Monday, May 28, 2012

On Commitment

One of my current pastors and one of my former pastors recently released a new book titled Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach. The current pastor is Gerald Hiestand, senior associate pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, and the former pastor is Jay Thomas, formerly college pastor at College Church in Wheaton (where I attended while at Wheaton) and presently lead pastor of Chapel Hill Bible Church in North Carolina. In their introduction, Hiestand and Thomas state their intent to show that
[S]ex, dating, and relationships find their ultimate meaning in the relationship between Jesus and his people; the former testify to the latter. In other words, sex and relationships are about the gospel. To miss this central truth, we believe, is not only to miss the whole point of romance and sexuality but also to confuse God’s clear boundaries regarding sexual activity between men and women. (Hiestand and Thomas, 13)

Of course, everything finds its ultimate meaning in the gospel (as the authors affirm in their conclusion). Hiestand and Thomas provide a thorough, layman’s-terms discussion of that principle as it relates to human sexuality, and, on the whole, I found both their logic and their theology sound.

In keeping with their layman’s-terms approach to their subject, the authors devote substantial space in their book to discussion of practical issues. Their heartfelt cautions about guarding one’s heart is one of the strongest facets of the practical discussions, in my opinion. I found their discussion of the issue of commitment in relationships (Chapter 4), however, to be a bit lacking.

Two people who are dating appear in many ways to have a real and established relationship. … They are expected to remember anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays. They place upon each other certain obligations and restrictions… On the surface, this does give an impression of commitment. But is the commitment of a dating relationship really a commitment of any substance? … Very likely, many dating couples have not really thought about what they mean when they use a word such as commitment in the context of their relationship. …they usually ascribe the idea of commitment to the fact that they have agreed to date only each other. Thus, it is the exclusive nature of the relationship that separates it… But…the so-called commitment of a dating relationship can end at any time for any reason. … Unlike a dating relationship, the commitment and exclusivity of a marriage is involuntary. … It is an irrevocable commitment. … Unlike a marriage relationship, there’s nothing in the contractual agreement of a dating relationship that prevents a guy from breaking up with his girlfriend on Thursday and seeing a different girl on Friday. (Hiestand and Thomas, 58-59)

Here is where I draw my first objection. I believe that there are different degrees of commitment, and one commitment is not necessarily less substantial than another because it is of a smaller scope. That the authors call marriage an irrevocable commitment speaks to this truth.

For an example, when a person buys a ticket to a sporting or arts and entertainment event, the presenting organization has made a commitment to provide the entertainment paid for. But suppose the venue is struck by a tornado? Certainly the ticketholder, while perhaps upset at the lost money, would not seriously expect the organization to not revoke its commitment to present the event. Yet was the commitment represented by the ticket illegitimate?

Or, consider employment contracts. Excepting federal courts and most educational institutions, there are few organizations who grant virtually irrevocable guarantees of employment. The employer commits to pay the employee, and the employee commits to render specific services for the benefit of the employer and its clientele, but it is of course not uncommon for employment to end.

Obviously, social relationships are not the same as customer-merchant and employee-employer relationships. But there are non-permanent social relationships, and yet I do not think it is either a linguistic or a moral error to ascribe commitment to parents, siblings, accountability partners, and close friends. No one would question parents who no longer provide food and shelter for their self-sufficient, adult children, or the accountability partners who no longer meet weekly for coffee after one moves halfway across the country. Were those commitments lacking in substance?

I think the authors would respond to my objection by saying that in modern American society, the problem with dating relationships is not their level of commitment but their tendency to give the impression of a higher level. Theirs is a fair point, but I think it is too general. Is not the goal of a dating relationship to investigate the viability of a more committed relationship, i.e., marriage? Granted, it is probably an ineffective exercise to define the “goal” of a dating relationship – as our authors point our more than once, there is no biblical prescription for such a relationship; it is a wholly modern (and Western) invention. Each couple, ideally, sets their own goals and, also ideally, communicates about them with appropriate regularity.

And therein lies my main point. Should two people find themselves with a mutual attraction, it is on them to communicate about their feelings and their intentions – and their level of commitment, which of course is organic and should be expected to change over an extended period of time. Indeed, a successful marriage requires substantial communication as well. Assumption of the other’s intentions is often the first step toward heartbreak. By contrast, there will be no “false security” if all parties understand the other’s level of commitment.

The authors acknowledge elsewhere in the book that there are different kinds of social relationships. Good communication is key to the success of any of them, and it is even more vital when the possibility of eventually giving the other person one’s heart presents itself. True, no one is legally bound to a girlfriend or boyfriend, but I would hope that any Christian would not simply break up with someone at the first sign of boredom or discouragement – or if so, it would be a sure sign that that person is nowhere near ready for marriage, because boredom and discouragement will certainly occur in a marriage, and jumping ship would not be a God-honoring solution.

Consider the parable of the talents, as recorded in Matthew 25. Upon his return, the master says to the first and second servants (who were given five and two talents, respectively), “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (25:21 and 25:23, ESV). How much more important to demonstrate faithfulness in interpersonal relationships before one is entrusted with a spouse! I have a friend who says that having roommates (e.g., while in college), is excellent preparation for being married, and I think he is right.

Hiestand and Thomas make an important contribution to the discussion of a biblical view of sexuality. Another important discussion that I believe the church needs to have is on commitment, and it is my humble opinion that such a discussion will positively inform not only our understanding of sexuality, but of our call to love God and proclaim Christ’s kingdom.

This is Rubio, over and out.

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