magnanimous gesture on my part, but it wasn’t. It was more like a grudging concession.

Looking back, though, if I hadn’t listened to Amanda — if she hadn’t broken the tie in that case — we would’ve missed out on one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

There have been other times when I’ve been the one to break the tie. Somehow, through 10 years of marriage, it’s always worked out, regardless of who got to be the tie-breaker.

Sometimes Amanda has the most wisdom or the clearest perspective. Sometimes she can see things that I can’t. Sometimes the smartest thing I can do is defer to her judgment.

For me, appointing myself the final arbiter purely on the basis of my gender would be an act of colossal arrogance (not to mention stupidity).

I hope that over the next 10 years of marriage, I get better at listening to my wife — becoming more attuned to her perspective, her wisdom, and her unique insight. Sometimes she has the better judgment, plain and simple.

Sometimes, I would make a lousy tie-breaker.