Courtship, Pornography, and True Worship

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

A friend of mine just sent me a link to a post from conservative theologian and pastor Douglas Wilson’s blog. In it, Mr. Wilson offers Christian fathers a list of twenty-one questions with which to interrogate their daughters’ prospective suitors. Questions of antiquation aside, I find Mr. Wilson’s suggestion irresponsible and the theology that underlies it troubling.

Mr. Wilson begins his post with a caveat: he doesn’t view the questions as a “wooden checklist” but sees them as merely a list of ideas to get started. Unfortunately, he provides his readership with no guidance about how these “ideas” are supposed to lead anywhere, and it is clear that most of his readers (or at least many who commented on the post) have taken his advice as a checklist, caveats aside.

The theology underlying Mr. Wilson’s questions seems to be that if one’s life is generally in order (his house is neat, his bills are paid, he has a good GPA, and he goes to church every Sunday) that he is a good man and will make a good husband. Jesus had an image to describe this kind of man: a whitened sepulchre (Matt. 23:27). As Jesus declared, the lives of such men are “beautiful,” but inside they may still be “full of greed and self-indulgence.”

Mr. Wilson’s questions do nothing to sift the wheat from the chaff and offer no way to discern what is inside the tomb. For instance, take Question 15: “If you do [have a problem with pornography], please describe the nature and extent of the problem.” This question is the most interesting because it is the only one that Mr. Wilson follows with any explanation. He cautions readers: “It is important here for fathers to distinguish between the kind of periodic struggles that a normal young man is likely to have had, and the kind of obsessive behavior that indicates much deeper problems, such as contempt for women or an addictive lack of self control. Marriage is likely to fix the first kind of ‘normal’ problem, and will only exacerbate the second kind of pathological problem.”

Marriage is likely to fix a “normal” pornography addiction? I don’t think so. First of all, I don’t think there is a line between “normal” and “obsessive” abuse of pornography. It is a matter of degree and not of kind. By calling obsessive use “pathological,” Mr. Wilson only succeeds in making us take the sin less seriously than we should.

Secondly and more importantly, Mr. Wilson has failed to recognize that, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Pornography use is not simply a symptom of misogyny or a lack of self-control; it is fundamentally a cry of despair, of loneliness, and of alienation from God and humans.

The sin here is not “sexual sin”; the sin is idolatry. Pornography users have put the “gratification of the flesh” on the pedestal where God should be and they have told themselves, “If only I can achieve this, then I will be satisfied.” This is a lie. Far from being a “fix” for this lie, marriage will only shift the idolatry to other objects.

Rather than providing his readers with guidance to discern the (false) difference between “normal” and “obsessive” pornography use, Mr. Wilson would provide wiser counsel by suggesting that his readers ask “Why?” Through a bit of sound counseling, the answer to this question (which should also be asked in follow up to all of Mr. Wilson’s other questions) might actually lead to spiritual transformation. In the short term, it might also serve to discern the true state of his interviewee’s spiritual life.

The theology behind Mr. Wilson’s questions is as commendable as the recommendation that a cancer victim treat his illness with pain relievers; it’s malpractice. This patient will die, and so will any Christian who fails to address the root of his sin and instead treats only the symptoms. As Jesus himself warned, the man who merely tidies his life without filling it with the Spirit will only multiply his sins (Matt. 12:43-45).

I would suggest that a better set of questions (presuming, arguendo, that this whole courtship ritual is a good idea) would strive to answer the questions, “How big is God in your life?” and “How small is everything else?” These two questions are at the heart of the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The answer to them, garnered through more wisely-phrased questions, might actually tell a father something about his prospective son-in-law that couldn’t be learned from reading his resume.

Notably absent from Mr. Wilson’s list is any question that would indicate how his interviewee views his money or his possessions. This oversight is consistent with a Christian theology that seems to overemphasize performance while underemphasizing spiritual transformation. In fact, Jesus himself points out that the filth of the Pharisees is their greed and their self-indulgence. They have placed themselves and their petty desires in the place of true worship, which means love of God and corresponding love of neighbor. A man who gives freely and generously to his neighbors in need while holding back little for himself is far more likely to be a good bridegroom than one who hoards his possessions yet has a good GPA, is a hard worker, and has never had sex before marriage. The first man has understood more clearly the call of Jesus.

