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Awkward Moments in Premarital Counseling (Part 1)

(Written by Dying to Control contributor, Mike Ballman)

“I will take Awkward Moments in Premarital Counseling for $500, Alex.”

“The answer is ‘I presume you two are already having sex.”

“That’s easy, Alex, the answer is ‘What is the big fat elephant in the room no one wants to address in the first session of premarital counseling.”


Throughout my fifteen years of premarital counseling, numbering well over 50 couples, only a fraction of the couples have answered “no” to the question, “Are you two having sex?”  That doesn’t seem that unusual in this day and age unless you consider that the large majority of my counselees grew up in the church and would enthusiastically label themselves evangelicals.  That is significant because a huge tenet of evangelicalism is sexual purity, which includes a strict prohibition of any form of premarital sex. Moreover, the majority of my experience is with the generation that was deluged by such classic sexual purity manifestos as I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl and my favorite— I Gave My Word to Stop at Third.  Actually, I am not sure that last one is a real book or something my youth pastor used to say.  Clearly, there is no shortage on teaching or ambiguity about the evangelical message that premarital sex is a no-no.  So why is no one taking this foundational teaching seriously?

I think, to most of my counselees, abstinence is some kind of deep magic that is only for the truly hardcore Christian.  It is a great ideal but no one is really expected to be able to do it—kind of like giving away all your possessions to the poor.

So what does a good evangelical pastor like myself do with this disparity?  The most preferable option for me and my counselees is to ignore the elephant.  However, I could risk losing my evangelical membership card for that one—so that is a not an option.

The textbook answer is to tell the couple that while it is true that the deep magic of abstinence is only possible for a few, all are held to its standard.  But not to fear, atonement is cheap.  If you agree to feel really badly about disappointing me and Jesus and agree to abstain from any further sexual activity until the wedding, all will be forgiven.  While that option is the best for ensuring that all parties keep their evangelical membership in good standing, it seems kind of hollow to me.

The option that I have found most fulfilling with experience and Scripture goes something like this:  why don’t we take a look at how God describes what constitutes marriage in Genesis Chapter 2? “ … a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. The two of them will become one.”

I go on  to explain that I believe that the act of marrying another consists of three parts:

  1. Leaving your home of origin.
  2. Joining all that you have with another. (living together,  joining finances, sharing future plans, dreams)
  3. The giving of self, all that you are, in sexual intimacy to another.

I then sit and look at the couple in silence as they think through what I have just shared.  Once I see the light go on with one or both of them, I say something like, “do you see what I am getting at here?”

“Are you saying we are already married?”

“Yes, yes, I am.”


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  1. Don’t know that I agree. Or at least not fully… A lot of people are either practicing serial divorce or polygamy 🙂

    • Bryan, I hear what you’re getting at. For clarity sake, step 2 — joining all that you have with one another (living together, joining finances, etc) — is an essential step in Mike’s argument. Based on Mike’s criteria, one-night stands and friends that have “casual sex” would not constitute a marriage relationship. So yes, your deduction is accurate in that Mike is suggesting a broader definition of marriage that does not require an official marriage ceremony, but the degree of personal commitment necessary in step 2 would make serial divorce or polygamy a little more difficult.

      Does that help?

      • Mike Ballman says:

        What Leon said.

      • ministrylogistics says:

        It helps! It seems though that a lot of relationships start with much less of a sense of commitment than the three steps listed above. A lot of relationships seem to start with interest, then passion, then sex, and sometimes not even in that order.

        • Agreed. Ideally, the 3 steps would occur as I described in my piece about two becoming one flesh: 1. leaving parents 2. joining together, cleaving, traditionally recognized first through a public ceremonym, and 3. sex. So, yes, in today’s culture it’s common for people to skip right to step 3. Based on this series of blogs, I would say that those couples that skip steps 1 and/or 2 and experience step 3 will forever share the intimacy of two becoming one flesh, but I wouldn’t say that they were married. What Mike’s getting at in his piece is the idea that two people are coming to him because they want to get married, and in the initial discussion Mike discovers that they have already done steps 1 and 3, and by living together and/or the degree that they are sharing life together, in all practical purposes they have engaged step 2 without the ceremony. In that case, based on Genesis 2, practically speaking, that couple is already married.

          An interesting component to note here is that couples have been having sex prior to marriage for a long time now, however, step 2 – living together and sharing life together on a trial basis before getting married – is a relatively new cultural development. People were able to have sex in secret forever, but living together without first being married was socially taboo and just didn’t happen (at least widely). The idea that it is culturally acceptable to live together as intimate partners without first being formally married is a relatively new phenomenon and I believe significantly impacts our understanding of marriage and how we should conduct pre-martial counseling.

  2. what about those couples who are dating and have sex but are not living together??are they married??


  1. […] becoming one flesh with more women than he can remember? And what should a pastor say to a couple in pre-marital counseling that has been sexually active for most of their […]

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