Stuart Burgess responds to Trevor Baker’s Evangelical Times (January 2017) Personal View of his book, God’s way for romance: getting back to biblical courtship, published by Day One (112 pages, £6.00; ISBN: 978-1-84625-497-0).
I am not surprised that Trevor Baker disagrees with my book God’s way for romance, because he takes a very different approach from me towards courtship. It is helpful to clarify our contrasting positions because the review misrepresents my book.
I take the position that courtship should be a means to an end (to investigate marriage) and not an end in itself (to have a relationship with physical intimacy). In contrast, Mr Baker takes the position that people can seek romantic pleasures such as intimate kissing outside of marriage and can draw their own boundaries of physical intimacy.
The case against partnerships
Mr Baker claims that my book equates marriage with a church ceremony, but this is a serious misrepresentation. Throughout my book I continually define marriage in biblical terms. I explain that God has designed marriage as the only place for two people to be ‘joined together’ and to be ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). I then argue that it is unbiblical for two unmarried people to say they are ‘joined together’ in a partnership or are now ‘an item’.
When two people declare that they belong to each other, it can be argued that they are dishonouring marriage because they are having the pleasures of marriage without the lifelong covenant and commitment of marriage (Malachi 2:14). Indeed, to say that there is romantic fulfilment outside of marriage inevitably makes marriage less special.
Biblical teaching on divorce reinforces the principle that partnerships are unbiblical. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and therefore divorce is something to be avoided. However, the relationship culture inevitably leads to divorce-like separations.
The case for abstinence
Mr Baker claims that my recommendation of abstinence from all sexual intimacy is not biblical. For example, he argues that the teaching on lust in Matthew 5:28 applies only to married people.
However, commentators such as John Gill, Alfred Plummer and Edward Plumtree all interpret Matthew 5:28 as being applicable to everyone and not just those who are married. The author Elizabeth Elliot likewise advocates abstinence from all physical intimacy in courtship.
My book gives a host of other arguments for abstinence from sexual activity that are not mentioned in the review. For example, when the writer to the Hebrews says that the married bed is undefiled, I believe he is teaching that all sexual activity should be confined to the marriage bed, including intimate kissing (Hebrews 13:4). This accords with a repeated theme of the Song of Solomon that love should not be awakened until the proper time (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Similarly, Ephesians 5:3 exhorts believers not to have a hint of sexual immorality.
It is important to note that secular society sees intimate kissing and intimate touching as very significant sexual activities, which is why they can lead to custodial sentences when carried out illegally (such as with a minor). It is impossible to argue that intimate kissing is not a sexual activity.
Since activities like intimate kissing are unquestionably sexual in nature, there is surely a strong case for concluding they are romantic pleasures for marriage only. In addition, there is surely no justification for claiming that complete abstinence is not a biblical position.
Mr Baker claims that my book is over-prescriptive. This is not surprising, since he takes the position that courting couples can draw their own boundaries of physical intimacy.
He gives the hypothetical example of Helen going to university and being distressed because of trying to keep her courtship secret after reading my book. However, this scenario would never occur, because nowhere in my book do I say that courtship should be in secret. (What I actually say is that very occasionally there are people who prefer secrecy.)
I personally know exactly what happens when young people go to university because I am a senior tutor to over 600 students and often have to deal with problems caused by the relationship culture.
This is what would happen to Helen if she followed the advice of my book. She would have a courtship where others knew she was courting, but they would also know that she had not given her heart and body away. As a consequence, she would not suffer the heartache and dangers of relationship splits; she would be saving herself for her future husband; she would be honouring the institution of marriage and she would be giving a godly witness to those around.
The right question
Young people sometimes ask, ‘How far can I go?’. But this is the wrong question. The right question is, ‘How pure can I be?’
And the answer is not to have a hint of sexual immorality. I wrote my book, because I firmly believe that the church needs to promote purity in romance and defend the sanctity of marriage.