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10 thoughts on “Courtship, Pornography, and True Worship

  1. Wilson reveals his attitude toward the whole business when he says he has two daughters “safely married.” I don’t think that all of the questions are that bad in terms of scoping out whether the man in question is “marriage material” after a worldly fashion, but they do nothing to establish whether he’s made of godly material. The question is whether you want your daughter to marry a good, dependable provider or a follower of Jesus Christ. Is she “safely married” or “goodly married”?

    As to Question 15, this false dichotomy between “normal” and “pathological” sexual behavior, or the current insistence on the rhetoric of sexual “purity” is one of the crueler teachings of the evangelical church, and has done more harm than good. No one is pure, virgin or not, just as no one is righteous. Christians would be much better off actively cultivating the virtue of chastity as an act of worship, just as every act should be an act of worship, than asking the youth pastor’s “favorite” question, “how far is TOO far?” The line in the sand is in the opposite direction, kids.

  2. I completely agree that the fundamental root of pornography addiction is idolatry. But is it right to say that it is not a “sexual sin.” Isn’t it both? Idolatry manifested as a sexual sin?

    I don’t know much about Douglas Wilson, but what about this particular post makes you say that the theology behind his questions is of the type that will only treat symptoms not the root? Perhaps I just need to do more digging on his blog to find this error.

    On face value I believe there is nothing wrong with the “normal” vs. “obsessive” distinction, but you are right: it is a matter of degree not kind. Both are sin, and both need addressing.

    I completely agree with your observations as they relate to much of conservative Christianity: a sub-par and inadequate theology that treats the wounds of God’s people too lightly (Jeremiah 6:14).

  3. Thanks for your comments, Luke. Of course, I agree that pornography is a sexual sin insofar as “sexual” is an adjective to describe the nature of the idolatry. I say that pornography is not a “sexual sin” because it is not some separate category of sinful act. In fact, its root cause is no different from other kinds of idolatry that are manifest in different realms, and I do not find it helpful to emphasize its sexual nature. Too many conservative Christians overemphasize sexual sins while giving other forms of idolatry a free pass.

    Mr. Wilson’s questions emphasize the outward appearances while doing little, if anything, to get at the inside of the man’s heart. One could just as easily be a hard worker, have a great GPA, a neat house, etc. because he is driven by the idolatry of success rather than because he is motivated by a true desire to love God and worship God through his work. As I note above, better questions would seek to get at what is in the man’s heart.

  4. In Wilson’s defense, the list the pastor provides isn’t quite as superficial as John’s sepulchres; the entire series of questions is framed around their spiritual implications. Yes, a father should have the intention of understanding the contents of a man’s heart, but “by their fruits you shall know them.” Now, discerning between outward appearances and a fruit-based understanding of a man’s character requires quite a bit more than a checklist. In fact, I dare suggest that spending time with the potential suitor and building a personal relationship might reveal some insights that an interrogation, however subtle, would not.

    I must disagree that the distinction between addiction to and occasional use of pornography constitutes a significant theological lapse. The degree of a sin does matter, and does testify to the spiritual state of the sinner. A man can call someone a fool, or he can kill him. On a certain level, both acts can be called murder, but I would rather have my daughter marry the name-caller. Why? If he has physically murdered another person, I can safely assume that my aspiring son-in-law has certain psychological problems that would disqualify him as a good husband. Same for a porn addiction; certain spiritual problems have graver implications for marriage than others.

  5. I agree with Whitney that the questions are “framed around their spiritual implications,” but the fact remains that if the goal of the questions is truly to get at the heart of the man, they fail. As Laura has pointed out, the goal seems to be a “safe” marriage rather than a “godly” marriage. A man could do quite well on most of these questions through a slavish devotion to some idea of honor or performance, yet be quite ungodly. Another man could perform poorly because of his past sins yet have experienced a true conversion and be passionate for God. If Mr. Wilson’s goal is to have his readers get at the hearts of these men, he does not provide them the proper framework to do so. And yes, an actual relationship with the man might be a better place to start.

    As to the second point, I think Whitney misunderstands my argument. I do not contend that the distinction between “normal” and “obsessive” use of pornography is a significant theological lapse. Rather, the significant lapse is the failure to understand and identify the root cause of the sin. This failure is most troubling because Mr. Wilson says that marriage will “fix” (his word, without any quotation marks) the “‘normal’ problem” with pornography use. Marriage will certainly not fix the idolatry that is at the heart of pornography use.

    Moreover, I disagree with Whitney that anyone who commits what we consider “grave” sins (e.g., addictive pornography use, murder, etc.) has “psychological problems.” By attributing sin to “psychological problems,” we distance ourselves from it, trivializing the sin itself while demonizing the sinners. Sure, somebody could commit murder or become addicted to pornography because of a mental disorder, but many people do not need a mental disorder to commit very bad sins. Plenty of “ordinary” people commit murder as the culmination of a series of increasingly bad decisions. Eventually, they find themselves in a position where, under stress, they make a split-second decision that they immediately regret. I have had conversations with a number of inmates who have told me similar versions of this story. Or consider Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikov. There are plenty of paths leading to murder that do not involve psychological problems.

    To say that murderers have psychological problems is to say we, ourselves, could never be in their position and that they could not be in ours. The same is true for pornography addicts. I do not agree with either of these statements. A man is not born a murderer or a porn addict. Rather, he usually becomes one through a series of incrementally worse decisions. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters, “[T]he safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Or consider the chronology of James 1:14-15, “[E]ach one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” The path to “grave” sins (or death) is almost always a slow and gradual one.

    It is also essential to note that once a man becomes a murderer or a pornography addict, he is not beyond the power of God’s redemption to change. And it is only this redemption — not the act of marriage — that will change him.

  6. John,

    simply put it’s Paul who recommends marriage for those who are struggling with lust. the issue here is that we have been created with a sex drive that we were not designed to be able to turn off. the purpose was that we would pursue marriage so that we could have healthy sex. I think the original author’s recommendation to discern between a “normal” lust problem and something more serious is valid and wise. the reality is that most men over the age of 15 have lust struggles. so you want to be able to discern between that and a serious stronghold of perversion.

  7. I agree that we, acting on our own, are powerless to overcome our lust, just as we are powerless to overcome any other sins. However, it would contradict Scripture to assert that the Holy Spirit is powerless to change our hearts or give us the power to resist temptation. See, e.g., Matt. 26:41, Heb. 2:18, Heb. 4:15, 1 Cor. 10:13.

    Rather, the situation is more often like that in Matt. 26:41, where Jesus tells his disciples that they must pray so that they do not fall into temptation, but they do not understand the earnestness of his command and fall asleep. We must pray (as we are likewise told to do in the Lord’s Prayer) that we might not fall into temptation. But sometimes we don’t understand how deadly earnest the situation is. Surely we will still be tempted, but if we are willing to wrestle with prayer, God will give us the strength to overcome those temptations.

    It is also contrary to reality, and a concession to the temptations that constantly whisper into our ears, to believe that the only choices available to Christians are getting married or having promiscuous sex outside of marriage. To take the most obvious example, Paul navigated a middle path and so have many Christians since his time.

    As for thoughts on the supposed “serious stronghold of perversion,” please see my reply to Whitney in comment 5.

  8. John,

    No, it would contradict scripture to ignore its explicit instruction: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

    if you can control yourself then it is better to be single. if not you should marry. to say that everyone should be able to control themselves negates the very purpose for which Paul wrote these instructions.

    I am trying to understand where you’re coming from here, but it does seem that the purpose of your article was to debunk some very wise advice from a Christian leader.

  9. I think we’ve begun here to equate erotic desire and lust, but Paul seems in 1 Corinthians to be talking about erotic desire, not lust. While not wanting to demand zero lust (because sinful motives can no more be wiped out in this life than sinful deeds), I’m also very hesitant to advise people who’ve kept using porn to go ahead and get married, since the level of objectification probably required to use porn may quite often rather contribute to adultery (whether by continued porn use or by the keeping of mistresses) than be cured by marriage. Though I’ve never used porn, having been turned off to it by internet popups in sixth grade, my prediction seems to be substantiated by my own, different sins.

  10. Dennis, the problem I have with both your reading of Paul and with Mr. Wilson’s advice, is that they both seem to treat marriage as a cure for lust. My argument in the post above, insofar as it is relevant to this point, is that it is dangerous for us to believe that marriage will cure lust. It will not. I believe we need to recognize lust as more than simply desiring someone beautiful or desiring companionship and see it for what it is: idolatry and a denial of God’s provision.

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